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Sunday, June 9, 2013

From Behind the Curtain

We look to Jesus for life and salvation, but we are to look not in miracles and amazing acts, rather in the life with the Triune God he comes to initiate and teach and into which he longs to draw us.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 10, year C; texts: Luke 7:11-17 (18-23); 1 Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 30; Galatians 1:11-24

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

One of the many iconic moments in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz occurs after Dorothy and her friends return to the Emerald City at the end.  They’ve done all the wizard asked, and now he is brusquely sending them away without the promised gifts.  While Dorothy protests, her dog Toto trots over to the side of the audience hall and pulls aside a curtain, behind which stands a man talking into a microphone and working many gears and levers.  “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” the voice of Oz booms out.

Of course – and I apologize if this spoils the movie for those who haven’t seen it yet, but really, it’s been out for 74 years, so you’ve had plenty of time – of course it turns out that the Wizard of Oz isn’t the huge, frightening head with the booming voice and the special effects that hovers above the throne.  The wizard is the very ordinary man behind the curtain, and the “Wizard of Oz” that everyone has known and feared is all projection and mirage.  He has no actual magical talent.  “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” has become a byword for things that appear to be greater than they are but which are really illusion and deception.

Which makes Jesus all the more interesting and compelling.  Because Jesus, it seems, is the opposite of the wizard.  Jesus actually has power, is able to do amazing things.  He can even raise people to life who once were dead.  But if we listen to Jesus, the message we hear is “pay attention to the man behind the curtain.”  Jesus repeatedly seems to refocus people away from his miraculous actions and toward himself, his teachings, the life he is calling people to live.  The miracles, the wonder, these seem incidental to Jesus’ mission and goals.

It’s refreshing, actually, compared to the world experience in which most of us are well used to being told not to look too carefully behind any curtain.  But it’s no less challenging.  The miraculous things Jesus actually does can be so compelling to our interest, we can often think they’re the only point, and never get to know the man behind the curtain.  Never get to talk to him, listen to him, and learn what he really came to do.  Never fully commit to following him, walking with him throughout our lives.

Actually, on a Sunday where all four of our readings from God’s Word speak of miraculous transformations, it’s pretty powerful to realize that in at least three cases, those transformations point to something far more important behind the curtain, and invite us to come and see ourselves.

In all four of these readings, the miracle leads to praise of God, and even more, in three of them it leads to listening to the truth God needs heard.

When Elijah raises the woman’s son, she praises God (which is good, since she blamed God when her son died), and says she knows the truth about Elijah now.  “You are a man of God,” and – and this is the important thing – “the word of the LORD in your mouth is the truth.”  Now everything Elijah has told her about God is something she can trust.  She can believe that he tells the truth, because God has used him to raise her son.

The same happens with Jesus.  Because he raises this young man, people praise and glorify God for sending such a prophet.  They see Jesus the way the widow sees Elijah, confirmed now as a servant of God.  And when word of this gets to John the Baptist in prison, he decides to follow up.

It’s a little odd at first to consider why John has to ask.  After all, he’s the one who pointed Jesus out first as Messiah, the Lamb of God.  It was his job.  But it’s likely because it was his main job that he needs to act on his doubts.  He’s in prison, and probably aware that it’s likely Herod will have him killed at some point.  And Jesus isn’t preaching the fire and brimstone John preached.  He’s preaching grace and inclusion along with his call to repentance.

For Jesus, the reign of God is extending to non-Jews and Jews, and welcomes even “sinful” people.  But he’s doing miracles, too.  So John wants to know the truth.  That’s why I had us hear those verses – the appointed Gospel ends with the miracle.  But we also need to hear the rest, the truth.

Jesus starts out his answer to John by saying, “Go and tell John what you see and hear.”  And he gives the laundry list of miracles: the blind see, the deaf hear, even the dead are raised.  The implication is that who else would he be, if he’s doing things like this.

But the final statement is the real answer: “the poor have the Good News preached to them.”  This is the whole point for Jesus.  Look at the signs I’m doing, sure.  They’ll tell you I have power from God.  But the important thing is that I’m bringing Good News from God to the poor.

This preaching I’m doing, the way I’m showing is of God, this is Good News, John.  Blessed are you if you don’t take offense at it.  It’s not fire and brimstone, it’s not axes and judgment.  It’s grace and welcome, and yes, invitation to sin no more.  But it’s Good News: to the poor, to the Jew, to the Gentile, even to the wealthy.

