worship

Jackals and Ostriches
Dr. Baron Mullis
March 13, 2016 - Philippians 3:4b-4:14; Isaiah 43:16-21

 

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Jackals and Ostriches                                                            
Philippians 3:4b-4:14; Isaiah 43:16-21        

Dr. Baron Mullis
Morningside Presbyterian Church
March 13, 2016


I have to confess that when I went to title today’s sermon, roughly six weeks ago, I was casting about for an idea about what to preach that wouldn’t be the same old thing and my eye landed on two words in the Old Testament lection for today, and of course, you know what they are: Jackals and Ostriches. 

I thought to myself, without doing any research, if Isaiah is going to be specific about which animals in particular out of the menagerie of options available in the Bible, there must be something important about it. 

Then I set about doing my reading for today’s sermon, and it turns out the passage is about God doing a new thing.

I flirted with the idea of committing homiletical malpractice: You know, preaching about something that has absolutely nothing to do with the Bible passage because the allure of word association is just too great.  I mean, here I have Jackals and Ostriches to work with, and it’s the political silly season known as the primaries, it’s not quite elephants and donkeys, but hey, they’re wild animals; close enough: Problem solved…

But I decided that would be a bad idea after rereading an old classic book that I keep around, I’ve told you about it before, Roger Rosenblatt’s Rules for Aging.  Here’s rule number twenty-five: That Couldn’t Be A Book.   

Rosenblatt writes, “From time to time people will respond to an idea of yours, or to something you casually say, with the encouraging words ‘That could be a book!’

It couldn’t.  Its not that the encouragers do not mean what they are saying; its simply that they do not know what a book entails.  Books are made out of big ideas, big themes, big actions, and big people, or at least they ought to be.”1

Well, the corollary that carried from that is, while the Jackals and Ostriches are fascinating, in fact, “That couldn’t be a sermon.”

What can be, though, is the idea that God could do a new thing.  That can be the basis of a sermon.  What’s more, that can be the basis for a life, indeed, even a new life.

Indeed, we heard last week one of the most enduring images from Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, that of a new creation.  When God does a new thing, it is as though creation itself has begun again. 

I love the way that Fred Craddock puts it when he writes, “New creation?  Morning has broken, like the first morning?  Yeah.  Blackbird like the first bird?  Yeah.  New creation, that’s what the Bible calls it.  The Bible calls it a new beginning.  Picture a child, third grade, trying to do arithmetic, in a hurry, bell’s about to ring, teacher’s fussing, ‘Hurry up, children,’ try to erase a mistake, tear the paper, make a black smear, start to cry, teacher comes by, ‘Oh my goodness,” and teacher slides a new sheet of paper there and says, ‘Why don’t you start over?’” “The Bible says it’s like a snowfall”  (You remember snow looks like, don’t you?)  “You get up in the morning early, and you look out: about four inches and there’s not a print in it yet.  And you look across the alley, and what yesterday afternoon was the ugly garbage dumpster is now a mound to the glory of God.”2

That’s what Isaiah is writing about: a new beginning.  And Isaiah is writing to a people who have messed up what God asked them to do so badly, so completely that only a new beginning is going to make it right.  Only a fresh start, a clean sheet, a new beginning is going to have any hope of success. 

That is one of the great universals that I have learned through the course of my ministry: That no matter how good a situation seems to be, no matter how perfect the life of a congregation seems to be, no matter how wealthy and attractive a neighborhood and its residents may be, there are, without fail, on any given Sunday, folks in worship who need to hear the great good news of the Gospel that life can begin again. 

Isaiah’s audience needed to hear it.  They’d made disastrous alliances first with the north, then with the south, it had all come crashing down and now the barbarians are at the gate.

You think they needed a new beginning?

That’s the funny thing about new beginnings, we don’t tend to think we need them most of the time, and perhaps we don’t.  But when it all comes crashing down, when life tumbles in, when the house of cards begins to topple, new beginnings can look awfully appealing. 

Maybe you remember that scene from Jesus Christ, Superstar, where the disciples sing, This was unexpected, what do I do now?

Could we start again please?

I've been very hopeful, so far

Now for the first time I think we're going wrong

Hurry up and tell me this is just a dream

Oh could we start again please?3

The apostle Paul knew something about starting again – I wonder if that isn’t why his imagery of the new creation is so compelling, so very appealing – because he himself lived it.  He tells the story himself in his letter to the Philippians.  I’ve always loved how honest he was with them.  He’s not exactly subtle:

“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

Pedigree: on the Mayflower.  Education: Ivy League.  Party Loyalty: Insider. 

But it turns on a dime: his very next line: I have come to regard these things as loss.  Actually, Paul is a little more direct than that – he wants to make the point.  New Testament scholars have all kinds of fun trying to come up with creative ways to say rubbish really means excrement, but what Paul is saying actually goes even deeper. The Greek word ζημιο?ν, is probably best translated damage.

In other words, pedigreed, educated, insider, and more than anything: damaged.

I’ve always thought that was closer to the mark because Paul isn’t saying that there is no value or no use in what he came from.  Paul clearly loves his Jewish roots.  He’s proud of who he is.  He’s not saying he’s letting go of the rubbish.  He’s saying he’s letting go of what he most valued.

He’s saying, in effect, “I can’t have a new beginning if I’m holding on to what I was, and what I have found in Jesus enables me to let go.”

That is what I believe the good news of the Gospel is for us today: that we can let go.  In our own lives, at the bottom, we can let go of what is bad for what is good. 

