Sunday, October 25, 2015

Twelve Years a Patient: Sermon on Mark 5:21-43

Stiller of storms. Sanity of souls. Savior of the sick. In last week's story, Jesus brought salvation to Gentile shores when he tossed a few thousand demons out of a Greek man there. Being asked to leave those shores, Jesus and his disciples navigate their way back across the Sea of Galilee to the western side, Israel's territory. 

And in these next verses, Jesus goes out of his way to help two people who belong to another second class in the typical Pharisee man's eyes: women. The Pharisees actually suggested this prayer be made daily: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a Gentile. Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a woman. Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a slave.”

Jesus, in his teaching and his example, would have absolutely none of that superiority complex. Paul was only following in the Master's footsteps when he upended that very prayer, and the similar Greek boasts it was based on, by declaring that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, no male and female” (Galatians 3:28). Everywhere we follow Jesus in the Gospels, he's giving attention and care to women – using positive female figures in his parables, even to represent God's actions; treating his female followers as full-fledged disciples; spending time ministering to women on no lesser basis than he ministered to men. The Gospels are trailblazing in the emphasis they place on including women.

So here we meet Jesus again, on the western shore of the lake. A massive crowd once more swarms him (Mark 5:21). Onto the scene bursts one of the local elites: “Jairus,” Mark calls him, Yair – a good Hebrew name, borne by one of the patriarch Joseph's grandsons, and one of the judges, and even Mordecai's dad. And in their illustrious company stands this man of means, a respectable elder in the synagogue, a civil leader elected to keep watch over local Law observance and to arrange for services to be conducted in an orderly fashion. He's both halves of Law and Order, is what I'm saying. And you'll find him in plenty of churches. He's the trustee with a fat wallet. When he talks, people listen. He's a pillar of the community – respected, and hopefully respectable. He's a synagogue chief, a church elder; you'll hear his measured, confident voice at board meeting and borough council (Mark 5:22).

But right now, that pales in the light of what's going on. In the backwoods of the Roman Empire, like many places today, half of all children born alive didn't make it past their teen years. And his precious girl, his pride and joy, his jewel, his little lamb, is at risk of joining their ranks. She's badly sick, you see. He says his little daughter is “holding on at the end.” A lawless disease has upended all the order of her life and his. And so he rushes and throws himself to the ground at Jesus' feet. Like the man freed from his demons, Jairus begs on his knees. He's got one request: “Come and lay hands on her, that she might be saved, and she will live” (Mark 5:23).

That is what he wants, and that's all it will take: If Jesus touches her, if Jesus sets her apart, if Jesus will have fellowship with this sick pre-teen girl, she'll have rescue, she'll have salvation, she'll have life! Because that's what it means to be saved, that's the result. The point of being saved is to live – to really and truly live. That's why Jesus came: that we “might have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Salvation isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card, it isn't just being snatched from the furnace. Salvation frees us up for life.

So Jesus goes, he accompanies Jairus, the crowd follows, and they just swarm all over Jesus, they squeeze him from every side. It can't have been easy to walk like that! But still, Jesus presses on toward Jairus' house (Mark 5:24). He's on the way to help, to do all he can – but then enter a new character, an opportunity intruding from the culture's margins: a very sick woman, a social outcast on one last desperate mission. We don't learn this woman's name, but we do find that she has a serious problem. She has a medical condition, a chronic illness, and not just any kind. For the past twelve years, her very existence has been defined by a recurring flow of blood, hemorrhaging from her womb. Doctors today might call it menorrhagia. I don't know if it was caused by ovarian or endometrial cancer, by uterine fibroids, by a clotting disorder, or what have you – but it was uncomfortable, even painful, maybe even agonizing, and beyond all that, it put her in a tricky spot (Mark 5:25).

See, the Law set out a symbolic world where everything was in its place. Anything that heralded the power of life or death – anything like blood – had to be treated with caution, kept in bounds wherever possible, to show that God is a God of order. It wasn't meant to be cruel; it was meant to be compassionate. But even the best laws can be twisted, even the best laws can be stretched to ruin the lives of those in exceptional cases. Satan's a master at that. And what God meant for compassion became for this woman a cause of greater suffering. 

According to the Law, an issue of blood meant becoming ritually impure for a full week (Leviticus 15:19). But what if it never stops (Leviticus 15:25)? What if there's no seven-day respite to recover (Leviticus 15:28)? Anything she ever touches gets marked as unclean, made a contaminant (Leviticus 15:26-27). How do you conduct your life like that? She became a social outcast. No one would come near her. If she'd ever been married, her husband would have abandoned her (Leviticus 15:24). She wouldn't have children. By Law, she shouldn't even live in town (Leviticus 15:31; Numbers 5:2). She's marked out, ashamed, spurned, scorned for twelve years. Can you imagine that?

In her situation, it's no wonder she was desperate. It's no wonder she spent everything she had on trying every treatment the doctors suggested. But none of them worked. In fact, she tried everything she could get her hands on, reached out to every specialist, but the only thing they did was compound her suffering, exacerbate her affliction. 

Medicine back then wasn't a pretty sight: “Wear this stone around your neck, eat these spices, inhale these cabbage fumes, drink this dove juice and some wine, and if all else fails, it's slice-and-dice time, and what a shame we haven't invented general anaesthesia yet.” Up until fairly recent history, trained doctors might have been more likely to do harm than good. And that's her story: not only do they multiply her suffering, but her condition just gets worse and worse, with crippling cramps and rising anemia making her woozy (Mark 5:26). Twelve years a patient, bound to the sickness that scourged her and the well-meaning thieves who took her money and left her worse off.

Our spiritual condition by nature isn't that much different from hers. When sin infects us, when sin thins our resolve and spreads like a cancer through our lives, we start hemorrhaging vitality, we bleed purpose, we get morally and spiritually dizzy and endure the harsh cramps of life in a fallen world, with shattered relationships. Even if we can't put our finger on the malady, we yearn to be made whole again, we long for something we're missing. 

So we try every remedy we can find to fill that void. Any treatment will do: “Wear this, eat this, smoke this, drink this, change yourself to be like this.” But it all comes up short, it's all empty. None of it addresses the real problem. In the end, looking back over a life spent trapped in worldly patterns of living, a life infected by sin and defined by our old nature, we can see that all of those so-called solutions only compounded our suffering and exacerbated our affliction.

In her situation, it would have been so easy for her to give up hope. I mean, everything possible had been tried. She'd made her list of options, and crossed them each out, one by one. It was done. Game over. For twelve years! Twelve whole years of living with this, twelve whole years of failed promises and false answers. But somehow, she hasn't given up hope. She's heard about Jesus. She's heard that this man is sent from God, that he teaches the arrival of God's kingdom and backs it up with more than words alone. She's heard that Jesus is the hope of the hopeless. And so she'll use every last ounce of her strength to reach him.

She slips into the crowd. Will anyone see her? Will anyone recognize her? Maybe she veils herself, wears a different set of clothes as a disguise. She breaks her way into this seething mob – breaking the Law that commanded her to keep at a distance and identify herself. She had to squeeze up against everyone to reach Jesus, and by the Law's standard (or at least the Law as they learned it in Sabbath School then), she corrupted dozens of people as she made her way to Jesus. What was she thinking? If only she could touch Jesus – no, if only she could even brush a finger against one of the holy tassels on his cloak, the tassels that represent the commandments of God (Deuteronomy 22:12; Numbers 15:38-41) – she'd find salvation there: “If I should touch at least his garments, I will be saved” (Mark 5:28).

So she crept up behind Jesus, hoping that she'd go unnoticed by everyone. Just one touch, and she can go back home (Mark 5:27). That's her plan. And it half works. If she's hoping to steal just a bit of the divine power rolling off of this man, well, he lets her – but not like a thief in the night. If she or anyone was tempted to see his work as magic, he's determined to stop her and reframe the situation. His power goes forth, immediately the fountain of blood dries up, and she can feel deep within her body that the ever-present plague that scourged her with sorrow and anguish is gone. She's been healed (Mark 5:29). What no doctors could do, what no potions could pull off, Jesus just accomplished!

