Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Hebrews 1: The Medium is the Message

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 01/16/2011

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

5For to which of the angels did God ever say,

“You are my Son;

today I have become your Father”?

Or again,

“I will be his Father,

and he will be my Son”?

6And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says,

“Let all God’s angels worship him.”

7In speaking of the angels he says,

“He makes his angels spirits,

and his servants flames of fire.”

8But about the Son he says,

“Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever;

a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom.

9You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;

therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions

by anointing you with the oil of joy.”

10He also says,

“In the beginning, Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,

and the heavens are the work of your hands.

11They will perish, but you remain;

they will all wear out like a garment.

12You will roll them up like a robe;

like a garment they will be changed.

But you remain the same,

and your years will never end.”

13To which of the angels did God ever say,

“Sit at my right hand

until I make your enemies

a footstool for your feet”?

14Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?

Hebrews 1v1-14

God wants to communicate with us. This is one of the fundamental witnesses of the scriptures. It is not that God is up there, and we are down here, and he just sets everything in motion and lets it all spin to see what happens. It’s that God is interested in a relationship with us. A relationship with communication at its very center. He wants to communicate to us who he is and how he feels about us and what he desires for us. And he wants us to communicate with him, and to know that he hears us, and is responsive to our communication. Because it is through communication that communion happens. And it is through communication that love is expressed, and it is in communion that love is experienced.

Hebrews reflects on this idea of God’s desire to communicate right from the beginning. “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets in many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…”

Let’s think about some of those many times and many ways. At the beginning, of course, it’s face to face. When all was well between us and God, the scriptures describe God and Adam as walking together and talking, like you and I might today. But when the relationship breaks down, the medium of communication changes. The very word “prophet” indicates something of this new medium. It’s a compound of the Greek words for “above” and “say”. Words from above. Like Noah, hearing about building an ark. Seems to be a voice, not connected to a body. Then a rainbow. Three strangers show up to communicate with Abraham one time. A burning bush for Moses. Stone tablets with the ten commandments on them. Many times, in various ways.

The media God uses to communicate with us are carefully chosen by God. Because the medium is the message. Even moreso sometimes than the message is the message.

That expression, “the medium is the message,” comes from Marshall McLuhan, an obscure literary professor who studied and wrote about media and communication in the 1960s. To understand what’s going on in Hebrews 1, it’s worth trying to understand McLuhan’s idea that the medium is the message.

A medium is just the tool we use to communicate. There are a nearly infinite variety of media. A newspaper or a book would be a medium. Television would be a medium. An mp3 audio recording. Radio. The internet. Spoken words. A letter. A telephone. A billboard. Body language. Text message. Tattoos. And on and on.

The medium is the message says that the medium that is chosen to communicate the message embeds itself in the message, shaping the message itself, influencing how the message is perceived. It says that the medium itself communicates something – something that may reinforce the content of the message, or undermine the content of the message, or even be completely unrelated to the content of the message. [flickering light ad…Shane Hipps story of satellite church…] And that sometimes, the medium through which the message is expressed may be even more powerful than the content of the message.

Some examples would probably be helpful.

For instance, a keep out sign in needlepoint vs. two axe heads with keep and out written in blood… The medium is the message.

For instance, a lengthy email received recently saying how important it was that we talk about an issue personally, but that the sender might not be available until next Wednesday. The content of the message was that this was something important to work out. But the medium suggested that this was something the sender wanted to offload and feel better having done so. The medium is the message.

Or, for instance, your dad told you that it was important to hold women in high respect, but you saw him abuse your mother regularly, and objectify beautiful women by whistling at them and making catcalls whenever you were out and about with him. Or, on the other hand, your dad hardly said a word about how to treat women, but you saw him honor your mom regularly with his words and actions, and the one time you said something disrespectful to your mom was the only time you ever heard him raise his voice to you in your life? The medium is the message.

To further the point of how powerful media is, historically speaking, consider how the predominant media of a culture shapes the culture and the brains of the people in the culture even more powerfully than any particular thing that is said through the predominant media of the day.

When the unamplified and untransmitted human voice was the predominant media, sharing information required that we gather in extended family and tribal groups regularly to share what we knew and remembered and discovered and thought. Memory itself required community, and our brains’ capacity for remembering was shaped by repetition and stories and songs. In an oral culture, you reached adulthood by the time you could understand stories and songs and when you could commit information to verbal memory; so in one’s early teens, one could contribute productively to the community. Older members of the community maintained power and authority because of the amount of information and stories they had committed to memory over the years and could recall and communicate when the tribe needed it. The medium matters.

Then, when the printed word began to become the primary medium for communication (especially in the western world after the invention of the printing press), it was no longer necessary to be in that kind of proximate communion to receive and transmit information. It was possible to communicate independent of an extended family or tribe or village. Information could be stored in a way that was not dependent on the memories of older members of the community. It became less and less important for survival and productivity to live in close-knit community. Our brains began to be good at processing and following ordered and logical arguments. Adulthood was delayed until a young person could become fully literate and access the information required for productivity in a print media dominated world, pushing adulthood to the late teens or early twenties. Those with power and authority tended to be those who were the most literate, the most able to follow and create the logical syllogisms and rational arguments that sprang up in a printing system dependent on the careful arrangement of the 26 symbols of western alphabets. (The impact of the print medium is all around us – prior to the Gutenberg bible, there were just open spaces for worshippers to gather. Shortly after the printing press, churches ordered their seating like the columns in the Bible.) The medium matters.

