Sunday, August 23, 2015

Lunch with Levi; or, Party in the IRS: A Sermon on Mark 2:13-17

Hot on the heels of his stunning activity in Capernaum, forgiving and healing a paralyzed man and making the scribes' eyes bug out with frustrated fury, “Jesus went out again beside the sea” (Mark 2:13). Once again, Mark offers us Jesus on the move. So many stories in his Gospel happen during a nice long walk, but with the frenzied immediacy that speaks to a laser-like focus, a march with a purpose. In the towns, in the fields, at the shore, there's no escaping a Jesus who's on the move. And Jesus is on the move – he was on the move then, he's been on the move for two thousand years and counting, he's on the move this very moment.

Yet for a church called to be the earthly presence of Jesus, joined to him as a body to a head, we don't go for many strolls by the sea. We don't breathe the fresh air, we don't speak the word of God over the rushing of the wind, we don't tread the dust of the open road beneath our feet. To look at the American church today, you'd easily think that the body of Christ had a bad run-in with Medusa – we're calcified, petrified, turned to stone, reduced to a statue – having a bodily shape, the form of godliness, but without the living power to animate it and give it its motion (cf. 2 Timothy 3:5). How unlike Jesus, to be a tame and motionless body, still as the grave Jesus was too lively to be held by! And how blessedly unsettling to finally see a church that is, like Jesus, once more on the move! If the church would thaw from its stony stability, melted into motion by a Spirit like fire from heaven, then we'd know the truth like new: there's no escaping a Jesus who's on the move.

Out on the move, out at the sea where he called four men to join him in snaring people in kingdom nets, it's no surprise to find the crowd tracking Jesus down. And it's no surprise to hear Jesus talking to the crowd, “and he taught them” (Mark 2:13). Even now that he has disciples, his words aren't for the select few. He isn't some mystical teacher who explains the kingdom only to the inner circle. His words are openly available to the masses, not locked away secretly in a temple or written down in a sealed book or whispered in hushed tones around a campfire or sold for a fee. His words are for the crowds. Did he pause for a while to give them a lecture? Or did the crowd walk behind him, around him, as he pressed forward on his way? I don't know, but the crowds couldn't hold Jesus up, not forever. He passed by the place where he'd been, all the way to the local toll booth, the tax checkpoint, where Mark introduces us to Levi (Mark 2:14), also known as Matthew (Matthew 9:9).

Levi was a tax collector. He had a booth all his own, sitting there with book and pen. Even today, you probably wouldn't think to invite the man who audits you to your birthday party. The IRS isn't popular, not least in the wake of the latest scandals. But the Roman tax system was far more corrupt, and what's worse, the tax agents often were collecting on behalf of a foreign power. With a name like Levi, you'd think that maybe this man might be a Levite, someone traditionally responsible for collecting the tithes for God's kingdom. But here he sits, collecting on behalf of a phony king like Herod, whose brutal rule was backed up by the fearsome force of pagan Rome. He grew up learning the word of God, he went to Sunday School, but he doesn't live it now.

From the standpoint of Jewish society, both the religious leaders and the average people, anyone like Levi who worked in tax collection was a traitor, a coward, a scoundrel, an informant, a snitch, and an oppressor. Under the tax system used in Galilee at the time, a tax-collector would buy the right to collect taxes for a certain region – and there were plenty of kinds of taxes to be collected. They'd often pay the whole area's taxes in advance to the governing authorities, and then spend the rest of the year recovering their losses – and, if they overcharged people enough, could earn a hefty profit. Some would use violence and intimidation to make sure they won. In some places, tax-collectors used torture and murder to find tax fugitives, or doled out beatings to people's family to get them to pay up. Less like the modern IRS, more like the Mafia.

Two decades before Jesus started his ministry, a man named Judas came from Gamala, a fort seven miles from Capernaum, and led the whole region in an armed uprising against the tax burden. After all, even not counting the added extortion by tax-collectors, the tax burden could be over 30% of everything you had. So it's no wonder that everyone hated tax-collectors. They got rich – at the expense of everyone and everything around them. The rabbis grouped tax-collectors with thieves and murderers. They said that the touch of a tax-collector, just like a leper, could make a whole house unclean. His family was disgraced; he couldn't give testimony in a Jewish court; he couldn't belong to the synagogue; all his wealth was treated like blood-money so that he couldn't even give charity – he was a social pariah, an outcast. Both major schools of Pharisaic thought said that there was nothing wrong with lying to a tax-collector.

That's the life that Levi had chosen. That's how he spent his days, hour by hour. He's probably the man from whom the local fishermen like Zebedee had to buy their fishing leases; he probably had his booth set up next to a main route near Capernaum; he probably stopped and searched the belongings of every traveler, confiscating his chosen amount with some hired muscle nearby. What led him down that road? He chose a life that led to being sneered at as a traitor, a puppet of monsters. You've met him in every action movie that pits a hero against an evil corporation – Levi is the nameless, faceless bureaucrat who gets mowed down by the protagonist's bullets without a moment's thought. He's just a cog in the machine, an ordinary man caught up in the banality of evil. He may not like Rome, he may not like Herod, but he has a job to do. He doesn't see people; he sees numbers. His motto might be, “Nothing personal; it's just business.” And so when people look at Levi, and countless Levis today, they see not a person but a demon or a statistic.

That's the way our world works too. We feel safe venting our outrage against everything nameless, faceless, anonymous. Our culture turns multinational corporations into vast inhuman machines – but every decision comes from some man or woman with a name, a face, a favorite food, a memory of falling in love and a feud with a neighbor, and above all fears and joys and pleasures and hurts and a desperate need for salvation. We do it with our government. “The government did this,” “the government did that,” but every senator, every judge, every governor and president is a person made in God's image and meant for a glory greater than any nation. We hear news around the world – a terrorist group kidnapped this many villagers, a drone strike killed this number of terrorists – but every villager and every militant is a particular human being with all those things, all those fears and joys and hobbies, a person with a story meant to showcase the mercy of God.

Jesus looks for the story. He could have walked past the booth the same way we go through lines at the DMV, the same way we pass a cash register or a panhandler, and seen just a tax-collector. Jesus didn't do that. He didn't see a tax-collector; he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus. He saw a man with a history, a man with baggage, a man with hardships and friendships, a man with hopes and joys and fears and sins like anyone else. Jesus didn't speak to an 'it'; he spoke to a 'him'. And what he said was, “Follow me.” Jesus came, the herald of God's kingdom, the emperor of God's empire, and handed down a decree: “You're coming with me.” So Levi left his booth, quit his job, broke free from the bureaucracy, left the red tape sitting in a heap all alone. Faced with the seemingly mindless daily grind, the repetition of patterns for weeks and months, years and decades, it's easy to despair in the face of monotony. If Levi ever wondered if there could be more to life, he knew then and there that Something-More-to-Life was looking him square in the eye and calling him (Mark 2:14). Levi “got up, left everything, and followed him” (Luke 5:28). Jesus calls him to be a disciple, a future teacher in training.

If the crowd hadn't already drifted off to the next pastime, seeing Jesus summon a tax-collector would've done the trick. But don't you find that just when we think Jesus is making us uncomfortable, he finds a way to ratchet it up a level? The next verse finds him at Levi's house, and so are his disciples, however many there are. But they aren't alone, and it isn't just a family dinner. Luke makes clear that it's a “great banquet” (Luke 5:29), and Mark agrees: they aren't just sitting at a table, they're reclining, they're feasting, they're having a party (Mark 2:15)! And Levi's brought his co-workers home, and then some. There's a large crowd of “tax collectors and sinners” – the sort of people the Psalms called the wicked and told you to stay away from for your own health. They're there in abundance, mingled with the Jesus crew, meeting each other not as stereotypes but as flesh-and-blood people. These people were the only kind of friends Levi had, a closed club of misfits, the unwanted, the perpetually avoided; but Jesus and his disciples want their company.

