Thursday, January 17, 2008

the year of living biblically

Over the holidays I received a gift card from a local bookstore and purchased a book, entitled “The Year of Living Biblically”. I had heard good things this book, which was written by AJ Jacobs. AJ had grown up in a secular Jewish family—he admits at the beginning that -“we were Jewish in the same way that the Olive Garden is Italian”, and even though he had a biblical name---Jacob----the Bible itself was foreign. For some reason—a lark, providence, who knows?---he decides to take a year of his life and keep the commandments of the Bible literally, as much as is humanly possible.

It turns out to be a meaningful and funny quest. The only Bible he has turns out to be one with a teenage girlfriend’s name in it---how did he end up with it? He gets into the world of biblical translations, buys different copies, begins to read them, sets up a group of spiritual advisors, and begins to apply the Bible to his life. He witnesses the sacrificing of animals, he stops eating cheeseburgers, and be begins to give money to charitable causes; he begins to tell the truth, and at the same time he stops cutting his beard: some people think he looks like Moses, some like Abraham Lincoln, some like the Unabomber! Along the way he discovers that he is being changed.

I thought about this book in light of our first Sunday of the year together. What would the book’s topic be like for us, a year of living biblically? My wife has reminded me that there are a number of books that seem to take life a year at a time: Eat, Pray, Love; Younger Next Year; and so on. Someone tried to live a year without shopping; another tried to live a year without driving a car, a family went a year without buying anything from China.

In the first days of the calendar year, many of us are looking for some way to change, some new way of living into the future. Who knows: it might be a year of living biblically?

I want to sketch that year out, for us, as Christians. . It has already begun, actually with Advent, a time of waiting, hoping, anticipation. Much of life is like Advent: we wait for a decision to be made, we wait to get married, we wait for a child to be born, or for the children to grow up, or for the children to leave home, or for grandchildren to arrive, or for retirement. Promises are made to us: the smiling, bouncing baby, or the perfect spouse, the well-behaved child, or the mature, grateful young adult, or the glory years of retirement, walking hand in hand along a beach somewhere. Do you ever find yourself waiting for any of that? The prophets, whom we listen to every Advent, were waiting. They were waiting for a Savior.

And then Advent becomes Christmas. The child is born. Light pierces the darkness. We move toward the stable, we eat the bread, we sing the carols, we hold the light in our hands. The promise has been fulfilled. The idea, the logos, the word, becomes flesh. And we are simply called to accept the gift. Then Christmas becomes Epiphany, the implications of that light, that promise, that reality, for the world. The light shines not only on Bethlehem, but upon all people, even the wise men coming from the East. That same light will shine on Jesus at his baptism, and the voice will speak, “you are my beloved son, I am pleased with you”. And then that same light will shine on Jesus at his transfiguration, the same voice will speak, the same words, “you are my beloved son, I am pleased with you”, it is truly a mountaintop experience.

Advent is waiting for the fulfillment of a promise, Christmas is accepting the gift, Epiphany is sharing the light. It is not enough that we experience the afterglow of some religious experience; Israel was called to be a light to the nations, and Jesus would say, to his disciples, to us, “you are the light of the world”.

When we find ourselves on the mountain of transfiguration, it can mean only one thing. Ash Wednesday is upon us. On the way down from the mountain Jesus encounters an epileptic child, which means, I think, that reality is always there, facing us, interrupting our plans: the reality of suffering; the reality of lowered expectations, and, on Ash Wednesday, the reality of death: “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. You have only, as a pastor, to place that cross on the forehead of a teenager, and then months later to officiate at the graveside of that same teenager to know what it is to experience a year of living biblically.

And then, after Ash Wednesday, forty days of sacrifice and self-denial. The culture says we can have it all, but if we live long enough we know better. Even Jesus could not have it all, and so, Luke says, he set his face toward Jerusalem. Along the way he encounters conflict. And yes, sometimes when Jesus comes into our hearts the conflict increases!

