January 30, 2012
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
In a cartoon I once saw there were two somewhat rough-looking characters emerging from a church after a worship service. As they walk down the church steps, the one man is saying to the other, “Well, the news wasn’t all bad–at least I ain’t made no graven images lately!” Among other things, this little cartoon may remind us that in church, we can be rather casual in tossing around language that you mostly don’t encounter the rest of the week. We even read whole stories from the Bible that are so different from anything we have ever experienced–or even anticipate experiencing–that there may be a quiet and subtle disconnect between what we say in church and the rest of our lives.
If the gospel is true, however, then any apparent gap between what we talk about in church and what goes on the rest of the week must be only apparent and so not a real gap. That is to say, if there is simply no such thing as “graven images” in life, then talking about such an unreal thing in church ushers people into a realm of fantasy, a fictional world that has no true connection to the actual world.
In Mark 1, Jesus is shown going around announcing the kingdom of God and as he does so, he casts out demons left and right. Scarcely a day or an hour goes by without Jesus bumping into, and then driving out, yet another unholy, unclean, demonic spirit. We tend to read passages like Mark 1:29-39 and we do so without batting an eye. Once upon a time there was a man named Jesus. He cast out lots of demons. And we all nod our heads. Yes, we’ve heard about this before.
Once upon a time and far, far away Jesus did this, but it doesn’t have much to do with us, does it? Most of us have run across some odd characters in our lives. We’ve sat on airplanes in the company of grungy-looking folks, we’ve sat across from young people with purple spiked hair whose noses, tongues, eyebrows, ears, and chins have been pierced with dozens of silver studs. We’ve worked with some very disagreeable people and have even had conversations with cynics who clearly believe that Christianity is a pack of lies calculated to deceive the naive and dim-witted of the world. Perhaps at one time or another we have even encountered someone whom we described to others as a “wicked” personality, someone who was so conniving and manipulative as to be scary.
But in all likelihood few if any of us have ever looked at another person only to conclude, “Well, he’s demon-possessed all right. No doubt about it.” Some people may be weird or untrustworthy or hostile, but that’s a far cry from thinking they are full of an unclean spirit. We just don’t talk that way in the ordinary run of our ordinary days.
So what do we make of Mark 1’s presentation of Jesus the exorcist? Is this demon business a little like graven images–something that used to exist but is now just a throwback to a bygone era? If you go through an antique store with your grandpa, you’ll run across lots of outdated stuff. Maybe you’ll ask Grandpa, “What’s this thing?” and he’ll reply, “Well, long time ago we used this to make toast.” Is that what Mark 1 is like–a kind of theological antique, a relic from an age long gone?
If so, then a big gap opens up between our faith and our lives. So maybe what we need to do is take the Bible’s language seriously in the belief that on some level, this does describe a vital aspect of reality in also this day and age.
There are realities and spiritual forces at work in this world that are undeniably anti-God and anti-Christ. We err if we think that the demonic was only long ago and far away. We err if we limit the presence of the demonic to only caricature-like spectacles of The Exorcist variety. The devil is, among other things, an opportunist. When the Bible tells us that the devil prowls about like a lion, looking for whom he might devour, that may mean that this prowling will take many forms and it won’t necessarily be lion-like in every instance. The “devouring” may well take many forms, starting with whatever is expedient. If in a given culture what we might regard as “obvious” forms of demon-possession or demonic activity would be too easily spotted (and so probably resisted), then another form will be taken.
In the frightening film Devil’s Advocate actor Al Pacino is a very convincing demon in a designer suit. He’s also a lawyer and, lawyer jokes aside, the point of the film is that the law is as susceptible to demonic influence as anything. The devil will always survey the landscape to see where the cracks are, and they won’t always be the same from one society or place to the next.
In some ways, then, reading these texts about “Jesus the Exorcist” connects us with a world so remote from our own and from our typical experience that it may as well be a story about talking animals or aliens from outer space. In other words, we conclude that whatever necessitated Jesus’ being an exorcist back then no longer applies to us now. That was then. It is not now.
A good sermon on Mark 1:29-39 will surely make people a bit more thoughtful on such matters.
