Friday, March 29, 2013

A New World: Born in the Dark

Preached on Good Friday, March 29, 2013
Scripture readings: Isaiah 50:4-10; Mark 16:1-41

The gospels all tell us that Jesus was crucified, but none of them describe the process of being crucified. They all describe the thirst, the nakedness, the mockery of the cross. They all describe the shame and the abandonment of the cross. But none of them describe the process of the executioners hammering the nails so that they pierced Jesus’ (or even the thieves’) hands and feet, or the lifting of their bodies from the earth as the crossbeams were nailed to the uprights of the cross.

Photos from Washtucna Community Church and Environs
Crosses, with living and dead bodies on them, were a common sight in that ancient world. How a crucifixion was performed was common knowledge.

But crucifixion was generally too gruesome to describe in polite company. Good manners forbade it. Everyone had a picture of the real thing well lodged in their minds, and nobody wanted to call it to mind.

Even the Romans, who made such a great use of crosses, and who used them with so much enthusiasm on slaves and foreigners (foreigners like Jesus), didn’t really like crosses. The Romans taught themselves to like brutality, but the cross was mind-numbing, not because it was gory, but because it went on and on, for days and days; at least when it was properly done in Roman fashion.

You were pinned with nails to beams of wood so you could not move. You could not fight. (The Romans loved a good, bloody fight.) You were naked and exposed to the elements and to insects. It was death by exposure to heat, and cold, and hunger, and thirst, and fatigue. You could not care for your bodily needs, and you could be mercilessly mocked, taunted, and even touched and hurt by spectators and passers-by.

Death by crucifixion might only be shortened by a good Roman flogging. They would use (as they did with Jesus) a many tailed whip, embedded with sharp metal fragments that ripped and tore through skin, and flesh, and muscle. The spiked lashes of these whips could cut the body to the bone.

This was no forty lashes sort of whipping. It was one that went on and on, until the whipper was exhausted, or until whoever was in command called for a halt. You could, after all, whip a man to death. This, in fact, is the only possible, natural explanation of why Jesus died so soon on the cross.

The thieves on each side had to be killed by the breaking of their legs, so that they could no longer lift themselves up to take a breath. And so they died by asphyxiation.

I could say more. But this is why none of the gospels tell us more this: simply, “and they crucified him.”

There are things we don’t want to know too much about. They are too humiliating, too brutal, too fearful, too mind-numbing, too desperate, too lonely, too dark. They are, in some ways, unspeakable.

You need to know that there is a special reason for this. We live in a world where it is human sin (the sin we share with all other human beings, and which they share with us) that makes this darkness possible.

It is a world-darkness, like the darkness that covered the Holy Land for the final hours of Jesus on the cross. It is a world-darkness, though we don’t usually see it for what it is.

The same darkness that covered the cross lives in any simple lie. The same darkness that covered the cross lives in any act of unfaithfulness, in any act of hypocrisy, in any act of cruelty or abuse. The same darkness that covered the cross lives in every act of injustice and pride. It lives in every petty theft, and vandalism, and envy, and jealousy. It lives in every plan of greed. It lives in every hatred and act of malice.

The same darkness that covered the cross also lives in our innocent injuries. The darkness of a fallen world lives in the loss of the beauty and strength of life in the process our aging, and our battles with illness, and the shadow of death. The darkness that covered the cross covers us as we die, or as we grieve. The darkness that covered the cross also covers parents when they have news that the child they are expecting will have some large or small defect.

The darkness that covered the cross overshadows us at the news of cancer, or heart failure, or stroke, or dementia. The darkness that covered the cross overshadows us in depression and other malfunctions of the mind and the emotions.

God himself came in Jesus to face that darkness, to enter it, to struggle with it, to die in it, and to rise from it; in time, in our world, on the third day, so that we can meet him there. Jesus is Immanuel, “God with us.” (Isaiah 7:14) The Twenty-third Psalm says, “”Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” (Psalm 23:4)

God himself became the suffering servant of the cross who could speak the words he gave to Isaiah to speak for him. This is what God says to us, in Jesus on the cross, “The Lord God has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught. The Lord God has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back. I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.” (Isaiah 50:4-6)

The Lord entered the darkness in Jesus to speak to us with words that can “sustain the weary”. Jesus on the cross is the place where we can meet God himself who is with us in the darkest places. So he can say from his own experience, as one of us in our world, and not just from his power or from any prior knowledge, “Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God.” (Isaiah 50:10)

We truly find God present in Jesus exactly where we need him most.

It needs to be said that the cross, for Jesus, is what sin is for us. Jesus had no sin, but the cross is where Jesus carried our sins. And our sins are our most basic experience of darkness.

The cross, in a sense, is the very thing that no almighty God would bear. It is the very thing that no successful Messiah would suffer.

Those who most wanted Jesus crucified were the ones who knew that the cross was the proof that Jesus was not who he claimed to be. The cross was the evidence that Jesus could not be God and could not be the Messiah. It was the sign that he was a failure at both.

When we see our sin as it truly is (any sin as it truly is) we see our failure to be what God once made us to be. We see that, in some essential way, we are very nearly living darkness. We are something to be feared. We are something that cannot be trusted. We are something desperate.

We need someone to enter this darkness. Could God do such a thing? We may even despair that God could possibly be willing to enter our darkness.

In the predictions of the Old Testament prophets, God would prove to be such a God. In Jesus God entered the darkness of our sins. He comes to us exactly where we are.

By his death for us we die with Christ, and by faith we rise to a new life with him, because he died for us under the weight of our sin. He conquered our sins, and the sins of the whole world.

So our darkness, whatever it may, is no longer unspeakable. It is not lonely. It is not desperate. It is not a curse. It is not even shameful. It is where we meet God.

And the darkness of others is not a place for us to avoid. The darkness of others is not a thing to be afraid of. The darkness of other people’s lives is a place where we can help them meet God in Christ, if we have also met him there for ourselves.
This world needs to be made new. It is God’s will to make all things new. The people around us need to be made new, by those who, like us, have found a new life and a new world created by God in Christ on the cross even in the darkest places.

Monday, March 25, 2013

A New World: Where We Cannot Play Alone

Preached on Palm Sunday, March 24, 2013 

Scripture readings: Isaiah 56:3-8: Mark 11:1-19
Two young brothers were fighting. One of them was playing with a video game and his younger brother wanted to play with him, but the older one wanted to play by himself.

The mother heard them yelling at each other and she came into the room to sort things out. Finally she told the older brother that he had to play with his little brother.

Photos around thePalouse and Snake Rivers and in Washtucna
She said, “Always remember, we are here for others.” And her son talked back to her, and said, “Then what are the others here for?”

