Monday, June 29, 2015

The Seed Grows

    Let me begin this morning by setting the stage for what is happening in our Gospel lesson from the book of Mark.  I have said before that I believe Mark is a brilliant writer and story teller and that he places things in his gospel for a particular reason.  Such is the case with our lesson today.  Just prior to this account of Jesus’ calming the wind and waves, Jesus was teaching people from this boat as they gathered to hear Him preach.  Jesus said the following:

    ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’  30 He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’  Mark then informs us that Jesus taught the crowd with such parables, but when He and His disciples were alone, Jesus would teach them in more detail.  After informing us of this, Mark delves straight into a demonstration of Jesus’ power, but I would like to argue this morning this is less a demonstration about Jesus’ power and more about who He is.

    Mark begins by telling us that Jesus tells His disciples that they need to go across to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  The phrasing of Mark here indicates that they did not stop for provision.  They did not go ashore to stretch their legs.  They didn’t take too much time to check the weather.  They took Jesus “just as He was.”  Other boats were with them as they began their trek across the waters.

    Now, for a little bit of detail about the Sea of Galilee.  It’s a body of water that rests over 600 feet below sea level.  It is thirteen miles long and eight miles wide.  It has a mountain range on one side, and it is prone to sudden and violent storms.  You see, winds oftentimes rush down the mountainsides and wreck havoc on boaters even today.  There is very much precedent for the kind of storm Jesus and His disciples were to experience, but we will get to this in just a moment.  For now, we need to turn our attention to Jesus Himself. 

    For, you see, in this little snippet, we get a very real sense of the human side of Jesus.  For it is the only time in the whole Bible we hear of Jesus sleeping.  He had spent the entire day teaching; healing; forgiving sins and the like.  Perhaps some of you here this morning have worked so hard that you could not keep your eyes open.  Perhaps some of you have engaged in activities to the point where you crash out and you wake up unbelieving that you have slept so long and so hard.  Perhaps some of you have been so tired that you fell asleep at two or three in the afternoon and then suddenly woke the next morning realizing you have slept for thirteen, fourteen, or even fifteen hours.  This is the kind of tired Jesus is experiencing.  He is wiped out.  Completely and totally.  How wiped out is He?  Mark gives us the details.

    You see, one of those sudden storms that I spoke of earlier hits the disciples as they are crossing the Sea of Galilee.  It’s not a little storm.  Not in the least.  Mark records that the boat is being swamped!  This means the waves are breaking over the top of the boat and soaking everyone inside it.  Now, this fishing boat was approximately 26 feet long.  It could hold about 15 people.  They did not have any sort of cover on it.  There was no below deck or anything of the sort.  Jesus is lying in the front of the boat on a cushion.  He is exposed to the weather.  He is having waves crash over Him, and He is not waking up.  Think about that.  When is the last time you were splashed by water while you were sleeping and you didn’t wake up?  Probably never.  Yet, Jesus is so tired.  He is so desperately weary, that He doesn’t wake up.

    And this ticks off the disciples.  Yes, you heard me correctly, this ticks off the disciples.  You see, the disciples know they are in trouble.  This is no small detail according to Mark.  I mean, we know that several of the disciples are experienced fishermen.  They have been in boats all of their lives.  They know how to handle these boats backward and forward.  They know all the tricks of the trade.  They know how to survive.  And even these disciples are afraid.  Even these disciples know that if something doesn’t occur to change what is going on around them, they will die.  At least they have the sense to go to Jesus.

    But they approach Jesus in rather brutish fashion.  “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”  Let me quote to you one of the commentaries I consulted this week regarding this statement.  “Matthew 8:25 softens the reproach to a prayer, and Luke 8:24 to a plea for help.  The rudeness of Mark’s wording reflects the way frustrated and desperate people speak and is probably a verbatim reminiscence of the disciples’ response in the crisis.”  It’s telling that later writers–who probably consulted the book of Mark–softened this particular rebuke of the disciples’. 

