"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Unto to these shall be given the Kingdom…

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Preaching through Mark. 4 March 2012, Mark 9:30 to 10:31 Lent 2

We’re here at our next instalment of our sermon series through Mark’s gospel, and today’s chunk of the Word relates to the central theme of who it is exactly that will gain admittance to the Kingdom. This message is presented in the usual manner we have seen used by Jesus, kind of a back-handed or inverted approach to the way the world would have its saviour set the system up.

In our world, we would choose our Jesus to be like a superhero, compassionate and kind, but also able to bring the fight to those we see as sinful. If you’ve ever listened to Richard Dawkins on his anti-Christian rant, and you’re like me, there is some small part that just wishes the Holy Spirit would show up in a very real way…about 100,000 volts worth, or 10 tonnes like in the cartoons. Rather than one of the Justice League or the Fantastic Four, our Saviour instead comes into town riding on a baby donkey…with great power and authority for sure, but primarily with love for those who so desperately need saving. This is a back-handed response to the world’s right-handed expectations. Looking back at the last 10 chapters, we can sum up the kinds of people who have been saved by Jesus with five words (after Robert Capon):

The lost: Jesus came to bring salvation to the nation of Israel, but also to the lost nation of the Gentiles: the children’s food and crumbs for the dogs.

The least: Be the servant of all.

The little: the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue, children in general

The last: The Syrophoenician woman, the unclean, the lame, the blind, tax collectors, sinners.

The dead: the dead daughter of the ruler of the synagogue.

There is a clear and difficult message that comes across loud and clear in the gospel this week – if you seek a place in the Kingdom, you must be like one of these: the lost; the little; the least; the last; the dead. We see nowhere that Jesus has come for those who know they are alive, for those who know they are saved, for those who are first, and for those who are giants. It is the one lost sheep of 100 that receives His attention, the one lost coin, the one sinner who repents, over the 99 who know they are righteous people. Rather, he holds up for us a small child as the image of who we are to emulate. This theme is repeated several times throughout the reading:

Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. (9:35)
Let the little children come to me…for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. (10:14)
Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. (10:15)
The disciples said: who then can be saved? Jesus replied, for man it is impossible, but not for God, for God all things are possible. (10:26-27)
But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. (10:30)

The important focus is to ask yourself, how is my life, my total life, informed by this teaching? Here’s a question to dwell on: why is it that we are told to confess our sins? If God is all-knowing, he certainly is aware of even the sins we commit without knowledge. Forgiveness is a gift from God, just for the asking, and not contingent on keeping an accurate listing of each transgression. Why then confess? Perhaps the real point in confession is not to tell God about our faults, but to remind ourselves that we are dead to our sin, and it is only in God that we may find life, and eternal life. Once we admit we are dead, once we admit we are lost, once we admit that we are children, is when God can begin His work.

Let’s walk through some of this rich pallet of Christ’s teaching. The theme of the disciple’s unknowing continues clearly. We begin with another anticipation of the crucifixion, which the disciples do not understand. They are beginning to learn to avoid rebuke, because we also hear they are afraid to ask Jesus any questions about it. On the way to Capernaum the disciples are debating: who will be the greatest when Christ takes the throne of Israel? They have no idea!

Jesus takes the teachable moment, sits down with the twelve, and says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” This is a difficult teaching. When I started out in the military, I was eager to seek greater responsibilities and quick promotion. This was because, quite frankly, I loved the fancy clothes, having people salute me on the street, and the seats of importance at gatherings. Later, when I realized the responsibility for others that rested on me, that passage took on new meaning. What promotion really means is becoming an even greater servant to those in your care. Luke 12:48: “from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” Jesus takes a little child and sets him in their midst and tells them: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” There you have a hint of where we’re going: welcoming a child in the name of Christ, is welcoming the Father.

It is such a simple idea – we will hear in Mark 16:16, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” full stop. Welcome a child, you welcome God. Yet we seem to spend so much time making the message complex, creating a moral framework of tasks that we can complete to convince ourselves that we are progressing in goodness and approaching the Kingdom…to which Jesus says, no – just admit that you are dead, and then I will be able to bring you new life.

Seeking to change the subject at that point, John interjects – hey Lord, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, but he was not following us so we tried to stop him. It sounds to me like a bit of approval seeking by John. Jesus’ responds in an interesting manner, saying “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Which makes me immediately think of George Bush’s war on terror speech where he said something quite different – if you’re not with us, you’re against us. Jesus makes a rather profound comment, by stating that anyone that is not opposing his mission, is supporting it. I wonder in this if there is an answer for one those difficult questions – what about my friend, who is an atheist, but is the kindest and most caring person I know, and volunteers 3 days per week at the homeless shelter and makes most Christians look bad with her giving? How can she not be admitted to the Kingdom? What does Jesus’ comment, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” mean for your atheist friend?

CS Lewis provides an interesting commentary on that statement in the last book in the Narnia series, The Last Battle, when a Calormene named Emeth (which means truth in Hebrew) meets Aslan, the great golden lion of Narnia, and Lewis’ Jesus character. Emeth is confounded by this lion, when he has his whole life served the (demon) god Tash. Aslan replies:

“I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash for I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by him and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me [Christ] that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.”[(C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle [London: Penguin Books, 1956], p. 149).