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
Usually we are far too casual about God’s kingdom. “Your kingdom come, your will be done” we say each time we intone the Lord’s Prayer, but when we finish our prayer and open our eyes, we do not see any such kingdom. It is difficult for us to conceive of a kingdom that is not also a definable place on the map–a realm with borders and with visible signs that this particular place is different from all other places.
Most of us know what such markers might be like. Cross the border into Canada and immediately lots of things look different: highway signs, street signs, traffic lights. Everything is in kilometers, some traffic lights have something called a “Delayed Green.” The lines painted on the roads may be a different color. In England the entire flow of traffic is reversed, which is why some of us very nearly get hit when crossing some London street because we instinctively look the wrong way to see if any cars are coming. (Winston Churchill nearly died in New York City once when he made this same mistake when crossing a street and looking the wrong way to check for traffic.)
A kingdom or country or nation or realm would rather be like that, we think. Kingdoms are defined by their different customs, signage, currency, and habits. So it is perhaps no surprise that when even Christians pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, they quietly assume that this is something that will happen only, or at least mostly, in the future. When God’s kingdom comes, we’ll all know it because living inside the borders of that kingdom will be just as obvious as being in a different country even today. But although we do believe in the reality of the New Creation that is yet to come, it is nevertheless wrong to relegate God’s kingdom to any other place, dimension, or time than this place, this time.
As Dallas Willard has written, the kingdom is real and it is real now. Because a kingdom is that realm where the effective will of the king determines what happens. In a sense, we all have our own little kingdoms in life–those places where what we want happens. If we say it, it goes. Maybe this is in our households, maybe it happens at work in the department of which you are the manager. But wherever a person can say, “Well, that’s the way I want it and so that’s the way it is going to be,” then that is in a real sense a kingdom, a place where your influence rules and makes stuff happen.
That’s why the kingdom of God is real and that’s why we can see it, right now today. The kingdom is present wherever people pray the way Jesus taught us to pray. The kingdom is present wherever Jesus nurtures certain behaviors and lifestyles that we call the fruit of the Spirit. The kingdom is present wherever people pour water over the heads of babies or take bread and wine to their lips all simply because Jesus told us that this is the way we are to act in remembrance of him.
The kingdom is present wherever a believer somewhere refuses to go along with some scheme because she believes it is untruthful and that going along with it would make her less transparent to Jesus. Whenever and wherever a believer refuses to participate in sinful activities, whenever and wherever a kindly old woman brings light into a neighbor’s darkness by speaking a word of peace, whenever and wherever a man sits down to tutor a homeless child, and whenever and wherever all such things are done because all these people believe there is a cosmic Lord named Jesus, then there–right there and right here and right now–the kingdom of God is present because the effective will of Jesus is calling the shots.
When the Son of God came to this earth, he announced the arrival of the kingdom. That kingdom is so real, and is such a viable alternative to all things evil and dark and wrong, that of course it only makes sense that the demons knew who Jesus was and fled before him. What’s more, if this same Jesus, who himself embodies the fullness of every kingdom virtue, could walk the streets of New York or Chicago this very day, don’t doubt for a second that he would even now cause any number of unclean spirits to come out of the woodwork.
Someone once suggested that the reason there were so many demons around Jesus all the time may be similar to the reason why when you go to the E.R. at the local hospital you find so many injured people. It would be rather foolish to see injured people at the E.R. but to then say, “Earlier today I was at the mall but I didn’t see any injured folks lying around there! How come so many cluster at the hospital?” The answer is so obvious as to make the question absurd. So also here: as the very incarnation of God’s kingdom, Jesus attracted and drew out and unmasked the forces that opposed him.
Again, the same would happen today were Jesus to walk through this land bearing all the fullness of the kingdom. But the gospel, the good news, in Mark 1 is not simply that Jesus drew out the forces of opposition, but that he sent them into retreat! The kingdom of God makes a difference, and no one of us should pray “Your kingdom come” unless we are willing to let the reign and rule and effective will of God call the shots in our lives. And who is to say that when we live in kingdom ways among our neighbors and coworkers that we are not also sending the powers of darkness into retreat?
