"As I mused, the fire burned"

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Preaching Through Mark 2 to 3:6

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Preaching through Mark. 15 January 2012, Mark 2-3:6, Epiphany 2
St John the Evangelist Edmonton

Pray. We’re here at our second instalment of our sermon series through Mark’s gospel. As Don described last week, Mark’s presentation is terse, immediate, and there is urgency in the text that we hear loudly again this week. By the end of our readings today, just at the start of the third chapter, the plotting to kill Jesus has already begun.

These first two chapters of Mark are set out to establish the clear authority of the Son of Man over the kingdom of God, a task that involved a serious stripping away of the formal structures of the religious establishment of that day. In this big picture, the text Don dealt with last week set out Jesus’ authority over the demonic and physical illness, through a multitude of healings and exorcisms. This week’s text continues with the healings but adds additional proclamations of Christ’s authority – over sin, the Law (with a capital ‘L’, the Torah of God) and over the Sabbath and all ritual observances. The terseness of Mark’s text makes this authority clear – you almost have the image of a prize fighter laying an effective combination of punches against an opponent, that ends with the opponent (the Pharisees) realizing there is no way to win in a fair fight.

We need to set the stage by speaking a bit about Israel’s understanding of holiness, disease and impurity. For the Pharisees, the presence of physical disease was an indication of some kind of sin. This thought had been around for a while – you can see this in Job’s story, as his friends insist that he must have sinned or God would not be bringing such misfortune upon him. For a Pharisee, ‘There is no death without sin, and there is no suffering without iniquity’ (Talmud Shabbat 55a-b). Think of the question that Jesus is asked prior to the healing of a blind man in John’s gospel: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2) Disability was linked to sin – you’re that way because God is punishing you.

There was also an immense set of regulation build up around the cult of Israel that was concerned with the maintenance of ritual purity, developed through tradition to provide very specific rules about how one had to act in order to remain holy. The impact of the laws was that anyone who had a visible disability would be marginalized to some extent – In Leviticus 21, we hear a series of rules about the physical perfection required in priests “18 no man who has a physical flaw is to approach: a blind man, or one who is lame, or one with a slit nose, or a limb too long, 19 or a man who has had a broken leg or arm, 20 or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or one with a spot in his eye, or a festering eruption, or a feverish rash or a crushed testicle. … 23 he must not … step forward to the altar because he has a physical flaw.” (trans after Hentrich) This comes through clearly in the last healing account Don told us of last week – the leper does not ask Jesus to be healed, but rather to be made clean…that is to not only have the disease removed, but to be restored to right relationship within the community, to end the time as an outcast, to be able to return to the Temple. This making of boundaries between the pure (and we can read pure as safe, chosen, set apart) and the impure (and we can read impure as unsafe, unknown, dangerous) figures heavily into Israel’s sense of self. It is important that we understand that this is another important dynamic running through these encounters between Jesus and the world – for he has come to bring the Kingdom which means that the barriers of the old world and the old way were over. Just as the veil in the temple would ultimately be split apart, the rule-based old religion would no longer be allowed to determine who were truly of God, and who were excluded.

The fear of ritual defilement informs all aspects of your life, and so you seek to avoid anything that casts doubt on your personal purity – the priest and the Levite walk past the injured man in the Good Samaritan because the ritual purity laws preclude them from touching a bloodied and maybe dead person. In fact, the one who helps, the Samaritan, was himself considered unclean. The big problem with impurity, is that it is catching – so if I’m ritually impure, and touch a water glass, which you then pick up, my impurity has rendered the glass impure, and you touching it has rendered you impure. This is the reason why, when you read through Leviticus, there are all these very involved instructions about touching, and how clothing and dishes are to be purified.

Into this mess of rules and an almost paranoid level of concern over personal purity, Jesus comes and declares one underlying message of the Kingdom – there are no longer any barriers between pure and impure, for everything is consecrated into God’s service, including the deformed and diseased.

Our text starts with the healing of a paralyzed man, lowered through the roof by four friends. When the scribes, the teachers of the Law, hear Jesus declare forgiveness, they pass judgement – Jesus has blasphemed as only God can forgive. The punishment for blasphemy was death, so Jesus enters this chapter already guilty of a crime punishable by death. Jesus then goes further – as the forgiveness of sins did not have an outward sign he says, pick up your mat and walk. The hidden significance is that the paralytic, who would have been seen to be under God’s punishment, is healed confirm the forgiveness of his sin. Jesus declares himself Lord over sin and disease.

In our next encounter we have the calling of Levi, a tax collector followed by a dinner at Levi’s house along with all of his tax collector and sinner friends. Not only has Jesus called someone from the margins to his inner circle, but he openly has dinner with them. This is a direct assault on the rules of ritual purity that dealt with the act of eating and being close to others. If you could not guarantee the purity status of everyone in the house, you yourself were placed at risk, because of all the touching that could go on…and you don’t know where all those people have been. You can see how this set of rules would overlay any involvement with people you did not know well, for if you were rendered impure this would exclude you from community, the temple, worship and require that you purchase and make a sin offering in order to regain purity. Jesus declares his Lordship over the body of purity regulations.

