Weekly Preaching: February 4, 2018

January 31st, 2018

We have three great texts this week. Isaiah 40:21-31 is the luminous climax to one of the Bible’s greatest chapters, which begins with stunning words of comfort to exiles who’ve given up ever returning to Zion. Even during their desolation, a way is already being prepared in the wilderness — and why? Grass may wither but God’s word stands forever. Rich theological fare indeed.

The final eleven verses need to be set in the context of these forlorn exiles who’ve lost all hope. Walter Brueggemann has, as well as anyone, explored the way life in our world is very much exilic — although we do have more comforts and can fool ourselves more easily into thinking we aren’t in exile at all. He says “Exile is not primally geographical, but it is social, moral and cultural.” We’ve lost a sense of a reliable world. Symbols of meaning are hollowed out; hopes are dried up, and we feel helpless.

Political ideology and consumerism are feeble substitutes for the living God. Just last month we were singing “O Come Emmanuel… and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here.” The preaching task “is to voice the felt loss, indignation and bewilderment… Extreme imagery is required to cut through the enormous self-deception.” Many clergy have been indignant that Trump voiced so much of people’s indignation; but he only scratched the surface of how all exilic people inevitable feel, hunkered down and not experiencing the robust richness of God’s kingdom (although they cannot name the real absence and loss accurately).

The preaching Brueggemann dares us to attempt is a “reimagining,” trying to create a “safe, liminal place” for the rediscovery of God’s real world, which isn’t any nostalgia for America way back when, but is the sustaining memory of those moments further back when — when Jesus was born, when fishermen followed, when Israel marched home, when the early church prayed and served.

The hope though is in this, as Brueggemann explains: “Exile evoked the most brilliant literature and the most daring theological articulation.” This unnamed prophet raises rhetorical questions! Instead of “I told you!” he says “Have you not heard?” He points to God’s majestic grandeur, before whom people are like grasshoppers (recalling — and reversing! — the report of the scouts who investigated the promised land?); the heavens are like a curtain in his room; mighty rulers, such as the Babylonian emperor right now being dethroned in favor of the Persian emperor now arriving, are just little tiny people to God. 

But then the prophet brings us to the nub of things: “Why do you say ‘My way is hidden from the Lord?'” No one listening to you has not felt forgotten and disregarded by the Lord. Their reasons may seem more trivial than the political/geographic/demographic plight of the entire nation of Israel. Still, hurts over sensing God’s absence are all real and are to be spoken into by a powerful word from the Lord. 

The preacher is tempted simply to repeat the prophet’s eloquence and let it be instead of watering it down or even ruining it by explanation. Sometimes in such moments of preaching, I’ll name this situation: Look, listen to what the prophet said, I can’t expand upon it or improve upon it, this really is God’s word to you, to me, to the world today.  And then I simply, firmly, peacefully and even slowly read verses 28-31.

Sure, I might dabble a bit on why we are so weary. I find when, in counseling, I ask people “Give me one word to describe how you feel deep in your gut,” the number one answer I get is “I’m tired.” There is an immense weariness, an intense exhaustion, to life as we know it in this world, especially as casually distant as we are from the heartbeat of God. Didn’t Jesus say “Come to me, you who are weary” (Matthew 11:28)?

And I might probe what it means to “wait” — which the Bible constantly urges us to do, and which we are no good at. We hate waiting, we want to get moving, we can’t be still, we fear what is to come if we are just waiting. Waiting at a traffic light, waiting on biopsy results, waiting for life to get happy, waiting for my prince to come… I can think of no wiser exploration of the meaning of waiting than a wonderful lecture Henri Nouwen gave called “A Spirituality of Waiting.” So worth listening to, soaking in for your own benefit, and then maybe even sharing with your people. The only thing I’d add to Nouwen would be that waiting can also mean serving — as in “I am waiting on your table, sir.” We wait for the Lord; we wait on the Lord and the Lord’s people.

