Tuesday, June 24, 2008
by Daniel Harrell
So another professional sports season, another championship parade in Boston. If only Rodney Harrison had batted down that ridiculous pass from Eli Manning to David Tyree in the Super Bowl, we would have had a three-fer. But let’s not get greedy. After all, we did get to enjoy that 39-point thrashing of the Los Angeles Lakers this past Tuesday night—the totality of which did have a certain apocalyptic feel. Not that I dare compare Tuesday night’s romp to Judgment Day, but you have to admit that such total humiliation of an enemy followed by such total exhilaration as evidenced on the court following and at Thursday’s parade does exude a Revelation ring. Here in chapter 15 we read of total humiliation for the nefarious beast of 666 fame followed by exhilarated throng, harps in hand, who lift their collective voice in celebratory song. Some might say that stereotypical saints with harps on cloud-nine hardly stacks up with rocking Duck Boats rolling down Boylston St. But if you know that the instrument described in verse 2 is actually more of a guitar, then Revelation’s celebration becomes one jubilant jam session that even Thursday’s confetti-laden, green-clad party could never match.
Ironically, green is not only the color of victory. A Philadelphia talk-show personality was unreserved in his resentment of Boston’s surplus of championship riches. “We hate you,” he said, “Everybody hates you. You can go to any part of the globe. People hate you.” So much for the city of brotherly love. This irony raises a similar one in regard to Revelation. While God’s defeat of Satan’s minions and their converts is cause for joy, it’s a joy often tempered with uneasiness. If you’ve followed along in my journey through Revelation, perhaps you’ve been bothered by so much of the violence too. The wrath of God rages with such ghastly vengeance, many wonder: where’s the love? I did explore this question last month by suggesting that love and wrath are intensely related. If you have ever loved, you know how absolutely wonderful it can be. Yet if you have ever loved, you also know how horrible it can become. You know the intensity of emotion that can follow betrayal, the rage that rejection ignites. Wrath’s intensity derives from scorned love. “Jealousy arouses a husband’s fury,” the Proverbs declare, “and he shows no restraint when he takes revenge.” The Bible portrays God as a husband to his people, and thus his reaction to rejection are not unfamiliar. But it is unnerving. In Ezekiel, the rejected Lord roars “I will bring blood upon you in jealous fury. I will hand you over to your lovers, and they will destroy your pagan altars and your lofty shrines. They will strip you of your clothes and take your fine jewelry and leave you ashamed. They will incite a mob against you who will stone you and hack you to pieces with their swords.” Unnerving indeed.
It is important to remember that any view of God’s wrath that seeks an analogy in human passion rather than rooting itself in the theology of divine pathos is bound to misunderstand. Unlike human anger, the Scriptures never consider God’s anger as unaccountable, unpredictable or irrational. It is never a spontaneous outburst, but rather a voluntary, purposeful and explosive force occasioned by the misconduct of his people, fueled by his concern for right and wrong, provoked by his pity for the abused and mistreated. God’s anger which consumes and afflicts never does so without moral justification. And though the wrath of God is terrifying, it is also a temporary. It is something that happens rather than something that abides. As the Psalmist sings, “His anger lasts for a moment but his favor endures for a lifetime.” The wrath of God is momentary because it is conducive rather than conclusive. It is the means to an end rather than the end itself. Its purposes line up with love and justice. Repentance, redemption and righteousness are its ultimate aims.
Last month in Revelation 14, John witnessed an angel mid-flight, proclaiming an “eternal gospel,” the only time the word gospel appears in Revelation. This gospel is good news for the oppressed: including Revelation’s original hearers who endured brutal Roman persecution. For the oppressor, however, as well as for those who cave in to the pressure, the gospel is only bad news. The angel’s proclamation is followed by pronouncements of doom on those individuals who have forsaken the Lamb as well as on wicked systems and tyrannical governments, all of which get summed up under the label of “Babylon the Great.” After the foreboding angel comes one riding on clouds, a “son of man” crowned with gold, who wields a sharp sickle with which to harvest the earth of its wheat and chaff, followed by another grim reaper who effectively “tramples out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” Trampled blood poured from the great winepress of God’s wrath flows as high as a horse’s bridle, a river of blood stretching two hundred miles. And all this on top of fire and brimstone that burns an infinitely rising torment of smoke forever.
Just when you might think that would have been sufficient, chapter 15 opens with portents of more: seven angels with seven more plagues, bowls full of divine heat that amp up the judgments already blown by the seven trumpets and opened by the seven seals. These seven bowls do finally exhaust God’s anger, but in doing so they also exhaust the entirety of creation too. Chapter 16 will go on to narrate a time of tremendous upheaval and unprecedented suffering. The land, sea, fresh waters and galaxy will all bear the full devastation of God’s ferocity. People will gnaw their tongues in agony and incited by demons, the kings of the earth will prepare for final battle. I’m sure you’ll not want to miss that sermon next month. For now, the beginning of the end begins with a solemn liturgical procession, seven angels dressed in white processing out of the heavenly temple with bowls shaped something like our offering plates. Yet rather than collecting tithes, these plates dole out the doom. The last time Revelation mentioned golden bowls was back in chapter 5. There they were filled with incense denoting the prayers of the saints. But here the action reverses. Rather than prayers rising up before God, here fiery ruin pours down on the earth. The prayers of those martyred saints huddled under the altar in chapter 6 are answered. God avenges their blood in full.
Frankly, reminding ourselves how God’s anger only consumes with moral justification doesn’t always suffice when we read Revelation. Our moral sensitivities crave more assurance. The stark contrast between God’s wrath and his mercy are jarring. As if sensing the dissonance, Revelation inserts a hymn of praise in order to reorient perspective. We sing a song that reminds us of God’s trustworthy character. Verse 3: “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the ages. Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
This hymn is sung by those same martyred saints who no longer hide out. Gathered for the heavenly equivalent of a duck boat parade, they rejoice alongside a sea of glass—albeit it one tinged with fire. The portrait is not of some tranquil seaside campfire, but of a turbulent ocean calmed. The sea represents the chaotic abode of evil from whence came the beast in chapter 13. The beast may still be on the loose for now, but he is a defeated foe. He no longer threatens these saints. The scene by the sea is resurrection scene. Having lost their lives in the fight, the saved their souls. They spurned the beast and his lies. They refused his mark on their foreheads. They did not compromise to a culture devoted to personal possession and security, but sacrificed themselves for the sake of honesty, compassion, service and witness. Not that they were looking to die. They’d merely discovered the way, the truth and the life, and resolved to follow wherever he led. The rest was out of their hands.
