Monday, March 16, 2015
The Gospel of Mark
”The Main Thing”
15 March 2015 Fourth Sunday in Lent
Year A Color: Purple
First Reading: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalter UMH 830
Second Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10 *Mark 12:28-34(alt. rd.)
First Light Reading: Mark 12:28-34 (alt. rd.)
“Absolutely no Jewish writing before (or even soon after) the time of Jesus presents us with the double command of love that possesses the four striking characteristics of the Marcan pericope: (i) The texts of Deut 6:4-5 and Lev 19:18b are quoted word for word. (ii) The two texts are welded together by being cited back to back. (iii) Despite this stark juxtaposition, the two texts are nevertheless carefully distinguished; the order of their importance is emphasized by labeling Deut 6:4-5 as the first commandment and Lev 19:18b as the second. (iv) Despite this distinction, these two commandments are then bundled together as superior to all other commands. 572
It is surprising enough to most people that the double command of love is found nowhere in the OT, intertestamental literature, or in early rabbinic writings. What is more surprising, perhaps astounding, to Christians is that Jesus’ double command is paralleled in no other text in the NT. 515 A Marginal Jew: Volume IV by John P Meir.
The Bible is a rich and complex collection of writings, dealing with every human topic under the sun. The Bible contains dozens of genres, multiple points of view, and writings that are not always easy to understand, and texts that take years to unpack. The Bible was written over a period of more than 2,000 years, was written in three different languages, and was written on three different continents. To say that the Bible is challenging would be an understatement.
But when Jesus was asked what the most important commandment in the Bible was, he said there were two, and that the two were summary of entire Bible. To understand them is to understand the plot of the Bible, even as to understand Jesus is to understand the central character of the Bible’s story.
Biblical Faith is Relational
Christianity, at its heart, is about loving God and loving the people around us, in this order. We love God first and foremost. And, our love for God compels and enables us to love the people around us with a supernatural love. When we love God, we are tapping into an infinite, inexhaustible source of love. To love God most of all and first of all does not diminish our capacity for loving others, it increases it.
Jesus said, if you want to understand the Bible, the synopsis of this complex text is summarized in the words,
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” and “Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”
To say it another way…
Christianity is personal
It is personal in two ways. First, it is focused on a person. From the perspective of a Christian, God is not an impersonal force or an abstract idea. A few weeks ago, a guest speaker mocked the idea of God being thought of as a person. I said nothing at the time because it is impolite to invite someone to speak and then argue with them in public. But, now that it has been several weeks, I’ll do so without naming the speaker. Biblically speaking, God is a personal God. He is not just a person, but three persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God desires to know us and to be known by us. He desires our love and created us to be in a relationship with him throughout eternity.
We believe that God is most clearly known in the person of Jesus, who came to us as the exact image of God in the form of a man.
Christianity is personal in a second way. It requires a personal response. God takes the initiative. God reaches out to us and we must then make a decision in response to what God has done for us.
God gives life, makes covenant with us, woos us with his affection, seeks us in love, offers us salvation and new life, extends to us his favor and we must then decide how to respond. Christianity is personal because it is focused on the personal God of the Bible and it is offered to people like you and me.
We respond with faith or mistrust. We respond with love or hostility. We respond with gladness and celebration, or we recoil in bitterness and selfishness.
In February 2014, the Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died from an apparent heroin overdose. Hoffman was found dead in his apartment with a needle in his arm. He was 46. A year earlier, Hoffman played the part of Willy Loman, the disillusioned and empty salesman from the classic play Death of a Salesman. In an interview with NPR, Hoffman said Willy Loman represents "The idea that you have a vision of what you're supposed to be, or going to be, or where your kids are going to be—and that that doesn't work out." The role had a very personal influence on Hoffman. He said, "It really seeps into why we're here. What are we doing, family, work, friends, hopes, dreams, careers, what's happiness, what's success, what does it mean, is it important, how do you get it … ultimately, what gets you up in the morning is to be loved." In the end, Hoffman said, the play is about our yearning to be loved.
Christianity speaks to this need, telling us that we were created to be loved and to love, because love is the central fact of the universe. And, for Christians, love is best understood by looking at the personal God of the Bible.
