February 06, 2012
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
This is a short passage and a short Lectionary selection in most every way but it’s ironic that the big event of the passage occupies less space than the aftermath. In the next section of these sermon starters we’ll look at the aftermath but here we’ll zero in on the brief exchange that gets this little story rolling.
In the Greek of Mark 1:41 Jesus’ reply to this leper is wonderfully brief but powerfully revealing. Although in English we are forced to use a few more words, in Greek there are only two: Thelo. Katharistheti. The man said, “If you are willing,” and Jesus snappily replies, “Willing!” The man said, “You can make me clean,” and Jesus says “Cleansed!” And that’s all it took for this miracle to happen.
It’s a curious exchange in some ways. The man does not cry out for mercy the way some people do in the gospels. He does not directly ask Jesus to heal him. Indeed, his words to Jesus are neither plea nor question, neither imperative nor demand, but instead a simple conditional clause: If you are willing, you can heal. It’s a simple statement of fact, an observation that could just as well have been spoken by some detached observer as by the person desperate for healing. It’s similar to someone’s saying, “If you step on the gas pedal, the car will go faster.” Yes, true enough. A simple statement of “If . . . Then.”
But, of course, in this case these words were spoken by a man with clear pleading in his voice and who was down on his knees in desperation even as he spoke so there was no missing the fact that this was no idle request or cool observation of facts. It reminds me of the time Johnny Carson had a small marmoset crawl up to the top of his scalp during one of the Tonight Show broadcasts. After the little critter had been up there for a little while Johnny said to the zoo official who had brought the animal, “OK, well, I guess you can remove him from there now if you want to.” But the way Mr. Carson said it made it clear that this was not one option among many that he wanted to animal handler to consider—he wanted the marmoset out of his hair. Now!
“If you are willing . . .” We know what the leper meant—he was hoping like crazy that Jesus would be willing. Still, it’s a curious way to frame the issue. Jesus’ swift and brief response is also interesting as he essentially seems to give a version of the exuberant response, “Ready, Willing, and Able, Sir!” Yes, Jesus is willing. He’s even eager. And he is surely able. If there is one thing the gospels make clear, it is that whenever someone approached Jesus for healing or cleansing or for most anything else, Jesus was indeed willing to extend his hand and bring some shalom back into chaotic and broken lives.
In fact, there is a sense in which all the goodness of the Gospel is contained in that little Greek word Jesus employed: Thelo! Willing! There’s more grace tucked in there than we may at first appreciate. Yes, God is willing to heal, to save. That’s why God sent his only Son into the world in the first place. Salvation is available. The resources are there. And God is willing—more than willing—to see the dream of our restoration realized.
That’s good to know because on any given Sunday we preachers stand before lots of people in our congregations who have come to church wondering if God is willing to help them. Is God there for them or not? Is God on their side or not? Of course, we cannot promise anyone instant healing or instant success. Mark 1:40-45 shows us Jesus’ willingness eagerly and happily to heal this leper. But as we all know, even though Jesus walked around his whole life long with that kind of willingness welling up within him, not everyone in Palestine was healed while Jesus was on the earth. Not every leper was cleansed, not every blind person could see again just because Jesus passed through a given town or village, not every person who died during Jesus’ ministry got raised back up but only a few that we know of.
And we can no more know the whys and wherefores of all that in Jesus’ day than we can know just why even yet today some prayers for healing in the church appear to get answered and others appear to go unanswered. Some cancer-stricken members of our congregations get better, others quickly die. Some rocky marriages get put back together and some end in bitter divorces that scar all kinds of people in the community, starting with children.
We know God is willing to heal and to restore but as when Jesus was here, for now that willingness does not automatically translate into a world shot through with nothing but shalom. These are mysteries of faith the depths of which the church has never finished plumbing even all these centuries later.