Yet now in their hands they grasp guitars and sing the new song they learned back in chapter 14. It’s not a totally new song. It’s called the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb, but it’s more of a compilation of the Old Testament’s Greatest Hits. The Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Micah—their lyrics are all here. That Moses gets mention immediately takes us back to the songs he sang in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Suddenly the triumphant saints gathered by the glassy sea celebrating the demise of the beast remind us of the triumphant Israelites gathered by the Red Sea celebrating the demise of Pharaoh. Similarly the mention in verse 5 and following of the tabernacle and the glory cloud that engulfed whenever God was in the house reminds of God’s presence with his chosen people as they made their way to the Promised Land. The God who righteously acted in the past through Moses has done will do righteously again in Christ. As horrible as Revelation can sound, this song of justice plays to the tune of redemption. God’s wrath is the means to an end rather than the end itself. The gospel that comforts the oppressed with God’s promise of vengeance cautions the oppressor with that same promise of vengeance. Revelation paints its picture of doom so that the enemies of God might recognize how it is in their eternal best interest to make peace—a peace already made by the crucified Lamb who suffered the full wrath of God himself. The song’s closing refrain forecasts a positive outcome: “All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed” Every knee will bow down and every tongue confess Jesus Christ the Lamb as Lord.
That Revelation inserts music into the midst of its mayhem reminds of the way music taps into God’s power. When we praise God we find our own voices reawakened, our hope renewed, our worries assuaged, our convictions intensified and our resolve reinforced. On most Sundays, it may be that standing to sing feels like little more than blithely strumming harps. But on those Sundays when anxiety threatens to overrun you, or you’ve been beaten down or abandoned, or when your faith feels fragile—on those Sundays, to stand and sing is an act of amped up defiance against the forces of this world that conspire against you. There is undeniable strength in the simple praise of God.
To praise God is to participate in Revelation’s chorus. It is to see yourself in the picture as you will one day be. Any doomsday scenario pales alongside the glorious scene of your resurrected future. That scene is one of incomparable joy. Just like last Thursday. During the parade I loved looking around at how the thrill of victory united people of every age and color and nationality. Strangers smiled at strangers, and even talked to one another without diverting their eyes! Somebody would bump you and practically knock you down, but that was OK, you’d just come up laughing. Everyone was so happy. As the players rode by, the crowd went wild, a continuation of the contagion of joy expressed on the court after the game Tuesday night. While it’s easy to be a cynic when it comes to millionaire men playing childhood games, it was hard to be cynical about the tears of gladness streaming down the faces of Kevin, Paul and Ray. Despite having all the money in the world, these athletes could never buy this one thing they treasured. It had to be won. Their joy at winning was so overwhelming you couldn’t help but crave it for yourself. It’s why so many showed up on Thursday. Who wouldn’t want a piece of that happiness?
I had just arrived at Park Street the last time the Celtics won the championship, back in 1986. The staff piled out onto the Mayflower pulpit as Larry, Kevin, Robert and Red paraded by. Those were salad days for Boston sports too, though the salad had substantially wilted with the Patriots getting thrashed by the Bears in the Super Bowl. By the end of the year, a little baseball dribbled through Bill Buckner’s legs. Little did we know the Celtics wouldn’t win for another 22 years. Of course had we known then what we know now—that the Patriots would go on to dominate football in the 21st century, that the Red Sox would win not one but two World Series after 86 years of futility, and that the Celtics would go from worst to first in a single year, Bostonians might have endured the intervening years with a much less despair. Revelation’s glimpse at our victorious future fixes that. By knowing God’s kingdom dynasty is coming, we can manage the meantime with unassailable hope. The Bible paints the future is such certain terms that it can speak of the future as having already happened. We read in verse 3 that the saints “sang the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb.” The Bible speaks of the future as already accomplished because in Christ it already is. And thus joy need not be reserved for heaven. Since our future is sure, we can enjoy the joy right now. Revelation’s picture is painted with you in it.
Back in 1986 the Celtics had this memorable play-by-play announcer named Johnny Most. He did his radio broadcasts with an unmistakably distinctive gravel of a voice, and for a fee, he would record a replay from a memorable Celtics game and insert your name into the broadcast as if you were the player making the winning shot. The Park Street preacher’s wife back then was named Eva Toms, and she was a rabid Celtics fan. I take for granted she was watching on Tuesday. On one Sunday morning back then, one of my first Sundays here, over these very sanctuary speakers, somebody rigged it so that during church, Johnny Most narrated Eva Toms—a five-foot-four grandmother--taking a pass from Larry Bird, driving the lane, faking out the defense, elevating over everything and slam dunking it home. The congregation went wild, and I thought to myself, wow, what a cool church. Think of Revelation 15 the same way whenever you pray, whenever you sing. Jesus has inserted your name into the play-by-play and handed you your own guitar—complete with whammy bar. You’re part of the celebratory throng now. Jesus paints Revelation’s picture with you in it.
Most of you weren’t around back in the days when Larry Bird ruled the parquet with Eva Toms, but two people in our midst were: Lois Barndt and Robert Bloodworth. I mention Lois and Robert since today marks the end of their long tenures on our church staff. Lois retires from her role as our Director of Women’s Ministry and Robert leaves his role as Co-Director of Music to take a position as Minister of Music and Arts at Free Christian Church in Andover. Both came to Park Street as college students (Lois a few years earlier than Robert) and stayed to serve Christ in this church using their gifts and their charm. We will pray for them and thank them more in a moment, but I wanted to mention each of them here for the way each embody a bit of what Revelation 15 portrays. If the point is that your certain future in Christ should show itself in the present, Lois and Robert make that point with their lives.
