Waging Holy War

In the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, we find Jesus in Capernaum. Located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, this is the town that Jesus claimed as His homebase. On my trip to the Holy Lands in 2017 it was one of the places that was most meaningful to me because of its authentic link to Jesus’ life. We meet Jesus in the Capernaum synagogue, His typical venue in the towns He visited. Our group was able to walk around a synagogue that dates back to the second century. It is probable that the one we were able to explore was built on the ruins of the sacred space where Jesus confronted the demoniac as part of His worship leadership. From one side, it is possible to see the Sea of Galilee below. The breeze blew through open windows, giving a tangible feeling to how Jesus must have experienced His time there.

A fifth century church is built atop the ruins of what is believed to have been the home of Peter’s family, including his mother-in-law. His house was just 100 feet south of the synagogue on the main street of the town. With that proximity, we understand how the deep faith of this disciple was fostered in that setting. Jesus visited the mother-in-law and healed her in the passage that follows the synagogue incident. The home was a pilgrimage site for some of the earliest believers, with Christian symbols written on the walls. Coins, pottery, oil lamps dating to the first century were there. So were fishing hooks! The men who responded to Jesus’ message, “Follow Me”, were fishermen from an area known for its fishing industry.

The church constructed atop the ruins has a see-through floor that allowed us to look down into this sacred space where Jesus harnessed the power of the Holy Spirit and brought healing, first to her and then to the crowds that gathered outside of the living quarters. Word spread quickly that a healer was in town and Jesus ministered to them with a generous Spirit. Approximately 1000-1500 people lived in Capernaum in Jesus’ time and that would have been considered a sizeable town. The ruins cover a strip that is a mile long.

We are in the season of Epiphany when God’s presence is revealed to us in special ways. Capernaum was so significant for me because it bridged the 2000-year gap that separates me from Jesus. I was privileged to breathe His air and see His views in the place He claimed as home.

The revelation of God in this passage comes in the person of Jesus. The demon recognizes who He is and the readers are reminded in this first chapter of Mark’s Gospel that evil is real. As if to combat this darkness, the scenes in Mark are bracketed by Sabbath gatherings. They include ritual observance of worship life in the synagogue. Mark also includes stories that tell of Jesus’ willingness to violate Sabbath law. I wonder what routine experience glues the pieces to our lives together? What does it feel like when we miss a Sunday of worship? How do you feel when you leave this sanctuary after worship and a time of connecting with friends?

Jesus was in the synagogue because He knew that was the place where He would find others who worshiped God. Each Sabbath, He found folks who sought to live sanctified lives in trying times. William Willimon writes that “These habits, protected through generations of difficulty, have created a people ready to jump up and run to John. They have created a community of faithful people who hear Jesus and hope for something big, not because he is new, but because he is rooted in something very old.” Jesus arrives in Capernaum and carries on the ancient tradition of His people: teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. He is acknowledged as a teacher “with authority.” We are addicted to information and have it literally at our fingertips in the form of our phones. Who or what teacher would we find to be “authoritative”? I wonder if we are open to hearing truth other than what we’ve come to believe?  Whose authority is larger than our own?

Introducing Jesus as a teacher may seem less impressive when compared to calming a storm or bringing a man back to life. But, for the Jews, discovering a religious leader who captured their hearts and inspired them to seek out God was no small thing. Jesus is compared in this passage to the scribes, whose position in the Jewish hierarchy was elevated. One author describes the difference between Jesus and these esteemed scholars like this: The scribes are those who “trade grammatical niceties with each other while drawing fat salaries…The scribes teach and preserve and prepare; Jesus blazes, explodes, and erupts.”

One pastor was feeling unsure about his preaching impact. So he polled some folks after worship one Sunday, asking them to fill out a brief questionnaire that measured how much of his sermon they could recall. When he collected the results, he was discouraged that so few details were remembered. But a wise elder in his congregation set him straight. She said a sermon isn’t about ideas anymore than the passion to our day comes from head knowledge. The purpose of the sermon is to meet Jesus in place, to be amazed that He hasn’t given up on us yet. The pastor felt better. He realized his people came to be astonished that Jesus lives among us and calls us—over and over again—to be His disciples.