When Jesus entered the Holy City, a lot of his people welcomed him as their king. They thought Jesus would know how to break up the game they were being forced to play with the Romans, and with the Greeks, and with everyone else who had been trying to break into their game: their game with God.

They knew Jesus was wise. Jesus was very, very smart. He could do the most amazing things: miraculous things. They thought that Jesus’ powers would contribute nicely to breaking them free from the grip of their game with the world.

They broke off the branches of trees and bushes, and they made a carpet on the road with their cloaks. This was the traditional way for welcoming a king: not just anyone’s king but their own king; the king who played just with them and for them.

Jesus did not come to be that kind of king; not a king just for them. He came to be the king for the others also.

His people would not like that. They had effectively forgotten what their calling was in the world. They were the children of Abraham and so they were the inheritors of God’s calling and blessing. We read what this is, back in the Book of Genesis. The Lord said this to Abraham: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing….and all peoples of the earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3)

Jesus’ people had misinterpreted the greatness God had given them. It would be as if the older brother had said to the younger, “You’re just lucky that I let you be in the same room with me, and that I let you watch me play my game.” The people of Jesus had fallen into the habit of thinking that they could be a blessing to others like that.

Jesus had not come to Jerusalem to raise an army and sit on a throne. The only throne he would find in Jerusalem would be the cross. Jesus had come to rule his kingdom by dying and rising from the dead for all people. On the cross, he would be the king for others.

Jesus came to be the sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world. He came to Jerusalem because that is where such sacrifices were to be made. He came to Jerusalem because the Temple was there; the Temple was the place in Jerusalem where such sacrifices were to be made.

The Temple was the place where a new world could come into being, because people could become new there. They could become new there because sin was forgiven there (in the sacrifices).

Through God’s grace, in the forgiveness of their sins, their lives were changed, and healed, and given meaning. Then there could be real worship, real renewal, true thanksgiving and rejoicing. Jesus came to make all things new: starting with human lives and (through them) the world in which they lived.

Jesus entered Jerusalem to inspect the Temple and to judge it, along with the motives of the people who based their lives on that Temple. Jesus entered and, at first, he did nothing. He acted with all the patience of God. He watched and he waited. Then he went off to think about it.

The next day, Jesus acted out two living parables. He cursed the fig tree, and then he drove the merchants who exchanged currency out of the Temple. The fig tree represented Israel, and the Temple represented their misuse of the covenant: their misuse of the blessing, the calling, and the promise of God.

Israel was blessed to be a blessing to all the peoples and nations of the world. The Temple was to be “a house of prayer for all nations,” as Isaiah says. (Isaiah 56:7) The people of the Lord, the people of Jesus, had become ingrown.

They were not robbing the worshippers who came to them and exchanged currency to offer sacrifices for forgiveness and thanks. They had robbed the world. They robbed the world of blessing by refusing to serve as a blessing to others.

They had made a strange substitution of sins. They had learned from the mistakes of their ancestors by making the opposite mistake; by making the mistake in reverse.

Here is how it went. Their ancestors had been unfaithful because they had loved the nations and ignored their God. Now, their descendants had become unfaithful because they had loved their God and ignored the nations.

Either way, God couldn’t do anything with them. He couldn’t love the world the way he wanted to do it through them. They would not play with others, and they would not learn the love and grace with which God wanted them to play.

Some people say that Jesus drove the people called “the moneychangers” from the Temple because they were using religion to make money, or because they were making more money from the service they rendered than it was right for them to make. There have been (and there still are) people who do that. That is a sin, but it is a different sin than Jesus was talking about when he called them robbers.

The Temple was a den of robbers because it was the place where God’s people were robbing the world. They were depriving the world of “a house of prayer for all nations.” They were robbing the world of its blessing: the blessing that the Lord wanted to bring to all people through his people.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem it was not exactly the king’s city, as it claimed. It true that it was being occupied by Roman soldiers, but Jerusalem was, in Jesus’ eyes, a nest of rebellion against the kingdom of God.

When Jesus entered the Temple it was not exactly God’s Temple, as it was claimed. It was in rebel hands, being held against the purposes of the kingdom of God.

The Lord’s people were using the kingdom for their own purposes. They wanted the kingdom of God to be a game they could play alone. But there are some games that you cannot play alone. In Jesus, God has told us this.

First of all, and really first, God is love. John writes, “Beloved let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)

This love comes from seeing others as the objects of God’s love because, in Jesus, God is a king for others. He is not interested in love for the sake of making us into a mutual admiration society. He wants us to love others into a deeper and deeper relationship with God.

If we represent a love that does not love others into deeper relationship with God then we are incapable of giving to God the love that he desires from us. We are even refusing to give God the love he desires from us.

God was in Jesus. God is Jesus, seeing us as though we were those other people and yet reaching out to us by dying for our sins (because we are sinners). God is Jesus rising from the dead as the conqueror of sin and death so that nothing can separate us from his love. (Romans 8:39) God is Jesus dying and rising for us to make us and all things new: to create a new world; a new kind of world with a new way of living, a whole new standard.

God is love, because God is, from before all time and space, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God is love, because God is (within himself) cooperation, and togetherness, and praise, and mutual love.

If the Word of God speaks to us, then it warns us of the temptation and the danger of being robbers. We cannot stop being robbers by being passive; letting people give themselves to us before we give ourselves to them. We cannot stop being robbers unless we start being givers.

Foreigners and eunuchs are just two of the many classifications of people who were not allowed into the holy parts of the Temple. They were spiritual outsiders.

In Isaiah, the Lord essentially tells the outsiders that they are not outsiders. We are to give them the same message in our words and actions.

And we are not entitled to give them their chance and then be done with them if they don’t take the chance. We are simply to stop living in a way that tells anyone that they are an outsider, period. There is no more such classification in the new world, the new kind of world that God makes in Jesus.

When you were a child, did you ever pretend that someone was invisible? I don’t mean, “Did you ever have an invisible friend?” I didn’t have one, but I knew kids with invisible friends. If you had an invisible friend, you undoubtedly paid them a lot of attention and gave them a lot of affection.

I mean, did you ever pretend that you couldn’t see or hear your brother, or sister, or a kid at school? Did anyone else ever pretend that you were invisible? It can be funny, at the start. Then it stops being funny. It is a good way to make someone mad really fast.

Making someone invisible can cause lasting hurt, especially if it comes from the genuine intention to hurt. We know that sometimes this game is played with malice and ill will. When this is true, it takes a lot of time and effort, and a lot more time and effort on top of that, to overcome it.