Lois exemplifies confident hope and confident prayer. To know Lois is to be prayed for by Lois with an assurance that the Lord is eager to act and to redeem. Her assurance exudes her hope in all her relationships. At a surprise gathering held for her this past week, word has it that she was referred to as “Saint Lois” for the way she embodies Jesus in every interaction. So much so that one woman remarked it was sometimes helpful in situations to think, “What would Lois do?” To me one of the true marks of a person’s character is the way people talk about you behind your back. Lois is the rare person of whom I have never heard a discouraging word. And that’s because hers is a life of encouragement. Her strength comes from a hope that finds its power in the grace God has lavished on her life. This is not to say her life has been trouble-free: not at all. But that’s what makes hope so strong. Hope matters most when troubles arise. Our hope is in the God who has righteously acted in the past, but also in the God who has already acted righteously in the future. In Christ, our troubles prove to be the soil of redemption.
If Lois exemplifies confident prayer, Robert exemplifies confident praise. To know Robert is to see him leading the congregation in worship, lifting his hands even when nobody else will. Having filled his life with praise enables Robert to see past worries that weigh most others down, having tapped into that power that reawakens our voices, renews hope, assuages worry, intensifies conviction and reinforces resolve. To praise God also makes you realize your proper place in the universe. To me, another true mark of a person’s character is the way they receive criticism. Most musicians have the reputation of being temperamental, and all of us can get defensive quickly when critiqued. But Robert, with a gift of humility that only worshipping God can provide, readily receives all people, whatever their gripe. This is no small thing. Because of worship’s power, worship music is one of those things everyone has strong feelings about. Yet even the most ardent complainer finds himself disarmed by Robert’s gracious receptivity. Jesus said that “whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. By receiving and being receivable, Robert displays the grace of Jesus in his life.
As should we all. Revelation’s portrait of prayer and praise amidst trouble is intended to lift us out of our own worry and despair toward that promised land secured by Jesus. The God who righteously acted in the past through Moses has done righteously again in Christ. The future is all set. Revelation’s glimpse at our victorious future means we can manage the meantime with unassailable hope. The Bible paints the future is such certain terms that it can speak of the future as already accomplished because in Christ it already is. And thus joy need not be reserved for heaven. Since our future is sure, we can enjoy the joy right now. Revelation’s picture is painted with you in it. It’s a slam dunk.
The next in a series on the red-letters of Jesus by Daniel Harrell
Now that the presidential candidates are set it’s time for five more months of being bombarded with promises of change. No matter the election year, change is always the rage. This despite the fact that every promise of change rarely results in change. Change, ironically, is politics as usual. And yet we remain suckers for it. We love the idea. And therefore every candidate promises it. And every voter votes for it. Change is always the rage. Always has been.
First century Jews longed for change. Granted, there was no voting back then. On the one hand, Israel was an occupied land, its people subject to the tyranny of Caesar. On the other hand, Israel was a God-fearing people for whom God’s word was final. Neither Caesar nor God ran democracies. Nevertheless, God did give his people a voice. They could pray and he would heed them. Then as now, prayer was the way to make your needs known. Likewise, then as now, fasting was viewed as a way to put prayer on the fast track. If you wanted something from God, you prayed for it. If you really wanted something from God, you fasted too. To abstain from food demonstrated sorrow and contrition. And if you’re sorry enough, God will have pity and act. And if he doesn’t, at least everybody else will feel sorry for you. Which in its own twisted way is sometimes better. At least if God doesn’t act you have somebody besides yourself to blame when things don’t change. And you get a lot of attention too. It’s probably why Jesus warned, “When you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get.”
The Torah did authorize fasting. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, Israel was to fast in preparation for their annual purification for their unintentional sins. The Day of Atonement worked as a cover all for all the mistakes for which you failed to confess or didn’t know you did. (There was no forgiveness for deliberate sin.) Of course if fasting once a year was a good thing, more would be even better. By the time we get to the New Testament, Pharisees were fasting twice a week. Tired of suffering under Roman oppression, they wanted God’s kingdom to come. Convinced that fasting could hasten kingdom come, and knowing that they’d garner public acclaim and power even if it didn’t, the Pharisees poured on the righteousness.
As for John’s disciples, they fasted too. Like the Pharisees, they also longed for God’s kingdom and for his judgment against Roman oppression and human wickedness. John the Baptist had vehemently warned people to prepare for God’s pending doom. Fasting was a mark of this preparation, a sign of one’s seriousness. The more you fasted, the sooner Caesar and sinners would meet their Maker.
As a good Jew, Jesus was all for God’s coming kingdom and all for throwing off yokes of oppression, Roman and otherwise. The issue was in the way that he showed it. Jesus and his disciples did not fast, apparently unconcerned about the effect their behavior may have on God’s favor. And not only were they eating, but they ate with deliberate sinners—tax-collectors and felons whose sins the sacrificial system provided no sufficient atonement. Jesus shared a table with these outcasts as if they were forgiven members of society! What was he doing? People needed to know, “Why aren’t your disciples fasting like John’s disciples and the Pharisees”
“How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?” Jesus replied. The allusion here was familiar. Read the prophets and you’ll find the relationship between God and his people portrayed in marital terms with the Lord as the husband and Israel his bride. However, read the prophets and you’ll find it had been a rocky relationship. Isaiah narrated the wedding. But Hosea and Ezekiel exposed the infidelity. Jeremiah filed the divorce. Yet because God still remained in love with his people, this could not be the end of the story. “Your Maker is your husband,” declared the prophet Isaiah, “the LORD Almighty is his name—the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth. … ‘For a brief moment I abandoned you,’ says your God, ‘but with deep compassion I will bring you back.’”
