|Walking along the Columbia River|
Desert Aire/ Mattawa, WA
Friday, April 13, 2018
Scripture readings: 1 Peter 4:7-19; Mark 13:14-37
There was a little boy who constantly begged his parents to let him have a dog. Their answer was always the same: he was too young.
Finally, they told him that he was responsible enough to get his dog. So, they all went to the pet store, and his parents turned him loose to choose his own puppy.
It was hard for him to make up his mind. There were Labrador puppies, Dalmatian puppies, beagle puppies, and dachshund puppies. Finally, the boy chose one little mutt-puppy who was wagging and wagging his tail like crazy.
When his parents asked him why he wanted that mutt-puppy, he explained that he liked the way the puppy wagged his tail, “I want the dog with the happy ending.”
The story Jesus tells in chapter 13 of Mark is a story with a happy ending. It just happens that it is a scary story with a happy ending. The scary part takes up most of the story, and the happy part almost doesn’t get told before Jesus closes the book. But we will look at that later.
Jesus told the story in answer to a question his disciples had. They had all been wandering together around the buildings and courtyards of the great Temple in Jerusalem.
It was a wonder of the ancient world. Enormous wealth had been committed to rebuilding the ancient place and making it as overwhelming and inspiring as possible. The complex was huge: forests of columns, the whitest marble, gold leaf and gold plate. The first century historian Flavius Josephus reported that some of the stones were a large as 37 feet long, 12 feet high, and 18 feet wide.
Naturally, the disciples were in awe. “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” And Jesus said, “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
Later, Peter, James, John, and Andrew came to him, on the Mount of Olives, and they asked, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
Jesus never really answers this question. They ask Jesus: “When?” Jesus doesn’t answer that question. He confesses that he doesn’t know when. He says: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
Our problem with this is that we are human beings and we really want to know the answer to questions like this. We want to know the future. And we want to know the future because we want to be in control.
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, the “Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil,” because they wanted to be in control. They wanted to be their own little gods.
Even Christians are tempted to try to be our own little gods, and so Christians for the past 2,000 years have tried to figure out the answer to the question Jesus said that even he didn’t know the answer to. In other words, Christians have spent the past 2,000 years trying to be smarter than Jesus.
That’s just part of our problem. Can anything good ever come of that?
I’ll share my theory of why Jesus didn’t know when the last days would come, and why it may be better for us not to know. My theory (and I don’t know where my theory comes from) is based on 1 John 4:8: “God is love.” We believe that God is the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
I believe it is the nature of the Father to plan and provide. Love requires that as an ingredient. I believe it is the nature of the Son to trust and serve. I believe that this is also a necessary ingredient of love. And I believe it is the nature of the Spirit to honor and connect, because this is also part of love.
This is the pattern I see in how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit relate to each other.
But the Son is about trust and servanthood. When Peter first heard Jesus predicting his death on the cross (8:31-33) he rebuked Jesus, and Jesus said, “Get behind me Satan. You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of man.” Peter did a devilish thing by attacking the trust the Son in the Father.
Later (10:43-45) Jesus said: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant; and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus didn’t know the time of his return because it is his special nature, as the Son, to trust and serve. His Father knows the time, and that is enough. The Son may know the time now. But I don’t believe we know that for sure.
It’s especially in trusting and serving that Jesus gave us our salvation. It must be in trusting and serving, as the Son, that enables him, even now, to give us life in God.
Since Jesus, the trusting and serving Son, is the one who makes us sons and daughters of God, the pattern of his relationship goes on through us. So, our own trusting and serving, without our knowing the Father’s schedule, is the way we now have life in Jesus the Son.
We can’t have life in Jesus and contradict him at the same time. Jesus didn’t need to know the time of his own returning. Neither do we.
The purpose of God for our lives is for us to be like Jesus. It is good to know things, but it is not always necessary.
What is necessary is for us to trust and serve. And that is what Jesus’ story is about. Jesus answers the question, not of “When will these things happen,” but of “What will it mean to trust and serve till these things happen?”
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (8:34) Part of the work of Jesus on the cross, beyond the forgiveness of our sins, was to carry on his own shoulders the world’s troubles and sorrows: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” (Isaiah 53:4)
Jesus never leaves us, not even in our worst times. Now we are his hands and feet in the world, and Jesus will not have his hands and feet be absent from this world even in its worst times, even when those times are called the Great Tribulation.
In Jesus’ telling of the story of the beginning of a new world, at his return, it is not until the human beings on earth actually see “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory;” not until then is it that Christians will be gathered from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens to come down with Jesus.
We are like Christ, the Son of the Father, in this world. And, just like him, God’s people will never be absent from what goes on in the world he loves. Jesus promised to be with us always, even to the end of the world. Surely he meant that he and we would be present together, in this world, to the very end.
The average Christian, today, does not live in North America, or Europe. The average Christian lives in China, or Laos, or Indonesia, or Pakistan, or India, or Iraq, or Sudan, or Syria, or Zimbabwe, or Nigeria, or Venezuela, or Cuba.
The average Christian today lives in harm’s way. The average Christian today lives in a present or an anticipated Tribulation. This was the normal Christian life in the first century and this has not changed.
Even in the safety of America we face the very same troubles and fears that any of our uncommitted neighbors face. Only we face those troubles in fellowship with Jesus. We may be blessed, but we are not immune to anything in this world; not now, not never. This is what Jesus is saying.
The disciples wanted to know when to be ready. Jesus’ answer was “always.” Always be ready.
When they asked about signs, the disciples wanted to know what the things were that they would have to be ready to face. Jesus’ answer was that the signs were everything. Trust (live faithfully) and serve (be a servant), and do this in the face of everything: in the face of conflict; in the face of sickness; in the face of disaster. Trust (live faithfully) and serve (be a servant); even when governments and churches turn against you. Trust (live faithfully) and serve (be a servant) when everyone turns against you, even those you love.
