Friday, September 25, 2009

Paternity and Pretending

Mark 12:35-40

Not too many summers ago, after a particularly busy Sunday, I took advantage of my Monday off to play a round of golf. Since I’m not a good golfer, it can be somewhat relaxing to play, so I headed over to a local muni and joined a threesome of equally bad duffers—though they were the worst kind since they actually thought they were good golfers. Their delusion exhibited itself whenever they sliced or hooked a drive, shanked or chunked an approach or pushed a putt. Acting as if this was unusual, they’d let loose a string of expletives in Jesus’ name that had to make even the demons blush. Usually when I find myself in the presence of such scurrility, I refrain from revealing my vocation. It’s not that I’m embarrassed about being a minister―at least not most days―it’s just that I know how guys like this would react: first shock, then shame, then relentless, displaced ridicule at my presence for making them feel guilty. I’m all for suffering scorn for Christ’s sake, but it was my day off.

Being as bad a bunch of golfers as we were, it was inevitable that the foursome behind us would catch up. Sure enough, as we got ready to tee off on the fifth hole, the group behind us meandered over and stood behind us. Then one of them piped up: “Hi, Pastor Harrell!” It was one of you. My cover was blown. My three pagan golf partners reacted as I predicted they would. First they stared with alarm, silently tallying up all the times they had broken the Third Commandment. Then they looked down with embarrassment, only to then start compensating by starting in on me. With wry grins across their faces, they started calling me Father and wondering aloud why my God, my God had so forsaken me since I was driving my ball into the woods and missing putts too.

It was funny. I laughed. My being clergy elicited no respect whatsoever―which made me glad. The last thing I wanted was respect since according to Jesus, the worst kind of pastor is one who thinks he should be revered. In tonight’s passage from Mark, Jesus lets loose himself, chastising the religious professionals of his day for parading around in fancy robes, grabbing the front seats in worship and sitting at the head table at banquets. Custom that dictated people stand and address these religious leaders as “master” or “father” had clearly gone to their heads. Worse, they had used their position to exploit the poor and bereaved. Much like the televangelist who fakes some sacred-sounding sob-story in order to milk na├»ve viewers out of their hard-earned money, these scribes had filched poor widows out of house and home, not even feeling bad for taking from those who couldn’t afford to give. They then covered up their deceit with long-winded prayers, pretending to be the holy people they weren’t. Jesus says that “such men will be punished most severely.” They had failed on both counts of the greatest commandment which we looked at alst time in Mark: they had despised God and their neighbor.

I’m continuing a series in Mark’s gospel tonight, stopping in those places where the ink is red in some of your Bibles, indicating that Jesus has something to say. Tonight’s passage ends what has been an on ongoing verbal conflict between Jesus and religious leaders. It’s an emphatic ending that effectively shuts the scribes up. They do take what Jesus dishes out, only they don’t let it go. The next time we hear from these religious leaders they’ll be plotting about how they can get Jesus killed.

For Mark, the conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment had everything to do with Jesus’ identity. Mark begins his gospel by declaring Jesus to be the Son of God, but no way were the religious leaders of Jesus’ day going to believe that. Who would? Any vagabond carpenter from Nazareth who hung out with tax-collectors and sinners would be rightly dismissed as delusional for claiming to be Israel’s Savior.

Many years ago I paid a hospital visit to a dear lady from this church named Bea who had suffered a recent stroke. While still as vivacious as ever, the stroke did put a dent in her memory. She recognized me as someone familiar, but couldn’t recall my name. I found her in the cafeteria having dinner where she was chatting away with other residents. She beamed when I walked up, gave me a hug and said how happy she was to see me. The woman seated next to her inquired whether I was her grandson. Bea responded not as she intended of course, but in a way that surprised me and her dinner companion both. A huge grin on her face and a gleam in her eye, she spun me to face this other woman and announced, “This is the Lord!” Naturally, the other woman, a bit taken aback, stared me up and down, managing disbelief and disdain simultaneously. Bea gathered as much, so she repeated her introduction with gusto, “This is the Lord!” At first I’d been both too startled and amused to correct her, but having regained my own composure, I quickly admitted that no, I actually wasn’t the Lord but only a minister from her church. My admission failed to wipe the disbelief and disdain from the other woman’s face. Apparently I was as unimpressive as a minister as I had been as the Lord.