Her hopes to escape unnoticed are in for a rough patch, though. He turns around and calls out the person who touched his clothes, whoever that may be (Mark 5:30). The disciples think it's silly (Mark 5:31-32), but Jesus knows what he's doing. Whenever you think Jesus is just being silly, give him some space and watch: he's up to something more clever than we've got the sense to put together save maybe in hindsight. Though he's in a rush, this kingdom-bringer makes time for her, thrusts her into the spotlight. And so the woman fesses up, she admits everything, she tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

And she doesn't do it boldly; she does it with immense fear and trembling. What's going to happen when the mob realizes who she is, how she touched them all? Will they tear her to shreds, will they stone her on impulse? And will Jesus resent what she did? Will he undo his healing, will he snatch salvation away, will he call down fire from heaven or command the earth to swallow her whole? Does she fear divine prosecution for magical theft? 

And Jairus is still here watching. He's a synagogue chief, responsible for enforcing observance of the Law. He's the man whose job description includes keeping women with her condition in their place. He's supposed to make sure to exclude her, to quarantine her, to protect the community from the danger she brings. He may be the man she fears most – and is he happy? As he feels the seconds counting down, as he frets over his baby girl's last raspy breaths, someone – not just anyone, but this pitiable woman – has distracted Jesus, has held up this emergency rescue operation, has maybe even corrupted Jesus with her defilement and ruined his last chance. After all, “anything an unclean person touches becomes unclean, and anyone who touches it becomes unclean until evening” (Numbers 19:22). And doesn't this woman know there's no time for all that? That his little one comes first? That after living with this for as long as his baby's even been alive, she could at least have the decency to wait until the return trip?

No wonder she's afraid. But even so, she steps forward and takes responsibility and waits for the worst (Mark 5:33). The worst never comes, though. Jesus names what motivated her. It wasn't superstition, as she herself could have easily decided in retrospect. No, it was faith – the same faith that makes her confess it publicly now, instead of running away and losing out on all Jesus has to offer. (How often do we let our fear be a reason to not confess faith?) 

She wasn't looking for a secret burst of power from any two-bit holy man who passed by. Even in her desperation, she reached out in faith, knowing that it wasn't magic she was looking for; it was a messiah. The person of Jesus himself, the kingdom he reveals wherever he goes – that was the salvation she was seeking. And she had faith enough to disregard the normal niceties, faith enough to break through the crowd, faith enough to risk everything to touch what's touched Jesus. Faith enough, if not to hope to lay a finger on him, then at least to grasp his fringes – because they've been in contact with the Master, the certain cure-all.

In other words, she trusts that the power of Jesus is more contagious than her problem. She trusts that Jesus is so vital, so exuberant in his eternal energy, so bubbling over with authority and hope, that even the tips of his tassels have life to spare. Now that's faith! And I wonder if maybe one of the faults with the American church today is that we've broken the newborn faith of our neighbors. See, if we've been in contact with Jesus, if we've brushed up against his holiness and his love and the wholeness he radiates, we should be just like those tassels. Couldn't we at least be known as his fringes – having no boast of our own, nothing to claim on our own merit, just yarn, except for the fact that Jesus has touched us, has let his presence rub off on us? At our very weakest, couldn't we at least be that?

But so often, people reach out to touch the church in their desperation, hoping some of Jesus will rub off on them – and we give them nothing but another hopeless remedy, or worse, our own squabbles and judgment. Is it any wonder that a rising number of Americans, while still claiming to believe in God, still thirsting for something spiritual, still practicing individualized versions of prayer, nevertheless miss out on the gospel because they've been burned by the church – they've reached out and gone away empty or even hurt? Is it any wonder that the gospel sounds to them like one of the many doctors' potions – eye of newt with a bitter flavor – and they write off Jesus because when they touched us, they found that we were lousy conductors of his power? 

But we can be different. We can be those tassels, those fringes, and so much more. And it isn't something hard: all it takes is to be in touch with Jesus and to not let ourselves get in the way of transmitting him to those who touch us.

That's what this woman confesses to having done, even though her every step was illegal. She's touched his tassels, she's gotten a taste of what Jesus can do. And how does he react? Does he cast her out? No. She's the one and only woman in the Gospels he directly addresses as “Daughter.” See, Jairus is worried about his little girl, one tied to him by flesh and blood. He sees this woman as an interloper, a distraction, a nuisance. Jesus sees her as his own daughter, one every bit as precious to him as that little child is to Jairus. So no, she can't wait.

Jesus proves himself eager to help and heal and restore. He's no stingy Savior! He doesn't chastise her for subtracting from his power – because she hasn't. He's the same Jesus, yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). She hasn't stolen; she's been given God's gift. And Jesus proves himself eager to welcome: he names her as his daughter and says that her faith has saved her. Not magic. Not even the act of touch itself, in purely physical terms. It was the faith that brought her to Jesus. That's what opened salvation's gates to her. That's what restored her health. He tells her to “go in peace, and be healthy, far removed from your scourge” (Mark 5:34). 

But she still has one lingering problem. According to the Law, she still has to wait seven days to be certified as clean (Leviticus 15:28). Though she's got no money left, she has to make the prescribed atonement offering (Leviticus 15:29-30), and the townspeople are still going to look at her as, you know, “that woman,” the one with the problem, the untouchable one.

But Jesus is eager, not just to welcome, but to stand with her. He doesn't care if people view him as somehow polluted by what she's done. He's with her anyway. He names her as his daughter publicly, claims her as one of his own. He redefines her. She's not that woman with the problem; she's that woman who's under Jesus' protection, the woman who belongs to his family, his clan. He is who he's always been, and that's all the defense she needs. She's been cured, she's been saved, and he publicly calls her his own. 

That's what he offers to us too. Jesus was willing to let her impurity touch him, because his holiness is all the more contagious. Jesus let our sin, our spiritual impurity, latch onto him on the cross. He took it, he carried it down to the grave, he blew it to smithereens. He's willing to be publicly identified with us, to call us his spiritual sons and daughters, to name us as his family. That's our identity now. And that's all the defense we need. 

Even after repenting, people may be tempted to still name us by our past sins, to still define us in terms of the impurities we bore. But Jesus redefines us. He claims us as his own, even if it means him being associated with all our old sickness. That's who he is: a Savior who shares in our sicknesses, bearing the burden, so by him we can be saved. He's no stingy Savior.

Now, while this is all in progress, messengers come from Jairus' house and deliver the worst news ever: Jesus' daughter may be all well and good now, but Jairus, your daughter is dead and gone. Why keep harassing the Teacher any longer? Can you imagine the sinking feeling that gripped Jairus' stomach? The way his blood drained from his face, the way everything suddenly felt cold and distant except the frantic pounding of his broken heart? Some in this congregation know exactly how Jairus felt. Some of you have done what no parent should ever have to do, and buried a child. I'm not going to tell you I understand. No one understands that pain unless they've been there. But at this moment, Jairus is there, losing his last shred of hope, facing his worst nightmare (Mark 5:35).

Jesus hears, and he inserts himself into the conversation. Jairus came to him in hopeful, desperate faith – don't give up now! Don't give up when all is lost! Don't be afraid, don't let fear win. There's only one thing Jairus needs to do here: keep having faith. When everything is broken, keep having faith. When all that matters is dead, keep having faith. When hope is invisible and darkness is everywhere, keep having faith! Not an abstract faith, not just some glimmer of optimism, but a resolute attachment to Jesus as the hope of the hopeless (Mark 5:36). 

So Jesus and his innermost circle of three disciples leave the others behind to manage the crowd. For all their insistence on squeezing Jesus, he refuses to let them come. How he stopped them, Mark doesn't say, but I imagine when Jesus raises his voice and makes it sharp, they know better than to take one more step (Mark 5:37).

Jesus reaches his destination, the synagogue chief's fine estate, and Jesus beholds the customary riot, with all the professional hired wailers doing their job as usual, crying and howling and thumping their chests and causing a ruckus (Mark 5:38). Jesus insists all isn't lost: “The child is not dead but asleep” (Mark 5:39). No wonder all their pretense of grief quickly turns to mockery as they laugh him to scorn. 

But they miss what he's saying. To Jesus, death isn't the end of all hope; death isn't the outermost limit of recovery. Death is sleep – a mournful sleep, a kind of sleep that never should exist, but a sleep from which there's hope of waking. Jesus enters the house. Should Jairus stop him? I mean, as far as Jairus' eye can see, Jesus is now a carrier of the pollution that woman had. By law, he's unclean. But Jairus has faith beyond the law, faith to see that something more is possible, something beyond the mundane. He's willing to listen to the one voice of Jesus over the voices of his household staff, over the voices of the professionals (Mark 5:40).