    It’s not surprising, however.  Remember how I said earlier, this story is not so much about the disciples as it is about Jesus.  And the disciples had been around Jesus.  They had seen Him heal the sick.  They had seen Him cast out demons.  They had seen Him perform amazing acts of power and release people from trials and tribulations.  He had done all this stuff for complete strangers, and now, the very people who Jesus Himself had called to be His followers were in grave danger.  The very people Jesus had entrusted to the explanation of the parables and His teachings were in very real danger of drowning and dying.  And what was Jesus doing?  How was Jesus facing this terrible storm?  By sleeping.  This just wasn’t right.  Something had to be done.  “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

    How many times do we find ourselves just like those disciples?  How many times do we find ourselves looking heavenward and saying, “Don’t you care?”  We look around this world and see people who reap blessing upon blessing.  We look around and see people who do not go to church; who do not pray; who do not study the Bible; we see these folks reap benefits.  They seem to capture special blessings of God; but those of us who are involved in church and who strive to do the right things get caught up in storms.  I know many of those storms you face: whether it is grief at losing a loved one; whether it is battling cancer or dealing with a loved one who has serious disease; whether it is struggling with a relationship that has gone south; whether it is facing a shortage of money in your household; these are just some of the storms we all face, and our temptation is to look to God and say, “Don’t you care?  Are you asleep?  We are dying here?  Won’t you do anything?”

    And Jesus, after awaking rebukes the wind and the waves.  He says, “Peace, be still,” and there is a dead calm.  Now, mind you, when winds die down after a storm, the waves still beat back and forth until their energy is used up.  Both wind and wave do not normally cease at once, yet this is exactly what Mark tells us happens.  And it causes a great amount of awe to fall upon the disciples–an awe that is rammed home by Jesus’ words to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

    That question at the end is a bit of a rhetorical one because Jesus has just shown who He is.  How so?  I would like to take you back in time–way back in time–to the very beginning of time.  Hear now the words of Genesis chapter one: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

    I am not going to read any further because the scene becomes repetitive.  Over and over God speaks into existence the world.  By the command of His voice, all things come into being.  By the command of His voice, the chaos of water and wind and darkness is transformed into the order of creation, and now, Jesus standing in a fishing boat with a command of His voice stills the chaos of water and wind in the midst of the darkness once again.  Who is this?  This is God incarnate.  This is the One who is fully divine and fully human; who becomes so tired that He sleeps through crashing waves and who is so powerful that He stills the storm with a few words.  This is Jesus, our Lord and our Savior who is unleashing the Kingdom of God–a Kingdom that began small, the tiniest of seeds that is now growing into a huge bush.

    But, wait, you might say.  I see what Mark is trying to convey in this story, but what does this have to do with me?  What does this have to do with the storms in my life?  Let me ask you the same questions Jesus asked His disciples: “Why are you so afraid?  Do you still have such little faith?”  Or, do you have such little trust? which is probably a better interpretation       

    Why would I say such a thing?  Why would I seem so callous to your inquiry?  Let me ask you this–Do you not realize what Jesus has promised you?  Do you not realize what Jesus came to the earth to accomplish?

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.

    You see, the storms you face in life are hard.  They are rough, but they are nothing compared to the storm you would face without Christ.  For we are all in the same boat as far as our relationship with God.  We all fall short.  We all miss the mark.  We all act in selfishness and self-centeredness.  I am no better than you.  You are no better than me.  We are no better than the guy who walked into the AME Church in South Carolina and massacred church goers.  We desire to be in charge and in control, and deep down, we know we do not even measure up to the standards to which we hold others.  We are tremendous hypocrites.  Deep down, I think we all know this, and if there is a Judge over the universe, we know that if we were to ever appear before Him, we would stand condemned.  We would face the ultimate storm of that Judge’s wrath.

    And we would face that wrath if it were not for the one who faced that storm for us.  We would face the horrible prospect of the wrath of God if it were not for the God incarnate, Jesus Christ, who faced that wrath in our stead–who upon the cross cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!” as He felt that storm.  But after facing it–after going through the storm of death and God’s wrath, He was raised to new life.  He was resurrected as the first fruit of a new creation–of a new heaven and earth; of a new Kingdom–a Kingdom that you and I have been invited to join through the blood of Jesus.  When we place our trust in Jesus and what He accomplished on the cross, we know our ultimate destination, and we have little to fear.

    If you trust that you are traveling with Jesus, then whatever storms assail you, you can rest assured–He has been there.  He has faced the ultimate storm.  He loves you and will never desert you.  As Martin Luther wrote in his famous hymn, “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child or spouse.  Though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day.  The Kingdom is ours forever!”  That kingdom begins like a mustard seed deep within your heart, and it grows as you place more and more of your trust in it.  And when you realize that Jesus is the incarnate God who died to save you when you were still a sinner, you will have peace in your storms.  Amen. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Why Do We Plant Trees?