Likewise with Jesus, I guess, that is until he started to teach and to heal and cast out demons. He began to attract enormous crowds and became incredibly popular, much to the religious leaders’ chagrin. Convinced Jesus was a crackpot, the leaders felt it their duty to intervene and discredit him before things got out of hand. They tried tripping him up with Old Testament trivia, but it turned out that Jesus knew they Bible better than they did. They accused him of breaking the law and tried to get him in trouble with Caesar, but that didn’t work either. All they managed to do was further embolden his fans, delighted as they were at seeing the scribes get outwitted.

Finally Jesus decides to ask them a question of his own, one that goes straight to the matter of his identity. Verse 35: “How is it that the teachers of the law say that the Christ (or the Messiah) is the son of David?” It wasn’t a very hard question. Granted, there was no explicit mention of the Christ as the Son of David in the Old Testament, but the law and the prophets, as well as psalms like the one we read to start the service tonight; these all implied that Israel’s Savior would come from King David’s family. King David was Israel’s last great king and savior, personally chosen by God to establish Israel as God’s chosen kingdom on earth. God went on to promise David that his kingdom would endure forever,” meaning that the kingdom of God would always have a descendent of David on its throne. Not that there was any kingdom at the moment. At the moment Israel was subject to Rome. But everyone knew that God would keep his promise. And so they waited. Some of the crowds had already hailed Jesus as the coming king. Back in chapter 11, Jesus helped matters along by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey colt, just like Zechariah prophesied the Messiah would.

But then came the curve. Verse 36: “David himself, inspired by the Holy Spirit, declared in Psalm 110 (with which we began the service tonight): ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I have made your enemies your footstool.’ Since David himself called the Messiah ‘my Lord,’ how can the Messiah be David’s son?” What’s Jesus trying to get at? Is he suggesting that the Messiah is not a descendent of David? Well, that was biologically true. Jesus’ connection to David was through Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather. But stepson’s possessed all the legal rights of natural born sons, so that couldn’t be it.

For a clue, turn to the rest of Psalm 110 where David extols the Messiah as a mighty warrior, one whose scepter God would extend to rule over his enemies. There would be willing troops on his day of battle, arrayed in holy majesty. He will crush earthly kings, judge the nations and heap up the dead. Psalms like this were why the Jews of Jesus day expected their Messiah to eventually roll out the heavy artillery. Chafing under brutal Roman oppression, the prayers of the people were for national deliverance.

The picture David paints of “his Lord” in Psalm 110 is certainly one of a military leader. But David also tags his Lord with an unexpected line―“a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” Here’s a name that hadn’t shown up since way back in Genesis. There, Abraham had just succeed in routing a cluster of rogue rulers who had captured Abraham’s nephew Lot and looted his hometown of Sodom. Out of nowhere appears this character Melchizedek whose name means king of righteousness and whose title is King of Salem, which many take as the precursor of Jerusalem. This king is also described as priest of the most high God, unusual since individuals never held both jobs―separation of church and state applied even back then. Even more unusual was that Abraham, the greatest of all Old Testament heroes, gives Melchizedek a tenth of the recovered plunder and then allows Melchizedek to bless him instead of the other way around. The New Testament author of Hebrews makes a huge deal about this, concluding that “without doubt the lesser person is blessed by the greater.” Thus not only does Psalm 110 make the Messiah out to be greater than David, but greater than Abraham too. And the only one greater than both David and Abraham was no mere son of David, he had to be the Son of God too.

