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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Fourth Week of Easter 04/17/2016

This isn’t Holy Humor Sunday; that’s next week. For me though, the weeks can overlap as I’m often working on one sermon but also looking ahead to the next one and sometimes even beyond that which can have the effect of creating some strange collisions in my brain as wires kind of get crossed and weird connections are made. That’s what happened to me this week.

Thinking about this week’s sermon and today’s lessons, which aren’t funny at all, but at the same time thinking about humor and trolling around for jokes for next week, one of those brain collisions caused me to wonder why are there so many Jewish comedians? Did you ever wonder about that? There’s lots of them going back to the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers then Jack Benny, Milton Berle, George Burns, Don Rickles, Jerry Lewis, Rodney Dangerfield, more recently Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and that’s just to name a few. It’s a disproportionately high number in any case, which makes you think there must be a reason.

One can’t say for sure I guess, but one theory that gets tossed around is that it’s because of the history of the Jews as a persecuted people. When being persecuted humor can be a coping mechanism, a way to survive, a way to maintain some sanity, a way to preserve a degree of hope in the face of your oppressors and, to some degree, to thumb your nose at your oppressors. The thinking is that over many generations this method of using humor to cope became engrained in Jewish culture resulting in that disproportionate number of comedians even in situations where such oppression no longer exists or at least is less than it once was. The theory then is that humor in the face of persecution just became part of who Jews are as a people. You can’t prove it, but it’s a theory.

One of the interesting things about the Bible is that much of it, most of it actually, is written from the perspective of persecuted people. You have the people of Israel as slaves in Egypt and the whole Moses/Pharaoh/ Exodus scenario. Then there’s all the prophetic material in the Old Testament written before, during or after various times of oppression and exile. In the New Testament, Jesus arrived at a time when Israel had been annexed and occupied by the Roman Empire and people were hoping for a Messiah to set them free. That’s the background of the gospels and other parts of the New Testament, Acts and the letters, tell of various threats to the early Christian community.

Humor however, wasn’t the coping mechanism of choice in the Bible. I don’t think anyone would claim that the Bible is a particularly funny book. Within the Bible though, there is what you might call a sub-genre of stories intended to provide hope and encouragement during a time of persecution. That’s at least part of what’s going on in the long Exodus story with Pharaoh and the plagues. Then, in books like Esther and Daniel it is probably the case that providing hope and encouragement at times when faith is threatened is the main point of those stories and as an aside I would argue that there are at least elements of humor in both Esther and Daniel, dark humor perhaps, but humor nonetheless so maybe the seeds of Jewish humor do go back to the Bible.

In the New Testament though, this sub-genre of material intended to provide hope and encouragement is best represented by the book of Revelation. Revelation is one of the most misunderstood, misused books in the Bible especially when it’s used to create scary end of the world scenarios identifying current world figures as the various creatures that show up in the visions that are described. Revelation however, is not a scary blueprint of the future. Instead it’s an effort to use apocalyptic, imaginative, pictorial language to provide comfort and hope for early Christian communities that were facing persecution.

Revelation uses code language to tell the story of Jesus and to explain who he is, and also to say things about the Roman oppressors that couldn’t be said otherwise without fear of punishment, including death. Similar to how humor can be used, the visions and strange creatures were a way to thumb their nose at the oppressors without them knowing what was going on. For the Christian community though, the intention wasn’t to scare anyone, but to help them persevere against oppression, to help them persist in their baptismal identity.

Today, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, part of the imagery comes from Revelation with the Lamb. It’s imagery that’s familiar to us; around here you see a lamb on the paraments, you see it in stained glass and we sing it as part of the liturgy: “Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God.” You might be surprised how much of the liturgy that we say every week comes from Revelation. The imagery can become so familiar though, that it’s easy to miss what it means to identify Jesus as the Lamb.

The Lamb however, is not the only vision of Jesus that we get in Revelation. The first image that appears is that of a majestic, human like figure with a golden sash across his chest, his eyes like a flame of fire, his face shining like the sun with a sword in his mouth. That’s what a divine figure ought to look like, right? It’s more in line with the visions of prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel. In Revelation though, that image is soon replaced or at least eclipsed a couple of chapters later by the Lamb, and from there on it is the Lamb who dominates things. That includes today’s verses where the Lamb is the object of worship and it is the Lamb who, in a reversal of roles, will be their shepherd and guide them to the springs of the water of life and wipe every tear from their eyes.

From the point of view of the Roman Empire, that first majestic image would have made sense as an illustration of divine power. An image of a lamb, however, would not have made sense as no one would see a lamb representing strength and power able to lead people; that’s not what lambs do. Even as insiders, we get faked out a little bit concerning the lamb as another more likely image interrupts things, an image of a majestic, divine figure, this time seated on a throne holding a scroll with seven seals and the question of who is worthy to open the scroll, a question apparently answered by “Do not weep, for the lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

In apocalyptic writing such as this, the figure of lion would make sense as being worthy to open the scroll; such figures do appear in other apocalypses…but Revelation is different. In place of the expected lion, comes the lamb.

That is the image of Jesus that is dominant throughout Revelation, a Lamb who becomes the victor not by militaristic power and might, but by being the target of that power. With Lamb theology, evil is defeated by the Lamb’s suffering love on the cross rather than by overwhelming force or violence.

For the early Christian community addressed by the book of Revelation, a community being controlled by the oppression of the Roman Empire, the message is that like the Lamb, God’s people are called to conquer not by fighting, but by remaining faithful and testifying to Christ’s victory won through self giving love. Lamb power represents Revelation’s new way of life which is Jesus’ new way of life, life oriented around self giving love.

It’s hanging on to this image and this way of life that represents the challenge of Easter. We’re four weeks into the Easter season now; we’re done with resurrections appearances and now get into more reflection on what the resurrection means. This Fourth Sunday of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday but this year, with the reading from Revelation, the focus is a little different than in other years, being less about the shepherd and more about the Lamb and Lamb theology.

For those first addressed by Revelation it had to be difficult to imagine how this Lamb theology could prevail in the face of Roman power just as it can be hard for us to imagine how it can prevail in the face of the evil and dysfunction of our world. But when we announce, “Alleluia! He is Risen!” we announce the paradoxical power of the Lamb, power made known in weakness, and we say that this way of the Lamb is the way that we choose and we’re not going back. Around here, we’re not persecuted for persisting in this identification with the Lamb although we might be accused of being naïve or overly idealistic. But we keep on with our proclamation and with our way of life, not just as a coping mechanism, but believing that this way of the Lamb is the way that will change the world.

The Lamb gives us a vision not just of the future, but a vision of right now, and so we live, in hope.

Pastor Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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