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

The Impossible Puzzle: Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

In my house, there are two jigsaw puzzles framed and hanging on two separate walls. The puzzles achieved “frame and wall-mount” status because they were both very difficult to put together; each demanding months of time, and in one case, a few years. If you’re not a puzzle person, then I may have just lost you, and it’s quite possible you think I’m crazy. But I’m not crazy; my fellow puzzlers may/will attest to this: puzzles often take massive amounts of time depending on the complexity of the picture.

One puzzle that’s hanging is a large picture of a massive group of penguins in the different stages of molting from furry to sleek. That’s it. ALL. PENGUINS. The other puzzle that’s hanging (and this is the one that took me a few years) is a bit more complicated. It has no edge pieces, the image is repeating, each piece is cut the same, and, wait for it, there are 5 extra pieces thrown in. The puzzle is rightly part of a series of puzzles called: “Impossibles.”

These are not puzzles for your average puzzler; they will surely weed out the puzzling mice from the puzzling humans. It does this weeding because there’s no way to do this puzzle according to normal puzzling conventions. There are no edge pieces to find. Sorting in any constructive way is pointless; you get (about) three piles: black cat pieces, white cat pieces, and pink marble background pieces. And with every piece cut the same and that there are extra means: pure puzzling mayhem.

In order to complete the puzzle, you must let the puzzle tell you how to put it together. It reveals its puzzle-self to you and contradicts everything you know about puzzles. The wisdom of the puzzle doesn’t make sense; it completely defies puzzling common sense. By all means, it’s foolishness…

For the word (proclamation)[1] of the cross (on one hand) is foolishness to the ones who are being destroyed (on their way to ruin), (…)[2] 

The word of the cross is foolishness from our human perspective because it’s counter-intuitive to our common sense. It contradicts everything we hold to be true. Justice defined as retribution makes sense; justice as reconciliation… Come again? The first, the powerful, the rich, the strong should be first and blessed; what is this about the last, the meek, the poor, and the lame being first and most blessed in the Kingdom of God? “God helps those who help themselves”; nope, God helps those who can’t help themselves because they are burdened by systems of oppression.

There’s very little in the proclamation of the gospel that isn’t cacophonous to my ears that are strained toward the solo of self illusion. Me. Tell me more about me, and then I’ll listen. What makes sense to me, what coincides with my reason about myself and about the world and even about the divine is what I want to hear. Let me be content with the image of God I’ve constructed, and thus the image of humanity with it. Share with me whatever it is that won’t tear back the protective layers of my cozy cocoon. Keep me comfortable and well sedated on the continual drip of saccharine sweetened words of self-affirmation. Tell me everything’s okay, even if it’s not. Tell me not to worry, even when there’s ample reason to worry and worry a lot. Lie to me.

The proclamation of the cross is a direct assault on our common sense and our self-centered orientation. In fact, it’s a flat out revolution against us. It’s such an assault that it causes offense, great offense. Our knee jerk reaction is to reject the message and continue on our way to destruction and ruin. We are not hard wired to the good defined by the word of the cross; we abhor it and thus reject it. It’s clearly foolishness.

However, the validity of the proclamation of the cross rests in the divine wisdom behind it and not in whether or not I agree.[3] Thus, my rejection of the proclamation of the cross is the declaration that I believe it to be a lie. If the proclamation of the cross is actually divine wisdom,[4] then my foolish human wisdom and I both stand condemned and continue on our way to destruction and ruin.[5] Continuing on my way to destruction and ruin is surely folly, but the power of the lie that blinds me is strong.

…but (on the other hand) to the ones being[6] saved, it is the power of God to us.

But there’s good news in verse 18. For those who have been encountered by God in the event of faith, the proclamation of the cross is life. The revolutionary word of God in the proclamation of the cross is revolution against my lies and those of the world; it is oriented toward life. It is, to quote Paul, “the power of God to us.”

Paul presents two distinct groups of people: those who are on their way to life and those who are on their way to destruction. Those who are on their way to destruction are doing so by depending not on the wisdom of God but on the wisdom of the world, on their own wisdom. But those who are “being saved” are so because God is operative[7] in them through the proclamation of the cross. They have been exposed by the illuminating word of God and have been brought through the death to self that is the ash-bed of new life. They are on their way to being saved and to living life rightly oriented to God and to neighbor.

