Saturday, September 16, 2006

Pentecost 15B - Winning the Lottery

Has anyone here ever had a really big win in the Lottery? (See me afterwards …)

What about in your dreams?  Has anybody here ever had a dream, or even a daydream about winning the Lottery?  (That’s funny … almost everyone – including me!)  Never having to work again – being able to afford the home you’ve always wanted – playing Father or Mother Christmas to friends and family on a big scale …

Part of it is about the dream of success – removal of obstacles and limitations, the dream of plain sailing – just once, all the numbers line up – psychologist Alfred Adler thinks this dream that he calls the ‘will to power’ lies at the heart not only of neurotic behaviour but a whole lot that is normal such as ambition and creativity.  We want to feel safe, we want to feel in control, and the reality is that much of the time we don’t feel in control, we feel thwarted.  Adler thinks that inside of us we each have a kind of ideal self that can effortlessly do all the things we wish we could do … It seems we need the dreams – even when we know deep down that our dreams and the reality of our lives don’t quite connect.

There’s a religious version of the Lottery fantasy, isn’t there?  That God is up there just getting ready to tweak reality a bit in our favour, to make it all turn out right … when it doesn’t turn out right, the fantasy goes, God’s just got a really long-term Plan – when it looks to us as though things aren’t turning out right, that’s just God biding His time, making sure it all turns out right in the end.  We might not be very powerful, we might be living in a dangerous world at the whim of every passing virus or accident of fate, but God’s our insurance policy.  God’s got it sussed.

There was a Jewish version of that, since about three or four hundred years before Jesus was born.  It goes like this - God’s sending us a Messiah, an anointed one who’s going to make everything come out right.  This version of the fantasy had a couple of different versions.  One was that the Messiah was going to be exactly like King David, a great warrior king who would lead the Jews to victory over their enemies and establish God’s reign. Generations ago, the Macabbees had led a rebellion against the occupation armies of the Greek Seleucid dynasty, and they managed to create a free and independent state that lasted over two hundred years, not a bad effort but hardly the stuff of messianic fantasy. Then 50 or so years before Jesus, the Roman armies had arrived and made an offer to the Jewish rulers that they couldn’t refuse. Out on the fringes of society, groups of bandits out in the hills had wild dreams of being the new Maccabees.  Some of them, like Judas the Galilean 6 years before Jesus’ birth, or Simon bar Kochba early in the second century, inspired a desperate but short-lived hope – maybe this one really is the Messiah!

Another version of the Messiah fantasy was that the Messiah would be a miraculous figure, someone who would just make the dream of peace and plenty materialise out of thin air.  It seems that in Jesus’ day opinion was divided – are we looking for a military leader or a miracle worker?  But the daydream was clear on one thing – the Messiah would be successful!

So when Jesus comes along, right when the popular expectation for a Messiah was at its feverish height, he looks like a pretty likely candidate.  Almost.

Look at it from Peter’s point of view.  Right from the time he drops his nets by the Sea of Galilee and leaves his family to follow Jesus, he knows he’s in the presence of something special. Peter’s heard him teach. He’s seen him heal people from leprosy; from blindness; from chronic bleeding.  He’s even seen Jesus raise a young girl from the sleep of death.  Peter is really impressed.

Clearly, also, Jesus has got what we today could only call a political agenda.  The first will be last and the last will be first, what’s that supposed to mean?  Paying day labourers not by the number of hours they work but by the number of mouths they’ve got to feed, proclaiming liberty for prisoners and release for those who have been oppressed, eating with streetwalkers and thieves, what’s that supposed to mean?  Talking in riddles, drawing thousands of men and women after him into the desert, miraculously feeding them like Moses but refusing to allow them to make him a king like they would with Simon bar Kochba a century later.

"Everyone’s really impressed”, his disciples tell him, “they’re talking about you in the same breath as the great prophets”.

"Well, but what about you—what do you reckon?"

And you can just see the light-bulb going off inside Peter’s head.  He’s got it.  Halfway through Mark’s gospel, and for the first time a human being gets it.  The demons have worked it out, but humans aren’t quite as bright.  “Oh!  You’re the one. You’re the Messiah”.

But then Jesus does something peculiar. “Alright, well keep quiet about it.”  Can you work that out?  Wouldn’t you think it would be champagne time, good for you, took you a while, let’s pop the corks and celebrate? 

And I think we can see the reason in what Jesus says next.  It’s just as if I said to you.  “Good news!  You’ve won the big one.  First division!  Congratulations!  Oh, but it’s going to cost you your home, your life savings – and whatever you’ve got in your pocket.  Just trust me …”  Good Lottery win!

God loves you, you’re the apple of God’s eye.  I’m not joking here, that’s what you are.  God intends for you to have eternal life, life as full in every way as life can be.  But how does that add up when the doctors are saying something different?  There’s a limit to what we can do.  I’m sorry.

“So here’s the deal”, Jesus says, “it’s not about success in the way you’re thinking of.  I’m going to be rejected and killed.  Only after that – only when my failure and humiliation is utterly complete are you going to see this ‘fullness of life’ that I’ve been on about.  This is what it means to be human – the Son of Man – and it’s certainly what it means to be God – that only when you’re prepared to give away life itself will you discover what it really means”.

There’s two really important points here, and they are just as important for us today as they are for Peter.  The first one is this – it’s not enough to recognise Jesus.  It’s not enough to make the great confession that Jesus is the Christ, that we recognise in Jesus what God is like and what God is doing in our world.  That’s not enough.  It’s a good start, but if our Christian faith starts and ends with adoration, that’s a cop-out.  Jesus demands that Peter – and us as well – get on board with his agenda, good news for the poor and marginalised, giving of ourselves and loving wastefully, extravagantly.

The second thing is this.  That it isn’t easy to get the point, to grasp the point of what Jesus is on about, or what God is on about.  And that’s because life itself isn’t straightforward. 

Life gets tricky, our faith gets overwhelmed, and we’re not sure any more. Like Peter we hover between getting it and not getting it. The more we think about it, the less easy it is to have a comfortable, reassuring faith in the face of terrible expressions of human hatred, realities of everyday life like 9-11, like Madrid, like Lebanon or Bali.  Like the Holocaust.  How can God keep allowing this sort of stuff to happen? How can God allow evil to prevail?  Maybe, like Peter, we want to tell God off. How can you just let them keep pushing you aside onto the cross?  Over and over again?  Aren’t you supposed to be in control?

The theology of the cross is hard to accept – or else - the theology of the cross is the only thing in the world that makes sense, when your world is falling apart. 

Mark’s gospel is really clear on this.  Not only is Jesus the vulnerable Messiah who turns upside down all our notions of what counts as success, but that’s what God is like, too.  Mark seems to have been writing for an early Christian community facing persecution and danger, and he knows the reality of their weakness and failure.  That’s what makes Mark’s gospel a powerful witness for us, 21st century Christians who also know what it’s like to not be in control, not feel very powerful.  History tells us, and reality tells us, that no amount of prayer is going to give us the winning numbers, God is never really going to intervene to help the Dockers.  Not only is Jesus the vulnerable, upside down Messiah, but God is the vulnerable, upside down God whose only virtue is to be in love with us, whose only promise is to be there with us and for us.  No matter what. 

People, you really have won the Lottery.  First division.  God dies for you.  Not because you’re not good enough.  Not because you’re so sinful that someone, somewhere, has to suffer.  Forget that harmful guilt-ridden rubbish.  God dies for you because God is besotted with you.  Because you are good enough.  Because God can’t bear the thought of not being part of your deepest and most abiding joy, your darkest and most agonising despair.  Because God has created you for eternal life.