Mark 1:34 is the first clear instance in Mark of the motif known as “The Messianic Secret.” There was a slight hint of this in Mark 1:25 when Jesus tells the unclean spirit to “be quiet,” but this is the first instance where we are told that Jesus actively was preventing knowledge of his true identity from getting noised around too much. And it will come up again and again from here on out. Possible reasons for this secrecy have been bandied about for centuries. But it does seem that Jesus knew that for him to accomplish the work he came to do, he could not let people too quickly seize on him lest they turn him into what they wanted him to be as opposed to what he knew his Father would have him to be (and for that to happen, he’d have to trek all the way to the cross). Mark drives us as readers to the cross. And so there is a sense in which even for readers of this gospel that every instance of hearing Jesus silence those who know his true identity is a goad for us, too, to keep reading, to not impose on Jesus (even yet today) our own ideas on what he should be like, what he should say, what he should do. Our job is not to jump to conclusions or force prior agendas. Our job is to keep following, even though we know that the path down which we follow Jesus is going in the opposite direction of where we’d prefer to go.
As Jesus makes clear in verse 38, his main task was first and foremost to preach and proclaim the message that has now become the gospel. That’s why even now we need to be willing to proclaim the truth of God’s kingdom. Today as much as ever, people need to know that this kingdom is real and available. They need to see the joy and the possibilities of that kingdom in the church. Because often people are too easily satisfied just to make do with what is quick and easy and cheap. People settle for sex or liquor or a rock band or the distractions provided by entertainment. They look to these things to save them, or at least to help them move forward in a grim world. But, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, we are far too easily satisfied. We’re like a child who turns down an invitation for a day at the beach and chooses instead to stay sitting in a slum alley making mud pies just because the child really can’t imagine how much better a day at the shore can be. “What could be better than making these slimy mud pies?” the child might think. Ah, if only he knew!
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Isaiah 40 is by no means the only place in the Hebrew Scriptures to see this irony but it is on glorious display in also these verses. You can see it also in places like Psalms 8, 19, and 90, as well as in the Book of Job and other places.
What is this irony? It is that within the span of only a few verses the authors of Scripture—in this case Isaiah, who also relays words that are said to come directly from the mouth of Yahweh—has no difficulty at all switching back and forth between as lofty a piece of rhetoric as possible and as intimate a piece of rhetoric as possible. In the case of Isaiah 40:21-31, we are hit over the head repeatedly with soaring pictures of God’s grandeur.
God, we are told, sits enthroned high above the circle of the earth—his perch is so lofty as to render us human beings as mere bugs scurrying along the ground. The entire canopy of space is stretched out by this same God as he handles the fabric of the cosmos the way a seamstress would handle a swatch of cloth. And when it comes to even the mightiest people on the planet, God is able to buy and sell them with ease. Their earthly majesty and power mean nothing to God—with a wave of his hand he is able to turn even the proudest and strongest to dust.
Having peered briefly at the earth, Isaiah then returns our gaze to the starry skies of the night. As is the case with all biblical depictions of the night sky and the stars above, what the ancient peoples could not see in the heavens was a lot. Even today if you can get away from city lights and stand on the side of a dark country road some summertime evening, the number of stars that can be seen in that arm of the Milky Way galaxy that we can see in summer in the northern hemisphere is still mind-boggling. But we now know that what the naked eye can see only scratches the surface of what is truly out there in the universe.
“Who created that starry host?” Yahweh asks through Isaiah. “Who calls them each by name?” And even the stargazing Israelites of old—much less we who can see so much farther and deeper today—hear this question and can respond only with some gasp along the lines of “Whoa!” The writer of Psalm 8 saw what stars he could and asked the famous question, “What is humanity that you would be mindful of little ole’ us, O God?!” We look out onto a universe clotted with more whole galaxies than we can count and say, “What is the entire planet earth; what is the entire solar system; what is the entire Milky Way galaxy that you should even be able to see us and pick us out among the starry hosts, O God?” We feel unmade by the vastness of space.
Or as any number of atheists today would answer that question: We don’t matter. We can’t matter. As John Ortberg quotes Bertrand Russell in Ortberg’s book Faith & Doubt, “In the visible world, the Milky Way is a tiny fragment. Within this fragment the Solar System is an infinitesimal speck, and within that speck our planet is a microscopic dot. On this dot , tiny lumps of carbon and water crawl about for a few years until they are dissolved again into the elements of which they are compounded.” As Ortberg wryly comments, “Is it only me, or is that the tiniest bit depressing?” (Faith & Doubt, 2008, Zondervan Publishing, p. 33).