In God’s self-disclosure in the word of the cross, the one who is encountered therein in the event of faith is transitioned from the folly of the wisdom of the world and is ushered into the wisdom of God that is the form and substance of the kingdom of God. And, thusly, this wisdom of God, the word of the cross, is the constitutive power of those who are being saved and the constitutive element of living as disciples in the kingdom of God.

Those who are disciples in the kingdom of God cannot devolve back toward the self-deceptive lies of the wisdom of the world and obsessive orientation of the self toward the self[8]; this is a skin that no longer fits or feels comfortable. Death and destruction are not befitting a creature created for life and blessing.

For it has been written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and I will declare invalid the intelligence of the intelligent. Where is the wise? Where are the scribes? Where are the debaters of this world order?[9] Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

Now, the bad news of that good news we just discussed is that I can’t get there from here, especially of my own intellectual efforts. I spent the first part of this sermon talking about how my own conceptions of what is right, sensible, and wise are the sure path to destruction and ruin because they are in contradiction to the wisdom of God. Apologetics fails here. Natural theology fails here. Reasonable arguments fail here. The cross is offensive and appalling and foolishness until I can see it otherwise. Apart from divine intervention and illumination in God’s self-disclosure,[10] I cannot see the truth and goodness of the divine activity in the world as proclaimed by the word of the cross.

The key to the divine intervention and illumination that I need is expressed here in v.19, where Paul quotes from Isaiah 29:14, “‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and I will declare invalid the intelligence of the intelligent.’” And also in verse 20d, “Has God not made foolish the wisdom of the world?” My wisdom and I need to be destroyed, my intelligence and I need to be declared invalid. The world needs to come into conflict with the divine word of the cross and suffer its death throes. I need to come into conflict with the divine word of the cross and suffer my death throes. And it’s in the encounter with God in the event of faith that this destruction, invalidation, and death throes occur. But it would not merely be death working for death’s sake (this would be the trajectory of the wisdom of the world), but in operation for the sake of new life (the power to those who are being saved). [11]

The word of God is destructive, specifically the word of the cross. And here in lies a distinction and a demand: destructive destruction or creative destruction? You are going to be destroyed one way or another, would you like to be destroyed unto death or destroyed unto life? No one who is encountered by the word of the cross is left untouched. There’s no part of the person in the event of faith that is not razed to the ground. We, the liars are exposed as liars.[12] The cross is a word of death. For the hearer who is encountered in the event of God’s self-disclosure in Christ and the conflict that ensues within the person in this event of encounter a demand is felt and that demand is to die to the self, to self-empty, and to self-abandon[13] and to let go. But this letting go and self-emptying and self-abandonment is not into a dark abyss of nothingness (destructive destruction) but into God and God’s self (creative destruction).

Thus, the word of the cross is also the word of life for we must hold in conjunction with the event of the death of Christ on the cross, Christ’s resurrections. Thus, the word of the cross is life for those who have been brought to death (for those who are being saved). If there was ever a moment for tabula rasa[14] in the life of a person, it’s at the very intersection of death into new life. New life lies in entering into that darkness, into death, being destroyed by the word of God. But rather than the flat-line being the last thing the we hear as we enter into the darkness of death, we hear the trumpet summoning us awake, resurrecting us from death in to new creation and new life.

Helmut Gollwitzer writes,

“…[God] is already ‘with us on the scene with his Spirit and his gifts’. He has already bound himself to us indissolubly in Jesus. The victorious battle has already been waged on the Cross and made secure, so that destruction, wickedness, the devil and death do not have the last word, but life, light, and the promise of God. There is not only a promise for a distant future. He fulfills already the promise in the midst of the unchanged world through liberations now, through fellowship with God now, so that now we do not merely hope fore eternal life, but again and again experience new life, and can bear witness not merely to the future of a new life at the end of the old world, but to the presence of the new life in the midst of the old world—and on these grounds can go forward into stronger hope.”[15]

Our new life marked by the proclamation of “a Christ crucified,” by the proclamation of the cross takes on a decidedly active cruciformity. Our new life’s peculiarity is marked by a revolutionary and new orientation:[16] others rather than me, giving and sharing rather than taking and holding, last rather than the first, the weak rather than the strong, the meek rather than the powerful, reconciliation rather than retribution. [17]

The wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world are in radical contradiction, in fact (as mentioned above) the wisdom of God articulated in the proclamation of the Cross is a full blown revolution against the wisdom of the world. [18] Thus, it is necessary that Christians, because of their encounter with God, will also exist as revolution and in contradiction to the wisdom of the world. As the world walks in one direction according to its wisdom, we, through our encounter with our “resurrected Lord” are “‘[forced]…into a totally different direction’”[19] that is the wisdom of God. Proclamation of the cross is not strictly preaching about the word of the cross from the pulpit, but is also (and especially?) the living out the word of the cross[20] in both word and deed.[21] It’s about living and speaking dangerously in distinction and in opposition to the natural inclinations of humanity and of the world.[22]

Because the foolishness of God is wiser [than the wisdom] of humanity and the weakness of God stronger [than the strength] of humanity (I Cor. 1:25).

God’s wisdom reveals itself to us through the power of the Holy Spirit. And in this self-revelation we are brought into and through destruction into new life that retains the characteristics of the God who has breathed life back into the ashes of ourselves. God is the impossible puzzle, you cannot determine God from your common sense and worldly wisdom; God discloses God’s self.

And in correspondence with God (and God’s activity in the world), the church and the disciples of Christ are impossible puzzles in the world; revealing God in the proclamation of the crucified Christ to the world. And in that proclamation revealing themselves to the world rather than being defined by worldly wisdom and common sense. And because we as a church and as disciples are created and sustained by the proclamation of the cross, sustained by the wisdom of God which is the power of God to us who are being saved, let us live and love radically. Let the entire world and all of humanity know us by our [radical] love and [revolutionary] life.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 NRSV).

 

 

[1] Anthony C. ThiseltonThe First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2000. “Since της μωριας describes του κηρυγματος in v. 21 where the two aspects of thought are parallel, we may justifiably assume that proclamation most adequately conveys the aspect of λογος which Paul has in view. Message of the cross…risks too narrow a concentration on cognitive or informational content. Such content is certainly included but it tends to point away from the transformative dimensions of proclamation.” 153

[2] The 1 Corinthian passage translation in the sermon is my translation.

[3] Thiselton 155. “The proclamation is folly unless God, not human wisdom, stands behind it to validate and to underwrite it.”

[4] Thiselton, 154. “But, as Conzelmann correctly notes, the contrast between being on their way to ruin and being on our way to salvation does not correspond to the antithesis between human folly and human wisdom; it reflects the contrast between human folly (μωρια) and divine power (δυναμις θεου).”

[5] Karl Barth CD II.1 “Because the foolish are without faith in Him and therefore do not belong to the true people of God, they can obviously see in the news of the death of Jesus Christ (either with or without that of His resurrection, and even more so with it) only the news of a further demonstration of the meaninglessness of human life; and probably indeed the proclamation of the paradox that the meaninglessness reveals here too is as such its true meaning. So then, as I s described in Acts 17:32, they turn away in impatience or alarm from this foolish Gospel. But they do not realize that by doing this, and by making this judgment, the are already condemned, exposed and revealed as the mother of the dead child.”

[6]Thiselton 156 “The temptation to assume that Christians have already ‘arrived’ nourishes a mood of self-congratulation which is entirely at odds with the proclamation of the cross: a Christ wounded, humiliated, and done-to-death. Hence ‘It is highly characteristic of Pauls’ soteriology that he does not speak of “the saved” (which would be “sesosmenoi”) but of those who are being saved (sozomenoi). Salvation is not yet gained in its totality.’” (Hering qtd in).

[7] Thiselton 156. “The cross, then, constitutes the point at which, and/or the means through which, God’s presence and promise becomes operative as that which actualizes and transforms. It differs from human weakness and folly not in degree but in kind…a merely rhetorical or psychological exercise in communicating some belief system remains empty if it fails to engage with the cross precisely as a saving proclamation…”

[8] Thiselton 157. “The latter brings illusion and self-deception which marks their way to ruin, for recognition of one’s ignorance and one’s need to continue to learn and to grow marks our way to salvation. However, unlike the tradition of the Greek sage, Paul bases everything on the proclamation of the cross. By its very nature this determined the pattern of Christian disciples as living for others, at whatever personal cost.”

