“Trees Planted by Streams of Water”

Proverbs 31, Mark 9:30-37: True Discipleship #LikeAGirl (Sermon)

Introduction

You either love her or hate her; but all of you are opinionated about her. She’s either revered as the ultimate example of womanhood or she is despised as nothing but oppressive idealism unattainable by human standards. In academic circles she’s rarely if ever the topic of conversation: she’s relegated to an inferior position; that’s just about woman’s work.

Personally, I’m fascinated by her, ever since becoming a Christian I’ve marveled over her. At multiple points in my life, I’ve tried to be her only to fail. I’ve meditated on and prayed through the poem multiple times. It is no surprise to hear that I wrote a 100 page thesis on her. My question leading up to writing my MDiv thesis was: Why? Why is she here?

In and through my intellectual digging, I discovered an answer I wasn’t expecting. Rather than being a checklist for the proper execution of womanhood and wifery or some abstract communication about the people of God, the Church, she is, from head to toe, the manifestation of hope. And not just hope in general, but hope specific. She is the hope of restoration: restoration of woman to God and the restoration of the relationship between men and women. And even more than those two things, she is the manifestation of hope for humanity: what it means to be a good disciple.

It is my contention that she is an expression of the hope for the reversal of the curse of Genesis 3. She is hope for the longed for reversal that is to be completed in the coming Messiah—the Messiah to whom all of the Old Testament points. It is my belief that she is the signpost on the way to through the metanarrative of scripture that points to what comes in Christ. She is the embodiment of the hope embedded in the protoevangelium (the first gospel promise) uttered way back when in Gen 3:15 when God cursed the snake: “I will put enmity between you and the woman,/and between your offspring and hers;/he will strike your head,/and you will strike his heel.”

She doesn’t just point to Genesis 3 when everything goes bad; but to Genesis 1 and 2 when everything was very good. The poem draws us back to the cool air of the garden, when woman walked alongside man and they communed together in the presence of God, as co-vice-regents of the earth. The Proverbs 31 Woman is fighting a battle, not just keeping house. The warfare imagery throughout the poem leads us, the reader, to see a woman, to see a person who is fighting against the chaos established by the fall. The Proverbs 31 Woman is pointing back to Eve and Adam, and at the same time pointing forward—through the chaos of the fall—to Christ—who is the very image of God his Father in his divine substance (God of very God) and of Mary his Mother in his humanity. When God walked the earth he carried her face into the world. The woman was not forgotten when God became man. To over emphasize the masculinity of Jesus the Christ at the expense of the femininity of the one whom he looked like, is to devolve into a very bad Christology and a malnourished and weak God-talk (theology). Let us talk rightly, for ourselves and because the children are listening.

V.10: “An excellent wife who can find?/She is far more precious than jewels.” The way this question is phrased in the original language expects a negative answer. Who can find this excellent wife? No one. She is so “rare” that jewels do not compare to her. Even if you could “find” her, you couldn’t afford her anyway! VV.11-12: “The heart of her husband trusts in her,/and he will have no lack of gain./12 She does him good, and not harm,/all the days of her life.” She is mature in age and in spirit. Their relationship has weathered the trials of the passing years; she is not young nor is she a newly wed. She operates in love towards her husband, just as in the New Testament those who are in Christ are encouraged to operate in love towards one another.[1] He knows that she loves him; there is no doubt, no worry, no wonder; he is confident in her love toward her. And in that he knows she loves him, his heart trusts in her. Much like a child trusts his mother.

V.13: “She seeks wool and flax,/and works with willing hands.” She can use a broad spectrum of materials to create things—she is capable, creative and astute. There is nothing wasteful about her handling of materials; everything is put to use in some way or another (v.13). V.14: “She is like the ships of the merchant;/she brings her food from afar.” She provides for her family. She’s not just making meals, she’s enjoying the bounty created by God and deemed enjoyable by Him.[2] She takes pleasure in the world just as God did and does; just as humanity did and should. V.15: “She rises while it is yet night/and provides food for her household/and portions for her maidens.” She is not given to too much sleep; she is not lazy. However, though she is diligent throughout her days, her work is not her lord (work is its proper place, under her dominion). She does not neglect her household—those who depend on her—for her own pleasures. Both men and women are to be active and care for others and not act like disinterested selfish slugabeds.[3] Oh, and by the way, she’s wealthy: she has servant girls! Even if this was about “works,” She does NOT bare that responsibility alone.

V.16: “She considers a field and buys it;/with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.” She has investment-like foresight. She re-invests; she does not earn gain for gain’s sake. Her very fruitfulness (prosperity) is evidence that she is sowing righteous seed in righteous soil and continually replants the fruits of her hand.[4] V.17: “She dresses herself with strength/and makes her arms strong.” Strength is one of her foremost qualities. Her arms are strong for the task…she is able to get things done, especially in ‘planting’ a vineyard. She is not afraid of hard work or of labor. [5] Meek and mild? Think again! Think: Princess Xena. Think: Wonder Woman: Think: Amazon. Think: Frontier Woman. Weaker sex, eh?

V.18: “She perceives that her merchandise is profitable./Her lamp does not go out at night.” This is not about having a home-based business. This is creational language reminiscent of Genesis, “And God saw that it was good.”[6] She is a creature that was gifted to use her mind and her hands to make. And she uses this ability to purchase the oil for her lamp and keep a store of oil so that her lamp will not go out. She is, essentially, prepared with enough oil to provide light for a long time; she’s one of the wise virgins with a trimmed wick waiting for the Lord to return.[7] V.19: “She puts her hands to the distaff,/and her hands hold the spindle.” There’s more to the imagery here than sewing. What is the distaff and spindle imagery depicting? A valid definition for the Hebrew word translated as spindle is “district”.[8] She puts her hands to the district; she extends her hands and subdues the earth as the manifestation of one of the commands of God in the Garden (reversal of 3:16ff). [9]

V.20: “She opens her hand to the poor/and reaches out her hands to the needy.” She is caring for the poor and afflicted by “extending her hands” as was required by every Israelite (Deut. 15:11). She is the godly person for whom Micah seeks as he walks around the streets, for her hands stretch out and do “good” (7:1-7). She represents what it means to be truly human: caring for the disenfranchised; she is being used as what it means to love your neighbor as yourself;.[10] V.21-22: “She is not afraid of snow for her household,/for all her household are clothed in scarlet./She makes bed coverings for herself;/her clothing is fine linen and purple.” The poem covers many seasons, winter being one of them. The poem does not just cover this woman’s day, but this woman’s entire life. The reference to her household being clothed in scarlet is synonymous with her wealth; she is a wealthy woman and has clothed her household in good, warm clothing.

V.23: “Her husband is known in the gates/when he sits among the elders of the land.” Her husband sits among the elders so he is older, thus she is, too. Notice that there have been 12 verses since her husband has been mentioned. This woman is not defined by him and her service to him, but by her own qualities, V.24: “She makes linen garments and sells them;/she delivers sashes to the merchant.” She is aware that her deeds are worthy and, thus, she does not hesitate to capitalize on them. She is wise and can bring in her own income, which she uses to the benefit of her household.[11] V.25: “Strength and dignity are her clothing,/and she laughs at the time to come.” It is through her relationship with God, it is in her fear of the Lord (v.30) where these characteristics of strength and dignity are sourced. These characteristics are evident to everyone who meets her. V.26: “She opens her mouth with wisdom,/and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” And her words back this up; they are described as wise. Her outward appearance and inward manner are one in the same; she is not a white-washed tomb. The state and orientation of her heart is righteous for what flows out of her is righteous. In Mark 7, Jesus explains it is what comes out of and not what goes into that defiles a person; our Proverbs 31 woman speaks wisdom and thus is wise and you can only be wise if you know God (according to the Hebrew and our own tradition). She knows Torah (rare); she knows and is known by God.

