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Archive for June, 2015

Jun 8th, 2015

The Birth of the Messiah
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
June 7, 2015

1 Samuel 8:4-22 Mark 3:20-35 Psalm 138

In our reading from 1 Samuel, we hear about Israel’s decision to anoint a king over them. This was a huge shift in their social and religious governance. Previously, they were governed by prophets and by individual moral intuition. There is an important verse at the end of Judges, “In those days there was no king in Israel, every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). In the passage we heard this morning, Israel’s decision to anoint a king over them is seen as a rejection of God as their king. God tells Samuel, “They have rejected me from being king over them” (1Samuel 8:7). The entire social order in Israel is shifting now. It is a momentous shift.
In many ways, choosing a king is a rejection of God. The desire for a king is so that the Israelites can be like the nations around them. They don’t want to be organized the way they had been with Yahweh as the central uniting force of their culture. They want to be like the nations they see around them who have a king. They say, “We will have a king over us, that we may like all the nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles” (8:19-20). They are rejecting the form of society that was given them by God through Moses. That early form of society was a tribal confederation. The twelve tribes of Israel were each independent and yet united by the one God Yahweh. In places in the Bible we hear of them being a kingdom of priests. Each Israelite was responsible for his or her own behavior. Each one had land given them by God that was to stay in the family. Each one had the law of God in their heart. They would band together when an enemy opposed them and disperse to their own lands after the enemy had been dispatched. Worship of Yahweh and following Yahweh’s laws were the bond that held society together.
This all changes when the Israelites take a king. When they take a king, they are also taking the mythology that comes with kingship in the Ancient Near East. Under Ancient Near Eastern models for kingship, the king himself was the first and closest connection to God. God spoke to the king, and God’s divine power came through the king to the people. In many cases, the kings were considered divine or semi-divine. Such a concept slipped into Israelite culture. Psalm 2:7 states, “I will proclaim the decree of Yahweh: He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.” The welfare of the whole kingdom depended on the king and the proper rituals he needed to perform. Among them were proper sacrifices and enacting sacred ritual dramas in order to secure God’s blessings. One such sacred drama was the re-enactment of the fertility cycle. The king goes through a ritual death and rebirth. This symbolizes the death of crops in the winter and their re-birth in the spring. By performing this sacred drama, God’s power was re-energized. This assured a fertile crop for the coming year. Peace and prosperity within the kingdom depended on the king’s relationship with God and the sacrifices he performed. If the king fell from favour with God, the land would waste away and war and potentially defeat from some foe could follow. So the welfare of the kingdom now depended on the king, not on each individual and their own relations with God.
So in a way, wanting a king was putting a man between God and the people. Instead of God governing the people through the laws given by Moses, now the king was governing the people. There was a real threat to the integrity of Israelite society when they chose to anoint a king. For potentially, the king could do whatever he wanted to do. He was king. The people wanted the king to rule over them, not Yahweh.
With the king came a new office in Israel. That new office was the prophet. The prophet was there to make sure that the king followed the laws of Yahweh. You could say that the prophets kept the king in check. Previously, prophets served the people at large. They would decide matters of justice, like judges. They would perform sacrifices. But they would be open to all the people. Now they had one specific target–the king. It was their role to make sure that the king was following the laws of God.
As I have been saying, choosing a king was a dramatic change in Israel’s society. It also changed their religion. I have spoken a few times about anointing a king. Although the king ruled over the people, the king needed to be consecrated by the prophet. It was the prophet Samuel who chose Israel’s first king, Saul. And Samuel made Saul king by anointing his head with oil. Every king in Israel’s history was anointed with oil in order to be consecrated into the role of king. So kings were called “anointed ones.” The Hebrew word for “Anointed,” is “Messiah.” When we hear the word, “Messiah,” it means, “Anointed One.” The anointed one is the king. So the Messiah is the king. Had there been no king in Israel’s history, there would be no Messiah. A whole new religious system evolved around the idea of the Messiah. And when we Christians hear the word Messiah, we think of Jesus. I think we can say that we wouldn’t have had the role Jesus filled if there had been no king in Israel. There would be no Messiah mythology for Jesus to fulfill.
In Israelite theology, The Messiah is most closely associated with King David. This is because of a promise that God makes with King David. It is called the Davidic Covenant. God promises that King David’s heirs will always be on the throne in Jerusalem. We find this promise in 2 Samuel 8:16. In this verse, God says to David, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” So God promised that King David’s kingdom and his heirs would continue forever. David’s “house” meant his heirs, and his throne meant his kingdom.
But this is not what happened. In 587 BCE the Babylonian kingdom conquered Judah, and destroyed the royal city of Jerusalem. Since that time, there were no more kings on the throne in Jerusalem. So the promise to King David got placed in the future. Israelites looked forward to the time when a descendant of King David would come and rule on the throne in Jerusalem. This was the hope for the coming Messiah. And without that hope, we would have no Messiah in the form of Jesus.
All the Gospels trace Jesus’ ancestry through King David. They do this to establish that Jesus is the Messiah, who was of David’s lineage. When Jesus came, people were expecting a king. They were expecting a divine king. This divine king would drive out the Romans and rule on the throne in Jerusalem. Throughout His ministry, Jesus kept trying to explain that He was not a worldly king. He tried to explain that His kingdom was spiritual. But the people didn’t get it. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, people cheered Him as a coming king. They said, “Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming!” (Mark 11:10). When Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, he doesn’t want to believe that Jesus will suffer at the hands of the Jewish leaders and be sentenced to death. Jesus rebukes Peter sharply, again trying to redefine the mythology of the Messiah (Mark 8:27-33).
With kingship established in Israel, we have a theology in place that leads to a Divine King. Although kingship was imported into Israel as a foreign idea, it reshaped their whole theology. It led to the hope of a future king. This paved the way for the coming of Jesus’ heavenly kingdom. With power concentrated in one person on the throne, the next step is that one Divine-Human can rule in our hearts. A king in Israel leads to a King of heaven. Jesus is the Messiah, but the Messiah of a spiritual kingdom.
We can see the whole scriptures as pointing to that one Savior of humanity. With the Messiah established in Israelite theology, we have a savior figure who will come to the earth. We know that Savior as Jesus Christ. In Luke we are told that Jesus showed the Apostles how all the scriptures were about Himself, “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). While 1 Samuel 8 makes the anointing of a king look like a rejection of God, in fact it leads to the coming of God on earth. For the anointing of Saul is the birth of the Messiah.