    Why do we plant trees?

    That might seem like a rather stupid question in some regards.  I mean, most of us know that trees are very good for the environment.  They take carbon dioxide and turn it into oxygen–a very important process for those of us who need oxygen to live.  Trees provide shade and relief from the sun.  They provide us with paper; wood for housing and warmth.  Indeed, trees are very, very important.

    But why do we plant them?  Think about this for a moment.  How long does it take a tree to grow to maturity?  How long does it take for a tree to grow to enough of a size to provide shade for a house?  How long does it take for a tree to grow to become large enough to produce a board or a log large enough to burn for hours?  How long does it take for a tree to grow so that one can sit under its branches without fear of sun?  It takes a long, long time; depending on the tree it can take 10 to 20 years for such a thing to happen.  And so, I ask again.

    In this day of instant gratification and instantaneous access to information, why do we plant trees?  And if we are nearing the twilight of our lives, why even bother knowing it is unlikely we will get to see the fruit of our work? 

    Why do we plant trees?

    Perhaps it is because of the hope we have.  Perhaps it is because we believe that such planting will be a benefit even if it takes years for it to happen.  Perhaps it is because we believe that somewhere in the future a tree will be a benefit for the planet, for our children, or for another person.  We plant trees because we have hope for the future. 

    Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

    This week as I prepared for my sermon, I listened to several sermons and read several commentaries that wrestled with this teaching–and the following parable about the mustard seed.  They tried to get their heads around these teachings because they tried to apply them to living out the Christian life.  Many said, “Well, we can’t do anything to bring about the kingdom of God.  It just happens.  God does it, and that’s a dangerous idea because it can make us complacent.  It can make us think we don’t have to work toward a better world or a better society.  God does everything.  We do nothing except scatter a few seeds from time to time.  This is actually a dangerous parable.”

    If you interpret this parable in such a fashion, then I think you would be right in assessing the danger.  I think you would be right in being very uncomfortable with what Jesus says.   Indeed such an interpretation could lead–and it very often has led to complacency among Christians.  It has led some Christians to disengage from the world and fail to work for peace and justice.  And, of course, for every action there is a reaction, therefore other Christians have taken up the cause of peace and justice and have decided that it is all up to the Church to establish the kingdom of God.  They are tired of waiting for it and are fed up with lazy Christians, so they roll up their sleeves and strive to make the kingdom happen by changing laws; challenging governments; raising awareness or community organizing through various social ministries.  For many, it becomes an either/or proposition.  Either we say it’s all up to God and become complacent thinking God will handle it, or we believe it’s all up to us and we run ourselves ragged trying to change and, dare I say it, save the world.

    I think this actually speaks to a deeper division within humanity.  I think it actually reveals a deeper problem with how we live our lives–a problem that is not just inherent to the Church.  I think it runs the gamut of our societies.  For I think, as we go through life we are torn between the forces which tell us we need to live for ourselves or we need to live for others.  In the Church this plays out by those who think the kingdom of God will come completely and totally by God’s own hand therefore we have to do nothing except sit back and survive and be pious–I would call this living for ourselves.  And it plays out with those who believe everything is up to us to change and save the world and make it a better place–living for others. 

    Outside of the Church, I think this struggle gets played out in politics by the ideology of individualists and socialists.  Individualists tend to put the rights of the individual above the good of society and see individual freedom as more important than societal responsibility.  Do you hear the idea of living for one’s self here?  Socialists tend to put societal responsibility ahead of individual freedom, so individual rights and power become limited for the expense of the group.  Can you hear living for others?  Now, I’ve simplified things here.  I want you to know that I think things are a bit more nuanced than this.  I am painting in black and white because I think these two forces are constantly working against each other.  I would be happy to expound further in other discussions, but I do think there is enough evidence to support my position–especially since these two sides are constantly arguing and bickering and striving for position and power.  And really and truly, this has been and will be an ongoing struggle if we don’t find some sort of way to bring this conflict into some sort of balance.

    I would like to begin working toward that balance this morning as we seek to understand the Gospel and its application for our lives.  For I believe the Gospel captures our hearts as individuals; roots us in a vision of the kingdom of God; and compels us to work toward the kingdom of God as a reality right here and now.  How does this all work, and can I squeeze it all in without preaching for an hour?  Let’s find out.

    First, I would like to begin by saying that we must be grasped by the Gospel, and this is no easy task.  Why? 

