June 11, 2012
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
The news has been abuzz lately with stories about “Nanny” Michael Bloomberg. In fact, an anti-Bloomberg group took out what must have been a very expensive, full-page, full-color ad in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago showing a doughty older woman towering over New York City wagging a finger. The head on the woman’s body was, of course, Mayor Bloomberg’s and the text of the ad went on to wonder what Nanny Bloomberg would do next to control people’s lives.
In case you have missed this story, what gave rise to this whole kerfuffle was the Mayor’s decision to limit the size of sugary soft drinks that could be sold in New York establishments. In an age of obesity, the Mayor wants to curtail the needless intake of huge amounts of calories from outsized drinks. He may have a point: at Seven-Eleven in recent years fountain drinks have included “the Big Gulp,” one of the largest fountain drinks anywhere. Better yet, there is the Super Big Gulp and the Extreme Big Gulp served in a cup that looks like a NASA rocket booster and containing 54 ounces of soda (that’s 1.3 liters if you are curious, and if it is a non-diet soda, you are looking at about 700 calories of soda pop or close to 35% of a normal adult’s preferred total daily caloric intake).
So the Mayor wanted to keep things small to keep waistlines from swelling from such needless empty sugar calories, and not a few people are hopping mad. That full-page ad in the Times wondered if next up the Mayor would limit the width of a pizza slice or the height of a cheeseburger.
Americans like things big and we are suspicious of those who suggest small is better.
Churches these days are not much different. Church Growth is all the rage and the quickest way by which a given church’s success get sized up—literally—is through a headcount. Indeed, one of my students recently told the story of a megachurch pastor who spoke at a conference in which he bragged about the number of baptisms they’d performed and how many members they have. He even told a story about Rachel, one of the first persons he baptized at this church but then went on to admit “I have no idea where Rachel is today! But we’ve added so many more since!!” (The student was preaching on the Parable of the Lost Sheep and made the comment that “God counts by ones.” Nice touch.)
For Jesus, when it came to talking about and describing the kingdom of God, generally speaking he claimed again and again that the kingdom, though the grandest, boldest, brightest reality of them all, will nine times out of ten look small.
The kingdom of God is over and again that small thing that all-but gets lost in the hubbub of the wider world. The kingdom is not advertised on some glitzy neon sign towering over Times Square but rather it’s the treasure buried under Times Square. It’s not an expensive jewel displayed under plate glass and bright lights at Saks Fifth Avenue but it is the pearl of great price that someone just happens to stumble upon in a bathroom trash can at Saks. The kingdom does not call attention to itself like a marching band coming down the street with brass and drums blaring but is instead the yeast that disappears into the larger lump of dough, the tiniest of all seeds that vanishes almost the very moment it hits the soil.
We know this, but we have a hard time holding onto this message in this society. We want to Super Size the gospel. We want some sizzle, some flash, some of the trappings of what defines success in the rest of our size-crazed culture. But Mark 4 claims that we must never forget that none of our external looks, none of our savvy strategies, and none of our various attempts to stay current finally makes the difference. Because if we become too focused on technique, we may be tempted to retool the one thing we must never retrofit: the simple gospel that Jesus is the Son of God who saves us by his death and resurrection. That core message must never change, and we must never try to change it just because people deem it old-fashioned, out of step, weak, vulnerable, silly, or inadequate-looking given the challenges facing the world today.
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
Like the message they convey, the two parables in this part of Mark 4 are mighty small. This is no Parable of the Prodigal Son that takes up the better part of a whole chapter. Jesus manages to convey something about the smallness of the kingdom via two stories that are themselves pretty tiny. And yet, like the seeds also depicted, these small little parables pack a punch. They capture the very kingdom mystery and (apparent) weakness Jesus is highlighting.
The kingdom is finally a mystery. It’s like a farmer who tosses seed out onto a field and then walks away. He sleeps, he gets up. Days come and days go but somehow, even as the farmer is doing apparently nothing, the seeds grow. In verse 28 you read the phrase “all by itself,” and in Greek that is the word automate, from which we get our word “automatic.” Automatically, mysteriously, without any apparent outside assistance, the seeds just grow and suddenly the day arrives when you’ve got a whole field of wheat ready to be harvested.