Jesus says that there will come a time when all human powers will work together and try to put an end to the faith of God’s people; or put an end to their very lives. When that happens, Jesus says you can run, but try to run in the right direction. And even at that, don’t be afraid.
What if the disciples had asked: “What should we be afraid of?”
Jesus’ answer would be, “Don’t be afraid of anything. Whatever comes, you and your brothers and sisters will be able to outlast it, because the Lord rules. The Lord controls the clock. The Lord is stronger than anything that can come against you.”
Jesus said, “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) “So, don’t be afraid of anything.”
But wait! There is one thing that Jesus warns us to be afraid of. Maybe Jesus should have said this more clearly: “Fear only one thing. Fear sleep. Fear taking things for granted. Watch! Be alert!”
Jesus says that we are like servants who have been given assigned tasks in our master’s house. Our assigned task is to follow Jesus by being the same kind of servant that he always is. Trust and serve, and don’t stop.
Do Jesus’ work. Speak his words. Be his hands and feet. Be his mouth. Every day we have choices that challenge our alertness to Jesus.
We are asleep if we don’t see the meaning of our choices. Our choices are all either for or against Jesus, whether we are on trial before an emperor, or on trial before our friends and neighbors. We decide from day to day what we shall be in eternity.
This would be scary, except for one thing.
The truth is that we are waiting for Jesus. The Son of Man, coming in clouds with great power and glory, is Jesus who died for our sins, and for the sins of the world on the cross. Jesus loves us. He is planning a reunion of all God’s people in earth and heaven, including us. The Lord is planning a celebration with us.
Jesus compares the end of the story to the end of spring, and how you feel when you see the trees in bud. This time of year, we know how good that makes us feel.
The good news is that, as serious as Jesus is about our choices, he is also serious about giving us the right things to be serious about. Jesus is giving us a special kind of freedom. Those who follow Jesus don’t hide from what’s going on in the world. The people of Jesus can live in the real world without fear, without anger, without self-righteousness, and without any false sense of security.
What Jesus gives us is the call to trust and serve. This is the way to love with an open heart. This is the way to be loved till the end of time.
Friday, April 6, 2018
Preached on the Sunday of The Resurrection of Our Lord (Easter Sunday), April 1, 2018
Scripture readings: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Mark 15:1-8
|Spring Walks and Gardens of My Past|
One of the greatest events ever to happen in the history of the universe happened around the dawning of the first day of the week, almost two thousand years ago. The first people who discovered this greatest thing were three women carrying armloads of funeral spices. They were on their way to a stone tomb carved into the side of a hill, just outside the walls of Jerusalem.
They were on their way to give a very sad and tragic gift to their dear, dead friend and hero, whom they had lain to rest in that tomb. They were on a mission to complete the embalming of his crucified corpse. They had loved Jesus, and they had hoped great things of him, but Jesus had led them straight into a fatal ambush, and a dead end to their love and to their hopes.
Jesus had seemed to have what it would take to open up a new world that they had all learned to call “the kingdom of God.” Jesus had freely owned-up to being the rightful king of the kingdom of God.
This was surprising because, although Jesus was a descendant of the famous David, the greatest of the kings of Israel, he had long worked as a carpenter, just like his father Joseph. The clan of David had been poor and struggling for so long that they had made a sort of mockery of the whole idea of their family producing anything like a Messiah. It just looked totally impossible for any of them to be a king raised up by God to conquer the world and put all nations under the power of the kingdom of Israel, the kingdom of God.
But, when Jesus was with his friends and followers, anything seemed possible. With God’s help their possibilities looked unlimited. And God was definitely with Jesus, making the impossible things possible: the dead rising at one touch of Jesus’ hand, or the mere sound of his voice. The wind and the waves of the sea stopped at his command and they became a place where a man might walk, if he had the faith to do so. People of wealth and influence were becoming beholden to Jesus for his healing of their loved ones and servants. Yes, with Jesus the possibilities looked endless.
Then Jesus was arrested less than a week after his triumphant, royal parade into the capital. The Passover crowds claimed his as their king under the noses of the Roman army and the Temple police. No one raised a hand against him.
Then, Jesus was seized by a joint action of the Roman Army and the Temple Police. Jesus was beaten, and scourged, and nailed on that cross; heckled, and bleeding, and suffocating to death, defeated for all the world to see.
He was clearly done with and finished for all time. Jesus had even yelled, “It is finished.” But he shouted those last words as if he didn’t mean them. Or else he meant something completely different from the way they felt, and from the way they were feeling now.
They were all finished now.
They and their friends would be lucky to survive much longer. The world had turned out to be much worse, and much darker, and more hopeless than they had ever imagined before Jesus had come to them, and called them, and raised their expectations.
They knew, now, that they lived in such a world where even someone as remarkable as Jesus could come and never make any difference at all. They had good reasons for being afraid but, somehow, their sense of fear was very low compared to their mountains of disappointment.
They and their friends had felt all of this for three days, but they had lost their sense of time. Their feelings were immeasurable. There is a modern British poet named T. S. Eliot. He was a great poet, really, and a Christian but, looking at the world and where most people’s ambitions were taking them, he wrote one of the bleakest and most depressing poems ever written, and it ends with these lines. I think it gives us the picture of life in this world as the disciples of Jesus were seeing it in their own time. Here it is:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
(“The Hollow Men”)
I’m sorry to talk like this. Even on the celebration of the resurrection of the Lord we can’t understand the greatest things that have ever happened in the universe unless we see how Jesus had actually judged his own accomplishment when he shouted that it was finished.
There’s nothing good about any cross, and there’s nothing good about the cross of Jesus, unless it leads from something bad to something good. In a world like ours, the best possible good would be to produce the end of all crosses (or anything like a cross). The best possible great thing would bring an end to everything that could be woven into a world where crosses exist. The cross of Jesus exists to put an end to all other crosses, someday.