    Many of you know that for a very long time now, John 3:16-17 has made a regular appearance in my sermons.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.”  Martin Luther once called this snippet “The Gospel in a nutshell.”  These two Bible verses capture the nature of what God has done on our behalf.  It was He who took on human flesh.  It was He who became the spotless Lamb of God.  It was He who allowed Himself to be betrayed, arrested, tried, beaten and crucified–all that we might be reconciled unto God.  You see, our hearts are not naturally tuned to serve God.  Our hearts are naturally tuned to serve ourselves or serve others.  They do not naturally seek out God, and when we place ourselves or others as the ultimate things in our life, we break God’s first and most important commandment: you shall have no other gods before Him.  Because we do not seek God and seek to replace Him with either ourselves or others, we deserve His wrath and punishment.  But God does not want our destruction.  God wants to seek and save the lost, but He cannot simply forgive without payment of the cost.  Either we have to bear the cost, or He does.  In the crucifixion, God pays the cost for our disobedience.  He suffers on our behalf.  He endures that wrath on our behalf–even though we did not deserve it.  Thus, we did not earn reconciliation with God.  We did not earn our own salvation.  It was all accomplished by Jesus.

    This is what I have hammered and hammered and hammered for many, many sermons.  I was asked this past week, “When are you going to stop?”  My answer is, “For as long as God needs me to preach it, and if you ever get tired of hearing God’s love for you, then we have a problem.”  There is a reason I answered in that fashion.  As I said before, our hearts are not naturally tuned to God, and they are not naturally tuned to accept any sort of thing that we do not earn on our own.  They are not accustomed to accepting any sort of gift that costs us nothing.   We tend to think that we must earn everything.  Society teaches us over and over and over to work hard, and if we do so, we will be rewarded.  We have that embedded deep within us.  And so we believe we have to have the same sort of relationship with God.  We believe that it is all up to us.  We believe we have to make our faith grow.  We believe we can make peace grow inside of us.  We believe the more we can try and be perfect; the more we can attend church; the more we can do Bible study; the more we pray; the more our faith will grow.

    But that is not true.  We cannot make our faith grow.  We cannot even make ourselves believe in Jesus.  We cannot bring ourselves to any sort of knowledge of Jesus Christ.  The apostle Paul says it this way, “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  Even basic belief is impossible on our own.  Our hearts must be brought to that saving knowledge.  Our hearts must be changed and captured by the good news of Jesus.  Our hearts must be turned around by understanding the lengths God will go through to love us–HE IS WILLING; GOD IS WILLING TO DIE FOR YOU!!!  You have to do nothing.  Jesus has done everything.  This is tough to get our heads around.  This is tough to get our hearts around.  This is why I repeat it Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.  The Spirit convicts our hearts as we hear the Word–as the Gospel is proclaimed.  The farmer plants the seed, but he does not make it grow.  The kingdom of God begins in our hearts: tiny, sometimes imperceptible, but as time passes: it begins to grow.

    And when it begins to grow, transformation happens.  When the Gospel seizes your heart, things happen deep within you.  You begin to sense a deep peace.  You begin to have a calmness and assurance about you.  You look less with a self-righteous eye.  You see others as those whom God desperately wants to have His Kingdom grow within.  You know it is important for you to plant seeds as well.  You know it is important that they come to the same saving grace that you have.  And so you begin to work.  You plant seeds. 

    And there is oftentimes preparation that must be done.  Sometimes the weeds of poverty and injustice must be cleared before the Gospel can be heard.  Sometimes compassion must be shown to those who grieve before the love of Jesus can be announced.  Sometimes, houses must be built for the homeless. Sometimes the sick must be comforted.  Sometimes, hunger must be satisfied.  Sometimes trust must be built.  Sometimes old wounds must be healed.  In each case, copious amounts of time pass.  There is no quick fix.  The Kingdom of God takes time to grow in others just like it takes time to grow within your heart.  At this point, I hope you can see how when the Gospel takes root, it moves us away from individualism–living for ourselves and socialism–living for others.  For when the Gospel seizes our hearts, we live for neither.  We live to spread the Kingdom of God.  We live to have that Kingdom grow within ourselves and within others because of what God has done through Jesus Christ on the cross.

    Why do we plant trees?  Because we hope in the future.  Why do I preach the Gospel every Sunday?  Because I hope in the future Kingdom of God.   Why do we feed the hungry and work for peace and justice?  Because we believe these things are a part of God’s future reality which is already growing in our hearts.  Such things might start small and inconsequential, but they grow.  They cannot be hindered.  They will produce fruit as we seek not to serve ourselves or serve others, but serve the Kingdom of God which has come to us through the Gospel–through the work of Jesus–For God so loved the world!”  Amen.