V.27: “She looks well to the ways of her household/and does not eat the bread of idleness.” V.28-29: “Her children rise up and call her blessed;/her husband also, and he praises her:/“Many women have done excellently,/but you surpass them all.” “This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” is akin to the statement of the husband in the poem in Proverbs 31, “Many women have done well, But you surpass them all.”[12] V.30-31: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,/but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised./Give her of the fruit of her hands,/and let her works praise her in the gates.” This is the key to the whole poem! It is her inner-beauty, her fear of the Lord that has been the eye-catching aspect of this woman from v.11 to v.30. Her strength and dignity come from her relationship with God; her wisdom, too, is of God (Prov. 1:7).

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,

nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

Their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and they meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;
everything they do shall prosper. (Psalm 1:1-3)

The proverbs 31 woman is a glimpse of a restored Eve and a restored relationship of Eve to God; thus, a glimpse of the restoration of the relationship of woman to man.[13] But it’s not only about that. If we take the creation myth of Genesis 2 seriously, and see it primarily as a story about the creation of (thus the necessity of) community in likeness and difference (which is the extinguishing of loneliness), then what we see here, too, is the restoration of Humanity. The Proverbs 31 woman is clearly the embodiment of the ideal humanity yanked out of the chaos and myths of the world–a world broken by oppressive and deleterious systems of abuse in manifold forms–and placed into the Reign of God. Located in the reign of God in the event-encounter with God by faith in Christ alone. And this Reign of God is marked by love and kindness, by mercy and divine justice in restoration and reconciliation, in freedom for all or freedom for none, in the solidarity in suffering and pain and grief and sorrow, in the equality and mutuality in community that lives the very thing believed: that the dividing wall has been torn down, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male and female (Gal 3:28). To be truly human, to be the faithful disciple in the world, is to act as the Reign of God is; to act like the Proverbs 31 woman.

The remarkable thing about our readings today is not just the fact that we read the Proverbs 31 poem and that you happen to have in your midst a self-proclaimed P. 31 scholar (*wink), but that our Gospel passage, from Mark, works with the Proverbs reading. Jesus spends time explaining to his disciples what it means to be a good disciple (and the Gospel of Mark is directed at such a specific message): If anyone wishes to be first, he must be last and servant of all people (9:35, translation mine). He then (immediately) snags a small child and places that child in the midst of his cadre of disciples. Jesus lowers himself, puts his arms around the child and says this, Whoever receives one such as this child on the basis of my name, that person receives me; and whoever receives me, does not receive (only) me, but the one who sent me (v37, translation mine). Whoever receives into their arms, intimately, one such as this child receives me. Receives one such as this child. And I am relocated to when I reached for and held my first born son, just born; receive one such as this child. According to Jesus, to be and do the will of God is to love like a mother.

Even Paul, in the letter to the Ephesians uses mothering imagery to explain what agape love (divine love) looks like to the men/husbands in Ephesus. In a discussion about what mutual submission looks like, Paul shorthands a quick statement to the wives: each to their own husbands as unto the Lord. (Full Stop.) He then turns to the husbands: y’all best sit down for this…Paul begins. What do I mean by love and mutual submission the women get, but you don’t because you’ve never brought a child into the world. The washing imagery of 5:25-28 is less to do with “baptism” and everything to do with the washing of a child by the mother.

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.”

A regular practice of mothers in the ancient Greco-Roman society was to forgo their own cleanliness in order to wash their child. Just like our own bodies betray us in gestation, so to do our brains in consistently choosing the well being of our child over our own. It’s why mothers do weird things (because they’re tired and they’re in love). The men would’ve washed themselves first, but the mother would’ve washed the baby first. This Paul uses as an example for the men, they would’ve seen it practiced in their own homes and boy would that message had been radical. Paul knew that women understood “mutual submission”; not only because they had to endure it socially and politically but also because they couldn’t deny it relationally (as a mom). They knew instinctively what that agape love was.

If you’ve ever wondered why the women are always getting “it” in the gospels, if you’ve ever wondered why the women seem to understand what and why Jesus came, you now have your answer: the activity of God for the world has not only paternal but also significant maternal power. And if you know agape love you recognize agape love.

Mark 15, the women watch Jesus die; they knew. Mark 7, the Syrophoenician woman; she knew. Mark 14, the woman who anoints Jesus in Bethany; she knew. Mark 5, the woman suffering from perpetual bleeding; she knew. John 4, the Samaritan woman at the well; she knew. Luke 10, Mary at Jesus’s feet; she knew. They all knew in the core of their being; they knew.

We see Jesus the man in his strong masculine form and forget that he’s God who is both male and female and thus embodies also the strength and dignity of the paradoxical gentleness and fierceness of the feminine. Both men and women, in Christ, justified by faith, are to receive and love all people unto the least, like a mother. It’s not reception as in tolerance; it’s life laying down neighbor love, the way a mother loves her child. Believe me, Jesus loves the whole world. He loves in the way that he bore the sins of the world just like a woman bears a child into it. In the same way she holds that child to her breast as she nurtures and sustains that child. In the same way a mother will lay her life down for her child no matter what the threat or possible destruction she herself will undergo.

Both men and women are encountered by God in the event of faith. Both men and women are called to be disciples of Christ marked by laying down of their lives and in bearing their crosses. Both men and women are brought unto death and into new life in Christ. Together.  Good news has come to the world in Christ Jesus this man who is God. And no longer bound to the systems and stories and lies of the world, believers are the ones who live into the world in a radical way; the one’s who know God and live as if they do. Today through the words of the poem of Proverbs 31 and in Jesus’s embracing a child, we are called to be the faithful witnesses of Christ in the world, to proclaim Christ crucified to the world in all that we say and in all that we do, and to love (radically) all people and the world as we have been loved (radically and unconditionally) by God. Let us love, let us love like a mother loves her child, love like the Proverbs 31 Woman, love like the women who knew, love #likeagirl.

[1] (1 Cor. 13; Eph. 5, Love your neighbor as yourself)

[2](DBI 297) “God not only provides, and provides abundantly for his creatures, but he also provides an immense variety of pleasurable flavors, textures, colors, shapes and smells, all of which indicate the joy and delight of the creator with his creation”

[3] (Prov. 6:6, 9; 10:26; 13:4; 15:19; 19:24; 20:4; 21:25; 22:13; 24:30)

[4] (v. 16; Gen. 1:28; Mt. 25:14-30).

[5] “Both the arm and the hand are biblical images of power….[and] can represent power in action, either good or evil” (DBI 43)

[6] (Gen. 1:10b, 12c, 18c, 20e, 25c, 31b)

[7] (Mt. 25:1-13)

[8] (Moore 25-30; BDB 813; cf. Nehemiah)

[9] (Gen. 1:24, Gen. 2:18)

[10] (Lev. 19:18; Mt. 22;39; Mk. 12:31; Lk. 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14)

[11] (Gen. 1:24, 28)

[12] “In order to understand what follows, we must turn at once to the final goal: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh,’ is the cry of man when God brings him the woman. This exclamation, the expression of a recognition, the proclamation of a choice and decision made by man—the first saying of man expressly recorded in the saga—is not just a kind of epilogue to the creation of the woman, and therefore the completion of man’s creation, but it is with this express saying of man that the latter reaches its goal…The whole story aims at this exclamation by man. In this, and this alone, the creative work of God reaches its goal, for only now has man really been given the necessary help designed by God” (CD III I.41.3 291).

[13] Erika Moore’s Exegesis paper, “The Domestic Warrior: An Exegesis of Proverbs 31:10-31”. 1994. (14).

Blessed are the Ordinary

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 (Sermon)

One of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had is being a parent, specifically being a stay-at-home-parent. It’s probably not hard to imagine why I’d say such a thing; either you personally relate to such a statement because of experience or you’ve witnessed the grueling task being performed by another. Being the primary care provider for little and rather irrational human beings demands a certain amount of mental and physical and emotional fortitude; not to mention the exponential increase therein as you have more kids. Maneuvering through (what seems like) the endless minefield of demands and needs and still retaining some sense of self at the end of the day is the feat of feats.

