Sunday, November 25, 2012

What is Truth

John 18:33-38a
“What is Truth”

        For those of you who have never been inside a courtroom, it can be rather intimidating.  Forget what you have seen on TV; one person and one person alone is in charge.  Engulfed in a black robe and protected by an imposing bulwark, the judge sits as the voice of authority.  I remember as a twenty year old I was improperly charged with reckless driving.  I am not saying that I have never driven recklessly, but this was not one of those times.  There were two witnesses, including the arresting officer, who would testify on my behalf.  Yet when I saw the massive figure of the Judge before me, I was ready to plead guilty to every other offence on the docket.
        When Jesus stood before Pilate, the tables were uncharacteristically reversed.  The accused, not the judge seemed to be in control of the whole conversation.  Do not believe for a moment that Pilate was some weak indecisive puppet incapable of making a decision.  According to the Roman historian Jerome, Pilate once ruthlessly crushed a revolt in Samaria, “sadistic ferocity and a plethora of executions.”  This was no timid man who stood with Jesus.  He held the power of life and death and had the reputation of being quite cruel.  The Jewish Sanhedrin was counting on Pilate dismissing Jesus without a thought.  And yet, the writer of the Gospel of John wants us to believe that this powerful Roman Governor, The Judge, stood before a lowly, unemployed Jew, accused of treason, and decided to engage in a conversation about the meaning of truth.
        It is important to remind ourselves that the integrity of the Biblical message is first and foremost based on theology rather than historical accuracy.  One might note that there is no mention in the other gospels of a private conversation between Pilate and Jesus.  While it certainly could have happened, the skeptic in me wonders who was the third party recording this philosophical argument.  While interesting we would use time more wisely by asking the question, “What was John’s theological reason for adding this discourse to his gospel?”
        Let’s begin with the obvious. Pilate represented Rome.  Rome was responsible for the persecution of the early church.  Jesus was the “founder and spiritual head” of this religious movement.  I could suggest that John’s courtroom scene alludes to future conflict between the early church and Rome.  The readers of this story could be comforted that from the beginning Rome would never be a match for the truth to be found in the words of Jesus.   Unfortunately, this logic breaks down when we remember it was the Jewish Sanhedrin and not the Roman Empire that insisted on Jesus being brought to death.
        Perhaps we need to expand our understanding of the role of Pilate.  If we perceive him to represent not just Rome but the whole concept of governmental corruption, then the conflict between Jesus and Pilate can be perceived as the struggle between self-interest and justice.  Pilate, representing a repressive state, saw Jesus as radical revolutionary, determined to overthrow the existing order by any means necessary.  Think of Jesus as the personification of Jeremiah or Amos, a prophet whose mantle was justice and whose rod was righteousness.  I personally could easily buy into this interpretation.  Certainly this is the Messiah that is often portrayed in the Gospel of Luke.  But John’s representation of Jesus was quite different.  In John’s gospel, Jesus was the “Good Shepherd”, not the disrupter of cultural systems.
        To understand the Pilate portrayed by John, I believe we have to understand the author’s use of character development.  The first three gospels depend on a progressive movement of events taking Jesus from the mystery of his birth, through the message of his ministry, to the radical significance of his death.  The Synoptic Gospels draw a straight line from an insignificant little backwash town in Galilee to the center of the religious universe in Jerusalem.  Not so in John’s Gospel.  This book starts with a wedding in Cana. Jesus then immediately goes to Jerusalem.  After a short stay he heads for Galilee by way of Samaria.  The he goes back to Jerusalem. North to Tiberius, south to the Mount of Olives, across to Bethany and then finally Jesus arrives at Jerusalem a final time.  His travel log seems absurd.  It is sort of like following the hectic path of one of those children in “The Family Circle” going from the swing to the back door.  There seems to be no rhyme or reason for the path Jesus took.   I would suggest that John is not driven by location but rather by personal reactions to the identity of Jesus.
