Sermon – 11/24/2013

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Rev. Joe ConnollyThe Messiah of God

by Rev. Joseph Connolly

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“People stood by, watching. The leaders, however, scoffed and jeered saying, ‘This one saved others; let him save himself— if he is the Messiah of God, the Chosen One!’” — Luke 23:35.

Malcolm Gladwell writes non-fiction books that usually go right to the top of the Best Seller list when first published. His most recent work is David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.

The author starts this book with an exegesis of the David and Goliath story from Scripture. Exegesis— that’s a $64 word which means looking at a text and doing a critical explanation and/or interpretation of it. Most often the word exegesis is used when speaking about religious texts.

However, exegesis can apply to any text. Our Norwich High School students who have had Mr. Bernstein’s Advanced Placement Literature and Composition classes, even though they many not know this, have practiced exegesis and probably practiced it really hard.

I am sure Mr. Bernstein has asked students to do this kind of analysis many times. And, as I suggested, you can exegete any text— from Shakespeare to Salinger to Shaw to Scripture. Textual analysis is a universal possibility.

Well, let me come back to the David and Goliath story and the exegesis Gladwell does with it. First, he describes the place, the valley where David and Goliath do battle.

The Israelite army and Philistine army— about equal in strength— wind up encamped on opposite edges of a ravine in a stand-off. Neither wants to descend to the valley only to have to fight their way up the other hill. I am sure you’ve heard the cliché attached with that one— uphill battle. Uphill battles are hard to win.

So Goliath, a giant— many scholars suggest this is simply an exceptionally tall man, maybe close to 7 feet tall— Goliath, a giant wearing armor, offers a challenge. Fight me. Your warrior wins, you win and we, the Philistines, become your slaves. I win, the opposite happens.

Then the short, young shepherd, clothed perhaps only in an animal skin, challenges that armor clad giant. Of course, the shepherd defies all odds and wins. This— David conquering Goliath— has become a metaphor in our language for someone who overcomes terrible odds and improbably winds up a victor.

But is that what happened? Or does the story say something else and we simply ignore it? (Slight pause.) In the analysis Gladwell offers, he insists we misread the story.

In the original text, Goliath says he can see David carrying two sticks. But the text also clearly tells us David carries a single staff. There is only one conclusion to be drawn: Goliath sees things blurry or double. In fact, if Goliath is as tall as some think, both that height and blurry or double vision might be caused by an overactive pituitary gland.

Further, he is led down the hill by a servant. He doesn’t come down by himself. So he is not just someone with bad eyesight. He is probably clumsy too. He cannot clamor down the hill alone.

And he wears all that armor. He can’t move quickly. Goliath probably wants to fight David in close quarters with a spear and a sword.

David, on the other hand, is mobile and agile. He can get close but can scamper away. David also carries a deadly weapon. The sling is not the children’s toy with which many of us are familiar.

It is made of a single piece of cloth and two lines. It was whirled overhead five to six times a second before release.

As to the stones used, we know the terrain in this area. We know the kind of stones found there. They are both small and heavy. So David picks up a small but dense stone to use in the sling.

Last, we know in ancient times people, like shepherds, were sharpshooters— so skilled they could kill a bird in flight with a stone hurled from a sling. And that stone came out of the sling at a speed similar to a modern bullet shot from a gun. (Slight pause.)

Was there a risk for the Israelites? Yes— it was huge. On the other hand, Saul probably overestimated the strengths of Goliath and underestimated the advantages of David. So the Israelites were worried and hesitant. But, says Gladwell, it was David who really had the upper hand, not Goliath. [1]

In short, most of us misread the story. And all you need to do is the exegetical work, the analysis, to realize there is something beyond the obvious in the story. (Slight pause.)

And these words are from the work known as Luke. “People stood by, watching. The leaders, however, scoffed and jeered saying, ‘This one saved others; let him save himself— if he is the Messiah of God, the Chosen One!’” (Slight pause.)

I think we find ourselves in a similar place with this reading and we need to analyze it to help make any sense. The reading is, you see, not as straightforward as it seems. On the surface, it’s a story about the crucifixion.

But if that’s the case, why did the compilers of the lections place a crucifixion story on the last Sunday before Advent, the season which moves us toward Christmas, the season we celebrate the birth of the Messiah? And why did the Church, in its wisdom, declare the Feast of the Reign of Christ on this day? And where is there any good news here? After all, it’s about crucifixion. (Slight pause.)

Well, this is what I think is going on. In this short passage, this crucifixion scene, Jesus is referred to by three different titles: ‘King of the Jews,’ ‘the Chosen One’ and ‘ the Messiah.’ All these are messianic titles— titles of a Messiah. So over and over again in this reading we find a proclamation: Jesus is the Messiah of God.

When that is taken into consideration, we need to ask the obvious question. Should our focus be on the crucifixion or should our focus lie elsewhere?

And, indeed, in order to help with that focus, let’s take a step back from this specific story and see it in the context of an overview of the Gospel known as Luke. In the Second Chapter of this work— when do we read the Second Chapter of this work? Christmas Eve. In the Second Chapter of this work when the angels appear to the shepherds, what is said?

“…the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for you have nothing to fear; I have come to bring you good news, news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah.’” [2]

And here, in today’s passage from Luke, Jesus is being crucified. And what is it we hear? Jesus is the Messiah. (Slight pause.)

We hear Messiah at the birth of Jesus. We hear Messiah when Jesus is murdered. (Slight pause.) So, is this passage about the crucifixion? Or is this passage about something else? (Slight pause.)

As I hope is obvious to you, the real topic of this passage is not crucifixion. The central concern is a proclamation which insists Jesus is the Messiah. (Slight pause.)

Even though it will take another three centuries for the church to form the doctrine we call Trinity, we can see its beginnings here. You see, at first, the Christian movement is made up of faithful Jews. So Jesus is seen as the Messiah of God.

And that brings us to why this is an appropriate reading for the last Sunday before the Season of Advent. Advent invites us to prepare for the Season of Christmas.

Rumor to the contrary, Christmas is not a secular holiday. Christmas is or should be a solemn occasion. Why? Christmas is a remembrance which celebrates the in-breaking of God into the life of the world and into our own lives. Personally, I cannot imagine a more solemn reason for celebration.

And after all, this is what the Second Chapter of Luke says: “…the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for you have nothing to fear; I have come to bring you good news, news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah.’” Amen.

ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Given what I said today, there are two more things I need to say about exegesis, this analysis of Scripture. It is not new. It was not invented in the last century. The Prophets practiced exegesis; Jesus practiced exegesis; Paul practiced exegesis; faithful Christians have practiced exegesis for 2,000 years. Second, exegesis is easy. It works using one simple rule: don’t ask what Scripture says; ask what it means. Or as I’ve often said, I don’t take Scripture literally; I take it seriously.”

BENEDICTION: Let us walk in the light God provides. Let us thank God for reaching out to us in love. Let us be daily recreated in the image of God who wants us to live with justice as our guide and freedom as our goal. And may the peace of Christ which surpasses our understanding keep our hearts and minds in the companionship of the Holy Spirit and the love of God this day and evermore. Amen.

[1] Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Little, Brown and Company.

[2] Luke 2:10-11 [ILV]



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