The miracles are not the point, not even this amazing resurrection.  The point for Jesus is this: God is now among you, and is calling all of you, all people to a new reign of God, to the Good News of God’s way.  It’s the way to life.  It’s more important than anything else.  Even than having a child raised from their coffin.

Jesus isn’t ignorant.  He knows this is going to be the sticking point for many.

We all like a good miracle.  We all know the desperate desire for such things.  And he provided them, again and again.  But if you look at the record, not only does he often downplay and even discount his miracles, telling people to keep quiet about them.  He most often doesn’t seem to plan any of them.  They just happen.  Usually because he’s the Son of God and loves people and can’t walk past suffering.

Look at today’s story: he comes to the city of Nain for who knows what reason and just runs into a funeral procession.  Because he feels compassion for the bereft widow who now has no son to support her, he raises her son.  It almost feels like an accidental encounter.

This is important to understand because of our desperation.  When I first preached this text it was in my first parish, and we had just experienced a horrible event in our very small town of 600 people.  One of the recent high school graduates, who was also even the prom queen, had been killed in a traffic accident a week after graduation.  She belonged to another parish, but there were only three churches in town, and everyone, everyone was grieving.  You hear a Gospel like this on the next Sunday and the only question is, “Why doesn’t God do that anymore?  Why doesn’t God raise dead children anymore?”

And with the number of children who have died tragically in only the past six months, from Newtown to Boston to Oklahoma, or the tens of thousands who have died of hunger and disease and war, this is no small concern.  Add to that our concern and love for the suffering of all sorts of other people, loved ones, people on the other side of the planet, people of all kinds.

If our proclamation about Jesus is that he heals all these things, we’re back to the Wizard of Oz, because while he certainly can heal all these things, there are millions of times that he doesn’t.  And if such miracles are the point of his coming, then either he’s not very good at what he is supposed to be, or he doesn’t care about us like he did the people of his day.

But in fact, the miracles were never the point.  They were the outflowing of love from the Incarnate Son of God because he couldn’t walk past pain.  But the point of his coming was to show us God, to be with us as God in person, and to lead us into a life of love and faith with the Triune God in whose hands all life rests.  To show us a way of life which can live in a world of tragedy and pain and find abundance and joy.

To show us that even in this world we can know grace and hope, even if all our requests for miracles aren’t granted.  And in dying and rising, to forever give us the Good News that no matter how or when our lives end, or the lives of anyone, that is not the end, and there is life in a world to come.

But Jesus wants us to follow him, not his miracles.  To commit to him.  Because with him there is life.

His miracles only help establish his credentials, so we can trust our lives to him.  Like Elijah, because we can see what he has done, including rising from the dead, we know he is from God.

But the point of that knowing is then to follow him.  To invite him to lead us in our journey of life, guide us, show us a way of life.

It’s the same thing Paul is doing in this word from Galatians.  He tells of his miracle, that one who violently persecuted Christians was transformed by God into a great preacher for Christ.  And look what he says: “they glorified God because of me.”  Once again, the miracle leads to praise of God, not the person.  And the reason Paul tells it is to establish his credentials for the Galatians so they will listen to him and do what he says.  Not so they’ll be amazed at the miracle.  So they’ll trust that he brings them the truth from God.

Just as the widow trusted Elijah.  Just as Jesus invites John, and all of us, to trust him.

This isn’t an easy lesson for us to learn.  We long for the ending of all suffering and pain, and if God can shortcut that through the power of the Son of God, we’re all for it.  But we can’t avoid the truth that very Son repeatedly wants us to hear: life with God is possible and real and available, and it isn’t about getting or not getting miracles.

It’s about – and this is a wonder beyond wonders – it’s about living in a full, life-giving relationship with the Triune God who made all things and who loves us.  It’s about having God’s grace as a constant companion in our journey of life, sustaining us even in our suffering, giving life and meaning and purpose to our existence.  It’s about walking with the man behind the curtain and learning his way, and finding it’s a way of rich, abundant life.

I think Jesus would understand our desire to see such miracles as these all the time.

His compassion is likely pulled greatly at the suffering we inflict upon each other and this planet.

But that’s the reason he needs us to pay more attention to him than to these things.  The way of God he brings us will lead to life for all, and bring grace and healing to this world in profound ways.  We know this.  We’ve seen it happen before, and will again.

And we’ve seen that the salvation we have in Christ Jesus is something we can experience and know every moment of our lives, even as we rejoice in the hope of the life that is to come.  Following him, committing to this Way, that’s our path.  And it’s the path of life for us and for the world, the way that turns our wailing into dancing, and clothes us with joy.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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