And he would. First in Jeremiah he promised his people a new heart and new start, and then he seals it with the promise of a new marriage. The audacity of change! And now the bridegroom arrives. Jesus launched the gospel of Mark by preaching: The kingdom of God is near. At hand. Close by. Right here. Repent and believe the good news. He then cast out some demons (which only God can do). Cured a man of his paralysis (which only God can do). And forgave sins (which only God can do). Do the math. If power over demons plus disease plus sin equal kingdom come, wouldn’t you think it time to strap on the old feedbag? When’s the last time you went to a wedding banquet and you didn’t eat any food? This wasn’t a funeral. It was time to celebrate. So why don’t John’s disciples and the Pharisees join the party? Wouldn’t they want a part of the very kingdom they’d been fasting for? Apparently not. The Pharisees’ problem was Jesus’ pedigree. As far as they could tell, he didn’t come from Messianic stock. There were the shady rumors surrounding his conception and birth. Not to mention his impoverished upbringing and working-class roots. And now he was living on the streets? Granted, the miracles had been impressive. But those got canceled out by his blasphemous insinuations of power sharing with God. We’re familiar with the Pharisees’ sanctimony. It’s easy to imagine them snubbing any wedding that featured such a scandalous bridegroom.
But why John’s disciples? Wasn’t John the Baptist the one sent to point Jesus out? Upon seeing his cousin, John identified him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” whose sandals he was unfit to untie. “His winnowing fork is in his hand,” John warned, “to clear his threshing floor and to gather the righteous wheat into his barn. But he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” John got thrown into prison for rabble-rousing, but he figured he wouldn’t be there for long. The lamb was on the loose. Judgment loomed. But then came the reports. Reports about how Jesus showed up in his home church to read Scripture, only to have his friends and neighbors turn on him and run him out of town. John would have never stood for that. He’d have lit into those folks like he lit into the Pharisees whom he vilified as snakes and viper spawn. Jesus, however, didn’t light up anybody. There was no fire, no flaming judgment in response to their rejection. Not even a fiery temper tantrum. Not even when those same Pharisees accused him of blasphemy and jumped on him for eating with Levi. John also heard about Jesus’ preaching. Not much heat there either. Just one sentence so far. “The kingdom is near, repent and believe.” That was it. No unquenchable fire. Not even quenchable fire. Locked up inside his dark, dank prison cell, John started to worry. Matthew tells how he called a couple of his disciples and told them to go find his cousin and ask him: “Are you really the Messiah, or should we be expecting somebody else?”
Despite the infidelity and divorce, God promised his people a new heart, a new start and a new marriage. God keeps his promise in Christ. And yet the people fasting for it hesitate. As much as people love change, is it something we really want? Some years ago before Park Street went to four services, we thought that it might be a good idea to see if there was a struggling church in the area that might benefit from some growth. Perhaps we could help. The Allston Congregational Church was down to 24 members when we approached them. They didn’t have a minister or the means to support one. Would they like some more people? They answered enthusiastically, “yes!” How would they feel about a free interim minister? “Free?” Sure! What if we send over a couple hundred people and a minister with the proviso that none would become members and vote them out of their building (since our help could have been viewed as a takeover). We’d simply attend as fellow believers and pray some life back into their church. They loved the idea. They’d been praying for it themselves. But when the time came to change, all they changed was their mind and turned us down.
A couple years later I got a phone call. It was the Allston Congregational Church. They were now down to 12 members. Was the offer still on the table? By this time we’d added a fourth service, but sure. We’re all on the same team. If they wanted to give it a go, we’d rustle up some folks and try again. I’d come over and be the temporary minister myself. We drew up plans and got all the requisite permissions and were just about to launch when they changed their mind again. As much as they said they loved the idea, they just couldn’t do it. A few months and fewer members later, they disbanded their 120-year-old church and sold the building.
Jesus explained why. “You can’t sew a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment,” he said. “You can’t pour new wine into old skins.” The new cloth will pull away from the old and make the rip worse. Pour new, unfermented wine into an old wineskin fully stretched out by previous fermentation, and the new ferment will blow the old skin open and spill everything. Before you think Jesus’ is coming out of left field here, remember that nice clothes and good wine both belong at weddings. “You have to pour new wine into new wineskins,” Jesus said. And you have to buy new clothes too if you’re coming to the wedding feast. If you’re going to change, you have to change everything.
The Pharisees and John’s disciples all believed that fasting would hasten the kingdom, but the kingdom Jesus preached was not the kingdom they had in mind. For the Pharisees, the kingdom was all about religious adherence. Obedience was crucial even if you had to fake it. For them, fasting displayed their spiritual passion and focus. For John’s disciples, the kingdom was all about justice. For them, fasting fueled their righteous anger—they longed for a kingdom that would come with a vengeance and annihilate oppression and wickedness and vindicate their righteousness. For Jesus, God’s kingdom was all about obedience and justice too. But first it was all about grace: a grace that fostered true obedience out of gratitude and a grace that promoted true justice laced with mercy. Thus Jesus came not as an intimidating preacher eager to point fingers or as a passionate revolutionary ready to fight, but as a bridegroom ready to party. And as far as he was concerned, his party was open to everybody. Yet as much as the Pharisees hungered for a kingdom of obedience and John’s fasted for a kingdom of justice, neither were willing to come to this reception to eat. Apparently you have to be starving to want Jesus.
Sadly, Jesus announces that even his disciples would end up hungry. Verse 20: “The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken away, and on that day they will fast.” Fasting is an appropriate expression of mourning and sorrow. And there would be sorrow as Jesus would be arrested, beaten, executed and buried—the enormity of human disobedience and injustice laid on his back. But when he showed up alive three days later, the feast resumed in full—Jeremiah’s promises of a new heart, a new start and new marriage fulfilled. And yet, the early church, full participants in the kingdom’s arrival having witnessed the fall of Rome, the remarkable growth of the church and change everywhere, nevertheless interpreted verse 20 to mean that since Jesus died on Good Friday (that day), every Friday thereafter would be a fast day. The solemnity remains in present day communion practices where the table spread as a precursor to heaven’s wedding banquet still gets treated mostly like a funeral wake. No matter how many times I try to get us to insert some joy into the communion service, it feels inappropriate. Jesus died for our sins. We should be sad about that.
