Monthly Archives: November 2007

John 2:13-22 Cleansing the Temple

John 2:13-22: Cleansing of the Temple. Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on November 12, 2006

Introduction:   Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that it has been a good week for you. We had a nice stewardship luncheon last week at Home Church. Thanksgiving is this week. Home Church is participating in the annual Winston-Salem Community Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, which this year will be at Knollwood Baptist Church. This event brings together Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Moravians to express gratitude for the gifts God has given us all. In our lesson for this week, we turn our attention to the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple as recorded by John.

Jesus with a Whip:     The cleansing of the Temple is one of the most important scenes in the gospels for movie makers. It is filled with action and tension. It is the only scene from the life of Jesus in which he uses violence rather than being a victim of violence. Incidentally, it is only in John’s Gospel that Jesus used a whip, and even then it was just a bunch of cords tied together, so the popular image of the violent Jesus is rather overblown. Many preachers have used this text to talk about the humanity of Jesus, or even the masculinity of Jesus. The image of Jesus with a whip Temple has been used been used to justify coercion in matters of faith.

Some preachers through the centuries have used this text to justify the use of violence and anger against those deemed unrighteous. Political operatives in Washington, D. C. sent out sermons that used this image of an avenging Jesus with a whip in one hand to support the invasion of Iraq. In the early part of the last century, evangelists and reformers called upon Jesus and his whip to cleanse the United States of alcohol. Some of these images of Jesus the crusader are more legitimate than others, but I think we must avoid the temptation of making the whip the primary image we have of Jesus. This morning, let’s take time to look at this story in John carefully and compare it to the similar accounts found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Read: 2:13-22

Uniquely John:           There are a number of interesting questions connected to this little vignette which may yield insight into the meaning of John’s gospel. In Mark’s gospel, the cleansing of the Temple is one of the last things that Jesus does in his public ministry. It is an event that leads directly to the arrest and execution of Jesus. Matthew and Luke were both based on Mark’s gospel, and so they also have the cleansing of the Temple shortly after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. John, in contrast, tells this story at the beginning of the gospel narrative. It is in the second chapter, shortly after the miracle of the wine.

            This is a major difference that cannot be ignored. Those who are committed to the idea that the gospels are without any errors of fact are forced to find ingenious solutions to the problem. The most common is to assert that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice, at the beginning of his ministry and at the end. The fact that John ignores the so-called “second cleansing” and that the other gospels ignore the first one is just one of those uncomfortable facts that strict literalists learn to live with.

            It is much more reasonable to assume that either Mark or John moved this event when they wrote their biographies of Jesus. Most scholars agree that it was John who relocated the cleansing of the Temple as a dramatic way to introduce the radical nature of Jesus’ ministry. In the Gospel of John, Jesus faces opposition from the religious leaders from the beginning of his ministry, and it was his raising of Lazarus from the dead that led to his arrest. In the other three gospels, the opposition grows as Jesus’ influence grows, and the disturbance in the Temple leads to his arrest. Most interpreters think that this makes more sense historically than John’s account.

            By placing this story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, John shows that the whole ministry of Jesus was connected the theme of right worship of God by following Jesus. It also builds John’s theme that the whole ministry of Jesus was marked by opposition and misunderstanding. The cleansing of the Temple was a metaphor for the Day of Judgment when God will remove evil and reward goodness. In John’s gospel, Jesus himself is the Day of Judgment when each person must decide whether to follow or turn back.

            Having said that though, I need to let you know that there are some scholars who argue that John is more accurate than Mark. They point to evidence that at Jesus’ trial that the prosecutors had difficulty finding witnesses who remembered just what Jesus had done and said. Had the cleansing of the Temple happened just before his arrest, there should have been no trouble finding witnesses. As it is, there appears to be a long period of time between the cleansing and the trial. Also, none of the gospels mention the disturbance in the Temple as evidence that was brought against him before Pilate. So it is conceivable that this event had taken place a couple of years before his arrest and that Mark placed it where he did in order to fit his own narrative outline.

When did this Happen?         Incidentally, the tradition that Jesus’ ministry lasted for three years is based on the chronology of John who speaks of three Passovers in Jesus’ ministry. At the first one Jesus cleanses the Temple. At the last one he is executed. If we place the cleansing of the Temple shortly before Jesus’ arrest, then we have no evidence for a three-year ministry for Jesus. It could have been much shorter or it might have been longer, but I think it is unlikely that Jesus only paid one visit to Jerusalem the way Mark portrayed it. We do not have enough evidence to give a definite answer, but it seems likely that Jesus would have come to Jerusalem for Passover several times before he cleansed the Temple.

            It is in John’s gospel that the priests tell Jesus that the building of the Temple had been going on for forty-six years. Herod began building this great Temple in his eighteenth year as ruler to prove his power and glory. That was in 20 BC. The Temple was finally completed in 63 AD, only to be destroyed by the Romans a decade later. If John’s statement that the Temple had been under construction for forty-six years was correct, then the date of the cleansing by Jesus would have been 27 or 28 AD. That fits very well with Luke’s statements about the time of Jesus’ ministry and his age, by the way.

            Another aspect of John’s account of the cleansing of the Temple that is unique is that there were sheep and oxen there. Many modern historians dispute the idea that there would have been animals in the Temple precincts. The animal markets were nearby in the Kidron valley, but John may be evidence for a specific moment in the history of the Temple. There was a dispute between the high priest and the Sanhedrin (the Jewish council) around the year 30 AD. The Sanhedrin stopped meeting in the Temple and relocated to the marketplace. It is possible that Caiaphas responded by allowing rival merchants to sell animals in the Temple itself. If this is true, then Jesus’ driving the animals out of the Temple could have been a response to this new and offensive practice of allowing animals in the Temple.  We cannot know for certain.

Money Changers:      What we do know for sure is that there were money changers in the Temple precincts. They were in the outer court, which was known as the court of the Gentiles. The reason they were there was because most coins in circulation could not be used in the Temple because they had the images of kings and emperors on them. It was blasphemy to use money with graven images on it in a Temple dedicated to the God of Israel. So, merchants changed currency into the approved Tyrian coinage. This was an important part of the religious practice associated with the Temple, and there is no evidence to support the claim that they were abusing the people with high exchange rates. It is interesting that Jesus in John’s Gospel does not call the money changers “robbers” the way he does in the Synoptics.

            The simple truth is that we do not know when Jesus cleansed the Temple or just what he was thinking, but we can be confident that it is an historical fact that he did so. It is recorded in more than one original source, and the violence of the action raised question for the church later. It also provides evidence for why the religious and political authorities found Jesus to be a threat to the public order. The fact that either Mark or John altered the chronology of this story in the career of Jesus does not mean that either of them was being dishonest. They were not trying to establish the historical facts of Jesus’ life nor were they providing evidence for his trial. They were writing about the message and meaning of Jesus using the stories that had been passed down by his followers. Biographers still use creative license when constructing the story of a person’s life. We do this in telling our own life stories. The chronology of the events does effect how we tell history, but it is the meaning of the events that is important for the life of faith.

Christians and the Temple:               The first thing we need to consider in pondering the meaning of this event is the relationship of Christians to the Temple. We know that some of the earliest Christians worshiped in the Temple in Jerusalem after the resurrection of Jesus, but it is unlikely that the followers of the Beloved Disciple did so. For one thing, they were not in Judea. More important, throughout the New Testament we see that part of the significance of Jesus for the original Christians was that his death and resurrection brought to an end the sacrificial system of Judaism. This was one of the great transformations in the history of religion. Christianity and Buddhism are two religions in which the killing of animals serves no religious purpose, which should make the vegetarians happy.  

By driving the animals out of the Court of the Gentiles, Jesus was making a statement about the true worship of God. Not only did this specifically include Gentiles in the House of God, it was a rejection of the sacrificial system of the Temple. Whether John wrote his account before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD or after is impossible to determine, but one of the reasons Christianity thrived among Gentiles after 70 AD was because it was not tied to the Temple or to Jerusalem. Thus, we can see that this scene is consistent with John’s narration of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman. The true worshipers of God worship in spirit and in truth, not by slaughtering animals.

            John portrays Jesus like Jeremiah or other Old Testament prophets whose zeal led them to make prophetic actions that pointed toward God’s coming judgment. Driving moneychangers out of the Temple was hardly an action designed to incite a revolution; it is unlikely most people even noticed in an age before satellite news. But it was a prophetic act that illustrated the corruption of the old Temple and the need for something new. By connecting the cleansing of the Temple and Jesus’ conversation with the priests about the destruction of the Temple, John directly related the death of Jesus with his opposition to the priesthood and Temple. He quotes from Psalm 69: “zeal for your house will consume me.”

The quotation becomes even more interesting if we include the verse before this one. “I have become a stranger to my brethren, an alien to my mother’s sons. For zeal for thy house has consumed me, and the insults of those who insult thee have fallen on me.” (Ps. 69:8-9) By quoting Psalm 69, John may have intended his readers to recognize that Jesus’ religious zeal was alienating him from his own family and his own people. We have hints of this in the gospels as well. We must remember that many people near Jesus did not believe in him. More importantly, Psalm 69 points to the vicarious nature of Jesus’ passion. All four gospels imply that Jesus was killed because he was zealous for the house of God. In other words, Jesus was killed by those who were more invested in maintaining their own status and authority than in the pursuit of righteousness. This zeal for God’s house in turn consumed Jesus and led to his death at the hands of the corrupt priests.

Destroy this Temple:             Another significant difference between John and the Synoptic Gospels is that Jesus has a conversation with the authorities in the Temple after he caused the disturbance about the destruction and rebuilding of the Temple. John candidly states that it was only after the resurrection that Jesus’ disciples believed that he was talking about the Temple of his body. This is a wonderful illustration of John’s practice of reading the resurrection into the events of Jesus’ earthly life. More than the other three Gospels, John’s gospel is a post-resurrection portrayal of Jesus. This does not mean that it does not contain genuine historical information about Jesus, but every aspect of Jesus’ story is understood from the perspective of the resurrection. So, John takes a conversation about the Temple in Jerusalem and reinterprets it as a prophecy of Jesus’ death and resurrection. 

The conversation is interesting on its own, though. We know from Jewish and Roman literature that the Temple in Jerusalem was the focus of much controversy. The Essenes, who we discussed a couple of weeks ago, rejected the Temple. Most Jews believed that the reason Solomon’s Temple had been destroyed was because of the sins of the people, and so there were some Jews that expected that God’s Day of Judgment would include the destruction of the Temple. The idea that God would destroy the corrupt Temple and build a purified Temple was prominent in Jewish apocalyptic literature. Jesus’ conversation over the Temple points to this messianic hope, and it is significant that witnesses at his trial remembered him threatening to destroy the Temple.

