Monday, August 24, 2015

This is Most Certainly True

    We do not know how to wrestle with Truth.
Why would I say such a thing?
I am going to go back a few years to 9/11 when radical Islamists hijacked four airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentegon, and intended to crash into the capitol building.  Initially, we came together as a nation to recognize this attack against us, but then we began disagreeing, sometimes vehemently, on how to respond.  There was a particular struggle in how to handle religious ideology –especially in trying to deal with a religious sect that believed it had the absolute Truth and used that belief to justify the killing of innocent people.

    There were two basic responses to this.  Fortunately, most people know that both responses in and of themselves are inadequate, but we have yet to find a happy medium–if such a thing is even possible.  Why would I say that?  Let me begin to define the problem as I see it.

    As we began to delve into the psyche of those who hijacked the planes, we began to focus on their absolute certainty in their beliefs about God.  We reasoned, “If they wouldn’t have been so absolutely certain, they would have been more humble.  They would have known that flying those planes into those buildings was wrong.  All those people would not have been killed if religious nuts wouldn’t be so certain of their beliefs and try to force them on everyone else.” 

    And so, there has been a concerted effort among some to question anyone who has certainty in his or her religious convictions.  Certainty is the enemy in no uncertain terms, and if anyone espouses certainty, then that person is close minded, arrogant, a fanatic, exclusive, or whatever derogatory term you wish to apply.  Now, there are a couple of problems with these trains of thought.

    First is the premise.  Does certainty necessarily cause people to kill others?  Does believing in God with absolute conviction necessarily lead a person to commit atrocities?  The answer, of course, is no.  As Timothy Keller once reported in his book Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, “You never hear of an Amish terrorist.”  Why?  Because the Amish believe uncompromisingly that God commands them to be non-violent.  Their firm religious conviction leads them to be passivist.  So, it’s not religious certainty that leads someone to kill others in the name of faith, there must be something else.  We will get to that in just a moment.

    The second problem with a war on certainty is that it is logically impossible.  You may wonder what I mean by that.  Just this: the next time someone comes up to you and says, “We cannot be certain about anything.”  Ask them, “Are you certain about that?”  Do you see the problem?  Even if someone wants to narrow it down and say, “We can never be certain about any claims about religion.”  Well, you have just made a truth claim about religious belief.  How can you say with certainty that we can have no certainty?  The statement is self-defeating.  Everyone believes they know something.  Everyone has to have some sort of certainty in order to simply function.  It is a requirement.

   Thirdly, can you imagine anyone preaching a sermon with no certainty?  Can you imagine what it would be like for someone to get up in front of a group of people and basically say, "Well IF God exists--now, we don't know for sure.  Maybe there is a God, maybe there isn't.--then maybe that God is good.  Again, maybe God is evil, but perhaps God is love.  And IF that God is love, then maybe, just maybe that God wants us to care for each other, but we really don't know what that God wants if God even exists.  But it might be a good idea to care for each other anyway.  I can't tell you that for certain, but it might be a good idea."  Yeah, how many of you would stick around for that kind of sermon?  Certainty is necessary. Even in religious belief.

    But if certainty is necessary, then why did religious fanatics hijack planes and kill people?  Why do some “Christians” picket funerals of military personnel and cause extra grief for families?  Why do some people of religious persuasion have a holier-than-thou demeanor and look down their noses at others?

    It’s not because of certainty.  It’s because of self-righteousness.  It’s because they believe they are better than other people.  It’s because they believe they are able to follow the tenets of a particular religion, and they believe everyone else should be able to accomplish what they accomplish.  They believe their performance makes them righteous before God, and “if I can do it, everyone else should be doing it too.”  And if they are not doing it, “then they are of less value than myself.  They are destined to hell.  They deserve punishment.”  You see, it’s not certainty that leads to the demeaning and killing of others, it is self-righteousness. 

    And so, we have these two extremes: we have those who don’t want any certainty, and they are convinced that the world would be better if no one had any convictions; and we have those who are consumed with the certainty that they are righteous and everyone else needs to get with the program.  And the reality is, there are many of us who actually jump between these two poles depending upon the circumstances.  If we don’t like something that someone tries to tell us about faith, we are happy to say, “No one can be certain.”  However, if we want others to fall into line with our own train of thought, we will gladly say, “God is (fill in the blank)...”  In some ways, we are either too open, too closed, or we gladly jump between the two extremes to suit our own agendas.

    You may be wondering just what this has to do with our Gospel lesson from the seventh chapter of the book of Mark.  Perhaps it is time to turn to that now.

    Jesus has an encounter with a man who is deaf and who has a speech impediment.  Jesus is in the midst of a journey through Gentile territory when they– bring to Jesus a man who is deaf and “mogilalon.”  Now I know that sounded strange.  I gave you the Greek word for a speech impediment, because it is an important word.  It is only used once in the entire New Testament–right here by Mark.  And there is a very important reason Mark uses this particular word. 

    It is the same word used in Isaiah chapter 35:6.  I’m going to turn to Isaiah 35 now and read verses four to six to you so that you can see what is going on here.  “4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!  Here is your God.  He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.  He will come and save you.’  5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the “mogilalos” the speechless sing for joy.”

    Mark is unequivocally tying Jesus encounter with this mogilalon to the promised coming of God in Isaiah 35.  Mark is showing us, once again, that this Jesus is the promised One–the promised Messiah–God Himself coming to earth.  And what Jesus does here to this deaf, mogilalon, speech impediment bound man is nothing short of amazing as He offers extreme compassion.