Jesus kicks them all out of the house; he exorcises the residence from their faithless, discouraging presence. He admits only a few: his three followers, and the little girl's mom, and Jairus. From here on out, Jairus isn't called “synagogue chief,” he isn't known by his title. He's only known as that little girl's dad. Because that's what matters, second only to the fact that he has faith in Jesus. He has faith enough to take him to the body, already losing its color and warmth. He takes her by the hand, he touches her just like Jairus had asked. Is he about to do some magic, is he about to chant some funny words and cast a spell? 

Mark gives us those incomprehensible words: “Talitha koum!” But then Mark does what you don't do with magic: he translates what looks like an incantation of arcane syllables and demystifies it. All Jesus said, using his ordinary, everyday language, the one that Jairus and Mrs. Jairus spoke too, was: “Little girl, precious lamb, rise, stand on your feet” (Mark 5:41). And just like that, she does (Mark 5:42). Jesus touched a corpse, he risked catching the worst kind of ritual impurity (Numbers 19:11-13) – but instead, the body contracted a case of Jesus' own contagious life! Because of the delay, his power is even clearer. All she needs now is to be fed, to be maintained, to have her basic needs met (Mark 5:43).

Just like that, Jesus proves that he really is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). And Jesus is the same Jesus, yesterday, today, and forever. He's hope for those who've spent all they've got, and he's hope for those who have more than they could ever spend. He's the hope of the hopeless, and he's never asleep on the job. When all avenues are dead-end roads, there he is: he's the Way. When all remedies prove to be vain lies and pointless pomp, there he is: he's the Truth. When it's too late, when everything's lost, when the grave's the only certainty in a sea of change, there he is: he's the Life (John 14:6). He may not be safe, but he's all that saves. He's what the kingdom looks like, because he's the God who gives the kingdom.

The kingdom means salvation – not through works, not through what you can pay for it, but through your faith bringing you into contact with Jesus. The kingdom means life, a life that's more contagious than all the impurity the devil can muster, a power that infects the sick with health, the defiled with holiness, and the dead with life. The kingdom is the “perfect love that casts out fear” to make room for faith to flower and bloom (1 John 4:18). 

The kingdom enthusiastically embraces rich and poor, young and old, white and black, Jews and Gentiles, men and women on fully equal terms, cherishing them all. The kingdom means solidarity, sharing: Jesus stands with you in your darkest places, names you as his own, redefines you, and sends you out in peace; we stand with those in need in their darkest places, name them as God sees them, pray Jesus to redefine them through the gift of faith, and work to share the peace and healing of Jesus with them. Because he's mercy and compassion, he's matchless grace, he is the resurrection, he is contagious life, he's the kingdom's king. Rise from your sickbed, go in peace, be fed, and live free to the full!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Fearsome Savior: Sermon for Mark 4:33--5:20

Can you imagine what that day must have been like for the disciples? They'd spent the afternoon with the crowds, listening to Jesus teach in riddles. Their brains must have been fried, trying to follow all of his words, trying to tease out the meanings of each parable, trying to grasp what it meant for them personally and for the mission they were on. Jesus taught his stories right up to the edge of their ability to even handle it (Mark 4:33). Darkness is falling; they think it's time for bed – and that's when Jesus tells them they're going to be pulling an all-nighter this time, they're going to cross the lake (Mark 4:35). I don't imagine the disciples were thrilled with this news. But how do you argue with the Teacher? You don't, though I imagine at least one of them was grumbling inside.

So as the sun goes down, down toward the horizon and past it, they climb into their boat, all thirteen crowding into the same one – probably 27 feet long, 7.5 feet wide. But it's not the only boat in their party: some of the crowd, some who had yearned to get closer to Jesus, who had crowded around to get the in-depth scoop, are along for the trip, because they can't bear the thought of not seeing Jesus in the morning (Mark 4:36). I wonder how many hours things were peaceful, uneventful, even dull as they made their trip. I wonder what was the first sign of trouble: maybe the wind picked up a bit, maybe a few drops of rain splashed on the bridge of Andrew's nose, maybe a wave sloshed over the edge onto Matthew's shoes. But this was no little storm. It was a strong one, maybe with lightning rolling back and forth between black clouds, with wind whipping the water into a frenzy; and by the time Mark tells can even finish his sentence, it's already in full swing (Mark 4:37).

Was the storm visible on the horizon when they climbed into the boat? Did the disciples assume that it would miss them? Well, if they thought the kingdom mission would exempt them from seeing the storms, they were wrong. Here it is, crashing down upon them with everything that it's got, pounding them into the sea. They're shouting into the wind, and it's stealing their words and sending them flying. The water's filling the boat now – and I picture Thomas, the eternal pessimist (or realist, if you prefer), being the first to have the thought that this is the day they all die – and, knowing him, probably to disregard group morale by announcing so out loud. (You know the kind.) What a waste! Is this where the kingdom ends, with a few dozen skeletons on the lake bed, or bloated bodies bobbing in the sea? They've left house and home, friends and family, to devote themselves to what they've been convinced God is doing – and this is the thanks they get? Rained on. Is the kingdom going to get rained out before it really gets off the ground? Can even Jesus do anything about this – the healer of lepers, the dispeller of darkness – or will he drown too?

The disciples scramble around the boat. Where did Jesus go? Is Jesus still in here with us somewhere? Did he fall out? No, there he is – and what an anticlimax: while the disciples have been rowing, Jesus has nodded off on a little cushion in the back of the boat, and maybe you'd hear him snoring if the wind weren't so loud. Here the disciples are, panicking, frantic, adrenaline flooding their veins, their hearts pounding like each beat might be their last – and the Savior's gone to bed (Mark 4:38). Do you think they were thrilled? Where is God in this storm, this demonic whirlwind, this parody of God's fearsome presence (cf. Job 38:1)? Where is the power of the kingdom, the font of miracle after miracle after miracle? Where is our protector, our refuge and our trust? There – sleeping in the back of the boat.

As far as the disciples can see, when the storm gets rough, the God of their salvation is asleep on the job. And don't we sometimes feel the same way? Living this life, serving the kingdom, we run into our fair share of storms – some mild, some strong, and maybe even a Category-5 hurricane or two. The storms enter to disrupt our lives, to throw us into chaos, to derail our calling. They come to dissuade us from the abundant life that God plans for us, they come to challenge our kingdom ministry. They come to turn our peace into panic, they come to strike fear into our hearts and drown us in burdens we can't bear by ourselves.

I've faced my share of storms. You have too. Maybe you've gotten the call late into the night that there's been an accident, and you need to come quickly. Maybe you've watched the waves agitate as cancer slowly drains the life out of your father, your mother, your husband, your wife, your child. Maybe you've woken up employed one day and gone to bed without a job that night. Or woken up with a house one day and had nowhere to lay your head by the time the sun's gone down – lost to fire, to earthquake, to tornado, or to the bank. Maybe the wind keeps throwing bill after bill into your face, burying you until you gasp for air, fearing you'll drown. Maybe life's roughed you up, maybe your friends have deserted you and fight with you, maybe you've been harassed or vandalized or victimized, maybe everyone's against you and you worry that you'll lose what you've got and you've forgotten what happiness feels like. And you call out to God, and the storm gets worse, and you pray your heart out, and the waves hit your face and the floor jerks out from under your feet, and heaven is silent. For all you can tell, God must be asleep on the job. If you've ever felt like that – and I know I have – then you can sympathize with the disciples on that frightful night.

So the disciples frantically wake Jesus – I doubt it's with a respectful whisper in his ear, more likely they're yelling and screaming and maybe daring to shake him by the shoulders – and they shout at their teacher, asking if he even cares that they're about to be destroyed from the land of the living (Mark 4:38). Jesus stirs from his slumber, he sits up, probably stands up, and goes into action. What, I wonder, did the disciples expect Jesus to do? Did they imagine he'd grab a bucket and start tossing out water? Did they think he'd grab an oar and pitch in to get them to the other side? Or did they dare to think that maybe if he can make the blind see and the crippled walk, he isn't helpless in the face of all nature's fury?

