25-June-2017 Sermon

Turn, Turn, Turn

 

Brian Lennstrom

 

If you know this song, please sing along with me. 

To everything (turn, turn, turn)

There is a season (turn, turn, turn)

And a time to every purpose, under heaven.

First song to hit the Billboard number one with lyrics by an Old Testament author.

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth,” says Jesus, “I did not come to bring peace,a but a sword.  For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in law—a man’s enemies will be members of one’s own household.”  Tough words from Jesus.  “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace….”

 

But what gives?  I thought Jesus was the Prince of Peace?  Didn’t we just sing six months ago, “Peace on earth and mercy mild; God and sinners reconciled.”  Or “Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”  The song doesn’t go, “Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, who brought a sword.”

 

This passage is contrasted by the first chapter of Luke, where the angel tells Zechariah about his soon-to-be-born son, John the Baptist.  The angel says, “He will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power and Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous…” (Lk 1:17)

 

So, what gives?  Is it that John turns people to one another and then Jesus separates them?  That can’t be—the message of John the Baptist and the message of the Messiah have to be in perfect harmony, otherwise John’s mission fails.

 

Well, Jesus in Matthew is quoting from the Old Testament prophet Micah, while the angel in Luke is quoting from the prophet Malachi.

 

A little story here.  I admit that around the dinner table I used to quiz my children about the names of the twelve Minor Prophets.  But now that I think about it, it would have been a lot easier if the Minor Prophets had a little more pizazz, like we could get them World Wrestling Federation personas or something.  “In this corner, famous for correctly predicting that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, 5 foot six inches and 145 pounds--Man Mountain Micah.  And his opponent, last in the New Testament but first in the hearts of wrestling fans—if you read his book skip the third chapter because that’s the one that deals with tithing—it’s Malachi the Mauler.”

 

But really, is it Jesus versus John?  Matthew versus Luke?  Micah versus Malachi?  Is Jesus the Prince of Peace or does He not come to bring peace?  Which is it?

 

Well, one way to settle the problem when parts of the Bible are hard to reconcile—and it’s a very popular way—is to choose which one we like better.  Peace or a sword?  Well, peace is better.  Give peace a chance!  Community and togetherness are better than division.  So forget Matthew 10 and embrace Luke 1.

 

Another way is to use the phrase that seems so popular among Episcopalians:  both and.”  Does Jesus bring peace?  Or a sword?  “Both and.”  Does he unite people or separate them?  “Both and.”  Does he turn hearts toward their parents or away from them?  “Both and.”  But that doesn’t seem very satisfactory. 

 

Yes and No, No and Yes.  And when we look in the mirror of Scripture, we get the same answer.  Do we take up love Jesus more than our mother and father?  Yes.  And No.  Do we take up our cross and follow Him, bold to enter into suffering that He might be honored?  Well, No.  But Yes.

 

So it brings up the question, Why not No?  Why doesn’t No win?  After all, the No has a lot more power to convince than the Yes does—just look at the newspaper.  Why not just give up and say to God, you’re too much for me; I can’t die for you; I can’t lose my life for your sake.  There’s too much darkness in the world and too much darkness in my own heart and it has overcome me.  Why not No?

 

It is because the soul has a provenance.  My father’s two brothers both died from Alzheimer’s disease and my father died from Alzheimer’s disease and there’s a very good change that I’ll die from it as well, forgetting at the end just about everything and everyone in this life, all the things all the people I’ve loved.  But I know I shall never forget--deep in my brain where the fibers can’t reach—that my soul has a provenance, it was with God from the beginning of my existence.

 

Yes and No, Yes and No.

 

The second question is, Why not Yes?  Why can’t we dispel our cynicism, our depression, our doubts; why can’t we find rest?  It’s not because we lack piety.  We’ve got excess piety.  It’s not because we lack Church.  Or emotion.  Or knowledge.  Or special truth—we Christians are bursting with special truth. 

 

Or so we think.  But there is no special truth that we have that the world doesn’t have, because the knowledge that God offers us is not special wisdom, it’s the beginning of wisdom.  It’s the fear of the Lord.  It’s a giant foundation of knowledge that people build other knowledge upon: knowledge of God, knowledge of electrons, knowledge of sociology. 

 

We have no special Yes that dispels all the No.

 

The Yes and No of our lives is our crisis and it’s the crisis that the Scriptures confronts us with.  The Yes and No of our lives is our crisis and it’s the crisis that the Scriptures confronts us with.  That Matthew 10 doesn’t sync up with Luke 1 is just one visible sign of that crisis.  And we want explanation.  We always want explanation.  Who is right?  The Evangelicals, who emphasize decision and therefore division between those who have decided for Christ and those who haven’t?  Even if that division is within a family?  Or the liberals who stress love and restoration and rebuilding and loving the neighbor as the self?  Who is right?  We demand an explanation.

 

We look in the newspaper and we see No, No, a preponderance of No; and only occasionally a Yes.  Occasionally a story of rescue or comfort.  We look to heaven and we do say, “What have you done for me lately?”  And “Is this really what you meant by the abundant life?” and everywhere it’s Yes and No and soon there we are, up on the crest of Cap Sante shouting, “Is this all there is, this Yes and No of You?  And this Yes and No of Me?  Is Malachi right and you mean to unite us to one another and stop our loneliness, or is Micah right and that you mean to set us against one another?  And that a person’s enemies will be in their own household?”  And we keep shouting and we can’t hear an answer because we don’t want to hear an answer and we don’t want to hear an answer because we are afraid the answer will be, “Yes and No is all there is….”  And because we’re shouting we don’t see a hand with a note in it and on one side of the note are the words “A special offer for you” and if we were to take it and open it we’d see a single word.  A single word.  Turn.

