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Come and give your life away

December 14th, 2011 No comments

“Come and give your life away” (John 11)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
October 9, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Jesus wasn’t there
Jesus wasn’t there that day that Lazarus died. He wasn’t there to stop the illness from spreading. He wasn’t there to keep death at bay.

Mary and Martha had sent word to their good friend Jesus that their brother Lazarus was sick. Jesus could heal him, they knew. If he could heal a man born blind, if he could restore the crippled man’s legs, if at nothing more or less than his powerful word, the official’s deathly ill son was healed, surely Jesus need only say the word, and Lazarus would be well again!

They sat at his bedside and comforted their brother and prayed for him and reassured him: we’ve sent word to Jesus. It’ll be alright. It’ll be alright. Dear God, let it be alright. They prayed, and they hoped, and they waited. . . and they waited. . . and they waited by the bedside of their sick brother who was only getting weaker.

I never knew my grandmother on my dad’s side, but I’ve heard enough about her that I’d like to think I know something of her. She was diagnosed with cancer in her late 50s. Family gathered around to give support and comfort, and to reassure. “It’ll be alright. It’ll be alright. Dear God, let it be alright.” And she and my grandpa and the family prayed and prayed and hoped and hoped and waited and waited. . . and they waited at the bedside of my grandmother, who was only getting weaker.

I think a lot of us here know what it’s like to pray and to hope and to wait and wait for something beyond our power to control. The “waiting room” probably has the most self-descriptive label of any room in the hospital. We gather there, and we wait, not just as time passes by, but as life hangs in the balance. We reassure ourselves, “It’ll be alright. It’ll be alright. Dear God, let it be alright.”

We gather, and we pray without ceasing, and we hope with every bit of courage that we have, and we wait, and wait, and wait in that waiting room or that doctor’s room or that lab, waiting to hear the doctors words or the surgeon’s report.

What great relief there is to hear the words, “He did great in surgery.” Or “It looks benign.” Or even “20 years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to do anything, but today, today we have options.” What relief, what gratitude, what reminder of God’s constant and eternal care over each and every one of God’s children, and of God’s protection and provision over us all.

But I know how many of us know what it’s like to pray and hope and wait, only to hear the words, “I’m sorry, there was just too much damage. There was nothing more we could do.” Or “The best we can do now is to make you as comfortable as possible.” And then we’re left to grieve as we can, and to try and make sense of all our questions and numbness and shock as best we can – the great let down, the great dashing of all hope after all that praying and hoping and waiting, and we wonder, wouldn’t it have been better not to risk hope in the first place? Wouldn’t that have made things easier?

If you had been here. . .”
Mary and Martha and Lazarus had sent word to Jesus and waited and hoped for him to come, knowing, believing that he could make Lazarus well, but Jesus wasn’t there in Bethany that day, and Lazarus died, and Mary and Martha were left to grieve and to make sense of what had happened.

When Jesus finally arrives at Bethany, both sisters greet him with exactly the same words, first Martha, then her sister Mary, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” which, translated, I think means, “Lord why didn’t you save him? Why did you let him die?”

And how many of us modern-day Marthas and Marys have said the very same thing in our heart of faith? It takes faith to say those words, after all, faith to acknowledge that Jesus could have saved Lazarus, tremendous faith to acknowledge that it is God who finally holds the keys even to life and to death, and we simply wonder why it had to be death. The person who does not believe has no reason to ask that question.

It’s always shocking to hear Jesus cry out from the cross later on, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Surely he of all people should know that God hasn’t forsaken him. Why this moment of weak faith?

Yet these are precisely the words of faith, the words of the Psalmist, who said, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?”

And those who heard Jesus’ cry knew the rest of the Psalm as well: “You who fear the Lord, praise him. . . for he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.”

Every anguished cry to God, every “If you had been here,” even one as shocking as Jesus’ heart-wrenching cry from the cross, which breaks us out of our neatly-packaged views of faith, is a prayer of faith and courage and hope, and if it belongs anywhere, it is before God.

God desires our honesty, even the honesty of our grief and confusion. No amount of rationalizing anything can change what has happened. We sit, we pray to God for everything to be alright, we hope, and we wait, and wait, and wait for a word of reassurance, and for what? Death comes in spite of all this, in spite of every effort and every prayer.

Why, we ask. If only, we say, and our hearts are left vulnerable, exposed, disappointed, exhausted, let down.

Jesus didn’t show up in Bethany that day that Lazarus died. If only he had. That’s the longing these two sisters feel in their hearts, “Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died.” “Lord why didn’t you save him? Why did you let him die?”

Resurrection and Life
But then, having said that, each sister begins to perceive something more. Each sister begins to perceive that what is happening is bigger than a story of illness and death, and a friend’s tragically late arrival.

Martha is the theologian of the two, the one who is able to put it into words. “Even now, I believe that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” There in the depth of tragedy and grief, she believes, she perceives that there is yet possibility, though even she for all her intelligence cannot imagine what that might be.