Our sin is a sad thing. And we should grieve it—sometimes maybe to the point of being unable to eat. Fasting is sometimes necessary. But once you’ve grieved, you need to repent, get it forgiven and move on. In Christ you have a new heart and you get a new start. Your life is already changed. It’s time to live that changed life. At least that’s the idea. So why is change still so hard? Perhaps it’s because as much as we love the idea, we don’t really want change. The Pharisees sat near the top of their societal ladder. People admired their piety, read their books and came to their classes and, respected their opinions. John’s disciples were associated with one of the most popular and fiery revolutionaries in recent history. They drew energy from their anger against injustice and passion for vengeance. Jesus sets a table for deliberate sinners and declares forgiveness of enemies. If you’re a Pharisee or a revolutionary, that’s a hard table to join. And yet, by inviting us all to sit down, Jesus tells us to our face that we are deliberate sinners and enemies of God too. We all need to change. And if you’re going to change, you have to change everything. “The kingdom of God is near,” Jesus preached, “repent and believe the good news.”
But instead of repenting and doing things differently, most of us opt for remorse and staying the same. We opt for saying “I’m sorry” and feeling bad since as long as you feel bad you don’t have to do better. Repentance opens you up to all the scary implications that come with actually being the changed person Jesus died to make you. I prefer the friends who when I confess my screw-ups respond by putting an arm around me and telling me not to worry about it, that I’m only human, it could happen to anybody. But what I need are the friends who get in my face and tell me to knock it off and that I am forgiven and I can do better and that I can make things right and need to move on and get with the grace and live like the new person in Christ I already am.
How can you fast when the bridegroom is here? Why try to patch up your old self when in Christ you wear a new set of clothes? Why pour new wine into an old way of life for which you feel bad rather than feel forgiven? Why settle for the idea of change when you can actually live it? New wine is for new wineskins. In Christ you have a new heart and a new start. Drink up and enjoy it.
Thursday, June 12, 2008
The next in a series on the red-letters of the Bible by Daniel Harrell
For years, going to the doctor for my annual check-up was an eventless affair. I’ve always tried to exercise and eat right, and most of the bad genes in my family went to my brother and sister. There wasn’t a whole lot to my annual check-up aside from sticking out my tongue and peeing in a cup. But lately, as I edge closer to life’s forbidding half century mark, a whole host of tests suddenly become compulsory. I still feel good. I look good. My blood pressure and cholesterol levels are stable. And yet, because of my age, I must augment my annual check-up with visits to the dermatologist, the urologist, and, ugh, the proctologist. I will spare you the details of the latter two, but suffice to say on my visit to the dermatologist, the enthusiastic physician worried over a couple of moles on my skin. Now, I’d lived with those moles for years. I knew them well. But the dermatologist said they had to go. So he excised the nefarious nevi, leaving me with a train track of stitches and wearing germ-protective shrink wrap for a week. I felt like a piece of deli meat. The biopsy revealed no irregularities or cancer, a diagnosis I could have provided had anyone been interested in my opinion. And people wonder why health care costs are so high.
I know, I know: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” “Better safe than sorry.” These are wise proverbs. I’d truly be singing a different tune had the outcome been otherwise. But still, I like Jesus’ proverb here in Mark 2. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”
Granted, Jesus’ proverb is not a commentary on 21st century preventative medicine, but rather an analogy for his mission on earth. Just as sick people need a doctor, so sinners need a savior. We observed this analogous link between sickness and sin last Sunday in the familiar account of Jesus healing the paralytic. It is unfortunate, I think, that we title the story “Jesus Healing the Paralytic.” A better title would be “Jesus Forgiving the Paralytic.” After all, that is the point of the story. Remember, Jesus’ first words to the paralyzed man lowered down by his friends from the roof were not “be healed” but instead “you are forgiven.” The religious leaders witnessing the scene were nonplussed. “Who forgives sins but God alone?” Jesus, fired up, fired back by asking, “Which is easier? To forgive sin or cure paralysis?” Answer: Both are equally hard for humans because only God can do either. Therefore, in order that you might believe Jesus has authority to forgive sins like God, he turned and healed the paralytic—just like God heals. The man got up off his mat and went home.
I imagine that had the religious leaders not been present to raise their objections, the story would have ended differently with the paralytic’s sins forgiven but his body still immobile. How can Jesus, possessing both the power to forgive and to heal, ever do one without the other? He does it all the time. The reason is that forgiveness of sin and rescue from its eternal consequences are much more important than a healthy body on earth. Jesus asked, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world but lose your soul?” Healing serves as a harbinger of resurrection, an appetizer of final redemption, but it’s not resurrection itself. Healing is the grace of God when it happens. But it can also be the grace of God when it doesn’t. Like little else, sickness focuses our prayers and hunger for that day when all things will be made new and there will be no more disease and suffering and death. There will be no more forgiveness either. There won’t need to be. I take for granted that in heaven no one sins against God since accepting God’s love and mercy is what got you there. In the meantime, however, forgiveness remains crucial, so much so that the power to forgive is given to every Christian in ways that the power to heal is not. And because we’ve each been given it, we are expected to use it so that the heavenly banquet table Jesus prepares will have every seat filled.
Which brings us to tonight’s red letters. As has been the case from the outset of Mark, huge crowds mob Jesus. He teaches them, Mark writes, but apparently does so like a tour guide teaches, as he walks. At what was probably an important point in the lesson, he walks over to a toll collector named Levi. Toll collectors were Jews employed by Rome whose business it was to levy taxes on Rome’s occupied peoples. Bad enough that one of their own would be in cahoots with the evil empire, but toll collectors also tacked on surcharges to line their own pockets. This blatant extortion made toll collectors despised villains. Everybody hated them. They were considered traitors to their communities and treated as outcasts. True, they did have money, but was the money worth all the scorn? Apparently not for Levi. Jesus walks over to Levi and says, “come on” and Levi gets up and goes.
The narrative moves swiftly to Levi’s house, where with ecstatic delight, he throws a party for Jesus and all the losers and loners which comprised Levi’s outcast crowd. Mark says that many “tax-collectors and sinners” were there and plenty of disciples too. Levi doesn’t get named later in Mark as one of the 12, so presumably Jesus had many followers even if they didn’t all make the first string. Among these followers were upstanding members of the community as well, scribes of the Pharisees also at Levi’s house. Like God, Jesus does not discriminate. People discriminate, however. The righteous and unrighteous alike were all gathered at Levi’s house, but they weren’t eating at the same table. How could they? In that culture to share a meal meant you were friends. Eating together was a mark of mutual respect and honor. You didn’t eat with just anybody. One’s dinner companions had to be intentionally and carefully picked.