 

If you know this song, please sing along with me. 

To everything (turn, turn, turn)

There is a season (turn, turn, turn)

And a time to every purpose, under heaven.

 

I love American folklore, and one of the important figures in American folklore is, of course, Paul Bunyan.  Took five storks to deliver him.  One drag of his mighty ax created the Grand Canyon.  It is said that Paul would yoke up Babe the Blue Ox and tie her to a river, a curvy river, and straighten out the curves and make the river straight.

 

Straightening out rivers makes a great story, but the surprising thing, is that it happened.  Not with streams of water, but with the streams of ideas.  And not by Paul Bunyan, but by the writers of the New Testament.  To truly understand why God asks us to turn, we have to go back to the New Testament, not only to the content of the New Testament, but to the origin of the New Testament, specifically, what gave the New Testament writers the guts to write it.  The guts to take themes and ideas from the Old Testament and, like Paul Bunyan with the rivers, to turn them in a new direction.  What gave them the audacity to do it?

 

First example: the Temple.  At the end of the Old Testament, and up through AD 70, when it was destroyed, the Temple was the geographic and spiritual heart of Judaism.  A million people could worship there.  But according to the New Testament writers, Jesus, a rabbi from up north, is the new Temple; He is greater than the Temple; and frankly, the Temple does not impress Him all that much.

 

Second example:  the Messiah.  Throughout the Old Testament, and up through to modern day Judaism, the Jews believed that when Messiah came, He would be the king for all time.  He wasn’t not supposed to die.  But all the New Testament writers agree that Jesus, the Messiah, did die.  They don’t gloss over the fact; instead, they take the Old Testament theme of the Messiah and they turn it.

 

Last example: the people of God.  For Jews, now and then, to be Jewish, all you have to do is…  be Jewish.  You’re born a Jew or you convert to Judaism, but it’s about being Jewish.  And being Jewish together.  You can be a believing Jew or an atheistic Jew or a practicing Jew or non-practicing Jew.  You can be any kind of Jew you want to be, as long as you’re Jewish.  And circumcised, if you’re a male.  Jewish / not Jewish—that’s how they divided up the courts of the Temple:  one part for Jews, and one part for the Gentiles.  And Gentiles could not—no matter how much they believed in God or obeyed the Law—go into the court of the Jews, on pain of death.  But according to the writers of the New Testament, suddenly, after 2000 years and 37 Old Testament books, being Jewish is no real advantage.  What counts is belief that Jesus is the Messiah.

 

Through these three examples—and there are others as well—we see the audacity of the New Testament authors in turning the themes of the Old Testament and the themes of first century Judaism in a whole new direction.  So the last question we have to ask is, what’s the source of this audacity?  What set them on fire?  It wasn’t the Church—the Church is the result not the cause.  It wasn’t Pentecost.  It wasn’t even the life of Jesus Christ, because the life of Jesus Christ is grounded in His suffering and suffering would never be of sufficient motivation to produce audacity.

 

What turned the writers of the New Testament--and what motivated them to turn those themes like Paul Bunyan pulling the rivers straight—was that in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, God had made their business His business.  God had taken their Yes and No--which is, coincidentally, the same as our Yes and No—and made it His business.  The death and resurrection of Jesus was the turning point in their lives, in their faith, in their audacity—in fact, the turning point for all history.

 

Taking someone’s business.   There’s something we’re taught at a very early age, aren’t we?  This here is your business; that there is none of your business.  At our house it was, Brian, how your sister sets the table is none of your business; your business is clearing the table.  We know our business and we know where our business stops. 

 

But the audacity of the New Testament writers is that in the death and resurrection, God made their business His business.  This business of sin; this business of Yes and No; this business of confusion and frustration because Micah says one thing and Malachi another; because Matthew says one thing and Luke says another; because John the Baptist says one thing and Jesus another.  This business of looking out at the sickness and poverty and anger and violence of the world or our own hearts and saying, is this really all there is?  This Yes and No.  No and Yes.  God takes that and makes it His business.  And it is no longer our business.  That was the turning point that turned the New Testament writers into Paul Bunyans.

 

So we Episcopalians are not so far off, with our phrase “Both and.”  Both Micah and Malachi are right because the turning point can never be our understanding of how they work together.  No special knowledge.  No secret mysticism or piety or community.  Matthew and Luke are in harmony because Jesus is the One who turns the hearts and turning the hearts is infinitely more important than our understanding everything that the master is up to.  Because there is no special knowledge in the Church because the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom.  Because the “Both and” is not our “both and” but it’s Jesus’ “both and.” 

 

It may feel like a problem, this offer of God.  This turning.  It may feel like a sword.  It will feel like a question rather than an answer because it is a question.  Will we return to God?  It will not feel like special knowledge; for what we learn in this offer, is that we are dust and ashes.  We are Yes and No.   It is a very dangerous offer, this offer of God.  It is dangerous because it is a turning and it is power and the same power and audacity of the New Testament writers..  But it is dangerous good news because in Christ’s death and resurrection, God has made our Yes and No His business.  And taken our business from us.  Turn to me, says God, and I will turn to you.