It could be that John took the reports of the witnesses and placed them in this scene, or it is possible that John has put together two different events. One event was the cleansing of the Temple; the other was a conversation over the destruction and rebuilding of the Temple. By putting the two events together, John highlights the threat Jesus posed for the authority. Of course, Jesus did not destroy the Temple or harm it in any way, so it is not surprising that John would transfer the saying about destroying and raising up from the Temple to the body of Jesus.

The historical saying of Jesus took on a new meaning after the resurrection.

For John, this is more than a prediction of the resurrection, though. Through his resurrection, Jesus himself becomes the new Temple for the people of God. Jesus himself becomes sacred and was the one in whom God dwelled. Christians may worship wherever Jesus is with them. Last week we discussed the significance of transforming water from a ritual of purification to the wine of the new covenant. This week, Jesus replaces the Jewish temple with himself. This fits well with the earlier view of angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man. For John, Jesus is the mediator between God and humankind. He is the Temple where God may be found.

Conclusion:                 We have come to the end of our time for this morning. Keep in mind that in John’s gospel in particular, we need to look beyond history and contemplate the symbolism of the narrative itself. There are many modern scholars, most notably John Dominic Crossan, who view Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple as a revolutionary act against the oppression of the Roman Empire. John’s Gospel presents Jesus’ action primarily in religious terms. It was a symbol of the end of the old covenant and beginning of the new, with Jesus himself as the new temple.

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Genesis: Faithlore, lesson 14

Genesis 12:10-20: Abraham and Pharaoh. Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on January 15, 2006.

Introduction:   Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. It was a busy week for me. Classes have started at Wake Forest, which I enjoy. We’re planning some good events at the Divinity School of which you should be aware. Tomorrow night Rev. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, will be speaking in Wait Chapel. She’ll also speak at the opening convocation for the Divinity School Tuesday at 11 a.m., and on February 28 and March 1 she will lecture at the Trible Lecture Series on Gender, Sexuality, and Faith. Rosemary Radford Reuther will also be one of the lecturers. Also in March we are having a conference titled “Keeping Faith’s Promises to Our Daughters: Conversations on Justice for Women,” which will be held at Fairview Moravian Church on the 10th and 11th. Among the speakers will be several Moravians, including Bishop Kay Ward.

Abram the Nomad:                This morning we are continuing in our study of Abraham in the book of Genesis. Last week we discussed the importance of Abraham in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We looked at Abraham as the father of faith who believed in God’s promises and set out on a journey. After we went off the air, the class discussed this idea of journey a bit further. Abraham is presented as the first pilgrim, a traveler on a religious and spiritual quest. It is interesting that when he entered the land of Canaan, he did not settle down. He journeyed on to the Negev. This image of Abram the pilgrim or sojourner has profoundly influenced Jewish and Christian spirituality. Even though the story of Abraham is closely connected to the Promised Land, there is a strong sense in the biblical writings that the true follower of God is a sojourner in this world. Faith is a journey, not a final destination. It is an adventure, a movement of discovery.

Canaanites:                This story of Abram journeying to Canaan has other implications in history. Verse 6 simply says that there were Canaanites in the land at that time. One thing this tells us is that this story was written long after the Canaanites were no longer in the land. In other words, this is part of the evidence for the theory that Genesis was not written by Moses. It comes from a much later period.

            This statement also tells us that the world was well-settled by the time of Abraham, which is not the impression we get from the earlier stories in Genesis. He was not moving into empty land, others had gone before. When we read this statement about the Canaanites we should keep the promise God made to Abram in our minds. Abram was not only going to receive a land for his descendents; he would be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth. That blessing will begin with the Canaanites. Abraham, as we shall see, was a good neighbor. He did not gain the Promised Land through conquest and exploitation. He was a sojourner who tried to live in peace with his neighbors.

            This story of the giving of the land to Abraham has been used in many destructive ways through the centuries, though. It was used by many of the European settlers of the New World to justify taking the land from the native peoples. The Indians were seen as the Canaanites who were unworthy to hold their land. Not everyone agreed with the Puritans, of course. Thomas Penn and others tried to live with the native peoples, but we know how that story turned out. Of course, today this idea of the Promised Land continues to affect world politics. The Canaanites are long gone, but there are others who share the land of Promise.

Egypt:             Life in the Promised Land was not easy for Abram and his family. Rather than flowing with milk and honey, there was a famine in the land. Abram did the sensible thing and went to Egypt where there was food. This begins an important motif in the Old Testament. In times of trouble, the Israelites went to Egypt. This did not always go well, as we know. The formative story of Israel is the story of how they were oppressed in Egypt until God brought them out with signs and wonders. Israel’s history is wrapped up in the history of the mighty empire on the Nile River, but there is little or no mention of Israel in the records of the Egyptians. They were a superpower; Israel was a small nation constantly in danger of invasion or famine.

            We need to keep this in mind when reading the Bible. By the time of Abraham and Sarah, the Egyptians had built the pyramids and probably had built the Temple of Karnak. These remain legacies of ancient Egypt, but Israel was a small nation whose palaces and temples were destroyed by more powerful empires centuries ago. What was not destroyed was the faith of Israel; the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The legacy of ancient Israel is the Bible itself, and this is one of the ways in which Abraham became a blessing to all nations.

            The original hearers of the story of Abraham knew all about the power and prosperity of Egypt, just as almost everyone in the world knows about the wealth of America. They would not have been surprised to hear that when there was a famine in the land of Canaan, Abram journeyed to Egypt seeking food, just as we are not surprised that hungry people look to America for help. Egypt did not have a statue urging “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,” but the Pharaohs were wise enough to use food as a way to bind weaker countries to Egypt.

Wife-Sister:                So, it is not surprising that Abram left the Promised Land to seek food in Egypt. What is surprising and, frankly, disturbing is what he did there. He looked at his sixty-five year old wife Sarai, and said, “Wow. She is so beautiful that one of these lusty Egyptians is going to kill me so he can steal my woman.” It sounds like the plot of a really bad television show, doesn’t it? Sixty-five years old and still hot enough to kill over. Reading the story, we can’t help but wonder why Abram is so afraid and so selfish. The plot gets even worse because Abram’s solution to this problem he has invented in his own anxiety is to pretend that Sarai is his sister rather than his wife. That’s right, Sarai agrees to tell people that she is a sister not a wife, and that way no one will be tempted to kill Abram in order to steal his wife.

            It is a very strange story, isn’t it? For over two thousand years Jewish and Christian commentators have struggled over this story in Genesis 12. How could the patriarch of the Jews and father of faith do such a thing? Many readers have gone to great lengths to show that Abram was not telling Sarai to lie. There is a second version of this story, in Genesis 20, which asserts that Sarai was Abram’s half-sister. It seems evident that the second story is an attempt to smooth away some of the difficulties of the first story. This duplication of stories is one bit of evidence for the theory that Genesis is made up of independent sources. We’ll encounter this story two more times in Genesis. It must have been an important idea at one time.

            So according to Genesis 20, Sarai was Abram’s half-sister. Maybe Abram didn’t exactly lie then, but clearly he meant to deceive the Egyptians. We have to acknowledge that this was deceptive, if nothing else. And for modern people, the idea that Abram was married to his half-sister isn’t any better than the idea that he lied. Though some ancient cultures practiced the sister-marriage, including ancient Egypt, such incest is frowned upon today.

            There is no way around the fact that this is a strange little story. At least one biblical scholar has argued that archaeology helps make sense of this story. Some of the cultures of the ancient Near East, especially the Hurrians around the time of Abraham, had a way for a man to adopt his wife as his sister. He could strengthen their legal ties by adopting her. So, it is possible that Abram had made Sarai his sister after marrying her. In that case, Abram neither committed incest, nor lied to Pharaoh. This has been used as evidence that Genesis preserves ancient cultural practices. But even it is true that this reflects Hurrian practices, it does not explain the deception. According to the text, the story that she was his sister was just a way to hide the truth.

Sarai’s Silence:          It is interesting that Sarai is silent throughout this story. We don’t know if she was suffering in silence the way many wives have been forced to through the years. We don’t know if she was silenced by the storyteller who didn’t think a woman’s feelings were important. It could be that Sarai was a willing accomplice in this deception. The truth is we simply do not know why Sarai is silent in the story.

A Joke on Egypt?      What we do know from the story is that Sarai was indeed very beautiful. She was so beautiful that Pharaoh’s entourage, who apparently were always on the prowl for pretty girls for the king, told him that he’s got to have this old woman in his harem. I have no doubt that this story was told with a bit of national pride. Hey, Israelite women are so beautiful that even when they are 65 and barren, Pharaoh lusts after them. He even paid a high price for beautiful Sarai and she couldn’t even have children. According to the story, Pharaoh paid Abram in livestock and slaves. In an ancient rural culture, this is a clever trade.

            There is probably a bit of national pride in this aspect of the story, too. Abram came to Egypt because he was hungry, but he outsmarted the mighty Pharaoh and grew wealthy. We have to remember that in a Middle Eastern culture, this story displays Abram’s cunning, and his wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. Though it is a problematic story for us, originally it was probably told to show just how shrewd Abram was. But if that was all there was to the story, though, it would not have survived for three centuries. There is a deeper tale about faith here.

The LORD acts:          Pharaoh makes Sarai one of his many wives, but the LORD intervenes in their affair. Sarai may have been silent, but the LORD was not. He sent plagues upon Egypt. Clearly this is a foreshadowing of the more famous plagues in the time of Moses, but the meaning of the plagues is a bit different here. The LORD inflicts suffering on the Egyptians because Pharaoh was committing adultery. The LORD did what Abram should have done as a husband. He defended Sarai and her honor.

            Somehow Pharaoh knew that the plagues were because of Sarai. We aren’t told why, but presumably the LORD spoke to Pharaoh. Or the priests of Egypt may have figured out that it was Abram’s God who was causing the difficulties. It could be that Sarai herself informed the king that she was under divine protection. In any case, once Pharaoh understood what was happening, he reprimanded Abram. Rather than punish him, though, he simply returned his wife. Some have wondered if Pharaoh thought that was punishment enough, but I’m not going to explore that idea. Pharaoh returned Sarai, and then he forced Abram to leave Egypt. He let him keep all of the gifts since there was no point in upsetting the LORD any further. Just as the Israelites hundreds of years later would despoil Egypt when they fled from Pharaoh, Abram returns to Canaan with livestock and slaves. He is wealthy and influential when he returns to the Promised Land.