Even if the game is unintentional, if we have allowed someone to become invisible for a long, long time by accident, or just because we were busy and their invisibility took no effort or energy on our part, it establishes a precedent. It wears a groove. It makes a deep rut in the road that keeps pulling you and them in.

You can’t just patch over a real rut. You have to do some kind of serious grading, or blading, or grinding. You have to rebuild the road.

It takes time and effort, and a lot more time and effort on top of that, to overcome the effects of prolonged invisibility. And, if this time and effort makes us mad, then it ought to make us mad only at ourselves. We were far too contented at playing our game alone. Or we were just not very wise.

The people of Jesus were robbers because they saw the world as their enemy instead of as their mission. The Bible talks about our enemies, mostly to say that we should love them. (Matthew 5:44) Of course it also tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves. (Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:31) I think it was GK Chesterton who said they we are commanded to love both our enemies and our neighbors because they are generally the same people.

We may not like our enemy, but we are to love them. This doesn’t mean that we play along with them, and become their accomplices, and come under their influence. It means that we should seek and pray for God’s good to come to them. And we should gear what we say and do to help that happen. If we do give them this love then we are robbers.

When we see someone in need, we are often afraid of getting close to them. People in hospitals and nursing homes often get avoided as if they have become invisible. I think this happens because other people are afraid of them, or afraid of what they are going through.

Those who have lost loved ones, or who have gone through some huge tragedy, find themselves avoided because people are afraid of them. People rate their fears higher than their calling.

There are people who are needy because they are what we might call dysfunctional. They are hard to relate to. We can see why people avoid them. We want to avoid them ourselves because we get tired of them. But if we do not love them we are robbers.

There are people we have nothing in common with. We still have to love them or be robbers.

God loves them all, and maybe they will never meet the true love of God unless they meet him in our transformation from robbers into givers of the love of God. Otherwise we rob them of the life God wants to give them.

In Jesus, God died for others as well as for us. In Jesus on the cross, God prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) The people who welcomed Jesus would never have welcomed a king who might pray such a prayer. The discovery that he might be just such a king led them to kill him in the certainty that they knew exactly what they were doing.

Those who welcomed Jesus as their King on Palm Sunday really thought they were doing him a favor by welcoming him. They thought that this favor was to their credit.

Little did they know that Jesus was already their king, and always be their king, whether they welcomed him or not. Jesus had come to rule them in a kingdom that was designed for others as well as for them.

Jesus intended to rule them with a love that they had tried to hold onto for themselves. Jesus died to rule us by offering us a new world that we can only enter if we know that this is a game we cannot play alone.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A New World: A Stone of Hope

Written for the Washtucna Community Church Newsletter, March 20, 2013
Scripture reading: Mark 16:1-8

Photos Taken Near the Palouse and Snake Rivers, Washington
The Stone of Impossibility: one of the main characters in the gospel stories of Easter is the Stone Door. It was the stone that covered the doorway of the tomb, where the body of Jesus had been laid after the crucifixion. The first people to arrive at the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning saw this stone as a stone of impossibility. It was something they had to handle, yet it was too much for them. At least they could never handle it alone. It was much too big and heavy.

These first Easter people came to the tomb of Jesus with two jobs to do. One was the job that was too big for them. This was the nearly impossible job. The other job was completely unexpected though not unpredicted. It was possible because all things are possible with God. The job was a miracle.

The impossible job was difficult, in part, because it was totally sad. There was this tiny group of disciples, who were women, who took it in hand to complete the burial of Jesus. The death on the cross had taken place on the verge of the Sabbath, which began at sunset of Friday (that Good Friday). Jewish law required burial on the day of the death. There had been no time, that day, to finish the arrangements at the borrowed tomb. Herbs and ointments were needed to sweeten the body, because the tomb was built to hold more than one, others might need to enter before Jesus had turned to bones.

So Saturday sunset (the end of the Sabbath rest) saw the women going out to buy the "dressings" to properly take care of Jesus the next day. Sunday, almost before dawn, saw these disciples approach the stone of impossibility.

We all have stones of impossibility. The impossibility of Easter was the reality of death, loss, grief, unavoidable and unmerciful change, and the termination of dreams, expectations, and hopes: heavy stuff; heavy as a stone much too big for us.

For the disciples, arriving at the tomb, the days they spent between Good Friday and Easter were like a cup that contained this loss. What turned out to be the saving work of God, in Christ, did not take this away. The experience of those days of loss would always be with them. Remembering those days would always be part of their job, their special work.

But there was that unexpected job, in which all things are possible. In his death, God, in Christ, did something to death. God identified with us, in our death, in order to change death and defeat it. This is what it means to say that Jesus arose from the dead. The body would be gone and Jesus would be up and around, meeting them where they were, and pointing to future rendezvous.

Jesus is both heaven and the resurrection. The soul not only survives but waits for greater and greater changes. Jesus made it possible for us to change from hopeless rebels to children of God; from the sinful dying to the incorruptible immortal. Heaven, itself, is a waiting place for something more: a resurrection, and all things being made new. This was not the stone door of a tomb, but a stone of hope.

The first Easter people could not hope to roll this stone of the resurrection. Jesus came to them. They did prepare for this, though, by preparing to do what they could. They didn’t so much come with faith, as they came with its equivalent. They remembered who Jesus was and held onto that, they came to their stone with love, tenderness, courage, commitment and faithful devotion. This put them in the right place to meet the risen and living Jesus. This love and faithfulness gave them the eyes to see Jesus.

Jesus himself had already told them that this is what would happen. Let us come to our stones with love, tenderness, courage, commitment, and faithful devotion, a faith that seeks more faith. Our love does not move the stone. Jesus has risen because nothing can kill him and he gives himself to us. Jesus will move that stone and give you life.

Monday, March 18, 2013

A New World: Up and Down the Jesus Mountain

Preached on Sunday, March 17, 2013

Scripture readings: Exodus 24:12-18; Mark 8:27-9:13

Sutter Buttes, West Live Oak, California
The smallest mountain range in the world stands about four miles west of my home town. It’s called the Sutter Buttes. The buttes form a circle about five miles in diameter.

My home town is about fifty feet above sea level, in the middle of the Sacramento Valley, and some of the Buttes are around two thousand feet high, so they are pretty noticeable. When you grow up in Live Oak, you don’t have much to look at (except for those Buttes) so they make an impression on you. You sort of carry them around in your head for the rest of your life.

Palouse Falls, South of  Washtucna, Washington
We have a special landmark here. We don’t see it every day, but we learn to carry it around with us, in our heads. I think Palouse Falls is a landmark like that. It is a secret, mighty water fall, and it gets inside us. I think that’s important. It must make us just a little bit different from the rest of the world, unless they also have a secret, mighty water fall of their own.