But what we can proclaim to everyone in our pews on a given Sunday morning—and what a passage like Mark 1 gives us opportunity to proclaim—is that God is willing, God is on our side, God is ready and available. Even when we cannot know the ins and outs as to why specific people suffer in specific ways that are not always cured or healed on the spot, what we can know and so proclaim is that none of that separates us from the love of our God in Christ and also that none of that means God is anything less than willing to keep on working toward the complete restoration of all things—a goal that he will surely accomplish through Christ and in Christ.
Mark 1 reminds us that when we look out over a congregation, we may well discern in the eyes of those staring up at us a question that trembles in the silence of all our hearts at one time or another: Willing? Is God willing? The good news of the gospel is to bring these people to the feet of Jesus whose compassion always conveys the same message: Willing! Willing indeed! And in God’s good time, we will be healed.
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
As noted in the first section of these sermon starters, it’s curious that the aftermath of the miracle takes up relatively more space here than the miracle itself, which takes place with great dispatch and is narrated in Mark’s typically spare style with a great economy of words. Jesus speaks a scant two words to make the healing happen: Willing! Cleansed! But then he issues a stern warning to the man to keep this quiet and simply fulfill the letter of the Law to show himself as healed to the priests so that he could take up his proper place in the community. The man does not do so and Jesus is thus hindered in even getting around much due to the clamor that soon accompanies him as word of his wonder-working power “goes viral” as we say today.
It’s curious, though, that Jesus asks that the man go to the priests. What’s that all about? Why would Jesus care about such a thing? Well, perhaps this is a place where the reminders we get from N.T. Wright about Jesus’ connection to Israel and to the Old Testament can help. Jesus did not come to abolish all that had come before. He himself said he had not come to end the Law and the Prophets—that is, essentially, the entire core of what we call the Old Testament—but to fulfill them. Jesus was God’s Messiah and since he was himself God in the flesh, his return to Israel was the return of the King, long promised by Ezekiel and others.
Jesus had come to restore community where community had fractured, to restore a worshiping community for his Father. The leper had been ostracized, banned from worship and from the community generally. He could not properly worship God or serve God until he was restored to his people. Now, you might think that as the incarnate Son of the Living God Jesus so far out-stripped the priests in importance that he’d not bother to tell anyone to follow the letter of the Law and have some priests give a stamp of approval. Why could that possibly matter given what the Son of God had just done? But that’s simply not the case. Community matters. Worship matters. Jesus did not come to create a following that was free-wheeling and full of Lone Ranger types. He came to restore fellowship, to restore a worshiping community. It mattered that this healed leper do things right.
There might be a lesson for us in both the fact that this was Jesus’ wish and in the fact that he did not follow through. Because by doing what Jesus asked him not to do, people started latching on to Jesus for all the wrong reasons. They wanted to get something from him, wanted to see some razzle-dazzle, wanted to be entertained. But that was never the point nor the purpose of Jesus’ ministry or life. He came to sacrifice himself finally to restore the very worshiping community of Israel—soon to include the entire world inside a New Israel—and people needed to stick with him for the long haul of his ministry (all the way to the cross) for that to become clear.
When we selfishly pursue our own agendas, when we are more interested in ourselves than in the larger worshiping community that Jesus cherishes, we actually mess things up, we get out ahead of our Master, which is not the disciple’s role, of course. Maybe we can hardly blame this leper for his enthusiasm and in the longest possible run, nothing deterred Jesus’ ministry trajectory, of course. Still, when even the Savior who saves us by grace tells us that it’s still important also to follow the Law, we do well to listen.
Mark’s description of Jesus’ going to “lonely” places in verse 45 invokes the same Greek word (here in adjective form) as was used in Mark 1:12 for “the wilderness/desert.” The Greek is eremos, and this isn’t the only place in Mark where there seems to be a theological wordplay going on as Mark contrasts “lonely” and deserted wastelands with the sudden appearance of abundance. In Mark 6:39 at the Feeding of the 5,000, Mark startles us readers when he describes how Jesus had the crowds be seated “on the GREEN grass.” Readers familiar with the N.T. know how seldom colors are included. So why would Mark make a point of saying the grass was green (an obvious point in any event)? Perhaps it’s because earlier in that same story Mark had again told us more than once that they were in an eremos place. But even in deserted wastelands of death, Jesus becomes a font of life. So also at the end of Mark 1: Jesus goes out to lonely and deserted places, the people follow him anyway, and life busts out all over even there.