Although this parable of the growing seed is among the shortest of all parables, it has proven to be surprisingly difficult to interpret. Scholars cannot agree what the key element is here: is it the power of the seeds, the inactivity of the farmer, the mystery of how seeds do what they do? What is the point here? Surely this is not meant to foster inactivity on our part. It would even be a bit startling if the bottom line here was that we really shouldn’t think much about the growth of God’s kingdom one way or the other.
In short, don’t walk away from Mark 4 singing “Que sera, sera–whatever will be, will be.” But more on that below. Let’s first toggle over to the other parable. If the growing seed parable seems to be about the mystery of kingdom growth, the mustard seed image is about the apparent weakness of the kingdom. The day will come when the results of the kingdom’s silent, steady growth will be impressive. Meanwhile don’t be surprised if the seeds you plant look ineffective. Don’t be surprised if the witness you have to offer gets laughed at on account of looking so puny. It’s the old “Jack and the Beanstalk” fable: Jack’s mother scorns the tiny beans he brings home from the market. They can never live off those! So in anger she hurls them out the window. Those beans were a non-starter, a mistake, a dead-end nutritionally and in every other sense. Except that, of course, they ended up sprouting into a beanstalk that went, in a way, clear up to heaven.
But Jesus says the gospel message will get a similar reception. We live in a universe and in a world with huge threats to existence and with sickeningly large social and geopolitical problems. There are meteors hurtling through space, many of which would wipe out life on earth if they struck us. There are dictators harboring or seeking weapons of mass destruction, many of which threaten our survival as a species. In the Middle East but in so many other places, too, there are seemingly intractable hatreds and prejudices between and among various ethnic groups. There are diseases like AIDS galloping through Africa, threatening to wipe out the better part of an entire generation of people. Hunger and poverty loom up like a whole mountain range of daunting problems whose heights we don’t know how to scale.
Yet in the midst of all these threats from within and from without, in the face of great sin and evil, faced with maladies that are global in scope, we Christian people swing in with no more than that simplest of all messages: Jesus saves. A Jewish carpenter’s son from halfway around the world and from over 2,000 years ago is the one we hold up as some kind of solution. And not a few folks today want to say, “Give me a break!”
But we keep on repeating the old, old story because we believe that somehow, some way, it’s going to work. If we yoke these two parables now, we can see both the theme of how puny our efforts look and our ardent faith that even though we don’t understand how these kingdom seeds grow, they do whether we are watching or not, whether we are tending them every moment or not. They grow silently and mysteriously in people’s hearts. The seeds didn’t look like much to begin with and they grow without making much noise. If you go sit next to a wheat field a week or two after the seeds have been sown into the earth, you could sit on the edge of that field all day and throughout an entire night and you’d never hear a blessed thing.
On Wall Street, the moment that opening bell sounds each day, there is an immediate frenzy of activity. That loud baying for money creates a cacophony that pierces your gizzard with its shrill intensity. If you were on the Senate floor during a debate, you’d feel the sizzle in the air. They say that when Lyndon B. Johnson was the most powerful Senator, he would give people what became known as “the Johnson treatment.” He’d loop one of his powerful and long arms around another Senator’s shoulders and then lean his massive face directly into the other man’s face, all the while poking and jabbing and thumping his index finger into the man’s sternum until he cowed him into agreement. Now that’s power at work!
But a growing wheat field makes none of the noise of a stock exchange and has none of the sizzle of high-powered politicking. The Jesus whose kingdom we present jabs no fingers into anyone’s chest. He invites with gentle words, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” But people don’t want quiet invitations to rest. They want powerful and inspirational promises of success. But our Lord himself said that this is not how you get into his kingdom.
Every day the “Congressional Record” is published and it is each and every day a very thick book detailing every word spoken on the floor of the House and Senate. Every week the Obama Administration issues a flurry of new policy initiatives, also totaling into the thousands of pages. The United Nations works hard to cobble together solutions and coalitions aimed at addressing what ails this world. Were you to bring together all the newspaper sections that record the daily activity on the New York Stock Exchange, the Nikkei Index, the Chicago Board of Trade, and all other financial markets in the world, you would have a stack of newsprint many inches thick.
Such a huge output of words, such a thick volume of records detailing the policy efforts of governments: that is the kind of thing you expect when people seriously tackle this world’s challenges. Yet we Christians stand on the sidelines and what do we offer? The thin, sixteen-chapter little volume called the Gospel of Mark. It’s small. It’s old. And although we don’t say we could do without the efforts of government or of those involved in commerce, we do make the audacious claim that none of those things is ultimately very meaningful compared to the gospel.