God’s people learn to carry a spiritual landmark in their minds, and their hearts, all the time, all their lives. You might think our landmark is the cross, but it is more complicated than that.

Our landmark is a story. You might say it is the story of a God who goes with his people. We have a God who came down from heaven, to be with us. He was born as a baby in Bethlehem. He grew up and worked at a job in order to support his family. Then he went on the road and did and said amazing things. Then he went to Jerusalem to be welcomed by the crowds and killed by the crowds. Then he rose from the dead.

Like I said, you might say this was such a story of a God who goes with his people. He is, after all, the God who, in Jesus, is called Emmanuel, which means “God with us”.

But, really our landmark is the story of a God who takes us on a journey that we do not choose and that we cannot understand. God took Abraham on a journey through the wilderness to a secret destination only to be revealed when he got there.

His destination was what would come to be called the Promised Land, where his descendants were going to make their home. Even when he got there he hardly ever got inside. He mostly wandered around on the margins looking in.

Abraham didn’t choose this journey for himself. God chose Abraham for it, and God took him along. What Abraham chose was to trust God as his King, but he often had questions about this.

I’m glad he had questions, because the Bible calls him the father of all who have faith. It means we can all have faith and questions at the same time.

God took Abraham’s descendants on a journey out of slavery in Egypt to the same Promised Land. They never chose that journey. In fact, if you read about it, they chose, over and over again, to go back to slavery in Egypt. Only God kept them from going back. God kept on being in charge (being their King), choosing them and making them go on.

If the disciples could have chosen a journey with Jesus, it would have been a journey to kingship. It would have been a journey to Jerusalem where the high priests of the Temple would anoint Jesus with oil and place a crown on his head. It would have been a journey in which Jesus would change the circumstances of their lives and the circumstances of their nation by leading them in a great army to drive out the Romans.

Instead of that, Jesus chose them for a journey they would not have chosen for themselves. They liked Jesus a lot, but they had no idea what he was up to.

In fact, the more they understood it the less they liked it; especially when Jesus began to talk about his cross and theirs. Crosses were terrible things: wicked, and gruesome, and desperate, and so painful.

None of God’s people have ever quite known what to make of this journey. At their best, they only knew that this journey required them to trust the Lord and to listen to him: which means to hear and to follow.

This is because God is our King; but that is who Jesus is. This is what it means to call him Christ. It’s the royal title. There is no higher name or title. (Philippians 2:9-12)

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter said, “You are the Christ.” But Peter didn’t know what he was saying. The way Matthew tells this story, Jesus responded this way to Peter’s correct answer, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17)

Imagine taking a test. Jesus was giving his disciples a kind of test. “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter’s own flesh and blood (not meaning his family, but his natural self) didn’t have a clue. He didn’t have it in him to know the answer.

When I had chemistry and physics in high school, my science teacher, Mr. Williams, gave us a university level test on our subject toward the end of the year. We thought he was a pretty demanding teacher, so he showed us how little he was asking and how little we knew.

If someone had given us the correct answers to these tests so that we could write them down and get a passing grade, we still wouldn’t have known the answers: not really known them. We might be able to parrot the right answers, but we wouldn’t understand them.

So it was with Peter. The Father was willing to give Peter the honor of knowing something beyond his understanding, and this is true of all the people of God. We really know so little of what we do know. This is why it is so easy for us to get scared on this journey.

Some people describe the story of the transfiguration of Jesus, when Jesus suddenly began to shine (like lightening, like the sun) as a mountaintop experience. They say that we want to hold onto our mountaintop experiences because they are so inspiring, and that is why Peter wanted to build shelters on the mountain for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. They say that such an experience typically happens to us on a retreat, or at church camp. We feel so inspired that we don’t want to go home.

But Mark tells us that Peter said this because he didn’t know what to say. This is another way of saying that Peter didn’t know what he was saying at all.

Mark tells us that Peter and the others were afraid. When you are afraid, and you don’t know what to say or do, just how long do you want that to go on? Maybe Peter thought that if he could only get him inside a tent, Jesus would be less scary.

Peter didn’t know what it meant for Jesus to be king, and it scared him when he got one tiny glimpse of it. In fact it is much easier to call Jesus King and Lord when we are not scared. When we are scared it is an entirely different matter and, in either case, we don’t know as much as we think; but that doesn’t matter to the Lord.

When Moses was angry, when Elijah wanted to die, when Peter was scared, the Lord (as we see him in Jesus) was still willing to be their king. He still led them on the journey that he had chosen for them: a journey through the desert to the Promised Land, a journey through the cross to the resurrection.

We hardly know what it is going to mean to call Jesus our king, as we are told to do (as we are, in fact, prompted to do). But he is our King anyway. Peter called Jesus the “Christ” (the “King”), and Jesus began to tell Peter about the cross on which Jesus would die in Jerusalem. When Peter didn’t want that for his King, Jesus told him that there would be plenty of crosses to go around, and this would be the typical journey of anyone who followed him.

We see the option making Jesus our King, and calling him our Lord and Savior, as a way to get out of trouble. The people of Israel, in Jesus’ time, wanted the Messiah to come and rearrange the world for their benefit. Somehow they forgot that the Lord’s typical arrangements for Abraham, and Moses, and his people took them on desert journeys.

This shows how wise God is. It was hard enough for them to learn that he was king in the desert. He warned them that, when they got to the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey, it would be much harder than ever for them to know what it meant to call him king.

In fact, they pretty much forgot all about it when they got settled in the Promised Land. The only hope, then, was for God to design another wilderness for them, or an exile that would last who knows how long?

For some reason, in our homes, in our communities, in our country, and even in our church, it is hard for us to remember or to understand what it means to call Jesus “King”. We think it should mean making the kind of deal with him where he will rearrange things for us to make his Kingship more convenient and less trouble.

Maybe he does arrange our lives as our King: only not for our convenience. Maybe he has something wiser and better in mind for us.

He has a journey in mind for us. We cannot imagine the end, except that it means trusting him; and listening, and following.

That is how it will be. It will be our everlasting joy to trust, and listen, and follow. It will be heaven. It will be a joy that we will no longer be able to forget or misunderstand. It will be a joy that cannot be taken away from us.

When Peter was prompted to call Jesus “King”; when Peter saw Jesus shining brighter than anything on earth, he was forced to make the connection between the kingship of Jesus and the cross. He was forced to make the connection between the glory of Jesus and the cross. And Peter did not understand.