Needless to say, not everyone is happy. The local scribes, who belong to the Jewish sect called the Pharisees – the first time Mark names them – are mighty concerned (Mark 2:16). To a Pharisee, the fundamental purpose of a holy life is making distinctions: these people are living rightly, those people are living wrongly. These people are acceptable, those people aren't. And to eat with someone, sharing the same food, was to say that you accept and welcome them. To sit down at the same table was to say, “I approve of you, I welcome you, I call you a friend.” The Pharisees saw the power that had and insisted the purity of one's dinner company be carefully guarded. You want to have a dinner party, you seek out the local scholars, the respectable citizens. You don't go slumming it with ruffians and rednecks, much less crooks and creeps. But Jesus doesn't see crooks and creeps; he sees the sick and needy (Mark 2:17), sees people who need to be welcomed, people who need a holy friend.

When Jesus calls Levi, Levi leaves everything – sort of. Levi now lives in two worlds. And he does the only thing that makes sense after meeting Jesus: he gives Jesus his other world. He brings them into collision: the world of tax collectors, ne'er-do-wells, sinners, meets the world of God's kingdom. Levi knows that his friends need Jesus, and he arranges for them to meet Jesus – at a party. The wording in Mark suggests that it may have had a powerful impact: “Many followed him” (Mark 2:15). Does that mean that, out of this gathered crowd of tax-collectors and other sinners, a bunch of them became followers of Jesus, became disciples? If so, could any of the other apostles have joined up with Jesus here – and all because Levi had the guts to bring two worlds together?

Most American Christians today aren't equipped to do what Levi did. There are exceptions – I'm led to think of our friend Gary Carter and his motorcycle ministry, which is a beautiful imitation of Levi's witness – but most aren't like that. Within two years after becoming a Christian, the average new believer no longer has serious contact with any non-Christian friends. A couple years ago, the statistic came out that one in five non-Christians in North America doesn't personally know even one Christian. Take out the non-Christians who used to be involved in a church but drifted away, and it shoots up to three in five. Sixty percent of those who've never known Jesus, don't know any Christians. They don't know any of us because we choose not to know them, choose not to meet them, choose not to pitch our tents among them like Jesus pitched his tent on earth among “sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore.”

If we don't do something about that, we can never be like Levi. And yet we can't go looking for 'friends' just in order to lead them to Jesus. That's treating people like a project; that's treating them as means to an end; that's using them to put another notch in our evangelistic belts. If we do that, then we aren't seeing them like Jesus saw Levi: as people. Levi didn't see the other tax collectors as projects; he saw them as friends, loved ones, the whole world to him until Jesus cracked his world wide open. He was so keenly aware of his own need that he didn't hesitate to see their needs with open eyes. And yet, barely aware of the word of God, he didn't feel the pressure to evangelize on his own. All he had to do was make sure that his needy friends and the Jesus crew were in the same place at the same time – he arranged the meet, and Jesus, Simon, Andrew, James, and John took it from there. Can we do that?

In the church today, we'll gladly give lipservice to sharing Jesus with people. But when we see someone doing what Jesus does here, our inner Pharisee can easily creep out. I mean, to mingle with sinners and not disavow them, not trumpet in a loud voice that we stand apart from them – isn't that compromising? Doesn't that defile us? Doesn't bad company ruin good character (1 Corinthians 15:33)? If we become friends with the drunks or the addicts or the vandals or the people marching in pride parades, won't that corrupt our spiritual life and ruin our witness? That's what the Pharisees want to know.

How does Jesus react to the Pharisees' logic? He tells them that if they knew Scripture better, if they really had it in their hearts and minds, they'd have a better glimpse of God's heart. As the Gospel based on Matthew's own memory makes clear, Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13; cf. Hosea 6:6). Hosea was challenging the corrupt religious and civil authorities who “dealt faithlessly with the LORD” (Hosea 5:7), and through him God promised judgment until people turned back to him, acknowledging their guilt and seeking his face (Hosea 5:15). To the Pharisees, this was the core of their message: before Israel can see the kingdom, before God will send his favor to them again and drive off their pagan overlords, the sinners in Israel – all those who infringe even slightly against the Law – have to make themselves pure.

But to Jesus, the message is different. God has a higher priority than purity, a higher priority than the sacrifices of the temple, a higher priority than precise legalism. God isn't merely looking for us to give him the best, the brightest, the cleanest we've got – everything the Pharisees were ready to offer. God doesn't want burnt offerings half so much as he wants people to know him, really know him, encounter him in the gritty places of life. God doesn't want sacrificial purity; he wants people to imitate his mercy (Hosea 6:6). And to be merciful isn't to hold sinners and tax-collectors at arm's length; it's to embrace them, to show them that the kingdom of God is about grace that changes lives.

And grace does change lives; it doesn't leave them the same. That's what the Pharisees miss. They think that, unless we build walls up front, unless we frontload our words and works with disclaimers, we'll “compromise” ourselves and the message we bring. They think that unless we keep our social distance, we'll lose our moral distance and slide down toward the lowest common denominator. That's the road they thought Jesus was on, and it's the road a lot of modern Christians fear. We easily think that, if we socialize with those loud and obnoxious sinners, the God-haters, God-deniers, and God-twisters, and we don't preach at them first thing, we've compromised the message, we've failed to take a stand.

Jesus insists that the grace of God doesn't mean compromise. He goes, he parties with tax-collectors and sinners, he makes friends with them – and he doesn't deny they're sinners, doesn't deny that they need mercy from God. It's the sick who need a doctor, and it's sinners who need him, he says (Mark 2:17). Luke makes it extra clear: “I have come not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). In the very midst of socializing with sinners, Jesus doesn't compromise. He accepts them as people, he views them with God's eyes and holds them with God's arms, and he shows them a better way. None of the Gospels tell us exactly what Jesus did or said at that dinner party, but he and his disciples taught and illustrated that “the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). To avoid compromise, we don't have to take a stand; we can recline at the table and sincerely listen to their stories and speak God's wisdom into everyday life. Can we see God's wisdom offering hope and truth for the practical concerns of our co-workers, our neighbors, the people in the rough part of town?

Many years ago, the Welsh Mountain was notorious for being full of the kind of characters who populated this dinner party. The newspapers spoke often of the “gang of desperadoes who infest the Welsh Mountains.” They said that many “residents of the mountain” had often “figured in the criminal courts, charged with high crimes.” Even The New York Times said that the Welsh Mountain was “the home of people ignorant of God and Christianity, with thievery and outlawry generally their principal vocations, and an utter disregard of law marking their daily life.” In the days the Buzzard gang ran wild, in the days of shacks and shanties, the Welsh Mountain was littered with “sinners,” the wicked, the dangerous crowd. It wasn't the kind of place you wanted to go. But someone did go there, a missionary named Melford Hagler, who spent fifty of the seventy years of his life taking up work among what even his obituary called “as devilish a crew as ever held the fort in any fastness.” Rev. Hagler, it said, was fearless and labored to help the shanty-dwellers build “respectable homes,” he taught them to read and write, he organized schools, he put Bibles in their homes, he preached the Ten Commandments and the need to follow Jesus. He knew what Levi knew, and he did as Jesus did. His great-grandson sits among us today.

We need to recover the fearlessness of Jesus. We need to regain the love of Levi. We need to regain the zeal of Melford Hagler. We need to bring a party to the IRS – to not just stay safe in our sanctified walls, but to bring the holiness of God where the people are – the more broken, the more in need. We need to admit that no one is beyond the reach of God's grace. No one can be expected to jump over our hurdles before Jesus will welcome them with open arms. We can't afford to be afraid. We can't afford to just lament what the world is coming to – “the world,” we say, looking at a nameless, faceless mob, looking at them the way everyone but Jesus looked at Levi. Jesus didn't come to call “good people.” Nor did Jesus come to make us nice and decent and safe. Jesus isn't looking for our conventional piety, our domesticated rituals; he's looking for a reflection of the mercy and hospitality of God. He's looking for us to make him unavoidable, even in the tough crowds. But we can't do that sitting in our pews. May God show us where the need is, where the sick need doctoring and the sinful need saving (Mark 2:17), and send us among them to be merciful as God is merciful (Luke 6:36). May we be, like Jesus, on the move!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Through the Roof: A Sermon on Mark 2:1-12

Last week, we journeyed with Jesus on a preaching tour of Galilee, where he touched a leper to restore him to health in body and soul, because Christ's contagious holiness wins out. Now, returning to Capernaum, we find Jesus staying in a house – whether he owns his own house there, or maybe it's Simon's family's house, we don't know – and people find out he's there (Mark 2:1). Remember, Jesus couldn't even walk into town openly any more; he had to sneak in (Mark 1:45). I don't know what the capacity of a typical house in Capernaum was, but as soon as people heard Jesus was there, they crammed in like a tin of sardines. Violation of the fire code, is what it was. But everyone wanted to hear Jesus (Mark 2:2)! We find out in this story that even the scribes were there, and they had seats (Mark 2:6). That wonders me: Did people just clear a way for them out of respect, or did the scribes get there early? Were they there to judge, or were they there because they too were intrigued to hear Jesus? Whatever the case, the place was packed all the way out the door, and everyone was listening to Jesus “speaking the word to them” (Mark 2:3), explaining the message of the kingdom in greater depth, maybe for hours. What I wouldn't give for a video of that!

