01 February 2009

The Sermon - Yes, I Posted One Last Sermon

People who speak truly for God do so with an acute sense of the audacity of
what they are attempting. They sense the presumption inherent in claiming to
speak for God. Who in their right mind would make such claims given the
combination of human frailty and divine inscrutability? Every sane preacher
experienced the dread and adrenaline shock of the preposterous task — in
stumbling and bumbling way to speak a word that is true to God.1

Okay, so count me as one of those who shares the fear and trembling with which we approach the work of speaking on behalf of God. Sometimes it feels like these 15 to 20 minutes every week are the height of presumption. And, unfortunately, some of us preachers take that time and make it sound something like this:

So, that's who we want to avoid this morning, right? Do you get the point, that there's no such thing as a magic Jesus? I ask you this because I struggle with that myself. The leap from honest intercessory prayer to the magic Jesus 8-ball is, unfortunately, a short leap. I want Jesus to be someone who heals the people I love. I want Jesus to be someone who repairs the broken relationships in my life. I want Jesus to be a peacemaker, someone who cares about all the things I care about, who hates the things I hate and will do everything possible to solve my problems. And Jesus is indeed all of these things. Except when He's not.

There's a saying that goes around us pastor-types: "you know you've created God in your own image when God loves everyone you love and hates everything you hate." That's one kind of idolatry. Here's another one: you know you've created a magic Jesus God when you expect that every illness you pray about will be healed, and every problem you bring to God will be solved in a manner of your liking.

That's what a lot of preachers are selling these days, and let's face it: when unemployment is at its highest in thirty years, one thing that's going to sell really well is a God who "wants to give you a blessing," usually in the form of success or money or something material. But I'm going to risk being presumptuous this morning and tell you something I believe is true: there is no such thing as a magic Jesus, and the sooner we understand that, the sooner our lives can be filled with something far greater than magic.

Our gospel reading for today contains the first healing miracle in the gospel of Mark. There will be many healing miracles in these first few chapters, and they happen quickly. One word that happens over and over again in Mark's gospel is euquv", or "immediately;" Jesus moves fast and does a lot of good in Capernaum and other cities on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. But look again at the gospel reading for today. Who comes to whom in this story? Does Jesus seek out the man possessed, or do the demons drive the man to Jesus? This story opens with Jesus teaching in the synagogue; the healing, in some ways, seems accidental, something that happened to prove the validity of what Jesus was teaching, and I think our desire for the fantastic leads us looking in the wrong direction. The power of the exorcism described here obscures the story of Jesus teaching, which I think is the far greater point of the story.

Jesus is described as teaching exousiva, or "out of himself." In Jesus' time, rabbis and scribes proved their intelligence and the strength of their teaching through citation: the more learned scholars you could cite, the stronger your argument would be. But Jesus didn’t teach like that. In this gospel reading we hear that the people were amazed because Jesus taught with authority. Some examples of this come from Matthew’s gospel:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.’…But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed lust with her in his heart…

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

This is the kind of teaching that amazed the people of Capernaum – Jesus taught out of Himself. Jesus made no appeal to precedent in His teaching: His words stood on their own power, and the power of Jesus’ relationship with His Father, and the people stood amazed, because carpenters from Nazareth didn’t have the authority to teach as Jesus taught. To teach like this, a man would have to be possessed. The question is: is it the Spirit of God or an unclean spirit doing the possessing here? For us, the answer seems simple: but we have the weight of centuries, tradition and the Scriptures to point us in the right direction. To be there, on that day, we would have been hard pressed to know what was really going on.

Here is what I believe with all my heart, soul, mind and strength: it IS the authority of the Father that Jesus holds within Himself. Deuteronomy tells us that the authority and power of the Father is a great and powerful thing. Moses asked God to stay hidden, because the people couldn’t stand to see God the Father in all his might and glory – it was too overwhelming. And God promised to do so. As James Healy puts it, “[God] kept God’s word. Inviting obedience to God’s plan, God expressed authority through [the prophets]. At last God sent Jesus, not in thunder and lightning, but in our fragile flesh. And Jesus used authority to liberate and lift up, not to put down; to empower and encourage, not to intimidate and oppress. Forever Jesus’ rightful claim to authority would be his utter surrender as servant of God’s people and his challenge to oppressors. And his perfect act of obedience…would be the ultimate act of freedom.” 2

This is why I don’t believe in a magic Jesus. Jesus' authority comes from his RELATIONSHIP to the Father: close, intimate, unflinchingly honest. It has nothing to do with special powers, and it certainly has nothing to do with providing any sort of ‘blessing’ to those who pray hard enough. That’s not a particularly comforting thought, I know, but I believe it’s true nonetheless. Does Jesus heal? Yes. Does Jesus help us in our fight against the powers that try to hold us captive? Yes. But the fight is ongoing, and sometimes healing can be very hard to recognize.

Why is it that some are miraculously healed while others are not? I don’t know. Why is it I met Kristin when I was 29, while my friend Nate met his wife when they were both 14? I don’t know. Even with every unexplained moment of evil in our lives, every unhealed illness, every broken heart, every wounded spirit, I believe God has created this world out of unfailing love and unending, unbroken promise, and Jesus is the living embodiment of that promise. Did Jesus heal? Absolutely, but more importantly, Jesus loved, and continues to love. There is no sleight of hand here, not flash of gunpowder, no rabbits being pulled out of the hat – love doesn’t work like that. Love has to be real – love has to have flesh and blood – love is shown best when it stands with us THROUGH pain and sorrow and reminds us that we are not alone.

Don Juel wrote a commentary on Mark for Augsburg Fortress in 1990. His title for these verses was “The Battle is Joined.” The Gospel of Mark begins with a fight, and it is a fight for the rest of the way, but that fight is between a God who loves and a people who want a magician. God has called us to listen for the voice of love, to recognize the voice of Jesus healing our hearts and calling us out of the darkness into the light of his presence. Love, not magic, is the name of the game; be amazed at that love, friends, and trust in all that it promises, now and forever. Amen.

1: Clendenin, Daniel. http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20090126JJ.shtml

2: Healy, James K. © 1994 National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 1994.

1 comment:

  1. I know - the formatting is awful here. Blogger really sucks sometimes. Sorry!