Nothing succeeds in America like success, they say. We like winners and brush aside losers. Let me throw out some names for you: Alfred Landon, James Cox, John Davis, Charles Hughes, Alton Parker. Sound familiar? Probably not. Yet every one of them was so important and well thought of that at some point in the twentieth century each was a nominee for President of the United States. Millions voted for them, for a while their names were plastered all over the place. But then each one lost, of course, and in America, that's that.
We are a people in love with power and success, and this surely is one area among many that the gospel needs to address in our particular cultural context. Not unlike the people in Jesus' own day, we are swift to seize on anything that looks powerful and dazzling. The bigger the congregation, the more faithful we assume. We equate success, as the world defines it, with the work of the Holy Spirit because we can scarcely wrap our minds around the possibility that there could ever be an outwardly "successful" church that might actually work against the fundamentals of the gospel. "They must be doing something right," we say to each other about successful restaurants, enterprising entrepreneurs, and also church leaders who sell millions of books and draw large throngs of people.
And sometimes they are doing something right in the best sense. There are lots of people who are both faithful to Christ and who are successful in generating enthusiasm for the gospel through books that sell well, congregations that attract many members, and so on. Still, Jesus' desire to keep things quiet in Mark’s gospel—quiet enough so that people could follow him all the way to the cross–reminds us that whether or not we prove to be wildly popular, it is always a quiet and careful and humble apprehension of the gospel that is key. Jesus' own example of humble servanthood comes as a critique of our own overweening tendency to be enamored with all that is glitzy and eye-popping. We should be wary if the Jesus we worship fits too snugly into any cultural context on this earth.
We could better be a little less successful, a little more quiet and "secretive" if that's what it takes to draw people down that long road of discipleship that eventually encounters a terrible cross. The apostle Paul eventually delighted to declare, "I have been crucified with Christ!" So it must be for us all. We need to be crucified with Christ. We must die to self, die to our desires for worldly success, die to our American identity, die to ego and pride, die to anything that hinders Jesus from instructing us in the full truth of his gospel. "I am the way," Jesus once said. "Nothing succeeds like success," we often say. In each of our lives, we must choose which of those sayings we want to adopt as our own.
2 Kings 5:1-14
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Martin Luther King, Jr., once preached a sermon on this text from II Kings 5, and I’m grateful to Richard Lischer for calling attention to it in a lecture he gave while working on his book The Preacher King. In the classic style of preaching that Dr. King so well embodied, he picked up on one part of this text and used it as a broader lesson for all of us to learn. The sermon was titled “Great . . . But” and was punctuated by the refrain “Now Naaman was a great man . . . but he was a leper.” From there the sermon pondered what constitutes true greatness and the ways by which it is so often true that short of having a right relationship with God, it can be said of any one of us that we may be great in the eyes of the world, we may be great in the eyes of society, we may be great in the world of commerce, or we may be great in amassing worldly power to ourselves . . . but there will always be co-existing with that greatness something to pull us down, something to make our greatness just less than so great after all.
Indeed, this whole story is fraught with tensions between who’s really powerful and who is not. Naaman is a great man but he can do nothing without the help of a lowly servant girl. This was a girl who was doubly or triply disadvantaged in that she is but a girl, she is a slave, and she is in a foreign land to which she had been carried off as some of the spoils of war. To say she has no status is to say not just the merely obvious but the incredibly obvious. Yet when this lowly one sees her master suffering from the cruel torments of leprosy, instead of sniffing the air with a sense of satisfaction that this man who had captured and enslaved her was getting his just deserts, she actually reaches out to him and recommends someone who can help him and probably heal him.
