Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A New World: Only the Lowly

Preached on Sunday, February 10, 2013

Scripture readings: Isaiah 57:14-19; Mark 5:21-43 

Sometimes the perfect prayer can be summed up in one word: Praise! Thanks! Forgive! Help! I have to confess that my most common prayer is: Help!
Photos of Walking around the Feather River
Near Live Oak, California

This past week I have been crying for help in three areas of my life and work. I have had three great fears. Fear brings me down. It lays me low.

And over the course of this week, as I have been crying for help with my three fears, I have realized that I could have avoided one of them. I could have prevented that one fear.

So I am repentant or contrite. I want to turn around and amend my ways; especially I want to amend and change my ways around that one avoidable thing that, now, might not be in my power to fix.

Even if that one avoidable fear is beyond repair I know one thing: that the Lord is with me. The prophet Isaiah tells me so. He tells me that it may not seem true but it is true. The Lord says this through the mouth and the pen of Isaiah: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isaiah 57:15) God may seem to be removed beyond my world of fears and guilt, but he is not.

I like living next door to the church, here. It has a high and holy prayed in feeling. I often go there to find the proper setting to be lowly and repentant.

The first church I served, on the Oregon coast, felt the same way and, once, when I was praying there, by myself, I saw something that told me this was true. There was a very large myrtle wood cross on the wall in the front of the sanctuary, and there was a mark on that cross about the height of my outreached hand. The mark was shaped like a hand, as if the oils from the skin of a human hand had touched that cross at that one spot many, many times.

My predecessor had served that congregation for over twenty years, and he had died of cancer still serving as their pastor. I knew (from the mark on the cross) that Mickey Moffitt had prayed with his hand placed there many, many times. It became a high and holy place, all the more because it was the place where a man brought low by cancer, and by the pain and weakness of his sickness, had prayed, for years, for help.

What I do in Washtucna, is walk out my door, across the driveway, into the church where I lie face down before the cross and make myself as lowly as I can. I really want to do that.

Of course, you don’t need to be in a church to do that. You can do that at home and it is just the same.

When our heart, and mind, and body move as one, it is a great help to become lowly in every way. And the Lord is there with the lowly.

The man with the dying child, and the woman who was always bleeding, were lowly: one quite suddenly, the other over long years of experience. They both came to Jesus full of fear. And they both “fell at Jesus’ feet”. They fell on their knees, or they fell on their faces (which is the deepest and lowliest kneeling of all).

Jesus walked with the man back to his home; back to his dying child. He sought the daughter out.

On the way, Jesus felt power go out from him to heal someone who had touched him. But everyone was touching him, and only one person in the crowd knew what it meant to reach out to Jesus and be healed by him. Jesus sought her out by stopping, and waiting, and making the frightened father wait, and standing his ground until she came out into the open.

The woman had a kind of bleeding that made her the physical symbol of spiritual uncleanness (symbol of sin), even though she had done nothing wrong, or nothing to deserve this. She was treated as if she was contagious, and she had learned, over the course of twelve years, to avoid touching others and being touched.

Those who knew her avoided her and always held a latent fear of her. Her slightest contact brought outrage, and anger from others. Those who were touched would have to go home, and bath, and be considered unclean themselves, and unable to touch or be touched until the following day.

Because everyone’s attention was focused on Jesus, they didn’t notice this bloody woman brushing up against them in her desire for Jesus. If she came out into the open, even though she was healed, they would all be mad at her, and they would still have to go home and wash, and be unclean themselves until tomorrow.

It was a terrible way to have to live. One can only imagine what her family life was like. Her family would have been ashamed of her, and her children would have been constantly embarrassed by her.

Even when she touched the hem of Jesus’ cloak from behind, it was still as if she was far from him, because she was still in hiding. Jesus forced her to come near by calling her out of hiding. He called her out as his way of saying, “Don’t be afraid!”

She thought her lowliness would put a distance between her and Jesus, as it had between her and everyone else. Twelve years of suffering had taught her this.

But she was wrong. It was because she was lowly that Jesus had come her way. There were strange patterns woven between the woman and the ruler of the synagogue, even though they moved in different worlds; twelve years of shame and twelve years of hope. In some way Jesus had brought the two together into one story.

It was because she was lowly that Jesus was really with her, to care for her, and to call her his daughter. (Mark 5:34) She didn’t need to hide any more.