He is also challenged as to why he and his disciples do not follow the fasting rules, and His answer is that while he is present it is the time to party, for there will be plenty of time to mourn and fast afterwards. Jesus declares his Lordship over the body of holiness regulations.

Our next encounter is on a walk through some cornfields on the Sabbath, and his disciples pluck the grain and eat. There was an equally oppressive set of rules concerning work on the Sabbath and limited anything that could be done on that day of rest. I’ve mentioned before the ‘sabbath mode’ on some ovens – it is forbidden on the Sabbath to press buttons or to adjust temperature, so the practice was to turn on your oven before the Sabbath and just leave it on…and that Sabbath mode suppresses the auto-off feature on most modern ovens. Even that mode won’t help you according to rabbinic teaching: “In our opinion, use of “Sabbath Mode” to change the temperature of an oven on Yom Tov represents an assault on the sanctity of Shabbos and festival days and will lead to deterioration in their observance.” Legalism to make your eyes water – which Jesus, like the temple veil, rips apart.

The disciples commit a number of Sabbath offenses – they are travelling, they harvest grain and presumably separate the grain kernels from the chaff. The Pharisees ask Jesus why he is not enforcing the proper observation of the Sabbath, and he says three things in reply:
– King David fed his companions the sacred bread reserved only for the priests, so when you are in need of food the rules don’t apply.
– The Law was made to help you, not hinder you. You should not be serving the Law, it was meant to serve you.
– The Son of Man (that is God’s son) is Lord of the Sabbath.
If your job as a religious leader was to develop and enforce the rules, this would form a bit of a challenge to that role. So Jesus declares himself on par with King David, the master of the Law and Lord of the Sabbath. Here the religious authorities had taken a rule intended to help, ‘on the Sabbath day do no work,’ and turned it into an oppressive bureaucracy that controlled what people could do, and required a body of officials to enforce the Law and to judge transgressions (and to demand sacrifice to restore purity, which would be purchased through the temple system). /// Sounds a little like photo radar, doesn’t it?

The climax of this passage comes with the healing of the man with the withered hand. Jesus has been all over, and the final healing culminates with a reclaiming of the centre of worship and teaching in the Jewish community, the Synagogue, and the literal power centre of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law.

The encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees sets up the focus of the Kingdom contrasted with the focus of the religious authority. Jesus asks a question – is it lawful to do good or harm, to save life or to kill on the Sabbath? There were well-known exceptions to the work regulations on the Sabbath, for example that a farmer could pull a lamb out of a pit if the lamb was in danger of dying. Jesus calls the disabled man to stretch out his withered hand, that is to display what he would have been ashamed to display in the community, and as the man acts the hand is healed. Jesus heals, makes him clean, removes his sin and restores him to right relation with the community – in short Jesus does good and restores life on the Sabbath. The response of the religious establishment? They immediately go out to conspire on how to destroy Jesus. That is, they go out on the Sabbath to bring about harm and death, the exact opposite of that just proclaimed by Jesus. Jesus is Lord of the synagogue, and the Lord of life and good. In the final nail in the coffin of the purity regulations, look at what has been happening: Leviticus says that anyone with a deformity is prohibited from bringing an offering to God, for fear of polluting the house of God with their impurity. In the first two chapters of Mark, a whole series of deformed, disabled and diseased along with tax collectors and sinners have been invited to come and touch and be near God incarnate – Jesus. God invites those most in need of God – those the religious establishment have branded as impure – to dine with God. A complete and utter reversal. (from you can not approach God; all who seek the Lord are welcome)

Mark quickly takes us through a further series of encounters that place in our mind the complete Lordship of Jesus: Lord over sins; Lord over illness; Lord over the purity and holiness regulations; Lord over Torah, the Law; Lord of the Sabbath; Lord of David; Lord of all places including the synagogue; and the Lord of life and good. After this complete authority has been established, we’re left with the beginning of the end, and the plot to murder the Son of God. What has been placed in stark relief for us is the complete revision of a system in which holiness could only be obtained through literal and flawless fulfilment of the Law (an impossible task for we humans) – into a system where holiness can always be obtained through He who is Lord of all the Law, Jesus. Those with a lack of grace, shown through physical disability or isolation from the community are infused with an abundance of grace in the person of Jesus. Sinners, all of us, have complete forgiveness available for the asking. No longer do His people – that is all of us – need to be bound into oppressive and power-centred structures to determine who would be able to call themselves worthy, because Christ’s Lordship makes us all worthy, and all we have to do is ask. Thank God for that. Amen.

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Written by sameo416

January 25, 2012 at 4:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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