But it wasn’t just the tasks that sent me into my own personal pressure cooker and crucible, but the monotony of the tasks. The day in and day out of doing the exact same thing over and over again often felt soul crushing and dehumanizing. I had gone from a well-decorated seminary student with a bright-star-esque academic future, to rinsing off yet another poopy cloth diaper. The rocking chair and my nursing infant tethered me to the nursery. This. This is my life. Nursing and diaper changes. Peanut butter jelly sandwiches and massive tantrums.

 I watched as my peers reviewed proofs of their books, traveled to exotic locations to proclaim the gospel, start ministries and plant churches while I was stuck changing my shirt for the fourth time that day because of projectile spit-up. My inner monologue featured the twin thoughts: “I’m capable of so much more!” and “Good Lord, I’m a shell of a human being…”

One day, while I was reading one of the volumes of Luther’s Works, I saw my plight clearly defined.

This punishment [in Genesis 3:16], too, springs from original sin; and the woman bears it just as unwillingly as she bears those pains and inconveniences that have been placed upon her flesh. The rule remains with the husband, and the wife is compelled to obey him by God’s command. He rules the home and the state, wages wars, defends his possessions, tills the soil, builds, plants, etc. The woman, on the other hand, is like a nail driven into the wall. She sits at home…so the wife should stay at home and look after the affairs of the household, as one who has been deprived of the ability of administering those affairs that are outside and that concern the state. She does not go beyond her most personal duties.[1]

On that day, as my eyes moved over Luther’s words, I felt the very long tentacles of the curse uttered way back when cinch and tighten around me. I was a nail hammered so deep into a wall that the only hope to recover the nail would be to tear the wall down; the only other recourse would be to just admit the nail was lost forever. I wasn’t special, I wasn’t a bright-shining star; I was just a mom stuck in the monotony and banality of #momlyfe.

And I know I’m not alone, and I know that what I experienced isn’t merely a stay-at-home-parent thing. We all suffer from the monotony and banality of our lives. Very few of us here are as famous and special as we thought we would be when we were kids. And even if we are, monotony and the mundane plague every one’s life. The same people keep sitting in the same chairs at our dinning tables, ranting about the same things. We drive the same route in the same traffic there and back from work. Our lunches are packed with the same foods and in the same manner; the only change being that the store ran a sale on pink lady apples so you didn’t get the Fuji you normally get. Ooooo. Fancy.

While routine can bring comfort, it will also bring disdain; no one likes being in a rut or in the thick of existential crises surrounded by the doldrums. At some point in the last 7 days—more likely than not—you said or thought something to the equivalent of: is this all there is for me? Or you felt stuck, stuck like a nail driven deep into a wall, nothing special.

And then the apostles were called together to Jesus and they reported to him everything that they did and everything they taught. And then [Jesus] said to them, “Come! You yourselves privately to an empty place and rest a little.” For the people—who were the ones coming and the ones going—they were not even having an opportunity to eat. And they (Jesus and the disciples] went away in a fishing boat into an empty place privately. And then they saw them [Jesus and the disciples] going away and many people recognized [them] and then together they ran from all of the towns and they were ahead of them [Jesus and the disciples]. (Mark 6:30-33)

There’s nothing really special about our Gospel passage either. In fact, it’s remarkably dull and mundane. Neither my exegetical work nor any commentary provided me with that: “Oh, wow! That’s really cool!” moment we preachers so desperately desire. The text is as a bland in the original Greek as it is in the English; you’re not missing out on anything.

The story is as follows: the disciples have returned to Jesus and tell him what they’ve been doing (Mark doesn’t take the time to be specific, it’s merely: they tell Jesus all the things, no one story being significant to tell in detail). Jesus then suggests a retreat, and they all get in a boat to go to a remote place for rest. This attempt is thwarted because: people. Jesus loves the people and teaches them. That’s it. There’s nothing very remarkable here.

The reality that Jesus is popular or that he is very concerned for the physical and mental state of his overworked disciples[2] isn’t new; Mark is consistently pointing out both.[3] Even the destination for the disciple’s retreat is not even worth mentioning in detail: it’s merely a deserted, remote place without a name located somewhere on the northwestern portion of the shore.[4] And, according to the commentary I read for this passage, v. 33 points out that Mark has, “…oversimplified the process by which so large a crowd came to be in the ε῎ρημος τόπος looking for Jesus.”[5] Mark, in his quick and immediate style, merely informs his reader that there were a lot of people, these people recognized them, and they ran to meet Jesus on the other side of the shore. V. 33 has a lot of information collapsed into it; none of it particularly all that fascinating.

To make matters more bland, the main point of the remainder of chapter 6 falls not with this failed attempt at retreat and rest, but on the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’s walking on the surface of the water.[6] But guess what? We weren’t even offered the good part. According to the Lectionary, we go from v. 34 straight to v.53 and read about another boating endeavor and Jesus healing everyone everywhere. The lectionary intentionally dropped those two big, fat miracles out of the reading. And, just like our boring lives, what we’re left with is a big dose of: meh.

Wedding the lectionary’s scriptural omission to the conception that Mark’s is very concerned with (and has been for a few chapters now) the “Christological question…‘Who is Jesus?’”[7], we find ourselves in a bit of an intellectual conundrum. We’re faced with the question: how does this handful of disconnected verses offer illumination into Jesus? How are we, through the text, brought into an encounter with God? And surely the crisis of the need for food and being encountered by your rabbi walking on water provides a more than adequate means for a textually centered encounter with God. In my very human opinion, the miracles seem to be a seraphic announcement: Jesus is God! But what we have seems more like divine mumbling, huh? what? I didn’t quite catch that.

And then when he [Jesus] got out he saw a large crowd and he felt sympathy upon them, that they were as sheep not having a shepherd, and then he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:34)

Rather than being overwhelmed by the largeness and the magnificence of the grand miracles of vv. 35-52, where we can point and say: See?! This is God; there is God in Christ! We are left being rather underwhelmed with mundane minutia and commonplace statements about Christ. But maybe that’s the point?

Maybe by not being dropped into midst of the grandness of the big miracles but shoved to the outside margins and fringes, we are being asked to reconsider how we view the ordinary? Being forced to focus on the text surrounding two major miracles and not on the miracles themselves demands that we broaden our typically narrow Christological answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” We are forced to incorporate the small, the mundane, and the banal of life in our answer. Whatever we say of Christ applies even in the monotony of the everyday.

In v. 34, Christ has compassion on the crowd because they are sheep without a shepherd (a clear Old Testament reference).[8] The imagery of the sheep without a shepherd, “…denotes the ‘untended’ state of the ordinary people of Galilee… which arouses Jesus’ compassion and to which he responds as in 4:1-2 by an extended period of teaching.”[9] Jesus has compassion on a group of people, a large group of ordinary people with ordinary lives. Jesus, in the big and in the small, is “‘the one who cares.’”[10] This one who cares is the one who the ordinary people encounter on the shore, and it’s in this encounter where the ordinary is transformed into something extraordinary because the ordinary comes into contact with the extraordinary. And, that’s what the grace of God does and this extraordinary alteration is the essence of the reign of God.[11]

In the economy of the reign of God: what was last is first, what is made low is brought high, what is poor is rich, what is unclean is made clean, what is rejected is accepted, and what is dead is made to be alive. In all of the gospel accounts of Christ, Jesus is recorded as upending the status quo and in doing so he overthrows the controlling myths of the world. When being strong and powerful and rich and satiated was considered to be the manifestation of blessedness, that God had looked upon you and smiled, Jesus said the opposite,

“Looking at his disciples, he said:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.’” (Luke 6:20-22).