The only one in Mark to see this connection between Son of David and Son of God had been a blind man, of all people. In chapter 10 a blind beggar named Bartimaeus cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” He’s the only one in the gospel who calls Jesus by this title, and Jesus doesn’t refute it. In fact, he rewards it. Jesus goes over to Bartimaeus and asks what he wants. Bartimaeus says, “Rabbi, I want to see.” Inasmuch as God was the only one with power to make the blind see, Bartimaeus believes in Jesus as a son of David greater than David. Jesus restores his sight, but not without Mark making the point that blind Bartimaeus could already see even before he got his sight back. He recognized Jesus’ true identity. Granted, Peter said it too back in chapter 9, when he called Jesus the Christ, but Peter never really saw it like Bartimaeus did. Remember, once Jesus told Peter what his being the Messiah would look like―one whom the religious rulers would actually kill―Peter freaked out like the devil.

I think what Jesus is asking the scribes here is not “How can you say that the Messiah is the Son of David?” But maybe, “How can you say that the Messiah is merely the Son of David?” when David himself, inspired by the Spirit, sees the Messiah as the Son of God? Mark intends for his readers, like blind Bartimaeus, to have the faith to see Jesus true identity. Peter would finally see it―once the Holy Spirit made its impression at Pentecost. In Acts 2, Peter preached, “God raised Jesus up from the dead, of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this Spirit which you see and hear. King David did not ascend into the heavens; but he himself says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I make thy enemies a stool for thy feet.’ Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ [Son of God and Son of David], this Jesus whom you crucified.”

I had the privilege of attending a conference recently where the speaker was Jurgen Moltmann, one of the preeminent theologians of the twentieth century. Though eighty-four years old, Professor Moltmann’s mind remains sharp, and he consented to spend three days answering questions from a roomful of geeks like myself. His preeminent work is entitled The Crucified God, wherein he argues that Jesus suffers on the cross not merely to appease God’s wrath―which to many sounds like divine sanction for child abuse. Instead, he asserts that on the cross God suffers too. There is no difference between the Father and the Son, both act out of passion for human redemption. Both suffer, only they do so in different dimensions of the same event, and in this way they enter into the depth of human loss most fully. The Son suffers what it is like to die. The Father suffers what it is like to lose the beloved to death. Everything that makes death bitter to the one who dies—brutality, injustice, arbitrariness—heightens the terror and suffering of that death to the ones who remain. There is no impassive God who observes and accepts Jesus’ death. There is only the God who knows both the agony of losing one’s self at the cross as the Son and as the Father the agony of losing his beloved there. Let those who have seen the pain of a loving father and child, one dying and one living, judge which half of the broken heart is lighter.

Having grown up in a devout atheist family in Germany, Moltmann served as a Nazi soldier during World War II, drafted as a teenager into Hitler’s army. Consigned to the front as a lookout for Allied attack, he was there when the British bombed his position, killing everyone else around him. Surrounded by the carnage, the question that opened him to God was “why am I alive?” He was taken prisoner to Scotland, where for the next three years he labored in a British prison camp. It was here he learned of the Nazi atrocities against Jews, and surely expected retaliation in kind from his captors. But instead, the Scottish guards treated him with astonishing kindness. This and the ministry of the Scottish YMCA while a prisoner led him to Christ. And yet as a Christian, his horror at the violence of war only intensified. Grateful for having been spared, he still could not understand how God could allow the innocent to suffer so. He concluded that the only answer to “where is God in suffering” is in the suffering itself. Everyone suffers. Everyone dies. God saves us from neither. Instead, God suffers too. If you are looking for God? You will find him in the cross-shaped places of your life.

As to the “why” of suffering, Moltmann argues that no answer would ever suffice, which is why screaming “why?” is always met with silence. However what God does do is raise Jesus from the dead. Resurrection is God’s answer to suffering, turning the cross into the sublimely ironic emblem of hope. Jesus is both priest and king. As priest, he makes sacrifice for the sake of reconciliation. As king, he rolls out the heavy artillery. Except that the heavy artillery Jesus rolls out he aims at himself. The sacrifice he makes is his own life. He suffers and dies like everybody else, as did every other son of David. But as the Son of God, he conquers death by rising from it, establishing himself as a priest forever and king who rules over all. His enemies are made a footstool for his feet―making the horrific way of the cross into the glorious stairway to heaven.