Sunday, 19 January 2014

Jesus as the centre of Christian life part 3: Holiness vs Mercy

Epiphany 2 year A Sermon  Isaiah 49:1-7 John 8: 12-20
It’s no coincidence…Jesus delivers this teaching where he does…in the temple courts…near the place where sacrifices were offered…

You judge by human standards…Jesus says…I pass judgment on no one. But if I do judge…

my decisions are true because I’m not alone. I stand with the Father who sent me. In your own Law it’s written …
the testimony of two witnesses is true. I’m one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father who sent me…….

So they ask him, “Where’s your father?”

You don’t know me or my Father,” Jesus replies.

Lamb slide with words
If you knew me, you’d know my Father also.

Feet slide with words
Knowing the Jesus of the Gospels as the focus of Christian life…is the theme of our sermon series this month…
as we begin to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary
of the Gospel in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Beginning two weeks ago…we learned how Jesus read the Hebrew Scriptures and how he taught his followers... that the key to interpreting the scriptures and the greatest commandments were these

Word slide
The Lord our God, the Lord is one… Love the Lord your God with all your heart all your soul all your mind and all your strength and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’

Baptism slide
Last week we learned how Jesus understands his relationship with God…is revealed in his favourite name for God – Abba – Father. We hear at Jesus baptism…the echo of Israel’s ancient commission to be a light to the world…as the voice from heaven confirms God’s beloved son…

slide words
I’ve put my spirit upon him, I am YHWH, I’ve given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, and those who sit in darkness. [pause]

blank baptism side
And we hear how in his hometown synagogue…
this Jesus of the Gospelsproclaims the day of the Lord
has come…This Yeshua of Nazareth…son of Miriam
is the centre of our faith today

And as we learn how Jesus interprets the Jewish text and understands his relationship with God…we discover two contradictory streams in the Hebrew Scriptures…
One Jesus affirms…and one he rejects. One reveals a God of mercy …the other paints God as vengeful and violent…

Here’s an example of this internal contradiction.  In the book of 2 Kings… a captain and a company of fifty men are sent to Elijah…the captain goes up to Elijah, who’s sitting on top of a hill, and says, Man of God, the king orders you to come down!

Fire slide
But Elijah answers, if I am a man of God, may fire come down from heaven and consume you…and your fifty men! Then the scripture says…fire fell from heaven and consumed the captain and his men.

In the Gospel of Luke…that’s precisely the story

the disciples have in mind…when Jesus sends messengers ahead to a Samaritan village to get things ready for him.

when the people in the village refuse to welcome Jesus …James and John want to call down fire from heaven

to destroy them?

Feet slide
But the Jesus of the Gospels…turns and rebukes them.
By implication…that’s neither my way, nor my father’s.

The story in Luke stands in direct contradiction to the violence of God in one stream of Jewish scriptures – a stream that created real problems for Judaism. Because all rabbis had to wrestle with these internal contradictions… including Jesus.

The question for us is the same as it was for them
not which God should we follow…by Jesus day
Jews believed there was only one God…the question is
which texts should we endorse…in light of God’s revelation in Christ on the cross.

And of course we now have a third strand of scripture as well…the story of the transformative power of the resurrection.  While the Cross reveals God’s mercy and forgiveness in light of the worst humanity can do…

the resurrection offers us…the possibility of new life.

Tallit slide
From the very beginning the Bible is critical of the destructive way humans behave. And in the risen Christ… we’re offered a real way out…the transformation of humanity into the true image of God. It’s not God who’s changed
it’s our understanding of God.

And our understanding could change again… today

as we explore the third part of our series…
how Jesus saw holiness… in light of his Father’s mercy. [pause]

You see Jesus knew there was a way of being religious…
that caused destruction wherever it was practised –
because it misinterprets what it means to be holy.

In Jesus’ day the various streams of Judaism…Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene and Samaritan… all held to some kind of holiness code… by which they determined

what behaviour… made people right before God
and that whole system focused on Temple sacrifice.

Long before the Romans invaded…arguments over who should hold power in the Temple…lead to as much bloodshed

in the Jewish community…as the sacrificial system in the Temple…Who had the right to officiate at the altar…who got to preside over sacrifice and how… was never settled.

From the outer courts of the gentiles…to the Holy of holies…the Temple reinforced different degrees of holiness…and this was reflected in the Jewish community.
Some people achieved greater holiness than others. And this hierarchical model of holiness was lived out by every single Jewish group…except one – that of Jesus.

In his teaching and his actions…Jesus refuses to recognize cultural and religious degrees of holiness. He heals on the Sabbathtouches the unclean…and eats with sinners.

Even today some churches still have some form of holiness code… in order to belong…members who break the rules
risk getting kicked out.

But actually…holiness codes are the religious equivalent of the secular rule of law. Remember humans were religious… before they were secular

All human culture is founded in religion. Even in secular cultures like New Zealand… the social effects of religion remain and are reflected in our laws.
And yes there’s a sense in which… it’s not possible for human society to exist without laws prohibitions and commandments.