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Looks can be deceiving. That’s why God apparently doesn’t bother with them in the first place. “The LORD looks at the heart,” God says to Samuel in I Samuel 16:7, now one of the most famous lines of the entire Bible. And on the opposite end of the Bible (and in the paired Gospel lection for this Year B Sunday) is Jesus’ saying, “The kingdom of God is like the tiniest seed you can imagine, a seed that disappears into the soil and then produces effects you could not dream of based on outward appearances alone; effects that, in the end, you don’t even really understand!”
When this Old Testament lection opens, we find Samuel in a funk. He’s depressed. He had never been wild about Israel’s getting a king in the first place but once God told him just to go with it, he did his best and tapped the strapping figure of Saul to whom the Spirit of God subsequently led him. Saul was a reluctant leader at first but once he got a taste for power, it kind of went to his head and next thing you knew, Saul was just uppity enough to start disobeying the commands of God.
So God lets Samuel know that this was not going to work out after all and even though most of the decisions and actions of all that could be traced back to God—and only proximately to Samuel as God’s servant—Samuel feels mighty rotten about it all, almost as though it were singularly all his fault after all. God is said to be grieved, too, but he gets over it more quickly and so aims for Plan B, which is the anointing of a new king. God knows whom he has his eye on and so sends Samuel packing to Bethlehem—a modest place to find a king—to the clan of a shepherd named Jesse.
The rest of the story is pretty familiar: one impressive looking son of Jesse after the next gets paraded in front of Samuel. Each seemed to have it all: GQ good looks, chiseled bodies rippling with muscles, intelligent eyes. But one by one God lets these marvelous hunks of man flesh pass on by until finally no one is (apparently) left. Of course, there is one left, the little guy, the young one. For his part, Jesse didn’t invite little David to this sacrifice, in part because somebody had to watch the flocks and the youngest would always draw the short straw in such things. And anyway, Jesse had no idea what was up in the first place—Samuel knew he was hunting for a new king but Jesse had been told this was just a sacrifice being made by a local celebrity. Jesse didn’t realize that any of his sons were being scrutinized for greatness.
So once Samuel queries Jesse if he had any more kids and finds out there is the baby of the family still to be presented, Samuel sends for the kid and, of course, God lets Samuel know that this is the one they had been waiting for all along. The Lord does not look on outward appearances.
Except that then the text goes on to note how handsome and ruddy and good-looking David is anyway!! But although this appears to be a truthful and straightforward description of how David looked, the text tells us that from God’s vantage point, that had nothing to do with his selection. Maybe left to his own devices Samuel himself would have found even the youngest child of Jesse to be physically striking enough as to warrant selection. Maybe all of Jesse’s kids were handsome young men.
But even if so, in David’s case this was an ancillary fact. The fact is that David was the youngest child, and in the Ancient Near East that fact automatically rendered him second class. Even had David been the most handsome and attractive of the lot, his status as last-born would have meant that he could expect no privileges, no particular advantage over the older siblings. Yet the God of Israel was forever proving that good things come in unlikely wrappings and from unlikely origins.
This is the God, after all, who preferred Abel over his older brother Cain; who preferred a childless couple of senior citizens to found his mighty nation over the scads of perfectly fertile younger couples that must have been available. This is the God who chose Jacob over Esau, Joseph over all of his older brothers. Ultimately it is the same God who will surprise the world with a Messiah born as an impoverished human child in a place called Bethlehem, probably not far from where David was anointed on the day we read about in I Samuel 16.
Unsurprisingly, once that Babe of Bethlehem’s stall grew up, he tended to under-impress folks. And when he opened his mouth to speak about the kingdom of God, he never bragged on the kingdom, never spoke of it in anything approaching hyperbolic terms or in the language of swagger and bravado. He admitted up front—and seemed to be glad about it, too—that the kingdom of God was a startling and stunning force for change in people’s lives and in the whole world but that it was change of a very quiet and humble variety.
For those with eyes to see, the message of I Samuel 16 fits in very well with God’s larger patterns.
Ironically, of course, to this day people miss this facet to the divine nature. You can hear this even in the way people use the word “biblical.” When an event happens that has a lot of size and scope—perhaps a natural disaster of some kind—people will use “biblical” as a synonym for “epic.” “It was a disaster of biblical proportions!” I recently saw a movie in which a woman sported a hugely fancy hairdo, prompting one character in the film to exclaim, “Oh, my dear, your hairstyle, it’s positively biblical!” We associate “biblical” with the epics once made by Cecil B. DeMille. The “biblical” film is the one that has “a cast of thousands!”