Blessed are you who are ordinary for yours is the extraordinary grace of God. Because it’s in the throes of existential crisis of monotony where you realize you are completely incapable in yourself to be anything but ordinary and commonplace, where the lie that you have to be the richest of the rich, or the powerful of the powerful to affect change in this world is exposed. God, in Christ, has looked upon you and has had compassion. And we know that it is the character and quality of God to have compassion because Christ is compassionate here and elsewhere; this is as marvelous and powerful (and maybe more so) as stilling and quieting the wind and waves, as magnificent as walking on water and feeding the 5,000. This is the extraordinary and compassionate God the ordinary people of Galilee encounter on the shore.[12]

In this event-encounter with God everything changes by the paradoxical grace of God. The rejected becomes the beloved, the sick become the well, and the ordinary becomes the extraordinary.

A friend of mine wrote a very excellent book on the life and theology and politics of Helmut Gollwitzer, a theologian of early 20th century Protestant Germany. He writes about Gollwitzer’s death,

“Helmut lived for another seven years and more, until October 17, 1993. He died when he fell down the stairs of his house. This may seem like an odd detail to include here. I must admit that when I first learned how Gollwitzer died, it struck me as an unjustly ignoble death for one who had lived the life and survived the circumstances that he did. From another perspective, however, that Gollwitzer survived what he did only to die in such a mundane way is perhaps the greatest possible testament not only to his strength and character, but also the grace of God that characterized his life—grace upon grace.”[13]

When I first read how Gollwitzer died, it didn’t make sense to me that my friend was seeing it as a great testament to the grace of God. Considering my friend to be one of the better theologians I currently know, I knew there was something I was missing in the connection. What was he seeing that I couldn’t see?

Finally, it dawned on me that I could ask him, especially when he was standing next to me at AAR. When I asked him how Gollwitzer’s death—caused by falling down stairs—was “grace upon grace,” he explained to me that it was the paradox of grace. The grace of God changes the mundane tasks and events of life; it’s in the mundane tasks and events of life where the grace of God is exposed for what it is: truly remarkable. It’s in the non-miraculousness of life where the paradoxical grace of God shines brightly—we expect to see the power and grace of God in a miracle, but not so much in the everyday. It is here in the mundane and monotonous aspects of life where we encounter God and the question, “Who is this?” about Christ is answered with a “I am who I am” (Ex. 3:14). The drab gray background of our common and ordinary lives highlights the bright colors of God’s grace. God is glorified in the ordinary.

Our regular tasks and the things we do day in and day out, the very things we think are hindering the grace of God are the very vehicles for the grace of God, where we encounter God in the event of faith. We don’t have to be monastic monks to experience the grace of God. We can experience God’s grace in the common. Changing diapers is divine, holding an average steady job to provide for your family is divine, putting meals on the table over and over and over again is divine, studying or grading papers is divine, just getting up and being present in your life in whatever capacity you can participate in is divine, even death is divine; in all of these things we are brought into event-encounters with God and with each other. This is surely divine.

In these event-encounters we are brought into life out of death because now everything harbors the beauty of divine possibility for encounter with God with an other. We don’t have to be strong and powerful and rich to be of any good in the world (and often times these things fail and hinder us in this regard). Rather, all we need to be is wonderfully and unremarkably ordinary human beings doing wonderfully ordinary human things with other ordinary human beings. We are the ones who have been the beloved objects of the God who cares and has compassion on us, who will never leave us or forsake us.

Luther was wrong (and make note: I rarely say it). We are not nails driven so deep in to a wall, rendered stuck in our respective environs and social platforms. We are the very ordinary creatures set loose upon the world to love and act radically as the very ordinary humans we are in Christ. We don’t have to focus on trying to make ourselves special because we already are in Christ. Blessed are those who are ordinary because they are the beloved people of an extraordinary God freed unto and into the world to set the captives loose.

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.

He revives my soul
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. (Psalm 23:1-6)

 

[1] Martin Luther Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 1-5. LW. V. 1. St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1958. p. 202-3.

[2] France, p. 263. “υ῾μει῀ς αυ᾽τοι´ is unusually emphatic, and places the focus on the need of the disciples themselves: they have been serving others; now they themselves need to be cared for.”

[3] France, p. 263. “At the same time it reinforces the repeated emphasis of Mark both on the uncomfortable popularity of Jesus…and on his habit of taking his disciples away from the crowd…for periods of relief and of instruction.”

[4] France, p. 264. “Mark does not tell us where this particular ε῎ρημος τόπος was, but Luke locates the incident at Bethsaida (or rather presumably in its neighbourhood, since he, too, calls it an ε῎ρημος τόπος).” However, it is better to not credit Luke with geographical accuracy and “…assume that Mark has in view a place on the northwestern shore (such as the traditional site at Tabgha) not too far from Capernaum and on the same side of the Jordan inflow…”

[5] France, p. . The description in v.33 of the crowd and their goings-on seems to be that “…Mark has oversimplified the process by which so large a crowd came to be in the ε῎ρημος τόπος looking for Jesus.” Specifically as it relates to the coming miracle (that is skipped by the lectionary) in the feeding of the 5k.

[6] RT France The Gospel of Mark NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002). p. 260. “The initial focus of the pericope is on the abortive attempt of Jesus to organize a ‘retreat’ for his disciples on their return from their mission (vv. 31-32), but the whole weight of the story falls on the feeding of the *unwanted_ crowd who frustrated that plan.”

[7] France, p 263. “But the patent symbolism should not lead us to miss what is surely the primary purpose in Mark’s inclusion of this story, the sheer wonder of an ‘impossible’ act, and the testimony which this provides in answer to the growing Christological question of this part of the gospel, ‘Who is Jesus?’ He is not merely the healer of afflicted individuals or the rescuer of endangered disciples; he is one who is not bound by the rules of normal experience of what is possible and impossible. In following him this representative group of Israelites, no less than those who followed Moses in the wilderness, will find all their need supernaturally supplied, for God is again at work among his people.”

[8] France, p. 265. “ω῾ς προ´βατα μη` ε῎χοντα ποιμε´να is an obvious metaphor for lack of care and leadership, and one used in the OT for Israel in the wilderness after Moses (Nu. 27:17, where the problem is solved by the appointment of Joshua), for Ahab’s army after his death in battle (1 Ki. 22:17), for the people of God when their appointed leaders have failed in their trust (Ezk. 34:5-6), and for their helplessness when their (messianic) leader is taken away (Zc. 13:7).”

[9] France, p. 265.

[10] France, p. 265. Reference to the 10th chapter of Best’s “Story”. “The only subject of whom the verb σπλαγχνιζομαι is used in the NT is Jesus (apart from parable characters who represent Jesus or God). It is not a common verb in Mark (especially if we are right in not reading it in 1:41), but it occurs in the accounts of both feeding miracles (8:2); combined with the simile of sheep without a shepherd it presents Jesus above all as ‘the one who cares.’”

[11] h/t David W. Congdon via Twitter

[12] David W. Congdon The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch. (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016). p. 27fn11, “Traditional accounts of theology want to make the Christ-event an exception to the way God acts elsewhere in the world. Here I take radically christoscentric approach and argue that God acts elsewhere only in the way God acts in Christ, since the Christ-event is definitive, even constitutive of who God is and how God acts.”

[13] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice: an introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017). p. 48

Crisis Desideratus

Mark 4:35-41 (Sermon)

And then he woke up, rebuked the wind and then he said to the sea, ‘Silence! Shut up!” and then the wind abated and then there was a great calm. And then he said to [his disciples], ‘Why are you timid? Do you not yet have faith?’ And then they became frightened with a great fear and then they were saying to one another, ‘Who is this that both the wind and the sea obey him?’ [1]

It was Mother’s day, 2015. My husband and I decided that going for a family hike would be a great idea. The five of us drove out to “Potato Rock” or otherwise known as “Miracle Rock” (it’s located in the Colorado National Monument). While we were there, we hiked around and then met up with my husband’s brother and his wife (and their two dogs). Once we were all together, we proceeded up the ½ mile hike to see Potato Rock.