Lewis is oft accused of being a universalist (that is, everyone gets into heaven automatically) but this is not what he is saying in this dramatic encounter. Who you are is important, what is less important is who you thought you had been serving – in some ways this is a more challenging message that universal salvation, because Lewis is telling us that there can be servants of the Most High embedded even in organizations that do great evil. Lewis is reflecting the simple truth we hear repeatedly in this Gospel: receive this child in my name and you receive the Father; Who wants to be first, must be last of all. If you are not against God, you are for Him. It is also a caution for us believers to not be too quick to condemn those who in their own way forward the mission of God, even while being totally unaware this is what they are doing. All that does not work to oppose God is used by God to forward His work. (I would include Richard Dawkins in that crowd of those who inadvertantly serve God…and I expect he will be quite surprised some day!)

Now comes one of the most troubling passages for preachers but really for all of us, as there is a direct caution in Christ’s words for those who with some audacity presume to preach the Gospel. What follows is metaphor, to be sure, but a powerful statement about the choices we make in this life. It is better to lose an appendage or an eye and to find the kingdom, than to be whole in this life and lose the kingdom. Eugene Peterson in the Message sums it up beautifully: ‘You’re better off one-eyed and alive than exercising your twenty-twenty vision from inside the fire of hell.’ Peterson rewrites the salty ending in a clearer manner: ‘Everyone’s going through a refining fire sooner or later, but you’ll be well-preserved, protected from the eternal flames. Be preservatives yourselves. Preserve the peace.’

Next comes teaching on divorce and the commandments – this is particularly interesting as it is popular, if you are a modern, progressive Christian, to say things like, “Jesus came to bring love, and never speaks definitively about human relationship or behaviour.” Wrong, and here it is – Jesus runs right back to Genesis to talk about to normal state of human relationship between men and woman, followed by a hard teaching about divorce, that rewrites the Jewish tradition about divorce to effectively say you cannot divorce. Matthew and Luke soften this a bit by adding a condition, but in Mark we get it straight and impossible. Rather than hear this as a condemnation if you are the victim of the torment of divorce, hear it instead as the continuing re-writing of the Law, of Torah, from the merely difficult to the absolutely impossible. The Law says do not commit adultery, truly I tell you, if you look on a woman with desire in your heart you have committed adultery. Sell all you own and give it to the poor, and follow Me!

The point, throughout all of Jesus’ teaching, is to emphasize this one thought, which is brought to us through the child today. You can’t do it by human effort or force of will. If anyone says they are without sin, that is, they have achieved the state of absolutely impossible perfection set out by Jesus, then they are a liar. (1 John 1) If anyone says they are without sin, this makes Jesus a liar. Unless you can admit before God that you can’t do it on your own, then Jesus cannot come to bring you that forgiveness, that new life that we so desperately need.

This is yet another back-handed form of God’s salvation, and the problem we’re faced with is that the purpose of God, viewed through human eyes is completely unreasonable. This thought was brought out in some writings of Pastor Wurmbrand – Wurmbrand was a Christian pastor who was incarcerated in a communist prison for several years and later founded the organization ‘Voice of the Martyrs’ to witness to the persecuted church. Listen to what he wrote about God’s reasonableness,

“What intrigued us the most was that we did not obtain from heaven what it was obviously reasonable to expect: a slight improvement in our situation, food to quiet our hunger, and abatement of our cruel torture. We did not get what we expected because heaven is not – humanly speaking -reasonable. Jesus said, ‘There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance’ (Luke 15:7). This is surely not reasonable. Nowhere does the Bible speak about the ‘reasonableness’ of God, according to man’s reasoning, but rather about His foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:25). He is unreasonable as are the thoughts of little children. Christ became a child and recommended that we become as children too.”

Become like a little child and receive the kingdom of heaven. That is, become one of the least, become one of the little, become one of the last. Jesus looks at the rich man, who is a good Jew, he has kept Torah that here is endorsed by Jesus, but his heart is bound to possessions. He can’t give up those possessions, and still Jesus loves him. After all the hard teaching about impossible standards that we’ve heard, here is one more bit: “”Do you have any idea how difficult it is for people who ‘have it all’ to enter God’s kingdom?” The disciples couldn’t believe what they were hearing, but Jesus kept on:

“You can’t imagine how difficult. I’d say it’s easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for the rich to get into God’s kingdom.” That set the disciples back on their heels. “Then who has any chance at all?” they asked. (and that’s the question!) Jesus was blunt: “No chance at all if you think you can pull it off by yourself. Every chance in the world if you let God do it.” (The Message)

The reason the disciples are stunned and amazed, is because of the common belief, as alive today as it was then, that the rich are obviously God’s favorites, or they wouldn’t be the rich. That is a worldly, right-handed way of thinking…and does not fit with God’s back-handed, inverted wisdom.

That last exchange is the summation of all the teaching about the Kingdom we have heard these past weeks…and it is a message of great hope and grace. We have heard repeatedly that to enter the kingdom we need to be dead, like the daughter of ruler of the synagogue; we need to be the least of all, slave to Christ; we need to be the lost, the dogs beneath the children’s table; the little, suffer the little children to come unto me; we need to be the last, the lame, the blind the unclean – or there is no hope we will enter the kingdom. Should we weep? Nope, because what is absolutely impossible for us in our broken, power-focused, right-handed way of doing business, that makes us cry out “Who has any chance at all?!?”…is entirely possible for God in His own back-handed, inverted way. We have ‘every chance in the world if [we] let God do it.’

So, let us rejoice that we are lost; let us sing that we are the least; let us dance because we are dead; let us become the servants of all; and let us become little, like the child who has no problem depending completely for her very life on her parents, because that is what children do. Let us turn as those little ones to our Father in heaven, and rejoice, and receive the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen

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Written by sameo416

March 3, 2012 at 4:57 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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