Monday, June 8, 2015

A Family Intervention

    We all have that one relative.  You know the one I am talking about.  It’s generally the relative that you absolutely loved when you were a kid.  Maybe it was that crazy uncle or the cousin who was always doing risky stuff.  This relative always pushed the boundaries and brought some excitement into your life.  As a kid, you absolutely, positively loved it!  You couldn’t wait to see this particular relative, but as life moved on and you matured, you started viewing things a bit differently.  As you matured, you found out that your relative didn’t.  While you stopped acting like a child, your relative never did.  The risks actually became greater.  The behavior became more self destructive.  You wondered why you ever thought your kin was so cool.

    Sometimes, such family members begin to have very destructive behavior.  Sometimes they begin to drink heavily or delve into drugs.  Sometimes they become abusive.  Sometimes they begin gambling or neglecting themselves or the rest of their family.  In such cases, family members get together and work to change their loved one’s behavior.  We have such a word for this process.  It’s called an intervention.  These can be very important times in a family’s life.  They can bring healing and wholeness and restoration–not only for the one committing the destructive behavior, but for the entire family as a unit.  Interventions are sometimes very, very necessary.

    Jesus’ family thought so too.  Jesus’ family believed they needed to intervene in His life as well.  We have a very interesting bibilical snippet before us this morning from the book of Mark.  It’s actually two stories sandwiched together by the writer Mark.  Now, I personally believe Mark is a tremendous writer and storyteller.  I believe there is very much a purpose behind much of Mark’s writing.  Details are important to Mark as he conveys to us the story of Jesus’ life and teaching.  There is a reason Mark puts these two stories together.  He is trying to tell us something very important.

    As I said before, the story begins with Jesus’ family deciding they need to perform an intervention.  The translation from the Greek we have before us is a little muddied.  The English in the NRSV is not exactly what is portrayed in the Greek.  It should read, “21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for they were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.”  The Greek does not add any extra “people.”  Jesus’ family believes He has gone out of His mind.

    This presents a bit of a conundrum as we take a look at the rest of the Gospel stories.  I mean, included in Jesus’ family, we find just a few verses later, is Jesus’ very own mother.  Mary is included in those who are coming to arrest–that’s literally what it says later–Jesus.  This is the Mother of our Lord who had the angel announce to her that she would give birth to the Savior.  This is Mary who heard the witness of the wise men and pondered these things in her heart.  This is Mary who had stood up at the wedding at Canaan and pronounced, “Do whatever He tells you to do.”  If Mary knew her child was the Son of God; if she knew He was the Messiah; then why did she allow the rest of the family to proclaim Jesus crazy?  Why did she go with them to arrest Him and participate in the intervention?

    As I thought about it, I wondered if Mary didn’t quite understand exactly how her son would fulfill His Messianic duties.  I wonder if the rest of the family had the wrong idea about what Jesus was supposed to be doing as the promised Messiah–I mean you don’t really think Mary would have kept that a secret from the rest of them, do you?  Before I get too convoluted with the questioning, let me explain.

    You see, Jesus was going around the region proclaiming, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe in the good news.”  Jesus had also been proclaimed the Son of God at His baptism, and as Jesus went about the region casting out demons, the demons would shout out, “You are the Holy One of God!”  Even though Jesus commanded them to be silent, word was spreading.  Jesus was also coming into conflict with the religious authorities.  He was forgiving people of their sins even though they had not offered the appropriate sacrifices.  He was healing on the Sabbath.  Such behavior was a recipe for disaster.  How so?

    Well, if Jesus was going around saying, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” He was directly undercutting the ruling, Roman authorities.  The Romans had instituted the Kingdom of Caesar.  Proclaiming the Kingdom of God was seen as sedition.  It carried the death sentence.  By casting out demons; healing the sick; making the lame to walk; and proclaiming a forgiveness of sins while undercutting some of the laws of the Old Testament, Jesus placed himself squarely in opposition to the religious authorities.  They would not have been pleased with one undercutting thousands of years of tradition.  They would not have been happy with one who was teaching things which were borderline blasphemy.  If they believed Jesus was leading the people astray, they could try Him and convict Him of blasphemy and ask that the Romans put Him to death.  Do you find it interesting that this is exactly what happened to Jesus later?