Here’s the description of the setting from the website:

“Once you get to Miracle Rock the view changes rather dramatically. The rock itself is perched precariously on a one foot pedestal on the edge of a rather high cliff. This is definitely a place to keep a close eye on the youngsters. The view of the surrounding valley and distant mountains is very pretty. Miracle Rock itself is only about 1/2 mile from the picnic area.”[2]

MiracleHike5

The description doesn’t lie. The rock is precariously balanced; one could say, “miraculously” balanced. Apart from some sort of abstract theory pertaining to a physics that only God knows, there’s no reason for the rock to be standing on its potatoey end.

Also, the description doesn’t lie about the precarious landscape surrounding Potato rock. It’s dangerous. Very. There’s no gradual descent from the minuscule plateau housing potato rock; it’s all cliffs and deadly, dastardly drops. For someone who has a fear–a great fear–of heights, these landscape predicaments force me to stay a good, healthy distance from the edges. The view is very pretty, and I was fine admiring it from the shade cast by the large upright rock.

I stood there with my sister-in-law, and we chatted. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that my daughter (2 at this time) had been let down from her hiking backpack. She remained close to her father and meandered a reasonable bit away. The next thing I saw was Liza running toward the edge. I heard Daniel hollering her name, and my voice joined his. No response. She kept running. My heart was in my throat; my mind raced: what do I do? I knew I couldn’t run for she’d find it to be a game. I had one chance to stop her before she reached the edge. So I did the only thing my maternal mind, body, and soul could think to do: I gathered up every single ounce of energy and strength I had in my 145 pound body, and I hollered her name so loud and so deep that the force caused every muscle in my body to tense and shake, and I was physically pushed backwards. I put everything I had into that maternal yawp; I had to: my child was running straight into danger, into death.

Liza didn’t just stop running when that sound emanated from my mouth. She collapsed mid stride, melted to the ground, and started to weep. Essentially, I had frightened her into stillness. Feet from the edge, she was a weeping, sobbing, mommy-wanting mess of a two year-old toddler. Feet from the edge, she was safe and alive. Moments later my sister-in-law looked at me, her eyes as big as half-dollars. I had frightened her, too, when I hollered (she was right next to me). “Where did that come from?” She asked. “I’ve never heard such a sound.” The look she gave me was as if she was coming to terms with the fact that she didn’t know fully who I was.

Moms, we have a way about us, don’t we? One look can solicit all the deeply held secrets of our children, remind them swiftly that maybe they should very much rethink what they are about to do or say, or assure them that you’re there with them and that they are safe. One note of our voice can stop our children dead in their tracks or bring comforting and soothing notes to anxious and fearful little ears. The tragedy when children cannot hear their mother’s voice when they need it most.

But what does this have to do with our Gospel passage?

In my opinion: everything.

And then, on that (same) day, when evening came, he said to them, “Let us go to the other side.” And then, after leaving the crowd, they (the disciples) took him along with them in the boat, and other boats (were) with him. And then a great hurricane wind came about and then the waves were (continually) beating into the boat, so that the boat was already filled. And he, he was in the stern, sleeping upon a pillow. And then they (the disciples) raised him and then they said to him, “Teacher, does it not concern you that we are perishing?”

Jesus’s popularity and extensive teaching drive him to seek refuge away from lakeside Galilee; taking to a fishing boat with his disciples and rowing out into the expanse of water heading toward the “other side” would be this refuge. [3] Or so was the plan. But the disciples are there and Jesus is exhausted so surely this is going to become a teaching event. Jesus isn’t going to get the reprieve and rest he desires, and Mark’s story telling style here is so quick and rapid-fire like that the reader is made aware that something is coming.

And that which is coming is a sudden massive storm. The disciples would have been aware of and accustomed to the sudden, violent storms that rage on the lake of Galilee; and this particular storm was so strong and so violent that the boat, a low sided fishing boat, was about to sink, it was that filled with water from the relentlessly beating waves stirred up by the hurricane like winds.[4] But this storm isn’t the point or goal of the story because it was a common place storm, and Mark moves his reader quickly to the point: the disciples launch into a full blown freak-out while Jesus sleeps, and this sleeping Jesus is the main character in this scene. [5]

The disciples are in a panic in a major way. The reader can tell by how the disciples not only wake Jesus up, but also how they question him.[6] There’s nothing cool and collected about their question to Jesus, “Teacher, is it no concern to you that we are perishing?” (Our English translation comes across too calm and collected.) In other words, “How the *firetruck*are you sleeping?! And why the *firetruck* are you not doing anything?!” And they knew enough about Jesus to know that he, as their Rabbi, as their teacher, would have a solution.[7] In the face of this great storm, these called and elected men, are stripped of everything they know and forced into a crisis where death is not merely possible but imminent. In the face of this great storm, the disciples have been thrust upon their own seamanship, and they have been made painfully aware that those skills and that knowledge are completely useless in this moment. Unless there is some sort of intervention, they’re left for dead.[8] Karl Barth describes the situation better than I can,

“But lo! their apostolic office, their episcopal habits their experience, their tradition even the living but sleeping Jesus among them, all appear to be useless. The storm is too violent. The pillar and ground of truth totters. The gates of hell are menacingly open to engulf them. They are terrified that the ship and they themselves and Jesus will all perish, that it will be all up to with them…”[9]

The disciples are in a serious and immediate existential crisis: we’re helpless to do anything…we don’t know what to do! And while crisis is a four-letter word in our vocabulary, when it comes to the divine word economy it is a good word, it is good news because crisis is the fertile soil of the encounter with God in the event of faith. The disciples are about to become more like disciples in this moment than in preceding ones. And we, along with them as participants in their story, are made to be more the church than we were moments ago. [10]

And then when Jesus woke up, he rebuked the wind and he said to the sea, “Silence! Shut up!” And then the wind abated and then there was a great calm. And then he said to his disciples, “Why are you timid? Do you not yet have faith?” And then they became frightened with a great fear and then they were saying to one another, “Who is this that both the wind and the sea obey him?

Jesus rises and rebukes the wind and commands the sea to shut up! and be silent. And the elements obey. Like unruly children[11] rebuked and corrected sternly and seriously by the voice of their mother, the elements sit down and shut up. And when Jesus halts the great hurricane winds and the overbearing tumultuous waves of the sea, I am pulled into the story at a gut level. I get it. And while I understand the miraculousness that stands behind the encounter between the dingy, the raging sea,[12] and Jesus, on some level it seems exceptionally acceptable. Why wouldn’t the divine creative yawp from Jesus cause the winds and the waves (the very things he called into existence[13]) to stop dead in their tracks? Why wouldn’t the elements obey his rebuke and command? That which has and those who have been created by and in the comfort of a voice, know that voice. And when we hear it, we respond…immediately.[14] There is an immediate response when Jesus hollers at the wind and sea; immediately a great calm that replaces the great storm. On a deep and visceral level, this makes sense to me.

Why wouldn’t love sound so ferocious in order to protect that which it loves? And this is why the disciples are rebuked; it’s not that they didn’t believe Jesus could do something, in fact they knew that he could do something. They are not in doubt of that fact. Rather, look are their question to him, “…are you not concerned…” In other words, do you love us? Do you care? That’s what their question to Jesus reveals: they are doubting his love for them because he’s not doing something tangible. His sleeping indicates to them his lack of concern, a lack of care, a lack of love. God’s love for God’s people drives God to miraculous and powerful activity: floods, parting seas, bread from heaven and water from rocks, death and resurrection (to name a few). God is an impassioned God and the disciples know this but this is what they doubt in Christ in this moment. [15] Do you care? Do you love us to respond to our cries?

And be sure: what happens here in the rebuking of the wind and the waves is about love, even Jesus’s seeming interrogation of the extent and status of the disciples’ faith is an expression of love. Why wouldn’t God reckon with and dominate the sea, the long used metaphor of chaos and destruction, where humans are the most out of control?[16] To gaze upon the ocean and the sea is marvelous and human; to control it, divine.[17] In rebuking and commanding the elements and their subsequent and immediate obedience to his voice, he reveals to the disciples who he is…not who they think he is, but who he is. They are stripped of their messianic assumptions about Jesus; Jesus reveals himself to them. In this moment, the disciples are brought face to face with God in God’s self-disclosure in the great reveal of divine power, divine love.[18] The disciples doubted because the did not know the one whom was in the boat with them; this one had to be revealed to them.