Enter a new cast of characters, stage left. We meet a paralyzed man – can't walk, can't move, can't do anything for himself. Where was he last chapter when the whole village gathered around so that Jesus could heal all the sick (Mark 1:33-34)? Mark doesn't tell us that, and Mark also doesn't tell us who it was who brought him this time. The paralyzed man has a house, and it's hard to believe he lives by himself, so maybe it's his parents, siblings, or close friends who are caring for him. But whoever they are, they run into a big problem – a problem the size of the crowd. The crowd of gawkers, half-hearted hearers of the word (but, alas, not doers of it), are an obstacle to reaching Jesus.

Sadly, that's often the case today. For many people, the crowds of churchgoers all thronging into the house present an obstacle for people seeking the healing that only Jesus can give. Surveys of people's dissatisfaction with Christianity seldom find it rooted in a reaction to the Jesus they meet in the Gospels. It usually has more to do with the actions and attitudes, real or perceived, of Christians, or at least people who claim the name. In too many cases, our multitude is “thronging round to keep them back from Jesus,” not to let them through. The good news of Jesus is a stone of stumbling enough without all the oil slicks of our hypocrisy, the icy frost of our judgment, the ball bearings of our nitpicking and fear-mongering, and the banana peels of our self-righteousness. Jesus doesn't need us to crowd the way to him; he asks us to point, love, lead, and get out of the way. “Oh! help them on to Jesus!” let that be our cry forever.

Yet still the crowd is so often there, obscuring sight of Jesus, making it hard for people to hear his voice through all our mindless chatter and senseless bickering. For many seekers, the crowd is the end of the search. Faced with the impenetrability of the crowd, who show no signs of making way to bring the needy in contact with the One they need, most seekers would dejectedly – or maybe scornfully and pridefully – turn around and walk away. “If I can't get through, it must not be worth my time,” they think. “No need to be a sheep and join the crowd,” they say. And think of all the rude and ill-tempered hypocrites in the crowd! Most seekers would turn away. But not the men carrying the mat. They didn't come to find a crowd. They came to find Jesus, and they intend to reach Jesus, crowd or no crowd. If we're a hindrance, they'll go around us. If the doorway's blocked, they'll make their own way. They'll persevere. They'll dig through the roof (Mark 2:4).

What does the crowd see when they do? Probably falling chunks of dirt, maybe straw. Maybe they dive out of the way. What do the scribes see? Probably a nuisance. What does Jesus see? He sees their faith (Mark 2:5). Not just the paralyzed man's faith – Jesus sees the faith of the whole group who brought him, the ones who lugged him up a flight of steps and ripped a roof apart because they're convinced that Jesus is capable and willing of helping someone they love. His disability isn't a crisis, not a sudden medical emergency; but unless Jesus intervenes, the status quo is here to stay. It takes more than just that one man's faith. It takes the faith of a family, the faith of a social circle. They carry their helpless friend to Jesus, because they believe, they really and truly believe. And that's a rarity in the Gospel of Mark.

Jesus has been insisting that people believe in the good news, that they put all their eggs in one basket, the basket of God's kingdom breaking through here and now. Up until this point, how many people in the story have specifically been identified as believers? In so many words, none. Some, like the first disciples and like the imploring leper, are painted with faith-like colors (though even the disciples are frequently slammed for their cringeworthy lack of faith), but not a single person is called a believer until these four or five come on the scene. If we want to start seeing what faith looks like to Jesus as Mark knows him, cast your eyes on this: when the way is crowded, when the door isn't open, when Jesus seems out of reach, faith goes through the roof!

That's what Jesus sees in them: a through-the-roof faith. They have faith that, if they send their friend down through the roof, Jesus can heal him, Jesus can fix things, Jesus can make things right. They have faith enough to put Jesus on the spot. And so we expect Jesus to say, “Go in peace; your faith has made you well” (cf. Mark 5:34). But that isn't what Jesus does. He says, “Child, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). Note what Jesus doesn't say. He doesn't say, “Child, understand, you were always perfect the way I made you.” He doesn't say, “Child, just love yourself the way you are.” He doesn't say, “Child, you can't help you were born this way, oriented to 'the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life' (1 John 2:16), so it's all good.” In telling the man he's forgiving his sins, he's saying that this paralyzed man has sins that need forgiven.

To this man, that's surely not news. To the average man on the street today, that might be a news off the station's blooper reel. As a culture, we've become beholden to a therapeutic worldview in all things – at our worst, we're still convinced we don't sin, we're just products of a broken system – or better, we're “differently habituated,” we're “ethically diverse.” So we don't need forgiveness or repentance, the culture says, just self-acceptance. The only sin, a modern might say, is to speak seriously of sin. Jesus will have none of this nonsense: he speaks unapologetically of sin, repentance, forgiveness, and all the rest. Aimed at a scribe, those words might be news also – not because the scribe doesn't believe in sin, but because the scribe believes in everyone else's sins but his own. Sadly, too many Christians' outlook could be summed up in that same phrase: we believe in everyone's sins but our own. May we instead say, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15).

Jesus reinforces the truth that the man has sinned, but not to condemn him. Jesus tells the bad news only to delight in the good news. Jesus announces, “Child, your sins are forgiven” – not just some sins, not just recent sins or easy sins, not just his personal Top Ten list of sins, but all the sins that this man's ever managed to commit in word, in thought, in deed. They're forgiven, erased, blotted out, dealt with and dismantled and discarded. Not a one of them is relevant to the position this man suddenly now occupies in the sight of God. Not a one of them has any rightful grasp on him any longer. His body may, at this moment, still be stiff as a board, but his soul is spotless and new, unchained by the mercy in Jesus' eyes. Don't fear a crippled body; fear a crippled soul (cf. Matthew 10:28).

This can be a hard lesson to learn. I talked last week about my college roommate for whom the life of faith was all about looking for miracles. But there's a miracle greater than restoring sight to the blind or making a paralyzed man run. And that higher miracle is the mighty act of God that breathes new creation into a human soul, transmuting sin into sanctity, inability into innocence, and death into discipleship. It's the miracle of being born again. It's the miracle of forgiveness, complete and heart-deep forgiveness, the forgiveness that Jesus gives to the paralyzed man and that he offers to you and to me as a continual well of blessing, to make us “holy and blameless and irreproachable” (Colossians 1:22) and “fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Oh, “blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Psalm 32:1)!

It's a gift that only comes from God – and that fact doesn't go lost on the hecklers in the audience. The scribes have been sitting there the whole time, watching this all unfold. They may well have been in the synagogue where Jesus showed up their pedantic preaching: “He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). They may have been in the synagogue to witness the crowds trumpeting Jesus' authority to chase demons away (Mark 1:27). Now, as Jesus keeps spreading his message, they've seen him announce that he can give God's special gifts (Mark 2:6). If they'd ever hoped to reserve judgment about Jesus and the authority he claims, he leaves them and us no third way out, he confronts us and demands a decision. “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15), choose how to respond to this Jesus.