The ancient Christian Bible translator and teacher, Jerome, back in the fourth century, preached a sermon that we can still read today where he pretends to have a conversation with Peter. “O Peter, even though you have ascended the mountain, even though you see Jesus transfigured, even though his garments are white; nevertheless, because Christ has not yet suffered for you, you are still unable to know the truth.” (Homily 80)

We cannot know the Lord, and we cannot know ourselves, until we see Jesus who has suffered on the cross for us. We don’t know anything until we know what he was willing to do for us. We don’t really know what we are talking about, if we try to talk about him without seeing him on the cross and risen from the dead.

The power of Jesus to rule, and to change our lives and our world, comes from his grace. It comes from the fact that he allows nothing to keep him from making us his own (whatever the cost), as he chooses to take us on his journey.

Max Lucado says: “Nails didn't hold God to a cross. Love did! The sinless One took on the face of a sinner so we sinners could take on the face of a saint!” The cross and the resurrection of Jesus are God at work to transfer us into a new life, in a new world, with a new reality.

Different values apply. A desert can be a place full of God’s fullness. Sacrifice can be our true wealth.

In a world that shuns God, the cross looks like a failure. In the new world of God, the cross is where God wins us over. The cross is where God, in Christ, sets us free, and recreates us in his image, just as he is in Jesus.

On the mountain of the transfiguration, Moses and Elijah represent the law and the prophets. They represent the heart of everything that was typical of God to do in the lives of his people. The Law (called the Torah in Hebrew) is not really legal. The law was “a teaching” that taught its people how to think, and feel, and live in a certain pattern. It was meant to create a certain kind of people with special strengths and sensitivities. The law is a way of life. It is a pattern of life, and a pattern for the heart and mind.

The prophets are a voice in life. They are the voice of God unfolding a dream for the future. They are the voice of God showing the road ahead and telling us how to drop all the excess baggage that keeps us from going forward to that dream.

The law and the prophets represent the core of the journey on which God calls his people.

On the mountain with Jesus we see that Moses and Elijah (the Law and the Prophets) can only be understood in perspective when they are speaking to Christ, and when Christ is the one who is speaking through them. We see that the whole story of the scriptures (the long, long journey from the creation, to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, to David, to the destruction of Jerusalem, and to the exile) really points us to Jesus, all along. We don’t know what the story means, or has meant, until we see Jesus by himself, and listen to him.

The law and the prophets point us to Jesus. They tell us exactly what we need to know if we are going to listen to Jesus. They humble us. They speak to us of our creation and of our fall into sin. So the voice from the cloud says, “Listen to him.” (Mark 9:7)

The mount of transfiguration is spiritual landmark showing us where we are: that we are so far from glory and holiness that we are scared and witless at the sight of them. It is a landmark that cannot be understood until we have been to the cross and to the resurrection of Jesus. The mount of transfiguration is a spiritual landmark that helps us to know the real Jesus who tells us to follow him through any desert where he may lead us, or to take up our cross to follow him.

The Buttes west of my hometown are tall, but, at their foot, the land is lower than the surrounding valley. They are surrounded by wetlands wherever the pioneers haven’t drained them. The pioneers called the wetlands swamps. The peaks and the swamps give me a landscape in my mind of the high places and the lowly places of the journey where God calls me.

Palouse Falls does the same thing. Here you have a waterfall that is almost two hundred feet tall and you have to drive down to it in order to look down on it. It is a high place in a low place. That is the right kind of landmark for our hearts and minds. It is a spiritual landmark, to have a God who is both high and low. It is a spiritual landmark that teaches us about a God who raises us up by leading us down.

God is in Jesus, on the cross and in the resurrection, so we can die to ourselves and rise with him. The dying and the rising are the gifts that the king wants to give us. They are what it means to listen and follow him as our King; our Lord and our Savior.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A New World: Learning to Say Yes

 Preached on Sunday, March 10, 2013
Scripture readings: Mark 14:1-11; Mark 9:43-48

Sometimes I think there are only two basic words in the whole universe.  These two words form a pair of opposites. One of the pair is surely one of the first words that a baby learns to use, after mama and dada.
Pictures Taken around Palouse Falls, Near Washtucna, WA

Those two words are “yes” and “no”.

I have been told that most babies learn to use the word “no” before “yes”. I wouldn’t be surprised. I like it when people say “yes” to me, but I notice more when they say “no”. Does that make me “no” focused, instead of “yes” focused? I am not sure that this is the better side of me.

Let me give you an example from the Bible, of what I mean by being “no” focused or “yes” focused. Mark gives us a demonstration in the story of the woman who anointed Jesus.

This anointing thing happened to Jesus more than once. It happened at least twice that I can count. (See Luke 7:36-50, and a bit fuller telling of Mark’s story in John 12:1-8.)

Anointing was a special honor given in the ancient world, and particularly notable people (like prophets and kings) were called “the anointed”. One of the titles for King, in ancient Israel, was “Anointed One”. That is what Messiah and Christ mean.

Who are the “no” focused people in this anointing story? Jesus always seems to have an audience of people standing by to watch. Some of them watched because they loved him and others watched in order to spy, and criticize, and report to the authorities.

Some of the audience that day were the “no” focused people. It looks like one of the disciples had become “no” focused”. Jesus’ acceptance of the woman, and what she did, seems to have moved Judas to say “no” and betray him.

Who are the “yes–focused” people? They were Jesus and the woman.

What was the “no” faction focused on? It was the tremendous wastefulness of a good thing. The perfumed oil was worth more than a year’s wages. That was the difference between rich and poor in those days.

Who was this woman, who owned such an expensive jar of perfume? Or how did she come by such a treasure? Was it a treasure to her?

Jesus saw beneath the surface of the anger of the “no” sayers. He told them that they would always be able to care for the poor, because he saw that they weren’t really thinking about the poor at all. They were judging the woman, and judging him, and it was a judgment that came from angry hearts that simply wanted to find something wrong and to get mad at whatever it was.

They could have looked at what the woman did and seen devotion, thankfulness, and love, and said “yes” to it. Instead they found something to say “no” to. For the angry people, the money was an excuse for the thrill of an anger that was more precious to them than the anointing oil and more precious than the woman’s thankfulness and her devotion to Jesus.

It is a test of priorities, isn’t it? Which is bigger, which is more important: anger or thankfulness?

The real scandal is not mentioned, which is the simple fact that this woman touched Jesus, and Jesus did not scold the woman for touching him. In that time and place, men and women were not supposed to touch, unless they were married or related. This goes unmentioned in the story because everybody knew this, and Mark and the other gospel writers were too polite to mention it directly.

It was not a matter of what we would call a breach of courtesy or bad manners. In that time and place, the woman’s action crossed the line of what we would call “lewd and indecent behavior.” It was that bad.