Divine power is the power of love for the beloved. We are encountered by the word of God, thus encountered by divine love in those moments when disaster seems certain, where we are brought to the end of ourselves and forced into the desperate confession: What do I do? Where the answer isn’t needed because the silence is deafening. Where doubt isn’t the antithesis of faith, but specifically in times of crisis doubt is the substance of faith. It is in this crisis where we encounter God in the word of God in the event of faith. In that crisis we are lassoed by God’s voice, reoriented and centered rightly on God, pulled tightly to God, and anchored and secured in God’s self, like a newborn baby who turns her head in the direction of the soothing voice of her mother and fixes her foggy gaze on her mother’s face. (Because as much as God is paternal, God is also maternal, and while we learn the voice of our Father, we know the voice of our Mother.) In the mother’s gentle, “shh, shh, shh, it’s okay sweet one” or her primal maternal yawp that stops us suddenly in our tracks, all is well here in this encounter.

We are forced outside of ourselves; we are forced in this encounter in this crisis to drop everything we’ve grown accustomed to relying on, every tradition, every doctrine held dear, everything that we put our faith in that isn’t God. We are forced into such a position where faith actually finds its target: God. God who is for us, who will speak into and rebuke and silence the storms and the turbulent waves of our “plight,” in whom we see that no one is alone neither we nor the disciples nor the other many boats out on that lake.[19] This is the God we encounter in the Gospel proclamation; this is the God the disciples encountered that stormy evening.

The fear of the disciples in response to the work and divine power of Christ is appropriate,[20] and this fear should be our response when encountering God in the event of faith. However, it is often over-emphasized that it eclipses the disciples’ incessant questioning and discussion about “Who is this…?” Who is this that both the wind and the sea obey him? This is the question that we should always be asking. This is the question that makes the church. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (John 4:29). When we are encountered by God in the event of faith, the fear (the faith, the reverence) that produces itself is the product of this question. “Who is this…” is the right question, and it is this question that is both our existential dilemma and also our existential solution. Jesus, God of very God, is the “sure foundation” of our existence and of the church’s existence. And throughout the many centuries since he death and resurrection of Christ, we still don’ fully know the extent to which he is our sure foundation, and so we ask, “Who is this…”[21]

We come here every Sunday to hear the gospel proclaimed so we can once again be brought into encounter with God in Christ who is our “sure foundation”. We come here to hear, not my voice or Reverend Montgomery’s, but the voice of God who calls to us, who whispers our names. We come here to hear the powerful love-filled voice that can still the wind and silence the waves. We come eager and reticent to hear the voice that can (and will) stop us dead in our tracks, protecting us from hurling ourselves off deadly cliffs. We come here lost and swamped by what seems to make sense and what seems to be reasonable to us, to the status-quo, and in hearing the word of God we are re-centered and reoriented on God, on God’s wisdom, on God’s mercy, love, and justice; thus (hopefully), when we leave, we become forces to be reckoned with in the world. We come here to hear God’s voice so deeply that we are undone completely and remade entirely by the power of the proclamation of the word of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Psalm 46: 1-11

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

 

[1] R.T. France, 222.The Gospel of Mark NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002.) Mark has a “…vivid narrative style gives added emphasis to the danger and panic of the disciples…” Also per Dr. Jim West, Mark’s style here is more like the “Dude, Where’s My Car” scene at the Chinese restaurant, “AND THEN!…AND THEN!” All translations of Mark 4:35-41 in this sermon are mine.

[2] http://www.coloradowestoutdoors.com/home/hiking/bangs-canyonglade-park/miracle-rock/

[3] France, 222. Jesus is more supernatural than ever with these miracles (coupling this one with 6:45-52).

[4] Ibid, 223.

[5] Ibid, 223. “Like Jonah’s equally remarkable sleep in the storm (Jon. 1:5-6) it serves to highlight the crucial role of the key figure in the story where the other actors are helpless…”

[6] Ibid, 224. The ου μελει σοι indicates panic on the part of the disciples and is “blunt” language and not “respectful address”.

[7] France, 224. “But clearly they have already been with Jesus long enough to take it for granted that he will have the solution to a problem beyond their control.”

[8] Karl Barth CD IV.3.2.72 p. 733. Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Reconciliation ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrence (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson 2010). “And when the great storm arose, and ‘the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full,’ these, men who were elect and called, who had already received so many promises and consolations in respect of their own existence as His people, who had indeed the consolations in respect of their own existence as His people, who had indeed the assurance of His own presence, seemed to be cast back upon their own faith and in the last resort upon its bold action in exercise of the seamanship.”

[9] Ibid, CD IV.3.2.72 p. 733

[10]Ibid, CD IV.3.2.72 p. 733. “Inevitably the New Testament εκκλησιαι find their own story here.”

[11] France, 224. “His authority is asserted in strikingly anthropomorphic commands, in that he ‘rebukes’ the wind as if it were an animate being, and addresses the lake as if it were an unruly heckler, ‘Be quiet! Shut up!’”

[12]Ibid, P. 221

[13] John 1:1-4, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

[14] France, 225. The aorist tense indicates an immediate result and “…the γαληνη μεγαλη (replaces the λαιλαψ μεγαλη) emphasizes the total transformation achieved by Jesus’ intervention.”

[15] Ibid, 225. “Those to whom the secret of the kingdom of God has been entrusted nonetheless apparently lack faith…what they lack here is not so much understanding as πιστις, which here as elsewhere in Mark…is a practical confidence in supernatural power, the correlative to miracles. So lack of faith makes disciples δειλοι, unable to respond to a crisis with the confidence in God (or, more pertinently, in Jesus) which is the mark of the true disciple.”

[16] Ibid, 221 fn39 Referring to PJ Achtemeier. “God’s battle against the sea, as a hostile primeval force”?

[17] Ibid, p. 221. “Control of the elements is even more extraordinary and inexplicable than the restoration of suffering human beings, and is in the OT a frequently noted attribute of God in distinction from human beings who find themselves helpless before the forces of nature.”

[18] Barth CD IV.3.2.72 p. 733-4. “‘There was a great calm,’ for in the living presence of Jesus there was revealed His living action, His self-declaration in deeds. He not only was what He was for them their Lord and Deliverer; He made Himself known to them as such. He made peace for them. No doubt His people could and should have clung simply to the fact that through Him alone, but genuinely through him, it had peace and would be and was sustained.”

[19] W. Travis McMaken. Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017). Quoting Gollwitzer, “…‘the core of the gospel is the message that this world and every person is not alone, ha they do no live out of themselves’ but ‘ are instead borne by the love of God…who stands against humanity’s plight and promises to over it.’” p.145

[20] France, 225. The reaction of the disciples describe as φοβος μεγας is appropriate and is in opposition to the cowardice of v.40, “…appropriate response of humans faced with a display of divine power or glory…”

[21] Barth CD IV.3.2.72 p.734. “What was this fear? It was the great and necessary and legitimate fear of the Lord which, as the beginning of wisdom, began with the end of the little and unnecessary fear which could only lead the community to despair of itself, its apostolate, its faith and indeed its Lord. And the end of the little fear came with the fact that Jesus not only was its Saviour but manifested Himself as such and therefore as the sure foundation of its existence as His people, of its apostolate and of its faith.”

 

“Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done”: Sermon on Mark 1:1-8

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).

There is nothing better than good news. Wouldn’t you agree with me? Is there anyone here that would dare say: “eh, no…give me that good ol’ bad news…nothing like a good dose of bad news to make someone feel alive!” I doubt it. Good news invigorates us. Good news spreads a smile across our face and brightens our eyes. Good news results in various forms of physical celebratory habits like embracing, grasping, jumping up and down, and and a hearty #squee.