There’s nothing outstandingly good about the resurrection of Jesus except for the fact that it follows something evil. The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate cure for all evil and sin. We share in that cure when we die with Jesus by faith, on the cross, and rise with Jesus by faith from the darkness of our living tomb. The resurrection of Jesus creates a new world that is going to destroy the old world of crosses.
The Cross is the picture of death and evil completely defeated and completely destroyed. This is why we talk about that Old Rugged Cross and cling to it. The gift of the old rugged cross is to exchange itself for a crown on everyone’s head.
If we truly understood this, in all its weight and glory, it would blow our minds.
Where the cross and the resurrection are not understood, they seem foolish and perhaps even evil. Some people who are much too modern for their own good, or anybody else’s good, say that a father who sends his son to die on a cross is an abusive father. That’s what some people say.
The ancient Greeks and Romans thought the same way. This is why Paul wrote about the foolishness of God in the cross and, by extension, in the resurrection. What God knows is wise and what we humans think is wise are at odds with each other, and who will you listen to?
Paul wrote: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18) In his own time Jesus also knew that most people wouldn’t understand him and wouldn’t believe that he was who he claimed to be. (Luke 7:33-35) Jesus knew that few of his own people (God’s people) would appreciate how his death on the cross would explain the old laws and prophets, and the perpetually unsolved conflicts between God and his people.
It is a shock to the system to go from seeing things the way they normally make sense to us to seeing things the way God sees them. It’s a shock to go from what you thought made sense of your life, to what God sees as sense: from what you think is wise to what God knows is wise, from what you think is powerful and possible to what God knows is powerful and possible.
In the early morning hours of the resurrection, the women, who had just been confronted by God’s wisdom and power, were scared by what they found. When the women did their appointed job to share this frightening good news with the other disciples, those others found God’s wisdom and power not to be scary but to be impossible, something not to be believed.
That first Easter dawning, the whole church as it was, or the whole family of Jesus was in two locations. One small group stood at the empty tomb and talked with angels. They were given a calling, or a mission, to help people believe what seems, at first, to be impossible.
They had an impossible mission even though they believed that the truth they served was true. The other disciples were called to believe what seemed impossible and foolish.
We have been given both callings; both jobs. The women couldn’t reach inside the doubting men and push the faith button. They had an impossible task; an impossible job to do. The men had to believe the impossible. In the end, only Jesus could make their calling work.
Our job together, like all of those apostles combined, is to believe the impossible and to do the impossible.
In the end, they did both. In the end, we can too.
It must be said here, that having this twin calling of believing and doing the impossible doesn’t make you special. It only makes you very, very needy. And that’s the only place where the impossible becomes possible. This is the foolishness of what we preach: the foolishness of our message. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:25)
In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote some of my favorite words. He wrote of a time in his life when he prayed and prayed for God to mend some desperate situation and the Lord gave him this solution: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul wrote how the solution worked for him in his mission impossible: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
Working together, and working each in our own way, we are called to something that the world and the people around us would regard as foolish, irrelevant, a waste of time and effort: an impossible faith for an impossible mission.
For the disciples at the tomb and the disciples in hiding, two of the best things the world could offer (the Roman peace and the Jerusalem Temple) were bad enough and strong enough to kill Jesus, the Son of God, God incarnate. It was a horrible thing think this way. It was even more horrible to watch it happen. And it was a horrible thing for Jesus to go through. Therefore, the only valid, logical option left was for Jesus to rise from the dead.
Jesus died on the cross, bearing the weight of the attack of the world on his own shoulders. It’s a weight that we all must carry, either with Jesus or without him. It’s a weight that seemed to defeat him because it killed him.
Then Jesus did the impossible thing. He defeated the power of defeat. Jesus defeated the power of evil to defeat, or corrupt, or ultimately co-opt goodness.
Afterwards, the world didn’t seem any different as a result, but God was beginning a long impossible victory. This victory would challenge and inspire those who came to him for all the centuries that have followed. It was the victory of having faith in a future new world: a whole new creation.
The cross and the resurrection are things that seem impossible but they make everything else possible. They are the victory in Jesus that becomes our victory: the cross and the resurrection of Jesus.
What’s possible or impossible is a matter of perspective. In the spring of my twenty-first year, when I was in college, I was helping a bunch of friends pre-fabricate a log cabin. I didn’t know what I was doing, of course, but I did as I was told.
I found myself standing on the eaves, above the loft, when I fell. I fell as far as most people fall when they fall off the eaves of a house.
Amazingly, I landed on my feet. I also landed on a nice wide board that was steady enough for me to keep standing on my feet, when I hit the ground. And that board had a fair-sized construction nail pointing up through the board at the point where my right foot landed.
That nail went through the sole of my right shoe and up between my second and third toe. I felt it go between my toes and it came out the top of my shoe. I saw it sticking out, about two or three inches, above the top of my tennis shoe.
I was fine. I was untouched. There was not a scratch: not one scratch, or mark, or bruise. It seemed impossible, but many such things happen.
I don’t know if that would be a miracle or not. It’s within the realm of remote mathematical possibility. But perhaps God’s miracles are just his input into our universe with its laws of nature and physics. We have our input, and God has his. And the two sources of input are not worth comparing. But they work together.
Paul wrote about this in his letter to the church in Rome: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
With God there are possible impossibilities that work, that have power, that change everything. These possible impossibilities change us.
The cross and the resurrection of Jesus give us a foolish message as far as this world’s wisdom goes. It’s an impossible message, and sometimes we are tempted to rejoin the world in our opinions.
The cross and the resurrection of Jesus call us to walk into the impossible where we take up our cross and follow Jesus. We can love and serve our Savior, and we can love and serve the world, and our neighbors for whom Christ died and rose from the dead, even when it all seems impossible.