It’s kind of like the odd way we talk about things at funerals. We gather at the graveside to say farewell to one who has died, and there, with every possible reminder of death around us – a whole cemetery of tombstones, the weeping of our loved ones and our own tears, the casket or urn containing the remains of what used to hold such joy and love and warmth, but are now simply a random collection of molecules going back to the earth, there, there we dare to say that death is swallowed up in victory. We even dare to taunt death just a little bit with the words of Paul, “Where O death, is your victory? Where, O Hades, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54-55).

It’s something we believe to be true, especially for some future time, but we say this even though for us the sting of death is still very real, and we can hardly imagine what this conviction means for us as we grieve. Our pastors give words of comfort and remind us that death isn’t the end of the story, and we agree, but with the shock of death still upon us, we, with Martha’s mind, cannot yet imagine what this means for us.

It’s like Martha’s reply to Jesus’ promise that her brother will rise again. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day. I know.” Have you ever noticed how at a funeral visitation, the immediate family receives friend after friend offering words of comfort: “He’s in a better place now.” “She’s with Jesus now. Suffering is over.” And time after time, the family nods, and says, “Yes, I know. I know,” but the tears keep coming.

Martha knows and believes and understands and accepts this common confession that the dead will rise. She knows. But God didn’t just give us brains. God also gave us hearts, and so often no amount of knowledge or self-preaching will comfort the hurting heart or fill the void we now sense in the soul, or answer the questions and longings of our hearts.

It is Jesus who speaks to the head and to the heart. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. I am the resurrection and the life.”

It’s not just a nice comforting idea to take the edge off your grief. It’s right here, standing before you, loving you, embracing you. I am resurrection and life eternal now already. “Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world,” Mary replies.

There, in the depth of her grief, she has caught sight of faith and hope, and yet, she still does not understand that he is the resurrection and the life. Later, at the tomb, she protests when Jesus orders the stone removed, saying, “Lord, no, there’s a stench, for he has been dead four days!” She believes; she just does not yet understand.

Mary’s response is much different. She doesn’t have Martha’s quick wit or her talent for thinking through meticulous theology. Her intelligence is of a different sort, one of emotion, one of intuition. She simply falls at the feet of the one who could have saved Lazarus, but chose to delay his arrival. She has no more words. She simply embraces his feet with the same hands that will later anoint them.

She is grieving, but she knows where her grief belongs, and she looks up, and finds that he is weeping too. He was late, yes, but he wasn’t playing light with Lazarus’s life. He also is deeply troubled and angry at death. He is hurting too. He is weeping also. And that says more about life and death than any theologian could ever write. Jesus wept with Mary. Jesus weeps with us.

And I imagine there were still a few tears in Jesus’ eyes as the tomb was opened and the smell came out and as he gave thanks to God, and as he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, Come out! And God was glorified amid the tears; God was glorified even amid something seemingly so irredeemably painful. Even amid death’s stench, “I am the resurrection and the life!”

Come and Give Your Life Away
My grandmother died in 1980 after a very painful journey with cancer. There was no last-minute intervention, not even an intervention that came four days later. Twenty-five years later, as my grandpa was dying of Parkinson’s and congestive heart failure, one of my aunts asked him if he was looking forward to seeing his wife again. A tear came to his eye, and he nodded. Even after all those years, the sting of death had not been erased.

But at my grandfather’s funeral a few years back, I heard a story I hadn’t heard before. My uncle recalled how they had prayed and hoped and waited for good news, for a change, and it didn’t come. But later on, he said, he discovered that there was a change. It wasn’t in my grandmother, but in my grandfather. His language for when the cows got out had changed. Instead of being left to his grief, he found new life and gave life by volunteering his cooking skills honed years ago in CPS camp, by cooking at Swan Lake Camp in South Dakota.

I don’t believe God caused or desired by grandmother to have cancer, and I wouldn’t exactly call it a happy ending, but I do believe that God was glorified even amid something seemingly so irredeemably painful.

The Lazarus story doesn’t exactly have a happy ending either, you see. Jesus had revealed God’s glory and he had invited Lazarus to be a part of that glory as well. But you know, glory is an odd thing in John’s gospel. You see, Jesus refers to his death as his glorification.

Indeed, the raising of Lazarus so enraged and threatened the folks who were running things that they began to plot his death in earnest, and not only his, but Lazarus’s death as well. Jesus would shortly die; and Lazarus before long as well. Jesus may as well have called out to Lazarus, “Lazarus, make room for two in there! I’ll be coming soon!”

But that’s not what he said; he said, “Lazarus, come out! Don’t just stay there until the resurrection on the last day. I am the resurrection and the life now already! So much for ordinary dying from disease and illness and cancer and accidents. So much for praying and hoping and waiting and making every effort to postpone death until the last possible minute. Now you can come with me to Jerusalem, to the cross. We’re going to go and give our lives away!”1

Jesus asked Martha to believe that he is the resurrection and the life, and those who believe in him, though they die, will never die. Jesus was there in Bethany that day that Lazarus was raised, and Lazarus wasn’t the only one raised to new life that day. Everyone who believed in the resurrection and the life got a taste of life eternal. Everyone who believes in Jesus the resurrection and the life has a foretaste of resurrection life now already.