The same is true in our own culture. From agonizing over a guest list for a wedding reception or a dinner party, all the way down to deciding whether you’re giving someone the wrong idea by having coffee, to eat and drink together carries significance. For a righteous Jew who adhered to the teachings of Torah, to eat with a sinner sullied your reputation. Just as you weren’t to mix seeds or mix fabrics, you weren’t to mix morals either. To do so made you unclean. However mixing with the immoral wasn’t just a matter of purity and piety. It was also a matter of politics. In a day when politics and religion were anything but separate, the Pharisees believed that to follow Torah was the leverage whereby God’s kingdom and Messiah would come and trounce Rome. God had exiled his people in Babylon on account of their disobedience. Their current Roman occupation evinced a continued strain in their relationship with God. The only way to get their land back and make things right again was to act right again. And hanging out with heathens was not acting right. For the righteous, to eat with tax-collectors and sinners gave God the wrong idea and jeopardized their righteousness.
So why don’t the Pharisees just write Jesus off? I think part of the reason was that they were attracted to him. They heard his powerful preaching. They saw his miracles. He had the goods to be a Messiah. But how do you vote a man for Messiah who keeps making such political blunders? First he acts like he’s God. But then he eats with the very kind of people God despises! “Why does he do that?” That’s the question they asked. “Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus answers with the proverb, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” And then he gives it his own spin. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Some Bibles try to make this sound like a slam on the Pharisees. The New Living Translation has Jesus saying, “I have not come to call those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” But Jesus didn’t say that people who think they are healthy don’t need a doctor, but actual healthy people. There’s no irony here. Jesus didn’t come to call actual righteous people because righteous people are all set. It’s the sinners who are in trouble.
Which one are you? Righteous or sinner? If you’re honest, you’ll say sinner, but pressed, most of you will probably think that your sins aren’t that bad. You lie now and then. You lust. You get greedy and gossip. But compared to hard-core sinners, you know, real criminals and law-breakers, you’re pretty righteous, right? You still need Jesus, sure, but not like they do. This is not meant to sound arrogant or exclusive. There are just some nasty people in this world. Evil people like Levi who don’t give a whit who they hurt and abuse. They do the bad things they do because they want to do them. On the one hand, such wicked people, once they’re caught and convicted, get what they deserve. But let’s say that one of these same wicked people wants to repent and get right. That’s hard to do. In our society, once you have a criminal record, you’re branded for the rest of your life. Carrying a criminal record makes it really tough to get a job or a loan or an apartment in many neighborhoods, things deemed necessary for reentering proper society. Try telling someone you’re an ex-con and watch the shift in their facial expression. Tell them you did time for armed robbery and see if you score an invitation to their house for dinner. See if instead you don’t end up out on the streets like so many of the ex-cons we meet Thursday nights on the Common. Like the ex-con who was shot by police right outside just a couple weeks back.
Reentering proper society was just as tough for Levi and his outcast friends, if not tougher. In Leviticus, remember, the distinction was made between intentional and unintentional sin—between crimes and misdemeanors, between the badness you do on purpose and the bad things that happen by accident. The entire sacrificial system, in all of its revolting guts and gruesomeness, only covered the accidents. As for sins committed on purpose, the felonies, Torah taught that there was no atonement. No sufficient sacrifice. No forgiveness. Deliberate sin is too revolting to God. The book of Numbers reads that deliberate sinners were to be “cast out …completely cut off and suffer the consequences of their guilt.” Levi and his likes were deliberate sinners. They became tax-collectors by choice. Nobody held a gun to their head (they didn’t have guns back then). There was no mechanism whereby they could be welcomed back into society, no animal to kill that would get them back in right stead with God. They were doomed. So why even bother trying anymore? No wonder recidivism rates are so high. In America, the only way to get your record clean is for a governor or the president to pardon you. In the Bible, God has to do it.
Which is just what Jesus does. He has the authority to forgive sins like God. By eating with Levi and his deliberate sinner friends, Jesus issues a pardon. He paves their re-entry. He forgives their sin and clears their record. He pardons their offenses and remembers their sins no more. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son as the only sacrifice sufficient to cover felons and their felonies. The enormous mass of cattle blood and guts splattered throughout the Old Testament merely hinted at the enormous sacrifice of himself that God would make to save sinners. The Pharisees don’t understand what a beautiful thing Jesus is doing here. They’re angry. They hold to mandatory sentencing. One strike you’re out. That’s the law. But Jesus does not negate Levitical law. He was all for righteousness. As long as it was a righteousness obtained by grace. The law was never meant to save anybody. The Israelites were already God’s people when God chiseled the commandments. Their righteousness came by grace. The law was given to show them how to live their righteous lives.
We see this more clearly in Luke’s gospel where another extortionist tax-collector by choice named Zacchaeus hears about Jesus passing by. He climbs up a sycamore tree for a better look because, the Bible says, he was short, though it’s unclear whether the shortness describes Zacchaeus or Jesus. As with Levi, Jesus calls Zacchaeus down, goes to his house and has supper. Zacchaeus announces, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount!” Excellent. Yet what you have here is not some voluntary act of exuberant generosity out of gratitude for Jesus’ graciousness (as exuberant as Zacchaeus no doubt was); but rather an act of exuberant obedience motivated by mercy. Leviticus requires restitution in full plus a penalty, which Zacchaeus gladly pays. He’s finally allowed to make things right.
In his book Red Letter Christians (the inspiration for this sermon series), author Tony Campolo, tells the story of an 18-year-old offender who was caught having broken into several houses in his neighborhood to steal more than $15,000 worth of goods. At his trial, rather than sending the thief to jail, the judge handed down a very creative sentence. First, he had the young man perform community service every Saturday—cleaning up the neighborhood, painting homes and fixing up the playground. Second, he was required to pay restitution to the victims. He had to pay back what the stolen goods were worth, which was far more than he had been paid when he fenced the items. Third, he was required to sell everything he owned, including his car, and put the money from these sales into a restitution fund. Finally, he had to sit down and face the angry people he’d robbed and hear what they had to say. Amazingly, through repentance and restitution, the young man and his victims were reconciled and eventually became friends. He was welcomed back gladly into the neighborhood. As Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “Salvation has come to this house.”