Picture the scene: Wind messing up his hair, his robes drenched and waterlogged, the boat tossing and turning beneath him, he treats the storm like the demon it is: he rebukes it (cf. Mark 1:25), and his voice pierces the clouds as he demands of the Sea of Galilee, “Pipe down and put a sock in it!” – or, if you prefer the more traditional translation, “Peace! Be still!” Who goes around yelling at storms? Who goes around rebuking the elements, trying to put God's creation on a leash – and succeeds? That sounds like the God of the Exodus, the God who “rebuked the Red Sea, and it dried up; he led them through the depths as through a desert” (Psalm 106:9), the God who “saved them for his name's sake, to make his mighty power known” (Psalm 106:8).

And just like that, the wind grows soft, the boat stands upright, the waves lose their force and drop – and everything just stops. The clouds go find somewhere else to play. Brilliant starlight dots the darkness. The Sea of Galilee smiles, adopting a calm and cheery demeanor every bit as majestic and magnificent as the scowl of the demon storm (Mark 4:39). Coming on so suddenly, the quiet must have been almost eerie. When you get used to the chaos, the cacophany of howling wind and tempestuous waves, their absence is unsettling, heightening the otherworldliness of what's just happened, making your hair stand on end.

And there are the disciples in the boat, staring at Jesus – the man who tells the sea to jump, and it asks him how high; the man who could blow back the wind with the sound of his voice; the man who scolds a hurricane like it's a petulant toddler, and to instant effect (Mark 4:41). What kind of teacher have they been following? This is beyond the territory of anything they've known or dreamed. And how do you look that kind of power in the face when you've seen what he can do with just a couple of words? What goes through your head at this point, looking at the lips that just commanded the weather, the eyes that saw through the storm? What do you make of this Jesus, whose job description is really starting to look an awful lot like your Maker's?

What the disciples learned that day is that Jesus was in control the whole time. Chaos doesn't have the final word. The kingdom of God has the final word. In any storm, it may look like God's asleep on the job; it may seem like he's deserted you, abandoned you, but when the storm has served the purpose for which he permits it, he can disperse it with a word. See, for all his seeming absence, for all his evident silence, God is in control! And not just some abstract God, not some cosmic tyrant or divine butler, not some grand magician or heavenly therapist, but the God whose autobiography unfolded on earth as Jesus Christ. The God who saves when salvation's beyond hope, the God who scolds storms into silent submission. That is the God who is in control. That is the God of the gospel.

As the disciples looked at this strange and suddenly unfamiliar Jesus, they must have waited with bated breath to see if he had any comment to make, any lesson to unveil to them. And they waited: what is Jesus going to say? All he says are two questions: “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40). Why all this panic, why all this uproar? Why did you let the storm get the best of you? Have you forgotten that there's another way? All this teaching about the kingdom, and don't you get it yet that no matter how wet things get, there's not a storm in heaven and earth to drown the kingdom seed? Don't you yet really believe you're the ambassadors of God's rule? Can't you see that even Jesus with his eyes closed is a living and active Savior? Don't you trust him yet?

Well, how do the disciples react to him? “They feared a great fear” (Mark 4:41) – as frightening as the storm was, there's something more imposing, more intimidating, about their own mentor, their very own best friend. Jesus is no tame teacher. He's our protector, but the disciples are coming to realize that he's not domesticated, not safe. “Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn't safe. But he's good. He is the king, I tell you!” Not safe, but oh so very good: a fearsome Savior, maybe, a live lion and no tame teddy bear, but a Savior who calls us to faith and to hope and to love that outlasts all things. The storm has passed; there's a great calm.

The boat reaches the other side of the lake – the hour before sunrise, as I picture it. They aren't in Kansas anymore. They've left what's today called Israel and entered what's today is the Kingdom of Jordan. Their boat's landed in the country of the Decapolis, near the town of Gadara in “the region of the Gerasenes” (Mark 5:1). All ten towns were mainly Gentile, settled by Greek colonists. It's a very pagan place, one that might've made the disciples wonder, “Why are we being taken here? What is Jesus up to?” And no sooner had Jesus stepped out of the boat than he and his soggy, tired followers had work to do. Out from the unclean cemetery emerges a wild man, possessed by unclean spirits of immense power and number, thriving on the negativity of death, celebrating madness (Mark 5:2). Here's this man, unrestrainable, a tomb-dweller, a zombie imitator extraordinaire. We've left the survival movie behind, and now we find ourselves written into a horror flick. Here before us is this man: he's the first century's Jason Vorhees, here's Freddy Krueger, here's Michael Myers, this is Dracula and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein's monster, this is the nameless ghoul who haunts the tombs, who treats every day like a dark Halloween. What do you do when the monster presents himself out of the mists before dawn? What is Jesus going to do?

Jesus sees through this apparent monster. Outwardly, he's fierce, unconquerable; he can't be tied down, can't be shackled, can't be chained (Mark 5:3-5). But inwardly he's more a prisoner than most. He's no warrior, fighting strong with sword and shield... or machete. He's not launching gleaming arrows from a citadel. He's himself a lost battlefield, annexed and occupied by Satan's strikeforce, a battalion from hell's gates. And for all his wildness, he's oddly familiar. He's the perfect image of a sadly common reality. Look around the streets, and you'll see plenty of people who build walls to hide their felt inner vulnerability. People who compensate for that inward sensation of weakness by being outwardly cold, aggressive, assertive, dominant over all and sundry.

You'll find them in our prisons; you'll find them in boardrooms; you'll find them in the church. To one degree or another, many of us have been in a place like this. How often do we pretend that the cure for our inner chaos is outward composure and control? How often do we let our past of being victimized compel us to overcompensate, to insist that in order to never be put in that place again, we'll seize the reins and become unchainable? The deeper our fears, the greater our thirst for liberation, the stronger our demand to set the terms for our future, to be accountable to nothing and no one. There's an adage out there: “Hurt people hurt people.” How often do we wield woundedness as a weapon? How often do we lash out in vain attempts to solve or soothe the painful baggage we carry around inside our hearts and minds? That's this man's story.

Jesus sees him for the truth of what he is – and he sees that this man isn't his enemy. Jesus did not come to wage war against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). This man is a lost soul needing redemption, needing true freedom not from outward shackles but from inner occupation. Jesus is up against more than just one unclean spirit, he finds: “Legion is my name, for many are we” (Mark 5:9). But Jesus conquers the unconquerable, not just outside but on the inside. With one command – “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit” – Jesus has confronted hell's army, thousands and thousands of demons, with a one-liner – and Jesus won (Mark 5:8). It did not take a prolonged siege. It was an order, not an option. And so the man kneels, the man bows in worship and submission (Mark 5:6), the demons confess Jesus and beg for mercy, beg that this unexpected start of the kingdom won't mean their destruction ahead of the appointed hour (Mark 5:7). Jesus lets them take up residence in a herd of pigs, which get consumed in their destructive impulses, all two thousand of them (Mark 5:11-13). But as for that man, the one made in God's image, what's his story? Well, there he sits at Jesus' feet, the posture of a disciple, “clothed and in his right mind” (Mark 5:15) – neither of which he was before. He's been changed.

Talk about a message of hope! We all bear inner scars and traumas; we all have our share of pain. At times, the biggest storm isn't the one outside. The biggest storm can be the one on the inside, the storm or demon horde in our own soul. Maybe it isn't cancer that's afflicting us; maybe it's depression or anxiety, whether the clinical kind or the more ordinary type. Maybe on the inside, we feel crushed and abandoned, isolated in our own numbness. Maybe everything we see is filtered by a fog. And we might think, “If only I could be strong, no abuse would befall me. If only I could be successful, everyone would respect me. If I were feared, I wouldn't fear.” And so we make a Faustian bargain with the darkness, we overcompensate, we seize control and so end up losing control where it really matters most.

I've been there. I think I have some understanding of this man. There was a time in my life where I knew what it was like to hear voices. There was a time in my life where, when I'd shut my eyes, I'd see visions of hell. I can tell you what this man learned, what the disciples witnessed with their own eyes: The Jesus who scolds storms is the Jesus who expels legions. The Jesus who quiets the wind is the Jesus who quiets the discouraging voices in your own mind and heart. The Jesus who settles the waves is the Jesus who kicks demons to the curb. This Jesus is the Master of body and soul, of the physical and the spiritual, of heaven and earth and sea and all that in them is; and he's in control over the storms and over the spirits, bringing order and peace and wholeness to the world and to our worlds, to our souls. Like the storms of downpours and gales, so the storms of passions and sorrows will pass through. But Jesus can and will make them be still at the time of his choosing; he will make them pipe down and put a sock in it. And he invites us to just have faith in him, in his goodness and his power and his wisdom. No, he's not safe. But he is the sanity of God in a world gone wild, and he promises to clothe us in his righteousness and restore us to the only right mind we could have – the mind of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:16). “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). That's a promise – you can bank on it!