And when you have eternal life, you have no more reason to fear death, no more reason to obsess over delaying its coming as long as possible, no more worrying about tomorrow, no more running away from illness.

Rather, you have every reason to go and give your life away.

Go and give your life to Jesus.

Go and live as he lived, even when it makes no more sense than opening a dead man’s tomb.

Go and love as he loved even when everyone has only hatred.

Go and weep and rejoice with him.

Go and give your life to following him, even when death is stinking to high heaven and everyone thinks you’ve got it all backwards. Follow him, and you’ll find the fragrance of God’s glory, and everyone around you will delight in its hope and life as well.

Jesus is here today for new life. If you want to cheat death, go and give your life away. Go and give your life away.

The road to life runs smack through the cross every time. Go and follow Jesus to Jerusalem, to the cross, and give your life away. Because you’ll find it again, my friends. Entrust yourselves to Jesus, and you’ll find it again.

He is the Resurrection and the Life.

Notes:
1 Paraphrased from Frederick Niedner, “A Generation Ago,” The Christian Century (Feb. 26, 2008), 21.

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Only Continue to Believe

December 14th, 2011 No comments

“Only Continue to Believe” (Mark 5:21-43)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
September 25, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

I can imagine how he felt. True, I was given no where close to 12 years, let alone one, nor was I even given the chance to hold my child through the loss of miscarriage, but I know what it feels like to experience great pain and anxiety over the fear of loss, and I know what it feels like to hear the words, “Your child is dead. There’s nothing more that can be done.” And I know that I am not the only person here who has experienced the very painful and very overwhelming power of death, whether that be through the loss of a grandparent, a parent, a sibling, a close friend, a spouse, or even (God forbid) the death of a child.

And so I can imagine how Jairus felt. He had come, overwhelmed by the terrifying turn of events in the life of his family, and he came, and fell at the feet of the One who had worked healing miracles before, pleading, begging, “Please… My daughter is dying. Come lay your hands upon her so that she might be saved and live.” What hope he must have felt when Jesus came, following quickly behind. Jairus had no doubt heard of other stories of Jesus’ amazing healing power: the leper, the paralytic, the man with a withered hand, not to mention his disciple Peter’s mother-in-law, and the crowds that came to Peter’s house. Surely now he, Jairus, was going to experience this amazing healing power in his own life, through the restoration of his daughter, who was now near death. Jesus was coming. He was almost there. It was all going to be alright.

But then… then that question… “Who touched me?”

Surely Jairus was chiming right in with the disciples, “You have to be joking! There is a whole multitude of people walking beside you, pressing in on you, of course you’re going to be touched! Please hurry, before we’re too late! We haven’t much time before she might die.” But the healer stops. He stops and tends to someone else. And Jairus has to wait, anxiety growing, fear increasing, but at this point there’s nothing he can do. And so he waits.. while Jesus deals with this unclean woman…

 

She had been bleeding for 12 years… 12 years… As this wraith of a woman pressed through the surrounding crowds, she stumbled often due to her constant state of anemia, and the many forms of exhaustion that now plagued her. She thankfully was able to move through the surrounding throngs without drawing too much attention to herself; after all, no one really looked at her any more. It was a welcome change to the hateful and terrified cries of “Unclean! Unclean!” that had followed her for so long. She could still hear the uncaring tone of the priest as he recited to her from the Torah: “If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days … for all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean.”1

Her husband had abandoned her years ago due to her perpetual state of being unclean. Her friends and family had long ago forsaken her due to their own fear of her condition. And had her affliction allowed her to have children, she was sure that they too would have disowned her long ago as well. She had not been touched by another living being for 12 years.

Except for the physicians, the countless physicians, and their cold and hardened touches. Out of hope to end her suffering, she had allowed herself to be subjected to their painful and humiliating methods for a cure, but everything that had been done to her body just seemed to make things worse. The bleeding had not stopped. And yet she still had to pay them. All the money to her name was now in the hands of the countless physicians that she had journeyed to over the course of 12 years.

She was alone in the world, alone with her suffering. She could not even enter the tabernacle to pray, due to her constant state of being unclean. She felt as though the God she had worshiped since childhood had abandoned her the moment the cursed bleeding had begun.

But then, she heard a story about a man who had once been paralyzed and how he was healed by a man named Jesus. And the hope she long thought had also abandoned her began to well up inside her again. And here he was, today of all days, walking through the streets of her village, and she thought “If I could just touch his cloak, I will be made well.” And now, after making her way through the crowds of people, she was almost there, just a few feet away from him now, and she reached out her frail fingers and touched the fringe of his garment. And then she knew in her body, at that very instant that her finger touched the fringe, she knew that she had been healed. Miracle of miracles, the bleeding had finally stopped… And in her relief and joy, she turned around and began to look for the best route to slink away in the surrounding crowds.

But then… then that question… “Who touched me?”

Her happiness turned instantly to horror. How could he have noticed? Wasn’t there a multitude of people walking beside him? How many had touched him before she did? If she stepped forward, would the crowds threaten to stone her for having deliberately touched and defiled a rabbi? Would their anger rise up against her for her having made them unclean by pressing her way through the throng? What would become of her now that she had finally experienced the healing she had hoped for for so long?