PRAYER

Lord, we give you thanks for coming to us in a form we could relate to. You came not as an overwhelming God on high; you came not as a powerful emperor; but you came as a humble man. All your life on earth, humanity tried to make you a king. Yet you continually turned away these human vanities. You gave yourself the titles of Friend, and you even called us brothers and sisters. And yet, even though you did not appear in the awe due your name, humanity felt the power of your presence. While you would not be king, humanity felt you as God. The light of your love and truth could not be hid. It shined through your Humanity, filling it with Divinity. We thank you, Lord Jesus; we praise you, Lord Jesus; we worship you, Lord Jesus. All glory and power and wisdom is yours!

And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

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That Which Is Born of the Spirit
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
May 31, 2015

Isaiah 6:1-8 John 3:1-17 Psalm 29

Our Old Testament reading and our New Testament reading both talk about some kind of change taking place in a person. In Isaiah, the Prophet confesses a sense of his own sinfulness. He is then purified by a coal taken from the altar. And in John, we have a lesson about being born again. A contrast is made between flesh and Spirit. Jesus says, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). Making a distinction between flesh and Spirit, Jesus says that we must be born anew, born of water and the Spirit. So both passages say that we need some sort of change in our lives.
In order to inherit eternal life, we need to undergo some sort of spiritual change. In the language of John, we need to be reborn of the Spirit. And in the language of Isaiah, we need to be purified by God. Both these passages say that God needs to work on us to make us into a new person. We need to be recreated by God.
Christianity has different interpretations about what this rebirth means. John’s reference to rebirth by water and the Spirit leads some to think that baptism gives rebirth. According to this interpretation, baptism washes away sin and with baptism a person is saved. I would add, here, that there is a whole lot of good music that celebrates spiritual cleansing by baptism. Often, this baptism takes place in a river and there is a lot of music celebrating going down to the river.
Another interpretation teaches that a person needs to accept Jesus in their heart. When a person confesses that they are a sinner, and that Jesus bore their sins on the cross, they are forgiven and saved. Accepting Jesus’ forgiveness in a person’s heart is being born again.
Catholicism has a complex teaching about salvation and rebirth. They teach that original sin is taken away by baptism. Original sin was when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This original sin of disobedience resulted in their being expelled from the Garden of Eden. Their sin is said to be passed down from generation to generation with conception. According to Catholic doctrine, this original sin is washed away in baptism. But the Catholic Church also recognizes that the temptation to sin is an ongoing fact of human existence. So they teach that a person needs to attend mass and confess sin and receive absolution. By doing these things, a person receives grace that remakes a person into a spiritual being. Finally, though, even this isn’t enough. Catholics say that as a person is dying, they need to receive the Last Rites, to clean up any sin that a person still has left on their immortal soul.
Calvinism has an interesting doctrine on rebirth. They have a teaching called “sanctification.” What this means is that God shines a light on a person’s sins, and removes them over time.
This doctrine of sanctification is closest to our teaching about spiritual rebirth. Our teaching touches on all the above doctrines. We say that a person needs to accept Jesus into our hearts; we say that a person needs baptism; we say that a person needs to be aware of their sins and to do away with them. And we say that all this is done by God with our cooperation.
What we mean by spiritual rebirth is actual personality change. We need to be changed into a new and different person. This happens as we allow God’s Holy Spirit into our lives. Allowing God’s Spirit into us is a gradual process that takes place over a whole lifetime and even into the next life. The Greek Orthodox teaches a similar doctrine and calls it “theosis.”
We need to change only because we need to form a connection with God. Even if we are basically good people, being good isn’t enough. What we need is to have God’s Holy Spirit in us so that all our love and all our wise thinking are done by God’s Spirit in us. Paul says this quite well when he says,
work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).