As for the scribes, they're being almost reasonable. They know that this kind of forgiveness has to be a gift from God alone. Every sin is a sin principally against God. Every lie is a denial of God's truth, every impure thought or act a denial of God's holiness, every uncharitable deed a denial of God's love, every attack on a neighbor or enemy an offense against God's image. And only God can forgive that core element of sin that is a transgression against God's kingship and God's character.  Sin, at its core, is always sin against God.  Yet here comes this man, presuming to forgive someone of all his sins against God, putting himself forward in God's role, to stand on earth in God's shoes! If it's not true, then he's slandering God and cheapening his glory by watering down God's uniqueness – and the word for that great offense is blasphemy, a capital crime (Mark 2:7).

The scribal logic has only one itsy-bitsy flaw. In practice, they skip over that crucial word: 'if.' If it's not true, then the charge of blasphemy follows. Now, for the scribes, there's no need for investigation; they just assume from the outset that Jesus is laying claim to what surely can't be his. They haven't even spoken their concerns, they're just grumbling in their inner monologue, but Jesus is determined to show himself as the Lord to whom “all hearts are open, all desires known, and from [whom] no secrets are hid” (Collect for Purity).  “Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely” (Psalm 139:4). Jesus pushes back against the scribes' secret faulty logic with a better argument of his own: Only God has authority to forgive, but only God has power to heal. It's easy to just say the words, “You're forgiven,” because there's no immediate visible change. So you could run around claiming to forgive sins all you want. But once you say, “Arise, take up your mat, and walk,” it's pretty obvious if your words are doing anything more than wasting breath (Mark 2:8-9).

So Jesus resolves to let them test whether “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10). It all comes back to authority – the crowds have been amazed at the authority Jesus already showed, but does his authority cover even this? Here's the first time in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus calls himself the Son of Man. In a world of wild animals, in a world where Herod's a fox (Luke 13:32) and Rome's a dragon-powered beast (Revelation 13:1-10) and the Pharisees are snakes, a brood of vipers (Matthew 23:33), Jesus stands tall as the Last Adam, the fresh start of a new way to be human. To the scribes, Jesus' humanity was the whole problem: he's human, so he can't do what God can do. But Jesus goes the other way around: Jesus is precisely the New Human who only God can be, and he came to sanctify many brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11). He's the Son of Man who, when the beasts fall away, stands alone to hold “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:13-14). When Jesus calls himself “Son of Man,” you know the kingdom's near, and all that kingdom's authority – yes, authority to forgive, and yes, authority to heal – is in his hands.

So Jesus turns back to the paralytic, who could almost have dropped out of the story once the scribes pushed their way to the forefront. Jesus gives him the harder words: “I say to you, stand up, take up your mat, and go to your house” (Mark 2:11). Last week, the leper played fast and loose with Jesus' instructions (Mark 1:43-45), but this paralytic is a stickler for what Jesus tells him. Jesus says stand, he stands. Jesus says pick up the mat, he picks up the mat without hesitation. Jesus says go home, he leaves immediately, walking on legs restored by the Son of Man's grace. Jesus didn't ask him to climb a mountain or swim across the sea or soar through the sky. All Jesus asked him was to get up, pick up his mat, and walk home – yet not one of those things, all things we take for granted, was within this particular man's reach apart from the grace of God. Jesus didn't ask him to do the incredible, the headline-grabbing, the sensational. Jesus asked him to do what was personally impossible for him to do without the gift that Jesus was giving him. And because he believed, so he obeyed, and so he did.

I have to think that, as soon as the crowd let him and his mat out the door, the man's friends raced down the stairs and walked with him. Did they gibber excitedly to each other? Did they walk in stunned silence, knowing no words could ever do justice to what they'd just seen? But as for those left behind, the crowd was wowed, and they put the lie to the scribes' accusation: far from blaspheming God, Jesus gave cause to honor God's glory (Mark 2:12). But a one-time praise, just like a once-and-done prayer, is no substitute for a lifetime of faith. Are we like the paralyzed man and his friends? Or are we more like the crowds, surfing from one flashy wave to the next, praising God in Jesus sporadically without a continuous disposition of faith?

Here's the crux of the story: Without Jesus, we have no more power in us than the paralyzed man had in him. We're helpless without his grace. Paul talks dramatically about us being “dead in trespasses” in our former state (Colossians 2:13). “Apart from me you can do nothing,” said Jesus himself (John 15:5). Left outside the house, nothing's going to change. Spiritual paralysis isn't something we can shake off if we just stretch our moral muscles. Nor can we immerse ourselves in the virtual reality of so many distractions, dreaming we're spiritually in motion while we're atrophied and immobile. To be loosed from spiritual paralysis, to find the higher healing of forgiveness, we have to meet Jesus.

And spiritual paralysis can't be dealt with alone. The paralyzed man needed more than just his faith; he needed to be presented to Jesus by a faithful community, even a community as small as his household or his friends from cottage meeting. It didn't have to be a thunderous parade. The whole town didn't need to carry him. But he did not and could not go it alone. We were never meant to live the life of faith in isolation, playing make-believe that the world's a deserted island. The life of faith is a life of continually carrying the helpless to Jesus, a life of presenting each other to him and believing that Jesus will do great things, believing that he'll show us what the kingdom's wholeness looks like.

That kind of faith doesn't meekly crawl through the door. That kind of faith doesn't stand in line, doesn't wait its turn in the queue with a stiff upper lip. That kind of faith doesn't sit down on a scribe's chair and judge the word of God when it's being preached. When the way is blocked, when God seems distant, when hope is fading, faith goes through the roof! Faith breaks apart everything in its path that stands between us and Jesus. Faith doesn't wait outside; faith is desperate to enter Christ's house, desperate to join the church, desperate to discover Jesus there, speaking his word. Faith is adamant, insistent, on reaching Jesus. Faith doesn't care which of the neighbors is watching; faith doesn't care if the scribes scowl. Faith is eager to “just to take him at his word,” and faith expects Jesus to do more than talk the talk. Faith is ready to see Jesus unleash life!

Faith doesn't deny the dilemma. Faith doesn't back down from the stark decision: either Jesus has the authority of God on earth, or Jesus is a blasphemer. Either Jesus is the promised Son of Man or he isn't worth of a moment of your time. Disciples' faith and scribes' doubt is on the same page here: the one reaction to Jesus that he refuses to leave on the table is what the crowds mostly do: chant and cheer and gape and gawk, and think of Jesus as a nice curiosity, one more hobby, one added option for our relentless thirst for consumer choice. Jesus has no intention of being anyone's hobby. The Son of Man isn't a market niche. Jesus isn't looking for an entourage of faithless fans. Jesus didn't come to get fifteen minutes of fame; he came to reveal the kingdom come!

The scribes understand what the crowds don't. But they take the faithless option. To them, Jesus is showing himself as just another pretender, presuming to disgrace God by making much of himself. To them, Jesus is perverting the religion of Israel. That is the one and only alternative to the unthinkable notion that the kingdom has come precisely to those who were least ready for it. And that's what the scribes most fear. But people carrying a man on a mat also understand what the crowds don't. They stare down the same dilemma. But what the scribes dismiss as unthinkable, faith believes. Faith believes that the Son of Man is no blasphemer. Faith stakes everything on the Son of Man having God's authority on earth and in heaven. Faith believes that Jesus isn't worth just a moment of our time, but every moment of all time. Faith receives forgiveness as a free gift, not because we're ready to be forgiven, but because God is ready and eager and yearning to forgive. Faith humbly trusts Jesus for “full salvation, great and free.” Faith believes the kingdom comes exactly the way that Jesus says it does. Faith dares to stand tall when Jesus tells us to get up off our keisters and go make disciples. And when Jesus answers our faith, a through-the-roof faith answers him – obediently and joyfully. “O for grace to trust him more!” O God, give us faith that's through the roof!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

"I Will; Be Thou Clean": A Sermon on Mark 1:40-45

In maybe the first few weeks of his ministry, Jesus has found four key disciples, set up base in Capernaum, preached the good news of God's kingdom, and even “cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons” (Mark 1:34). Needless to say, he wasn't just controversial; he was wildly popular in any place he went. Crowds gathered at the doors of the house where he stayed (Mark 1:32-33), his fame spread far and wide (Mark 1:28), and everyone was looking for Jesus (Mark 1:37). Wouldn't that be a wonderful way to be able to describe a country: everyone was looking for Jesus? Whether for him or against him, whether self-serving or self-giving, at least no one was lukewarm? And why had Jesus come? To “preach,” to “proclaim the message” in all the towns, missing not a one (Mark 1:38). And so “he went through Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons” (Mark 1:39).