And she looked up, and did the One with the healing hem actually meet her gaze? And that look… that was not the look of fear and contempt that she had received for so long now. No one had looked at her like that for 12 years. And right then she knew that she had to tell him, just as her body had known that it had been healed of her affliction. And she stepped forward in fear and trembling before the One whose very cloak had the power to heal her, and she told him the complete truth, of her bleeding for 12 years, of the many things the physicians had tried, of the way everyone she loved had abandoned her, and of the hope she felt in seeing him and the healing she experienced through his touch.

And his response was completely different from what she had expected. His tone communicated that he spoke to another beloved human being, and not simply an unclean eyesore, as he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; depart into peace and be healed from your affliction.”

The healer saw it necessary to make this woman known to the crowd. “[Her] humiliation [had] been public knowledge; her healing must be public knowledge as well.”2 Rather than rebuking her for not following strict religious regulations, he commended her for her deep faith. He gave her hope and a future. No longer was she to be ostracized and condemned as one unclean, but now she was fully restored to the world of touch and affection, fully restored to health and wholeness, fully restored to the life that God wished for her. “[Her] Faith was the conduit through which Jesus’ power could flow to her need.”3 Her faith had made her whole.

 

And all the while, here stood Jairus, watching, waiting, while Jesus healed another. Had Jesus forgotten his tearful pleas while his healing powers were used on this once outcast woman? If only he would hurry… then Jairus could witness this amazing healing power again, in the life of one much more precious to him than this stranger from the crowd.

But then he saw one of his servants coming toward him. And his heart stopped, and his breath failed, and his hope died. And he knew what had happened in his soul even before his servant spoke the words, “Your daughter is dead. Why should you still trouble the teacher?” It was too late… they had lingered too long, and his daughter had died, robbed of her life at a mere 12 years of age.

“Only Jesus ignores this version of the truth.”4 And he turns to the grief stricken man and says, “Do not fear. Only continue to believe.” As if to say, you once had hope in the power of God’s healing; indeed, did you not just witness it in front of your own eyes? And Jesus journeys with Jairus in his grief to his home, where the mourners and wailers have already gathered to mourn the dead. And he says to the crowd, “She is not dead, but sleeping.” And Jairus can barely believe what he heard. He must have misunderstood over the cacophony of the wailing and the desperate pounding of his own heart. He nearly laughs along with the crowd. But Jesus takes his hand, and the hand of his wife, and leads them into the room that his daughter’s vibrant laughter once filled. And Jesus says to his daughter something that he heard his wife call to her every morning, “Talitha koum.” “Little girl, get up.”

And then he knew, at that very instant that Jesus spoke those words, he knew in his heart that his hope had been restored as assuredly as he knew his daughter’s life had been restored. Miracle of miracles, he saw his daughter not only sit up and smile at him, but get up and walk around after she had been ill for so long! And when the healer asked them not to tell anyone, Jairus thinks to himself, “Why would I need to say anything, when my daughter’s very life witnesses to the incredible healing power of the Most High God?”

And one can imagine, that even when things didn’t always go well for Jairus after that day, for nothing always goes exactly as we would hope, his amazing and life-changing experience inspired him to listen to Jesus and to “continue to believe” for the rest of his days.

 

These two people are models of sincere faith, even in the face of seemingly hopeless situations. One a synagogue leader, an important figure in the community, who heard of the healing power of Jesus and had the faith to seek him out, and whose continued belief allowed him to see the power of God at work in the restored life of his daughter. The other, an outcast woman, thought to be a nobody, whose faith and courage inspired her to risk her entire destiny on Jesus, who trusted him to rescue her from her past and to renew her future.5 Because of their faith, they are both able to experience the incredible power of God’s healing in their lives. And perhaps there are times when you also have experienced God’s amazing healing in your own life.

But what about those whose faith is strong, and yet they do not experience physical healing from their afflictions? Is God less present in these situations? Is God not at work in these times? Much damage has been done in accusing those who are sick that their faith is simply not strong enough to heal them. Much guilt has been incurred because those who are afflicted fear their faith is not great enough to make them well. Yet where is God when physical healing does not come?

Before we heard that our baby had stopped developing, there was a certain point at the doctor’s office when my heart began to sense that something was wrong, when I stopped praying, “O God, please let our child be alright” and instead began to pray, “O God, please be present with us.” And in many ways the Divine presence continued to be made known to us even when no physical healing came and no life was restored. God was present with us through the compassionate embraces of family and friends, and through the many hugs and cards and shared tears and prayers that we received from you as a congregation. And this was how we experienced the amazing healing power of Jesus.

For God’s healing occurs in many other ways than simply that of physical healing. When Jesus says to the hemorrhaging woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well,” the Greek literally reads, “Daughter, your faith has saved you.” This is a holistic healing, so much more than simply stopping the flow of her blood. It is healing in her soul, a restoration to the love and embrace of those around her, it is deliverance from everything that had plagued her and the many emotional scars she incurred. Her faith has made her whole. And we can experience this peace and wholeness even when physical healing does not come.

