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Jan 15, 2023

The Quiet Part

The Quiet Part

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Series: January 2023

 

Today's Sermon

 

"The Quiet Part"

 

First Reading
Psalm 40:1-11  
 

1   I waited patiently for the LORD;
          he inclined to me and heard my cry.
2   He drew me up from the desolate pit,
          out of the miry bog,
     and set my feet upon a rock,
          making my steps secure.
3   He put a new song in my mouth,
          a song of praise to our God.
     Many will see and fear,
          and put their trust in the LORD.
4   Happy are those who make
          the LORD their trust,
     who do not turn to the proud,
          to those who go astray after false gods.
5   You have multiplied, O LORD my God,
          your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;
          none can compare with you.
     Were I to proclaim and tell of them,
          they would be more than can be counted.
6   Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
          but you have given me an open ear.
     Burnt offering and sin offering
          you have not required.
7   Then I said, “Here I am;
          in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
8   I delight to do your will, O my God;
          your law is within my heart.”
9   I have told the glad news of deliverance
          in the great congregation;
     see, I have not restrained my lips,
          as you know, O LORD.
10  I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,
          I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
     I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
          from the great congregation.
11  Do not, O LORD, withhold
          your mercy from me;
     let your steadfast love and your faithfulness
          keep me safe forever.

Second Reading
John 1:29-42

         29The next day he [John the Baptizer] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

          35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

The Quiet Part

            I had the joy of being with the confirmation class last Sunday, confirmation that rite of passage in which we say to our youth that now is when you get to decide whether to confirm for yourselves the faith that has been given to you as a child.  I went in thinking this would simply be an “ask a pastor” session.  I’m the one who is supposed to have it figured out, right? Our youth director Jeff, of course, designed a far better hour.  We had a back and forth, a conversation.  I was equally invigorated by the questions they asked as the answers they gave when I got to ask them questions.  It’s dialogue in addition to teaching that engages people.

            This experience returned to me during the week as I was listening to my new favorite podcast called Earth and Spirit.  It’s an NPR podcast that describes itself as “at the intersection of meditative spiritual practice, social healing, and ecology.”  The guests are all kinds of religious figures and those working for social change particularly around our relationship to the environment.[1]In one episode, Victoria Loorz, who is the founder of the Wild Church movement, which looks to restore the relationship of Christianity to the natural world, was talking about the prologue of the Gospel of John.  This passage opens the gospel and comes before today’s reading:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” 

            Loorz contends “the Word” was not the predominant connotation of the Greek logosin the early years of the faith.  That only came to be when Christianity became the religion of empire, Word:  demonstrative, truth with a capital “T” fixed, “universal divine reasoning”[2]and transmitted.  Prior, Loorz asserted logoswas understood to mean “conversation.” In the beginning was the Conversation, and the Conversation was with God, and the Conversation was God.  What a dramatic difference.  Do you hear the relational side of it?  This sounded too good to be true, so I looked up the Greek and at least one of the translations, “argument,” seems to support her assertion. Even if you take that to mean a persuasive statement offered, it implies an engagement between parties. Conversation can be as sacred as declaration.

            That’s a helpful recognition to bring to a gospel that can feel so demonstrative, so declarative, that it can turn people away.  Ironically, John was written to bring people in who felt pushed out.  In today’s episode, John the Baptizer sees Jesus coming toward him and pronounces, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29)  How’s that for certainty!  Scholars speculate that part of what’s going on here is trying to settle what was clearly a struggle between the early followers of Jesus and those who were maintaining their allegiance to John the Baptizer himself.  It’s making clear who the One is and who is merely the one pointing to the One. 

            By the end of the passage a disciple is just as sure:  “We have found the Messiah (which is translated the Anointed)” (v. 41).  Do you know what anointed means?  When you anointed someone in the ancient world, you rubbed oil on them, and it was often done in religious ceremony.  To use crude terminology to say Jesus was Anointed was to say he had the “God stuff” rubbed on him.  In this passage and all throughout John people recognize Jesus as the one who has the “God stuff” rubbed on him.  In churchy terms, we say the Gospel of John has a high Christology, a depiction of Jesus which is very godly, whereas the other three gospels may have an earthier more human depiction of Jesus.  New Testament Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, however, downplays the distinction.  He argues that John merely makes explicit what is implicit in the other gospels. It’s not fundamentally different; John just says the quiet part aloud.[3]

            For similar fervor and confidence in God, we could turn to the 40thPsalm which we heard in our first reading. Here we find a prayer effusive in its praise from one who has felt the rescue, presence, and support of God.  TheyknowGod in their life. 