Between that announcement and his return to Capernaum, the Gospel of Mark tells us just one story offering specifics of that preaching tour. Jesus has healed plenty of diseases, but you can be a respectable citizen and have a flu or a fever, cancer or a cold. But what about if you've got something much more serious, something that makes people keep their distance and look at you with fear in their eyes? What if you're falling apart, what if children shriek impolitely when they see you? If you've spent your years internalizing that shame, would you dare to draw near to Jesus and beg for help? One man did. He had a lepra, some kind of skin disease that could well have been a dreadful sight – maybe leprosy as we know it, maybe vitiligo or alopecia or psoriasis or any number of conditions. Serious leprosy was the AIDS of the first century. But this leper drew near to Jesus anyway, and when he expressed his faith, Jesus did something incredible.

One semester in college – what a wild place that was – I had a roommate, and you could say the two of us had our disagreements. One night, sitting on our beds across from one another, I pointedly asked him what he thought the most important truth of Christianity is. For my part, I said that it's that Christ has died; Christ is risen; and Christ will come again; and that he saves us by grace through faith that works in love. My roommate begged to differ. His answer was miracles, healings, everything pretty and flashy. It isn't that he disbelieved that Jesus died and rose again, but he said that those were the basics and no longer needed to be preached, because in our churches, everyone already grasps those. What really matters, he said, is miracles in our day and age, and that should be the constant theme of our preaching – not Jesus. Jesus is just the means to an end; miracles are the end. Where in the Bible he read, “I decided to know nothing among you except signs and wonders for our modern day,” I honestly couldn't tell you, because it's not there. The verse actually reads, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). My roommate would have said that was fine for Paul, but we've moved past the need for that now.

This man was obsessed with miracles: he went on miracle-themed mission trips, he claimed to regularly see angels flying around his head, he complained that no one else on campus was as “spiritual” as he. I don't say this to hold him up to ridicule, he had a lot of great virtues, but this mentality does exist in the church. He had great zeal for faith-healing: he believed that it is the responsibility of any Christian to be absolutely convinced that God is going to heal someone, whether that's true or not, because that's what faith meant to him. I always said to him that faith is a conviction in the truth of what God promises, not in what God hasn't promised; and that God has not promised to heal each and every person for whom we pray; and that God isn't pleased when we deliberately believe what just ain't so. He disagreed, and he said that it was a sign of faithlessness to hedge our prayers by conditioning them on what God wills. There are a lot of Christians today who agree with my old roommate – Christians who think that faith is just believing something intensely enough, and that anything that provides balance to our prayers is contrary to faith.  Many people believe that! Yet even Paul, a man of the utmost faith, was denied his continual request to be rid of his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-8).

But look at this leper here in the Gospel. His prayer isn't, “Jesus, I know for a fact that you're going to heal me, so just hurry up and do it already.” His prayer isn't, “Jesus, you owe me a healing.” The leper absolutely does not “name it and claim it.” But neither does the leper say, “I wish healing were for today, but I know that ended with the time of Elijah and Elisha.” Nor does the leper say, “It would be nice if you could heal, but I don't know if you can, Jesus. I'm sure your intentions are nice.” What does the leper say? “If you will, you can make me clean” (Mark 1:40). He doesn't come to Jesus with arrogance – the leper kneels before Jesus and begs. The leper doesn't come to Jesus with the attitude of entitlement – he submits his wishes to Christ's will. The leper doesn't come to Jesus with any hesitation at all about who Jesus is or what Jesus is capable of doing. This leper knows for sure that Jesus is capable of healing him – that, if that's what Jesus wants to do, it's a done deal.

Think about this leper's faith! The leper has a bold faith, but not a presumptuous faith. He has a carefully considered faith, but not a weak and anemic faith. He desperately wants to be healed, and he is completely and utterly convinced that Jesus can do it! Knowing who Jesus is, if Jesus had walked up to him on the side of the road and snapped his fingers and said, “Hey, you're healed,” this leper would not be caught by surprise to find no sign of leprosy left in his body. He has absolute conviction of Christ's power and of Christ's goodness – but that doesn't mean he presumes upon being promised healing just because he's an Israelite, just because he's a son of Abraham and an inheritor of Abraham's covenant. No: he knows that God remains supreme, ready and eager to heal but also wisely choosing what's best.

That's the attitude this leper brings to Jesus. Why should our attitude be any less? Why should we divorce humility from boldness? This leper is bold enough to trust that Jesus can, and humble enough to leave it to Jesus to choose if he will. If Jesus had turned him down, if Jesus had chosen to make his power known perfectly in the leper's leprous weakness (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9), can there be any doubt that this leper wouldn't have grumbled, wouldn't have complained, wouldn't have lost faith? That's the kind of faith Jesus is looking for: faith enough to be healed by one mighty word from his holy lips, and also faith enough to not be healed – to bear this illness as a lasting mark of the conflict between God's grace and a fallen world. Do we have faith to be healed, and faith to not be healed?

But look at how Jesus felt when the leper dropped to his knees and spoke those words of bold, humble faith. Mark tells us: Jesus was “moved with pity,” or “moved with compassion” (Mark 1:41). That's not really a strong enough translation, though. More literally, compassion wrenched Jesus in the gut, pulled at his innards, grabbed hold of his spleen. From the deepest and most visceral core of his body, Jesus was flooded with intense yearning to answer the man's heartfelt prayer. It's the same word used to describe a father's first reaction on realizing, after years and years of waiting, that his lost son's face is visible on the horizon and coming his way (Luke 15:20). In the face of that overwhelming jolt, nothing else matters; everything else pales in insignificance. Beyond a calm and sedate attitude of affection, beyond sincere condolences, Jesus isn't just “moved,” he isn't just “touched” – it's a powerful sensation like being torn open from the inside and having your every thought and feeling hang totally on the reality that confronts you. In our words, Jesus is absolutely heartsick over what he sees in front of him. That's real compassion, real “suffering-with.”

Wrenched in the gut by lavish love and overflowing compassion, feeling the leper's woes as keenly as his own, Jesus does the unthinkable: he “stretched out his hand and touched him” (Mark 1:41). Mark wants us to picture this vividly. If there's one thing you don't do with a leper, it's touch him. The Law said to expel lepers from the camp of Israel, to exclude them as carriers of impurity (Numbers 5:2). A leper was under strict guidelines as to how to live: he had to wear torn clothes, keep his hair uncombed, cover his upper lip – all signs of mourning and grief – and warn everyone around not to risk touching him and becoming tainted by his own impurity. A leper “shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:45-46). The rabbis spoke of leprosy as consistently a punishment for sin, with the seven causes including pride, theft, gossip, even murder. Touching a leper can be frightful business – but it was the business of Jesus.

Over a century ago, a Belgian-born priest chose to do the business of Jesus. When he became a monk, he took the name “Damien” after a third-century saint who, with his twin brother Cosmas, both of them doctors, won many to Jesus through their ministry of free healthcare. Not that they were loved by all; Cosmas and Damien were then tortured, crucified, stoned, shot, and finally, for good measure, beheaded. Following their example, this later Damien was sent as a missionary to the Kingdom of Hawaii, where thousands of Hawaiian lepers were being forcibly removed to and quarantined in remote colonies. Damien was the first priest to volunteer to serve them there, writing six months later, “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.” He revolutionized their lives, caring for their physical and spiritual needs until his own death in 1889 – from leprosy. St. Damien, Apostle of the Lepers, gave his life to touch them in the name of that same Jesus who fearlessly touched lepers long ago. No wonder many charities that serve modern lepers or clinics that serve AIDS patients now bear St. Damien's name.