For we believe that Jesus is Lord. He is still master of the waves even when they are crashing in around us and all hope seems lost. And as the story of Jairus’ daughter proclaims to us, he is still master over death itself. It may not always seem that way, especially when death is something that is close to us. But our faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.6 And though we were not there with Jairus to see his little girl raised from the dead, we believe that it is God who has the final victory even over death itself.

Perhaps Jesus was on to something when he said that the little girl was merely sleeping. The early church latched on to this image of “sleep” instead of using words of “death.” With Stephen, the first Christian martyr, when his body finally succumbed to the stones, the text says that he literally “fell asleep.”7 Paul speaks of Christ’s resurrection from the dead as “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”8 This image of sleeping, of one who will once again wake up, captured their hope and their assurance that one day everyone who has “fallen asleep” will hear the voice of the Healer calling, “My child, get up.”

The Healer is still at work in the world, even in situations that seem to be hopeless, when our anxiety and fear are increasing to the point when we feel as though we can stand it no longer, even when it seems as though Jesus’ care and presence have left us to tend to another. Even then the Healer is still with us, and his voice still calls out to us, “Do not fear. Only continue to believe.”

Notes:
1 Leviticus 15:25, NRSV
2 Geddert, Mark, Believer’s Church Bible Commentary.
3 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life.
4 Ibid.
5 Geddert, Mark, Believer’s Church Bible Commentary.
6 Hebrews 11:1.
7 Acts 7:60.
8 1 Corinthians 15:20.

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Jesus in the Storm

December 14th, 2011 No comments

“Jesus in the Storm” (Mark 4:35-41)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
September 18, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Stormy Seas
Most of us Kansans don’t have a lot of experience with stormy seas, but we do know a thing or two about severe weather. When I was in college, you could always tell who was from Kansas or Nebraska or other Midwest states, because whenever there was severe weather approaching, they’d be the ones running outside to take a look, while everyone else was heading for the basement.

But we also know how frightening and devastating the chaotic and powerful tornado winds can be. I still remember how frightened I was as we took shelter from the massive Hesston tornado in 1990 and watched it pass a half mile from our home, and this year we have once again been reminded of the chaotic power of massive storm systems to devastate communities with mighty winds or torrential rains or rising waters or tsunami waves.

And perhaps most frightening of all, we know that we are powerless against such forces. We build our storm shelters and levies and ditches and floodways, and we plan escape routes and rehearse evacuation drills, but we are powerless to calm the great winds or to still the great seas, for it is we who are at their mercy

The Church: Wavetossed
It is, I think, little wonder that early Christians frequently drew a boat as a covert depiction of the church – shaken by the battering winds, tossed by the heaving seas, straining to reach safe harbor and quiet rest. Even we inlanders know what it feels like to be wavetossed. We know what it’s like to find the chaotic waves of the great seas around us beating into the boat as we try to stay afloat instead of being swallowed up by the great sea around us.

And we know what it’s like to be beleaguered by those things we cannot control, however much we might try. We know what it’s like to be afraid of the great powers that hold so much sway over our lives. It’s no stretch of imagination for us to wonder whether our economy will sink and we won’t be able to make ends meet, or whether there will be a drought again next year, and farmers’ crops will fail. We’re constantly overwhelmed as waves wash aboard faster than we can bucket them out, and we’re left disoriented, searching for our bearings, questioning ourselves and our purpose and our abilities and just plain ready to jump ship because we’re not up to the task anymore.

We know how fragile and small life is amid the powers that surround us, and we’ve been battered by tragedy and grief and all kinds of broken relationships, tossed about by fears and doubts, wondering if we’d be better off on dry land, but instead, we’re all alone out on the raging sea. We’re isolated, facing the great storm with no hands on deck, no one to turn to, no one to make it right. It’s us against the mighty storm of the age, with the waves pounding us into the vast and chaotic seas, and we finally cry out from the helm, “We are perishing! Save us!”

Sleeping Jesus?
But so often, it’s as if our voice gets drowned out in the storm, and there’s no one to hear our cries. And we want to cry out with the Psalmist, “Waken yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” (Ps. 44:23-24). Or in the words of the disciples to their sleeping teacher, “You don’t care that we are perishing!”

And isn’t that the worst part about the storm? It’s like there’s no one there who can tell us we’ll be okay, to tell us we’re going to reach safe harbor. And sometimes we don’t. Sometimes the cancer does win. Sometimes fear and resentment does swallow up love. Sometimes our loneliness and the great void in our heart remain impenetrable. Sometimes we can’t make ends meet. Sometimes we are just too wounded or battered or lost to be who we were created to be and ride out the storm, and we feel like God is asleep on the job. And the frustrated and lonely prayer of the Psalmist, and of the disciples becomes our prayer.