Of course, there’s no denying that the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, has its share of spectacles: a worldwide flood, plagues in Egypt, parted seas, pillars of fire. Curiously enough, however, none of that really captures the character of the surprising God at the center of the biblical drama, nor of his Son in the New Testament. Read correctly, the Bible shows the discerning reader that God himself might well define (and so employ) the word “biblical” differently. Because at the end of the day the “biblical” is less about the eye-popping and more about the fiercely quiet things of life.
And so God might see a humble widow doing a behind-the-scenes act of service and exclaim, “That quiet deed is positively biblical!” God might observe his own Holy Spirit slowly but surely transforming the life of an alcoholic into the shape of sainthood and declare, “What is going on in that man’s heart is a drama of biblical proportions!” God might look at the most modest-looking white clapboard country church out on an Iowa prairie somewhere and see in that church’s worship and witness a movement of biblical significance as it participates in the kingdom of God’s steady but sure transformation of the whole cosmos.
That’s the truest movement and inclination of all things “biblical.” But there is still great power there. At the conclusion of this modest little anointing scene in Bethlehem, we are told at the very end of the narrative that starting on that very day, the Spirit of God came on David with increasing power. And where that Pentecostal power is at work, we can be sure that the kingdom of God is coming on, slow but sure like a seed in the soil, growing right along bit by bit until the great day of cosmic harvest comes.
Perhaps we can call this “Susan Boyle Sunday.” It is not surprising that the Common Lectionary yokes this Old Testament passage with the two parables in Mark 4. In both cases the message is the same: looks can be deceiving. Recently the world’s attention was arrested by a startling incarnation of that old and familiar bromide in the person of Susan Boyle.
When Ms. Boyle walked onto the stage of the show “Britain’s Got Talent” some years ago, everyone just “knew” at a glance that she was a loser and that the ensuing singing act would be a sad spectacle that would likely end sadly once one, two, or all three of the show’s judge pressed the button that would activate those giant X’s that signal the end of the act and the rejection of the performer. After all, Ms. Boyle seemed a bit tongue-tied during her initial conversation with the judges and when she wasn’t stumbling over her words, she was behaving a little oddly—she seemed, well, quirky. And then there was her physical appearance, which bordered on the unkempt with unruly hair, busy eyebrows, and a bit extra weight around her face and middle.
Then, of course, she sang and within seconds every last person in the audience—including hardboiled judge Simon Cowell—melted over Boyle’s powerful and lyric voice as she belted out the appropriately titled song, “I Had a Dream.” The video of the performance went viral within hours and days of the performance (c’mon, you know you want to watch it one more time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxPZh4AnWyk ). Why? There are lots of theories but surely there is something deep within all of us that just loves to see the underdog succeed. We love finding beauty in places we deemed unlikely to display anything quite that lyric. We love finding any excuse we can to let our cynicism evaporate like the morning dew. There are far too many days when our cynicism about life gets confirmed. How delightful to find a reason to let it go for once!
Looks can be deceiving, as this Sunday’s lections tell us in no uncertain terms.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
It seems as if the psalmists typically pray for themselves. However, in Psalm 20 the poet prays for someone else, in this case Israel’s king, perhaps as he’s preparing to go out to battle. After all, verse 4 refers to God’s “anointed.” Verse 9 also speaks explicitly of “the king.”
Psalm 20 expresses a strong sense of dependence on God’s gracious provision. While most of the psalmist’s contemporaries assumed that their monarchs stayed in power because of their gods’ favor and military might, Psalm 9’s poet recognizes that it’s the living God’s protection, not Israel’s military power that preserves her king.
Of course, Psalm 20’s prayer’s form is somewhat unusual. After all, the poet doesn’t speak directly to Yahweh in it until its very end. Virtually this entire “prayer” is, in fact, directed to the king. In that way, Psalm 20 is not unlike the benedictions that modern worship leaders sometimes offer. They’re blessings that, in some sense, contain no “power” unless God extends God’s blessing.
In Psalm 20 the poet prays that God will bless the king by answering and protecting him when he’s in trouble. Such a prayer for rulers is, as James Mays notes, an “ancient and enduring tradition.” So Psalm 20 invites those who preach and teach it to reflect with hearers on their own prayers for their leaders. Of course, Israel’s king was uniquely the Lord’s anointed. However, the apostle Paul reminds us that God has also put modern rulers in place. In Romans 13:1 he insists that “The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Psalm 20 invites worshipers to spend even more time praying for our leaders than we do criticizing, questioning or even praising them.