But where the scribes and Pharisees would never have touched a leper, fearing to catch their impurity, Jesus had a greater sense of daring. Jesus didn't act in fear. The Spirit of God dwelling in the Son of God is greater than any presence out there in the world, including impurity (cf. 1 John 4:4). The leper doesn't make Jesus unclean through touch, because the contagiousness of Christ is greater than the contagiousness of the leper! So Jesus “touched him,” and the health of Christ's holiness overcame all the sickness, all the disease, that the leper bore. The leper said to Jesus, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Jesus replied, “I will; be thou clean” (Mark 1:41). With a touch and a word, it was a done deal, as immediate as all the action in Mark's story (Mark 1:42).

Jesus healed then. Does he heal today? We often say he does miracles, sure. I recover from a cold – we call that a miracle. Someone makes it through surgery, or their cancer goes into remission – we call that a miracle. In biblical language, a miracle is a “wonder,” something marvelous and awe-inspiring that points to God's power working in it, and a “sign,” something that expresses the nature of God's kingdom and the rhythms by which it operates. One of the professors at my seminary, Craig Keener, put together a fabulous two-volume work – it was meant to be a single footnote in one of his other books, but you know how professors can be – all about miracles. Christianity Today gave the book an Award of Merit. In it, he summarizes stories of healings in the name of Christ done all across the world – plenty with multiple eyewitness accounts, some with conclusive medical documentation, even in America, though he also suggests that God might “answer prayers regarding health through medical means in medical cultures.”

I can't speak to the many accounts this professor has put together, though Dr. Keener's not a man given to gullibility or grandiosity – I've scarce met anyone so humble and so meticulous. But I believe my college roommate was half-right. We do serve a God who is “mighty to save” the body as well as the spirit (Isaiah 63:1). Still he is “the LORD who heals you” (Exodus 15:26), a God “who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases” (Psalm 103:3). I've seen the proof. After college, I went to seminary, a place where I mingled with pastor's kids and redeemed drug dealers, where I studied alongside Americans and Koreans and Indians and Kenyans. I made some of the greatest friends of my life at seminary.

I hope one of those especially close friends won't mind if I mention a part of his wonderful testimony. See, for years he suffered a condition – somewhat enigmatic to his doctors – that produced nerve damage affecting the right side of his face. He couldn't fully smile, couldn't shut his right eye, not even when sleeping. Looking back on it, his half-expressions were apparent. So the first time I saw him in a full-on grin, awash in the joy of the Lord, I had to hear the story. He'd just come back from a trip to South Korea, a place where Christianity is thriving in ways we can only dream here. And while he was there, he ascended a prayer mountain tended by one of the local churches. Wonders happen in the solitary places when the grace of God bursts through, as it turns out. Confronted by God's presence unearthing all the hidden things of his soul and transforming him in the refiner's fire, he pressed on past a statue of Jesus praying in Gethsemane, past the crucifixion, past Emmaus to an empty grave. And as he descended the mountain again, burning with the Holy Spirit, he laughed and smiled; his face, once numb, was sensitive to touch. When I saw him again after his return to the United States, the change was visible – not just one opinion among many, not just wishful thinking, but literally as evident as the smile on his face. It was clear and drastic – just like when Jesus cured that leper two thousand years ago.

In touching the leper, the leper was made clean – just as Jesus offers to cleanse our souls with one touch of his grace, and just as he may also choose to purge our bodies of ill health. He has the power, but may his will be done, and not our own. But for an Israelite, leprosy wasn't just a physical condition; it was a social standing. And the only way to resolve it fully was to get a bill of clean health from a priest through the proper procedures. So Jesus immediately sent the leper to finish the process: “Go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses has commanded, as a testimony to them” (Mark 1:44).

Jesus was not asking the leper to rebel against the Law. Jesus was not attacking the Old Testament. That wasn't why he came. No, he wanted the leper to go do exactly what the Law prescribed for the situation at hand. Why? As a testimony. It's one thing to say that Jesus has done a mighty work in you. It's another thing to be able to wave around the proof, to display it for the sake of his glory! Jesus came to preach and live the gospel of the kingdom – that the life-changing power of God had come to shake things up, to inject the peace and wholeness of God into our war-torn and diseased world. The leper was excited – almost too excited – and it isn't clear he even bothered to go get the priestly exam the Law mandated. In the Gospel of Mark, this ex-leper could be called the first evangelist: before any other specific figure in the story other than Jesus himself, he's the one who goes forth to preach and “spread the word,” so much so that Jesus is thronged by crowds and can't even walk through the town gates without causing a traffic jam (Mark 1:45). What an effective evangelist! Just as the one leper came to him, so now people come from all around. So Jesus sticks to “solitary places,” the places he goes to pray (Mark 1:35).

This story – Jesus and one brave leper – confronts us with some powerful questions. Are we ready to have the faith that Jesus could still heal, can heal, does heal? For many American Christians, we don't take the prospect all that seriously. We give it lip-service, but to see a man shout hallelujah and toss his cane to the wind – that would stop us in our tracks. There's plenty we can learn about openness to the wonder-working Spirit of Jesus from our friends at Pequea Presbyterian and other charismatic churches in our area and across the globe. Let's dare to seriously and persistently pray big, bold prayers, knowing that to restore sight to the blind or health to the ill is no heavier a thing for God than to make water be wet. When we give God our biggest prayers and treat their fulfillment as a live possibility, God may just take us up on that. “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5).

Second, with this faith, are we also humble enough to have the faith to not be healed? My old roommate wasn't quite right on this front: we need the faith to not be healed. We need the faith to live in a complex and broken world. We need a faith like the faith Jesus himself had: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). God didn't ignore that prayer: “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears … and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Hebrews 5:7). But God delivered Jesus, not in avoidance of death, but through suffering and death and out the other side. Jesus “has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases” (Isaiah 53:4), yet we're called to “suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17).

Plenty of famous Christians suffered from medical conditions: Pope Pelagius II died of the plague, as did Luther's friend Andreas Karlstadt; Fanny Crosby was blind; Joni Eareckson Tada is a quadriplegic; Charles Haddon Spurgeon had rheumatism and kidney disease; Mother Teresa had heart problems and a bout with malaria; David Livingstone died of malaria and dysentery; John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace and Oft As the Leper's Case I Read, was often sick in his later years; Martin Luther had arthritis, a cataract, an inner-ear disorder, and plenty else; we've already mentioned St. Damien's leprosy; Billy Graham has Parkinson's disease and has dealt with pneumonia and cancer; and our very own Jacob Albright died early in his life partly because of tuberculosis. Jesus' own parable of the sheep and the goats implies that God's servants will at times be sick, just as they'll at times be in prison (Matthew 25:36).  In illness as in opposition and persecution, “let those suffering in accordance with God's will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good” (1 Peter 4:19).

Don't trust God only when it satisfies your wants, only when it seems to benefit you. Trust in God's wisdom to withhold for the sake of purposes of which we've scarcely scratched the surface. That means withholding physical healing, it means withholding physical safety, it means withholding physical security in finances. Trust like the leper trusted: “If you will, you can make me clean; yet not my will but yours be done, even if it means leaving me in leprosy until you make all things new.” Have a faith that knows how to wait upon the LORD. Have the humble faith that can stand to not get what you most want out of God.

Third, empowered by a bold and humble faith, are we willing be like Damien, imitating Jesus in touching the lepers of our world? For too long, the church has been afraid to get outside of itself, afraid that mingling with “sinners” will contaminate us. While Christian fellowship is limited to faithful disciples (Matthew 18:17; 1 Corinthians 5:11-13), we were never told not to associate with “the immoral of this world … since you would then need to go out of the world” (1 Corinthians 5:10). But we're “sent into the world,” Jesus said (John 17:18), and he prayed to his Father, “I'm not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the Evil One” (John 17:15) – precisely because, under God's watchful care, we're meant to go find people and touch them with the finger of God, the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. Are we ready to go to the pubs, go to the prisons, go to the pride parades – or, less dramatically, just go into town and get involved in the lives of those who need the Jesus we know? Or are we living by fear instead of by faith?