And, you know, Jesus knows the Psalms as well as anyone. He didn’t chastise the disciples for their accusation or doubt or frustration or questioning or grumbling or failure to understand or anything like that. If you pray the Psalms seriously, you’ll find that none of that is contrary to faith. Rather, having calmed the sea, Jesus says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

It seems that it is more difficult to calm the frightened disciples than it is to calm the wind and the seas. In fact, the calming of the wind and seas appears to increase the fear of the disciples. For Mark’s Gospel, it’s fear that is contrary to faith. How easy is it for our fears and anxieties to close our hearts and minds and ears and eyes to God’s presence and God’s ways? How often do our fears inhibit our love for one another? For fear of being wrong or misjudged or misunderstood or manipulated or let down.

Not that fear is always a bad thing, but how often does it come to dominate us? How often do we get so caught up in our own worries that we fail to see Jesus in the boat with us? How often do we take matters into our own hands – or at least try to hedge our bets a little bit because no one seems to be doing a thing about the storms raging around us?

“Why are you afraid?” Jesus says to the disciples. “Have you still no faith?”

Jesus: Our Peace in a Violent and Chaotic World
Preacher Thomas Long observes, “Ancient people feared the wind and the sea as untamed, life­threatening, and chaotic forces—emblems of arbitrary, uncontrollable evil.”1 In Genesis 1, God brings order to the “deep,” a primordial, chaotic sea. The Psalmist speaks of the sea as the home to great primordial monsters: dragons and the Leviathan. In Revelation, the beast rises out of the sea, and in fact, envisions a future where there will be “no more sea” (Rev. 21:1)

In casting out demons, Jesus also “rebukes” the demons and orders them to be silent and they obey, so also when he rebukes the untamed wind and orders the chaotic sea to be silent, they too obey.

The Psalmist speaks of God commanding the seas: “You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples” (Ps. 65:7). “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them” (Ps. 89:9). “The waters stood above the mountains. At your rebuke they flee; at the sound of your thunder they take flight” (Ps. 104:6b-7).

Here Jesus’ power has its source in God’s power over the seas. Jesus has stilled the great storm, this microcosm of the chaotic, untamed, and even evil powers tossing this world about, because he brings the message of God’s advancing reign, and God has authority even over the mighty seas.

Seeing this demonstration of his power, the disciples say to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” It’s as if they’re saying, “Who is this man, that in him even the primeval forces of demonic chaos find their master?”

Jesus didn’t perform this mighty act simply to demonstrate his power; rather, it reveals that God’s kingdom is coming at last to bring order out of chaos and discloses his identity.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God
The unwitting disciples are at least asking the right question, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Of course, we know who he is. Mark has given us the answer ahead of time, in the very first verse of the Gospel, which reads, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The answer is given again in the very next scene of the Gospel, but ironically it is the demons who know who Jesus is, saying “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” Even the demons know the identity of Jesus, and they know they have reason to fear him, because he has authority over them.

But why would the disciples, seeing him calm the sea, fear him as well and marvel as to his identity? Jesus has just talked about the advancing kingdom which is guaranteed to reach its goal (this is the test at the end of the parables lecture); you’d expect the disciples to be more confident, but they panic, charge Jesus with not caring, and react with amazement and fear when he calms the storm. How can they see the revelation of Jesus’ awesome power, yet not yet understand the source of that power? Why are these deeds of power not enough? Why do the disciples persist in their painful misunderstanding of who Jesus is? Later on, after Jesus feeds the multitudes for the second time, they’re in the boat with Jesus again, and they’re worrying about not having any bread.

After Jesus heals a blind man at Bethsaida, he finally puts the question to them: Who do you say that I am? Peter comes close in saying, “You are the Messiah,” but no human being has yet realized that Jesus is the very son of God, not even after hearing the teaching with authority or seeing the blind receive their sight or witnessing the feeding of the masses or standing in the great calm after the mighty storm does anyone understand who Jesus really is. Not even then do they know who’s in the boat with them, and maybe that’s why they’re still afraid. They are uncertain as to the source of his power; indeed, the could not possibly understand.

In Mark’s Gospel, you see, no one, no human being knows who Jesus really is until the very end. It is not until immediately after Jesus dies on the cross that someone, a centurion – one of his executioners of all people – finally understands, and says, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” That’s the Jesus, that’s the Messiah, that’s the Son of God who is in the boat with us: the one who suffers and dies for us, the one who is obedient unto death, .the one who demonstrates the greatest power by giving it up and giving himself into the hands of God, the one who confronts sin’s raging sea and death’s mighty wind by enduring the full brunt of the storm. That one is the Son of God – not any angel or emperor or king, but the crucified Messiah.

That, friends, is who is with us in the boat amid the raging storm, whether we know he’s there or not. The storm raged against him, the seas of sin and death attempted to swallow him up, but they could not. He has endured the storm’s fullest force, and he knows the way to safe harbor. Jesus is our peace in a violent and chaotic world, and with him in the boat, even the great storm becomes a still greater calm.

Notes:
1Thomas Long, Matthew in Westminster Bible Companion, 95.