Naaman then goes to his king who in turn writes a letter to Israel’s king based on the apparently mistaken idea that either Israel’s king could himself effect this healing (or he at the very least would surely know who could do so). But when Israel’s king gets the letter, he proves to be as spiritually clueless as Ahab and other recent monarchs had been and so has no idea to whom the letter might be referring and so becomes convinced it’s a trick designed to get him in Dutch with the king of Aram. The king of Israel was a great man but he did not know the Lord or who was really who in God’s grand pecking order. He did not know, as Elisha will say, “that there is a prophet in Israel,” that God was on the loose, that there was a power active in Israel that no political might or social prestige could hold a candle to. When the king throws his little hissy-fit over all this, Elisha takes over and has Naaman come to the house of the true prophet in Israel.
I like to picture Elisha living in the Ancient Near Eastern equivalent of a run-down looking mobile home out in some overgrown field somewhere. Today you would not expect the presidential motorcade to come roaring up to such a trailer in the middle of nowhere replete with police motorcycles, flashers flashing, sirens blaring, Secret Service cars, and the presidential black limo itself. But that’s kind of what we see in II Kings 5: Elisha lives in a hovel in front of which suddenly roars up Naaman’s whole entourage of horses and chariots and what-all-not. Probably he had some trumpeter herald his arrival even as servants unrolled a strip of red carpet for Naaman to walk on after regally disembarking from his chariot.
But then—just to keep this interplay between the lofty and the lowly going a bit more—we are told that Elisha just sends a messenger to tell Naaman what to do. The trumpet blares to announce the great man’s arrival, he walks to Elisha’s front door on the red carpet, but then . . . the door opens a crack and some lowlife servant peers out over top of the door’s security chain to tell Naaman to go to the river to wash seven times. And no sooner does the mealy-mouthed little servant say this and he quickly re-closes the door.
Naaman is furious! What an insult! What a slight! This guy is a five-star general. He is the one who is supposed to send intermediaries to people on the lower rungs of the social ladder. The folks down there are not supposed to send him second-tier messengers and servants. Naaman wanted Elisha himself to come out and do a little song-and-dance routine, recite an incantation or two, make a big show of it all. But instead Naaman gets dismissed from the premises without even seeing the prophet in person and is told to do the unlikely-to-be-helpful thing of taking a bath in a muddy river. Naaman could feel the multiple infections setting in already once that mucky Israelite river water seeped around his open sores.
Now Naaman was a great man but he is still hung up on his own pitiful and pathetic power and prestige. He is at the mercy of Almighty God for his healing and God works through the lowly of the earth but Naaman has not yet got that figured out.
So Naaman stalks off in a huff only to once again be brought back to reality by a lowly servant who points out that had Elisha told Naaman whistle a tune while eating soda crackers or some other gimmicky thing, then Naaman surely would have done it had healing been the reward for the stunt. So what’s the big deal about taking a sevenfold dip in a river?! The servant got through to Naaman who stops off at the Jordan River after all. But I still imagine that Naaman griped and muttered his way in and out of the river seven times with dark musings along the lines of “This won’t work. This can’t work. This is stupid,” passing his pouting and pursed lips.
But, of course, it does work and so in the end it’s the words of the lowly that help Naaman, not the words of the high and mighty (himself included because had it been up to him, he would have ridden clear back to Damascus in a snit). By the time Naaman arrives back at Elisha’s place, the prophet is sitting on a rocker on the front porch looking rather wistful. Naaman is a changed man. The leprosy is gone, but so is the attitude.
At the end of verse 14 we are told that Naaman’s skin got restored to the skin of “a young boy.” Probably it was similar to the skin of the young servant girl who had sent him to Elisha in the first place. It’s a picture of conversion in its own way, of restoration not only of body but of soul and of heart. But it’s also a reminder that we never know just how or why God is going to do what he does. Why does this foreign general—who works for a nation that is Israel’s enemy and that will soon besiege Israel yet again (cf. II Kings 6-7)—why does he warrant all this attention and this great healing too? We don’t know and we’re not told. But it is a reminder that God is often at work among people and in ways we don’t at first suspect: lowly servants and simple acts like taking a dip in a dirty river can sometimes lead to surprising outbreaks of God’s power. Indeed, God’s power can break through to us from such surprising quarters sometimes that our whole world gets upended in the process and we see people—and ourselves—in a whole new way.