        The gospel of John doesn’t begin in a manger, but at a wedding.  The party is a bust until Jesus turns the water into wine.  Next Jesus secretly meets with Nicodemus and discusses what it means to be reborn.  Then Jesus sits with a social outcast, a Samaritan woman, and offers her living water.  Finally he introduces Mary and Martha to the possibility of eternal life by raising their brother Lazarus from the dead.  The One who turns water into wine, eventually turns wine into saving blood through this gospel of Rebirth, Restoration and Resurrection.  These are foundations on which the Gospel of John stand.  Each theological concept was developed within the context of individuals reacting to whom they perceived Jesus to be.  Therefore it is quite natural that the final personality to be challenged by the presence of Jesus would be Pilate.  This is not Pilate the Roman; it is not Pilate the Statesman; this is Pilate the Everyman.  The Pilate that stood before Jesus represents every honest and well-meaning person who seeks the truth and yet desperately clings to the possibility that there must be something a bit more comfortable, safe, or middle ground.
        Look at the incredible irony of this situation.  Jesus was brought before the highest authority in the land.  The doors were shut.  Two men, stand alone, the Judge and the accused; only who was the judge and who will forever remained accused.  Pilate looked at Jesus and asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?”  Jesus responded, “My kingdom is not of this world.”  As if he missed the answer, Pilate continued, “But you are a king?”  Jesus replied, “I testify to the truth.  Those who understand the truth, listen to my voice.”  The Pilate, with words that have echoed through the years asked, “What is truth?”
        How often has the truth stood before us at point blank range and we have refused to embrace it.  If Nicodemus sought truth, then Pilate sought to avoid it.  If the woman at the well drank truth, then Pilate found truth too bitter to swallow.  If Martha challenged the truth, then Pilate found the challenge too great to accept.  By washing his hands, by refusing to make a decision, Pilate wrote the script for his own personal tragedy.
        Once upon a time a man came into this life.  He was offered the chance to love.  But he realized love demanded personal sacrifice, it demanded time, it demanded energy, it demanded risking all his emotions and risked the possibility of being betrayed and rejected.  So he chose not to love.
        The man was offered the chance to commit himself to some great cause.  But he realized this sort of energy would take a great deal of time and energy.  It called for long thankless hours and possible heartache should his cause fail.  And even should he succeed, few if any would thank him for his sacrifice.  So he chose not to commit.
        The man went through life.  He never took a risk; he never got his hands soiled; He never committed to a cause. He was liked by everyone but loved by no one.  He was the cheerleader who always seemed to be missing at the end of the game.  He claimed he was saving his gifts and talents for that perfect moment.  But he died before it came.
        As the man was standing before the Almighty, he held out his hands and said, “Here is my life.  I saved it especially for you.  It is unblemished, untouched by the soil of human heart ache and misery.  Use my life as you see fit.”
God looked at the man and said, “What Life?”    (stop)
        We are preparing to move into the most festive time of the year.  Thursday we gave thanks for God’s blessings.  Next Sunday we will step into a sanctuary transformed by the richness of the Advent and Christmas seasons. Once again the drama of God’s amazing grace will be played out before our eyes.  Beyond the parties lies The Truth that calls us to be reborn; beyond the family traditions lies The Truth that begs us to be restored; beyond the manger lies The Truth that promises resurrection if we will simply step into life and not away from it.
        Jesus said, “The truth is, if you want to live you must pick up my cross.”  You see, that has always been the choice, the cross or the basin of water by which we wash our hands.  Choose wisely.  Choose boldly.  Both lead to death, but only the cross promises the discovery of new life.