But even more than that, we can let go of what is good for what is better.

That is the heart this season we call Lent: to let go of what is bad so that we may receive what is good.  To let go of what is good so that we may receive what is better.

Because that is the heart of the truth: all of us need a new beginning now and again.  If you haven’t, you probably haven’t lived long enough yet.  You will. 

And the amazing thing is that God gives an endless supply of new beginnings.  God is an endless supply of new creation, in fact, God never stopped creating and so every day is a new creation. 

And that, friends, is the constant: that in all the new beginnings, in every moment of new creation, we rest on the bedrock of God’s unfailing, permanent, indestructible grace.

That’s probably the number one mistake believers have made through the years, beginning with Cain and coming right on down to you and me, that we underestimate the durability and the permanence of God’s grace. 

You can’t mess up bad enough that there can’t be a new beginning.  And that is because there is more love in God than there is sin in you, and there will always be more love in God than sin in you. 

Now about those Jackals and Ostriches, I confess again, I didn’t tell you the whole story.  The Jackals and the Ostriches are not as, I said, the point of the story.  It’s about new beginnings.  But they aren’t unimportant either.  It turns out that I was right after all, there is something to the jackals and ostriches.  Isaiah did name them particularly out of the menagerie for a reason. 

To understand why, you have to remember that Isaiah is really three books, not one.  Book one should be subtitled, “Bad things are going to happen.”  Book two should be subtitled, “Bad things are happening,” and book three should bear the byline, “Bad things just happened.” 

And we’re right in the middle of book two today subtitled, “Bad things are happening.”  But when Isaiah trots out the jackals and ostriches, he’s pulling out old material, because back in chapter 34, “The prophet projected a vivid image of chaos: jackals and ostriches prowling amidst the ruins of a world collapsed under the weight of the iniquity of its inhabitants.”  Paul Hanson tells us, “To portray the radical nature of the new thing that God purposes, Second Isaiah reintroduces the jackals and ostriches, this time themselves restored to beauty and wholeness and giving honor to their Creator!  Even they have taken their place in a world abiding in shalom, a world in which God tenderly cares for the people whom God has chosen, a world – and now we come to the culminating act that gathers all creation up into one common purpose – in which Israel by its very existence bears witness to the one reason that gives eternal value to life:  so that they might declare my praise.”4

And here is the heart of the matter: when you and I experience our new beginnings, when we see the new creation that God has made, when that new creation is our very lives, we are freed to live into the fullness of what God made us for; to praise God.

And with our praises, we bear witness to the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.  And with our witness, we pave the way for a new creation for others. 

Or as my old friend Ruth Gault so succinctly put it, “We’re not so much saved from as we’re saved for.”

We are saved for the purpose of giving witness to God’s redemption and the unbreakable power of God’s love.  We are saved for the purpose of bearing witness that the very jackals and ostriches that prowl the ruins can become, in the faithfulness of God, the markers of a new creation.

Let me close with this quote from Anne Lamott:

“What I would like to come upon today is a very brief essay by someone to whom I turn for spiritual guidance. It would be a brief set of operating instructions for difficult days on trust and surrender, and joy as a radical act. It might mention the great gospel song, "Hallelujah Anyway," which suggests that even in the midst of heightened stress and discomfort, when people are being even more annoying than usual, and our bodies are proving to be a little disappointing, well, Hallelujah Anyway…

The author might mention in passing that we get to start a new, sillier, more self-forgiving day whenever we want to…

The author might mention in a throwaway line that we can't fix ourselves, and we're not supposed to. We are broken. We are all damaged and flailing. We are recovering Higher Powers. You do not want to sit next to people at dinner who will not admit this. Eugene O'Neill said we are born broken, and that the grace of God is glue. That's the good news. The glue stick of grace is everywhere. The world is like your worst kitchen drawer that you have meant to clean out for three years, mostly full of junk that you don't need but can't throw out, with five old glue sticks and seven crumpled tubes of super glue, two of which are still useable. And this is the great miracle. The grace of God is glue; and it is spiritual WD-40, and it fresh air and it is free, yours for the asking.

The world sucks us down, but grace, Love, whatever you want to call it--is bigger than any weird horrible shit the world flings at us. Grace helps us be less awful. By grace there have been times--even during election season!--when I have been able not to hit back. By grace, there have been times--even during election season!--I have been able to let go of something, even if there are claw marks on it. Grace is a second wind. 

This article that I would like to come upon would end with the reminder that, all evidence to the contrary, we are loved and chosen and safe. We come from God, from Goodness, we're returning to God, but unfortunately, in the meantime, everything is mixed up, sometimes annoying and usually very messy. So we try to keep the patient comfortable. We get thirsty people water. Yes, maybe we eat just a tiny, tiny bit more Valentines candy than is absolutely ideal. Then? We start over, again and again and again. Starting now. Ready, set, go.”5

 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen. 


 

1 Roger Rosenblatt, Rules for Aging: resist normal impulses, live longer, attain perfection.  (Harcourt, NY, 2000) p69
2 Fred Craddock, Have You Ever Heard John Preach? in A Chorus of Witnesses, Long and Plantinga, eds.  (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1994) p43
3 Jesus Christ Superstar - Could We Start Again Please? Lyrics | MetroLyrics
4 Hanson, Paul.  Isaiah 40-66 in Interpretation.  (JKP: Louisville, 1995) p75
5 Anne Lamott, 2/13/16

Last Published: March 25, 2016 1:20 AM