When this man was healed, you'd think the townspeople would be thrilled. If they've got an ounce of humanity, they should be overjoyed that something good and wonderful has happened to a fellow countryman. Even if they're selfish, they should at least be glad that the scary monster is a monster no more. But they aren't thrilled, they aren't even a bit happy. They don't care about him. They'd written him off long ago, and his good turn of fortune is no delight in their eyes. They look at him, and what they see is the cost: the drowned pigs, the forgone revenue. The image of Caesar on metal outweighs the image of God making wind and dust a miracle on two legs. The God of the Exodus has come to their shore to set captives free – and “they were afraid” (Mark 5:15). Like the demons, like defective disciples, they respond to Jesus not with faith but with fear. They find in him only a fearsome menace, not a Lord mighty to save and not to slay. And like the demons, the people of the Decapolis are reduced to begging. They beg him to leave their neighborhood, to pack up salvation and take it somewhere else (Mark 5:17). The kingdom is a disruptive thing, a costly thing. And they don't want the kingdom. They would rather evict the Desire of All Nations.

Does Jesus stay? Does Jesus force himself upon them? No. No, he doesn't. Jesus turns around, he wades out into the water, he climbs back into the boat beneath the soft light of dawn. Now there's one more act of begging: the ex-demoniac, the finally tamed wild man with control of his faculties now, wants what the demons feared: to leave this region, to be apostolic, to be on mission for the kingdom of God, even in strange and foreign lands, so long as he can be like the Twelve and be with Jesus (Mark 5:18; cf. Mark 3:14; 5:10). That's all he wants. Jesus tells him, “No, I have a better idea.” Jesus has another plan for him, another place he can be most effective: right there, right in his own neighborhood. Jesus sends him out to his own people to “tell them how much the Lord has done for you and what mercy he has shown you” (Mark 5:19). And that's exactly what the man does, preaching to the whole Decapolis, amazing everyone with news of Jesus and the kingdom (Mark 5:20). Years before the Damascus Road, years before Cornelius the centurion, this former host of Legion, plucked out of impurity and chaos, this man set free from demons, is the first missionary to the Gentiles – and he's a Gentile himself! He's the lingering witness to a kingdom that's open to all – no matter whether you're Jew or Greek or even if you've got a past that's packed full of demons. And all he's asked to do is to share what Jesus – the stiller of storms, the sanity of souls – has done out of mercy: “He saved them for his name's sake, to make his mighty power known,” to reveal the kingdom come (Psalm 106:8).

Maybe in these days, you're facing a storm. Maybe you're living with Legion. Maybe you're feeling swamped. Maybe you're breaking shackles and howling at anyone who comes near. But Jesus is the kingdom made flesh, Jesus is the salvation of God drawing close. Don't fear the storms, don't fear the demons, don't fear even fear itself. Trust Jesus. Ask him to pilot you. He wants to make more of you than fish food, more of you than a monster, more out of you than a battlefield or a capsized ship, more than a victim or a victimizer. He wants to make you a kingdom witness, if not out on the road, then right where you live, right in your backyard. No matter what you've done, no matter who you've been, Jesus offers a new start, he offers new dry clothes, he offers a new life and a new mind, he offers his mercies new each morning, to make his kingdom known in the abundant life he gives freely for you (John 10:10). When the storms come, when the voices call, when the tides of fear and grief and anger rise, plead to Jesus, beg mercy the God of peace, the God of great calm given in his time. He's not asleep on the job: “He who keeps Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Psalm 121:4). He's the risen Son, he's the living Savior standing in your defense, telling your storms, “Peace, be still,” and your inner darkness, “Come out, you unclean spirit!” Of course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the Kingdom's King, I tell you.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Scattered Seed, Sharpened Sickle: A Harvest Home Sermon on Mark 4:1-34

Seed. Soil. Sickle. All everyday things for a farmer. But also the teaching tools of God-made-man: “Listen, a sower went to sow...” (Mark 4:3). When we left off with the Gospel of Mark a month ago, Jesus forced the disciples, the Pharisees, his family, the crowds to all take a stand and decide just who they think he is, why he acts the way he does. Is he out of his mind, or is he the sanity of God in a world gone mad (Mark 3:6-35)? Enough of the crowd didn't think he was deranged or depraved: when he again “began to teach beside the sea,” the crowd came to him in such numbers he had to get into a boat to spin his stories (Mark 4:1-2). This crowd had passed the first test. They were ready to hear something a bit more advanced now, and Jesus would speak their language – most Galileans were from farming villages and towns, so Jesus will preach in Agriculturese.

Jesus teaches the crowds in parables, in proverbs and riddles and analogies and stories, that both unveil the truth and force us to decide how badly we want to know. Will we come to him and sit next to the Twelve and learn how to understand, or will we let the story slip by us (Mark 4:10-12)? But these parables don't just convey ideas, as if they had one point and then let you move on. The longer parables especially are like houses: you walk inside, you check out all the rooms, you make yourself comfortable there, you view the world through each of the windows and learn to understand. That's what stories are for: to go live in for a while and learn there. Jesus and his kingdom news are “the word that redescribes the world” – interpret everything through him. And after this set of parables, harvest time is never the same, because everything farmers do now screams the kingdom. And I do think that Jesus has a few main points he wants us to know for sure.

First, the kingdom starts small. What does it look like when God reasserts his rightful claim over the earth, when God establishes his people again, when God sits on his throne and has things his way? You'd think it would be about a big display of power – striding right to the circles of biggest influence, bringing the kings and presidents and prime ministers of all the nations to heel. That's not what Jesus says, though. That isn't how God does things. That's how the kingdoms of this world do things. When God stakes his claim, he slips in under the radar. If you blink, if you aren't paying attention, you'll miss him.

Historically, it started with a popular carpenter-turned-traveling-teacher and his ragtag bunch of followers – mostly fishermen, peasants, other disreputable sorts – roaming the hills and villages and coastlines of the backwoods. Think: God could have picked all sorts of ways to stake his claim. He could have come to earth to be born in a palace, raised in purple robes and golden finery, negotiate with dignitaries and win the allegiance of all with bread and circuses. He could have come as a warrior commanding a dozen angel legions, sweeping the globe like Alexander the Great in mighty conquest, slicing down everything that stood in his path, until no one had the option of not hearing him out (cf. Matthew 26:53). He could have overwhelmed the earth as a vast cosmic presence, suffusing the very air we breathe with his undeniable glory.

But he didn't do that. God staked his claim to be king by showing up dressed as a slave (Philippians 2:7-8). The Gospels reveal a man who toiled under the boiling Middle Eastern sun, grew up in a small peasant village the other villages mocked, was run out of his own hometown, trained a crew of mostly average blue-collar types to be like him, refused to cater to the hot-headed crowds... and we're supposed to believe that this is the opening chord of the most majestic movement in the Creator's magnum opus? That this is how God stakes his claim to be Lord of all things at all times and places in all ways?

Yeah – that's exactly what Jesus says. The kingdom isn't like a meteorite that tumbles down from the sky and turns the world and its ways into a crater, reshaped by force and momentum into its own image. The kingdom isn't like a marauding army marching through the land. The kingdom isn't like a great golden idol, visible and obvious and full of instant splendor. The kingdom is like a seed – not just any seed, but a tiny one (Mark 4:30). Have you ever held a mustard seed in the palm of your hand? I have. It doesn't dwarf much except maybe a grain of sand. A mustard seed could roll along the back of a grain of rice. It's tiny! But a mustard seed becomes a great big mustard bush – the smallest seed you'd find in Galilee turns into something pretty impressive, “the greatest of all shrubs” (Mark 4:31-32).

Centuries before, Nebuchadnezzar dreamt that his mighty empire was like a tall tree in the middle of the whole earth, feeding all peoples, drawing all animals to take shelter in his shade, letting the birds of the air perch there, “and from it all living beings were fed” (Daniel 4:10-12). Ezekiel described Assyria the same way, as a tree that “towered high above all the trees of the field,” and “all the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs, … and in its shade all great nations lived” (Ezekiel 31:5-6). But God chopped Assyria down, “and all the peoples of the earth went away from its shade and left it” (Ezekiel 31:12), and the same happened in Nebuchadnezzar's dream: “Cut down the tree … Let the animals flee from under it, and the birds from its branches” (Daniel 4:14).