What we read here in Mark’s gospel is the gospel. Jesus eats with deliberate sinners for whom he will die. He sets the table for whose seats he will save for the banquet in God’s kingdom. He offers forgiveness to all who will take it, yourself included, along with the power to be a forgiver. Your obedience is motivated by mercy. Like Jesus, you forgive not just those who accidently harm, but those who do it on purpose too. To all whom society labels outcasts and sinners, Jesus says “let’s eat.” It’s why we go outside on Thursday nights with food, and why we want to get ministry started in prisons and why we pray that our church will someday look like Levi’s table. The healthy don’t need a doctor.
Tuesday, June 03, 2008
The next in a series on the red-letters of the Bible by Daniel Harrell
The story of Jesus healing a paralytic lowered from the roof is so vivid, and for many so familiar, that it’s not only easy to imagine the scene but easy to imagine yourself as one of the characters in it. Perhaps you imagine yourself as the paralytic: sick, desperate for a cure but having long given up hope. Had you ever walked? Or was your disability the result of an injury or an accident? I’m reminded of a good friend whose slip in a shower 13 years ago has left her disabled ever since. She prayed and prayed for many of those years to be healed, but received instead the grace to accept what she calls her “new normal.” Not that her acceptance has always been free from bitterness. What frustrates her most is whenever someone suggests some new treatment, as if she hasn’t tried everything already. Why get your hopes up only to have them dashed again?
Maybe you imagine yourself as the faithful friends. The ones who refuse to give up on the paralytic. You’ve been praying too, long after your paralyzed friend stopped praying for himself. You carry his hope for him. Rather than dishing out platitudes that mostly just alleviate your own discomfort, you’re the kind of friend who does something. You take off work to carry him to the doctor, you remember the important steps of his suffering and sympathize with his disappointments. You’re the kind of friend who isn’t put off by his limitations or annoyed by his complaining. You love him even at his most unlovable and have the faith to do anything to get him back on his feet. Including strapping him to a stretcher, most likely against his will, and hauling him downtown to see the miracle-worker everybody’s talking about, doing the very thing he hates most. Of course once you get there, you find the place is packed—with that no way for you and three others and your friend on a stretcher to squeeze by—another dashed hope. Still, you remain determined to get in. How about the roof? The roof! Are you crazy? You climb up, dragging your screaming paralytic friend behind, eyeball it just right, and start to dig a hole through which you lower the stretcher. (I always wonder who thought to bring the shovel and rope. And I always wonder what Jesus’ face looked like once the dust and the chunks of dirt fell on his head.)
I bet he looked up, along with everybody else. Maybe that’s where you imagine yourself. Looking up from the massive throng. Already in Mark, Jesus has drawn huge crowds with his jaw-dropping preaching and healing performances. Oppressed under the brutal thumb of Roman rule, the people hungered for a clear word from the Lord, a prophetic preacher who’d renew God’s salvation promises. Things had been mighty quiet for the past 400 years. God was giving his people the silent treatment. Time was when the Lord would speak openly with his people. Yet due to their duplicity, he wrote down his word and holed his glory up in the Temple so as not to destroy them. But in time, God vacated the Temple too, and took his glory with him. He did at least keep communication lines open through the prophets. But for the same reasons, that line was eventually shut off too. He left the law, but once the scribes and Pharisees got a hold of it, it was hardly recognizable any more. Could this unemployed, homeless carpenter be a new prophet? The demons he cast out called him the holy one of God! He did do things that the scribes never did. And he preached better sermons than they did. Shorter too.
Naturally the scribes and the Pharisees were skeptical. They’d been minding the store during God’s absence. With the boss away for so long, it was easy to start thinking they were the boss. So much so that when the boss returned looking like Jesus, they were skeptical. Sure, they’d heard the rumors and seen the crowds, but crowds are like sheep, you know, ignorant. They scribes do come off as arrogant know-it-alls sometimes, but as we might say around this university-laden town, educated arrogance beats ignorance any day. Besides, the scribes devoted their careers to learning about God, I really don’t think they were necessarily bad guys. Though maybe that’s because they’re the ones in the story I most identify with. I like to think I have my theology worked out. I have a Master of Divinity, after all. If Jesus ever showed up in person, wouldn’t I know it?
This past Thursday night on the Common, I met a homeless guy who looked a lot like Jesus does in the pictures. Long hair. Beard. Blue eyes. He said that God told him to make his way across America spreading the good news of God’s love. On his bicycle. He said he was doing it because anybody else would think God crazy to make such a request. He was being obedient. As I listened to him, I didn’t think that God was crazy. I did wonder whether James had both feet on the pedals. And I’m sure the scribes wondered the same thing about Jesus.
I am glad to read that Jesus is back in Capernaum. The huge crowds had chased him away for a while. Mark tells us that Jesus had to get away to the desert to pray, which is odd given that the desert is gospel code for temptation. Why go back there? It was in the desert that Satan tried to entice Jesus away from the cross. Yet it was also in the desert where Jesus found strength to resist. Sometimes you have to face your temptations to defeat them. What was tempting Jesus now? The same thing. Bypass the horrors of the cross. How? Through superstardom. Jesus was a rock star now. Rock stars don’t sacrifice their lives to save other people. They do fundraisers or are spokesmen for good causes, but they don’t give up their lifestyles or let the people they help move into their mansions. You can’t sacrifice your life once you become important. Your fans won’ let you. And therefore Jesus needed to get away from the fans. Peter tried to get him to come back to the show, but Jesus knew better. He said, “let’s go somewhere else,” and he did, leaving so many sick to remain in their sicknesses.
Except for one leper who tracked Jesus down and begged for help. We looked at his story last Sunday. The scribes taught that he had to get himself clean to get back into God’s good graces. Something he could not do without God. Angered, Jesus healed the leper and told him to go show himself to the religious officials as an indictment against the way they had twisted God’s word. Bad skin was not a sin, God used skin as an object lesson in moral purity. Cleanliness rituals were not the realities of salvation, but pointers and reminders of the realities. It’d be like saying that the bread and wine you partake tonight are the things that save your soul rather than the body and blood of Jesus they represent. Add to that a restriction against any sick person taking communion (since sick people are clearly sinners) and you’re up against the same barrier as the leper. Only God can heal you but until you’re healed you’re not allowed near God. But since the sick can’t get near God, how can you ever get well? Which is why Jesus preached that God himself had come near. In person. In the flesh. To heal. To clean. To die for sin. To forgive. To save. Things only God could do.