What we learn about His teaching is that those in the sanctuary that day were astonished. We know nothing of His content, as we are given in the Beatitudes. He teaches them about God’s will but does it as He powerfully combats the force of evil that threatened their era as it does ours. One commentator writes that “the scene is alive with the crackle of conflict. There is no polite conversation here between Jesus and the possessed man.”

The demon greets Jesus as if he’s an old friend. We see a surprising side to Jesus in this encounter. Mark begins his story of Jesus’ ministry with a reminder that Jesus was engaged in a cosmic battle. I wonder what the demon saw in Jesus? Are we able to see in the man from Nazareth the purpose of God being fulfilled? We who gather weekly for worship acknowledge our own desperation. We may not name our difficulties as “demons” but we understand what it is to be weighed down by guilt, depression, financial hardship, meaningless lives, addiction, victimization, and greed. It is impossible for us to look into our world on any single day and not recognize that there are forces at work against God’s will for us. I think of patients I work with who believe the lies of the demonic: “You’ll never succeed”, “Your only friend can be found in a bottle”, “The abuse committed on you as a child is your fault”. The list could go on and on. They tell me they have done the unpardonable and often lose all vestiges of hope for a new day. So we remember that we stand in a long tradition of believers who look to God for our strength. We watch for opportunities to ease the burdens of others. Whether we recognize it or not, we wage a holy war against all that crushes life out of our world. We are the bearers of hope to the sorrowful who fear that they cannot be forgiven ever!

It is in worship that we are closest to that astonishment that the Capernaum believers felt as Jesus led their worship. When we are confronted with Jesus as the Christ, the man of Nazareth, we are astonished at His authority. When our faith life seems still, Jesus shows up and our plans are gloriously disrupted. We show up at worship each week not just for the strength to go on for another week. We take time to come more intentionally into God’s holy presence knowing that demons will be named and scattered!

A clergy friend talked about deciding to use a devotional guide as a starting point for his executive board’s meetings. They were embarking on a bold building campaign and he hoped the reflective time added to those meetings would guide the church leaders with the difficult decisions ahead. One of the board members stood up suddenly as the pastor shared the reflection and stormed, “I come to church on Sundays to hear a sermon. I’m here tonight to do our business, not to get preached at!” People were startled and he stomped out of the room. The pastor and parishioners looked at each other, shrugged and the study continued. Demons were unleashed. These conversations of the Executive Board were pointing toward needed changes. The irate leader had been very happy to serve when his own agenda prevailed. But, as the status quo was challenged, he blew up. He was harboring a need for power that hadn’t been evident before. The minister said that, ironically, the board member accidentally left his briefcase behind and had to slink back into the meeting later to claim it!

Martin Luther said, “When the word of God is rightly preached, demons are set loose.” We might be surprised when worship kicks something up in us that we didn’t know was there. “Wait, that’s not what I came here to hear!” “How can I use any of this next week?” “Who chooses the music for this service anyway? They never sing my favorite hymns!” It’s dangerous to come to worship each Sunday because to worship is to have your favorite prejudices disrupted through a startling meeting with God! To be a Christian is to hold on for dear life at times because there will be forces—both cultural and spiritual—that work against our faith in Jesus Christ.

In his autobiography, Arthur Miller wrote a story about his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. A doctor had come to administer another dose of sleeping medicine that would give her much-needed peace. Gazing upon her, finally asleep in their bed, her husband wrote, “I found myself straining to imagine miracles. What if she were to wake and I were able to say, ‘God loves you, darling,’ and she were able to believe it! How I wish I still had my religion and she hers.”

There are forces that will diligently work against us hanging onto a saving belief in a God of love. The demons who recognized Jesus and begged Him to depart continue to disrupt our carefully laid plans. Whether we recognize it or not, we are waging a holy war. With the waters of our baptism, the trouble begins!  We are not inoculated against sorrow or pain, confusion or chaos. But we are assured that Christ is with us for the long haul. And that is astonishing news!


What does God require?