Isaiah 40 pummels us with this same kind of imagery.
God is high.
We are low.
God is lofty.
We are scurrying bugs.
God plays with the stars.
We make mudpies.
Yes, we must be all-but invisible, all-but inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. What other conclusion can one draw?
So how gloriously ironic it is that this passage more-or-less sets us up to draw just such a conclusion only to then read in verse 27, “Why do you say, O Jacob, ‘My way is hidden from the LORD, my cause is disregarded by my God?’”
Why do we say that??? Well good grief, you just backed us into a corner where we could draw no other conclusion! If you want to bolster our confidence that God can see us, then don’t set us up by making our smallness so vivid and undeniable!!
But that’s just the irony: every time the Bible wows us with the grandeur of God and the magnitude of God’s neverending creation, we are immediately told that this same God uses that very same almighty power in the service of attending to us, to our lives, to all that we do. No matter how vast the universe is, no matter how awesome and almighty our great God is, none of it gets in the way of God’s tender regard for every last one of us. He knows our names, too.
“Do you not know?” Isaiah askes again and again. “Do you not know?” Well, no. Knowing this is not obvious. A glance into the night sky would not lead us to conclude that we matter so much to God that he worries about the same things that vex little old us. But that’s where the revelation of Scripture comes in. It tells us so many wonderful things, not the least of which is that we matter. We are loved.
Maybe you didn’t see that coming in a passage that hammers away at our littleness. But what a nice surprising ending we get anyway!
My friend Deborah Haarsma is an expert on galaxies and on astronomy generally. Sometimes when she makes a presentation for adult education classes she will conclude her talk by showing a slide of a typical night sky. On one part of the picture there is an area of sky that appears empty—there are stars all around but some parts of the sky don’t contain any visible stars. So Deb zooms in on one of those apparently blank patches of darkness but then superimposes on it what the Hubble Space Telescope saw in that very “blank” patch when it really cranked up its magnification. What the picture reveals always draws gasps from all who see it because in that seemingly “empty” part of the night sky the Hubble photographed hundreds and hundreds of not stars but of whole galaxies. And since each galaxy may contain upwards of 1 billion stars, it soon becomes apparent that even the seemingly blank parts of the night sky actually look out onto clusters of stars that number in the trillions.
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 147 is one of the psalter’s five last psalms, each of which begins and ends with a “Hallelu Yah!” It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate way to close God’s people’s hymnbook. In fact, this psalm even basically begins by asserting the fittingness of praise to God. It is, insists the psalmist, “good,” “pleasant” and “fitting” to praise the Lord. In fact, in a culture that always seems to ask, “What will this do?” the psalmist even claims that praise to God is appropriate all by itself.
The psalmist takes time, virtually in the middle of Psalm 147, to describe appropriate vehicles for praising God. “Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving,” he writes in verse 7, “Make music to our God on the harp.” Praise to God is, after all, so fitting and right that it calls for both the human voice and instrumentation. In fact, as Psalm 148 adds, it’s so appropriate that praise to God calls for the whole creation to join in it.
Praise to God is appropriate for a number of reasons. A close inspection of those reasons reveals some striking features. God, insists the psalmist, is praiseworthy because God’s activity is cosmic in its scope. God, in a sense, stoops down to care for lowly Jerusalem and her exiles. God, in other words, is praiseworthy because God has launched what James Limburg refers to as a second kind of exodus, gathering Israel’s exiles from afar, healing their hurts and settling them in a land that’s marked by shalom.
Of course, some confusion may stem from the psalmist’s use of a present tense to describe God’s building up of Jerusalem and gathering of her exiles. Those are, after all, historic acts. Limburg, however, suggests that the psalmist uses the present tense to describe God’s historical activity in order to remind God’s people that such restoration is typical of God’s care for God’s children. So when the church says, “The Lord builds up Jerusalem” and “gathers Israel’s exiles,” we’re professing that God continues to care for God’s people, even in the face of tribulation.
God, however, doesn’t just reach down to lowly Jerusalem and Israel’s exiles. God’s care also extends beyond what the human eye can see to the majestic stars. God knows their numbers and is so familiar with them that God even calls them by name. While some of Israel’s pagan neighbors thought of those stars as divine, the psalmist asserts that they are merely the domain of Yahweh, the living God.