Sunday, November 18, 2012


I Samuel 1:4-20; Psalm 100

        Deb and I are really excited about Thanksgiving this year.  We are traveling down to Marion to have dinner with our daughter-in-law’s extended family. Ever since our son David became serious about Sheree, he has been absent from our Thanksgiving table. I casually remind him how important holidays are to his mother as a way of suggesting perhaps he and Sheree might honor us with their presence, but the answer is always the same.  “Dad, you will not believe the spread those folks put on the table.  Everyone in Sheree’s family has a special recipe that seems to be even more incredible each year. But maybe the best part is the stories they tell around the table are all new to me. I’m not saying our family stories aren’t funny.  They are just getting old. And the best part is Sheree’s aunts and uncles are just as weird as ours relatives. Believe it or not,  going to Marion makes our family look kind of normal.”
        My son is right.  Part of the fun of Thanksgiving is telling the family stories.  We all have some odd characters in our families that make the rest of us seem almost normal.  I have a relative that says she can hear her hair grow.  How crazy is that?  I have another who has been smoking cigarettes for most of her life and thinks none of us knows.  I can’t imagine the stories my relatives have about me.  To them I must be the guy who reads strange books, listens to bizarre music and vacations in Haiti.  Part of the fun of the holidays is sitting around and telling those stories even though we have heard them a thousand times.  Of course it might not be so funny if you happen to be someone like Hannah, who seemed to always be the object of everyone else’s humor. 
        According to our Old Testament text, every year Hannah and her family would make a trip to Shiloh to give thanks for the blessings God had bestowed upon them.  The phrase, Hannah and her family, is a bit misleading. Hannah was married to Elkanah.  They had no children.  But Elkanah had a second wife, Peninnah who specialized in childbirth.  She had ten children.  This meant there were ten children in Hannah’s family but none of them were officially hers.  Today Peninnah, The Over Achiever, might have been the relative that caused raised eyebrows, but not back then. Hannah, The Barren One, was viewed as less than human because of her inability to give birth.  Each year the family would head to Shiloh for a day of thanksgiving.  Each year the Jewish equivalent of turkey and dressing would be spread out on the table.  Each year Elkanah would thank God for a new son.  Each year Pininnah would laugh at Hannah for her inability to do the one thing a women of her culture was suppose to do.  Each year Hannah would weep, unable to give thanks, or bear  another year of disappointment.
        The next part of the story is so typical.  Her husband comes over to her.  “Hannah, why are you weeping?  Don’t you know I love you despite your obvious flaws? Am I not more important to you than ten sons?”  I am always amazed at the incredible things we say to people who are grieving.  And we always speak with the best of intentions.  Trust me, folks cherish the moments you spend with them in their time of illness and pain.  But be careful what you say.  We think we can relate, but usually we cannot.  We relate to of our own situation and somehow compare our experience to theirs. Trust me, that hurts more than helps.  I have sat with countless folks at times of death.  Many folks have told me how comforting my presence was in their time of distress.  Notice they said my presence was helpful, not my words.  When Deb’s mom died, I was entirely worthless to her.  Nothing I said was helpful.  I was reminded of a friend who once told me, “Words in times of grief are so overrated and often irritating.” Then she added, “In fact I often prayed, God please deliver me from well-meaning friends.”
        Elkanah can’t understand the grief of Hannah because her grief is so foreign to him.  He is thinking, “With ten kids running around the house, why do we need more?  Get over it; move on.   There are plenty of opportunities to show your mothering skills.  Put on a happy face and celebrate God’s wonderful gifts.”       Only a man could say something so stupid. That sort of male rationalization is one of the many reasons I try to never use a male pronoun when referring to God.  God listens intently, God acts occasionally, but God rarely speaks.  Hannah did not need suggestions, and she certainly did not need advice. Hannah needed an ear that would tolerate her rants and listen to her request. Hannah was as barren as Texas in the middle of January. Yet she wanted to blossom. How was that possible?
        Ever been to West Texas in January?  I used to live out there in a town called San Angelo.  It was three miles from  the end of the earth.  West of San Angelo there is nothing but sand, tumbleweed, a few mesquite trees and oil rigs. The land is flat, brown and challenges the human imagination to discover anything resembling life.  And yet somehow, life abounds.