    First, Jesus takes the man aside.  I want you to contemplate this for just a moment as we remember what it would be like for this man given the culture he was in.  For you see, they didn’t have special places to care for those who were deaf and unable to speak in those days.  They didn’t have sign language.  They didn’t see people in such conditions as contributing members of society who had worth and value.  Most folks who were suffering from disabilities were outcasts; mocked; degraded; seen as burdens to the rest of people; contemptuous.  This guy could see, but he would never have been able to hear the insults thrown his way.  He would not be able to understand people’s contempt or hatred.  If he entered Jewish territory, there was then a whole other layer to contend with: for most of the Jewish religious authorities believed that if you suffered with such a malady, then you were under the curse of God. 

    So, Jesus, God incarnate, takes this man aside–away from the crowd and gives him His full attention.  Imagine being a Jew who was hearing this story.  Here is a man who would be seen under God’s curse standing before God with a private audience.  What was God going to do with this cursed individual?  What was God going to do with this man who was an outcast; on the fringes; who was looked down upon and seen as contemptuous?

    As we read through the text, we might think that Jesus is a bit gross, but as I heard in more than one sermon this past week, Jesus is doing something quite amazing.  He is communicating with this deaf, tongue tied man in his own form of sign language.  Jesus puts His fingers in the man’s ears as if to say, “I know your ears do not work.”  Jesus spits on the man’s tongue. “I know your tongue is tied.”  Jesus looks us to heaven.  “God knows your bondage.”  Jesus sighs deeply.  “I am praying to God.”  Then Jesus says, “Ephphatha” which in Aramaic means, “be opened.”  I am sure the man saw Jesus’ lips move.  He had no idea what Jesus said, but he could not mistake the meaning of the word for immediately after Jesus’ lips moved, the man’s ears were opened, and the chains fell off his tongue.  That’s the imagery Mark uses.  The man’s ears were opened and the chains fell off his tongue.  Mark’s imagery here is beautiful.  Jesus reaches out to one who was shunned.  Jesus brings him into a special place alone.  Jesus communicates with the man and shows the man He understands his problems, and Jesus heals the man and restores him to community.

    Jesus’ healing causes quite the stir, but Jesus’ response is quite intriguing.  Jesus tells everyone keep things quiet.  Don’t talk about what I have done.  But the crowd, the man who was just healed kept talking.  Jesus said, “Hush!”  Everyone talked louder.  They proclaimed, “He has done everything well!!”  Jesus said, “Quiet!!” to no avail.  Why would Jesus tell them to hush?  Why would He tell everyone to keep it under wraps?

    The best answer I came across was this: Jesus didn’t want everyone focused on Him simply being a miracle worker.  Jesus didn’t want everyone to think that He was simply here to take away people’s pain and suffering.  Jesus didn’t want everyone just to see Him as the fixer upper of a person’s personal life.  No.  Jesus was much more than that.  Jesus was not here simply to fix all of our problems and make our lives perfect.  Jesus was not here to give us a comfortable position in all that we encountered.  Jesus was about restoration.  Jesus was about mending the relationship between humankind and God–a relationship broken by our hardened hearts, our self-righteous behavior, and our desire to submit ourselves to no authority but our own.  Jesus did not come to simply open ears and tongues, but open hearts to redemption.

    And so we return to the problems of self-righteousness and uncertainty.  We return to them because these are both ways of hardened hearts.  These are both ways of selfish behavior.  I become self-righteous when I think I can follow all of the commands of God–particularly the one’s I like.  I impose those beliefs on others because they should do what I do and be like me.  Oh, but if I am confronted by another’s beliefs in God or in what they think I should do, I will respond, “No one can know for certain God’s will or mind.”  At the heart of this problem is a hardened heart–a closed heart–a heart that is closed in on itself. 

    How does Jesus open such a heart?  How does Jesus change such a heart?  What language does He speak to us to help us see our problem?

    First, He speaks by living the life we were supposed to live.  He reveals to us our own failure to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength.  Jesus reveals to us our inability to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  Jesus does all these things well.  He does them perfectly.  He shows us the depths of our own sin.  Just like last week with the Syrophonecian woman, Jesus challenges us and shows us we deserve nothing for our selfish behavior.  Jesus becomes perfectly righteous, putting us all to shame.

    And then, revealing to us that He knows our condition–He knows our selfishness; He knows our shame; He knows our separation from God–He understands our inability to reconcile ourselves unto God, it is He who stretches out His hands and allows nails to be placed in them.  He sheds His precious blood as He hangs from the cross.  He looks heavenward and with a deep breath cries aloud, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!”  In that moment, Jesus experienced the wrath and separation from God that you and I were meant to feel.  He experienced God’s silence as He suffered.  He bore the weight of our sin when we least deserved it.  He poured out His love while we were sinners restoring us to God.

    And because of Jesus’ actions, we have complete certainty about two things: number one we are sinful and unrighteous on our own.  We cannot look down our nose at anyone because we all fall short of the glory of God.  We cannot look at another with contempt and hatred because we deserve contempt and hatred.  We cannot kill another for a lack of believing because we lacked faith and trust in God ourselves as we trusted in our own works.  This should make us hang our heads in shame.  But that leads us to the second thing we can be certain about: that God loves us more than we can imagine.  For the Author and creator of the universe was willing to die on our behalf.  He was willing to die for us when we least deserved it.  He was willing to give of Himself to pay for our transgressions. 

    And when you hold onto these two certainties. When you hold them in dynamic tension: that you are undeserving and loved; when you are a failure yet accepted, then your heart is opened too.  Not because of what you do, but because of sheer grace.  A grace rooted in the Gospel:

    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.  This is most certainly true.  Amen.

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