Thursday, March 12, 2015
The Gospel of Mark
8 March 2015 Third Sunday in Lent
Year A Color: White
First Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7 (alt. rd); Psalter UMH 750
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; and Mark 12:1-12
In today’s readings, we have two different, but related stories. In the first story Jesus is describing the contours of the rebellious heart. By way of this story, Jesus is providing a mirror, by which we are able to see the condition of our own heart, in its relationship to God.
Jesus’ story is a retelling of the story of Isaiah 5, but he is also drawing on imagery from other parts of the Old Testament.
Jeremiah 7:25-26New International Version (NIV)
25 From the time your ancestors left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. 26 But they did not listen to me or pay attention. They were stiff-necked and did more evil than their ancestors.’
Nehemiah 9:25-26New International Version (NIV)
25 They captured fortified cities and fertile land; they took possession of houses filled with all kinds of good things, wells already dug, vineyards, olive groves and fruit trees in abundance. They ate to the full and were well-nourished; they reveled in your great goodness.
26 “But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they turned their backs on your law. They killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you; they committed awful blasphemies.
2 Chronicles 36:15-16New International Version (NIV)
The Fall of Jerusalem
15 The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. 16 But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy.
The story Jesus tells seems like a very unlikely story. First, notice that the owner of the estate seems to be absurdly naive. He has sent messenger after messenger, and yet the tenants have beaten or killed all the messengers he sent. So, he says to himself, “Maybe they will treat my son better and respect him.”
As an allegory, this story tells us something about the patient love of God, who continues to offer grace inspired of unrequited love. Humankind rejects God over and over, yet he pursues us in love. From the world’s point of view, it seems foolish to send his Son, but it reflects the wisdom and love of God, who seeks those who reject him.
Second, notice how foolish the tenants are. They think that if they kill the master’s Son that they may be able to claim the property for themselves. Their behavior reflects the arrogant foolishness of people in every age and place who think that they can seize control of everything in their lives, pushing God out of the picture. They believe that by eliminating God from their lives, they can take their destinies into their own hands. The allegory reveals the foolishness of rebellion against God. It details the contours of the rebellious heart.
Third, what will the owner do? Jesus raises the question, but the answer is not apparent. This distant Land Lord seems weak and unwilling to act. Perhaps he will do nothing, or can do nothing. The allegory raises the thoughts many have about God. Many presume that God is unable or unwilling to act. The story shows us that God is unbelievably patient, but he is not unable or unwilling to judge sin.
God’s patience is meant to lead to repentance. God is patient in hopes that will seek his grace and mercy. But judgment will come at some point. It has to. Otherwise, God would not be just or good. Evil could always hold the good of creation ransom. God’s goodness and the salvation of creation means judgment will come to all, eventually. In the meantime, God remains patient, giving all a chance to repent and be saved.
Israel is God’s vineyard and its leaders are the wicked tenants. Jesus is giving them a chance to repent, warning that judgement is coming. For now, people seem to be able to get away with oppression, injustice, and murder. God’s messengers are rejected, mocked, and even murdered. No one seems to be held accountable for sin. But, that will not always be the case. The leaders of the people recognized that this story was aimed at them. This helps explain what happens next.
The Pharisees and Herodians are in cahoots. This should tell you that somethings up. The Pharisees were Jews who were very intentional about making sure God and God’s word were at the center of everything they did. The Herodians were secular Jews who consider themselves far too politically savvy to and realistic as to let religious superstitions stand in their way of worldly success. To say the least, these two groups did not normally work together.
The question raised touch a real nerve among Jewish people. By paying taxes and supporting a pagan government, were the Jewish people compromising their faithfulness to God?
If Jesus said, no, one should not pay taxes, he would be seen as a religious zealot and anti-government radical, who was encouraging sedition. On the other hand, many Jews had been victimized by the Romans. Some had been sold into slavery. Others had their crops confiscated, leaving their families destitute. If Jesus appeared to be soft on these matters, people would ask how he could possibly side with those who oppressed God’s people.
Jesus answers the question in a number of ways. First, he sets a trap of his own, asking to see one of these Roman coins. His opponents pull some coins from their pocket. Jesus takes one look at a coin and says, “Whose image is that?” The image was Tiberius Caesar. Printed on the coin were the words “Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the Divine Augustus.” When they answer, Jesus is able to say to them, Caesar’s coins belong to Caesar. Since these men have no problems in doing business with Empire’s money, they had better be willing to pay the taxes that go with doing business. Give Caesar that which bears his image. Give to God that which bears his image, which is our very lives.