Temple slide
But whether we like it or not…ancient holiness codes were based on there being an innocent victim… that was sacrificed. Because these codes insisted on redemption through ritual killing. If a human being wasn’t sacrificed to make things right with God…then then an unblemished calf or bull or dove would be.

So if Jesus is the centre of Christian life… then it’s important to understand how Jesus interacts with the holiness codes of his day… and how he viewed the sacrificial system which supported it…where something had to die for holiness to be restored.

Jesus actually confronted the holiness codes of the other Jewish parties…in this…the Jesus of the Gospels
isn’t a meek and mild keeper of the status quo…nor is he overly concerned with religious and social niceties…

No…Jesus is determined to speak the truth to power…
to be a prophetic voice who dares to say and do things that are counter to the prevailing holiness codes. And this gets him into serious trouble with the religious authorities.

Why…because to them…there was a clear distinction between what was holy and what was profane, unclean or unholy.  In fact there were six degrees of holiness …all the way to super ultra-extra holy.

Different things you did… people you had contact with and certain religious activities… produced varying degrees of uncleanliness. And according to the holiness codes…there were various rituals you could engage in

to become clean again.

That’s why Jesus tells the Lepers…to present themselves to the local priest… who’d offer the sacrifices Moses commanded… for their cleansing. Jesus mother Mary had to undergo a time of purification after giving birth…
following that she went to the Temple to offer the appropriate sacrifices.

For Mary and the Lepers downside of uncleanliness was that it kept them from fully participating in the social and religious life of the community

but there was a way to get back in… ritual sacrifice.

By the first century…the Pharisees concluded the priesthood in the Temple was so corruptthey had no option but to be holy outside the temple… to ensure a holy remnant remained in the holy land. [they believed in the written and oral law]

In Jesus day the Sadducees controlled the Temple.
They came mainly from ruling families and only held to the written Torah. And because they were wealthy
it was in their interest… to accommodate the Romans with whom they did business.

Other groups sought holiness by living separated from other Jews in ghettos or in caves like Qumran – where the scrolls were discovered.

Finally there were the Zealots who wanted to purge the Israel of all unholy foreign influence through violent rebellion. They started the conflict that ended with the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.

And Jesus had run ins with every one of these groups
Having taken the mantle of Israel onto his own shoulders Jesus was as concerned as anyone…with the future of his community
and clearly sought to bring about a time when only God was sovereign…

But how Jesus went about achieving this…was poles apart from those who sought the solution through ritual holiness. And this is the key point for today’s sermon…
Did you ever notice Jesus never teaches…
‘Be holy as I am holy’ instead Jesus teaches…
be merciful… as your father in heaven is merciful.

Mercy… was for Jesus…the way to holiness.
Ritual holiness demanding sacrifice…only reinforces isolation and rejection and is based on killing…

Mercy brings reconciliation and restoration to community. Holiness through sacrifice depends on degrees of perfection mercy breaks through all barriers and recognizes God’ loves everyone and seeks to bless them.

In Jesus Sermon on the Mount…it’s clear that to be merciful is to be blessed. As is loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you. And in Jesus parables… the one who shows mercy… is the one who fulfils the greatest commandment.

Jesus gets into trouble his entire ministry
because he shows extraordinary mercy to those who are labelled by the religious authorities…as unclean and outside the grace of God or punished by God with infirmities because of their sins.

But it wasn’t enough for Jesus simply to redefine what constitutes right behaviour in the kingdom of God kingdom  he insisted on confronting the religious authorities about it.

And they thought… some of Jesus’ prophetic actions …so shocking and vile…it sealed his fate…especially –when he takes his challenge…right into the heart of the Temple’s sacrificial system. For Jesus…zeal for God’s house wasn’t to be symbolised by killing…

the people’s desire for holiness just fed a system of greed and corruption. Clearing the Temple isn’t just about Jesus getting mad… it is a great prophetic act… signalling the end has come for Temple sacrifices…and that holiness comes from mercy and compassion…not the blood of animals and humans

Of course the prophets who tried to say this in the past
were killed on the altar of ritual holiness for their trouble.

It’s no accident that twice in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus quotes Hosea 6.6
Slide words
‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’.
And love your enemies…anyone can love their friends…but it’ll cost you something to love your enemies. That’s the kind of holiness God desires.

Feet slide
For some people being a Christian is little more than praying the short salvation prayer acknowledging what some call the four spiritual laws. For others it’s adhering to a particular set of rules or even a particular political ideology.

For others being a Christian is only about the sweet devotion of their internal religious experience. Still others think it means being nice people… tolerant and generally warm and fuzzy around the edges.

Tallit slide

But all these are far from the way of life Jesus called his followers to live. The goal of discipleship isn’t holiness to make sure God will love us… Jesus showed in the Temple…the kingdom of God isn’t an economy of exchange…
God already loves us…and comes toward us in Jesus Christ…to show us how to live… and if necessary…how to die… for the salvation of the world.