This quote says that our will, that is what we wish to do, and our actions are both God willing and acting in us.
But for this to happen, we need to ask God into our hearts. And we need to remove any blockage that would keep God from entering into us. That means getting rid of selfishness and self-driven desires. Selfishness has a thousand ways of manifesting. We think of ourselves as better than others, or we want to be better than others. We want people to honor us. We want to show off our possessions. We crave possessions that will make others admire us or envy us. These are only a few of the many ways that self comes between us and our neighbor—and ultimately God. For God alone deserves honor, God alone is the greatest, the whole world is God’s.
For Swedenborg, sin is anything that blocks love for our neighbor and love for God. Swedenborg grew up in a Lutheran Church. He grew up with the idea that our desires are corrupt and evil from birth. This teaching was in the air in the Lutheran Church of his day. We also find it in Catholic doctrine, notably in Augustine. So we find statements in Swedenborg like this one,
From birth, each of us is like a little hell in constant conflict with heaven. The Lord cannot rescue any of us from our hell unless we see that we are in it and want to be rescued (DP 251).
For Swedenborg, spiritual rebirth is seeing sin in ourselves and desiring to cease doing it. It is actual character transformation. It is seeing clearly aspects of us that we need to get rid of, and then taking action to get rid of those defects of character.
While we are taking action to do all this, at the same time we acknowledge that the insight into our sins and the power to remove them are all from God. This is how we let God into us. It is by cooperating with God’s efforts to transform us that we abide in God and God abides in us, according to Jesus’ words in John 14.
As we work to remove our spiritual shortcomings, we find new feelings flowing into us. As we get self out of the way, we find new love for others flowing into our hearts. We are becoming new people. We are being reborn. What we used to enjoy, is now not pleasurable. The aims and goals we used to strive for blindly, as if our lives depended upon them, no longer seem important. In somewhat archaic language, Swedenborg describes this process,
All affections have their delights; but such as are the affections, such are the delights. The affections of evil and falsity also have their delights; and before a man begins to be regenerated, and to receive from the Lord the affections of truth and good, these delights appear to be the only ones; so much so that men believe that no other delights exist; and consequently that if they were deprived of these, they would utterly perish. But they who receive from the Lord the delights of the affections of truth and good, gradually see and feel the nature of the delights of their former life, which they had believed to be the only delights, that they are relatively vile, and indeed filthy. And the further a man advances into the delight of the affections of truth and good, the more does he begin to regard the delights of evil and falsity as vile; and at last to hold them in aversion (AC 3938).
We are made new, we are reborn, to the extent that we remove sin and allow love from God into our hearts. Rebirth is actual character transformation. It is a psychic change. From loving ourselves first and craving to rise in power and prestige in the world, we seek to walk together with our brothers and sisters and to make the world a better place. This we do, because God is now in us. And God loves each person in the world equally. And God’s love knows no bounds. The delight that this life knows is far greater than any delight the world has to offer. Now we are living by the Spirit. And God’s Spirit gives us love and joy beyond words. Being born of water and the Spirit means joy, love, and peace that passes understanding.

PRAYER

Lord, you are the light that guides our way. You show us the direction we are to walk in. You illuminate our path so we know the pitfalls we are to avoid. You show us our souls, as we are ready to see. You shine your light on those areas in us that we need to overcome and put away. You give us the power to do all this. For without you, we can do nothing. Self-directed ambition, even spiritual ambition will only fall in upon itself and we will not benefit. But when we act by your grace and power, we can overcome any obstacle; we can remove any spiritual shortcoming; and we will grow more and more pure. And as we grow in our spiritual perfection, we come nearer and nearer to you, in love, in obedience, and in solidarity with our neighbor.

And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

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