Good news can bring relief, especially if there was a possibility of bad news. Good news alleviates our fears: what could have been bad isn’t and won’t be. This type of good news is that which drops us—fast and hard—to our knees in gratitude with tears of joy, with a sincere, “Oh, thank God!” that whispers past our lips. Same, too, for the good news that springs itself upon us and breaks the long, dry season of silence and disappointment. The kind of good news that will radically recalibrate our world; good news can drag us out of the valley of despair and place us on the mountain top of joy, long suffering hope materialized.

And isn’t this what Advent is all about? Isn’t Advent about our waiting, longing, desiring, and hoping for good news? Our liturgical calendar thrusts us back into the story of the Israelites; we are caused to sit and listen and imagine and to bear that history as part of our own. We are asked to recall and remember the longing of the people of God. We are asked to recall and remember the hungry and the thirsty people of God who are waiting for their God to intervene on their behalf, who are longing for their God to hear their cries and liberate them from oppression, who are desiring to be resident with their God as his people in God’s Kingdom come, and who are hoping for alleviation of the toil, suffering, sorrow, and brokenness in the fulfillment of the one who is to come, the Messiah.

We are asked to feel the heavy weight of Isaiah’s words,

“A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken’” (Is. 40:3-5)

We are asked to let our desperate hearts, our burdened minds, and our exhausted bodies cry out, “so be it!” and let our voices join in the great chorus belonging to the people of God.

We are asked to hear (again) the proclamation of the advent of God in our world in the word incarnate, the savior, Emmanuel, Jesus Christ the Son of God, and to be encountered (again) in the event of faith.

Thus, let us hear and turn our heads to the proclamation of Mark,

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1).

The gospel of Matthew begins with the who’s who of Christ’s genealogy; characters ranging from the very good to the very “colorful.” The author of Matthew begins the gospel in this way to demonstrate that Jesus Christ is of the line of David and is the long awaited messiah, Emmanuel, “God with us” (Mt 1:22ff).

The gospel of Luke begins with an account of the conception of both John the Baptist and Jesus as a pronouncement that the long awaited liberty and rescue for the captives has come, the long awaited son of God, the “savior for us” (Lk 1:69a), the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to his people, is here.

The gospel of John, being the most abstract and theologically dense of all four gospels of Christ, begins with the connection that the God who hovered over all of creation in the beginning is one and the same with the incarnate Word; the Word went forth and created as it went and the Word goes forth (now) creating as it goes, forcing away the darkness and illuminating the world (Jn 1:1-18).

Mark’s gospel starts off with the clear proclamation that there’s good news: Jesus Christ is the Son of God and with the advent of Christ in our time line so to the inauguration of the time of the reign of God with him. (The whole of the written book that is Mark’s gospel is a proclamation about Jesus Christ and his kingdom in the fullest sense of the word proclamation.)[1] Mark steps out into the streets ringing his bell and shouts: Hear, Ye! Hear, Ye! Hear ye the good news: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is come!

And be not mistaken, Mark is very much concerned with the advent of Christ and with the concurrent coming and inauguration of the kingdom of God.[2] Our author is being politically polemical in his introductory language. The Hellenistic religious use of the word ευαγγελιον («good news») had the «connection with the cult of the emperor, whose birthday, accession to power, and the like, even a forthcoming ‘royal visit’, were hailed as ευαγγελιον.»[3] The author of Mark isn’t pulling any punches. He coopts and uses intentionally political language to grab the attention of his audience. The audience being not only Christian disciples, but also roman authority.[4]

Again, place Mark and his announcement in the streets. The one who thinks he’s divine (the human emperor) isn’t; Jesus Christ is. Mark points at the human ruler and says, essentially, «Not my emperor.» And he invites his audience—the people suffering under the harsh rule and demoralized under the oppression of the powers that be—to see the distinction between the human emperor and the Christ, the true emperor. He invites them to locate themselves in the coming of the kingdom of God and to see that this new location[5] demands a confrontation with the way the regime and reign of the human emperor operate because the hearer of the good news of Jesus Christ can see them for what it is: the current regime is sham, the human emperor is naked.

For Mark (and for anyone willing to listen) there’s a new emporer in town and this emporer is the emporer who is going to tear down the current regime and reign and usher in a completely new one. The new reign and regime that comes in with Christ’s advent will not be marked by oppressive systems and structures designed to keep the low low while granting unfettered power to the powerful. It wont bear the traits of despotic rule. It won’t use the coercion and subjugation and enslavement of human beings to reduce them to mere cogs in a machine or objects to be used, abused, and left for dead. In fact the kingdom of God cannot be marked by these things because these things are antithetical to the character of God and thus to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.

With the immediate reference to the announcement of John the Baptist, Mark intentionally draws the audience into the realization that Jesus Christ is truly divine, thus ousting the human emperor from his self-proclaimed divine status,

«[John] proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit’” (Mk 1:7-8).[6]

This new emporer is truly divine (the true son of the true God) and thus the new reign and regime, the Kingdom of God, that Christ ushers in will have the characteristics fitting of a divine kingdom: divine restorative and transcending justice, peace that surpasses all understanding, reconciliatory mercy.[7]

With the Son of God on the throne, the kingdom of God is very much at hand and the Christian disciples are baptized into this new reign and regime, into this new emperor and his good kingdom. Thus, not only the kingdom bears these divine traits of justice, peace, and mercy, but so, too, the citizens of this new kingdom. The Disciples of Christ bear these traits by their baptism both of water and of the Holy Spirit and in their life in the world.

And if this is all true for those initial hearers of Mark’s gospel, so it is true for us who listen today. By our baptism with water and Spirit, we have been grafted into the history of Jesus Christ and thus if into His history then our present and our future is located therein where the promises of God are yes and amen and this is our present tense reality. We are reminded that the promises spoken by God that are fulfilled in and by Christ are ours by faith.[8] We are born anew by the spirit (all that was and is, is washed from us),[9] and we have been given the ears to hear the loving summons of our Savior that calls us to an encounter with God in the event of faith.

Also, if Mark’s proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is for us, thus, so too is his political polemic. In hearing this proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, we have been given not only ears to hear the proclamation but also eyes to see that we are—in the event encounter—located squarely in the kingdom of God. And if located therein, then citizens: active, participatory citizens. Citizens who are not removed from society, but live a radical and different (and maybe even dangerous?)[10] existence in society. We are a voice for the voiceless and resist oppression; we create space for the alien and the refugee; we fight for freedom for all because if our neighbor isn’t free, then we aren’t free. Our neighbor’s pain is our pain, our neighbor’s plight our plight, our neighbor’s suffering our suffering. We are marked by the characteristics of our God: mercy, justice, and peace, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

We profess our faith in Christ, the Son of God and push forward the good rule of Christ into the entire world, this is the mission of the church, and this is church as event rejecting the status quo and defending and advocating for the defenseless.[11] We preach Christ crucified and risen. Jürgen Moltmann writes,

“Wherever Jesus is acknowledged as the Christ of God, Christian faith is to be found. Wherever this is doubted, obscured or denied, there is no longer Christian faith, and the riches of historic Christianity disappear with it. Christianity is alive as long as there are people who, as the disciples once did, profess their faith in him and, following him, spread his liberating rule in words, deeds and new fellowship.”[12]

We, today, are asked to remember the advent of the long awaited messiah of Israel, the fulfillment of all the promises of God. We are asked to hear (again) the proclamation of the advent of God in our world in the word incarnate, the savior, Emmanuel, Jesus Christ the Son of God, and to be encountered (again) in the event of faith. And we, along with Mark’s audience, are asked to participate in the kingdom of God and to be a force in the world that must be reckoned with.[13] We are asked to step out into the streets with our verbal and physical proclamation of the good news that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has come, forgiveness and reconciliation are here, and so too God’s kingdom and “liberating rule.”