Last summer I was cooking up enough pork carnitas to feed about 40 people at a family reunion. A by-product of this cooking extravaganza was fat. Through my kitchen window I see a bird feeder so the idea came to me to use the lard as a base for homemade suet. I added some birdseed and peanut butter and slopped the mix into a pan. After a day in the fridge I triumphantly took it out to the feeder. I took great delight in knowing I was giving our feathered friends some substantial calories. I set it on the flat platform of the feeder and went inside, contented that I had done my little part for creation.

My dog is the greatest beneficiary of my avian caretaking. Food scraps inevitably fall to the ground and Hunter, true to his name, is the first to realize that there’s food to be had. I figured the suet was a safe bet since it wouldn’t fall to the ground like bread crumbs. But I was wrong. Hunter had been out for an unusually long time the day after I served up suet in my front yard. I looked out the front door and he licking the ground under the feeder. I seemed to forget that, in the July sun, meat fat would not stay solid. In fact, it had melted and was dripping off the edge of the feeder at a pretty impressive rate. Hunter was all in! As he licked it off the ground, more of it dripped onto his head and back. I had to pull him away from the feast and immediately dump him in the utility sink to suds out the fat. I used Dawn detergent which clean up wildlife after oil spills! The yummy smells of the carnitas ingredients were not nearly as appealing when mixed with dog fur and dish soap. It took about a week before the aroma left him and any place he rested. My very noble efforts at feeding the birds met with complete failure. I had to scoop the remaining lump of suet off the feeder, throw it away, and come up with a better plan for keeping the birds of the air nourished.

Sometimes our finest efforts at using available resources in compassionate ways can be messy and completely miss the mark! Do we give up? Or do we try again?

I wonder what God expects of us? Can we ever be good enough? Does God have a clipboard, grading us on every gesture of kindness and failed attempt at goodness? The prophet, Micah, talks about what it takes to restore and maintain our relationship with God. The list gets absurd: ten thousand rivers of oil and thousands of rams. What if we went to church every week and said grace every night before dinner? What would earn us enough brownie points to win God’s favor?

The passage uses legal language. Micah’s exploration of divine justice was presented as a lawsuit. God proclaimed that the jury would be comprised of those who had been around a long time: the mountains and the hills. They were around when God first made the covenant with the people. They had witnessed the recent misbehavior of the Israelites. The offenses were listed and the verdict hung in the balance.

Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah, known as an advocate for the oppressed. He was a prophet in the 8th century BC when the situation of the Israelites shifted dramatically. They were such an insignificant segment of the population of the Ancient Near East that foreign rulers ignored them for quite awhile. They prospered and were fruitful and multiplied. But the tide changed when a new king came along who didn’t like the Jews. He defeated ten of the twelve tribes of Israel in 721BC. They were scattered over hundreds of miles and served as slaves. It was during this time that Micah prophesied to them, warning them to be faithful exclusively to God. As the Jews plummeted from prosperity to desperation, they cried out for Divine protection.

I knew a man—let’s call him Bob—who was the legal guardian for an old blind man. Let’s call him Hubert. Bob had written out countless checks for Hubert for 14 years. Hubert had more than a million dollars in his combined accounts. Bob confessed to me his struggle with his thoughts: This guy isn’t going to last too much longer. He could cut me in on a tiny percentage of his will, right? I’ve been a faithful and honest caretaker. It certainly won’t hurt him!

I wonder if we approach our relationship with God like that at times? I’ve been faithful. I’ve helped others. You’ve got a lot to give, God, so what do you say? Then God gives us less than we thought we deserved. The reward is something different from what we expected. We are challenged to be clear about why we give. Do we have pure motives behind our service? Even when we do, selfishness and self-righteousness easily creep in.

Micah provides insight into the nature of God and the way we relate to each other. Some of this minor prophet’s writings answer our most profound questions, particularly those focused on justice. In these verses we pick up on the emotions of God. The Creator of the universe seems hurt and pleads with the beloved people to remember all that has been done for them in the past. Surely if they remember those acts of kindness and the moments of rescue, they would not stray from God’s ways? Gratitude would keep them on the right track, right?