    His family could see this.  They could see the end.  They could see Jesus’ self-destructive behavior.  They could see where this path was leading.  They knew that He knew this as well.  “He must be crazy!” they thought.  “This is not how the Messiah is supposed to act.  We’ve got to put a stop to this.  It’s time for an intervention.”

    And now we have a break from this story as Mark inserts a related anecdote.  The scribes send a delegation from Jerusalem to deal with Jesus.  Remember what I said earlier about Jesus’ teaching and healing.  The scribes are not happy with Jesus, and they want to discredit Him.  They begin to tell the people, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of demons, Jesus casts out demons.”  They are obviously trying to paint Jesus as evil–as outside the bounds of the Law and the Prophets.  They are saying Jesus is not from God and anyone who associates with Jesus is buying into such deceit.

    Jesus points out the flaw in their logic.  “How can Satan cast out Satan?”  In other words, “We can all agree that getting rid of a demon and freeing a person is a good thing.  No one would argue that.  Why would evil seek to do good?  If evil seeks to do good, then it is divided and its kingdom will fall.  If Satan is casting out Satan, then he is ushering in his own demise.  Do you really think Satan would do that?”  The answer is obviously no.  Not a chance.  Satan would do no such thing.  But Jesus isn’t finished.  He makes one more pronouncement, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— 30for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’” 

    This passage gives some folks difficulty.  It’s not surprising.  What is such an eternal sin?  Have I committed an unforgivable sin?  Several commentaries noted, “If you are asking whether or not you have committed this sin, then you haven’t.”  That’s a bit comforting, but it still leaves us asking, “What is it?  What is this unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit?” 

    I think Mark closes things out and brings us full circle by bring us back to Jesus’ family and their attempts at intervention.  I think Mark gives us an answer to that question.  Let us turn there now.

    As I said earlier, Jesus’ family, including His mother, show up to arrest Him.  They didn’t just show up to restrain Him.  They want to arrest Him; seize Him; stop Him from this insanity.  They can’t get into the house because of the crowd, so word spreads through the crowd that Jesus’ family has arrived.  Jesus hears, and He makes a startling pronouncement:

    33And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’

    Now, if you aren’t shocked by that statement, then you really don’t understand the ancient world.  For family was everything in that world.  From your family, you received your identity.  You received your value.  You received your worth.  Think about that for a moment as you hear Jesus say, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  Essentially, Jesus is denying His origin!  He is denying where everyone would find the source of their identity; their value; and their worth.  No one in His right mind would do such a thing!!  At least in that time and place.

    But then, Jesus does something more.  Looking at those around Him–most commentaries suggest that Jesus looks at His disciples–Jesus says, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

    Let’s think about this for just a moment.  Jesus points to those sitting around Him–they may be the disciples.  They maybe the entire crowd in the house.  It doesn’t really matter in my estimation.  The question that I want to ask is, “What are they doing?”  Jesus says they are doing the will of God, so what are they doing?  What activity are they participating in?  Are they living perfect and upright lives?  Are they staying free from any and all sexual sins?  Are they doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God?  Are they loving God and loving neighbor?  Are they offering sacrifices for sin and atoning for their wrongdoings?  Are they feeding the hungry; giving drink to the thirsty; visiting the sick and imprisoned; and trying to transform the world into the Kingdom of God.  No.  They are doing no such things.

    What are they doing?  They are turning to Jesus for healing.  They are turning to Jesus for identity.  They are turning to Jesus to understand God.  They are placing their trust in Him and following Him.  They have made Jesus the most important thing in their lives.  Jesus’ family was placing a higher value upon the status of the family and their own expectations of what Jesus should be.  The scribes were putting a higher value upon Jewish law and upholding their status as religious leaders.  Neither were letting Jesus be who He was intended to be: The Lord and Savior of the world.

    Which leads us to the sin against the Holy Spirit.  What is that sin?  It is the Holy Spirit which brings us to the knowledge that Jesus is no lunatic or liar.  It is the Holy Spirit which calls us through the Gospel to see Jesus as the Savior and Redeemer of the world.  It is the Holy Spirit which leads us to place our trust in Him above any and every other thing.  To sin against the Holy Spirit is nothing less than to place our trust in something other than Jesus–to desire something else more than Jesus–to trust in our own selves and our own actions or in the actions and promises of something other than Jesus.  And why should you put your trust solely in Him?