Jesus once said, “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” Naaman was long gone, dead, and buried by the time Jesus uttered those words. But you get the sense that if he heard such sentiments from Jesus, Naaman would know exactly what the Lord was talking about.
In our North American society, image is everything, money talks, power rules, and so most people don't bat an eye over advertisements for cars, clothing, and BBQ grills that promise that this is the product that will help you reach the next level. A recent ad for the Range Rover SUV simply says, "Higher Ground." That's all it needs to say because the presumption is that what life is all about is power, is climbing higher, reaching that next level of sophistication and elegance.
Most people, if they are honest, admit that they like power, they like influence, they like perks. According to Robert Caro, in the mid-twentieth century, the United States Senate was a haven for power-hungry men in love with prestige. Senator Carl Hayden of Arizona was known to enter the Senate cafeteria and lay his cane on whatever table he chose to sit at for lunch. Often that chosen table would already have a clutch of secretaries or Senate staffers sitting there eating, but everyone knew that if Hayden laid his cane on your table, you had all better be gone by the time he returned with his lunch a few minutes later.
Most Senators also insisted that when they wanted the elevator in the Senate Office Building, they wanted that elevator immediately! To let elevator operators know that it was a Senator waiting, the Senator would buzz the elevator's call button three times. When that signal was heard, the operator was to skip all other stops (even if others already in the elevator needed a certain floor) and pick up the waiting Senator without delay. Once when Senator McCarran of Nevada heard the car pass him by after he had rung three times, he turned on his heel, stomped back to his office, called the Sergeant-at-Arms, and ordered the hapless young elevator operator fired on the spot (which he was).
Society tells us that this is what true greatness is all about. But is it?
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 30’s superscriptions claims that it’s a song for the dedication of the temple. Yet its relevance seems even greater than that. After all, it appears to be a song of thanksgiving to God for deliverance from a perilous situation. It doesn’t require much imagination to deduce that God has rescued the psalmist from some type of life-threatening illness or other dangerous circumstance. In that way Psalm 30’s language is reminiscent of that of Psalm 130’s poet, Jonah and Jesus.
Those who wish to preach or teach this psalm may want to ask themselves who might be able to sing this psalm. Is it a child in whose life her classmates have intervened to rescue her from a bully? Is it an infertile married couple whom God has empowered to conceive and bear a child? Is it a grandparent whose cancer God has managed or cured through chemotherapy? In fact, those who preach or teach Psalm 30 may want to relate the story of someone they know or about whom they know who could sing this psalm.
The tone of this psalm is one of praise. Commitments to praise and thank God frame it. Yet as James Mayes notes, it’s both a prayer that is completely praise and praise that arises out of God’s answer to prayer. The psalmist praises God for God’s deliverance of her. Yet she also recognizes that that deliverance arises out of God’s “yes” to her prayers for it.
The praise that arises out of such deliverance has a communal dimension. This psalmist doesn’t want to be a soloist. She longs for God’s saints to join her in a full-throated song of praise. Good news such as the psalmist shares in Psalm 30 can be a powerful invitation to others to join in praising God’s holy name.
However, the psalmist’s remembers that his dire circumstance was once a threat to that praise. Had God not delivered him, he would be unable to fulfill his vow to praise the Lord. Silence rather than praise would then reign. The “dust” (9), after all, is unable to praise the Lord or proclaim God’s faithfulness.
Yet Psalm 30’s author insists that there’s more at stake in her healing than just praise to the Lord. Her demise might have led her enemies to gloat over her, much like a warrior might gloat over a fallen enemy or a football player might gloat over someone he tackled.
Psalm 30 is full of “lowness” imagery. It speaks of the depths, the grave, the pit and the dust. At the same time, however, the psalmist fills it with rescue imagery. He describes being lifted out of the depths, healed, brought up from the grave and spared from going down into the pit. In that way the psalm reflects a wide array of human circumstances and emotions, as well as God’s actions. This makes this psalm one that nearly everyone has sung, can sing or will sing at one point or another.