We’ve all cried out to God, “That’s not fair!” We levy accusations that God is not just because our lives have not followed the course we expected. If our co-worker seemed to be given a miraculous cure from disease, why hasn’t that happened for our brother who is such a good Christian? Does God enter into the fray of our human existence, arbitrarily disbursing gifts to some and ignoring others? Or is God happily perched far above the earth, letting us chart our own course? Maybe there is a middle alternative?

Micah was dealing with folks who had sinned egregiously against God. Micah didn’t sidestep the fact that God can get angry. Like any good parent, God could not overlook the Jews blatant disobedience and rejection of a sacred way of life. God responds with tremendous hurt. It’s like the parent of a wayward teenager who cries out, “If you only knew how I’ve sacrificed for you!” Or, an introspective cry from the gut, “What did I do that she would do this to me?”

Does anything suffice to move God to accept us, particularly when we have strayed far from our holy calling? Micah assures us that God doesn’t hang onto that clipboard, downgrading us for each impure thought. God is interested in the way we live our everyday lives. Acts of piety must stem from a motive of love otherwise they are empty. So what does God require of us?

Through the prophet, Micah, God offers three requirements that guide our interaction with each other and our Maker. The first is to act justly. Justice is a dynamic concept, something that people do. We are to work for fairness and equity for all. Our courts are to dole out fair sentences. The second requirement is kindness. The Hebrew word is Hesed which takes at least three of our words to translate it well: love, loyalty, and faithfulness. We are not to serve God out of a sense of duty or fear, any more than we would marry someone for those same reasons. We are to LOVE God and be loyal in our dealings with each other. Finally, we are asked to walk humbly with our God. We submit our will to the will of God. I love how our life pilgrimage is likened to a long walk with our Maker. Micah assures us that God wants our whole lives, not just a lengthy notarized checklist of good deeds. The apostle Paul phrased it like this to the early Christians in Rome: “Present your bodies as living sacrifices…” Each day, we live out our love for God through all we think, do and say. It sounds both simple…and very, very hard.

I think of a family who had two children in high school and one in the eighth grade. Only one of the teens had their license so the parents were constantly shuffling kids from school activities, to sports and lessons. All the while, they kept up with the demands of their careers. Each evening they mapped out the plan for the next day so that everyone could get to their engagements in a timely manner. The strain of the family schedule was so evident that their youngest asked to have a meeting with both parents present. They sat in the living room and the twelve-year old offered a well-rehearsed speech. He told them that he was willing to forego the great privilege of being a part of the community youth choir so that they would have one less taxi request several evenings of each week. He assured them that he would continue to cherish music but didn’t have to be a trained musician. He reminded them that it would also save them some money. The parents managed to keep from smiling. They knew that their son dragged into choir practice each week. But they also knew that he came home humming the songs he rehearsed and thoroughly enjoyed singing in concerts. The motive behind his alleged sacrifice was not, shall we say, pure! The mother politely thanked him for finely arguing his case. They would have to talk about it, she told the boy. But the father spoke up and said he had sufficiently considered the case and the answer was “No.” Their son would continue to sing and his willing sacrifice was not required. The boy’s shoulders sagged as he walked away.

Sacrifice is not difficult when we are grateful for the gifts God has given us. We sacrifice readily when we know that God does not require repayment. Rather than despairing of the debt we owe for the countless blessings we’ve been given, we worship our Creator by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God. These are the requirements that gave the Israelites hope in the face of their sin. This is what God requires of us hundreds of years later. Our hearts overflow with joy when we care for those around us. Excited about our spiritual gifts, we serve others with glad hearts. Micah reminds us that God wants us–our whole being. Pure and simple!

Or is it?