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Tear a hole in the roof

December 14th, 2011 No comments

“Tear a hole in the roof” (Mark 2:1-12)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
September 11, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Paralyzed!
Word traveled fast that Jesus was back in Capernaum that day. Everyone remembered what happened the last time he was in Capernaum, and words of excitement were on their lips as they spread the news and rushed off to the house, “Do you remember the last time he was here, and, how he amazed us with his new teaching in the synagogue?And how right in the middle of the service, he had cast out the demon in the synagogue.” And then they started talking about how everyone was sure Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was going to die of fever, but Jesus healed her, and how Jesus healed many and cast out many demons at that very house, as just about everyone in the whole city it seemed had gathered at the gate of Peter’s home the last time Jesus was there (Mark 1:29-34)!

Everyone, that is, except the paralytic in town – everyone had rushed off in the excitement and left him last time. This time, four of his friends (might they be the four disciples we know by now?) had determined that it would be different, though. They put him on a mat, and each one took a corner and hauled him off to see Jesus (closest you could get to a wheelchair in the first century).

Now of course the four with their friend didn’t have much of a chance in any footrace with the exited townsfolk, and by the time they got to the house, they could hear Jesus already beginning to teach the packed-in crowds, and they couldn’t even find a way to the gate of the house. But these four, they were not to be deterred, and promised their friend he’d see Jesus one way or another. So they hoisted him up on the roof, dug their way through the earthen roof, no doubt getting dirt all over Jesus and the others in the house, and carefully lowered him right in front of Jesus’s feet.

A hush ran through the crowd as they watched the hole slowly emerge in the roof and more and more dirt fell down below, and as the four men finally lowered their friend to the floor. “Do you think he can heal even the paralytic?” the crowd whispered to one another as they waited.

Can he do that?
But then Jesus, seeing the faith of the man’s friends, turned to him and said, “Son, your sins are forgiven,” and a ripple of murmur went through the crowd. “What did he say? Did he heal him? No, he said his sins are forgiven. Why would he say that? Can he do that?” the crowds wondered.

The scribes who were there, of course knew that this fellow, whoever he thought he was, could not do that. They knew that only God can do that, and that only a temple priest can give such a proclamation, and even then, only after the proper ceremonies and sacrifices. And boy, did they know as well as anyone else that this paralyzed man before them had sins a-many, for a paralytic can’t possibly keep all the ritual regulations of the law, much less seek forgiveness for failure to do so. Why this fellow didn’t even confess his sins at all; and it was his friends who had faith! This fellow can’t do that!

Of course, Jesus heard all those thoughts ringing in his ears before the scribes even thought them, but they were speechless when he demonstrated his authority over both sin and illness, saying to the man, “Stand up, take your mat, and go to your home,” and the paralyzed man got up just as sure on his feet as if he had been walking his whole life. And the crowd was amazed.

Conflict
And it is an amazing story, but, you know, I really wish we could have seen the faces of the four who had brought the paralyzed man. Were they gaping in disbelief and disappointment as they heard Jesus tell their friend his sins were forgiven? Not that they were against forgiveness of sins, but here they had carried their friend all the way through the winding roads to see Jesus; they’d hauled him all the way up on the roof; they’d busted their backs digging through the roof just as fast as they could; they’d ever so carefully lowered their friend into the house right in front of Jesus, and the best he can do is, “Your sins are forgiven?” Why bother to tear a hole in the roof?

I mean, imagine that you’ve gone into the emergency room with a broken leg, and the doctor takes one look at it, and says, “Your sins are forgiven.” You’d probably be glad to hear that, but it’s not really why you’re there, is it?

Did Jesus have any intention of healing the poor man at the beginning? After all, he was more impressed with the faith of the man’s friends. Or was he just out to stir up a little trouble with the scribes? Were this man and his four friends just the first pawns out in a larger chess game that had just begun? Was healing him just the checkmate in round one as Jesus demonstrated his authority as the Son of Man and left his adversaries speechless?

Well, it seems like there’s more to it than that, but if Jesus were just out to play chess and make trouble, he sure stirred up a-plenty of it over the next few days, so much so that those who tell about it today often call it the “conflict section” of the gospel. And here’s why: After healing the paralytic, Jesus went down to the lakeshore, the crowds following after him. And there, in front of everyone, he invited a tax collector named Levi (sometimes Matthew) to join him. Well, they didn’t like tax collectors back then any more than most folks do today, and sinners were precisely the folks you were supposed to avoid if you didn’t want to be defiled. But Jesus not-so-subtly went to Levi’s house to eat with him and other tax collectors and sinners! More trouble!

And then a few days later, Jesus stirs up some more trouble on the Sabbath. His disciples are out picking grain to eat on the Sabbath. The Pharisees complained that they were breaking the law, and Jesus tells them about king David breaking the law to eat, and claims to be Lord of the Sabbath. You got it, more trouble.

But what really gets things going is when he’s back in the Synagogue later that day. There happened to be a man with a withered hand there that day, and the crowd was watching if Jesus would break the sabbath to heal him. Jesus said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” The scribes had been silently questioning in their hearts before when Jesus healed the paralytic; now they were silent and hard of heart. Jesus said to the man, “stretch out your hand.” He did and was healed. And the Pharisees went out to conspire on the Sabbath (!) with their enemies, the Herodians, to destroy him.