8   I delight to do your will, O my God;
          your law is within my heart.”
9   I have told the glad news of deliverance
          in the great congregation;
     see, I have not restrained my lips,
          as you know, O LORD.
10  I have not hidden your saving help within my heart (Ps. 40:8-10)

 Let’s stop here and give thanks for the times when this quiet part knowing God is loud and clear.  Let’s give thanks for those who feel so certain in their faith.  I bet you know of those who have been rocks, Peter’s name, examples to you of what it looks like to persevere in the faith in the midst of what the world throws at you.  Let us likewise give thanks for the moments in which we feel that way, because for most it is not always so.  It is because there is difference among us or within us at any given moment, that communal worship and practice is so important.  Sometimes you’re here because your neighbor needs to hear someone sing the hymns with gusto or offer the prayers they cannot that day pray. Sometimes you need to be here to lean on the faith of your neighbor.  We’re not all in the same place at the same time when we come together to the same place at the same time if you know what I mean.

            If the certainty about Jesus in John is the quiet part in one definition, then doubt may be the quiet part people are carrying in another.  Sometimes, we’re not sure.  In that confirmation class conversation one of the youth put it so plainly, “Sometimes I feel like, “Yes, this is all real, I believe this,’ and sometimes I’m like ‘I’m not so sure what is real.’”  For most of us the path is about those variances in the terrain. Faith is not about traveling on only one smooth surface and feeling like a failure when you’re not.  We’ve selected the wrong measuring stick for faith— whether or not we’re certain.  I submit to you that a better measuring stick is not the degree to which we are certain, but the degree to which we are honest about where we are and are able to be open-hearted in that space no matter its terrain.  Sometimes you’re not standing on the side of the road shouting, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” or “We have found the Messiah...” This doesn’t mean you’ve have gone off the path.

            Return to the Psalm and you will find a helpful bridge.  The Psalmist praises a God who has delivered them from the desolate pit, which means their praise of God’s presence grows out an experience of God’s absence or at least good’s absence.  I had written in my notes for today, from months ago, “Often we only so roundly acknowledge something only when we have also known its absence.”  This week as I was listening to my new favorite podcast Earth and Spirit, one of the guests was talking about how it is in the experience of suffering, particularly of grief.  She said it is when we are open to it, the worst of it, that our capacity to for compassion grows and then we have more room to receive life’s graces.  It only grows, however, if we go there, not denying the desolation, but facing it honestly, as I said earlier, trying to be open-hearted.  The Psalmist only knows deliverance because they have known needing it.  The Baptizer and the disciples know the God rubbed stuff because they know the experience of being smeared with so much other substance. That’sthe quiet part too.  No leg of your journey is an aberration from the life of faith; it’s merely iteration. Stop judging it and yourself so much. You’re not exclusively good or bad, you’re just here.  Be open-hearted here.

             Back to the confirmation class, where we engaged one another in conversation.  Well, actually there was a physical challenge component of the exercise as well.  I am happy to report that I successfully completed a “high leg kick” upon without pulling any muscles thanks to some expert cheerleading coaching from someone in the group.  The first question I am asked is “Have you ever had a spiritual crisis?”  The fact the question is asked that way shows we’re taught faith means certainty or unchanging understanding.

            I sensed some surprise when I said yes, many spiritual crises.  I told them of one time where I felt the challenge to the faith not from the outside—those are easier to field.  This was scholarship trying to clarify what the historical Jesus actually, which may not be what is recorded in the Bible.  That challenge, or crisis, like most of the faith, will shake you up for a while.  If you hang with it, face it, work through it, on the other side you’ll assemble something more developed or differently developed that will carry you a little while down the road.  This is the walk of faith, a disassembling the old answers and definitions and reassembling new ones in a way that carries forward some of the old, mixing with some new.  It’s challenge and recovery, death and rebirth if you will.  I might argue one of the only ways to strengthen your faith is to through what we call spiritual crisis, though maybe we should call that challenge instead because crisis has a negative connotation.  It happens over and over again. 

            In other words, the journey is a string of:

“Here is the Messiah,” and “Where is the Messiah?” or “What is the Messiah?”
 “Here is my help” and “I need help” or simply, “Help!”
“This is the Word of God” and “This is the Divine Conversation.”
All of it is the life of faith, the loud part and the quiet part, and all of it invites your confirmation.

            Amen.

 

[1]https://www.npr.org/podcasts/1004504654/earth-and-spirit

[2]https://www.pbs.org/faithandreason/theogloss/logos-body.html#:~:text=A%20principle%20originating%20in%20classical,every%20individual%20who%20seeks%20it.

[3]Luke Timothy Johnson, “Jesus and the Gospels” from The Great Courses, audiobook.