A Morality Tale:        On one level, this is one of those family stories that we tell with a sense of embarrassment. You probably have those stories in your family. Grandfather so and so cheated his brother out of a horse, which he then used to win a race. Or Aunt so and so was engaged to another man, but she ran off with someone richer one night. Such stories are not particularly edifying, but we still tell because they display some of the courage and cunning of our ancestors. In many ways, this story of Abram, Sarai, and the Pharaoh is such a story. There is a hint of pride in the way it is written, but there is some embarrassment as well. It reminds us that we are more prudish than the Bible. I think it is interesting that people think the Bible is a sanctimonious book of morality tales, but it is filled with such stories of complex morality.

            Certainly this story of the wife-sister has caused problems for interpreters for centuries. The rabbis tried to preserve both the honesty of Abram and the dignity of Sarai in their treatments of the story. Not only did they stress the idea that Sarai really was Abram’s sister, they claimed that the plague that struck Egypt was impotence. Pharaoh knew that Sarai was another man’s wife because he was unable to consummate the marriage. That’s just rabbinical speculation though. It shows how much harder we want to protect the virtue of the patriarchs and matriarchs the biblical writers did. Later Christian writers went to similar lengths to protect the reputation of Abram here.

A Flawed Patriarch:               There have been others who have argued that this story is an example of Abram’s failings. Though he was chosen by God, he was flawed, just as King David was. Rather than trusting in God’s protection and the promises God has made, Abram lied and hid. Not only was Abram dishonest, he almost gave up the covenant when he gave up his wife. If the promise was that he would have heirs and descendents, why let Sarai go in exchange for some camels and sheep? He failed in his first crucial test and would have to face a much more difficult test late in life. It was a particularly bad failure because innocent people suffered. It is not fair, but it is still true that the innocent suffer when leaders are dishonest. The stories in Genesis are as current as stories in our daily paper.

            It is interesting that Abram offered no defense to Pharaoh’s reproach. He is silent. I think it is because there is no defense. He deceived Pharaoh and sold his wife. Even by the standards of the day, that is pretty bad. It is no wonder that I’ve never heard a sermon on this passage of Scripture. It doesn’t preach very well does it? Certainly we don’t want people using this story of Abraham as a model of faithful living. I wonder what Dr. Phil or Dr. Laura would do with a case like this one? Just think if Sarai called in for advice.

            What could Abram say? He was wrong. This story that showed how Abram outsmarted Pharaoh becomes one in which Pharaoh appears to be the moral one. Genesis, as is usually the case, does not interpret the meaning of this for us. We are left to ponder the meaning.

            I think that the key to this story is to pay attention to who the main character is. It is not really Abram, Sarai, or the Pharaoh. It is the LORD. The LORD made a covenant with Abram and he made promises to him. That covenant is binding on God. I said last week that we do not know if Abram was chosen because he was worthy or righteous or faithful. All we know is that he was chosen and he responded. God chose to bless him and make him a blessing to others. Even though Abram proved weak during the famine; even though he proved selfish; even though he showed little or no concern for his wife at a critical moment; even though he deceived someone, God did not abandon Abram. God remained true to the covenant even when Abram faltered.

            God had to intervene for the sake of Sarai, and ultimately of Abram, because God had made a covenant with him. Pharaoh recognized that Abram and Sarai were under divine protection, even though Abram did not deserve it. God’s protection does not mean that bad things never happen to Abram and Sarai, but it does mean that God remained true to the promise and the covenant even when Abram was not faithful. There are words of hope in this for us. We tend to turn religion into a game of piety and perfection. Salvation becomes a matter of our works, our righteousness, our beliefs, our words rather than God’s grace. Our story for today reminds us that even when we have failed in our most basic duties as human beings and children of God, God remains true to the promises he has made to us. Faith means trusting God even when we have faltered like Abram.

            Next week we’ll continue with our study of Abraham. To prepare, read chapter 13 of Genesis.

John 2:1-12 Wedding

John 2:1-12: Wedding at Cana.

Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church– Originally aired on November 12, 2006.

Introduction:               Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you and those most dear to you. It was a busy week in politics locally and nationally. I hope that you voted and let those who govern us know that you are paying attention to what they say and especially to what they do. The ways of God may be inscrutable, but the ways of politicians should be transparent and defensible. Life has been kind of quiet in the Atwood household with the public schools taking a full week of vacation in the middle of the term. Madeleine had the experience of sitting in my Christology class and hearing divinity students debating the merits of Calvinism this week. I had the pleasure of teaching a high school history class at East Forsyth recently on the topic of the Second Great Awakening and its impact on American culture. They were very bright kids who have been well taught by one of the members here at Home Church. The only other times I’ve taught in the public schools was for kindergarten at Brunson and Moore. This was a little different.

Book of Signs:            This week our lesson is from the second chapter of the Gospel of John. Our lesson for today begins the section of John’s Gospel that scholars often call The Book of Signs because it recounts seven significant miracles of Jesus. The second half of the Gospel of John gives the passion narrative, and there are no miracles in that section until the resurrection. Because there are so many stylistic differences between the two parts of the Gospel some scholars believe that the Book of Signs was originally a separate document that was edited several times over the years. The original version of the Book of Signs may be as old as or older than the Gospel of Mark, but there is no scholarly consensus on this. It is final form, the Book of Signs is preparation for the Book of Glory, and it foreshadows the events later in the Gospel.

            There are seven wonderful deeds of Jesus in the Book of Signs, far fewer than in Mark’s gospel where Jesus does numerous healings, exorcisms, and similar miracles. In John, Jesus turns water into wine, heals the son of an official, heals a lame man, feeds the five thousand, walks on water, heals a blind man, and raises Lazarus from the dead. Most of these miracles have parallels in the other gospels but they are told in much more detail in John. The only miracle that is basically the same in all four gospels is the feeding of the five thousand. The one miracle that appears only in John is the one we will discuss this morning, turning water into wine, which recalls Holy Communion.

Signs:              I keep calling these wonderful deeds “miracles” but John always calls them “signs,” and that gives us a clue to interpreting these stories. John’s Gospel itself claims that Jesus did many wonderful things, but these stories have been told been told so that the reader will believe in him as the Son of God. In other words, the author of the Gospel informs us that these were symbolic actions that point beyond the physical details of the event to deeper insights into the nature of God and Christ. In a sense, these signs function like the sacraments. They were physical manifestations of the grace of God. The narrative invites us to become part of the story and experience the nature of Christ. Each sign is intended to lead us into deeper contemplation of the Word of God made flesh. It is probably not an accident that there are seven signs in the Book of Signs. Seven is the number of perfection and creation. The Gospel begins with references to the Book of Genesis and here there are seven signs to remind us that Jesus is the New Creation.

Read 2:1-12

Historical Details:      After calling his first disciples and teaching them, Jesus travels to his home in Galilee and attends a wedding. This is one of those details in John’s gospel that I really like, and it reminds us that Jesus participated in the normal aspects of his society. In the 15th century the Moravian Church’s rules were rather Puritanical. Members were forbidden to have big celebrations, including weddings. The elders of the church moderated these rules a little when the younger generation opened the Gospel of John and pointed out that Jesus himself went to the wedding at Cana. Not only did he not condemn the proceedings, he provided the wine.

            This story has always bothered those who want to turn Christianity into a dour and ascetical religion of constant self-denial. One of the first things Jesus does with the former disciples of John is to take them to a banquet. This puts into narrative Jesus’ statement in the synoptics that the disciples of John fasted but the disciples of Jesus did not. Why should the guests fast when the bridegroom is with them? Though this story does not give us license for drunkenness and wanton extravagance, we do need to recognize that the first public act of Jesus, according to John, was to go to a wedding! John tells us that Jesus’ ministry is in the world – at wells and in the market place. That is where the Christian message is needed and where Christians should be.

Good Wine Last:        John includes another little detail that rings true to our experience. The master of the feast says that people always serve the good wine first and then you serve the bad wine. The early guests were the most honored and wealthiest, so they got the good wine. Those who arrived late were those who could not afford time off from their labors or who were less honored by the family. Today, we still want to start with a good impression so that people will not notice when you start serving them vinegar instead of wine. You always put the bruised apples in the bottom of the bushel, don’t you? This is one of those realistic touches in John’s Gospel that is delightful, but we should not use this verse in the Bible to justify our actions. This little conversation with Jesus communicates an important lesson. Jesus gives the best wine last when all the guests have arrived. Jesus overturns the normal order of things by showering all of the people with good things. Again, we have some of the most profound teachings of Jesus given in a narrative form in John. The last shall be first.

Whose Wedding is this?        Scholars have long wondered whose wedding this was and why Jesus’ mother was there. Some have speculated that it was one of the close relatives of Mary. Others think it was probably a relative of one of the new disciples, perhaps Nathanael or Philip. That would explain why Jesus left immediately for Galilee after hooking up with these guys. Dan Brown, like some of the old Cathars, argues that this was Jesus’ wedding to Mary Magdalene. Frankly, I think that is rather silly since even the Jewish opponents of the Christians never challenged the tradition that Jesus was single. The Catholic Church had enough trouble trying to repress the fact that Jesus had brothers and sisters; it is unlikely they could have hidden a wife. The fact of the matter is that we do not who was getting married at Cana. All we know is that Jesus was an invited guest, not the groom at Cana.

Out of Wine:               I go to a lot of weddings, and weddings are a big deal these days. I’m sure you know that weddings are social events as well as family events. This was even more true in Jesus’ day when ordinary people had few occasions for feasts. Based on Jewish sources, we think that weddings typically lasted seven days, beginning on a Wednesday. Preparations took months, and a family’s social status was determined in part by how well they handled the wedding. Running out of food or wine was a very bad thing because it indicated a lack of generosity, poor planning, or simply lack of money. It could also indicate that your guests were not very generous, since wine was one of the expected wedding gifts. At least one scholar has suggested that the reason Mary tells Jesus that they’ve run out of wine was to rebuke him and his friends for coming to a wedding without bringing a gift! I doubt that was intended in the story, but it does make an interesting picture. Having been in charge of pot-luck dinners in seminary, I have noticed that single men tend to bring far less food to a dinner than they consume there.