With our minds properly blown by our Jesus, this will surely take us through whatever comes next.
Saturday, March 31, 2018
Preached on Good Friday, March 30, 2018
Scripture readings: Mark 15:21-40
I don’t know where all the pictures in my head have come from that show me the stories of Jesus. I’ve got these pictures in my head. Some of them are moving, talking pictures of the crucifixion.
|Some Stations of the Cross|
Our Lady of the Desert Parish
I see Jesus struggling to breathe, and he raises himself up on the nails in order to take each and every breath. In the end, he’s trembling when he lifts himself to take his final breath. He shouts a loud shout, and I think he says, “It is finished.” Finished means that he has accomplished what he came for.
Then the earth shakes and cracks open in places. The rocking of the world moves the Temple, perched high on its terrace on what they used to call Mount Moriah.
This shaking does something spiritual and miraculous. By the hand of God, the curtain or veil that covers the entrance to the Holy of Holies is ripped open from top to bottom. The Holy of Holies, in Jesus’ time, was an empty room where God concentrated his presence and his attention.
Centurion means the commander of somewhere from eighty to one hundred men in the Roman army. Because it was supposed to have a hundred men, a centurion’s unit was called a century. That would make him the equivalent of something like the captain, or the major, of a company in the United States Army or Marine Corps.
Maybe there wasn’t a whole company or century of soldiers at the cross. Maybe the centurion brought some smaller detail to do the job of the crucifying and guarding of the convicts. But Jesus was a kind of security risk to the province and to the Temple. They were on alert because of Jesus.
I was surprised, this year, comparing the four gospels. I found that it wasn’t only the centurion who came to a strange, miraculous conclusion about Jesus. Matthew says that the whole detail was shaken from their mission and from their dice game.
In just a moment, they took it all in. They found themselves saying a bunch of stuff at the sound of the shout and the earthquake. Probably the whole scene came through for them, along with the uncanny darkness of the sky. What they had heard and seen of Jesus, how he conducted himself, and how the crowd (and how nature itself) responded to his execution.
Together, the detail became a military jury rendering their verdict: “This was an innocent man. This was a righteous man. Surely, this was the Son of God.”
Something grabbed them and changed them. They had done many, many crucifixions in this rebellious province. They weren’t overwhelmed by the cruel and boring detail of crucifying criminals. Jesus made this long, tedious day different.
With a body that was beaten and torn into a bloody pulp, Jesus heaved himself up on the cross to take his final breath. With that breath Jesus bellowed, and dropped, and hung still as the corpse that he was, upon the nails of the cross.
His shout seemed to shake everything. The earth itself shook, and the people steadied themselves upon it, but their hearts shook as well.
The Temple Mount and its sanctuary shook. Its marble walls seemed, almost, to pull apart and snap shut again, but the parting tore in two the veil that hid the holiest place from view. A shaken witness reported that he had seen the veil tear from top to bottom as if it were the work of some invisible giant.
The inner room of the presence of God could be clearly seen, even by those who, in spite of the shaking earth, stood outside the Temple and looked through the line of now completely opened doors. “Look! There’s the room of God!”
The shouting and drooping Jesus was the wounded and bloody hand of God himself, shaking whatever was capable of being shaken. The bloody hand of God tore the veil from the forbidden door.
That same hand also tore the veil that hangs over the place, in human souls, where our hearts go to hide: where we hide our hearts in order to avoid knowing ourselves too well.
Just now, we may not know where our own hearts are, or what they’re hiding, until that wounded, bloody hand of God in Jesus shakes us as it shook the Roman soldiers and officers.
That wounded hand (or maybe it would be better to call it the wounded heart of God) has a special power to shake things up. It has the power to shake and to carry the sins of the world.
That power can shake the whole planet. Its wounds carry the authority of a proven faithfulness (faithful to death) to judge the whole planet; the whole universe; and each and every one of us.
When we meet that hand and heart we meet his carrying that same authority of long ago. We find ourselves shaken, and carried, and judged, and changed.
Through their army life, the centurion and his soldiers understood power and authority. They understood coming into an order of command, and training, and discipline. They understood being changed by that into something they had not been before.
That’s what I wanted to happen to me, at one time, when, late in 1968, I considered enlisting in the armed forces. Then I told my parents what I had decided, and they freaked.
They freaked out big time. They wore me down for days, till I gave up my plan.
I thought it might have made me a new man. In the end, Jesus did that in his own way. He changed me. But it was with the power of that bloody hand and heart. I couldn’t resist that when he grabbed me and held me in his grip.
I think the centurion and his detail became the first converts to Jesus after his death. That would make sense to me. They found out who Jesus is by crucifying him themselves.
Jesus, himself, changed before their eyes into someone they could never have imagined, even though they had crucified so many people before. They became changed because they saw their whole lives, up to that point, in a completely different light, once they recognized what it meant for them to have crucified Jesus (just as we all have). They knew what it meant that Jesus had died because of them (just as he has died because of each one of us). Their understanding of the whole world changed because they now saw how Rome, and its famous laws and Roman peace, that claimed to shape the world for good had been the enemy of the kingdom of God.
The mighty Roman Empire called their Emperor the Son of God, and yet Rome had killed Jesus the true Son of God. These soldiers knew this.
The soldiers would change how they would see themselves from now on. Their real life would change from representing the power of war and military security to serving Jesus the Prince and Servant of Peace, even if they still wore the uniform of Rome. Their true aim in life would turn them into servants of peace.
We all change like that down to our heart and core. We all change like that, down to every detail, when the sacrifice made for us by that wounded, bloody hand and heart have grabbed us and shaken us.
Now we see God and his Son with the eyes of faith. We recognize who God and his Son are, and what they want for us, and what they give to us. We will all be changed. In God’s time everything will change.