Psalm 30 is replete with contrasting pairs. The “negatives” reflect the psalmist’s enemies' desire for her harm. Its “positives” reflect both the psalmist’s own rescue by God and the shalom for which God longs for God’s sons, daughters and whole creation. So, for example, while the psalmist exalts the Lord, her enemies wish to exalt in her destruction. God’s anger lasts only for a moment, but God’s favor lasts for a lifetime.
While weeping may remain for a night, rejoicing comes in the morning. When God favored the psalmist, God made her stand firm. Yet when God hid God’s face, the psalmist was dismayed. God turned the psalmist’s wailing into dancing and replaced her sackcloth with “clothes” of joy.
Among the most striking features of Psalm 30 is its blunt honesty with God. In the context of a North American church that sometimes seems afraid to be honest with God about disappointment or doubt, the psalmist is very candid. So those who preach and teach this psalm may want to use it to help people explore how we can be more honest with God about our plight. The stifling of such honesty can, after all, be very unhealthy.
In contrast to at least some modern church language, the psalmist talks about the depths, grave and pit. She’s very candid about enemies who long to revel in her destruction. She’s even bold enough to ask the Lord what good it would do anyone if she died. The psalmist adds language about weeping, wailing and sackcloth.
Yet she’s also very honest about her arrogance. In verse 6 she tells God that she once felt that nothing could “shake” her. She assumed that she’d somehow made herself “secure.” Yet the psalmist remembers how God’s hiding of God’s face shattered that illusion. When, after all, God hid God’s face, the psalmist was dismayed.
However, the psalmist is also very confident in God’s power to transform the difficult situations of even arrogant people. God, after all, lifted him out of the depths and healed him. God brought him up from the grave and spared him from going down into the pit. God turned the psalmist’s wailing into dancing, stripping off his grief and replacing it with joy.
The contrast the psalmist cites between God’s momentary anger and lifelong favor is reminiscent of the second commandment. There God insists that God punishes the children for the sins of their parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate the Lord. Yet God shows love to thousand generations of those who love the Lord and keep God’s commandments.
Biblical scholars note that “remaining for a night” (5) is lodging imagery. So it’s as if the psalmist suggests that weeping is like an uninvited guest who comes into the home that is our life for a night. It may make for a long night, just as God’s anger sometimes seems to last through our “nights.” Yet rejoicing comes in the morning, expelling the unwanted weeping and making its lasting home with God’s favor in God’s children’s lives.
As Mayes also notes, this psalmist makes a rather bold link between her experiences and God’s sovereignty. She, after all, attributes her once-prosperous life to God’s royal pleasure (7a). Her dismay is a result of God’s hiding of God’s face from her. Her restoration is a result of God’s transforming her situation (11).
As Mayes notes, such a direct linkage between the course of one’s life and God’s sovereignty can be dangerous. However, it serves as a good corrective to 21st century assumptions about human autonomy. We naturally think of ourselves as “mountains” that little can shake. Psalm 30 reminds us that our true help and security is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
At the same time, however, many of our contemporaries also think of themselves as completely at the mercy of enemies such as economic upheaval, environmental degradation, catastrophic illness and terrorism. While they may think of themselves as largely helpless against such onslaughts, Psalm 30 reminds us that God is sovereign and that God longs for the complete restoration of all things.
In verse 4 the psalmist follows her vow to “exalt the Lord” with a call to God’s saints to join her in singing to the Lord and praising God’s holy name. In that way God’s sons and daughters can be a bit like mockingbirds.
After all, mockingbirds have their own beautiful song. However, they’re also famous mimics. Their repertoire can include over forty different songs, including the barking of a dog. Some ornithologists claim mockingbirds even mimic things like squeaky gates, pianos and sirens.
When Christians praise God for God’s work of rescue and redemption, we provide an appropriate song for the “mockingbirds” that are other believers to mimic.