            The main point, of course, is that the wine had run out, which meant that the wedding feast would not last the full seven days. Mary’s terse statement that they had run out of wine would have sent chills down the spines of the original readers of this Gospel.  The joyous occasion could have turned to embarrassment and recriminations, the way weddings sometimes do. Symbolically, the New Creation represented by a wedding would fall short of perfection. Notice that Mary does not appear to be asking Jesus for anything. It is a simple statement of fact that was laden with meaning.

            Much to the chagrin of many conservative Protestants, wine in the Old Testament is a symbol of divine abundance and blessing. I don’t see how anyone can claim to be a biblical literalist and a prohibitionist at the same time, but people do. Unfortunately, in dogmatically opposing the idea of wine, they miss the symbolism of the Kingdom of God being a realm of abundance and joy. The Promised Land was to be covered with vineyards, and clusters of grapes would yield much juice. One of the dominant images in Jewish apocalyptic literature at the time of Jesus was that of the wedding banquet for God’s people when once the Messiah rules. In Jewish thought, Israel was the bride and God was the groom, and the messianic age was the celebration of the wedding, and wine was the symbol of spiritual abundance.

            This miracle then is more than transforming water into wine; it is a revelation of Jesus as the true Messiah, the one who brings in the joyous kingdom of God. This helps explain Jesus’ curious response to his mother. “Woman, what is this to you or me? My hour has not yet come.” Jesus was not being rude to his mother, by the way, even though this was not a typical way for a son to address his mother. The New International Version tries to soften this by saying “dear woman,” even though that is not what the text says.

Mary:             Raymond Brown proposes that the use of word woman without any kind of article was intentional. It connects Mary to two key figures in Jewish literature. The first is the woman in Genesis 3 who was tempted by the serpent. The second is the woman clothed in the Sun in apocalyptic literature. We see here how early in the history of Christianity that Mary becomes a symbolic figure who connects the story of the fall with the story of redemption and the consummation of the work of Christ. Catholic scholars tend to elevate the role of Mary in this story, but her role is similar to that of John the Baptist in John’s Gospel. She connects the old covenant and the new one. She points to Jesus and tells others to do as Jesus commands. Oddly enough, she is never called by name in this Gospel. We’ll return to that fact in a latter lesson.

Hour has Not Yet Come:       Why  then would John show Jesus trying to put his mother off by saying that this was none of their concern? Part of the answer may be simply that this is historically accurate. Someone remembered that Jesus was reluctant to do anything at a wedding that would draw attention to himself. It is not surprising that the Synoptics ignored this miracle story since it is different from the all the others. Jesus is not healing anyone or feeding the hungry here. He is not battling unclean spirits or making the seas obey him. He is simply providing wine for a wedding feast. So perhaps, he was reluctant to use his powers this way.

            There is another possibility, though. He says that his hour has not yet come. In John’s Gospel, this phrase refers to the hour of his crucifixion. For John, the hour of Jesus’ crucifixion was the hour of his glory, as we shall see. That was the moment when the Messiah was lifted up and the New Creation began. This reference to the Hour at the beginning of the Gospel is a foreshadowing of the events to come, and it connects this wedding feast with the crucifixion. The reason Jesus was reluctant to produce wine was because the work of redemption was just beginning. The true wine of the marriage supper of the Lamb would come after the crucifixion and resurrection.

            We will see that throughout John’s gospel he uses the language and imagery of Holy Communion in unexpected places. There is no account of Jesus sharing bread and wine with the disciples at the Last Supper in John. Instead, we have allusions to communion through the book, and I suspect that is the case here. The miracle at Cana parallels the more famous miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. Here wine, there bread. In both cases, there is an amazing abundance for all. Those with Jesus receive “grace upon grace.” In John’s Gospel, the ministry of Jesus begins with wine and feasting, and communion is connected with the joy of a wedding. Communion is the celebration of the nuptials of the church and her bridegroom, a foretaste of the eschatological banquet and a sharing in the extravagant love of God.

Jars of Water:            The theme that Jesus is establishing a new messianic age is also seen in detail about the six stone water jars, which were used for ceremonial washings. These were large stone cisterns that held twenty or thirty gallons of water. That’s a lot of water for washing. Some have referred to the wine Jesus made as bathtub wine as if it were bathtub gin from the 1920s, but the context of this miracle was different from the 1920s. It is an important detail, though, that this water was intended for purification rituals. These jars were reserved for religious purposes connected to Judaism. The transformation of the water into wine was symbolic of the transformation of the old covenant or purity and law into the new covenant of grace and abundance. The contrast between the old ways and the New Creation is evident in John’s Gospel. They have no more wine. The old law; the old priesthood; the old temple; the old covenant has run dry according to John, but Jesus transforms the situation. The old covenant was not rejected by Jesus; it was transformed into something more.

            It is also possible that John wanted the reader to make a connection between Jesus’ action and the miracle that Moses performed before Pharaoh when he turned water into blood in the stone jars that sat in Pharaoh’s court. That was a miracle foretelling of death and judgment, but Jesus’ miracle was at a wedding, a symbol of life and new creation. The connection between the blood in Egypt and the wine at Cana was probably intentional as well since it is consistent with John’s use of Passover imagery to discuss the Eucharist.  

Conclusion:                 Today at Home Church we are holding a Lovefeast to observe a Moravian festival day. If you are listening at home, let me invite you to join us. We have free coffee for everyone who mentions this Bible lesson. If you have never been to a Moravian Lovefeast, you really should join us sometime. The Moravian Lovefeast means many things to many people, but Moravians have largely forgotten that we used to emphasize the idea that the Lovefeast is like a wedding banquet. The Church is the bride of Christ, and worship should be as joyful as a wedding. In the old days, people cried and hugged as they shared their food with one another. There was confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and celebration at Lovefeasts.

            Over the years we’ve become much more dignified and organized in Church, but we’ve also gotten overly concerned about the wrong things. This is true of most denominations. We are more concerned about propriety and embarrassment than about reconciliation and love. I think we should reclaim the story of the wedding at Cana for Lovefeast and communion. May we let the love of Christ flow as freely as the beverages we serve. All of the gospels, but especially John, teach us that it is good for disciples of the Lord to celebrate and be glad of heart because they are with the master.

Genesis: Faithlore, lesson 13

Genesis 12:1-8 Abraham’s Call.

Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on January 8, 2006.

Epiphany:       Today we enter the season of Epiphany. According to the church’s calendar, January 6 is the day to remember the visitation of the Magi to the Christ child in Bethlehem. When my nephew was young, he called them the three wise guys. He also let them ride to Bethlehem in his Dukes of Hazard race car. We know almost nothing about these sages of the East, but fifteen hundred years ago, Christian legend added to the simple story in Scripture. They became kings as well as sages, and they were even given names: Balthazar, Gaspar, and Melchior. They came from exotic kingdoms: Persia, India, and Ethiopia. I once preached in Ahuas, Honduras on Epiphany, and I wrote a very clever sermon about being a wise person like the wise men. The translator was a bit upset since in Honduras Epiphany is Three Kings Day. They are kings there, not wise men. I think she just preached a different sermon than the one I did. The people seemed to like it.

            Epiphany is not a big day in America. The decorations are gone. We don’t give gifts, and the churches are largely empty this week. We do get to sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” but we don’t emphasize this holiday even though it was once one of the big days in the church year. In our Adult Bible Class we are turning our attention to the story of Abraham today, and it is appropriate to do so on Epiphany. The Magi in the New Testament repeat the journey of Abraham from the East to the Promised Land. In the New Testament, the good news of Jesus Christ is seen as the fulfillment of the promise that Abraham would be a blessing to all nations.

            We tend to think of Christianity and Judaism primarily as Western religions, but there are many connections between Mesopotamia and the Bible. At the time that the Old Testament was written, many thousands of Jews were living in Babylon and Persia. Five hundred years later Christianity spread to the East. Until the rise of Islam, there were probably more Christians in Eastern lands than in Europe. For those Eastern Christians, the Magi and Abraham were reminders that God is concerned about Iraq and Iran, not just Palestine.

Abraham:        Back to Genesis. We are going to spend the next several weeks discussing Father Abraham and the stories about him in Genesis. One fourth of the book of Genesis is about Abraham, but he is even more significant than that. Three of the world’s major religions claim Abraham as their founder, in some sense of the word. This means that nearly half of the world’s population looks to Abraham as an ancestor in faith, but in different ways.

            Jews claim a direct biological descent from Abraham. To be a Jew is to be in the extended family of the patriarch even though Israel was the name of his grandson, Jacob. The covenant between God and Abraham, which we’ll discuss in detail in a couple of weeks, is the covenant between God and Abraham’s heirs. This is one reason why the genealogies in Genesis have religious meaning for Jews – they establish the links between Abraham’s covenant with God and the nation of Israel.

            Abraham is one of the major figures in the Christian New Testament. He is mentioned more than most of the disciples. In the Gospels, Jesus frequently referred to Abraham and used him as an example of faith, but he was critical of those who claimed to be descendents of Abraham were not righteous like Abraham. In one parable, Jesus told the story of a poor man named Lazarus who was taken to paradise to be with Abraham. By the way, this is one of the clearest statements by Jesus that righteous people who lived before advent of Jesus were in heaven. He claimed that Abraham was in paradise even though Abraham had not professed faith in Christ. More than that, the poor righteous man was there with Abraham. I don’t know why some preachers keep insisting that those who did not have the opportunity to follow Jesus could not possibly be in heaven. Jesus says something quite different. Abraham was in heaven.

            Abraham is also an important figure to the Apostle Paul and the author of Hebrews. The burning question for early Christianity was whether non-Jews could be saved. We are so used to thinking of Christianity as a separate religion from Judaism that we forget that many early Christians insisted that Gentile converts should become Jews. Paul proclaimed the controversial notion that Jesus’ death broke down the dividing line between Jew and Gentile. Faith, not strict adherence to the law, was the secret of salvation. The story of Abraham became very important for Paul’s theology because Abraham had faith in God even before there was a law for him to follow. Abraham’s faith preceded the covenant and the giving of the Torah. Abraham had no law to obey; all he could do was trust in God. Thus Abraham became the father of faith not just the father of the race.

Islam:              According to Islam, Abraham (or Ibrahim) was the first Muslim. He was the man who worshiped and obeyed the one true God in a time of polytheism and idolatry. The Quran has many stories about Abraham and his children that are not included in Genesis. And the Quran omits some of the Genesis stories that portray Abraham in a bad light. For Muslims, he is the perfect model of a man: honest, faithful, just, and pious. Abraham rejected the pagan ways of his father when he realized that the sun, moon, and stars are not worthy of worship. Only the invisible Creator should be worshiped. Thus Abraham became the model of submission to God, but he is also the model of pious rebellion against authorities who are unjust.