As he lists reasons why praise to God is so appropriate, Psalm 147’s author also asserts that God is very active in God’s creation. This God is no divinity that made things and then simply sat back to watch them exist on their own. The psalmist uses present tense verbs to describe God’s intimate involvement with what God has made and continues to make. God “builds up, “gathers,” “binds up,” “determines,” “calls” and so forth.
The fittingness of praise to God is evident as well in God’s ongoing care for cities, people and creatures that other largely overlook. God builds up Jerusalem that her enemies have basically reduced to rubble. God gathers Israel’s exiles who perhaps feel forgotten even by God. This God heals those in pain, binding up their wounds. This God even cares for baby birds that some of the poet’s contemporaries may have assumed their parents left to take care of themselves.
There’s certainly a kind of tenderness to such praiseworthy activity. Psalm 147’s images are parental and gentle. God builds up and gathers, heals and binds up, calls and provides food. But the psalmist doesn’t want God’s tenderness confused with some kind of moral weakness or indecision. God watches out for those about whom few others care. However, God also casts the wicked to the ground. In fact, we might say that one way God sustains the humble is by punishing those who torment them.
God acts in praiseworthy ways in both history and in the creation. God doesn’t, after all, just care for Jerusalem, Israel’s exiles, the brokenhearted and the humble. God also acts on the cosmic stage. God knows the stars intimately. However, God is also deeply involved with caring for what God makes. No matter how we understand God’s activity in what God has made, God’s children realize that God somehow generously provides for God’s creation. The psalmist understands God to cover the sky with clouds that supply the earth with rain so that grass grows so that the cattle and young ravens have food to eat. In a “neighborhood” where Israel’s neighbors were deeply confused about who’s in charge of the weather, the psalmist asserts that it’s Yahweh who is the God of the seasons.
Yet God isn’t praiseworthy just because of what God does. The psalmist also asserts that it’s appropriate to praise the Lord for who God is, for God’s character. The God of Psalm 147 is “great,” “mighty in power” and has limitless “understanding.” There’s a vast chasm between this mighty God and people. Yet this great God is no “unmoved Mover” who views God’s creation dispassionately. While we sometimes have a hard time imagining that God has any sort of emotions, the psalmist insists that Yahweh finds pleasure and delight in what God has made. God’s love is, in fact, unfailing, tenacious.
And because God’s is so praiseworthy, God’s children can reject other sources of protection. God isn’t pleased when people turn to military or human strength. Other sources of protection shouldn’t delight people either. After all, even the strength of horses couldn’t protect Jerusalem from destruction. Even infantry soldiers couldn’t prevent Israelites from being carried off into exile. No, Psalm 147’s author insists, the only hope for humanity is a fear of God, that is, a healthy reverence that produces a commitment to doing God will, and a placing of hope in God’s unfailing love.
Of course, preachers and teachers of Psalm 147 may want to help listeners consider other appropriate responses to God’s praiseworthiness. After all, a faithful response to God’s grace goes beyond praising the Lord and relying on God for help. So preachers and teachers might want to explore how God’s gathering Israel’s exiles affects Christians’ response to modern refugees. How might God’s healing the brokenhearted and binding up their wounds inform God’s children’s response to society’s most vulnerable citizens? How might God’s ongoing involvement with creation affect ways God’s people care for what God has made?
The National Museum of American History owns the second of the two “Bibles” that Thomas Jefferson created by “editing” the gospels to reflect his understanding of Jesus’ true philosophy. Jefferson wanted to distinguish Jesus’ genuine teachings from what he called the “corruption of schismatizing followers.”
However, Jefferson was heavily influenced by the principle of deism. So he imagined a divine being that created the world but is no longer interested or involved in its daily life. He, for example, chose not to include in his “gospel” the miracles Jesus performed. He, in fact, rejected anything that he perceived as “contrary to reason.” So while Jefferson’s gospel includes some of Jesus’ teachings, including the Sermon the Mount and ends with a description of Jesus’ burial, it omits an account of his resurrection.
The God of Psalm 147 is radically different from such an uninterested God who is uninvolved in what God created and still creates. Many of the verbs it uses to describe God’s activity are in the present tense. Its God is passionately active in God’s handiwork, especially with its most vulnerable creatures.