[1] R. T. France The Gospel of Mark TNIGTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. “Mark’s book is intended, therefore to pass on the god news about Jesus. This news has been hithero the subject of primarily oral declaration (Mann therefore appropriately translates ευαγγελιον here as ‘Proclamation’), but Mark’s book is an attempt to communicate it in written form (though probably with a view to its being read orally in the congregation. Ευαγγελιον denotes the content rather than the form of the book» 52-3.

[2] Karl Barth CD IV.2.64.197-8, “Again, ‘the kingdom of coming with power’ of Mk. 9:1 could be calmly replaced by ‘the Son of man coming in his kingdom’ of the parallel Mt. 16:28. ‘The Gospel’ in the preaching of Philip in Ac. 8:12 is the kingdom of God, and (the και is surely to be understood epexegetically in all the passages) the name of Jesus Christ. According to the last verse of Acts (28:31), Paul preached ‘the kingdom of God,’ and taught ‘those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.’ According to the great voice from heaven in Rev. 12:10, the βασιλεια of God and εξουσια are given to His Christ. The references to the kingdom and to Christ are obviously to be understood in the light of each other in all these passages.”

[3] Ibid 52.

[4] Lauren Ellis. Final Paper on the Gospel of Mark, “There is a two sided approach to addressing who was reading (or who needed to read) Mark’s Gospel. The first audience to consider is Christians who were enduring suffering—they can read about suffering in context and see a meaning for their suffering. A second audience is the people in Authority in the empire. Christians are not what Tacitus and Nero thought they were; thus, if the Empire takes Christianity seriously, they will not only see the truth but also see that Christianity would help to make the world better. The modern reader can see the two fold apologetic aspect of the Gospel.”

[5] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice Minneapolis, MN: Fortress 2017. “As Ulrich Dannermann and Matthias Weissinger put it, ‘social analysis and social criticism are a theme of theology work. Theology can only adequately speak to the real world, to real people, when it tries to plot society…on the horizon of the coming kingdom of God’” 92-3.

[6] Karl Barth CD IV.4.56, “The different aspects of the event which according to this preaching is directly imminent are as follows. According to Mt. 3:2 what is at hand and at the doors, can take place any moment, is the βασιλεια των οθρανων, the establishment on earth of the divine dominion already set up in heaven. What breaks in is also God’s penetrating and divisive judgment. (…) Just as distinctively as the kingdom, no less majestically than the threatening judgment, there also comes in and with the judgment something very different, namely, remission, the legally effective taking away and setting aside of the sins of Israel, which are not overlooked or taken lightly, but which are brought under the grace of God (Mk. 1:4; Lk. 1:77; 3:8).”

[7] McMaken, Our God Loves Justice, 89-91.

[8] This particular portion of the sermon is me playing around with the insights and scholarship of W. Travis McMaken as found in “Definitive, Defective or Deft? Reassessing Barth’s Doctrine of Baptism in Church Dogmatics IV/4” IJST vol 17.1 Jan. 2015.

[9] Karl Barth CD IV.2.563 “…in relation to everything that [I] previously was or otherwise [am] it is a new beginning newly posited by God.”

[10] McMaken Our God Loves Justice. 149-151. Specifically, referring to Gollwitzer, “Instead of leaving the church to its comfortable domestication, ‘the one thing that matters for the church is that she should be both a danger and a help to the world.’ Gollwitzer’s ecclesiology calls for a dangers church because a church that is not dangerous I no help at all” 150-1.

[11] McMaken Ibid, 16. “Just as God cannot legitimately be objectified, so also the church cannot legitimately by objectified. The true being of the church occurs as it responds in faithful obedience to its encounter with God’s though-objectivity, which necessarily includes renunciation of its privilege and political advocacy on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed.”

[12] Moltmann The Crucified God New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1974. 82.

[13] McMaken Our God Loves Justice “The kingdom of God is the ‘revolutionary, eschatological, and social determination of the present’; it is ‘the revolution of all revolutions, that is, the eschatological revolution’” 118.

My Body Broken

One of the hardest things I’ve ever done is become a mother, specifically a stay-at-home-mom. When I found out I was pregnant with my first son, I knew that I wanted to be the one to stay home. My husband had a wonderful full-time job that provided for me to do just that–plus, I wasn’t pulling in anything substantial being a seminarian with a part-time job working with the Doctor of Ministry Department. I have to tell you now, still holding that positive pregnancy test and knowing I would stay home with my future baby, I was naive, a bit taken with the rose-colored glasses of new, budding motherhood. It would take just a few days to realize that this entire endeavor would be hard.

Between battling morning sickness, hoping that my fellow classmates wouldn’t notice my new diet of seltzer and jolly ranchers, and suppressing fear that my body was (again) rejecting because I was spotting over half-way through the first trimester, I was tossed back and forth on the waves of reality setting in: I was not my own, my body was not my own, I was being broken.

As I grew bigger and more uncomfortable, as I pressed through exhaustion and discomfort to finish up my second to last semester of seminary, and this finally giving way to going into labor on the morning of the 5th of December. My son was born at 9:42pm on the 6th of December; yes, that’s about two days of trying to give birth to my son. I couldn’t do it. The unique thing my body was gifted to do, I couldn’t do. I was rushed to the ER after a contraction left my son’s heart rate too low. A week later I sat on the floor of our bathroom holding my just bathed 9lbs of baby boy in my lap. My husband looked at me, “Why are you crying?” he asked. “Because…I’m a failure,” I was able to articulate while crying. “How can you call yourself a failure while holding our son?” I didn’t have a good answer. What I knew was that a reality was being hammered home: I was not my own, my body was not my own, I was being broken.

This reality would be made more clear, in a physical way, as I embarked on nursing and raising not just this new born baby boy, but his little brother 21 months later, and their little sister born just about three years ago.

But looking back and looking at my current situation (a stay-at-home-mom to a toddler), I realize that it’s not merely my physical body that has been broken, time and time again. For the past decade I’ve sat on the academic and occupational side-lines. I’ve watched class-mates and peers graduate years after me in seminary, get ordained, get doctorates, move to other countries and back to the states and (in one case) back to another country. I’m here. In deciding to be embark on the parenting that I wanted for my children, I had to push all my other dreams and desires aside. My research is painfully slow, my writing interrupted, my attention divided. I wrestle internally with envy of my friends who have far surpassed me academically; I struggle with frustration with myself for being unable to do everything in the pace I want to do everything. As I wrangle my toddler into her room to finish her i’m-gonna-scream-so-loud-so-every-neighbor-in-the-neighborhood-hears tantrum, another peer wrestles with an editor/publisher over another book. In the fullness that is my mind and soul: I am not my own, my body is not my own, I am being broken.

I’m not saying any of this to garner sympathy or pity; I willingly volunteered my whole person to this vocation, to this process of being broken over and over and over again. I gave myself–body, mind, strength, soul–to be broken; to be broken for these children of mine. IMG_20160621_113610055 For these, my children, I lay aside myself, my dreams, my desires, daily, and give them as much of me as I can. For these, my children, I close Luther and open the screen door to go outside and blow bubbles for my daughter because she asked me to. I can’t do anything else, because I love them.

And in this I understand God’s love for us, his beloved children. In this, I understand why Mark records in his Gospel that when all the men ran when Jesus was crucified, the women who followed him looked on from a distance (Mk 15:40-41). I know they didn’t run because they were of low stature and had nothing to lose; but I also think that love that drives to the breaking of one’s own body made innate sense  to them. To look upon the crucified Christ, to see the blood shed because of love made sense on a visceral level to a bunch of women whose whole life was devoted to bearing and raising children through the breaking of their own bodies. It makes sense to me and it blows me away: He gave himself fully and completely for us in ways that I’ll never understand or be able to do because of my frail and faulty human flesh. His “I love you, my beloved child” is more heartfelt than mine to my own children.

And as they were eating, [Jesus] took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’ (Mark 14:22-24)

More than a mother loves her very own Children does God love us.

And I am undone, I am broken.