            All three religions agree that Abraham was the patriarch; he was the one who heard the voice of God and who followed the commandments of God. They fight over whether the covenant with Abraham included his first son, Ishmael, and whether faith alone brings one into the covenant, but they all trace their origins to Abraham. For more than two centuries, Moravians have acknowledged this common heritage in our Church Litany. We have long prayed for Isaac and Ishmael, the sons of Abraham. We have always recognized that Jews and Muslims worship the same God we do, even though we differ on many other things, especially on Jesus Christ. From the Moravian perspective, the three religions are part of the same family despite our very real differences. With all that in mind, let’s look deeper into the Genesis account of Abraham.

Genesis 12-25 as a Unit:       It is not surprising, therefore, that the story of Abraham would be one of the longest sections of the book of Genesis. It gets thirteen chapters while the creation of the heavens and earth took only two chapters. If you read Genesis straight through you will notice a definite change in style from the first eleven chapters of Genesis and the Abraham stories. The first chapters deal with broad, universal history, and the style is more like folklore than history. For instance, as we have seen, there is a talking snake, life-spans stretch into hundreds of years, and there is massive flood.

            After Genesis 11, the stories become more like history as we know it. Though Abraham is very old, he doesn’t live into the hundreds of years. He also journeys to places that we can put on a map. Archaeologists have a reasonable hope of finding evidence of Abraham somewhere in Palestine. The stories also deal with mundane affairs. Rather than a cosmic struggle between good and evil, for instance, we have conflict between shepherds and hired hands. The Abraham stories are also different in that there is also a lot more conversation between the various characters. In many ways, Abraham is the first genuine literary character in the biblical drama. We can look at how he changes, grows, and interacts with others. The Abraham stories are not just about Abraham: there are stories about Lot, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac. But the focus is always Abraham.

History:          Some biblical scholars and archaeologists have argued that the Abraham stories include elements that can be dated to the Middle Bronze Age. There are many things that strike us as quite strange but they fit with what we know of ancient Middle Eastern culture from archaeology. This does not mean that we can confidently date the writing of the Abraham stories to the middle Bronze Age (1700 BC), but some of the stories may go back that far. There are some scholars, such as John Van Seters down at Chapel Hill, who dispute the idea that archaeology supports the historicity of the Abraham stories. Van Seters views Abraham as a literary invention rather than a real person. He was used by the author of Genesis as a way to place the history of Israel in a wider historical context.

            The truth is we can’t answer the question of whether Abraham was a real person just as he is described in Genesis because the only evidence we have for the existence of Abraham is Genesis. Of course, most people who have lived on this earth have left no evidence of their life behind. It is interesting that even though Abraham is such an important figure for Judaism and Christianity, he is hardly mentioned in the Old Testament other than in Genesis. Clearly, his story became more important later in Israel’s history, after the return from Babylon.

            There is much about Abraham that we will never know, but we can be reasonably sure that the stories about him grew and changed in the retelling until them were written down in their final form in Genesis. It seems reasonable to assume that once upon a time there was a man named Abraham who had two sons, and their descendents told and retold stories about their ancestor. Some of the things they remembered no longer made sense to them, but the stories remained. Some of the stories cast Abraham in a bad light, which later interpreters try to make sense of. In short, the stories about Abraham are complicated and it is sometimes hard to understand them. When we read about Abraham, we are reading materials dating over several centuries – from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. The author of Genesis put them in the form we now have, leaving some of the repetitions and difficulties.

            One thing I find intriguing in the discussion about the historical accuracy of the Abraham stories is that these stories of the great patriarch of Israel are not myths, even if they border on legend. Unlike most societies, the Israelites did not claim that their patriarch had come from heaven or sprang up from the earth. Abraham is described as a normal human of flesh and blood who is remarkable only because he listened to the calling of God. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity agree on this. Abraham was not God or even the son of God. He was a man who heard the word of God and set out on journey of faith that continues to shape our world today.

Read Genesis 12:1-8

Barren Sarah:            The LORD told Abram to leave his father and his country and journey with all of his household to a strange and distant land. Notice that at this point in the story, the patriarch is called Abram. His name will change later, as will the name of his wife, Sarai. In the previous chapter we learn that Sarai was barren. It was a great tragedy in the ancient world if a woman could not have children. Our English word barren captures some of the sense of the ancient notion that a childless woman was lifeless.

            The simple statement in Genesis 11:30 that Abram’s wife Sarai was barren meant that Abram had no future. He and Sarai could not fulfill the first commandment to be fruitful and multiply. There would be no line of children to keep their memory alive. There would be no future to strive for; nothing to hand down to descendents. And time was running out. Abram was 75 years old when he heard the voice of God. The main plot of the story that follows is whether Abram will have an heir. I won’t give away the answer, but I will let you know that this is one of many stories in the Old Testament about barren women who are chosen by God as agents of grace. Sarai is barren. Abram has no future, but God calls him.

Leave Haran:             Get up and leave, the LORD says. No explanation is given as to why the LORD chose Abraham. Centuries later Jews and Muslims would add stories about young Abraham that showed that he was righteous. The LORD chose Abraham because Abraham was already worshiping the LORD, according to later accounts. But that is not in the Genesis story as we have it. For unknown reasons, the LORD calls to Abraham. This becomes the model for others who became prophets of the LORD. It is not their will, but God’s will that matters. All they have to do is obey. Abraham is much like Mary in this instance. God did the choosing. I have often wondered whether the LORD called others beside Abraham. Were there men who ignored the call to go into a strange land? Were there those who answered the call but failed to achieve their goal? What if there were others who answered the voice of the LORD, but we simply don’t hear about them since the Bible is the book of Israel, the descendents of Abram who heard and obeyed?

            Abram was chosen, and Abram chose to leave. This is the very essence of faith. God gave a promise and Abram risked everything in order to trust that promise. God promised Abram five things: “I will show you a land. I will bless you and make your name great. I will bless those who bless you. I will curse those who curse you. And all families on the earth will be blessed because of you.” This was the choice: Abram could stay in Haran where live was secure but where he had no future or he could risk everything and become the father of a people. He could depart from all that was familiar and become a blessing to all nations on the earth. What would you do if you were chosen? Could you trust in God’s promise and depart from your home into a frightening world? We want renewal without losing what we are accustomed to, but as Miroslav Volf, a Croatian theologian says, “Without a departure, no such new beginnings would have been possible.” (Exclusion and Embrace, 42.). Abraham had to depart in order to be blessed.

            Abram believed and took the risk of faith, but he did not do so alone. We will never know what conversations took place between Sarai and Abram when he told her the news that the family was moving to an unknown land because the LORD had instructed him. She is the first wife of a prophet to have to deal with such unusual news, but there have been many others through the years. Perhaps she put up an argument, but Sarai chose to go as well. She is also a mother of faith and will play a major role in the stories to come. Like Abram, she is not presented as perfect, but she also left what was familiar to go on a new adventure. Their nephew Lot joined them, but he will be an example of one who answers the call to depart without really knowing why he is leaving. He will also be a major character in the drama to come.

            The covenant of God begins with grace. The LORD first makes a promise to Abram which included a land and descendents. It is later that the terms of the covenant are spelled out. Initially, it is simply a promise freely given; a gift of God. All Abram had to do was believe; not intellectually, but deep in his own life. Belief in the Bible means to trust someone and act on that trust. Abram believed and he departed from his old life into a strange new land. Once there, he and his family continued to journey. And we who build altars in our land and call upon the name of the LORD do so because we are the descendents of Abraham, the Father of Faith, the risk-taker.

Genesis lesson: Folklore of Faith, lesson 12

Genesis: Folklore of Faith

The Tower of Babel. Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on December 18, 2005.

Introduction:   Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class. It’s been a busy week at Home Church. On Friday night dozens of members of the church gathered to make the evergreen garlands that decorate the sanctuary at Christmas. This is one of my favorite things at Home Church. I love watching children bringing sprigs of cedar and laurel to the grown-ups who tie them onto the heavy ropes that are the foundation of the garlands. One year I saw four generations working together on one garland. And the organization that is in place to raise those heavy strands of cedar is a marvel.

Introduction to the Lesson:               Last week we discussed one of those passages of Genesis that never made it into my Sunday School quarterly as a child. I don’t think we ever had felt board figures of Noah in the tent. This is a reminder that Genesis was not written for children, although there are many important stories for children. It is appropriate that we read it again as adults. This week we are turning our attention to the famous Tower of Babel. That was a story we had felt board pictures of, and we told the tale pretty much as the story of the Fawlty Tower. Like the British comedy, the Tower of Babel is a story of confusion, arrogance and ignorance, but there are deeper meanings than we realized as children.

Babylon:         To understand the story, it helps to journey back to ancient Babylon. Remember, these stories in Genesis 1-11 were probably written a priest or scribe during the time when Jews were exiled in Babylon. Today we tend to associate the word Babylon with immorality and orgies rather than civilization and culture. That is mainly because Babylon was hated by the Jews. In 587 BC Babylon razed to the ground the walls of Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple of the Lord, killed the sons of the king, and took thousands into exile in Babylon. Genesis was most likely written during this period of exile and it reflects some of the anger of the defeated people.

            Still, we must remember that Babylon was one of the first and greatest of the ancient civilizations of the Fertile Crescent. The name means “Gate of the Gods,” but Genesis gives it a different meaning, as we shall see. Last May several members of Home Church made a trip to Central Europe to visit Moravian sites. While we were there, we went to the Pergammon Museum in Berlin. Around the turn of the 20th century German archaeologists explored the site of the ancient city of Babylon, which had been almost deserted by the time of Jesus. In the museum we saw the famed Gates of Ishtar, the gates of the ancient city of Babylon in the time of Nebuchadnezzar. I was not prepared for how overwhelming those gates and walls of the city are. It is truly awesome. At the time that Genesis was written, Babylon represented the height of human civilization and culture. It seemed impregnable. Looking up at the Gates of Ishtar and the temple of Marduk in the center of the city, was there hope for lowly Israel?

The Tower:                 As with all great empires, Babylon’s kings wanted the world to believe that they had been especially blessed by the gods who granted them victory. They built a huge ziggurat or pyramid in the midst of the city. The Mayans, Aztecs, Egyptians, and others built such impressive and durable structures. Scholars speculate that the reason for building such pyramids was to create a mountain. This showed political muscle. Today we build skyscrapers to display our power over nature and our ability to make things happen.