        I remember one January had to go to a meeting in El Paso, which was 400 miles away.  To get from San Angelo to Interstate 10 I would head west on route 67 straight through Big Lake, which had the smallest lake and the meanest folks in Texas.  But that is another story.  To avoid Big Lake I would often jump over to route 349.  Nothing existed out there.  At night, when the sky is clear, the stars are so bright I suspect one can drive without headlights. That night, as I turned onto 349, it was just me, the barren desert and my dashboard poets.  Suddenly the music was interrupted by the disheartening sound of a flat tire. To make things worse, the moon had gone behind some clouds making it “darker than a thousand midnights”.    I pulled my car to the side of the road, put on my emergency lights and opened the trunk.  Most folks keep a flashlight somewhere in their car.  I do now, but not then. More by feel than sight, I loosened the lug nuts, set the jack and began to change the tire. With great difficulty and more than one word usually reserved for the golf course, I got the spare on and began to tighten the lug nuts.  It was then that I realized I was not alone. Hairs began to stand up on the back of my neck. I kept hearing this scraping sound coming from every side of the car.  It sounded like the hoofs of animals clicking on the hardened surface of the road. But I knew that was impossible. The desert was barren, void of life.  Then the moon came out from behind the clouds. Much to my surprise, in the middle of my barrenness, I was surrounded by a herd of over 100 deer.  I guess they had come to stand guard and comfort me in my hour of distress.    Where did they come from?  Who knows, but I realized nothing is completely barren in the eyes of God.
        That is certainly what Hannah believed.  Rebuffed by her kin, tormented by her condition, she went to the Temple to pray.  Well actually she went to the Temple to do more than that.  In all her loneliness, in all here isolation, in all her despair, she went to the Temple to bargain with God.  That sounds so desperate, so unbecoming of a person of intellect.  Yet I suspect if you really believe in God then you believe that God is able to accomplish that which is beyond what we imagine possible.  Hannah went to the Temple to pray, to plead, to bargain for a son, much like we come to Church to pray, to plead, to bargain with the One who gives life.  She prayed so hard and so long another representative of the male species, the resident priest, thought she was drunk.  He rudely interrupted her by saying, “Woman, how long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself?”  In a wonderful line, Hannah defends herself by saying, “I am not pouring out wine, I am pouring out my soul.” How often have we poured out our pain, poured out our despair, poured out our barrenness, poured out our soul to God?  Perhaps more often than we like to admit.  And what were the results?  Did God hear you?  Did God comfort you? Did God ease your pain?  Did God remember you?
        I love verse 19.  “Hannah and Elkanah rose early in the morning and worshipped God. They went home and Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her.”  God remembered her.  The most radical witness of the Old Testament asserts that God swore to Abraham, “I will bless you, I will make your offspring numerous, I will remember you.”  Then Abraham and Sarah go childless until God remembers, and a child is born.  Jacob wrestles with the angel at Peniel until God remembered and renamed Jacob, Israel. The children of Israel flee south go barren in the land of Egypt, they cry out, God remembered, and they were delivered.  Moses sat on top of Mount Sinai and argued with God, “Remember your covenant”.  And God placed in the hands of Moses the tablets of the Torah.  Jesus broke the bread at the Last Supper and said to the disciples, and to God “Remember me.”  The criminal at the right hand of Jesus at the crucifixion whispered his dying words, “Remember me.”    Israel, embraced this promise from God that even in its most dire circumstance, it would not be abandoned or forsaken by God.  They believed and we continue to believe that the God who remembers, is also the God who delivers. 
        Hannah, the barren one, was remembered by God.  And she was barren no more.  Hannah, the ridiculed one, was remembered. And she was ridiculed to more.  Hannah the silent one was remembered.  And she was silent no more.  In an incredible song of thanksgiving she sang, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God, There is no Holy One like the Lord. There is no Rock like our God.  God brings low and also exalts. God lifts up the needy, and makes them sit in the seat of honor.  The Lord will guard those who are faithful.  The adversaries of God shall be shattered and God will give strength to the anointed ones.”
        It is not a matter of will God remember you but rather how often has God remembered you.  Thanksgiving has been set aside to help us remember despite our barrenness, God remembers; despite our loneliness, God remembers; despite our forgetfulness, God remembers.  Therefore, on this day, and perhaps on every day we should come together to sing:
Now thank we all our God,
with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done,
in whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers arms,
has blessed us on our way,
With countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today. 

                To God be the glory.  Amen