Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Unforgiveable Sin

Mark 3:20-30

by Daniel Harrell

I thought I stepped into it last Sunday night, preaching as I did about this fall’s presidential election. Not only did I risk our IRS status, but I risked offending most of you, given the polarizing nature of the American politics. I dared suggest that while Christians like to think that faith influences our political choices; more often than not it works the other way around. Politics govern our faith. Invoking not only Barack Obama and John McCain, but also Sarah Palin, Rick Warren, James Dobson, Jon Stewart and teenage premarital sex, I thought surely I’d irritated everybody. I braced for the onslaught of email. But instead of my inbox runneth over, all I got was internet crickets. One big email doughnut hole which led me to conclude that either A] last Sunday made you so mad you’re never going to speak to me again; B] any fury you did feel was quickly supplanted by concern over Tom Brady’s knee; or C] I didn’t offend you.

So I thought I’d try again this week. I have decided to continue this fall a series I began last May on the gospel of Mark; or more specifically, the sayings of Jesus in the gospel of Mark. For those of you who have red-letter Bibles, the sayings of Jesus are printed in red. Interest in these red letters has been sparked of late by a book entitled Red-Letter Christians by the popular author and sociologist Tony Campolo. A Christian and a Democrat, Campolo and like-minded others appeal to Jesus in order to show that the Republican platform does not reflect Christian values, despite the long-standing alliance between evangelicals and the GOP. Does that make God a Democrat? There’s really only one way to decide. Like the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal atop Mount Carmel, the winner is the one with the most answered prayers.

There was a Republican-leaning video posted by a well-known evangelical organization on You Tube just prior to the Democratic Convention in Denver last month where a narrator asks, “Would it be wrong to pray for rain? Not just rain, but abundant rain, torrential rain, urban and small stream flood advisory rain” at Mile High Stadium in Denver on say, August 28th, just a couple minutes before Barack Obama is scheduled to give his acceptance speech. “Now I know there will probably be people who will pray for 72 degrees and clear skies,” the narrator conceded, “but if God decides, and it’s always up to God to decide, if God decides that rain of Biblical proportions would be a good and proper meteorological condition for that evening, we’ll see it, and we’ll say that ‘it is good.’” If you watched Obama’s speech you know he gave it under clear skies and as it turned out, 72 degrees. Did this mean that the Lord is voting Democratic? Not so fast. A rival You Tuber posted a video that wondered a similar thing. “Would it be wrong,” this narrator asked, “would it be wrong to pray for diarrhea… “not just diarrhea, but abundant diarrhea, torrential diarrhea, urban and small stream flood-advisory diarrhea” just in time for John McCain’s acceptance speech? As in Denver, there were no reports of that prayer being answered in St. Paul earlier this month. However, there was a You Tube spoof of the original rain video that asked whether it would be wrong to pray for a tornado. And while there was no tornado either, there was a hurricane. Gustav hit New Orleans just in time to disrupt the opening of the Republican Convention.

However, before you conclude that the Almighty has made his endorsement, remember that politics govern faith. Republicans believed that Hurricane Gustav was not indicative of God’s disfavor, but just the opposite. Since an appearance by our currently unpopular President (and his even less popular Vice-President) on national TV might have doomed McCain’s standing in the polls, Gustav providentially blew George W. Bush aside, and ample room for Hurricane Sarah to blow in and take the convention, and the polls by storm. Democrats counter that Hurricane Sarah has blown John McCain aside too. A week ago the question was: Is Sarah Palin qualified to be a heartbeat away from the presidency? The question today: What kind of president would Sarah Palin be? As one columnist wrote, “She has already shown that she can shoot the pig, put lipstick on it, bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan. Now all she has to do is also prove that she can be the leader of the free world on a moment’s notice, and field dress Putin as adeptly as she can a moose.” The campaigning turned pretty vicious this past week, prompting Sarah Palin to phone up purpose-driven pastor Rick Warren for prayer. Warren said that Palin “asked me to send her some bible verses on how do you deal with the unfair, unjust attacks and the mean-spirited criticism that comes in.”

