Monday, January 28, 2013

A New World: An Honest Mirror

Preached on Sunday, January 27, 2013

Scripture readings: Isaiah 58:1-14; Mark 3:1-6

I know someone who refused to look in a mirror. In their bathroom the mirror had a sheet draped over it. They so very much did not like to see what they saw.

Toadstools on the Family Place
and Some Pictures in the Country around Live Oak 
I’m not a big fan of mirrors, myself; but a mirror is almost a necessity of life. I wouldn’t want to shave without one. I’m not sure I could properly knot my tie without one. If I get something stuck in my eye, I need a mirror to see what it is. As I get older, I have more trouble with nose hairs; and I need a mirror to help me get them.

If I could ask someone to take care of these things for me then, maybe, I wouldn’t need a mirror. You might say that such a person would actually become my mirror. Instead of seeing my reflection in a mirror, I would see myself through them; through their eyes.

Maybe you have such a mirror as that.

My bathroom mirror serves a couple of other purposes. When I look into my mirror, I find myself able to see a man who needs a lot of prayer, and the mercy and strength of God. I don’t think I would know how to live without seeing that.

I also look into my mirror and see many other people who need prayer. They need grace, and faith, and transformation. They need guidance, and healing, and courage, and peace.

Half my mirror is covered with sticky notes with the names of people for whom I have been asked to pray; or I know to pray for them without being asked. I see them when I look in my mirror. I see people there whom I have never met. I may never meet them this side of heaven.

You are mirrors too. When I look at you, I admit being tempted to think more about myself, but I know, from experience, that there are much more important things to think about when I look into the mirror that is you.

I should see in you so many other people that I will never meet, and so many places and situations that I will never know. And I should be able to look into you and see a person who needs prayer; prayers for grace, and faith; prayers for transformation, and guidance; and prayers for healing, and courage, and peace.

Jesus is the perfect mirror in which we can see the face of God; and we can see the human face, as well. We can see our true face, and the faces of the people of this world. Only we may look into this mirror named Jesus and not see what we want to see. We may not see our reflected face as we desire to see it. We may decide to avoid the mirror, or cover it up, or pretend that it has shown us something that is not there. We may desire to smash it to pieces.

There were a lot of people who wanted to smash Jesus, the perfect mirror. There was a political party in Galilee called the Herodians. They wanted the Herod family to rule the people of Israel as they had once ruled, under Roman authority, through Herod the Great, the king who was visited by the wise men and who tried to kill the baby Jesus. The Herod family still ruled in Galilee, with the Romans’ permission.

Having the Herod family as rulers was a way to be the people of Israel, but with the benefits of the superior culture, and stability, and prosperity of the Roman Empire. And the Roman power, in the tradition of the Herod family, would be used to keep the faith of Israel and the God of Israel under control. The Herods would see to it that the faith of Israel and the God of Israel would not interfere too much in their ordinary lives.

Jesus, to their eyes, brought God and the life of faith even closer to them than the Jewish Law. Jesus would not only be telling them what to do and how to do it, the way the Pharisees wanted to do. Jesus would have them looking deeper, at their priorities in life. He would have them looking at the integrity of their own hearts. Jesus would have them care about the poor and the needy. Jesus showed them the essential emptiness of wealth and power, and everything they valued, compared to truth, love, and compassion.

The followers of Herod loved the world as it was, and they wanted to be a part of it. Jesus showed them the possibility of a new world, and a new life, that held nothing of value for them.

They would cover up Jesus, and the God whom Jesus reflected. They would hide from this God and this Jesus, if they could; and they were more than willing to dispose of him.

The Pharisees were also learning to hate the reflection they saw in the mirror named Jesus. Pharisee is a word that comes from the meaning “to separate”. They were “the separated ones” in the sense that they separated themselves from everything and everyone impure or unclean; meaning everything and everyone that did not conform perfectly to the laws of Moses in the Old Testament.

If a Pharisee touched a pagan Roman or Greek (which is probably what you and I would be if we lived in that time and place) he would have to go home and take a bath. The touch would be degrading to the Pharisees, and the thought that the Pharisee would have to take a bath, from our slightest touch, would be degrading to us. You can imagine what kind of world the Pharisees made for themselves.

It was as if the Pharisees lived in a diseased world, where they were the only ones who remained uncontaminated by some world destroying plague. Leprosy was treated as the visible picture of the contamination of sin; if sin could be considered as a contagious, and disfiguring, and fatal infection.

Leprosy is a sickness that was common in Jesus’ day. It was considered highly contagious. It was also considered unclean. If you were a Pharisee and touched a leper, you would have to go home and take a bath. Maybe that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea, in the ancient world where no really good disinfectants were available except, perhaps, for wine and salt.

Mark tells us, in his first chapter, that Jesus deliberately touched a leper and that (afterwards) he couldn’t enter the towns. This may not have been only because Jesus was surrounded by such big crowds that there was no longer room for him in the streets of any town. The Pharisees may have tried to keep him out of their towns because he had touched a leper and so he shared a leper’s uncleanness. Lepers were not allowed in towns, and neither was the Jesus who handled them.

Other people came to Jesus for healing besides lepers. Even if they were not lepers, they often had wounds or illnesses that oozed, and bled, and discharged, and leaked: and Jesus touched them all. He brought them the message and the good news of a God who came into their towns, their streets, their homes, their rooms, and touched them where they needed it most.

Jesus reflected a God for whom lepers, and the people who leaked and oozed, were the very people you did touch; but that was unclean and unacceptable. The Pharisees would not consider such a God. In Jesus, they saw the world of such a God, and they saw where they would stand in such a world.