And finally, are we eager to spread the good news, excited to share what Jesus has done in us? We may not all have been rescued from some specific ailment you'll find in a medical textbook. But we're all sick and in need of a Great Physician (cf. Mark 2:17). And if you've met Jesus, if you've entered his soul-healing care, if you've been scrubbed down in baptism and gone to his table for the “medicine of immortality,” if you still devote your life to the diet of the Word and to the exercise of carrying your cross, then “go in peace; your faith has made you well” (Mark 5:34). “Go in peace” – that is, “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19), “go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). If we've really grasped the depths of our own sickness and the healing that Jesus gives, how can we rest in the knowledge that others don't know where to turn for the wellness they so desperately need? We have one powerful imperative: to go out and “proclaim it freely, and to spread the word” so that people come to Jesus from every quarter (Mark 1:45)! Go spread the word!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Kingdom in the Backwoods: A Sermon on Mark 1:14-39

If you had important news you wanted to get out to all the world, where would you start? In the days of Jesus, whenever a new emperor took power, his enthronement was proclaimed by heralds who traveled from city to city, making the announcement. And the word that the Romans used for that announcement was “gospel,” “good news.” For Romans, to spread the “gospel” about “the Lord” meant that a new emperor was sitting on the throne, and there was a fresh chance that this would be the one who would bring a golden age of peace and glory. That was important news! So this “good news” was spread from city to city in the major urban centers. The good news might start in Rome itself. It might start in Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, Carthage. Today, when we want to get the news out, we think of announcing it from Times Square, we think of San Francisco and London and Hong Kong. We think of getting it plastered all over the mass media, reaching millions and millions of people. We like to think big. That's how kingdoms of this world spread and hold their power. But this good news is about a kingdom that's “not of this world” (John 18:36).

For Jesus, the kingdom was not about starting big. The kingdom was about starting small. Not that big is bad – but big is for the endgame. That's the point of his parable about the mustard seed: the kingdom is like the tiniest seed you've heard of, that's how it starts, but in the end it's a tree with shade for everyone, and even the birds of the air can come perch in its branches (Mark 4:30-32). The gospel of Rome's kingdom might start in the halls of power, but the good news of God's kingdom starts in small places, in isolated places, in the places we sneer at and say, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Jesus says the kingdom doesn't start in Rome, doesn't start in New York City. It starts in the backwoods. The kingdom of God is a grassroots phenomenon.

So when Jesus started his ministry, he didn't immediately go to Rome. He didn't even go to Jerusalem. Paul may have gone from city to city like an imperial herald, he may have had an urban strategy for his mission, but before Paul, there was Jesus, at the very beginning. And Jesus started by going from village to village in Galilee (Mark 1:39) – an obscure province, not much bigger than Lancaster County, on the distant outskirts of the empire. He went to the small places, places Caesar never heard of by name. Jesus didn't even go to the cities of Galilee, places like Sepphoris with its population the size of Ephrata. For his base of operations, Jesus picked Capernaum – a little fishing village, with a population smaller than Gap. And even that was maybe three times bigger than Nazareth. In Capernaum and plenty of tiny villages throughout the area, Jesus preached his message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). If Jesus were beginning his ministry here, you wouldn't look for him in Washington DC, not in Harrisburg, not in Lancaster, not even in Ephrata. But you can bet your bottom dollar he'd make his way through White Horse. Would we be ready to listen if he walked through our door?

When Jesus came to Galilee, walking alongside the lake, he met a couple pairs of fishermen – two sets of brothers, one pair at least youthful enough to be in the same boat as their dad. Jesus calls out to them, “Come, follow me” – and immediately they drop what they're doing, and they go join him (Mark 1:16-20). Now, that's not so much a surprise with James and John – they can see their friends and colleagues Simon and Andrew are already out on the shore, standing behind Jesus – though I'm sure it came as a shock to Zebedee. Have you ever wondered what went through Zebedee's mind in those fateful instants? Did he try to stop his sons from running off with this stranger on the shore? Did he stand in their way, beg them to come back? Did he think, even for a moment, of jumping out of the boat and going with them? I wish I knew; I'll have to ask him or his sons about it one day. And what spurred any of them to quit their jobs on the spot to go roam the countryside with this man? Had they heard the gossip about him already, that here was a teacher who might be worth hearing? Or is it, as in Luke's Gospel, that Jesus was already teaching a crowd on the shore, so they had a chance to hear for themselves what Jesus was teaching, and they experienced his miraculous power with a big catch of fish, and then he extended his invitation (Luke 5:1-11)?

And this gives us a radical insight into what the kingdom is about. To be serious about the kingdom, it may be all-or-nothing – you can keep your job, or you can close the shop and hand over the keys to the van and follow Jesus. You can know what you're going to eat next week and be confident you can pay the bills, or you can follow Jesus. You can keep the same zipcode, or you can follow Jesus. You can wake up tomorrow morning and greet your dad and your spouse, or you can follow Jesus. That's the choice that faced Simon, Andrew, James, and John. Now, maybe not so drastic at first – Simon and Andrew were from the nearby village of Bethsaida (John 1:44), maybe Zebedee's family was too – but it was a big change.

And they didn't hesitate. Mark's painfully clear: twice he uses the word “immediately.” They didn't ask for a few days to mull it over. They didn't jot it down in an appointment book, saying that they needed to get a few things done first, and then they'd get around to finding Jesus – which is exactly what some other people in the Gospels do. Jesus tells them to be his disciples, his followers, and within the hour they're on the road together. No time for long goodbyes, no time for packing – they barely know Jesus yet, but one thing they do know: you don't want to miss out on the chance to be with him and to have a hand in the kingdom he's preaching. Not if you have the chance to be a “fisher of men” (Mark 1:17), someone who spreads the net of God's word to catch people, stop them in their tracks, and pull them into the kingdom, into the strange and new world of the boat where Jesus is Captain, where the wisdom of the water gives way to fresh air and sunlight.

But the same words Jesus shouted across the water to the men in two boats, he says to each one of you, and to me: “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Jesus calls us to be fishers of men – calls us to spread his net to catch people for the kingdom, calls us to disciple all the nations in his commandments, his wisdom, his teachings, his justice and mercy and love. And not just distant nations – he calls us to be fishers of our neighbors, to disciple the family down the street. Are we obedient to Christ's call? Are we indeed fishers of men right here, right in our backyard? Or do we watch them swim off their own way, thinking that eating their fish food and spawning and living domesticated in a corporate fatcat's aquarium is all there is to life 'til we all float belly-up on the waters of this small world? We know better – there's more, there's the kingdom of God, there's Jesus! And he sends us out with his net in our hands to preach the gospel of his kingdom. Are we actually going, are we even trying to catch anyone? Or are we content to meet here once a week and then leave the net on the shelf? Under our own power, even if we cast our nets and fish through the night, we come up empty handed, just as the earliest fishermen-disciples so often did – until Jesus showed up and told them where to cast the net. If we try to do it on our own, we'll tire ourselves with our empty nets. But if we earnestly seek the presence of Jesus, if we do what he says even when it seems pointless to obey, then we have hope of a catch beyond our wildest dreams – not for our food, but for the cause of his kingdom.

So with these four newly-minted fishers of men, Jesus strode into Capernaum, straight to the synagogue, which had long since replaced the town gate as the center of community life, the public square, where the people all met each Sabbath. And Jesus didn't come just to sit and listen quietly – though surely he'd grown up faithfully attending the Nazareth synagogue for years and years. No, in Capernaum, Jesus brought his local disciples – familiar faces to many, living in the next village over – and he “entered the synagogue and taught” (Mark 1:21). And he no doubt taught the same thing he'd been teaching every moment so far: the gospel of the kingdom of God, and the need to repent and believe it. And when Jesus taught, it wasn't a dry and dusty sermon, hedged with qualifiers and chains of authority: “Believe this because Rabbi So-and-So heard it from Rabbi Such-and-Such, who learned it from his teacher Rabbi What's-His-Name.” Jesus “taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). “You have heard it said... But I say to you...” The people were amazed!