Yet our prayers for our presidents, prime ministers and others leaders are always somewhat fraught with danger. They easily reflect a kind of idolatry that identifies one ruler or nation with God and God’s purposes and forgets that God’s Church and kingdom stretches across the whole world. What’s more, as we pray for our rulers’ “success,” we easily slide into depending on their success rather than depending on God’s gracious provision.
Psalm 20’s opening verses suggest that Israel’s ruler is in some kind of trouble. So we sometimes assume that the poet offers it as the king goes into battle. Certainly the poet fills Psalm 20 with military images. She speaks of chariots and horses. She also pleads for victory in battle. What’s more, verse 5’s lifting up of banners seems to refer to the standards carried by military units. Other scholars suggest that Psalm 20 an enthronement psalm that’s offered in anticipation of coming battles. Its repeated use of liturgical references may lend credence to the idea that this is an enthronement liturgy. After all, the psalmist speaks of the “sanctuary,” sacrifices and burnt offerings, as well as prayerful “requests.”
Yet while Israel’s king is one of Psalm 20’s central figures, Yahweh remains its primary actor. God is the extremely active subject of most of its verbs. Psalm 20 recognizes that Israel’s “neighbors’” kings rely on their military power. Horses and chariots were symbols of immense national power. Rulers often even had themselves publicly portrayed as riding on horses and in chariots in order to demonstrate their might.
However, Psalm 20’s poet insists that leaders who depend on military might “stumble and fall.” After all, only God can provide the kind of protection that leaders really need. The help of even the mightiest people on earth comes from the Lord who made the heavens and earth. So when the psalmist wants to support Israel’s king, he turns to the Lord, the “God of Jacob” for his answer and protection. It’s reminiscent of Jacob’s own profession in Genesis 35:3: God “answered me in the day of distress and … has been with me wherever I go.”
In Psalm 20 the poet essentially calls Israel’s king and nation to trust not in their military might, but in the Lord. After all, she insists, only God can raise them up and keep them standing. Success in battle and other national endeavors depends not, in fact, on earthly royalty but on the Heavenly King. Israel’s king, as Mays notes, is “not the savior, but the saved. The saving victory will be God’s work.” Psalm 20 recognizes that even the most powerful leaders must depend on God for their deliverance because success always comes from the Lord.
So as Luke Powery writes, this psalm affirms God, not humanity’s reign over all of creation. We see that reign in the way God’s kingdom grows from the tiniest beginnings to a “mighty tree.” God’s kingdom doesn’t need chariots and horses to grow. Only God’s power brings the Kingdom’s growth and victory, as well as God’s salvation. Because God reigns, God’s sons and daughters can be confident that the God who has raised Jesus Christ from the dead holds a place for us in the new creation.
It’s fitting that Psalm 20 ends as it basically begins. In verse 1 the poet pleads for God’s blessing on the king as he prays, “May the Lord answer you when you are in distress.” In verse 9 the psalmist speaks directly to God as he says, “O Lord, save the king! Answer us when we call!”
How, then, can 21st century Christians think about this text? After all, while we don’t want to hurry too quickly past its Old Testament context, no modern nation has a monarch who’s God’s special representative on earth. Nor do any of us have a king, queen or any other leader who goes automatically in God’s name to do battle on God’s behalf.
So we might we see Psalm 20 as a reminder to pray for all those who are “in distress.” It could serve as a cue to pray for God’s answer and help for, as well as protection of the poor, hungry, lonely and oppressed. However, this psalm might also serve to remind us to pray for Christ the King to succeed in carrying out God’s good plans and purposes for the creation that God loves so deeply. After all, at Calvary Jesus Christ won the victory over sin, Satan and death on our behalf. However, Christians continue to worship and pray while rulers, authorities and powers still rebel against God and God’s loving purposes.
When is “God save the queen” an inappropriate sentiment? Apparently some people assume it’s only when it’s put to music by a 70’s British anti-establishment band called “The Sex Pistols.” Woolworth refused to sell the controversial single. And on May 31, 1977 the BBC banned the song from its airwaves. It labeled the record an example of “gross bad taste,” a charge the band itself wouldn’t reject.