Tuesday, March 27, 2018
Preached on Sunday March 11, 2018
Scripture readings: Psalm 34; Mark 5:21-43
|Walking along the Columbia River|
Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
February and March, 2018
I know a woman here who can raise the dead:
Provided that they are houseplants.
That woman’s name is Ruth Naser.
She’ll have to tell that story here sometime.
In the Gospel, the woman whose hemorrhage had been getting worse for twelve years, even though she had spent all she had for physicians’ care, and folk medicines’ cures, and healers’ prayers, had come to believe that Jesus could do anything. She needed someone who could do anything.
Jairus (whose twelve-year-old daughter was dying) was ruler of the synagogue in Capernaum. This means that he wasn’t a rabbi. He was a layman. You could say he was “lay-president” of the synagogue. You could say that he was like Rodger York, because a Presbyterian Clerk of Session is like that.
Jairus had also come to believe that Jesus could do anything. Jairus now needed (and his daughter now needed) someone who could do anything.
Jesus can do anything. The truth is that Jesus always wants to do even more than we ask. The way Jesus answered the hopes of these two people shows us what Jesus really wants, because his methods show us the heart of God, where Jesus comes from.
Jesus once said, “He who has seen me has seen the father.” (John 14:9)
This would have been true before the creation of the cosmos. Even now that Jesus had become a human being on earth, it was still true. What Jesus said, how he said it; what Jesus did and how he did it; whatever happened to Jesus, and how he responded to it all worked to reveal his Father. It all worked to tell us who God is and what he made us for, and what God wants, and what God promises, and how he gives it to us: the life of God on this earth.
The everlasting Son, who dwelt among us as a human being in Jesus, the whole course of his life and every day of it, as told to us in the Bible, was designed to reveal who God is and God’s relationship with us.
In one single day in the life of Jesus, in Capernaum where Jesus had based his ministry on the shores of Lake Galilee, two desperate people spread themselves flat and face down on the ground in front of Jesus. Their state of mind was almost identical but, otherwise, they were nothing alike.
They both received answers to their prayers, but the answers were substantially different from what they thought and hoped to receive. Having their prayers answered required a great deal from them for Jesus’ answer to run its course, the answers of Jesus filled them with fear.
The woman had a sickness that made her physically and spiritually unclean. She had a female hemorrhage.
It was a matter of blood. Blood was holy. Blood represented life. The blood of animals was shed as a sacrifice to show that sin and evil could only be overcome at the price of a life.
Mark, and the other gospels, tell us that the blood of Jesus (his blood being both truly human and yet coming from Word Made Flesh (“And the word was with God and the word was God,”), living a human life, had such a power that it could make the unclean clean and pure. Christ dying for us, the body of Christ wounded and tortured for us, the blood of Christ poured out for us is the giving of a life that can take away all the sin of the world.
But the blood that comes from purely human activities and life, or that comes from wounds or sickness (because wounds and sickness represent the fallenness of the world) represent what’s wrong with our world. Such blood represents what is unclean and contaminated in our world. Such blood was taught to be a sign to the people of Israel of the sins that contaminate others; because sin and evil can contaminate us.
So, this woman who touched Jesus’ robe was untouchable (almost as bad as a leper). She wasn’t allowed to touch anyone. And no one could touch her without being contaminated until the end of the day. If she was going to be around people, she needed to be very sneaky. If her sneakiness failed, then she would get in a lot of trouble. She would get the whole town after her.
The man Jairus was a leader. He was popular: popular enough to be elected as lay leader by the big, rich congregation in Capernaum. He probably had lots of money. Maybe he was elected because people thought he would be more likely, that way, to pay money out of his own pocket to repair a leaky roof on the synagogue.
Jairus dressed well. He was prosperous enough to have a real bath in his own house and so he was cleaner than most people, and you couldn’t track him down by sniffing the air. He always washed his hands, and you could shake his hand, or pat him on the back, without wondering where he had been and what was rubbing off on you. Most of all he was devoted to doing what was right and clean in God’s sight. He was clean, and the opposite of the unclean woman.
He was also devoted to his twelve-year-old daughter, and she seems to me to be like an only child. A year, or two, or three after her twelfth birthday she would be leaving home to get married. They did that so young in those days: usually to a man who was about sixteen years old.
She was growing up. Everybody knew it. But she was daddy’s little girl. Let’s call her Talitha, since Jesus called her that. It would make a very pretty name.
Here, again, this was the opposite of the unclean woman. She had to live the past twelve years away from her family, at least not in the same room, and never closer than an arm’s length.
I’ll try not to say anything more about them than I need to. I was going to call the unclean woman and the very clean man both hopeless, but one commentator stressed that they weren’t hopeless, only desperate. I guess it must be better to be desperate than it is to be hopeless. Do you really think so?
I don’t think that Jesus would make a difference between the two states of mind, any more than he made a difference between the unclean woman and the synagogue-man.
Once, Jesus said, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you.” (Luke 17:6) Some preachers say that if you want to get your prayers answered, you have to build up your tiny, tiny faith until it’s at least as big as a tiny mustard seed. But the point is that, even though Jesus knew (and everyone knew) that there were smaller seeds, the mustard seed was the poetic symbol for the tiniest things. Jesus meant that, even if you have the smallest faith in the world, God hears your prayers and grants them according to his will, and his will doesn’t always work by our standards, all the time.
Jesus said a wonderfully gracious thing to the healed woman. “Daughter your faith has healed you.” You could say she had enough faith to touch Jesus’ robe, and that’s true. It’s also true that she didn’t have enough faith to ask Jesus for healing.
What would we normally say about someone not having enough faith to ask the Lord for help in their great need? I believe that Jesus praises her faith by completely different standards than even God’s people (or church people) use.