The scribes’ systemic distortion of ritual and reality and their confusion of sickness with sin may explain why Jesus unexpectedly said to the paralytic laid out at his feet, not “be healed” but rather, “Your your sins are forgiven.” At first you think Jesus confirms a causal link between sin and sickness; but if sin actually had caused the man’s paralysis, why didn’t he get up and walk right away? As it was, only the scribes got up—their dander, that is. As referees of the system, they blew the whistle on all blasphemy, and here was a clear violation. They thought to themselves, “What is he saying? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Who but God can deliver sinners from holy judgment and hell? For a human to extend such divine forgiveness was a subversion of divine prerogative, a capital crime under Jewish law. Doing yet another thing that only God can do, Jesus sees the scribes’ thoughts and asks, “Why are you thinking these things?” which surely scared them a little. Jesus then challenged their skepticism by asking, “Which is easier? To say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, pick up your mat and walk’?”
Which is easier to say? If you’re thinking the answer is “your sins are forgiven” you’re right. Since it’s a statement that evades empirical verification, it is easier to say. But which is harder to do? Forgive sin or cure paralysis? Well, that’s harder to say. Healing a paralytic by verbal fiat is no simple feat. But if only God forgives sins, then that’s impossible too—at least for anybody but God. Given these equivalent degrees of difficulty, the ability to do one would likely infer an ability to do the other. There is a link between sin and sickness. However the link is not causal, but analogous. Jesus answers their question “Who can forgive sins but God?” by turning to the paralytic and saying, “Get up, pick up your mat and go home.” Which the paralytic duly does, paralyzed no more. He got up and went home and the crowd went wild. The kingdom of God was near alright. It was standing right in front of them. Only God can heal and so can Jesus. Therefore Jesus can forgive sins too.
Given the absence of causality between sin and sickness here, would the forgiven paralytic stayed paralyzed if the scribes hadn’t been present to raise their objection? Having had his sins forgiven, would the paralytic still need his friends to carry him home? That’s a scene in the story that’s hard to imagine. Since both forgiveness and healing are within his power, why would Jesus ever forgive but not heal? It’s a question we still ask, isn’t it? Ironically, if given the choice, many would rather have the healing. That’s because we live in a day when modern medicine can treat most sickness, thus rendering untreatable sickness all the more tragic. The lengthening of western life expectancy heightens the horror associated with disease and death beyond anything that the Bible bemoans. Scripture describes earthly life as a vanity, a mere puff of air, grass that grows today and withers tomorrow and not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed. The crowds mobbing Jesus would have been acquainted with the brevity of earthly life. Their life expectancy would have been comparable to those in our day who reside in impoverished, war-torn nations like Angola or Zimbabwe, where most people die long before they reach age 40. Faced with such limits on earthly life, assurances of an afterlife take on greater significance. The Bible teaches that eternal destiny far outweighs earthly health. “What does it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your soul?” Jesus asked, “What can you give in return for your soul?” For the paralytic, to have his sins forgiven meant that his paralysis was not his fault. Now that his soul was safe with God, what did he care about walking? Because he could die in peace, he could live out his life in peace. Unafraid to die and therefore unafraid to live.
Notably, the Revised Standard Version renders Jesus’ command to “Get up” as “Rise!” It’s the identical word that appears elsewhere in the gospels in reference to rising from the dead. Sickness and sin are analogous, as are healing and resurrection. To be healed is to get a taste of resurrection, a glimpse of what it will be like to be new creations in glory. But it is only a glimpse, an appetizer and not the banquet itself. Even Lazarus and the others whom Jesus brought back from the dead eventually died again. Our ultimate hope is for heaven with God, not for a healthy life stuck here. Which may further explain why Jesus doesn’t heal everybody. He doesn’t want us confusing the sign with the reality it points to. He doesn’t want us losing our hunger for heaven. Healing is the grace of God when it happens, but it can be the grace of God when it doesn’t too. Nothing intensifies a hunger for heaven like suffering. Nothing draws us more into solidarity with Christ and Him with us. Nothing increases our prayers more. As much as we all need prayer, few of us ever ask for it until we get sick. Look at the prayer requests that typically fill our bulletin each Sunday. Not that prayer for healing is wrong, of course now, but I am still waiting for any of us to list a prayer request in the bulletin for forgiveness of sin. If Jesus is right, that prayer is just as hard to answer. Impossible for anyone but God.
Healing the paralytic is not the purpose of this passage in Mark. The purpose is to answer the question, “Who can forgive sins?” Only God can forgive as only God can heal. Therefore, since forgiveness defies empirical verification, Jesus heals the paralytic, so that, verse 10, “you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Jesus’ healing power is but a pointer, a preview, a demonstration and proof of his resurrection power.
One last thing: Though Mark identifies Jesus as “the Son of God” in chapter 1, in this gospel Jesus never calls himself that. He uses the designation “son of man,” which, interestingly, nobody else but Jesus ever uses. In Hebrew, “son of man” is a basic way of saying “human being.” Here in chapter 2, Jesus resists any attempt to be seen as anything other than human. However, by tacking on the definite article, Jesus also asserts that he is not any human. He calls himself the Son of Man. The difference is that you and I are only human (a phrase we often use to excuse our screw-ups). Jesus, on the other hand, is truly human, the person like whom we are redeemed to be. Yet even as redeemed sons (and daughters) of men, there remains plenty of distance between us and the Son of Man. Psalm 80 speaks of “the son of man” seated at God’s right hand. The prophet Daniel sees the son of man “who comes with the clouds of heaven and approaches the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.” Indeed the kingdom has come near. God’s word speaks again. His word became flesh in Jesus. A flesh that was broken that the word might speak to you and to me and say the impossible: “your sins are forgiven.”