Finally, Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. We will get there in a few weeks. We cheer, and wave palm branches, the crowds applaud, like the college football coach who has just won the big game, but soon enough everyone will run as far away from him as possible. One will betray him; another will say he never knew him; he will be falsely accused, to serve the political motives of some and the religious motives of others.

And then there is the meal, Jesus celebrating the Passover with his disciples. As someone has said, “with friends like this, who needs enemies?” How do you stay at the table with people who are betraying you? Jesus knew. And yet there he is washing their feet, telling them that he loves them, commanding them to love one another. And then the arrest. And then, the crucifixion. We live through this on Maundy Thursday and on Good Friday in the Tenebrae, which means darkness.

On the cross, Jesus remembers the psalm and voices it as his prayer, “Why have you forsaken me?” Have you ever felt alone or abandoned or desolate? “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen”, the spiritual had it, “nobody knows but Jesus”. The creed says, “he was crucified, dead and was buried”. And then, “he descended into hell”. To show the extent of his love for us and for all humanity.

Later, on the third day, God raised him from the dead, and it is Easter. What looked like an ending is actually a beginning. Out of death, against all odds, there is life. It is astonishing. It is a miracle. A year of living biblically, whether it is the parting of the sea in the Exodus or the rolling away of the stone on Easter, makes no sense with miracles. Mark tells us that the first disciples were simply afraid when they realized it was true. Thomas, in John’s gospel, spoke for the skeptic in us all when he said he needed proof. Peter, the one who denied him, is reconciled. It was amazing, but it was true: He is not dead. He is risen.

And then, another period of waiting. Go to the Upper Room. What’s next? Pray for the spirit, ask God for power. And the spirit comes, on the day of Pentecost. The breath of God that gives life to the world. The unity of the one body that transcends all of our differences. The energy to do more than we can ask or imagine. Life in the spirit. I will not leave you comfortless, Jesus says, literally, as orphans. And then the spirit is poured out on all flesh, not only the Jews (the righteous), but also the Gentiles (the pagans). What begins as a tiny grain of a mustard seed becomes a large tree. The kingdom expands, and the gospel goes out to the ends of the earth. We celebrate that on World Communion Sunday, in October. But the gospel is unbounded not only by space, but also by time, and so we remember the lives of the saints, those who have gone before us, on All Saints Sunday in November. And then, finally we celebrate the end of the story, when Jesus will sit at the right hand of the Father, in glory, as Christ The King. And then, the story begins all over again…

It is a year of living biblically, allowing the life of Jesus to shape our lives. Along the way there will be suffering and betrayal and unfairness and loneliness. But there will also be growth and discipline and joy and even glory. If we pay attention to Jesus, we will become more conscious of our failures and more compassionate toward others. In this particular year we might learn a few other things. We might discover, in 2008, that Jesus belongs to no one political party. We might discover, in 2008, that Jesus is the world’s savior, not the savior of one nation. We might discover, in 2008, that Jesus is at odds with most of what passes in our culture for the good life. And we might discover that Jesus welcomes sinners into his family, even as he calls us out of sin into a life of grace and justice, righteousness and peace.

A few years ago many people asked the question, What would Jesus do?, and the letters WWJD were printed on bracelets. What would Jesus do? Well, we could take a year to find out. We could read the gospels, closely, for ourselves. We could seek out trusted friends who could help us to apply what we are learning. And it could all begin right here, right now, this morning, at the beginning of a new year, as we come to this altar, sharing in his meal, making a resolution, a promise, a commitment, to be his disciple, this year. As the Magi brought gifts to the newborn Savior, we might bring the gifts of our lives, our time, our energies, our hopes, but also our stereotypes, our prejudices, our angers, our failures, and having offered his gift, we might indeed, in the new year, return to our lives by taking a different path.

Sources: A. J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically.


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