Today, the dominant media of our culture are technological and image-based. What’s on the surface matters most. Images access the emotional parts of our brains more directly than the printed word, and so how we feel about things matters more than it used to. Our brains are less developed in their capacity for rationality, and more attuned to certain forms of emotionality and empathy. Attention spans for rational argument have reduced dramatically. (some of you have already forgotten what we started talking about: In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…”) Those with the ability to control images are beginning to have the most power and authority in our culture, along with those who are competent with the technology through which most of our information is accessed. There is a fuzziness about parent/child roles and adulthood as children sometimes have better access to information through their comfort with technology and facility with images than their parents. The medium matters.

Remember John 1: In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the Word was GodNo one is better at communication than God. God masterfully chooses the media that he uses to transmit his messages. Because, in a very central way, the medium is the message. When he speaks to Moses out of a burning bush, the words are part of the message, but so is the burning bush itself. Take off your shoes for you are on holy ground is reinforced by the mystery and power and unexpectedness of a bush on fire but not being consumed. It’s something that makes you draw near out of interest and intrigue, but also makes you afraid because of its otherness and danger. When God gives the law to Moses on stone tablets, the medium of carving in stone says these are commandments that are solid, reliable, unchanging, weighty, important, long lasting. The message would have been very different if they were given as handwriting on a beach at low tide, only to be washed away when the waves came in.

The message of Hebrews 1 is a message about the medium that God has finally chosen to use to communicate to us. Every other communication, every other message, every other medium has been building up to this most perfect message in this most perfect medium. Not a disembodied word in our heads. Not a burning bush. Not stone tablets. Not a cloud by day or fire by night. Not a tabernacle in the desert. Not powerful natural phenomena. But his Son. Jesus of Nazareth. The radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being in the divinely incarnated flesh and blood of Mary and Joseph’s son.

(“exact representation” = charakter = the stamp of the emperor on the coin, the most perfect kind of representation available in the ancient world; “of his being” = hypostasis = underlying nature or substance. In other words, not the exact representation of his image, like a coin would be, but the exact representation of God’s true nature)

God wants to communicate to us by coming among us a person who loves us. Who serves us. Who heals us. Who accepts the invitation to our parties. Who is not afraid of our diseases or our sin. Who listens to us. Who allows us to change his diapers and nail him to a cross. Who eats with us and drinks with us. Who is strong enough to stand up to our enemies. Who is vulnerable enough to bear our burdens. Who washes our feet. Who forgives us. Who we can accept and befriend and surrender to, or reject and wound and stand above and kick in the teeth.

God wants to communicate to us by coming among us as a person who gets to know us like he is one of us. Who suffers what we suffer. Who speaks our language and knows our lives. Who feels our fears and is tempted by our temptations. Who experiences our hunger and our thirst and our sorrows.

God communicates to us by coming among us as a person who knows the favor of his Father and is filled and enlivened with the presence of God’s mysterious and holy spirit. Who speaks with tender mercy to the broken and with unquestioned authority to the powers that be. Who defeats every darkness and radiates a light that outshines every lesser truth. Who walks simultaneously in humility and obedience on the one hand, and extraordinary power and creativity on the other. Who dies a sacrificial death and is raised to unprecedented resurrection life.

We may have never heard a single word that Jesus ever said, and yet still, if we have encountered Jesus, we have encountered God’s communication to us. And if we have heard every word that Jesus has said, but not encountered him, then we have missed the essence of what God wants to say to us. The medium is the message. Jesus is the message. His words and actions merely serve to amplify and explain and give commentary to the message that he already is.

Practical tips:

1. Look & Listen for Jesus. Do you want to know God more? Have meaningful communication with him, for example? Get a sense of what he might be saying to you? Or what he might be wanting to you to do? Start by asking him to reveal Jesus to you. Start by asking Jesus to show you more of himself. Find a place you can say it out loud: “Jesus, show yourself to me.” (I know that sounds very mystical. But the truth is, Jesus is alive and well and God desires personal relationship with you that involves communication and his most powerful communication is through this extraordinary person, Jesus. The tricky thing of course, is that Jesus is revealed to us today, since his ascension, through the Holy Spirit, and through his body, the church, and through the scriptures that bear witness to him. But nonetheless, through all of those, he makes himself personally known to us in a way that is God himself making himself known to us. Any communication from God that is not mediated through Jesus is less than communication mediated through him.)

2. Be Yourself. Do you want to be part of helping others to be in communion with God, as you’ve gotten to know him in Jesus? Be yourself. Your life is God’s communication to others about Jesus. You and your brothers and sisters are the medium that Jesus has chosen to reveal himself. You are part of the church, which is Jesus’ body. The commandments are no longer God’s preferred medium. A tract is not God’s preferred medium. A youtube video is not God’s preferred medium. A great sermon is not God’s preferred medium. A website with all the answers is not God’s preferred medium. We are. You, and your brothers and sisters, and me. We are. So be yourself with people. Be the broken person you still are. Be the transformed person you are becoming. Be the person full of new joys and hopes. Be the person with doubts and struggles. Be the person in whom God is alive and healing. Be the person who feels God’s absence at times and suffers setbacks. And let us together be a church coming among those who are suffering and broken and serving them and loving them and eating with them and who are not afraid of their diseases and their sins and who are strong enough to stand up to their enemies and vulnerable enough to bear their burdens and who are living in humility and obedience and who are demonstrating extraordinary power and creativity and who are dying sacrificial deaths and tasting resurrection life, and all the rest. The medium is the message, and Jesus will only be revealed through us as much as we are free to be ourselves with others, flexing our newly formed biceps and basking in a new awareness of our beauty, and not covering over our warts and wounds.

3. Read the gospels minus the red letters. Read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, skipping over Jesus’ words. Try to hear what God is saying through Jesus even without words.

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