Thursday, February 23, 2012

Taking It One Day at a Time

Our texts for this first Sunday in Lent are Zechariah 9:9-13, Psalm 25:1-10, and Mark 11:1-11. You may read them here.

The change of seasons is not just palpable in the spring-like temperatures outside this morning: last night, we marked a change of church seasons as we gathered together to observe Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. Lent is the 40 days leading up to Christ's death on the cross, a time traditionally used for self-examination, repentance, making a new start with God, and being immersed in the story of Jesus.

This year, we are going on a particular Lenten journey together as a congregation. Since Christmas we have been focused on Mark, the Gospel assigned to this year of the lectionary. In Lent, we will be sticking close to Mark as well--but instead of covering one chapter, as we have done over the last few weeks, we will be walking through Mark's last several chapters. Mark is the shortest of the Gospels--only 16 chapters long (by comparison, Matthew is 28 chapters, Luke 24, and John 21), but a whopping 40% of Mark's Gospel--chapters 11-16--is devoted to the events of what we now call Holy Week--the last week of Jesus' life.

Why would Mark, who has rushed through the first three years of Jesus' ministry in a scant 10 chapters, screech almost to a crawl and devote 6 chapters to a span of 8 days? Whereas Mark raced through stories with minimal elaboration before, now we are given rich detail--almost a play-by-play and definitely a day-by-day account of Jesus' final words, actions, and interactions. You cannot believe this is accidental--Mark wants us to slow down and really, really pay attention to every detail of Jesus' final week. Apparently, it is not just Jesus' death in Jerusalem that teaches us about the shape of our salvation--the choices Jesus made, the reactions of people around him, the things he chose to teach about and enact...all of these are worthy of our careful attention.

And so we will attend to this last week during Lent, focusing on one day of Holy Week each Sunday--beginning with Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on this Sunday. Why did Jesus choose the way he did to enter the city? Why go at all to a city that would only want to kill him? Why now? Join us this week as we begin journeying with Jesus through his final week, day by day, that our days may be more fully shaped by the life he chose to live.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Transfiguring Turn

Our texts this week are 2 Kings 2:1-14, Psalm 50:1-6, and Mark 9:2-9, which can be read here.

The attentive reader of Mark’s gospel could experience déjà vu this week. In one sense, Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain is unlike anything we have seen thus far…I mean, glowing like he’s been bleached bright? Chatting up Moses and Elijah, two long-gone heroes of the faith? This is a whole new ballgame that Peter, John, and James are privileged to witness. Yet the voice they hear…the voice strikes us as familiar, both in its timbre and its content. “This is my beloved son,” the voice speaks from the cloud, repeating the very words spoken over Jesus at his baptism. Here is another defining moment where Jesus is learning his identity and his identity is being revealed to others.

But then the speech takes on new content. The second thing spoken over Jesus at his baptism had been directed to his ears alone: “With you I am well pleased.” But the second thing spoken over Jesus now is directed to the disciples: “Listen to him!” is the cry. We must pay attention to this change in the message, to this new instruction. Why in this moment must his core of disciples be instructed in such a dramatic way about who Jesus is, and reminded so vehemently to listen to him?

This story takes place at a hinge point in Mark’s gospel and Jesus’ ministry. To this point, he has been a healer, a teacher of parables, a preacher, a miracle worker of great power. Now, however, Jesus is no longer going to display power in such a traditional, crowd-pleasing way. Only one more healing will take place in Mark’s gospel; there will be more teaching, but the content of the teaching will be heavier—about suffering, about days of trial to come. Jesus has just told them about his impending death for the first time, and he will repeat this prediction twice more in the next two chapters over the cacophony of the disciples’ disbelieving cries. This ministry of Jesus is about to take a sharp turn—a turn from power to weakness, from glory to suffering. Yet in all this, the disciples are told to do one thing: “Listen to him.”

The transfiguration is a perplexing story to me in so many ways, but it comes at a hinge in our church year—on the Sunday where we move from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to its end (not until summer will we return to fill in the gaps in the middle), from the brightness of Epiphany season to the more difficult pilgrimage called the season of Lent. Jesus will be leaving the seashores of Galilee behind and travelling a long road to Jerusalem and all its voices of condemnation. Amidst all this transition, will we listen to him? Will we continue to believe who he is, even when he looks nothing like what we’ve grown to expect?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Bring on the Controversy!

Our scripture texts this week are 2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, and Mark 1:40-2:12. You may read these here.

It is a shame, in some senses, that Lent comes on the earlier side this year (we move into this 40-day season of repentance and preparation in advance of Jesus' death and resurrection on February 22). This means that our journey through Jesus' early ministry in Mark will conclude early in chapter 2 here, and when we pick it up after Pentecost again in the lectionary we will have leaped all the way ahead to the end of chapter 3. That may not sound like much, but in the intervening two chapters we miss something crucial to Jesus' ministry in Mark: CONTROVERSY.