    No other God is willing to die for you.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.”

    C.S. Lewis once said the following, “A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.”  Jesus’ family thought He was a lunatic.  The scribes thought Him a liar.  The crowd and the disciples saw Him as Lord.  What about you?  Amen.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Pat Robertson, Texas Floods, and the Why Question

Okay,  I know Pat Robertson really didn't say he was stuck in a quandary trying to figure out why God sent flooding to my home state.  Snopes is a wonderful tool to help wade through some of the garbage which surfaces on the www.   But Robertson and others have, in their history, made comments about natural disasters and God's wrath being administered through those disasters.  There are those who both cheer and jeer such pronouncements, and with good reason.

At the heart of such matters is the question of why such disasters happen.  From a atheistic perspective, the question is irrelevant.  Such flooding is simply part of the way the world works.  There is no rhyme or reason for the randomness.  It just happens.  Deal with it.  Cope with it.  Get over it.  If you lost loved ones or property, grieve--we will help you get back on your feet, but don't ask about any greater purpose or reason behind such matters.  There is none.  This answer is satisfactory for some.

For people of faith, the rejection of a "why" answer is not satisfactory.  We wrestle with the nature of such events.  We want to know if there is a purpose behind them. We want to know whether or not hope springs eternal.  For in the atheist answer, you have resolved the problem of suffering, but you have removed hope.  What hope is there for those who lost loved ones in this flooding?  What hope is there for those who have lost everything to flood damage--who believed they needed no insurance because they were high enough above the flood plain?  Those seeking hope want and need answers.

They are not always easy to find.

The Punishment Answer

Robertson and others have used the punishment answer in regards to natural disasters numerous times.  The idea is that society in general or some people in particular have committed grievous sin, and God is extending His wrath upon society with such disaster.

This answer is not without precedent.  In fact, it is found in Scripture on numerous occasion.  The great flood recorded in the Bible is one instance of divine punishment upon the evil of humanity.  An earthquake swallowing up a great deal many Israelites for betraying the covenant is another instance.  Venomous serpents in the desert is another.  In all occasions, God punishes sin by natural occurrences.

This does raise a bit of a quandary for those of us who believe God is a God of love.  Why would God punish people in such a manner--even "innocent" women and children?  Sometimes, the response leaves one scratching one's head.  "That's the God of the Old Testament, not the God of the New Testament."  (That argument was rejected by the early Church long ago and was deemed heresy.)  "God didn't really do those things.  Those things just happened, and the bibilcal writers just theologized the event."  (Well, you could do that to every single event in Scripture then.  That would make the Bible just a bunch of human events that people projected onto God.  Hello Freud.)

Punishment is a very effective tool for changing behavior.  Just ask any parent.  We use it all the time.  "If you don't stop hitting your brother, you will get a spanking!"  "If you don't clean your room, you will lose your ipod."  "If you do not eat your food, you will not be allowed to go outside and play."  And so on and so forth.  The threat of punishment, and the subsequent follow through is still used by the legal system today.  This is why we have speed limit signs, anti-discriminatory laws, and the like.  There are behaviors which must be curbed.

Throughout the Old Testament, God effectively uses punishment to change the behaviors of people who are failing to follow His commands and live according to His will and His way.  When people commit idolatry: God punishes.  When people fail to live justly, God punishes.  When people abuse the poor and downtrodden, God punishes.  God cannot stand the sight of sin, and to get people back on the right path, He sent punishment.

One can effectively argue that with each and every disaster, natural and otherwise, that God is punishing society and individuals for their sin.  For no one is innocent. 

There are those who might dispute that last comment, but I would like to remind you of the biblical nature of sin.  Sin is not simply the things that we do--it goes beyond that.  It is the condition of the human heart, and the human heart is naturally turned toward itself.  It naturally seeks self-preservation.  It naturally seeks self-gain.  It naturally seeks its own self-interests.  As Nietzsche once put it: we all seek our own will to power.  In this light, no one can escape guilt.  As the reformer Martin Luther put it: we are in bondage to sin.  It is the condition of our hearts.  Therefore, God is justified in punishing such sin.

The Problem with Punishment

But there is a problem with simply punishing.  For while punishment changes behavior, it does not change hearts.  What do I mean by that?

Whenever the threat of punishment disappears, people go right back to doing whatever it was they were doing to begin with.  Kids will wreck havoc when parents go away because the threat is gone.  Their fear is gone.  Therefore, they push through boundaries thinking they will not get caught.  Behavioral change was only temporary.  It was not lasting. 