They saw it, reflected for them, in an uncompromisingly honest mirror. They wanted, with all their heart, to smash that mirror. They wanted to smash Jesus and make him stop.

Sabbath means “stopping”. On a Sabbath, almost everything stops. Everything stops: all working; all carrying; all making. There is no lighting of lights or fires, and no putting them out. There is plenty of food, but no cooking. There is reading, but no writing. There is no tying of knots, and no untying. There is no carrying of burdens. There is only what is needed for life.

The Sabbath is a day for life in the presence of the living God who does not need to work in order to live. To be holy as God is holy means obeying the command, one day in seven, to radically stop in the presence of God.

If a life is in danger, you may stop your holy stopping in order to save that life. Only you can do nothing beyond saving it.

If a wall collapses on a person, you can dig through enough of the wall to see if that person is still alive, and if he or she is still alive you may save them, but if they are dead, you leave the body where it is until the Sabbath is done. If a person is wounded, you may bandage the wound to stop the bleeding, but you cannot put medicine on the wound, because that is not needed to save a life.

The reason for this was the law. The law of Moses did not say not to dig the body out of the rubble. The law did not say to put no medicine on the wound. The law did not say to cook no food. But the law said to stop and do no work.

How far can you go before you stop stopping? How far can you go before anything you are doing becomes work? If you cannot answer this, the safe thing to do, according to the Pharisees, in order to keep the law to the letter, is to do nothing, because the law must be kept above all else.

Jesus did nothing but to speak, and to have the man with the withered hand stand up and stretch out his hand. None of this broke the holy stopping of the Sabbath. If Jesus did any more than this, it was nothing they could see or hear; but how could they be sure that he had done nothing else?

Perhaps Jesus had exerted great powers to achieve a healing, when the life of the man did not hang in the balance. Jesus must have broken the Sabbath. He must have made the day of blessing unholy and unclean when he healed a human being created in God’s image, when that human didn’t need to be healed.

The Sabbath is part of the Ten Commandments, and those commandments are found in two places: the twentieth chapter of Exodus and the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy. In Exodus the Sabbath rest is a mirror of God’s blessing of the creation. In the early centuries after Christ came, the Jewish rabbis wrote this about the day when God rested: “What was created on the seventh day? Tranquility, serenity, peace, and repose!” (third century, Genesis Rabbah 10:9) The rabbis, themselves, knew that the Sabbath was about perfecting, and blessing the creation.

In Deuteronomy, the Sabbath is holy because it is the mirror of the day when God set his people free from slavery in Egypt. Deuteronomy tells us that we are to give rest to others, because God has set us free.

This freedom from slavery is the Old Testament picture of salvation and grace. The Sabbath is holy because it is a day for giving blessing, bringing grace and deliverance into the world.

For the Pharisees, the law of stopping was more important than the law of saving, and blessing, and giving grace to others. They saw the stopping as the only blessing, and as an end in itself.

Even they should have known that it was a day for giving Good to the man with the withered hand. They wanted to put a cap on the blessing power of God. In that sense they were willing to do evil rather than good, for the sake of the law of the Sabbath.

In this way they were more concerned about stopping Jesus from working than they were about the blessing of the man with the withered hand. The Sabbath became a weapon against Jesus and against goodness. On that Sabbath day they thought more than ever about killing; killing Jesus.

When Jesus healed the man, he was giving him a new life. He was giving goodness. So the question of Jesus was to the point, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do Good or to do Evil, to save life or to kill?” They had already killed Jesus in their hearts. They had broken the Sabbath themselves and made it unholy and unclean.

This warns us about taking what we think of as holy and making it into a weapon against the Lord himself. Do we use our prayer, our music, our worship, our church, as standards for judging others? Do we use what we think of as our holy ways as an excuse to keep others from experiencing the love and the power of God among us? Do take the good things that we claim come from God, and make them into walls to shut others out; or into clubs for smacking them into agreement with us?

Jesus worshiped on the Sabbath with all his people. He was always found whenever and wherever they gathered to pray, and to study, and to listen, and to learn, and to rest in the blessing of God.

Jesus was also always found with those who needed healing and forgiveness and a new life. Jesus was to be found whenever and wherever the unclean and the unforgiven gathered.

The Sabbath is not so much about a day in time (one day in seven) as it is about the nature of God himself and his purpose to complete us as his creations, and to save us and give us a new life. There is no unit of time where seven days represent anything that happens in our world of time and space. The Sabbath has nothing to do with the motion of the sun, or the moon, or the earth, or the universe.

The Sabbath represents the grace of God working in time. The Sabbath is the work of God who creates us and promises to set us free, and to give us healing, and deliverance, and rest beyond this world of time and space.

Jesus died on the cross to give us a better Sabbath than any one day out of seven. Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead to bring us into a new world that is devoted to blessing, and to caring. When we create blessing, we create the Sabbath; not as a twenty-four hour day (not as one day in seven), but as a state of being and a way of life. Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead to give us a new world where there are only beginnings, and never any endings, where there are no more things that come to a stop.

The man, who stopped having a withered hand, stopped having a hand that stopped him. Now, no matter how hard he worked, and no matter what day he worked, he would always be at rest, because he had been blessed with the blessing of work. He could work and know the joy of work. He could laugh at his ability to work.

Now he could work and he could play as much as he could, because Jesus had refused to be told when to stop. Jesus had refused to agree that stopping, in itself, was holy.

When we look into the mirror of Jesus, we can see who we are and how we must let him change us in order to find our true rest. Our true rest, in Jesus, is found in creating blessing, and in being a blessing to others.

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