Now, Jesus is not dividing the world, giving politics to Caesar and religion to God. In Biblical religion there is only one Lord of the world, not two. What Jesus is doing is rejecting the two options put before him. Jesus is not advocating a violent overthrow of the Romans. But, neither is he advocating just accepting things as they are. The Kingdom of God has its own ways of advancing.
Jesus will not accept the radical nationalism that some of the religious zealots of his day wanted. Neither was his proposing that his followers drop out of society. They would be in the world but not of it. They would work for change from within. They would be loyal citizens of the city of man, while holding their highest allegiance for the city of God.
We do owe certain loyalties to our earthly nation. We benefit from its roads and waterways, from its schools and businesses. We should not hold back our support. There are loyalties we owe to Caesar; but, we do not owe him everything. There are things the state has no right to ask of us and, the state is accountable to God.
Early Christians had a positive understanding of the God-given role government was to play. But, it reserved the titles of King and Lord for Jesus, meaning that Caesar was neither.
In an article entitled, Rendering to Caesar What Belongs to Caesar: Christian Engagement with the World, Frank Stagg says, “The Church of the New Testament did not attempt to save its existence by making a concordat with Nero and Domitian…or by stirring up a revolution against these tyrants, or by making an alliance with the Persian Empire - but simply confessing the truth of the gospel and building up a truly confessing church whose members were prepared to die for their faith.
Here is why this passage is important. As our non-religious and nominally religious neighbors think about religion and religious people, they are generally confused about how our faith relates to the public square. And, they tend to divide the options up in two ways. On one hand, there is the option of a totally private faith that one hides for sake of being polite to others. This private faith is something that simply happens in one’s house of worship and has not bearing on how we live our lives day to day. This is obviously not an option for those who believe that God is the Lord of heaven and earth. Our whole life is meant to be given to him as an offering (Romans 12).
The other option is a faith that is so pushy and dominant, that is becomes a dangerous threat to others. It is a radical faith which has no respect for others. Those who have this kind of faith are very awkward to be around and perhaps even a nuisance or danger to others. So what our non-religious and nominally religious neighbors hope is that we will temper our religious fervor and seek to be moderate in our faith.
In fact, that is how the media always wants to talk about religion and religious people. You have moderates who do not take their faith too seriously and who know to keep this embarrassing part of their lives to themselves. And then, you have the kooks and religious fanatics. The news media and both the right and the left call for these folks to be more moderate.
The problem is, that this gets us back to our story, in which the Herodians and Pharisees offer Jesus two very unsatisfactory options. But moderation is not what is called for. We don’t want to be moderate about our physical health or our work ethic or our commitment to education and equality. And, we don’t want to be wish-washy, moderate people of faith.
In the beginning, God’s plan was that humankind would reflect his image by the way that we lived. Humankind would thus become the way the rest of creation would know its God. Our very way of living would be a means for them to see God’s glory on display.
When humankind sinned and turned away from God, he chose a family through which he would reclaim humanity and restore the image of God within our lives. What Jesus proposes is that his followers would be men and women who have been made fully alive and thus reflect God’s glory. Through these redeemed men and women, God would begin to show the world his very nature by the way that they live. These men and women would have no need to hide their faith nor to push it upon others. Instead, the very way that they live would become the means by which the world is presented God. This is not moderate faith. It is robust faith, which is neither something embarrassing to hide or something which must be forced upon others.
The Gospel of Mark
”Band Wagon Fans”
1 March 2015 Second Sunday in Lent
Year A Color: Purple
First Reading: Genesis 17:1-7 and 15-16; Psalter UMH 752
Second Reading: Romans 4:13-25; *Gospel: Mark 11:1-11 (12-33) (alt. rd.)
First Light Reading: Mark Mark 11:1-11 (12-33)
Reading these words bring to mind a couple of random thoughts. The first is this: most of the people who will attend church on Palm Sunday will not attend any of the services held during Holy Week. This mean that they will move seamlessly from the cheering of the crowds outside of Jerusalem, celebrating as Jesus rides into the city, to cheers of Easter Sunday, as his followers celebrating that he is alive.
The consequence of missing the Holy Week services is that we miss the suffering in between. Rather than seeing Jesus’ victory over the cross and the grave, we simply move from celebration to celebration, without considering the cost of the victory. We simply by-pass the suffering.