On the other hand, if someone loves and respects the ruling authorities, then following the rules is a joy.  Following the law is a delight.  Why?  Because one knows that in following the rules, one is bringing delight to one's superiors. 

But how do you get another person to love you?  How do you get another person to see how much you care for them?

Jesus gave us the ultimate answer to that one, "No one has greater life than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends."  Jesus wasn't the first one to say that.  Others had said it before, but this was the first time in history when God took on human flesh and not only said such a thing, but did it.  Every other time the gods came down to earth, it was to wreck destruction and mayhem or because they were interested in satisfying some sort of perverse desire.  Jesus took on flesh to die--not only for His friends but for His enemies as well.  No greater love has ever been shown.

The Cross

And, of course, that death took place on a cross.  It was the worst sort of death.  The Romans had perfected the art of killing someone so that a person not only died but died without dignity and in massive amounts of pain.  This was the death that Jesus experienced--the same Jesus who did not deserve to die; who was completely and utterly innocent; whose heart was perfectly attuned to His Father's will. 

There is a bastardized understanding of Christianity that flows around the world these days.  It's the proclamation that if one just believes in Jesus and seeks to follow Him and has enough faith, then one will experience healing of every sort.  One will be completely whole in finances, health, and relationships.  God will grant victory in bank accounts, bedrooms, social relationships, and hospitals if one simply begins believing.

The cross destroys such ideology.  Jesus' lived the perfect life, and He was crucified.  The earliest disciples--who saw Jesus raised from the dead, met their demise in persecution, suffering, exile, and imprisonment.  Christianity does not promise a life without suffering, but it does offer eternal hope.  It offers consolation when suffering occurs.  It offers the knowledge that when the worst happens, God will have the last say.

The Resurrection

For the cross was not the end of the story.  Three days later, Jesus rose from the dead and proclaimed that all who trust in His work will share with Him in this resurrection.  Two things are important: the work of Jesus and the future hope.

The Work of Jesus

The cross for Christians is not only the result of humanity's worst.  It is not simply a man being hanged because He dared challenge the power structures of the day.  Jesus certainly did that; however there was more to it; much more.

In the context of the Jewish sacrificial system, Jesus became the perfect sacrifice--the perfect Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the whole world.  Theological jargon, I know, but let's try and break it down a little.  Mind you, there have been books written about this.  I'm trying to get it done in a blog post. 

Whenever sin occurred, one had to justify oneself toward God.  Atonement had to be made.  This isn't as foreign as it might seem to us living so far removed from the situation.  How so?  Well, whenever someone wrongs you, you demand justice.  You demand recompense.  You demand that things be made right.  Whenever you pay for goods, and those goods do not meet specifications, you demand your money back or that the goods be fixed.  Things must be made right.  In relationships, if you are hurt by another person, you demand an apology.  You demand that the person fix the pain caused. 

Yet, if you forgive another person, you bear the cost of that forgiveness.  You bear the cost of the broken goods.  You bear the pain of broken relationships.  On the cross, Jesus bore the cost of our brokenness with God.  He bore the cost of our hearts being focused on ourselves.  He bore the cost of our actions that break God's laws and commands.  He took the punishment so that we do not have to fear it, and instead of fearing God's wrath, we can look toward God's love and promise.

The Future Hope

Being assured of God's love and freed from worry about His wrath, we can now live lives honoring God.  We can be free of fear of death and destruction.  We know Who holds our future, and our lives are built upon Him.

The reformer Martin Luther summarized this in one of the stanzas to the hymn "A Mighty Fortress:"

Were they to take our house,
Goods, honor, child, or spouse,
Though life be swept away,
They cannot win the day,
The Kingdom's ours forever.

Wrapped up in this verse is the knowledge that suffering will occur.  There is the knowledge that it is not God who brings such suffering upon us.  We still don't have the answer for that; however, just because we don't have the answer to "why", we are free to ask the question, and we are free to know what the ultimate solution will be.  We are free to know the ultimate and final say will be a new heaven and a new earth where all bad things will be undone.  This is the promise of the cross and the resurrection. 

As flood victims are striving to put their lives together, the outpouring of support and love will do wonders to bring healing.  It is my hope that well intentioned people will not try to solve the why question, but instead will point to the God who suffers with and then turns mourning into dancing--the God who took suffering upon Himself and then transformed death into life.