The onlookers saw the passion of her thankfulness. They were offended and outraged, and they said “no” to it.

The woman knew the value of the perfume she was wasting, and she knew her people’s code of behavior. She heard the word “no” shouting inside her head, but she also heard a “yes” that was shouting louder than the “no”, and she had to say “yes.”

She had to anoint Jesus as her way of saying what Jesus was to her. This is probably why it happened to Jesus more than once.

She did this because she had watched and listened to Jesus, and everything in him said “yes” to her. And when it came down to the test, and she said her “yes” with trembling hands and knees, Jesus said “yes” again by honoring her gift.

The enemies of Jesus had a religion of saying “no”. Jesus brought a spirit of saying “yes”.

But as soon as I say this, I think how easy it is to take this the wrong way. People who belong to Jesus are not people who say “yes” to everything that comes their way. The people who know Jesus are the people who say “yes” to all of God’s “yes’s” and “no” to God’s “no’s”. But God is not a God of “no’s”. God is a God of “yes’s”.

It’s like in the Garden of Eden. Our first parents lived in a paradise on earth. The world was full of wonderful things: full of wonderful things to do, and see, and smell and eat. They had thousands of wonderful choices, thousands of wonderful ways to say “yes” to the thousands of ways that God said “yes” to them.

And they had one “no.” There was only one thing they were told not to do.

Now tell a child that there is only one thing that you don’t want him or her to do…and what will that child think of next?  But that is because of what human nature has become since human nature was changed by the first sin. It was the Devil who got Adam and Eve “no” focused, and we have been hooked on the “no” ever since. 

We are hooked on the “no’s”. Sometimes we show how much we love the word “no” by saying “yes” to what God says “no” to. We think that what ever God says “no” to must be so good that we must have it. We must do it. We are drawn to God’s “no” like a moth is drawn to a flame. When we do this we show that we completely misunderstand who God is.

Or we fall the other way. We go overboard on the other side, like the Pharisees and the enemies of Jesus. They thought that God’s most important word was “no”. And so they said “no” as often as they could. They were in love with the word “no”. It gave them power and control just like God, as they imagined him to be. By doing this they showed how much they had completely misunderstood who God is.

We can’t do this. You can’t do that. Not that way! Who do you think you are?

Let me give you an example of “no” saying in one church I served. In those days when I was still a young adult I was trying to start a “young adults” fellowship in my church.

There was a leader who came up to me and warned me that, if we had a group just for young adults, they might want to do things the church would not approve of. For instance, they might want to have a dance in the church building. Dancing in the church was not allowed.

I said, “Well, if we do have a dance, we can do it somewhere else.” And she said, “But if you meet somewhere else, how will we know what you’re doing?” There is a “no” saying frame of mind.

The “no” sayers thought they were protecting standards of goodness and holiness. They may have started out that way, but along the way they had corrupted the word “no” into a way of thinking that made them hate Jesus himself. And, by hating Jesus, they hated God, as God truly is. By focusing their goodness and holiness on the word “no” they no longer recognized what was truly good and holy when they saw it.

Jesus is God saying “Yes”. Paul says, “All the promises of God find their yes in him.” (2 Corinthians 2:20 RSV) Jesus lived out the “yes” of God to everyone who came to him. He always said “no” to sin, but he always said “yes” to sinners. 

The enemies of Jesus had a spirit of “no” and Jesus had the spirit of “yes”, and yet Jesus called his people to a higher standard than the “no” sayers did. Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20 RSV)

When Jesus says, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off….” (Mark 9:43) That sounds like a great big way of saying “no!”  But it isn’t.

It isn’t farfetched to ask what you would choose if you had an infected finger, and the doctor tells you, “We cannot heal your finger. We must remove it or the infection will spread to the rest of your body, and you will die in great pain.” 

So you choose to have your finger cut off. But the infection is already in your hand, and the doctor says, “If you do not let us cut off your hand you will die.” 

Now, if you say, “I love life, but I will not part with my hand,” would you be telling the truth? Suppose that you have people who love you, whom you love in return, and if you keep your hand you will have to leave them sooner than later. Do you really love life, and do you really love them, if you choose your hand over them?

It should be an easy choice, but it’s not. Our hands are our friends.

Most problems with sin will not be solved by surgery. The problem is not in the hand, or the eye, or the foot. The problem is in the mind and the heart. But the decisions are just as tough as surgery.

It’s should be easy to make a surgical choice in some things when they are the big things; like addictions, or an issue of morality or ethics, or bad life styles. Saying “yes” to that one thing, is clearly like saying “yes” to that infected hand, and you basically say “no” to everything else: to those who have always loved you and were with you from the beginning, to your health, to your home, to your work, to something or to someone you should treasure.

And you are guilty of robbery, because you have robbed those who love you of the treasure that is you. You rob them of the person they have known and loved, the person they thought they could count on.

The only healing surgery is a continual, humiliating surrender. It is surrender to God. It is surrender to the people who know when you are wrong. It is surrender to the people who are prepared to help you change, but only if you let them.

This surgery of surrender is not just for the big things. There are people who choose to say “no” in petty ways. There are people who chose to be hard. There are people who choose to be snipers and gossips. There are people who never face what needs to be faced. There are people who lie about who they are and about their intentions toward others. There are people who use others.

If these people changed, they wouldn’t know who they were anymore. They wouldn’t know how to function like normal people. It would be scary and humiliating, to admit that you don’t know how to live as a safe person, a person who can be counted on.

Marmot on the Rocks
There are so many seemingly innocent ways of life that we hate to say not to. It is a painful surrender to say “no” to being in control; “no” to wanting to know what is going on; “no” to the things that form the comfortable nest in which we have invested so much of our time, and hopes, and energy for so long. It is a painful surrender to say “no” to the business of living in the ways that have been so familiar and satisfying.

The world, as we know it, changes and grows old. Every world will grow old except for the new world of the kingdom of God where the greatest word will be “yes”.

It is a real surrender, to the purpose of God and for the sake of others, when a person must say “no” to something they think they cannot live without. There are times when a person must say “no” in order to say “yes” to a new world and the kingdom of God, in order to “enter into life.”

Jesus tells us that this self-inflicted surgery, without anesthesia, is for the purpose of entering life, entering the kingdom of God. The decision we make about this life-altering spiritual surgery depends on who we really love, and how much we love them.

There is really a lot in common between the picture of cutting off a hand for the kingdom, and the woman pouring out that bottle of perfume that was worth a year’s work in someone’s life. Both sacrifices were costly and they required a passionate surrender. It is a passionate sacrifice, a passionate gift. It is passion itself.