Starting big, aspiring to glory and dominion through mortal pride – that's a good way to end up as a log, as firewood. Starting out as a little seed, growing by God's tending, the kingdom of King Jesus becomes what Babylon and Assyria never were: “Under it every bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD. I bring low the high tree; I make high the low tree” (Ezekiel 17:23-24). Turns out that God is a surprisingly big fan of humility – that's how he works, that's how he stakes his own claim: with a small seed, down in the cracks where no one of worldly importance sees – but in the end, with room enough for birds one and all (Mark 4:32).

Time and again, Jesus proves his word true. The kingdom latches onto our lives in a lot of mustard-seed ways. When we're all out of food, when we don't know what tomorrow holds, the Spirit pokes us in the heart 'til we give our last two pennies like the poor widow at the temple, somehow finding faith that God will give us tomorrow's bread when tomorrow comes. That's a mustard seed. When we fall and cry out to Jesus to lift us back up, when we get a fresh start, when we put in the effort to earn that white chip for being twenty-four hours sober and have to take it one day at a time, and by miracle and discipline the next day sees another day's victory – that's a mustard seed. When we swallow our pride and go out of our way to apologize to someone we wronged ten, twenty, thirty years ago – that's a mustard seed. When we show just one soul lost in darkness that Christ is the Light their world needs – that's a mustard seed. And from that mustard seed, from that small beginning, is where God time and time again grows the stuff of his kingdom. Hidden in that, in what Jesus meek and lowly is up to, is the seed for what Caesars of every age could only dream of.

Second, the kingdom grows in secret. “God moves in a mysterious way / his wonders to perform,” and none so mysterious as how the kingdom works, how God uses small things despised by the worldly wise to achieve more than could ever be thought. God bursts onto the human scene in what the invincible Romans would've seen as a Third World mud puddle, and how on earth – how even in heaven – does God get worldwide rule out of that? How does the strength of God get magnified in the weakness of mortal obscurity? How does the glory of God sneak around under humility's cloak and ignite a thousand fires? It's like seed poured far and wide, buried under the dirt. Nobody's watching it, nobody's measuring it. God makes it work: “First the stalk, then the head, then the full grain” (Mark 4:28). How does it sprout, how does it grow? Even the farmhands don't know how (Mark 4:27). That's what God taking charge is like. We don't see it, we don't understand it; his ways are higher than ours, craftier than ours (Isaiah 55:9). But there in our smallness, in our weakness, God's work takes root and germinates beneath the surface when we aren't even looking.

Third, the kingdom calls us to take a good, hard look at where we stand and what our hearts are like. That's what Jesus means by telling us his headline story, what Jesus treats as Intro to Parables 101 (Mark 4:13). He knew, the crowd knew, we know that most of the people listening to him were not ready to take up their cross and follow him into the jaws of death and live with self-denial and purpose along the way (Mark 8:34). They might like Jesus, they might have a fondness for him, but to stake this world and the next on him, to risk torture and shame for his sake, to prioritize him over everything else – that's a tall order, and our appetites are often so small, so scattered. Why isn't the kingdom changing everyone, if it's here? What gives?

Jesus explains with a story. Feast your ears on this, he says – picture Jesus the Farmer, leading his chosen farmhands out into his field, bulging pouches at their waists, full of the truth of God, full of the good news of the kingdom (Mark 4:14). He could keep his pouches buckled and bolted shut, could grab the plow and pull it through the field. But he doesn't – partly because that was the Baptist's job. He could scrutinize each patch and stick the seed in the ground, grain by grain, kernel by kernel, careful to dole it out like it's a limited edition. But he doesn't. He could stand in the middle of the best ground and toss it there. But he doesn't. Instead, he roams through the whole field, tossing out seed like no worldly-sane farmer ever would. He tosses it east, west, north, south; he tosses it here, he tosses it there, he tosses it without a worry where it'll land. He's irresponsible, or would be if rationing were the rule of the game. Jesus is too kind to stingily ration out his words of grace while today's still called today.

So why doesn't the seed sprout everywhere? Why doesn't the kingdom show up in everyone's life the same way? The problem isn't the seed. The problem is the soil. Some people, Jesus says, just have no room for the news he's bringing. It isn't that it doesn't hit their ears; it's that it doesn't lodge itself in what's between their ears before it sails out the other side. It's like seed that falls on the path, the dense dirt packed tight by continual footsteps. It's hard. If it were a hotel, the sign would be, “No vacancy,” “No admittance.” The door is locked. The bell rings, no one answers. The gospel is a package left on the doorstep in a bad neighborhood. If you leave seed out on the path, you won't have time to plow; the birds will come and peck away the seeds, and what good does that do for that patch of ground (Mark 4:4)? None.

That was true of a lot of people in Jesus' day. Pharisees came and heard him teach, we know that. They came to spy on him, to keep tabs on him, to trip him up. Some days, every public word Jesus said was heard by a Pharisee. Imagine getting to spend a whole day listening to each syllable from Jesus' lips! But it does no good unless we're receptive. Otherwise, it's in one ear and out the other. Satan snatches the seed away, shields his barren prize from the risk of penetration. It's the curse of being hard of heart, being unbending, unyielding to what God has to say. It wasn't just the Pharisees, either. I'm sure there were plenty of Galilean farmers who muttered to themselves that they just couldn't be bothered to walk a mile to hear yet another teacher propound his nuggets of wisdom when there's work to be done and it's such a nice day out. And there may have been those in the crowd who came, who heard, who appreciated, and who went back to their lives as if it was all just a nice day's outing.

It's true today, too. To the modern American mind, “religion” at its most tolerable is a hobby you might have, just like sports or stamp-collecting: maybe you're into it, maybe you're not. Or else it's a disposition: some people are hard-wired to be “religious,” most aren't, just like some are hard-wired to be really outgoing but others aren't. That's the modern American way of saying, “Hi, I'm packed-down soil; there's no room in me for a seed; I'd rather not see anything grow here and disrupt what I'm all about.” I'm sure you know people who just have no time, no interest, for the gospel, no thirst for anything higher or deeper than working their 9-to-5 and enjoying their diversions. I'm sure you also know people who like to come to church, to hear a pretty message, and who then go back to their lives unchanged – again, like a nice day's outing once a week. I fear that's an easy trap – the trap of dense dirt, and just as dull as dirt in the end.

Sometimes, we're the packed-down soil – maybe not toward the gospel as a whole, but toward a word from God that we just don't like or just don't care to take seriously. I'm not immune. There have been times in my life where I've known what God was calling me to do, and I let that word go in one ear and out the other. I hardened myself to it, and I let the devil snatch it from the stony surface of my heart – in retrospect, much to my hurt (Mark 4:15). I wouldn't be surprised if you've been in those same shoes once or twice. We're prone to pick and choose; we're prone to resent what the kingdom means in practice – that God is boss, and we aren't; that he knows what's best, even if we don't want it. Sometimes, we read in the Bible or hear in a sermon what God says about marriage, or generosity, or forgiveness, or the image of God in every human from womb to tomb, or defending the poor and the socially marginalized – and we just don't like it. We hear the word, we decide we don't want that part, and we harden ourselves. But frequency of a sin is no excuse for rationalizing it. Don't be packed-down when God has something to tell you. And don't think of church as a hobby or a preference or a nice day's outing.

Some people are like packed-down soil. Others are like rocky soil: they have room for the message of God's kingdom on their terms of ease and comfort (Mark 4:5). When everything's cheery, they're the perfect image of what the kingdom looks like! Or so you'd think. They burn bright from the very start; they shoot up and stand tall before most get off the ground. In fair weather, they're model believers who “receive the word with joy” (Mark 4:16). But only in fair weather. And not all weather is fair. They're addicted to prosperity, attached to ease. Their problem is that they aren't deep; they're rocky and shallow, warm and nurturing on the surface but only the surface. When the going gets tough, they get desiccated, dried out: “When trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4:17). See, without roots, there's no gathering moisture. And without a reserve of moisture to carry us through the dry times, there's scorching in our future.