Why did Jesus call her his daughter? I think it was because Jesus was the father of her faith. The power that healed her was not entirely due to her faith. It was the power of Jesus that went from him to her, when she touched him. Faith is not a matter of having the grit and determination to think something so hard that you make it so. Faith is the faithfulness of God, in Jesus, reaching out to you.

I think faith is powerless. The only thing that faith can do is be honest. Faith is a confession that we are not in control, but that God is. Faith is an honest admission of our true lowliness in the face of our need, and seeing that God has the power to give us what we truly need, as God sees it.

The first thing that Jesus gave the ruler of the synagogue was the evidence that he would stop for every lowly cry for help. The ruler was one of the people who would have looked down on the woman and avoided her. He was an important man who was not accustomed to waiting for others. The ruler was desperate with fear and Jesus stopped to help someone else; someone he would never have touched.

Jesus stopped, in fact, even after he had helped her. He knew that the person who touched him was healed, but his work with was not done. There was something needed that was every bit as important as the long, long delayed healing of the bleeding woman. The woman had to be taken out of her fear. Jesus had to stop for her. He had to call her out, into his presence, even while a little girl died.

In the judgment of her people, the girl wasn’t going to be little much longer. She was twelve. Therefore, in her time and place, she was only a year or two away from marriage.

Already, her marriage was very much on her family’s mind. There was great hope, and joy, and fulfillment ahead. Plans were being made. It was a time of growing promise and pride.

The bleeding woman was healed of a great hopelessness that was years in the making. The girl’s sickness and death suddenly shattered the hopes of her parents. She was on the brink of becoming a woman, but she was also her “daddy’s little girl”.

Jesus seemed not to care about this when he stopped, and stopped, and waited in the crowd. It made no sense to anyone who was there. His disciples didn’t know what to make of Jesus’ delay.

When Jesus got to the home of the grieving family he took the parents with him into the room where the girl lay. He held her hand and spoke to the girl: “Little girl, get up!” (Mark 5:41) Mark shows us the emotional life of Jesus more than any of the other gospels yet, even here, Mark is shy about the depth of feeling in Jesus’ words.

“Talitha koum!” is the Aramaic language. It is the real language of Jesus behind the Greek New Testament.

“Talitha koum” is full of the broken hearts of the father and mother because “Talitha” really means “lamb”. Jesus is saying, “Little Lamb; get up!”

She was her father’s and mother’s little lamb. You see how Jesus, with all his strange delays and waiting, knew the depth of the meaning of that child’s life in her family. From somewhere beyond this world she heard the voice of Jesus call her back with the same pet name that only her father and mother used.

As the girl grew toward her wedding, her parents had grown in their hope and pride. Now the proud parents had become only lowly parents, fearful parents. Jesus knew the secret words of love in their lowliness. He knew their thoughts.

He was closest to them in their lowliest place. They found who Jesus really is on their knees and on their faces. So it is with each one of us.

The idea of the Lord being with those who are contrite and lowly in spirit is much more than an idea. It is the very spiritual identity of God, but the Bible tells us of a God who is not content to be limited only to what is spiritual.

God left the high and holy place of heaven in order to join a human race than can only really know itself through lowliness and contriteness. He went lower still, to become a servant of the lowly and the contrite. God has made himself to be low, so that we can be certain that he truly belongs to us.

God became the wearer of a robe, the hem of which could be touched by a woman whose slightest touch could make him seem unclean. God gave himself a hand to take the hand of death itself, in the form of a little girl who had died. He gave himself lips to call her his little lamb while her parents wept at his side.

God became a man who entered a house full of mourners and told them to stop. He was the God who spoke to Isaiah and promised that he would “create praise on the lips of the mourners in Israel.” (Isaiah 57:19)

In fact he entered a whole world living in fear and in mourning, so that he could offer himself for us and give us a new life. He would come into our world and die for the sin of the world on the cross, in order to say “peace, peace, to those far and near, and I will heal them.” (Isaiah 57:19)

God walked this world in Jesus, and the gospels tell us that, even though he died and rose from the dead, he still has wounded hands and feet. His side is still scarred by the point of a spear. (Luke 24:39; John 20:27) In his heart he still carries his cross, just as he carries us. Yet with all these scars and wounds, he is full of life and he gives us life.

He still has hands and, one day, he will touch us with those hands. He became lowly to be with us when we are brought low.

The Lord’s Supper is about the presence of this God who gave himself to us in Jesus. He promises us his presence in the lowliness of bread and wine (such little, ordinary things) to show us that, even now, even though he lives in the high and holy place, he also lives with us, and in us, by grace.

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