How much are we really guided by great and good passions? If we believe in the sanctity of human life, how will we relate to the lives of the people around us when they need us or when they say “no” to us?

If we believe in the sanctity of the family, how will we relate to the members of our own family? Will we respect them and use all our wits to live wisely with them.

If we believe in the sanctity of the body of Christ, the Church, how will we relate to those who come to us, or those who do not know that Jesus wants to speak to them through our voice? Will we love them for their own sake, and for God’s sake, or mostly for what they will do for us? Most of the reason for my family leaving their closest time to the church was the sense that the church wanted them for what they were willing to do, not for themselves.

See the Marmot on the Rock in the Left Foreground
If you believe that you are created by God for a purpose, how will you choose to live that one life which God has given to you? How will you show your great love and passion for that? 

Jesus is the great “Yes!”  And that is what the good news is about. The people who were desperate to hear some “yes” from God, found it in Jesus. They flocked to him, and they showed their passion for Jesus in many different ways.

Jesus had us imagine (for imagination’s sake) that the sin (the infection) that stands between us and life (that stands between us and the kingdom of God) could be located in a hand, or an eye, or a foot. He had us imagine that this infection could be surgically removed.

Jesus (and we as well) know that this cannot be. What Jesus did was to become that infected part for us. Paul says: “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

Jesus was cut off from life, on the cross, to give us a new freedom in our heart and mind: the freedom of forgiveness. Jesus gave us the freedom that comes from God saying “yes” to us. Jesus is God giving us the freedom of a new life in a new world.

Jesus lived, and died, and rose again passionately for all people, and he did it passionately for just you. So we can focus on the “Yes” of his love for us. So we can focus on being God’s “Yes” to a barren world. Then we will be guided by the great, good passions that he plants in our hearts.

Monday, March 4, 2013

A New World: Creation Unbound

Preached on Sunday, March 3, 2013

Scripture readings: Isaiah 35:1-10; Mark 7:31-37

A middle aged man named Ralph was a member of the church I served on the Oregon coast. Ralph was a lumber mill worker who was not completely illiterate, but he was essentially, functionally illiterate.

Photos Around Live Oak, California in Early January
Some of the smartest people I have known read with difficulty because they are dyslexic, but Ralph wasn’t dyslexic. Ralph was also pretty smart, but he simply had never learned how to read.

Then he became a Christian. He came to know Christ as his Lord and Savior. That happens, sometimes; even to church members.

And that is not the only miracle that happened to Ralph. Ralph suddenly became able to read.

He read voraciously. He read everything. He read the newspaper. But he especially read the Bible. He even got interested in Bible history, and so he read the works of the first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Ralph became a scholar.

He didn’t read like most people read. He read, and he read, and he read, and he read.

He changed in other ways, too, as a person. He changed from being gruff and hard, to being kind and patient. His family and friends were very surprised and didn’t always know what to make of him. He changed as a husband, a father, and a grandfather. His family was especially thankful and impressed. If they had one reservation about this change it was only the wish that it had happened sooner.

Ralph wasn’t perfect by any means; and sometimes he reverted to what he had been before. But he was a much better man with Christ than he had been without him. He knew this, with a suitably humble and grateful heart, and so did everyone else.

We can all talk about having a change of heart without realizing what a miracle a real change of heart means. Ralph illustrates this miracle because it was accompanied by the additional miracle of becoming a reader.

It’s true that Ralph didn’t read straight through the Bible the next day. He didn’t read the works of Flavius Josephus the next month, but he read it within a year or two. I have had almost sixty years to do it, and I still haven’t read Flavius Josephus.

For me, the miracle of the deaf/mute man is not that Jesus gave him hearing, but that Jesus gave him speaking. Before his healing, the man spoke with great difficulty because he could hear some sounds. He could hear people speak, but not clearly, not well, not the way others heard them. He must have lost most of his hearing at some time before he learned to talk.  

Even if he suddenly heard everything clearly, he wouldn’t recognize anything he heard. Words he thought he knew, and thought he could say, sounded very different when Jesus healed him. To suddenly hear everything clearly would be completely bewildering. The fact that Jesus made him suddenly able to speak clearly meant that he not only gained the skills that most of us learn as babies, by trial and error, but he also suddenly knew how to make sounds he had truly never heard or learned before. No one learns to talk like that.

The deaf man was suddenly able to navigate a new world of hearing and speaking with very little experience hearing and speaking. Those who were present at the miracle, being able to hear and speak for themselves, told this miracle story in terms of the miracle of hearing and speaking.

Perhaps what they didn’t understand was that, for this miracle to be possible, it required the miracle of understanding. But they didn’t understand that.

The deaf man understood what he had never experienced before. He understood what things meant, when he had never known what to call them before. Soon he was going to find himself living on a level he had never imagined before.

There is a certain point, in the life of a kid, where you get fairly good at being a kid. You have it down pat. Then, all of a sudden, you become an adolescent and you fall in love. Even though you had been good at being a kid, being a good kid never prepared you for this. You find yourself living on a whole different level, and it is hard to understand what the meaning of it all is.

It’s like our basketball team going to the state tournament. I can’t imagine living on that level. I was never on the basketball team, or on any team, when I was in school. The fact is that none of our teams were ever good enough to go to any state competition at all. I couldn’t even have gone as a spectator; not for my school team. That is a totally different level of experience.

The healing of the deaf man and any of the miracles of Jesus are big like that; only infinitely bigger. The healing of the deaf man was more than the healing of his long burst ear drum and a reconstruction of his inner ear. The healing of the blind was more than the correction of the tissues, and fluids of the eyeball or a mending of the optic nerve.

The miracles of Jesus were the coming of the kingdom of God and the ruling power of the king. For the deaf man, it is as if God had created all things new, and everything in that new creation worked.

All the work of Jesus (the miracle of his birth in Bethlehem, the miracle of his death on the cross, and the miracle of his rising from the dead) is for the purpose of bringing us into a whole new world in which everything is going to be able to work as it was created to work. In this new world we are free to live as children of God, which is beyond our experience and our understanding.

All the work of Jesus is for the purpose of giving us a new life in this new world that will never end. It is like being born again.

When we want a miracle, we never want nearly enough. When we want a miracle as a child it is because we want to win a game, or pass a test. When we get a little older, if we are guys, the miracle would be to have a girl say yes to the most important request you have ever made. At whatever age we may be, when we want a miracle, we may want healing, health, and strength for ourselves, or for someone we love.