Marvelous Confusion

The Gospel of Mark begins at a fast clip. Tom Wright equates John the
Baptist’s arrival to someone storming into your room and screaming
at you to get up NOW! You’re late for work! You’ll miss the bus! Your
flight leaves in an hour. You overslept! Get up! You’re groggy from
having just fallen asleep in the wee hours of the morning, so the human alarm clock resorts to splashing water on your face. NOW you’re awake and planting your feet on the floor for a whirlwind of a day.
In Mark’s succinct gospel, the arrival of John the Baptist replaces the birth story. That scene is not nearly as sanguine as shepherds in a barnyard! I wonder where we are asleep today, in our personal lives, our church, and our community? Are there voices crying out to us to wake from our lethargy and MOVE?
Mark’s gospel is known for its brevity. In that sense, it’s perfectly
tailored for life in 2022. We’ve grown impatient with too much
information on any one subject. We scroll past posts with mild interest.
We send multiple texts to avoid phone conversations. We submit to the rules of brevity each time we tweet—using 280 characters or less. Our
increasingly shortened attention spans love Mark! So fasten your
seatbelts as we jump into the fray on Jesus’ baptism day!
John is introduced as a fringe character. He wore the clothing of a penitent, subsisted on a diet of insects, and set up shop in the austerity of the desert. Though his ministry gave the appearance of a freak show,
throngs of people streamed out to him. Maybe they understood his odd
presentation as a rejection of the present powers in Jerusalem. The
Roman Empire was known for its brutality and John displayed defiance
to cultural norms set by the Jerusalem bigwigs. When Jesus submitted
to be baptized by John, He offered a show of support for this unlikely
revolution happening just off to the side of the city. John’s efforts at paving the way for that very moment in history were fulfilled.
The Jews were known for their ritual baths. They highly valued
cleanliness and required bathing in one of the public settings when they
became ritually impure. Whether they were sick, touched a dead body,
or had a baby, certain natural parts of daily life transmitted spiritual
cooties that could only be removed through yet another ritual bath.
John’s baptism was a one-and-done cleansing. It added the expectation of
honest introspection. Baptism by John was a commitment toward the
kind of confession that Dr. Laura required of anyone courageous
enough to call her on-air counseling booth. Remember how people winced when she saddled those who were trying to blame others for their own messes with rightful responsibility? When Jesus got dunked by John, He had an authentic encounter with God. The shock waves from His counter-cultural movement still reverberate among us today, inviting honest introspection.
Mark described that the heavens were torn open as Jesus arose from the
water. The only other place Mark used this word was when the curtain
in the temple was torn from top to bottom on the day of Jesus’ death.
Both of these moments, at the beginning and ending of His earthly
ministry, were moments when the boundaries between earth and
heaven blurred. The voice of a loving father was heard, a Dad telling his
son that he loves him.
I wonder how many of us heard words like that from our fathers? Our
mothers? For those who never heard that kind of affirmation from your father, what would that do for you if you had heard those words of affirmation regularly? Anything is possible! That kind of parental blessing empowers children to rise out of poverty, to turn handicap into triumph and impossible dreams into reality. Imagine God saying to you every moment since your baptism, “You are my precious child. I love you so very much.” How might that message change you?
With this message from heaven delivered to Jesus, we are left with no
doubt that Jesus was anointed for ministry. Tom Wright reminds us that
this happens in our own lives and those of our church friends: “A good
deal of Christian faith is a matter of learning to live by this different
reality even when we can’t see it. Sometimes, at decisive and climactic
moments, the curtain is drawn back and we see, or hear, what’s really
going on; but most of the time we walk by faith, not by sight.”
The story moved forward from this baptism with breathtaking
briskness. Being baptized, it turns out, does not inoculate us against
temptation. Jesus, still damp from the Jordan River waters, found
Himself in the wilderness, alone except for the wild beasts. His
ordination was preparation for a very real encounter with the evil of
our fallen world. For forty days Jesus was face-to-face with Satan, the
embodiment of all that is wicked. The big guns were brought out to test
the faith of the Son of God. As if that weren’t terrifying enough, He was
expected to co-exist with ferocious creatures hanging around.
I remember going on a camping safari in Tanzania. We Peace