When Jesus steps up to the pulpit, you don't yawn and take a nap, you don't nod along to platitudes you've heard a million times before, you don't get ready for the same warmed-over jokes and rehashed illustrations, and you never wonder if the preacher really takes his message seriously. Yet in so many churches today, that's exactly the sort of preaching we offer. There's nothing fresh, nothing new. It gets stale, dumbed-down, boring, doubtful, and irrelevant. If the preacher even preaches the gospel, and if he even believes it when he does preach it, he turns it into a happy little tune to make the audience a tiny bit nicer. But when the gospel is really proclaimed with conviction, proclaimed in its gospel simplicity but also its profound and radical depth, it doesn't have to be made relevant; it's more relevant than relevance itself!

The gospel, preached with authority, cuts the heart to the quick, it demands attention from the mind, it calls for the hands and feet to leap into action. That's the way Jesus preached. It wasn't the norm at the Capernaum synagogue – no wonder people were shocked, no wonder they sat back in wonder and whispered breathless wows in the pews! But we can't settle for anything less. And that doesn't just apply behind the pulpit. We're all called to preach the gospel in word and in deed. We have a fresh word, perpetually crisp and sweet, never stale. All we have to do is let it loose! Do all our neighbors know about the kingdom – that things aren't the same, that conventional wisdom is dead, that God's power looks like a king nailed to a cross, that the Resurrection and the Life has holes in his hands and feet, and that his mercy breathes new creation into every morning?

But the good news of the kingdom is more than just talk. Simon, Andrew, James, and John saw that with their own eyes that fateful sabbath morn in Capernaum. “Just then, there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit” (Mark 1:23). Darkness is everywhere. Not just in the cultural centers, not just in the red states or the blue states. We may easily overlook a town as small as Capernaum, out there in “fly-over country.” But even there, you'll find unclean spirits infesting human life. Satan doesn't overlook the smallest villages – the serpent's too crafty for that. And that's why the kingdom has to start there. There's no trickle-down deliverance from demons; they have to be rooted out in every nook and cranny. Even the small places are infested. Even Capernaum had “many demons” (Mark 1:34). So that's where the Light of the World goes and teaches about the kingdom.

Mark doesn't tell us how long this particular man had an unclean spirit stuck to his soul, whether it was a week or a year or a decade, but the teaching of the scribes never scared it off. Sabbath after sabbath, all the preaching and all the praying of a whole synagogue made nothing but a nice, hospitable nest for that demon. And so it may be with our churches today, if we don't preach and act like Jesus did. When we preach nice little conventional morality, when we hem and we haw and we pontificate on what scarcely matters, the darkness can laugh and snooze, secure against any challenge. A century and a half ago, my cousin, the great and eccentric Evangelical preacher Mose Dissinger, had just that complaint against many churches of his day – they taught as the scribes, and not with authority to send the demons packing. He said:

When the gospel is preached by converted ministers, it is just like a battery with which fortifications are shot down. With this battery we can batter in the gable end of hell, so that all the dark spirits of hell tremble with fear and terror, and the hairs of old Lucifer himself stand on end. But it must be preached by men whom God has called and equipped with the unction of the Holy Spirit: men who are not afraid to preach the pure truth, that sinners may be converted to God and God's kingdom may be extended, that devils may be driven out and the devil's kingdom destroyed. … But there are such bandbox boys who know nothing of conversion and regeneration, nor care to know. They come with paper guns and paper balls, which they have brought out of school. They think they, too, can fire upon the devil and do great deeds; and when they have fired off their paper battery a few times they imagine they have shot the devil dead; but they do not know that they have not yet touched a hair of his back or of his tail. Shooting like this is fun for the devil, and where such shooting is done he will lie down at the foot of the pulpit and go to sleep and snore, for he knows that no harm will be done him there. But as soon as the rifle guns thunder the eternal truth of God, like fiery balls, into the dirty, sinful camp of Satan, his sleep is at an end, and he runs like mad to save his tattered reign, for then there are reverberations in every corner of his dirty kingdom.

So preached Dissinger – and so taught Jesus – and so must we. These two kingdoms – the kingdom of God that Jesus brings, and the dirty kingdom of Satan's reign – are incompatible and at perpetual war until the day when Jesus destroys the latter totally. Mark shows us Jesus at war – not at war “against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12) – and in small places, too. Jesus comes to drive out unclean spirits – “if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you” (Luke 11:20), he said – and so must we. Jesus comes to set the captives free – so must we. Jesus comes to shed light on everything that lurks in the shadows – so must we: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:11). Confronted with the message of the kingdom, an unclean spirit pitched a hissy-fit, crying out against Jesus, “the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). Throughout the Gospels, most people haven't a clue who Jesus is. But the demons “knew him,” they recognized him. Not wanting their tainted acclaim, he “wouldn't permit the demons to speak” (Mark 1:34), instead demanding that they shut up and get lost (Mark 1:25). Resistance is futile: when Jesus says go, even the demons go (Mark 1:26). “A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mark 1:27). That's who we follow.

Jesus took Capernaum by storm. After a public miracle, he did a private miracle – healing the mother of Simon's wife from a fever, and “the fever left her, and she began to serve them” (Mark 1:31). She was bent on hospitality, with the heart of a servant; she was eager to get back to showering others with kindness and good things. She reminds me of a lot of people in this church that way. And by the sabbath sunset, “the whole city was gathered around the door” to experience the power of God's kingdom – how it can heal the sick and drive out demons, restoring wounded people to health and wholeness (Mark 1:32-34).

The kingdom is about proclaiming, teaching with authority, driving out demons, healing the sick – where do you find the time? Where do you find the strength for all that? In this one passage, Mark shows us the three-fold source of Jesus' strength, the way he kept himself going as a human being. Note where Jesus was on the sabbath: in the synagogue, to worship God with others. I know plenty of people who say that they don't need to go to church – that church services are fine for others, but not them. Hunting trips are their worship; the woods are their cathedral; the birds chirp their hymns. Or they get all the spiritual strength they need from some uplifting televangelist, and they don't even have to leave the couch to get spoonfed their weekly ration of milk! But Jesus didn't “neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some” (Hebrews 10:25). It was “the habit of some” then, it's “the habit of some” now – hopefully never our habit. One of the three places Jesus recharged was right here, in a worship assembly that met weekly. Jesus gathered to hear the words of the scriptures read, to join in the prayers and praises of the people, to be united to the great tradition of Israel, and to declare the common confession that “the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (cf. Deuteronomy 6:4).

Second, where did Jesus go when the synagogue let out, when the people wandered back to their own lives, down from the mountaintop, as it were? Jesus and his friends went to a private home, a domestic space, family circle – because Jesus was welcome there. Jesus spent the rest of the sabbath with friends and family – not out gallivanting around Capernaum, not exhausting himself with busyness, not toiling in a carpentry shop, but relaxing. I don't know what Simon's family had for lunch that day, but I'm sure it was some kind of delicious home-cooked meal. That's what Jesus did with his sabbath afternoon: ate and talked with his friends at home.

Third, in the early hours of the next morning, Jesus rose to pray. He didn't grab anyone to go pray with him. He didn't insist on being surrounded by people at all times; quite the opposite. He “got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). The others had to go track him down (Mark 1:36). It's important to be nurtured by being together, praying together, listening together, worshipping together. Too many forget that. But in America, we can also easily lapse into the opposite mistake, thinking that we need to do everything together, that every spiritual discipline is for a community. Jesus was balanced in a way we can only marvel at: individual and communal, introverted and extroverted, Jesus drew strength from worshipping with others but also from praying alone, spending some quality one-on-one time with his Father. The spiritual dimension to his life wasn't limited to one or the other; it carried through the fabric of his whole life. Jesus regularly gathered as a worshipper among others, he regularly made time to relax at home, and he regularly withdrew from the busyness of life to pray. That's the biblical pattern for maintaining our strength.

If we're called to follow Jesus, then shouldn't we emulate not just his message but maybe his methods? We may be in a modern Galilee, we may live in the backwoods up on the mountain or down in the valley, but all the same, each and every one of us is called to preach the kingdom; we're called to shine light into the darkness; we're called to be fishers of men; and we're called to go about it as Jesus Christ did, resting up and going forth with authority, with “power from on high” (Luke 24:49). So “let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that [we] may proclaim the message there also, for that is what [we] came out to do” (Mark 1:38). The kingdom has come near to the backwoods, near to Lancaster and Chester Counties – let's go fishing!