These are all wonderful desires and we are full of these yearnings and achings. Jesus came down from heaven to fill himself with these yearnings and achings of the heart. He showed this in the gospel stories, with his angers, his fears, his tears, and his joys. He filled himself with our yearnings and our achings so that we could know that he knows us and cares. He knew, from his own heart, what he was giving to everyone who came to him for help.

He also came into our world to give us more. He came to give us a new world of life in the kingdom of God. He came to give us what the prophet Isaiah had promised. “Be strong and do not fear; your God will come, he will come with a vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue sing/shout for joy.” (Isaiah 35:4-6)

The blind, and the deaf, and the lame, and the mute are actually God’s people. They are us. If you read the whole Book of Isaiah, you find God himself calling his people blind, and deaf, and lame. It is what God’s people were, because they did not trust him or listen to him.

They refused to take him to heart and so they were, by nature, blind, and deaf, and lame, and mute. What else could they be? His response to their not trusting or listening would be to come to them with vengeance and retribution against their lack of trust and their unwillingness to listen.

And what would be the result of this? They would see, and hear, and leap and shout and sing for joy. Jesus fulfilled the prophecy that God would come to his people and open a new world to them. He would give them an ability to see, and hear, and live, and sing a life they had never imagined and could never have understood. God came in Jesus, to make them become what they could never be on their own.

The strange twist to this is that his vengeance and retribution was against everything that separated his people from his love. In Jesus, the vengeance and the retribution of God take place on the cross, where God, in flesh and blood, did battle with the sins of the world.

When we move from being blind to seeing, from being deaf to hearing, it is as if we have really come alive. We could imagine that this is what people mean when they talk about arriving at one’s full potential, or like achieving true self-fulfillment; only any such achievement on our own is in some way false.

We don’t really know ourselves. The path that people take to self-fulfillment often robs other people of their own self-fulfillment. What we do, on our own, to fulfill ourselves turns out to fulfill our own idea of what we are and doesn’t take us where we think it will.

Only God knows who we are and what we need. He is our creator, and he recreates our lost creation, the creation we no longer even understand, through Jesus.

We were created to be his children. This is to us what sight is to those born blind, and what hearing is to those born deaf. John says as much, in his first letter. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)

This is God’s great passion. It is his passion, in Jesus, on the cross, to make us what he knows we shall be. When our blindness and deafness are healed, then we will know our role as his children and we will know our roles in the lives of other people. We will learn to deal with them according to what they can be in Jesus, as children of God. This requires us to be involved in the work of the kingdom of God in the world around us, and in the lives of the people around us.

There is a description that C. S. Lewis gives of this hidden identity which we are to work for and support in others. “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously - no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”(“The Weight of Glory”)

It involves our being involved in our world and in the lives of people around us in nitty-gritty ways. The healing of the deaf man was a very nitty-gritty miracle. Jesus stuck his fingers in the man’s ears. Jesus spit and touched the man’s tongue. Did he touch the man’s tongue with his spit? It could be. I would call that miracle nitty-gritty.

Jesus didn’t have to be nitty-gritty. He could heal with a word, from a distance. A mother could leave her sick child at home, and go out in search of Jesus, and Jesus would grant her request, and tell her to go home where she would find her daughter well, and she would go home and find her daughter well, indeed: long distance healing; no muss, no fuss. How convenient! Why didn’t he do all his miracles that way?

The truth is that Jesus never did the same thing the same way twice. He never treated any two people the same. Jesus was good and his goodness was not bound by any rules. He was sovereignly good. He was and is the king of goodness.

We live in his kingdom, but we try to set rules for his goodness and power. We say, “If your request follows the rule for miracles then you will get what you ask. If you fail to get what you ask then you have failed to follow the rules.” But Jesus never allows his goodness to be subject to the rules.

Jesus even breaks the rule of faith. He would heal even those who didn’t know him and had no way of believing. He was sometimes nothing more than a man coming out of the crowd and disappearing back into the crowd.

In the gospel of John, Jesus healed a man who was born blind. All the man knew was that another man, named Jesus (and Jesus was a common name) had come to him out of the crowd.

This Jesus had spit on the ground, and made mud, and put the mud on his eyes, and told him to wash the mud off. Later on Jesus searched the man out and asked him if he believed in the Son of Man. Son of Man was one of the scripture’s titles for the one who would bring the kingdom of God. This was a title of the Messiah.

The blind man had no idea that this had anything to do with Jesus. The man asked Jesus, “Who is he sir? Tell me so that I may believe in him.” (John 9:35-36) Only then, did the man see who Jesus was.

Jesus follows no rules. He treated everyone differently. He treated the deaf man according to his needs. Jesus acted out for the deaf man what he could not tell him in words. He put his fingers in his ears, as if to reach in and fix them. Jesus spit in a world where any good man spitting represented a defiance and rejection of any evil (evil such as the deafness that isolated the man from his family and neighbors). Jesus touched the man’s tongue as though he was going to change what it could do. He looked to heaven to show that something from God was about to happen.

Jesus treated the deaf man according to his need so that this one man could hear Jesus, and discover who he was, and praise him. Jesus treats each one of us in a different way, according to our need, so that we can see what we have not seen, or hear what we have not heard, and be able to say what we have not been able to say before.

His first concern is to fulfill what the prophet Isaiah foretold. In Jesus, God comes to us. If we are blind, he will make us see. If we are deaf, then he will make us hear. If we are crippled and lame, he will make us leap and run and live with grace. If we are silent, he will make us shout and sing for joy.

In a strange way, we could say that Jesus got physical with the man, and handled him so that he could know rightly who Jesus is, and what Jesus wants to do for him. Jesus, in fact, is God getting physical with us. He is God coming to us, becoming a human being, in order to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

In Jesus, God became one of us to die for our sins on the cross; to share our pains, and our fears, and our injustices. In Jesus, God became one of us in order to rise from the dead and make a way for us to go through the valley of the shadow of death, and know that we are not going there alone. God became one of us, in Jesus, to show us that the world can never separate us from his love, or from his power, or from his presence and protection, even when we don’t seem protected at all.

Mark tells us that the deaf man’s tongue was “loosened”. This translates a word, in Greek, that means “to untie”. We all know what it means to be “tongue-tied”. The man’s family and neighbors thought that was what he sounded like.

But, really, it was the man was untied and set free. He was unbound. Jesus set him free, and so he could say things he had never heard before. He would understand what he had never known before. He knew that, in Jesus, the kingdom of God had come in power and, from now on, he would live in that kingdom.

The word “Ephphatha” means “be opened” and the man’s life opened up before him. His ears, his ability to speak, his heart, his mind, his soul had been opened up by God in Christ. And that is what Jesus wants to do for you and me. This is the work of his kingdom. Jesus wants to share it with us so that we can share it with others.