That's the story of a lot of people in the crowds Jesus was addressing. So long as Jesus gives them free bread and fish, so long as they get their three square meals a day and don't stub their toes, they're ecstatic about Jesus. He's the best, he's the champ, he's the king! But what about when Jesus doesn't multiply the loaves? What about when we don't just stub our toes, but find them dangling above the dirt with nails in our hands and feet like his? It's one thing to follow Jesus when he's handing out gifts quicker than Oprah. It's another thing to follow Jesus when he's treading the Way of Sorrows with bleeding, cross-bearing back as the mobs spit and jeer.

Too often, we want the gospel to be an avenue to prosperity and popularity, to sophistication and success. We want it to mean all the benefits – better health, bigger bank accounts, exciting friends and that nice warm feeling like life served us up a big pitcher of lemonade. But Jesus didn't tell people to come and take up their Ferraris and drive after him. Jesus promised us unpopularity. “If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you don't belong to the world, but I've chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19). “All who will live godly in Christ Jesus must suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12). Don't be surprised when following Jesus is the hard road. And don't be surprised when things don't work out like you planned – when tragedy strikes, when everything falls short, when you feel a target on your back. The question is, when that time comes, when the sun is hot and high in the sky, have we let the kingdom get its roots deep into us or not (Mark 4:6)? If we haven't, if following Jesus is just part of our uppermost layers but doesn't stretch down to the heart of who we are, if we aren't immersed in what he says and in living relationship with him, then what God's done in us won't outlast the easy season. If it doesn't go deep, it won't endure. And remember: the sun's hardship provides the energy to help the crop grow, if it has roots with withstand the heat. God's work in us will grow precisely because of the hardship, unless we let it wither away instead.

Some people are like packed-down dirt. Some are like rocky soil, shallow and impenetrable to the root if not the seed. And others are like thorn-infested soil (Mark 4:7). The problem isn't that they don't want to make room for Jesus. And the problem isn't that the message can't lay down roots. The problem is that the kingdom message doesn't get them all to itself. There are plenty of plants, plenty of attachments we can cultivate as our priorities. Jesus compares them to thorns and thistles (Mark 4:18). The kingdom gets in, God does his work, but it gets strangled and crowded out by competitors – first and foremost among which are “the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things” (Mark 4:19). There's a peril in hardship, but there's also a peril in plenty: “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food I need, or I shall be full and deny you and say, 'Who is the LORD?'” (Proverbs 30:7-8).

And isn't that the truth? Surely some in the crowd then were followers like this: they'd like to walk with Jesus, they're enthused for his message, but it isn't the hard times that get them, it's the good times. Today, this may be a predominant sector of the church in America. We call ourselves Christian, we're steeled and ready for hardship; the romance of the martyr, the large brushstrokes of heroism, have an appeal to us; but what's really a challenge isn't to die for him but to daily live for him, especially amidst a world of temptations and distractions. We're a distracted culture. When the gospel presents itself as a stark matter of life and death, we can see with clarity. But what about when the temptation is subtle and pleasant? What about when the gospel is one neon sign among so many? When the going gets not-so-tough, we get scatterbrained.

The devil's got many tactics, and a lot of them look like this: “You don't have to choose! You can love Jesus and that TV in the store window. You can follow Jesus and keep your job,” and so on. The thing is, it isn't just about laying an outward claim to loving and following Jesus – the thorny soil does that. But thorny soil is always a fan of Jesus-plus: Jesus-plus-wealth, Jesus-plus-comfort. Instead of letting Jesus be our world, we fit Jesus into our world, letting him rent an apartment in the city of us. It seems possible, because it lets us keep Jesus – or so we think. But the kingdom is about fruitfulness, about growth; and all those cares of the world, all the lure of upper- or middle-class wealth, can choke what God wants to do in us, if we don't scrutinize ourselves, if we don't diligently uproot anything that threatens to compete with God's kingdom. There's no kingdom productivity without kingdom exclusivity – no reaping the rewards of God raising and cultivating us unless we let him and him alone claim all of us. But if we stay soft to receive Jesus' message, if we let his kingdom get deep within us to withstand the rough times, if we rip off other loyalties and have a laser-like focus on his kingdom – then all that's left is to be like the good soil, where the kingdom can grow and grow and grow (Mark 4:8).

Fourth, the kingdom is fruitful in the end. After its small start, after its mysterious growth, after dealing with soil quality, the kingdom wins. This isn't a big crazy gamble, betting all we've got on a creation-wide lottery, constantly fretting whether we've backed the loser in the big scheme of things. The kingdom ends up as a vast tree with room for all, guaranteed (Mark 4:32). The kingdom yields good grain and a harvest that's thirty, sixty, a hundred times the seed sown – more than enough to make up for any that fell on packed-down, rocky, or thorny soil (Mark 4:20). In fact, the value of the soil is determined by one and only one factor: in the end, how fruitful is it? It isn't a question of whether the kingdom will be fruitful – it will. God's claim to be king isn't staked in vain. The question is whether our lives will contribute to the total crop yield, and by how much. The question is what we let the kingdom do with us.

Fifth, the kingdom calls us to listen and understand the message. Jesus says it outright: “Pay attention to what you hear” (Mark 4:24), and if you can reach up to the side of your head and feel an ear there, use it (Mark 4:23)! The point isn't to let the kingdom pass us by. It's also not to seal the kingdom up like a ship in a bottle. Who gets a lamp and turns it on, just to cover it up so you can't see it shine (Mark 4:21)? If you go to the trouble to get a lamp, you want to see it brighten the whole room. It isn't for hiding; it's for unhiding. It isn't to keep a secret; it's to make things known (Mark 4:22). God is staking his claim as king – king of you, king of me, king of Jerusalem and Rome and America, king of all heaven and earth and sea and all that in them is. And he's doing it by making himself known in Jesus. Jesus is the secret of the kingdom. Jesus is God in action: starting small, working mysteriously, spreading the message, bearing praiseworthy fruit through his extended body, the church. Jesus is the kingdom's open mystery: hidden only to those who won't approach him, who won't get close, who won't devote their minds and hearts to exploring his unfathomable depths (Mark 4:11). To all who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the kingdom is open right now, while there's still time, if we'll just come to Jesus and learn: the more we learn, the more we're ready to hear, and that's all that matters (Mark 4:24-25).

And so there's one call above all: be ready, be ripe. As soon as enough grain is ripe, that's the appointed time for harvest, that's when the sickle comes out (Mark 4:29). In most other Jewish teaching from that time, whenever someone told a story about the harvest, the main point was judgment: harvest is the time when everything bad is destroyed, harvest is all about judgment. And Jesus doesn't reject that point. He clearly teaches about judgment day. But Jesus puts the emphasis somewhere new. Jesus stresses that harvest is a time of joy, because harvest is a time to finally enjoy the fruit that all that long history of sowing, sprouting, growing was for.

So many people think that Christians only have faith in Jesus because they want to avoid hell. That's only a start, at best – we trust Jesus, we follow Jesus, because we've fallen in love and want to be fruitful for him. When the day of harvest comes, we want to put a big grin on his face as he sees how our lives have come to full fruition. That's what it's all about: being ready for the harvest, yearning to be a reason for heaven and earth to thirty, sixty, a hundred times more celebrate that Great Harvest Home of God eternally in his kingdom. May we live now the lives of fruitfulness that say we're wholly on-board with God's claim to kingship as Jesus lives it out. “Lord of harvest, grant that we / wholesome grain and pure may be.”

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Many Tribes, One Table: Sermon for World Communion Sunday

Have you ever thought about just how blessed we are to have John 17? In revealing this chapter, the Holy Spirit gives us a treasure of unparalleled value. We get to eavesdrop on the prayer life of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as he lifts up his chosen band of followers to the Father. What does it sound like when God the Son prays to God the Father? It doesn't have to be a mystery! It's right here. Here we can see prayer echoing through the halls of eternity. And what, above all, does Jesus request, not just for his first apostles but explicitly for all those whose hearts beat in time with the message the apostles bring? For all of us – each and every one of us – Jesus' first and foremost prayer is that we may be one, anchored in the oneness of the Father and the Son (John 17:20-21). Jesus shares the truth, he spreads his glory over us like a holy shroud, so that we can be one just like Father and Son are one (John 17:22), and so the world can know who and what we're all about (John 17:23). It's an incredible chapter.