This passage also brings to mind the reality of band wagon fans. The crowds were cheering for Jesus on Palm Sunday, but where were they when he had to walk the Via Dolorosa? Where were they when he had to face Golgotha? Many of these folks may have been well meaning, but I cannot help but think that many of them were just band wagon fans.
Band Wagon Fan Pictures
In this chapter Mark has another one of his story sandwiches. In other words, Mark inserts a story into a story, asking us to interpret each in light of each other. In this case, Mark inserts the story of Jesus overturning tables in the Temple right into the middle of the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree. Whenever Mark inserts one story into another, he asking us to interpret both stories in light of one another.
What Jesus does in the Temple is largely a symbolic act; though the symbolic act certainly attracted the attention of the authorities, while many in the crowd were simply baffled by it.
In Mark 13 Jesus tells his disciples that the time of the Temple is drawing to a close and that God will bring judgement upon the Temple. To the utter astonishment of Jesus’ followers, he tells them that the Temple will be destroyed within their lifetime.
Symbolically, Jesus acts out God’s judgement upon the Temple, by overturning the tables of the money changers. As he does so, Jesus quotes Isaiah 56:7, saying, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
The Temple was never meant to be simply a national shrine for Israel, where the Jews could celebrate how much more God loved them than the rest of the nations. The Temple was supposed to be their missions headquarters. From the very beginning, God chose Abraham and his descendants, blessing them so that they would be a blessing to the nations. Israel was called by a missionary God to be a missionary nation.
By the time of Jesus, the Temple was a much a symbol of Israel’s national pride as it was of their commitment to God’s plan for them. It was biggest sign of how badly Israel had failed to fulfill God’s call.
Israel has come very close to turning the Temple into an idol, placing their trust in it rather than the God who called them.
Jeremiah 7:1-15 New International Version (NIV)
7 This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 “Stand at the gate of the Lord’s house and there proclaim this message:
“‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord. 3 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” 5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. 8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.
9 “‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury,[a] burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord.
12 “‘Go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for my Name, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel. 13 While you were doing all these things, declares the Lord, I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen; I called you, but you did not answer. 14 Therefore, what I did to Shiloh I will now do to the house that bears my Name, the temple you trust in, the place I gave to you and your ancestors. 15 I will thrust you from my presence, just as I did all your fellow Israelites, the people of Ephraim.’
The fig tree becomes a visual sign to Jesus’ followers. The Temple was supposed to bear fruit. It was given as a means of Israel reaching the nations and bearing fruit with many converts. Though the Temple seem to team with life and have robust energy about it, Israel was no closer to fulfilling her mission. She had missed the harvest season, bearing no fruit for God’s Messiah. She would not be pruned and purified. She would cut down and replaced.
The leaders of the people were right to feel threatened by Jesus’ behavior in the Temple. He was forecasting the end of everything they knew.
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
For more than 10 months, our church has studied the book of Mark together, during our Sunday sermons. This sermon series has challenged and enriched my own life, as I hope it has yours.
I truly believe that the Bible is God’s word. One of my goals, as preacher, is to help people understand and apply the Bible to their lives. The seminary from which I earned my Masters of Divinity had as its motto: “The Whole Bible for the Whole World.” That means there is no unimportant or irrelevant parts of the Bible. The whole message is important. But, it is hard to understand the Bible, when a preacher jumps around from the text to text, or only preaches topically.
That is why that when we finish the Gospel of Mark, we will look at another portion of the Bible together. By looking at whole sections of the Bible, it is easier to grasp the meaning, not only of the part being studied, but of the over-all story of the Bible. Our next stop is the Book of Romans. The Book of Romans, more than any other writing of Paul, has changed countless lives throughout the centuries. St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Karl Barth, just to name a few, found their lives transformed after reading the Book of Romans.
The same revolutionary power awaits modern readers, as they open the pages of this high-voltage, little book. In Romans, Paul walks us through the Old Testament, helping us to re-read its message through the lens of Jesus Christ. That is why I am calling our new series, Romans: “The Power and Relevance of Israel’s Ancient Story.” I hope you will make plans to be with us and to invite others, as we explore this portion of God’s word together.
Our new series will begin on 19th, (20th for those of you listening or reading online).