The New Is Coming!
But in the midst of all this conflict that seemed to have begun with a hole in the roof and was becoming deadly, right in the middle of this story, there’s something interesting that happens. Jesus is asked why his disciples don’t fast, and Jesus responds that like guests at a wedding, they can’t when they have the bridegroom with them. And then he goes on: “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins, but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”

And that’s the hinge on which it all swings. Jesus comes with the good news that God is doing something new – that God’s kingdom is finally at hand. The new is coming, and the old just won’t fit any more. The scribes knew all the old ways of doing things. They knew what to do with sinners and tax collectors: keep your distance, call for confession, prescribe the right ceremonies, say the right things, but they had no power to grant new life. But Jesus comes offering forgiveness without ceremonies. Jesus comes and has fellowship with the lot who have neither confessed their sinfulness nor visibly gotten cleaned up. They old way, you had to get cleaned up and healed up before you could be a part of God’s people; now Jesus just invites them to the kingdom, “Come follow me,” and in doing so, then their lives are transformed.

The new is coming, and the old just won’t fit anymore.

In the old way of doing things, the sabbath had come to rule over people’s lives; in the new way of the kingdom, the sabbath is to give life to people.

The new is coming, and the old just won’t fit anymore.

The old way, the crippled and paralyzed folks couldn’t be a part of God’s people because they couldn’t keep the law properly, and because they couldn’t make proper atonement ceremony for their sins. And if you’re not a part of God’s people, then you have no hope, and no one thought needed to care about you. But the new way, the kingdom way, new wine, means that you’re forgiven freely and healed in Jesus, and you’re a part of God’s people not according to ceremony, but when you start to follow Jesus, and become a part of his caring community.

Jesus came bringing God’s new order with him, and that new wine started breaking the old wineskins. That’s why the guardians of the old way resisted and resented Jesus. That’s why the Pharisees and Herodians ultimately started to conspire together for Jesus’ death, and, ironically, it was Jesus death and subsequent resurrection that sealed the newness that Jesus came proclaiming and that his critics stubbornly rejected.

The new is coming, and the old just won’t fit anymore.

The old just won’t fit anymore!
The old way, if your friend was paralyzed, he was just paralyzed, stuck that way. He was outside the people of God and isolated, except for the few who would risk to show compassion. But back in that packed house by the sea, four faithful friends dug a hole in a roof because they knew that the new was coming, and even houses were bursting at the seams, unable to contain the new and amazing love of Jesus in the approaching kingdom of God.

Maybe that’s why Jesus, to the shock of the crowds (and I’m guessing the four friends), looked at the paralytic, and said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Could it be because he knew that sin is much larger than the bad deeds people do; that it’s much, much larger – more than misdeeds, broader than things we should not do. It’s a power that captures us, that corrupts nature, that infects human culture, that enslaves the heart, and ultimately destroys life. “To sin is to be captured by the larger forces that oppose God and to join them in doing their bidding.” Human beings can’t stop sinning just by deciding to do so. We are enslaved by sin as a force that destroys life. And it’s henchmen described in the Bible are numerous: chaos, the demonic, illness, and death to name a few. Sin is the broadest word we have to describe all the powers that oppose the kingdom of God.

Illness is something that has infected not just individual people, but the whole creation, out to destroy God’s good work. We don’t know why the man was paralyzed. Perhaps it was his own fault. Perhaps it happened because of someone else. Perhaps it was an accident. But Jesus saw more than a paralytic before him that day. He saw the crumbling wineskin of the old order, an order dominated by sin that had left the man isolated and unclean, and it just didn’t fit his message of God’s new action in the kingdom. “Curing a damaged nervous system is turning back a wave; eradicating the power of sin is sweeping back the ocean.”1

The crowds had seen Jesus perform many astounding healings in Capernaum – that’s why they came again, but this time, they saw him confronting not just the symptom, but the source, the greater adversary, sin itself.

The man who had been paralyzed was truly healed – both body and spirit. Would restoring the use of his legs have freed him from sin? Not likely. There were other healers in Jesus’ day; they may have been able to restore his legs; but only Jesus can release us from our sins, because he has authority and brings the new message of the kingdom of God, and the old just won’t fit anymore.

Today our nation marks 10 years since the terrorist attacks of 2001, and we gather in this sanctuary to seek healing and to remember. We know the old ways the world has worked – the ways of fear and hatred and revenge. Ten years of tiring wars and constant suspicion. But the good news is that the old ways just won’t fit anymore. The new has has burst open our homes and our hearts, where forgiveness now overcomes the paralysis of hatred and revenge; where healing and compassion and sharing one another’s grief have authority over the paralysis of fear and pain.

Are there any here who are paralyzed today? Are there any who are hurting or angry or confused or afraid or alone or sick? Are there any sinners here in need of a physician? Well, there’s good news, because the old just won’t fit anymore, and God’s love is already bursting old wineskins and old clothes, and bursting open the heavens and roofs alike, because there’s always room for one more. God’s kingdom is at hand, and Jesus forgives us, heals us, and invites us to follow him.

The old just doesn’t fit any more; it’s time to get ready for something new. It’s time to tear a hole in the roof!

Notes:
1 Thomas Long, Matthew in Westminster Bible Companion series, 101.

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