Rick Warren, you may recall, hosted Barack Obama and John McCain at his megachurch last month to infuse some civility in this year’s election. Inasmuch as both presidential candidates profess a common faith, Warren hoped they would be able to “disagree without demonizing” each other. But folks couldn’t even manage that in the Bible. Rick Warren didn’t say which Bible verses he sent to Palin, but I’m guessing they did not come from our passage tonight. The fierce disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees that’s been simmering since the beginning of chapter 2 boils into full blown demonizing here in chapter 3. Vehemently opposed to Jesus’ miraculous works and words on account of their own politics, the Pharisees resort to accusing Jesus of working for Satan himself. “He is possessed by Beelzebub!” they said, “It is by the power of the prince of demons that he drives out demons.” As I noted last Sunday, like Obama and McCain, Jesus and the Pharisees also professed a common faith, both believed in God and both believed in his coming kingdom. Yet for the Pharisees, their kingdom-politics implied earthly power sufficient to take vengeance on Rome and take control of the system. On the other hand, Jesus’ kingdom-politics secured victory through humiliating defeat. His goal was redemption rather than revenge, powerful love rather than controlling power.

The Pharisees considered this crazy talk. Jesus tells them they need to repent. Repent? Them, the religious leaders? The victims of Roman tyranny? They don’t need to repent. They’re not the ones who flouted the Sabbath. He did. Everyone knew that failing to keep Sabbath was what got Israel into its political messes with the Babylonians and the Romans. God was so serious about the Sabbath that the only way he was ever going to deliver them was if they showed they were serious about Sabbath too. Yet here’s Jesus saying it’s OK to work on the Lord’s Day? He calls himself “the Lord of the Sabbath.” Who talks like that? Sure, he draws big crowds. But have you seen the people in those crowds? Outcasts, sinners, criminals. And worse than that, he says he has the authority to forgive their sins, like he’s God Almighty or something. True, he’s done some mighty things: casted out a few demons, cleared up some leprosy, healed a couple paralytics—but just because you can do miracles doesn’t mean God’s on your side, anymore than having a hurricane hit New Orleans during the Republican Convention meant God’s a Democrat. I guarantee New Orleans democrats don’t think so. No, the devil can do all of those tricks. It is by the power of the prince of demons that he drives out demons,” they said.

Now the Pharisees were talking crazy. “How can Satan drive out Satan?” Jesus asked. That doesn’t make any sense. A country that declares war on itself will fall. A family that sues itself will come apart. If it’s Satan fighting Satan, soon there won’t be any Satan left. Everybody knows Satan has no interest in destroying himself. No, if anybody is going to destroy Satan, he has to be stronger than Satan; strong enough to tie him up and rob him blind.” Jesus is alluding to himself here. Evil cannot destroy evil. Only God can destroy evil. By exorcising and healing and forgiving, Jesus destroys evil. Jesus has the spirit of God.

And thus more than talking crazy, the Pharisees were talking blasphemy. Still, God could forgive them for that. “People will be forgiven for all sins,” Jesus said, “even for all the blasphemies they utter.”As the Psalmist sings: “God does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” With one exception, Jesus warned, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, they are guilty of an eternal sin.” Gulp. Have I done this? When I cursed God in anger or in my sorrow doubted his goodness, did I commit the unforgiveable sin? Not if afterwards I asked God to forgive me. “People will be forgiven all the blasphemies they utter,” Jesus said. By calling Jesus’ works evil, the Pharisees callously call God’s power Satanic. Bad enough. But what made their sin unforgiveable is that they never repent of it. Their blasphemy is unforgiveable because they seek no forgiveness for it. So stubborn are their hearts that they refuse to receive what Jesus dies to give them. Little wonder that Jesus looked at them with anger back in verse 5. He grieved their hard hearts. The language hearkened back to the Israelites of old who never could embrace the genuine overtures of God’s grace. In the book of Acts, the first Christian martyr Stephen likewise accuses as he dies at their hands, “You are stiff-necked people, just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!”