            The ziggurat of Babylon had a series of square stories that rose like steps. There was a long ramp stairway leading to the top. At the pinnacle there was a cubic altar to the chief Babylonian deity, Marduk. Once a year the king ascended the steps and participated in a re-enactment of one the primal myth of Marduk subduing the forces of chaos, overcoming the flood, and establishing his kingdom on earth. The ritual reaffirmed the divine status of the king as the son of Marduk. He was god on the mountain. The writer of Genesis had no doubt seen this ziggurat and may have even witnessed the annual religious festival performed there, but he gives a different message. Rather than believing the propaganda of the empire, he tells a story that knocks down the arrogant and gives hope to the humble.

Babel:             This is really an elegant little story. In just a few words the author of Genesis describes the building of a great tower of bricks that was to be the political center of the realm. Read in context though, there are some problems with the story. It comes after the genealogies we mentioned last week. According to Genesis 10, the descendents of Noah scattered all over the world and built the great civilizations of old, but in Genesis 11 the whole human race migrates en masse to the plain of Shinar and the scattering comes later. The simplest explanation for this is that chapter 10 is a listing from the (P)riestly Source and the Tower of Babel and the genealogy that follows is from J. The author of Genesis put them together without destroying their integrity, but there is a seam here. What we have here are two ways of telling a similar story. After the flood, humans repopulated the earth.

            Let’s turn our attention back to the tower. The tower reached up to heaven. Remember, people believed that heaven was a physical space just above the mountains. Ancient people would have dismissed our theory about the atmosphere made up of many invisible gases that refract light as junk science. No, they knew that you could build a stairway to heaven, in theory at least. Led Zeppelin introduced a whole generation of Americans to this idea that you could build or buy a stairway to heaven. Like the ziggurat in Babylon, the Tower of Babel in Genesis was the pinnacle of human achievement and pride, the summit of our aspirations.

Fear:               But why did they build it? In the text, it says so they would not be scattered. It wasn’t an achievement made out of creativity and the joy of living; it was a response to the fear of obscurity, the fear of mortality, the fear of world. They wanted a monument to keep their memory alive. Seen from that perspective, the gates of Ishtar look different. Why are the walls so high? Fear. I saw the great temples of Egypt two years ago: Karnak, Phillae, Luxor and others. They are amazing and I could have spent days there in their shade, but the temples were actually modeled on Egyptian fortresses, and the pictures on the walls celebrate the subjugation of Egypt’s neighbors. Think how much of our architecture today is built on fear of the world, fear of our neighbors, fear of living and fear of dying. Arrogance and fear go hand in hand.

Problematic Story:                 This leads us to the most intriguing and disturbing part of the story.  The LORD comes down to see what is going on. Remember that in the J source, the LORD Yahweh is depicted in human terms. He walked in the garden of Eden, talked with Cain, and shut the door of the ark. Here he is depicted like a building supervisor checking to see if the new temple is built according to code. According to the text, the LORD doesn’t like what he sees. He is afraid that humans will achieve too much if they work together, and so he confuses their languages. He intentionally sows confusion and discord so that the people will scatter.

Progress and Violence:                      This is a bit odd, isn’t it? Why would the LORD want to put a stop to human progress? Through the centuries, many Christians objected to this portrayal of God as so jealous of human achievements that he messed up human communication. Some rejected the Old Testament entirely because of stories like this one. Others offered symbolic interpretations of this story. It became a story about the sin of pride, and it is still preached that way. But today, let’s take the text seriously as it is written. It says that the LORD was afraid. Afraid of what?

            Remember, we’ve just had the story of the flood, and we’ve seen that humans continue to be violent and rather stupid. Perhaps this story is about the strange fact that humans are incredibly ingenious at finding ways to do mischief. We don’t need to rehearse the history of the past 100 years to recognize that human arrogance often turns our great achievements into tragic displays of cruelty and abuse. Think of how ingenious we have become in economic and political oppression. Think of our modern towers of finance, our halls of power, and our academic towers of Babel that too often cast shadows rather than illumination. Empires still try to build towers to the heavens and bring God down as if God is a pawn in the politics of power. Empires long to have divine sanction for their destruction of other peoples, other cultures, other languages. The writer of Genesis knew what it was like to be among the vanquished, to have his language and culture stolen. He knew what it was like to sit in the shadows of power praying for justice.

Confusion of Languages:       And so, he told this revelatory tale about the LORD coming down and confusing the languages of the people. The LORD scattered the people into dozens of clans, races, cultures, and languages. The biblical author gives a new etymology for the city of Babel. It is not the gate of God; it is confusion. It is not wrong that children call this the Tower of Babble, because that pun still works in English. It was the tower where people babbled without understanding one another. It is a nice little joke on mighty Babylon, the city of confusion.

            Our initial response is that this confusion of languages is a curse. The confusion of tongues remains a problem for us. Rather than reducing violence, misunderstanding and lack of communication often increase violence and suspicion. We grow frightened when we hear people speaking Spanish in our neighborhood grocery store. It is easy to let that discomfort and fear grow into hatred. If you have ever traveled to a foreign country, you know how vulnerable it feels not to know the language. This vulnerability can lead to panic and rage. We want to know our surroundings and what others are saying to us. John Amos Comenius believed that most wars could be prevented if people learned to talk to each other. He even laid the groundwork for creating a universal language, much like Esperanto. It was a bold plan, but it failed. The diversity of human languages is too deeply ingrained into human culture. We are doomed to misunderstanding, to babble.

A Blessing:                 But as Walter Brueggemann points out, this story is not presented as a punishment by God. In fact, read in the context of Genesis 1-11, the confusion of languages was necessary for the fulfillment of the first commandment given to humans: be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Out of fear, the people built a tower on the plains of Shinar. There they huddled together and attempted to reach heaven. But the LORD wanted them out in the world. They needed to scatter, to explore, to embrace their freedom rather than hide behind their thick walls.

            In many ways, Genesis is an anti-imperial book. The biblical author recognized that empires always fail for the simple reason that people do not like to be ruled by foreigners. Empires fail because of human arrogance. Rulers think that they can impose their will on their subjects the way they can built towers as displays of power. But empires fail when the people refuse to obey the commands. The Tower of Babel is a parable for the fate of all empires, including economic and academic ones. “Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

            The confusion of languages that humans have always lived with is frustrating, but do we really want only one language, one government, one culture? Could it be that the story of the Tower of Babel is really an affirmation of diversity? According to the story, the LORD himself decided that it was good for humans to develop different languages, customs, and cultures. It seems like a punishment or even a curse, but perhaps we should celebrate this cultural diversity as part of God’s plan. Certainly, the Tower of Babel leads us into the story of Abraham the Hebrew. The rest of the Old Tesatment is about one rather obscure tribe struggling to be faithful to God’s covenant while struggling for survival in a world where super-powers built ziggurats and mighty temples.

Pentecost:                   I think it is interesting that the New Testament story of Pentecost, which begins the story of the Christian church, is in some ways a reversal of the confusion of Babel. Genesis 11 tells of the persistent misunderstanding and division of humankind, but at Pentecost, people could understand the apostles despite their different languages. What we often miss in the Pentecost story is that each person heard the gospel in his or her own language. It is a miracle of listening more than preaching.

            Rather than erasing the diversity of languages and cultures, the gospel reaffirmed God’s plan for diversity. Rather than building faulty towers to bring God down to bless our empires that impose a single civilization on all people, the Holy Spirit at Pentecost spoke to each person in his or her own language. Unity was created by the Spirit in the midst of diversity. The apostles went out boldly into the world rather than hiding behind walls and towers. In reading the story of the Tower of Babel, perhaps we should celebrate the work of God in all of its remarkable manifestations.

Conclusion:                 We’ve come to the end of Genesis 1-11 and the end of calendar year. We’ll start with Abraham in the New Year, and we’ll see that the style of Genesis changes dramatically with Abraham. These eleven chapters use memorable stories to communicate important theological and cultural themes about the nature of the world, human society, and ethics. We could call these stories the folklore of faith. These stories set up the rest of Genesis, and indeed the rest of Scripture. We have seen the repeated themes of exile and restoration, judgment and redemption, failure and forgiveness. We’ve seen the importance of the concept that creation is good, that all humans are made in the image of God, and that God is concerned for our well-being. These same themes are important in the story of Christmas. Next week we will proclaim our belief that the creator became one of us in order to call us from our exile and redeem us from our failings. Christians will proclaim this mystery in hundreds of languages.

Genesis lesson 11

Genesis 9-11: After the Flood

Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church. Originally broadcast Dec. 11, 2005

Introduction:   This is the season of the year when children all over the country are re-enacting the Christmas story. It is good to remember that animals play a role in the Christmas story as well as the story of Noah. Through the years we’ve had hundreds of children dressing up as sheep and cows in the nativity pageant at Home Church reminding us that God’s love is for all creatures great and small. Blessings to all of the children who share in this traditional holiday tableaux that touches the child in all of us.

            Before launching into today’s lesson, let me extend a special welcome to Bill Leonard, Dean of Wake Forest Divinity School, and to Nathan Hatch, the President of Wake Forest, who are worshiping with us this morning. Before we begin today’s lesson, let us take a moment to remember in prayer the Christian peace activists who are being held hostage in Iraq.

The Covenant With Noah:                Last week we looked at the covenant God made with all flesh following the flood. We focused in on the idea that the rainbow was the lasting sign of the covenant that God would not destroy the earth again. Seedtime and harvest, summer and winter would continue as long as there is an earth. That is God’s promise. This week we’ll look at the human side.

            When we look at Genesis chapter 9 we see there is a major change in the relationship of humans to animals. According to the P account, animals need to fear humans because God gives them to humans for food. I have found no good explanation for why this idea that humans may eat animals is connected to the flood narrative, but it is there. It sounds counter-intuitive: Noah saved all of the animals and now animals must fear humans. The best I can offer is that after the flood God recognizes that humans are violent. Giving animals to humans was a response to the reality of human violence. It is a statement of how things are rather than how they should be. But we should not overlook the effort to minimize violence in this covenant. Notice that it is strictly forbidden to eat a living animal, the way many creatures do. Cruelty such as this is consistently forbidden in the Bible. I’m amazed at the Christians who find ways to justify the torture of other living things when the Bible is consistently opposed to cruelty. Torture is against God’s covenant.

Shedding Blood:         Notice also that the eating of blood was forbidden in the covenant. This is not a statement about vampirism ala Anne Rice; it is much deeper than that. The blood taboo is very ancient, and it is based on the awareness that all life belongs to God. Incidentally, this taboo against shedding blood is the reason that some Christian groups, especially Mosaic groups like the 7th Day Adventists, do not allow their members to perform surgery.