We make rules about what God will or will not do, and we jack up Bible verses under our rules to make them look good to ourselves and to others. You are the daughter, or you are the son, of Jesus and you can come to Jesus any way that Jesus leads you.
Just come to Jesus, he knows you’re there. His power goes out to touch you and meet you in your need. He doesn’t usually follow the rules that his own people set.
I’ll tell you where her faith came in. It was only just about to come in.
Jesus asked her to do a terrible thing. Or it seemed terrible to her.
She had to come out of hiding. It was only when Jesus healed her that she was required to do what she never would have done on her own. She had to confess what her treatment by others had done to her. She needed enough faith to confess her own sneakiness. She needed enough faith to point to what Jesus had done for her without her telling him. She needed enough faith to hear herself being set free by Jesus.
She wasn’t healed so much because of her faith. She was healed for the sake of her faith. She was healed because she would be given the real faith that she needed so badly if she were going to live a truly new and healed life.
Jesus looks ahead. He always does.
Don’t let your present ideas about Jesus (and about life) keep you from him. Don’t let your thought habits keep you from whatever it is that Jesus asks of you now.
Maybe that is another kind of faith that Jesus is looking for. Surprise yourself. Let yourself be surprised by Jesus. That’s the key to the gospel.
Jairus, the synagogue-man, had the faith to bow at Jesus’ feet and ask Jesus to answer his desperate prayer. He had enough faith to ask; and this was a hard thing for someone like Jairus to do. It was very risky; especially because he was on the same leadership team as people who were thinking about whether it might be a good idea to kill Jesus.
That leadership team was motivated by their concern for their own authority, and Jairus was openly going against them. Jairus had some power in that synagogue, and in that community, but they outnumbered him by something to one.
Jesus said “yes” by following Jairus up the road to his house. Then, suddenly, Jesus seemed to be distracted by an interruption. Jesus took his own sweet time to deal with an invisible person in the crowd. Jesus had to out-wait the woman’s fear, and then encourage her confession. We don’t know how long that took.
For Jairus, it felt that Jesus was taking forever. The woman was an interesting case. Jairus, himself, might have sat in a synagogue trial to judge such a woman’s case.
And then it was too late for Jesus to answer his prayer. The time was up. It was too late. His little Talitha was dead. She could no longer be healed. Why trouble the master any further? So, Jesus asked Jairus to do something much, much harder than to have enough faith in Jesus to trust him to heal his sweet, sick little girl.
As things stood, it was no longer possible for Jesus to answer Jairus’ prayer with a “yes”. Jesus, in effect said no to healing Talitha.
Jesus intended to do a rare thing, even for him. In all of the gospels, we only have a record of Jesus bringing three dead people back to life from the dead.
There could have been cases that were not recorded. The whole world couldn’t hold the books to tell all that Jesus has said and done. But other kinds of miracles definitely outnumber his raising of the dead. And no one ever seems to have thought to ask Jesus to raise anybody from the dead. We never read of that happening.
Jesus decided to do what Jairus never seems to have heard of Jesus doing before (although there is one case that may have happened before).
If we’re not aware of the Lord ever doing a certain thing, chances are that we won’t even think of asking for it. We can’t ask for; we can’t pray for; something that we don’t even know about. But Jesus can answer such a prayer without our being able to ask.
The unclean woman didn’t have the faith to ask. Jairus, as smart as he was as the synagogue-man, didn’t have the brains to ask. Not because he was stupid: Jairus simply didn’t live in a world where the knowledge of what Jesus intended to do existed.
Jesus took Jairus beyond his personal boundaries of the possible, even though Jairus was a man of faith who was willing to stand up for his faith in defiance of the power of other people who could easily remove him from his position. Jairus had faith, but now he had crossed into new territory for himself, where he couldn’t do anything but feel afraid.
Jesus said, “Do not fear, only believe.” In a sense, Jairus had to close his mind to fear. That is one of the hardest things to ever have to do. Jairus’ success at closing his mind to fear couldn’t have been very successful in the face of the loss of his little girl.
I believe that Jesus knew that he was going to raise Talitha from the dead, and that Jairus’ fear wouldn’t and couldn’t stop him from raising her.
Jesus only wanted Jairus to be able to take it easy. It would simply be easier for Jairus if he wasn’t afraid. Jesus isn’t really tripped up, or incapacitated, by our fears.
Jesus is not afraid of our fears, just as he isn’t afraid of what we fear. Jesus had watched evil, and ugliness, and grief, and death rule the earth for ages and ages, while he sat in heaven in fellowship with his Father there. Now he had come, in flesh and blood, to heal many people like the unclean woman and to raise just a few people like little Talitha.
Jesus’ intended mission plan was to heal some people, and to raise three people on earth from the dead, and then go on to heal the whole world by letting the world do its worst to him, and then to defeat this world while he was tied up in all the chains and ropes of this world that bind us, but which could not bind him.
Jesus was going to raise Talitha from the dead, then he would die himself and raise himself. Jesus was not afraid. That was his answer to Jairus; an answer beyond Jairus’ comprehension.
This is beyond our comprehension, but this may also be Jesus’ answer to you, and me, and our fears.
The Lord’s Supper is beyond our comprehension. We have so many prayers for Jesus’ presence, and power, and compassion, and here he comes to us as pieces of bread and little cups of grape juice that we call wine. But you have to admit that the power and reality of what we are offered here, and what we receive here, at this Table, is also beyond our comprehension. It's beyond anything we can understand well enough to ask for.
Jesus is not afraid to give us bread and wine and tell us that this is the way for us to come together to him and to receive all that he is and all that he does, at this table. Jesus’ answers are often like this, but this is only the beginning of where he will take us. This is only the beginning of what we will learn from him. Because he is able to be here, in this way, now, Jesus can do anything.