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1 Corinthians 9:16-23: There's probably much in there about how to fulfill one’s ministry. It’s not for gain; it involves being weak for those who are weak (hence my peculiar book on leadership, Weak Enough to Lead). “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” reminds me of Luther’s hilarious declaration: “If we don’t preach the Gospel, we should be pelted with manure.” Mind you, this requirement leaves us trying to balance bold courage with a delicate compassion. I can speak the unvarnished truth frankly and simply alienate people who aren’t equipped to understand, or I can keep it palatable and never open up a space for radical growth. This is the dilemma of preaching, isn’t it?

* * *

So, Mark 1:29-39. As we pointed out last week, the house where Mark 1:29-39 transpires has been excavated and can be visited — albeit within a shrine that, to me, looks suspiciously like the Millennium Falcon… We hear of Peter’s mother-in-law but not his wife, but it seems Peter was married (1 Cor. 9:5).

We are wise to recall what happened in 1:21-28 — a remarkable healing indeed that raises the most important questions imaginable — as I hope I addressed faithfully and forcefully in last Sunday's sermon, "Mental Illness, Jesus & the Church."

The four fishermen leave the synagogue and are immediately in the house; partly this is Mark’s theological keyword for the urgency of the unfolding Gospel story, and partly it’s there on the city map, as the synagogue entrance is about thirty feet from the door to Simon Peter’s home.

Jesus almost effortlessly heals her of a fever. I think there’s homiletical hay to be made over this: she is healed, and then right away “she began serving them.” I mean, one might object to the patriarchy implied, but the Greek word, diakonein should strike us as familiar and something men and women who've been touched and healed by Jesus might do in response.

They brought more people to Jesus “when it was evening, after the sun had gone down,” which might surprise unless we recall it was the Sabbath, which ends at sundown, hence only then could they engage in this loving labor. Jesus would later contest the notion of healing waiting until after the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6 and others). I have a slight hunch that I might attempt something about the growing shadows, the way they seek healing in the dark, the dark symbolizing their dire need for not just light, but the light… Mark doesn’t press this, but I might.

I find myself more intrigued by another word that may or may not be all that pregnant: verse 32 says they brought “all” those who were sick. Then, verse 34 says he healed “many” — but not all? Joel Marcus is pretty sure “pollous in 1:34 is scarcely a smaller group than pantas in 1:32.” But I wonder if the Holy Spirit, which not only inspired the composition of the Gospel but also inspires our understanding of it, might use this subtle distinction to remind us of the hard reality of being followers of Jesus. Some — hey, maybe even many — are healed, but not all.

I am sure that, whatever Mark intended, the majority of people in Capernaum continued to suffer whatever they suffered. The arthritics still hurt, those with dementia were still confused, tumors grew undetected, tooth decay, gout, deafness and blindness were unabated. Jesus didn’t walk into town and heal everybody. In fact, not many were healed.

And when Jesus healed, it seems he did so to make a point, not just so a person could feel better. His point tended to be a sermon. Jesus healed the blind to make a point to the theologically cocky who thought they could see and know all but were unwittingly blind. Jesus healed to declare his identity and to declare that the kingdom really was dawning.

Jesus’ love for everyone was real, even though most who were sick remained sick. Jesus’ saving mission was for everyone, not just the few who were healed. Preachers need to be very careful and deliberate about how we speak of healing; I prepared this short video a while back exploring a way to approach this problem. There can be a kind of theological sadism that trumpets God’s healing power which then only isolates the sufferer from God in her hour of greatest need.

I’m fond of Jürgen Moltmann’s wisdom:
“In the context of the new creation, Jesus’ ‘miracles’ are not miracles at all. They are merely the fore-tokens of the all-comprehensive salvation, the unscathed world, and the glory of God. They point to the bodily character of salvation and to the God who loves earthly life… There is a difference between salvation and healing: Healing vanquishes illness and creates health. Yet it does not vanquish the power of death. But salvation in its full and completed form is the annihilation of the power of death and the raising of men and women to eternal life. In this wider sense of salvation… people are healed not through Jesus’ miracles, but through Jesus’ wounds; that is, they are gathered into the indestructible love of God.” 
At the same time, it can be thin comfort to someone afflicted by suffering to pass it off as being something that will be fully cured “when we all get to heaven.” Better to sit with the sufferer in the dark and simply weep, or perhaps we read a lament Psalm or two.

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission. James Howell's latest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, now features a study guide with videos, making it more useful for small groups.

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