            Blood equals life in the Old Testament. By having to ritually drain animals of their blood, humans acknowledged the life of the animal. This is quite different from the modern mass production of meat. The covenant with Noah was not a blanket permission for the extermination of animals nor for the unethical treatment of animals. In fact, the text says that God will demand an accounting for the death of every animal including those we eat. God demands the ethical treatment of animals according to Genesis. A lot of so-called literalists overlook this.

            Unlike animals, the killing of human beings is strictly forbidden in this covenant because murder is an assault on God’s own image. This section of Genesis is discussed a lot in connection with capital punishment, but I’ve notice that people often overlook the fact that this prohibition against killing humans does not make an exemption for war. The shedding of human blood is forbidden, period.

Death Penalty:                       As someone in class pointed out, this prohibition in Genesis 9:6 states that those who shed blood are to be killed. Killers should be killed. This should be read as a sign of the high value placed on human life in biblical faith. One of the most important aspects of the death penalty in the covenant with Noah is that it is applied equally, which is different from other ancient law codes. The Code of Hammurabi, for instance, did not impose the death sentence on a wealthy person who killed a lower class person. The covenant in Genesis makes no distinction based on wealth or power. This is also quite different from our situation in the United States where wealth, status, race, and even region of the country make a big difference in whether a person is sentenced to death. The issue of capital punishment is too important for us to decide it on the basis on a single verse of Scripture. It requires investigation and prudence.

            The covenant with Noah does not make it clear how to apply the death sentence while avoiding an endless cycle of violence. If anyone who sheds the blood of another human must be killed, then those who enact the punishment will also incur blood guilt. This is why executioners were masked in former times. Thousands of years after the writing of Genesis, we are still trying to figure out how to deal with war and murder and justice. Whatever you decide is right regarding capital punishment and war, I think we can all agree that the intention of the covenant in Genesis 9 is the protection of human life rather than the taking of human.

            We’re spending some time on this covenant with Noah because it is important in Judaism. As you may know, Jews are bound by the Mosaic covenant, the 613 laws of the Torah, but Judaism teaches that Gentiles are bound by the covenant with Noah. To be a righteous Gentile is to be a person who does not shed human blood or kill animals wantonly. It is a much simpler standard of righteousness than the Torah, but it has proven very difficult for people to live up to.

Introduction to Noah and the Wine:                         As we discussed last week, life continued after the flood. Genesis 9-11 is marks the transition from the antediluvian period and the story of Abraham. A lot is packed into a few chapters, but we aren’t going to read and discuss all of it because I hate reading the genealogies.

Vineyards:      Noah was a man of the soil, we are told, and so he planted a vineyard as soon as the flood was over. Vineyards in the Bible are symbolic of agricultural bounty and planning for the future. As some of our neighbors have learned, a vineyard is an investment in the future. It is not instant gratification. So, this simple statement that Noah planted a vineyard is an elegant way of saying that he continued to look ahead and work hard.

            And apparently he played hard, too. He took the fruit of the vine and made it into wine, which was a major industry in biblical time. It takes time and planning to make wine. So, we have to recognize that Noah didn’t get to have a glass of wine for years after leaving the ark. That first wine was probably Beaujolais, I think, but it doesn’t really matter what kind of wine. What matters is that he drank too much, which is not really surprising under the circumstances. What would you do after a year on a boat with just your family and every animal on earth?

            The Bible doesn’t really condemn Noah for drinking wine. He remained a righteous man. But while he was drunk, he fell asleep in an immodest fashion. I hope that was tactful but still clear. I also hope that this has never happened to you. You’d be surprised at the stories I’ve heard. I had a friend once who drank too much on a camping trip and slept too near the fire. His friends kept pulling him away, but he insisted on sleeping near the flames where it was warm. During the night he rolled over onto the coals and burned himself severely without even knowing it. He recovered, and today he is a good father and regular church-goer. He still has a scar, I think. His story, like Noah’s is a warning against drunkenness as well as evidence of redemption.

Temperance:              During the Temperance Movement, Genesis 9 was preached constantly as a warning against the evils of drink. The Temperance Movement was so successful in portraying the evils of wine that many Methodists and Baptists equated Christianity with abstinence from alcohol. Many people, especially in the Bible Belt, cannot conceive of a true Christian drinking. This has in turn led to the popular joke: How do you tell the difference between a Methodist and a Presbyterian? The Presbyterian will talk to you in the ABC store. It is because of the Temperance Movements equation of abstinence and faithfulness that so many Protestant churches began using grape juice in communion instead of wine in the early 20th century. Moravians referred to this as using “unfermented wine” in communion. That is one of my favorite non-sense phrases!

            In order to understand Genesis 9, we need to acknowledge that the Temperance Movement clouded our reading of Scripture. Wine in the Bible, in both the Old Testament and New Testament, is generally seen as a positive thing. From the biblical perspective, it was good that Noah planted a vineyard. It is interesting that the first mention of wine in Scripture comes after the flood. It is in the context of rebuilding the world after catastrophe. Wine is seen as one of the fruits of our labors that can lighten the heart, but this story also makes it clear that alcohol also clouds the mind. In other words, in this as in all other aspects of life, humans have to learn responsibility and moderation. That is a key part of Comenius’ theology. Noah failed that test, but that is not the central point of the story.

The Sons of Noah:                 This is not just a story of a righteous man of God who got drunk. The main point is that Ham saw his father in this condition and told his brothers Shem and Japheth. They covered their father without shaming him. When Noah woke up he was angry at Ham and cursed Ham’s son Canaan. We do not know what Ham did to incur his father’s wrath or why it was Canaan that was cursed. There has been much speculation on this question through the years, some of it quite lewd, but little resolution. The simplest explanation is that Ham or Canaan or both shamed Noah by telling the others what he what he had seen. Ham turned Noah’s immoderation into a public disgrace and scandal. The implication is that he mocked his father. The two other brothers, in contrast, did the decent thing. Rather than joining in the mocking, they covered their father’s disgrace.

Parents:          What does this story of the sons of Noah tell us today? I think there are at least two good lessons. One is that the duty to honor one’s parents is a universal duty for all people regardless of their religious beliefs. This duty is life-long and especially important in those times when parents have lost their dignity through age, illness, or even foolishness. People assume that the commandment of honoring one’s parents is primarily directed at children, but it is really an instruction on how to treat our parents as they age and lose their capacities. We are to continue to show them respect and to assist them without violating their dignity.

Vulnerability: The second lesson involves how we deal with any person who is vulnerable. Noah was vulnerable because he was drunk and needed protection. Genesis tells us that even if persons are vulnerable because of their own actions or stupidity, we are not to shame them, mock them, or in any way abuse them. This is a message that needs to be driven home to men when it comes to the issue of date rape. Even when someone is intoxicated, you should not take advantage of them.

            This message extends beyond sexual ethics, though, to all aspects of life. Those who take advantage of the poor through credit schemes, price gouging, and other rip-offs are sinful. Christians, Jews, and Muslim, who all honor Noah as a prophet and savior should join their voices in condemning those who exploit the vulnerable and weak. A nation that claims a Christian heritage should pass laws to stop exploitation of the vulnerable, even those who are vulnerable because of their own bad decisions.

Cursing of Canaan:                Noah blesses some of his offspring and curses others. Clearly the story of the cursing of Canaan was used to explain why the Israelites were to have possession of the land of Canaan. This issue of the ownership of Canaan continues to be a flashpoint in Middle Eastern politics although the original Canaanites are long gone. This story of the cursing of Canaan is still told in Israel, but it has a long and painful history in America as well. The Europeans settlers in the New World used the story of the curse of Canaan to justify the enslavement, abuse, and murder of native peoples. They were depicted as the Canaanites who lived in the Promised Land reserved for European Christians.

            When Europeans began enslaving dark skinned peoples from Africa, many Christians were troubled by this abuse. How could those saved by Christ enslave others for whom Christ had died? Some of the slave-holders assuaged their feelings of guilt by arguing that the Africans were the descendents of Ham, who had been cursed by Noah. These Hamites, it was argued, were destined to be slaves for all time, and their dark skin was the sign of the curse. This notion of the curse of Ham on Africans became a pillar of the white supremacy movement of the 19th and 20th centuries. This idea owes much more to the Indian caste system than to the Bible, but there are many fundamentalist churches that continue to teach that racism is a biblical concept grounded in the curse of Noah. This just goes to show just how much people can read into the Bible in order to justify their own fears, hatreds, and prejudices. There is no curse of Ham in the Bible, and that curse has no meaning any longer.

Genealogies:              Though Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan, the children of Ham were important to the history of the world. I won’t read the long genealogies in Gen. 9-11, but there are some interesting things to note. Seventy people are named in the genealogy of Noah, which is probably a number of completion (7 x 10). The whole known world was covered by the descendents of Noah. It is also instructive that the whole world in this case stretched from Libya in North Africa to Iran and Ethiopia to Armenia. It is quite a large area with people of different colors and customs and languages, but it is still only a small portion of the world we know. This is another indication that the world of the Old Testament is rather small. Though Genesis speaks in universal terms, the writer could not imagine the scope of the world he really inhabited. At the time of Genesis there were great civilizations in China and India and Central America that were not included in this account of the generations of the sons of Noah.

            Another interesting point is that the genealogies are a transition from the antediluvian world of giants and heroes to the world we know. Notice that the life spans grow progressively shorter. A final point of interest is that the descendents of Ham are credited with founding the great cities of the ancient world, despite the curse. Nimrod is identified as a famous hunter and builder of cities. You may remember from the Bugs Bunny cartoons that Bugs calls Elmer Fudd a Nimrod. That was a sarcastic statement on Elmer as a hunter. Incidentally, those who hold to the theory of the curse of Ham generally ignore the fact that the Hamites in Genesis built Babylon, Ninevah, Akkad, and other great civilizations of the ancient world. Again, we see that biblical literalists tend to be selective in their literalism.

            I had hoped to finish with Genesis 1-11 this week, but time has again proven to me the master rather than a slave. Next week we’ll focus on the story of the Tower of Babel and discuss Genesis 1-11 as a prelude to rest of the Bible.

John the Baptist

John 1: 1:6-9, 15, 19-28: John the Baptist, Witness to the Light.

