Sermon for Seekers Church
December 6, 1998
Seeking Outside the Circle
Then a branch will grow forth from the stock of Jesse,
and a shoot will spring from his roots.
On him the spirit of the Lord will rest:
a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a spirit of counsel and power,
a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord;
And in the fear of the Lord will be his delight.
He will not judge by outward appearances or decide a case on hearsay;
but with justice he will judge the poor
and defend the humble in the land with equity;
like a rod his verdict will strike the ruthless,
and with his word he will slay the wicked.
He will wear the belt of justice and truth will be his girdle.
Then the wolf will lie down with the lamb and the leopard lie down with the kid;
the calf and the young lion will feed together,
and a little child will tend them.
The cow and the bear will be friends, and their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like cattle.
The infant will play over the cobra’s hole,
and the young child dance over the viper’s nest.
Their will be neither hurt nor harm in all my holy mountain,
for the land will be filled with the knowledge of God
as the waters cover the sea.
Are you willing to let this passage from the eleventh chapter of Isaiah be scripture for you? Are you willing to let such scripture shape your life?
Isaiah is part of Hebrew scripture … part of Jewish scripture.
I was taught as a child to call Hebrew scripture the Old Testament. I was supposed to understand that it was pretty good scripture but that the New Testament was better because it corrected and fulfilled the Old. It wasn’t until much later that it really sank in that Isaiah, and the rest of Hebrew scripture, was what was scripture for Jesus. The New Testament hadn’t been written yet. When Jesus as a child was learning from his teachers this is the kind of thing he was learning.
When Jesus grew up he took Isaiah and other scripture seriously. He opened such scripture to us in a fresh way by teaching us to look for what is life giving in scripture and to let go of the rest. He pointed to what was spirit-filled in the law and not merely to its outer form. His followers identified him with such scriptures as this Isaiah passage and he was killed because of the political implications of such scripture. Herod was King and he didn’t want any popular movement growing up that had a leader identified as the offspring of Jesse … like King David. The land was in ferment and 35 years later Jerusalem would be surrounded and destroyed, the temple pulled down, the people killed. Taking Isaiah 11 seriously was dangerous business.
I know Jesus as my Christ, my savior, and I know that Jesus wasn’t a Christian. He was a Jew. More specifically, he was a Jewish heretic in the tradition of John the Baptist as we can learn from a reflective reading of the Matthew scripture. Like John and the Samaritans, Jesus knew that God wasn’t stuck in the Holy of Holies room in the temple in Jerusalem. Like John, Jesus knew God was giving away the forgiveness that other Jews were paying for with sacrifices.
Saying that I know Jesus as my Christ, my savior, may not mean much to some of you. Some of you may not really believe salvation is possible. Some of you may have lived such protected lives that you are not aware of your need to be saved. What might you want to be saved from?
This passage from Isaiah gives one angle on an answer. Do you live with only a timid or convenient commitment to justice? If you do, you are no true friend of the poor and marginalized. You many have drowned you conscience in luxury and privilege, but you are still living in spiritual alienation from those in deep need, from those who have suffered discrimination and oppression.
Are you living with only a vague commitment to the truth? Do you shy away from learning things that would make you uncomfortable? Are you willing to examine your prejudices? Are you willing to go and see the things that will not let you rest so easily?
You will find out why you need Jesus as a savior if you dare to really care about justice and truth.
Jesus found out where he needed to go, what he needed to do, by listening and caring with a heart prepared by scriptures like Isaiah 11.
When Jesus came to John in the wilderness it was because he had been made ready by scriptures like Isaiah 11. It is hard to know what really went on between Jesus and John because the story has been disturbed so much by Matthew. Matthew and the other gospel writers were facing a big ecclesiological problem. Jesus started out as a follower of John the Baptist and now both were dead, both martyred by Herodian Kings and the Roman Empire. The followers of John were out and about proclaiming the message of John. Jesus’ message was a lot like John’s. "Repent. The divine realm is at hand." It was even more confusing because some of the followers of Jesus had also been followers of John.