Wednesday, March 7, 2018
Scripture readings: Psalm 65; Mark 4:26-41
|Various Photos from Desert Aire, WA and Washtucna, WA|
In an old story about gardens, there’s a little girl who begged, and begged, and begged her parents to let her plant a garden all her own. She jumped for joy when they finally said, yes.
So, she borrowed some of their seeds. She also borrowed their tools and one of their bedsheets. She did her seeding, and she built an awning with the sheet draped over sticks to protect her seeds from the sun.
After that, she did as much as she could to get those seeds to sprout. She didn’t want them to dry out, so she poured water on them when she got up in the morning and before she went to bed.
She waited, and waited, and waited. Her parents garden was sprouting and growing, while not a single shoot appeared in her own garden.
The girl got so excited that she couldn’t help herself anymore. She used her own fingers to gently dig the soil in the lines she had marked, where she had planted those seeds, to see if they were beginning to sprout. And they were! Except that they stopped growing after she dug them up.
The story of the child reminds me of Jesus’ story of the farmer who goes out to inspect his fields night and day, waiting for the seed to sprout and grow.
You’ve got to understand that Jesus’ parables, or stories, often have crazy people in them and there’s no other way to understand them. Sometimes we can’t understand ourselves unless we compare ourselves to crazy people. Sometimes we can’t understand what God wants unless we compare what God wants with a lot of things that we would never do because they sound crazy to us.
The farmer is as crazy as a little kid, most farmers grow out of this, somewhat, although you really may have to be a bit crazy to be a farmer. I don’t think it would be much fun any other way. Hunters and fishermen and maybe golfers are just the same.
But farmers, and golfers, and little kids need to learn how to be patient. If you plant an orchard you have to wait for years (well, just a few years) before you see enough fruit to go out and bring it in. If you go for winter wheat, you seed as soon as you can after harvest, which happens in Eastern Washington around late July and into August.
If there’s enough moisture in the soil, you plant winter wheat in September or October. Then you wait eight or nine months (or more) until your next harvest is ready.
During those months, anything can happen. I wonder if the nervous farmer gets up in the middle of the night to look around because he’s wondering how that seed is going to grow with all the stuff that can possibly go wrong? That’s what I would do.
I know farmers who can look at the bare ground of their field and guess pretty well what’s going on underground. They can look up at the sky and read the wind, and any sign of clouds, and know if it means something good, or trouble.
The child and the farmer were crazy with impatience; but, if they acquired just enough patience to be only slightly crazy, then you would be able to see what their impatience was hiding.
The little bit of craziness that remained would show up as eagerness. You wouldn’t get up at all hours any more, but you would feel the eagerness that comes from love and from faith. As a farmer, you love your connection to the earth. A sane farmer has enough faith to trust that, whatever may go wrong, it will all work out.
The seed in chapter four of Mark is not a simple thing. The seed is too much even for Jesus, in the sense that it’s too exciting. Jesus knows that his seed can do so much. It can make such a difference. It’s so exciting that Jesus is not afraid to plant his seed over the world from the elevation of the cross.
In the first big seeding and harvesting parable (one that we didn’t read) the seed means the word of God or the message of the gospel (the good news of God). Then Jesus changed his mind, and the seed became the people who lived on the farm road, and the people in the rocks and the weeds.
With the mustard plants, Jesus changed his mind again, and called the seed the Kingdom of God, which means God’s positive power turning the world around until it moves with the will and love of God. The kingdom of God means that the love of God will be in charge, in order to change the whole world, and all the people in it, into a life full of love, and joy, and glory. Jesus has the crazy eagerness of a little child, a happy golfer, and a grateful farmer.
If our farmer is obsessed with worry and anxiety, it’s because he hasn’t learned to trust his good seed. He hasn’t learned to trust the soil beneath his feet, or to trust the sky above him.
If we don’t live our lives and plant our good seeds in faith, then we will live like the crazy, worried farmer. We need to trust God’s seed, whether it’s the word and message of God’s plan, or whether it’s the good news of Jesus carrying out that plan. We need to trust God’s good seed even if that seed may be everyone we know, and everyone we meet, wherever they are; in the good soil, in the rocks, in the weeds, or on the farm road.
The farmer in the big parable that we haven’t read is God. We are God’s field, God’s farm, and we are the workers in it at the same time. By this you can tell that the parables of Jesus are very wild, and moving all over the map.
Yes, even Farmer God is a little crazy. He’s too extravagant. He’s actually careless and wasteful in his love and grace. He’s crazy because he wastes his seed. To any good farmer this looks just about a crazy as a farmer can get. A good farmer never wastes seed.
If he lets his kids play in the wheat in the back of the wheat truck at harvest, the good farmer reminds them to empty their shoes, and empty their pockets and their pants cuffs back into the truck bed before they climb out of it, because there will always be some wheat caught in their shoes and all that, and wheat is real gold for the farmer. You’ll never have a harvest unless you scatter your seed on the soil, but you never, never, never waste your seed. Farmer kids learn that early.
But Farmer God is crazy graceful in a wasteful way. He pours out the good seed on everyone, wherever they happen to have fallen, on the road, on the rocks, or on the weeds. So, God’s people need to do the same. They need to prove that they share God’s heart, the way God does when he scatters the good seed on everyone, everywhere.
That’s why Jesus has to live in our hearts. Without a heart that’s crazy graceful to others, we won’t really look like him at all. The resemblance will only be a good makeover that’s less than skin deep: thin enough to see through.
You spread God’s seed by what you say and do. You spread God’s seed by living the message of the good news of Jesus. Your life embodies the kingdom of God that governs you with so much harmony: all this means trusting the precious seed of God as you plant it.
Trust means treasuring that good seed so much that you never hoard it. Faith means to spend that seed; to invest that precious seed for an even more precious harvest.
I have driven a wheat truck at harvest time, and parked with all the combines and trucks together in the last piece of the last field, when all the farm has been cut, and all the wheat has been gathered into the bins and elevators.