And there are a lot of groups out there twist what's going on in this chapter, trying to make it seem like Jesus is less than what the church has always honored him as. Many out there deny, in different ways, the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, our age-old witness that the actions of Father, Son, and Spirit actually expose the inner life of God. Our Jehovah's Witness friends, for instance, say that Jesus is only talking about a “oneness of purpose” that we can achieve with God and his first-created Son; they say the Father and Son are just “one in agreement, purpose, and organization”; they say that the Christian view would imply that we should all “become part of the Trinity” (Let God Be True [1952], p. 104; Reasoning from the Scriptures [1985], p. 424). With all due respect, they get Christianity so backwards. And our Mormon friends say basically the same thing. For them as well, the oneness of Father and Son here is just “oneness of purpose” (LeGrand Richards, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, p. 22). And one of their earlier leaders said that Jesus was only talking about a “unity of purpose and operation,” and said that the Christian view implied that believers would have to “lose their individuality and become one person” in order to be one as God is (James E. Talmage, The Articles of Faith, pp. 36-37). They get Christianity backwards too.

Neither group has it right on this passage. What's going on in John 17 is so much more exciting than what they're saying! The ancient Jews were totally convinced that there was only one God – and they were exactly right. And they realized, this beautiful truth isn't just something to learn in theology class at the synagogue and then go about daily life out in the field; it's relevant to the way we worship. If there's only one God, they said, then there's only one Law. If there's only one God, there's only one temple. If there's only one God, then the people of God are supposed to live as one community. One old Jewish book says, “We are all one named people, who have received one Law from One” (2 Baruch 48:24).

So as Jesus is teaching, he puts his own twist on it: We need to live as one people, because the Father and Son are one God. Living as one church – that's the only way we can be a living witness of the Trinity; that's the only way that “the world may know” that the Father sent Jesus and loves us just as much as his well-beloved and only-begotten Son (John 17:23). What Jesus is saying means that the Father and Son are one God, and the same love that comes from their oneness should bind us into one people, one church indivisible.

And that's something that was near and dear to Paul's heart also. In Paul's day, people kept wanting to take differences in the church and magnify them into divisions. They wanted one church for Jews and another for Gentiles, for instance. Paul said no: “In Christ Jesus, you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28). In the new creation Jesus makes, “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

In other words, no statistic, no demographic, no label comes in front of Jesus and the oneness he gives to his people. But the church can't be limited or concentrated in just one category. Even in a time when the church was mostly Jewish, or later on mostly Gentile, Paul knew that they were equally the church, equally belonging to Jesus, and they desperately needed to realize that, not just in theory, but to live it out in practice. Jesus has “made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14), creating “one great fellowship of love / throughout the whole wide earth.”

Today is World Communion Sunday. And we have to realize that God has not just called Americans. In America, we aren't the be-all and end-all of what it means to be Christian. We don't own the title of Christianity; we don't define it. The American church has had and does have a role to play, but it's not the leading role in the story of the church over its thousands of years. The center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted elsewhere, away from its long-time residence in Western Europe and toward the heart of Africa. America is not the center of the church world, not the pinnacle of Christian life!

Close your eyes for a moment; think of your mental image of the typical Christian. What does he or she look like? Where is he or she from? Well, in reality, the typical Christian today is not American, not middle-class, not white. The typical Christian today would be more likely found in Brazil or Nigeria or China – all places where the church grows by leaps and bounds. As the president of my seminary wrote, now “the heartlands of Christianity are located in Africa, Latin America, and Asia” (Timothy Tennent, Theology in the Context of World Christianity, p. 272), not here where we call home. And I'm thankful that the seminary I went to really, actually lived it: I frequently had more professors from Africa and Asia than from America, and my world religions class was full of Nigerians, Indians, Koreans, Sudanese, and Singaporeans; we had ex-Muslims, ex-Buddhists, even one who was both. I was so blessed to hear their voices – to hear the questions relevant to people ministering among Hindus, to learn evangelism on the streets of a Muslim-majority slum in Kenya. Christianity is not just for Americans.

When the Bible says God gathers his great multitude “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9), he doesn't just mean Pennsylvanians and Texans! Already, we're beginning to see that the church in other nations is sending out more missionaries than we do – even sending missionaries to America. We're the mission field! Even fifteen years ago, Brazil and Mexico together had more Christians than the whole United States. So we have to stop thinking about the church in American terms, have to stop defining it by American agendas, have to stop picturing the church as monolithic, as less diverse than the United Nations. The church is the real United Nations in Jesus Christ, who shed his blood not to write the United States Constitution but to “ransom for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). We here are not the majority in the kingdom of God. We may well be outnumbered by Rwandans, by Iraqis, by Koreans, by Ukrainians, by Egyptians. The church has thrived in many nations throughout the centuries. The unity of the church is global – “elect from every nation, yet one over all the earth.”

The unity of the church is also eucharistic. The way Christians have always shown their unity was by eating together as equals at the same table. To prove they recognized each other as validly Christian, congregations used to send each other small portions of their communion bread as a way of saying, “You are in communion with us, you are in fellowship with us, we recognize you.” Communion was meant to point to the fact that all of us in every nation, from every background, of every status, are equals in the eyes of Christ and to one another. We here in America don't have a monopoly on the gospel; we don't have a monopoly on the Lord's Supper; we don't have prettier chairs at the one table.

That's why, when Paul heard that rich Corinthian Christians were hogging all the food and pushing the poor aside at the Lord's Supper, he righteously blew a gasket and said they “show contempt for the church of God” and “eat and drink judgment against themselves” (1 Corinthians 11:22, 29). That's why Paul was so angry with Peter when he stopped eating with non-Jewish Christians at Antioch (Galatians 2:11-14). Nothing should divide communion between faithful believers in the same one God, the same one Lord, who share the same one Spirit and “partake one holy food.” You know, we have records of communion prayers throughout the centuries. Perhaps the earliest one we have, maybe dating from just decades after the time of the apostles or even earlier, is this prayer over the communion elements:

We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge that you made known to us through Jesus your Servant. To you be the glory forever! Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills and was gathered together and became one, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom; for yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever. (Didache 9.4)

That was the communion prayer of the early church. The bread came from all over – you never know which hills, which fields grew that wheat – and yet it all became one loaf. So the church comes from all over, from all the hills and all the tribes in the whole world, but we're meant to be one church without division. Paul wrote, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17). At this past year's National Conference, Randy Sizemore reminded us that, while some people think we should care for the church here before we care for the church way over there, that's like saying we should care for our left arm before we care for our right arm: “We are a global church, a global community,” he said. Yes, there are differences: we don't all get the same shade of skin, we don't all come from the same place, we are not a clone army. But these differences are actually a witness to what God has done. Embrace them. Young and old, rich and poor, black and white, Palestinian and Israeli, American and Ugandan and Filipino – all one church, all gifted to equip the whole church to be built up to the full stature of Christ's maturity. We can't afford to “eat and drink without discerning the body” (1 Corinthians 11:29) – not just part of the body, not just the American arm, but we have to discern the whole body spread through all nations and stretched through all centuries since that first Easter morning.

We're about to come to the Lord's table now. But it isn't just the people in this sanctuary. To the left of the altar rail, picture the line extending vastly to the east, with Liberian believers kneeling at the altar rail in their churches, and our brothers and sisters from India doing the very same. To the right, imagine the altar rail stretching to the distant west, across the Pacific Ocean. Imagine our friends, our brothers and sisters in the Japanese church, also kneeling to receive the same bread, the same cup. Picture Jordanian believers, Russians, Vietnamese, Nepalese, Iranians, Indonesians, all with their flags somewhere in the background like ours but fading into the distance. It matters that we're from every nation, but those flags don't define us, they don't divide us, they don't make any of us better Christians than the other or any more loved and cherished by the Father. We bring them to Christ as we cast our crowns before his throne.

Imagine sitting down for a meal with all of our brothers and sisters from every tribe. Imagine the language barrier broken by the Spirit, learning from their wisdom and faithfulness and experience and sharing with them what we have as well. In other words, imagine worldwide communion. Imagine a feast that makes the world say we point to something bigger than all of us. Imagine a feast that looks like the Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit, one eternal God. Let's live for Jesus' prayer, having Jesus living in us through his body and his blood, to carry the power of God into our lives all around this globe. Let's live so that the world knows that the Father sent the Son and that they, as one God, love us enough to feed us at such great cost (John 3:16; 17:23). Let's all come now from many tribes to the one table, for one bread and one cup.