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on October 22, 2006 

Introduction:               Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. It was a busy week for me. We’re getting ready for the Emerging Church Conference at Wake Forest on Tuesday, and we were frankly overwhelmed by the response. We expected about 150 registrations and got over 200. If you would like to hear one of the most prominent interpreters of Christianity in the digital age, come hear Brian McLaren preach at Wake on Tuesday.      My daughter’s class had a fire drill this week. There is nothing unusual about that, but her class was in the middle of watching Romeo and Juliet. They were all upset that they didn’t get to see the end of the movie. I find that encouraging.

Beginning of the Gospel:                   In our lesson today, we will focus on the figure of John the Baptist in the Gospel of John. The Prologue that we have been discussing has verses about John the Baptist that were inserted into the original hymn to the Word of God. Some scholars think that these parentheses in the prologue were the original opening lines of the gospel itself (Brown, Gospel of John I:27-28). If we take them out and read them together with the other verses about John, it does flow smoothly. Keep in mind, though, that some of these verses were intentionally placed in the prologue to emphasize the relationship of John to the logos.

John the Baptist:        Near the beginning of all four gospels we have the curious figure of John who preached in the region known as the Transjordan in the Judean desert near the Dead Sea. John was a significant figure in Palestine in the days before the Jewish War, as we learn from the Josephus in his book Antiquities (XVIII:2). Josephus was a Jew, but he cooperated with the Romans during the Jewish rebellion and was rewarded with Roman citizenship. After the war, he wrote a number of works on Jewish history and culture. It is from Josephus that we learn that the Romans executed many people in Palestine for insurrection around the time of Jesus. Hundreds of Pharisees were once crucified by the Romans. Interestingly, Josephus says nothing about Jesus of Nazareth, but he does mention Jesus’ brother James, who was head of the church in Jerusalem.

            Josephus wrote, “For John was a pious man, and he was bidding the Jews who practiced virtue and exercised righteousness toward each other and piety toward God, to come together for baptism. … Herod feared that John’s so extensive influence over the people might lead to an uprising.” Herod Antipas, the king of Galilee, had John killed. Josephus tells us where the prison was where John was murdered, but he leaves out some of the more exotic features of the baptizer’s life, such as wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts and honey, which delight children in Sunday School. Those of you at home can’t see that I’m wearing my camel-hair jacket and leather belt in honor of John today. On the whole, Josephus’ account agrees with the substance of the New Testament’s portrayal of John as a preacher of righteousness who immersed people in the Jordan River in a symbolic washing away of sin and a crossing through the waters to a new life.

Rivalry with Jesus?               We get strong indications in the New Testament that there was conflict between the followers of John and the followers of Jesus (the Baptists and the Christians, we can call them) that was so significant that all four canonical gospels and the Book of Acts include statements from John to indicate that he was not the messiah. The rivalry between the Baptists and Christians seems most intense in the Gospel of John. It is likely that the church founded by the Beloved Disciple included many people who had been baptized by John the Baptist. It is only John’s gospel, for example, that lists followers of the Baptist among the twelve disciples. It is also likely that the Evangelist was still trying to win over John’s disciples.             Another reason for the focus on John the Baptist is that John’s Gospel has to deal with the historical fact that there was a close connection between John and Jesus. All four gospels agree that Jesus began his own ministry after an encounter with John. One of the reasons we can assert with confidence that Jesus was indeed baptized in the Jordan River is that this caused so many problems for the church later. If John was preaching repentance, what did Jesus need to repent of? If baptism was a washing away of sin, why did Jesus need to be washed? If Jesus was the Messiah, why should he kneel in the water before John? The synoptic gospels handle these disturbing questions by narrating a conversation between John and Jesus where Jesus’ superiority if acknowledged before he is baptized.

Witness:         One of the unique features of the Gospel of John is that there is no story of John baptizing Jesus. In fact, John is not even called the Baptist in John’s gospel. I have to call him the Baptist in our lessons because it would be too confusing to call him just plain John when we are also talking about the John the evangelist, the gospel of John, the Apocalypse of John. The significance of John the Baptist for John the Evangelist is not that the Baptist baptized but that he was the first witness to Jesus. We could call him John the Witness. This idea of John as the faithful and true witness to Jesus was so important that the final editor of John’s Gospel inserted statements about John in the original hymn to the Word made flesh.

             Thus the Baptist becomes a key part of the story of redemption. He was sent by God as a witness to the light. The word witness here in the Greek is where we get our word “martyr.” A martyr was a witness, one who gave testimony in a legal proceeding. In the Early Church it came to mean one who witnessed to Jesus Christ by facing death for his sake. A martyr witnesses with words and with his or her life.            This passage does raise a question: Why would anyone have to be a witness to the light? Light is generally self-evident. This verse indicates that John was a witness to the Word of God before Jesus appeared. The Baptist was sent by God with the message that the true light would soon appear. Later in the gospel we will see that John recognized Jesus for who he was. A second reason why John witnessed to the light was that the world still did not recognize Jesus as the light of the world. The evangelist is telling the church to follow the example of the Baptist and be a witness to the light.

John not the Messiah:           The Gospel of John tries to make it clear from the beginning that the Baptist was not the Messiah. He was a holy man sent by God whose words and life was a witness to the light of God, but he was not the incarnate light himself. He pointed to the path of salvation, but was not the savior. Though he was a prophet, like the prophets of old, his words were not passed down by his disciples for later centuries. For the Christians, he was a sign-post, a witness in the wilderness, a guide to the path, but Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. For Jews, he was one of many prophets killed by the Romans.

John the Prophet:                   As we saw from the quotation from Josephus, John was quite a controversial figure. Like many prophets who challenge corruption and abuse, John lost his head. Prophets do have a tendency to anger people with political power and wealth. Prophets tend to die violently. We say that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never kill me,” but if that is true, why do repressive regimes worry so much about the words of the prophets? Why do repressive regimes try to control the press and intimidate them into not speaking the truth? Why do tyrants want to listen in on our private conversations in order to intimidate us from sharing our thoughts with our friends and families? Why are tyrants afraid of criticism?

             It is because words are dangerous, and the truth is dangerous. Those whose eyes are accustomed to the darkness, who work in secret and spin webs of deceit, are frightened when the light appears. John the Baptist was beheaded because a tyrant feared his words. The darkness feared the witness to the light.

Interrogation: Unlike the other gospels, John’s gospel begins with an investigation of John the Baptist by the religious authorities in Jerusalem. This shifts the focus from Herod, who had John executed, to the Temple and the Jewish priesthood. We should keep in mind that this shift is not as great as you might think. The Temple was the political center of Judea as well as the religious center, and the high priests were more like our senators than like our clergy. They were the ones who ruled under the umbrella of Roman authority. In the ancient world religion and politics were closely intertwined. By attacking the priests, John the Baptist was also challenging the social order. Thus, it is quite likely that the Gospel of John is relating something that actually happened. We would expect that the religious authorities would investigate a popular preacher like John, just as the pope sent people to investigate John Hus and Martin Luther when their voices grew a little too loud and their preaching starting affecting church revenues.

             The investigators ask whether John was the Messiah or Elijah or one of the prophets. This is one of those passages that show us that the concerns of Christians in the first century were different from ours. What are the ideas behind these questions? I won’t bore you with all of the detail that scholars have gleaned from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Talmud, but we do know that many people in the time Jesus expected that Elijah would return from heaven to prepare for the coming of the divine deliverer, the messiah. Elijah, you may recall from Sunday School, was the most powerful of the Old Testament prophets who had been taken up into heaven by a fiery chariot while he was still alive.

Essenes:         I mentioned the Essenes last week. They were a rigorous Jewish sect that had rejected the Temple and the priesthood as corrupt. They built their own communities in the desert where they tried to live according to a strict understanding of the purity laws of the Old Testament. It is interesting that John was baptizing in the wilderness near Qumran. The Essenes used large tubs of water for ritual washing and purification, much like what John was doing in the Jordan River. The Essenes expected Elijah to prepare the way for the divine deliverer who would purify the Temple and restore the kingdom of David. 

           John fit the description of Elijah well. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus told his disciples that John was Elijah, but it appears that some of John’s followers said that John himself was the Messiah not Jesus. Therefore it was important for John the Evangelist to have John the Baptist proclaim distinctly and repeatedly that he was not the Messiah. What is odd is that in our passage for this morning John also explicitly denies being Elijah. He himself “the voice of one calling in the wilderness,” quoting from the prophet Isaiah. In the other three canonical gospels, it is the narrator who says this of John, but here it is John identifies himself as the narrator. Raymond Brown points out that the Essenes used this phrase to describe themselves (Brown, I:50), therefore it is plausible that John the Baptist described himself this way. 

           There is another curious aspect about this section about John the Baptist. The Pharisees also questioned John. It could be that the Evangelist is confusing the Sadducees and Pharisees here, but it makes sense that the Pharisees would also be concerned about his preaching. They shared the Essenes’ concerns over the Temple and the need to restore righteousness. They would have agreed with much of John’s preaching. It appears that they went to John because they were confused over baptism itself. If John was not Elijah, then how did he have the authority to wash away sins? The reason the Evangelist places this discussion before the appearance of Jesus was to press home his point that the Pharisees and the priests and the crowds should have been aware that the Messiah was about to appear. They should have been looking for the coming of the dawn with hope. Instead, they reacted with fear.

Looking for Another: In all four gospels and in Acts, John refers to one who was coming after him, whose sandals he was not worthy to untie or carry. There is just enough variation in these five quotations in the New Testament to indicate that this was part of an oral tradition that went back to John himself. In other words, the writers of the New Testament were not quoting from a literary source. It makes perfect sense, based on what we know from Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Talmud that John the Baptist viewed himself as a prophet sent to prepare Jews for the coming of the Messiah just as he is portrayed in the opening of John’s Gospel.

The Hidden Messiah:            Before we end, there is one other thing that John says that will be important for the Gospel and for our faith. The Baptist says “among you stands one you do know. He is the one who comes after me.” This idea of the Hidden Messiah was important to the Essenes, and it is a major theme of the Gospel of Mark. The Messiah comes into the world secretly. This idea influenced the Shi’ite belief in the Hidden Imam who will appear before the judgment day. In John’s Gospel, Jesus was the true light and true Messiah from the beginning of his ministry, but the world did not recognize him. I think we can push John’s thought a little further and say that the world still does not recognize the Light.  

Conclusion:                 It is not just the world out there that does not recognize the One who has come after John. Has the Christian church, with its long history of bloodshed and oppression, always recognized the Prince of Peace who brings redemption and forgiveness? As we debate obtuse questions of salvation, do we recognize the One who brings healing? Is the Messiah still hidden among those of us who sings hymns of praise?