Jesus returns for a time to Capernaum, his new adopted hometown, in the second half of our Gospel reading for today, and in Capernaum Jesus is faced with some powerful folks who are not so happy with the kingdom Jesus is announcing through his teaching and healing. The scribes--those who have devoted their lives to the study of God's word and religious practice--have started hanging around Jesus to see what he'll do, and controversy begins to erupt.

What's all the controversy about? In this week's reading, it's the fact that Jesus says the sins of the paralyzed man lowered through the roof have been forgiven. This sparks an uproar--who does this guy think he is? Only God can forgive sins--and nothing in our scriptures speak about a Messiah with power to usurp this particular privilege of God!

More controversy follows this initial one: there is a great stir among the scribes when he associates with tax collectors and sinners (2:16), and their dismay increases when they discover that Jesus' disciples do not fast (2:18). Later, Jesus is doing all sorts of things that go against their Sabbath practice, eating and walking and healing (2:24, 3:2). Who does this guy think he is? Why is he threatening everything? The controversy is becoming so heated that by early in Mark 3, the Pharisees are already plotting to destroy Jesus--his fate is being sealed by his controversial choices even at this incredibly early point in his ministry.

All this got me to think about the role of controversy in proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Bringing the message of who God is and what God's reign looks like, Jesus' early ministry seems to indicate, will inevitably lead to conflict and controversy. Christians today still find themselves controversial figures in many situations...but what usually sparks the controversies we are part of? How do the things we choose to be controversial about compare with the things that made Jesus dig his heels in? And what do you think Jesus wishes that we, as his body now on earth, were doing to spark controversy with the powers that be around us?

Food for thought on this cold Saturday...join us tomorrow as we look at Jesus' controversial decisions to heal the excluded and offer forgiveness, even at great expense to himself.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Jesus' Big Secret

As we continue our journey through Jesus' first days in the Gospel of Mark, our texts for this week are Isaiah 40:21-31, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, and Mark 1:29-39. Each of these passages can be found here.

True confession time: when I am out and about in social situations, I often try to keep what I do for a living a secret as long as possible. It's not that I'm ashamed of being a past0r--I love what I do! It's just that, as soon as I tell someone I'm a pastor, I know what is going to happen:

1) They will assume I will be/behave like pastors they have known before; they'll say, "I thought women couldn't be pastors...or someone as young as you couldn't be a pastor" and look at me like I must be mistaken or joking about my identity.

2) They will apologize for the off-color word they just said or the fermented beverage in their hand or the fact that they "haven't been to church in a while", assuming I will judge them for these things because they've had Christians--especially Christian leaders--judge them for this in the past.

3) They will assume I have some sort of added holy powers or answers to great cosmic questions that I don't.

When I reveal that I'm a pastor, people begin to assume things, and their assumptions about me will outweigh and overshadow their ability to hear what I actually am like and have to say.

This makes me have compassion for Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. In Mark's Gospel, Jesus constantly tries to keep his identity a secret from the crowds. This has been called Jesus' "Messianic Secret": whenever someone realizes who Jesus is in Mark's Gospel, he immediately urges them not to tell anyone.

The first clear instance of Jesus' secret shows up in this week's Gospel: "And he...cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him" (Mark 1:38). This odd theme resounds again and again through Jesus' earthly life:

  • "Don’t tell this to anyone," Jesus tells the leper he cleanses (Mark 1:44)
  • "He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this" to the synagogue leader whose daughter he raised (Mark 5:43).
  • When Peter finally got Jesus' identity right, "Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him" (Mark 8:30).
  • After the transfiguration revealed more of who Jesus is, "Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead" (Mark 9:9).

Why all the secrecy? If Jesus is the one they've been waiting for, why not shout it from the rooftops?

There have been many theories about this "messianic secret": maybe Jesus was just showing humility. Maybe it was some sort of reverse psychology: if you tell someone "don't tell," aren't they more likely to spill the beans?

Yet the theory I like best is this: Jesus didn't want to be held captive to their assumptions about what a "Messiah" should be. Jesus did not want to be seen as some sort of celebrity miracle worker, or someone who was going to mount up the troops and finally lead a military rebellion against Rome; perhaps he did not want these expectations foisted upon them. Rather, he needed who he was--who he had come to be--to unfold...unfold all the way to a most unlikely Messianic ending. As Scott Hoezee aptly observed this week, "Jesus knew that for him to accomplish the work he came to do, he could not let people too quickly seize on him lest they turn him into what they wanted him to be as opposed to what he knew his Father would have him to be (and for that to happen, he’d have to trek all the way to the cross)."

It all makes me what ways do we try to "seize on" Jesus and try to turn him into what we want him to be rather than what his call is to be? In what ways is Jesus' true identity still a secret to us...and how might we come to discover it first hand?