[9] Thiselton 165 “In Jewish and Christian eschatology the phrase occurs most characteristically to set in contrast ‘this age’ from ‘the age to come.’ But if we translate this age, we encounter a lack of contextual understanding brought to the text by modern readers who may have little understanding of a Jewish eschatology of the two ages of apocalyptic.”

[10] John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion II.ii.20, “Because these mysteries are deeply hidden form human insight, they are disclosed solely by the revelation of the Spirit. Hence, where the Spirit of God does not illumine them, they are considered folly.” 280. And Karl Barth CD IV.2.350, “Where the Holy Spirit intervenes and is at work between Him and us as the Spirit of Jesus Christ, as the self-activation and self-revelation of the living Jesus Christ, we can believe and confess it in face of that hard antithesis.”

[11] Thiselton 161. “……in the wisdom of his own purposes God chose to reverse what was perceived as wise in an event which appeared to consist in weakness and failure. But would lead in the longer term to new beginnings and to a chastened, transformed, people.” And, 162, “Here the semantic contrast functions in relation to God as power (v.18), as denoting that which is effective, valid, operative, and capable of achieving its goal. Against the background of Isaiah 29 the contrast suggests a parallel between the vulnerability and fragility of time spent devising strategies for self-preservation or self-enhancement as against seeking alignment of the self with divine purpose.”

[12] Karl Barth CD IV.3.1.390 “And it is as He attests the truth, Himself, in this form, that He unmasks us as liars. It is in this form of suffering, as the wholly Rejected, Judged, Despised, Bound, Impotent, Slain and Crucified, and therefore as the Victor, that He marches with us and to us through the times, alive in the promise of Spirit. In this form he is at the core not only of the kerygmatic theology of Paul but also of the kerygmatic accounts of the Gospels.”

[13] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 16. “Only by self-emptying in encounter with what is alien, unknown and different does [a person] achieve selfhood…trust in the hidden and guaranteed identity with Christ in God (Col. 3:3) makes possible the self-abandonment, the road into non-identity and unidentifiability, which neither clings to ancient forms of identity, nor anxiously reaches out for the forms of identity of those one is fighting in common.”

[14] Karl Barth, CD II.1.435, “‘Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world?…There is none. By the very fact of what God has done through this Gospel He has made tabula rasa of all that is published in the world as wisdom but is not.” I’m applying this to the person in the event of justification.

[15] Helmut Gollwitzer, The Way to Life. 63.

[16] Thiselton 166. “…the event of the cross is like the new frame of reference brought to the sick by health, or to children or to the unsound in mind by full, rational maturity.” I think it’s more than just a new frame of reference. Due to the destructive and re-creative nature of the encounter with God in the event of faith, I’m not merely handed a new key to the world, but recreated to be oriented in a different way within the world.

[17] Thiselton 162. “Paul invites his addressees to say what is left of a human wisdom which Gods saving acts have left high and dry in the light of a cross. The cross places giving, receiving, and serving above achieving or ‘finding the right formula.’”

[18] Thiselton 169. The wisdom of God “…stands in antithetical opposition to the wisdom of this world order, which is fallible, temporary, short-term, and self-absorbed. The links with apocalyptic verdict, whether in the cross or at the end time, cannot be avoided. For what some may perceive as foolish is in fact definitive, and will expose its transient opposite as deceptive and illusory.”

[19] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017. 150-1. “What overcomes this ecclesiastical banality is encounter with the church’s resurrected Lord, with ‘the Easter story [that] broken into our world, bringing with it a power, a world-overcoming revolution, which makes everything different in our life, which forces the church into a totally different direction.’ This encounter delegitimizes the church’s banality and demands that the church become an agent in proclaiming this world-overcoming revolution through word and deed. 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 dangerous church because a church that is not dangerous is not help at all.”

[20] Thiselton 167. “‘The word kerygma…here means not the act of preaching itself, but the content of that proclamation…The point is worth making, first because the emphasis falls on the limits of natural human inquiry and discovery. Second, Schrage places the emphasis on the divine decree and its basis, not on the mode of communicated as such, and on the difference between gospel proclamation and human discovery. It has nothing to with whether the mode of communication is in a pulpit rather than variety of modes which may or may not include lectures, dialogue, disputation, or living the gospel out.”

[21] See fn17.

[22] See fn17.

“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.