We shake our heads at the Pharisees, wondering how it is that people so righteous could get it so wrong. But what if Jesus showed up today looking like he did back then, hanging with the people he hung with back then, saying things like he said back then, things such as “if you have seen me you have seen God.” Who talks like that? Speaking with a couple elders last Sunday about this very thing, we all pretty much concluded that we’d be Pharisees too in regard to Jesus, as scary as that sounds. Shoot, even Jesus’ family thought he was nuts. They show up in verse 21 “to take charge of him.” It’s a word that means “to restrain” or “take into custody.” Like parents who call me up every fall worried that their kids have joined a cult. “You’ve got them going to church every Sunday and to Bible study on Tuesday and serving the homeless on Thursday and to retreats on Saturday… it’s all Jesus all the time! What are you people running up there?!” Cults do prey on the religiously disillusioned; kids who have bit too much of a God complex. Mark doesn’t tell us exactly what it was that Jesus’ family was worried about. He simply quotes what Jesus’ kinfolk said about Jesus: “He’s out of his mind.”

I was speaking from this passage last Thursday night and mentioned that the word Mark uses for “out of his mind” is the Greek word from which we get the word eccentric. Eccentric means literally, “off center,” or “beside yourself,” which if you give it a Christian spin can be a good thing. After all, to be “off center” and “beside yourself” could mean that you’re centered onto others and beside them instead. That definitely describes Jesus. Of course it could just mean you’re crazy—but you can give that a Christian spin too. “We are fools for Christ!” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “we go hungry and thirsty, we are poorly dressed and poorly treated, we are homeless…” Which is coincidental since I was giving my Thursday night talk outside among the homeless. An eccentric group of us go outside every Thursday night, feeding and clothing as well as worshipping with those who call the Common their home. I’m sure that many of the passersby think we are crazy. Especially when they hear us singing and preaching in public. We do it rain or shine, in the dead of winter and in the heat of summer. We do it among those treated as outcasts: the addicted, the disenfranchised, the criminal, the alien and the plain poor. There’s room for some of you to join us if you’re interested.

While outside, a relatively inebriated fellow, well-versed in his Bible, insisted that we obey Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. He had in mind chapter 16:20; “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” He kept interrupting our worship demanding somebody kiss him. What he wanted was a big smooch from one of the young women in our group. I used to try that one in college myself. We worked to get through the worship service with him obnoxiously yelling for holy kisses according to Corinthians (and Romans and Thessalonians too). “Be ye not just hearers of the word,” he chastised us, “but be doers too.” So afterwards, not wanting to be a pastor who doesn’t practice what the Bible preaches, I went over and kissed him. Right smack on the jaw. He looked a little stunned. I then stuck out my cheek for him to kiss me back. Which he did, even though I know this was not what he had in mind. But then as I tasted his grimy street sweat on my lips, I thought, “Good Lord, what have I done? Am I crazy? Had I lost my mind?” Then I thought, “I hope so.”

“We are fools for Christ,” Paul wrote, “weak and held in disrepute. We hunger and thirst, are poorly dressed, poorly treated and homeless. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the earth, the world’s garbage, everybody’s trash.” If faith governed politics, you’d be looking for these “qualities” in a candidate this fall. But you’d never find such a candidate. But even if you did, would you vote for one so weak and so eccentric? Because politics governs faith, the Pharisees could never receive Jesus as the embodiment of God’s power. They could only demonize him and finally string him up. But you know, stringing Jesus up turned out to be the very ting, ironically, that tied up the strong man and robbed his house. By dying and rising Jesus took out the devil—and the powers of sin and death—and made forgiveness available to anyone crazy enough to follow him.

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