Matthew did not distinguish Jesus from John in terms of the message they were preaching. Jesus was also named as a healer and not just a preacher. But the most important difference was that the disciples found themselves to be in a different place because Jesus had touched them. They were no longer waiting for the Messiah and that meant that, in the deepest sense, they were no longer Jews. Some of them didn’t really appreciate how much this mattered until Jesus was dead. The difference that Jesus was making in their lives could best be pointed to by the story of resurrection. Death just doesn’t matter at the point of deciding to live in terms of what is most important.
Because of Jesus the disciples found themselves living in a profoundly new time, a time of no more waiting. They were no longer living out of memory and hope. They were living in the sensed presence of God. This lesson was purified as the disciples and their spiritual children finally gave away any hopes of political revolution with the crushing of Jerusalem and gave away any hopes of a magical end of the world in a physical apocalypse. Still, the simple truth that you don’t have to wait any more makes the whole world different. Salvation starts right now. All it costs is your life.
I’m not interested in a Christianity that you have to argue yourself into believing. What you can do is open yourself to the important questions. As the answers and challenges come, you can’t know for sure how to evaluate them because you are not God. It is more a matter of learning to appreciate what is life giving and what is not as you try yourself out in your choices and responses. That’s why prayer is important, giving yourself time and paying attention at all the points that really matter. You can try out the promises of Jesus. If you trust boldly you can learn that a life of love and service is enough. In this time of Advent we face the spiritual challenge that life really can be new, truly different than what the everyday world teaches us to expect from ourselves and from each other. Are you willing to pay attention to new?
Like David last week, you might have noticed that I find Christianity so precious that I have to be an evangelist, to share the bread that is so full of abundance. Now some folks feel that if you come with an evangelical spirit that you can’t really have a full and honest dialogue with those who are oriented in another religion. But evangelism doesn’t just flow from wanting to share precious truth, if equally flows from caring for the people you are talking with and that requires real listening. I mean real listening, not just the strategic listening that you can use to strengthen your arguments.
Let me put it this way, if you are grounded in the love of Jesus you have no reason to fear full and honest conversation with other religions. It is only if you think that Christianity is a big argument, or if your faith is based on reasoning about things you can’t know, that you can become confused by Buddhism, or Hinduism, or Hopi.
Truth to tell, I’m not very afraid when our children want to learn about Confucius or Wicca. When our children think Christmas is about exchanging presents, when our children think Easter is about the Easter Bunny, when our children think Halloween is about dressing up and going around to get candy, when our children grow numb to violence, when they commodify their bodies in sexual exchanges, when they think they are owners rather than stewards of the natural world, I become aware how badly we are losing the interreligious dialogue.
In this season some children and adults in this congregation are interested in other religions like Buddhism. I offer some questions that you can take with you into the conversation.
- Are you escaping from coming to grips with the really hard questions of Christianity, the questions that will cost you your life and give you your life?
- Are you picking and choosing what feels good in various religious slogans, gliding on the surface so that you can skip over the really engaging questions?
- Are you matching the best of other religions against you dissatisfactions of the worst distortions of Christendom? That is as unfair as matching the best of Christianity against the worst of other religions.
- Do you just want to know so that you can win religious arguments?
In any serious dialogue with another great religion you will meet two kinds of truth claims. One kind will sound a lot like Christianity and you can take them as evidence for God being at work in other religions before we arrive with our arguments. Recognizing this truth from the other end of the log, Gandhi is reported to have said, "Christianity is a wonderful religion. Christian should try it sometime."
You will also run into some truth claims that do not sound like Christianity to you. Rejoice! You may use such claims to reexamine your Christian faith more deeply. If what you have found from conversation with another religion is deeply true, I tell you that Christianity affirms such a truth because Christianity affirms all that is deeply true. Seeing how a truth is developed and modeled in different religions deepens our understanding of such truth. Learning how distortion and alienation have corrupted our understanding of Christianity is a precious gift. Understanding the distortion and alienation in another religion gives as a healing word, a saving word, and an evangelical word to share.
One last word. We hold our Christian faith both as individuals and as a group project and context. Different ones of us are more attuned to one or another Christian truth and calling. Because of this we can help each other. We partly know the truths of Christianity because we participate in relationships built on these truths. This is a very different way of knowing from winning arguments. So, when you learn something from Buddhism or Hopi, bring it into the Seekers conversation. Our Seekers conversation, at its best, is deeply evangelical, fearless, and beautiful.