It feels so good to stand there with the rest of the harvest crew. It’s like heaven. I’m sure it’s a foretaste of heaven. It’s precious. It’s golden. We’ve won.
The parables of Jesus invite us to live our lives with him in a world like that. We trust the seed of God’s message and love. We even call that seed our own. We trust God’s crazy grace. We pour God’s seed out on everyone, because Farmer God does it.
We can trust the kingdom which is God’s good skills, and God’s good methods, and the power of love to rule us all, and to rule us well. The farm itself is the kingdom of God. In the old days, the farmhands were like family and they found a good life for themselves in the kingdom of the farm.
The parables are Jesus’ way of telling us this. They are also a lesson that we can never learn what it means until we take the time to sit close to Jesus and let him explain it to us, over and over again.
Seeing and hearing are not enough. We come to Jesus to perceive, to understand, to turn around, and find ourselves forgiven. Forgiveness is how the harvest grows.
The parables of Jesus tell us that understanding doesn’t come easily. And that even a farmer might know less about his own business than he realizes.
The worried farmer is right, in his own way. The story of the storm teaches us why the message of the gospel, and the crazy graciousness of our sharing, and the Kingdom of God, itself, need to be learned.
The worried farmer was right that anything could go wrong. There could be drought, or rain, or hail at harvest, just as a beautiful lake can sink a boat.
Except for the fishermen, the people of Israel, usually avoided being on the water. In their mind, bad things happened on the water. The worst of it was that, unlike being on the land, if something went wrong on the water, there was no place for you to turn and run.
They had legends of sea monsters. One kind of monster was called Leviathan, and it loved to play, but its play was evil. Leviathans at play raised the winds and the waves.
No one could control it or tame it but God himself. In fact, the stories of God taming Leviathan became the picture of God’s power to beat and defeat evil: the picture of God taming the waters and the oceans where the monsters lived. God possessed the power to do this because God, alone, is the creator, the Lord of heaven, earth, and sea, and storm.
Moses and Joshua made a path through the Red Sea and the Jordan River, but it wasn’t really them. It was God. Elijah was another one who stopped the Jordan but it wasn’t him either. It was God. Only God could command and subdue the seas and the rivers. No other human could ever hope to do it.
Then Jesus, who was not afraid to sleep in a sinking boat, calmed the wind and the waves of Galilee. Jesus did the job without using a tool like a holy staff or a mantel. Jesus did the job with his word; just as God the Father created the heavens and the earth, and tamed the monsters of the sea, with his word.
Jesus does what God does with a word. Jesus tames the storms of the sea, and the monsters within, with a word. Jesus tames our own storms, and the monsters within us. Paul wrote this: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Corinthians 5:19) Jesus and his Father do the same thing. They share the same work. They work the same way.
Sitting and listening to Jesus tell parables or stories, and explain them, was so nice, so easy. They could go on like that forever.
Following Jesus showed his disciples (his friends) that living with Jesus included stories and storms, seeds and storms. Galilee wore a monster’s face in that storm; like old stories coming true.
The truth is that, wherever Jesus went, and wherever they went with him, they seemed to meet up with enemies, and danger, and evil. Jesus would go into a town, and the demons would drag their victims up to Jesus and make it look like Jesus was really being praised by the devil, as if he was serving the devil’s side of things.
The rabbis accused Jesus of this at least once. The devils were putting on a show in order to put Jesus in danger of being killed as a wizard. The disciples could be judged guilty by association.
After the resurrection, and after Jesus returned to heaven, the joyful disciples soon found that their lives still consisted of seeds and storms.
There is a battle: a spiritual battle. Churches and Christians, especially if they are faithful, will meet with storms: and sometimes those storms will be evil in disguise.
This comes not only from the outside. It comes from the inside too: inside a church, or a fellowship, or inside each one of us. It happened to the disciples with Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve disciples.
This is hard. It’s not enough to go by what you see and hear alone. You have to go deeper. You have to want to perceive and to understand, to turn and bring God’s power of forgiveness, which is the power of the cross. That is still how the kingdom grows. Even that might take some understanding.
If we have faith in God’s seeds, we must have faith that these seeds also work in the storms. We speak God’s word to our storms, the situations and the people.
We speak God’s word by living the life of Jesus in this world. We continue to live with crazy, extravagant grace and not withdraw. We let God the King give us our marching orders, because we are nothing if we are not a colony of his kingdom. We let God rule us more and more. That is another way to trust the good seed.
One thing about seed is that it looks nothing like the harvest. One thing that seed does have is that the harvest is present, hidden inside the seed. Every healthy seed has a tiny plant inside it, waiting to grow and bear fruit.
What we say and do for Christ may not look very much like Jesus himself, but we are the seed with Jesus in us waiting to sprout, and grow, and bear more seed. And God is the plant inside of Jesus, the seed inside of us, waiting to sprout, and grow and bear more seed. The harvest is really more of God, in Christ, in us. Someday everyone will know this.
Jesus is the seed: a baby in a manger, a carpenter turned teacher, a convict dying on a cross, a dead man rising with more life than he ever showed before his death: this is the seed. Even this doesn’t look like a new heaven and a new earth. This cross and empty grave don’t look like a multitude, from all nations and races and languages, that no one can count. The cross and the grave don’t look like a whole world of people who are also risen and new inside and out. The seed of the cross and the empty grave don’t look like all of this, but it has all of this in it, waiting to sprout and grow.
We have all of this in us: in ourselves, because we have Jesus in us. The life of seeds and storms is the life of Jesus, and we can trust this. We can be eager as kids, and golfers, and farmers. We can live crazy, gracious lives. We can live peaceful lives of seed-time and storm-time. We are made for both. We are save for both. And, someday, the harvest and the end of all storms will be ours.