Corps Volunteers couldn’t afford the price of air-conditioned bus tours with comfy lodges for our nightly rest. Instead, we camped out in the midst of the Serengeti Plain, a sheath of canvas separating us from all things that move. I was awakened in my pup tent in the middle of the night by the earth trembling beneath me. I unzipped the flap to see two elephants storming toward me. My canvas bedroom, I realized, would present no obstacle to such a big creature. Fortunately, the pair changed course before they got too close. But sleep eluded me the rest of the night as I grappled with the reality that I was in their territory and vulnerable
indeed. Jesus dwelt alongside of these creatures and lived to tell of it. In
His ministry, He would be the wild One who refused to be tamed by the
conventional religion of His day. The final note of the story was an
assurance that the angels of God took care of Him. In Jesus’ baptism
and wilderness trial, we are reminded that we worship a God who
completely understands us in both our times of triumph and
The final episode of this three-part short story is the commencement of
Jesus’ preaching ministry. He went back to His home territory of Galilee
where He would be known as Joseph’s boy. He learned, before He
preached His first sermon, that His relative, John, had been arrested and imprisoned. John’s wild ways caught up with him and Jesus had painful proof that His ministry had high stakes. His people had waited a long time for the Messiah to appear. David’s kingdom thrived one thousand years earlier and Jews had been watching for a Messiah ever since. There
had been 400 years with no communication from God before Jesus
showed up. So Jesus preached a concise message: Repent! This could be
translated as an invitation to turn your brain around inside your head
so that you are looking in a different direction! Through our repentance
we are urged to participate in the new age He inaugurated and to turn
away from the voices that tempt us to travel a different path. As baptized
followers of Jesus, we can expect to be lured off course in spite of our
best efforts.
My dear Julian of Norwich, who was born in 1342, was given sixteen
visions in a near-death experience. She offers these words of wisdom
from one of them: “Our life in this world consists of a wondrous
mixture of good and bad. We contain within us both our risen Lord
Jesus Christ, as well as the misery and woe of Adam’s sin. Protected by
Christ, although dying, we are touched by his grace and raised to hope
of salvation. Afflicted by Adam’s fall, as well as our own sinfulness and
woe, we feel so benighted and blinded that we can scarcely find any
comfort. And our God opens the eye of our understanding so that we
might see, sometimes more, sometimes less, according to the ability
God gives us to receive it. Now we are raised up to one, now allowed to
fall to the other. And this fluctuation is so confusing that we hardly
know where we stand…But what a marvelous confusion! And it
continues throughout our life. But God wants us to trust that he is
always with us.”
I don’t know how many of us would refer to the challenges of
discernment as “marvelous confusion.” I have assured countless
confused parishioners over the course of 35 years that discernment is
difficult! Most times we are given just enough guidance to move
toward one decision. We usually don’t get confirmation of our choice until
later. As baptized believers, we are urged to immerse ourselves in
Jesus’ teaching, trusting in God’s Word, rather than trying to buy a fail-
proof insurance package for our life to flow forward perfectly. We wrestle with how to live within the power structures of our world while still being faithful Christians. I can assure you that I’ve never thought to describe that angst as “marvelous confusion”!
Maybe we need to be reminded that Jesus looked nothing like the
Messiah the Jews expected. His style of leadership promised failure.
Mark had a special interest in the “Kingdom of God”, which he mentioned fourteen times in his gospel. What we witness, from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, is that His values don’t mesh with the dominant culture…then or now in this newly-arrived kingdom!
Marilyn McCord Adams writes, “..divine vocation immediately thrusts
us into liminal space. Unless we are willing to let old identities dissolve
and allow ourselves to be reshaped into crucifixion-resurrection
disciples, our sense of divine vocation is fraught with demonic
potential.” The disciples don’t understand this until they cower before the cross. That’s when all their hopes and understanding of Jesus “crash and burn.”
Maybe we could describe the state of the disciples, as Jesus hung on
the cross, as “marvelous confusion?” That scene can be interpreted as
marvelous only because the cross didn’t claim Him. Marvelous because
death led to eternal life. Marvelous because God’s love triumphed over
forces of evil and a gift was given to every person who ever lived.
Jesus inaugurated His ministry with a proclamation of Good News. I
wonder what that might be for you as you stand just a couple of weeks
into a new year? I wonder what the Good News might be for the
communities in which we live? our church in a time of transition? Do we dare hope for Good News to emerge for our nation? For our world that is literally sick and tired? I wonder if we might be living in a time of “marvelous confusion”?