Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Secret Factor

Texts: Ezekiel 36:16-36; Mark 5:21-43

YOU KNOW HOW YOU’LL BE WATCHING a commercial on TV, and it claims that the product is "New and Improved!"? Yeah, right, they say that all the time; there’s probably nothing new about that cleaner or tool or whatever it is, at all. But then you try it, and what do you know? It really is better. It’s got some patented new ingredient or factor in it that makes it more effective than it was before. The manufacturer may give this ingredient a fancy name for advertising purposes, but what it actually is is a secret, and the secret ingredient makes all the difference.

Secret ingredients and secret factors can make all the difference in machines and laundry detergents. So how much more does it matter in God’s plan for our salvation! Nearly two thousand years ago in the land of occupied Israel comes a rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus preaching, teaching, and healing, and at first He struck the crowd as just another preaching, teaching, and healing rabbi-- a lot of them were around in those days. But as people encountered Him and experienced what He did, they came to realize there was something different about Jesus, some secret factor that set Him apart from the rest. The whole gospel according to St. Mark is about that secret factor, about who Jesus really is. It’s so important to Mark that he reveals from the start what it is. Turn if you will to the first verse of Mark’s Gospel, and let’s read what he says there. It says, "The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God."

Wow! Jesus of Nazareth not only is the Christ-- the Anointed One-- the Messiah, He is also the one and only Son of God! Jesus comes proclaiming the kingdom of God, and He’s not just a messenger or herald like John the Baptist, Jesus is the divine King Himself. Where Jesus is, there is God’s Kingdom, and bit by bit, miracle by miracle, Jesus reveals that all the promises of God are totally and gloriously fulfilled in Him.

In our reading from Ezekiel we have an example of some of those promises. The Lord says that the people of Israel and their land would be cleansed of its bloody defilement and healed in spirit and heart. The Lord would put His Spirit on them so they would not defile themselves with idols and disobedience again. These words of cleansing were for the Jewish exiles who would return from Babylon, yes. But they looked forward to an even greater salvation than the physical and political restoration promised then. The land, as it says in verse 35, will be like the Garden of Eden; paradise will be restored and all the nations will honor the name of the Lord.

This is ultimately a picture of the coming Kingdom of God. Jesus not only talks about the Kingdom; He makes it real in all He teaches and does. A few days before the events of our passage in Mark 5, Jesus showed His dominion over nature by calming a ferocious storm with a word. Then He showed His rulership over the demons by casting a legion of them out of a man whom no one could subdue. And now, in our passage, He shows that He is the Lord who cleanses His people from all their impurities.

On this particular day, Jesus and His disciples have barely landed on shore when Jairus, one of the synagogue rulers-- he’d be like an elder in the church, but with more social position and better perks-- comes running up to Jesus and begs Him to come heal his young daughter, who dying right now. But while life remains, there is hope, and if anyone can heal his child, Jesus can.

You can imagine the crowd. People were glad to see Jesus anyway, and now there was the chance to see Him do a spectacular miracle for a very prominent man. After all, people could understand that He might be the Messiah-- an inspired, holy, God-driven, strictly-human Messiah. And come the day King Jesus would free Israel and sit down on His throne in Jerusalem, they could say that they were there to see Him prove He was the Christ. Not an opportunity you’d want to miss.

Meanwhile, one woman in the crowd was making her own opportunity . . . A woman who had suffered for the past twelve years with a pathological flow of blood. The physical and financial toll had been drastic enough. The social and religious suffering she must have endured would have been even worse.

To understand her position, it would help for us to read Leviticus 15:25-31:

"‘When a woman has a discharge of blood for many days at a time other than her monthly period or has a discharge that continues beyond her period, she will be unclean as long as she has the discharge, just as in the days of her period. Any bed she lies on while her discharge continues will be unclean, as is her bed during her monthly period, and anything she sits on will be unclean, as during her period. Whoever touches them will be unclean; he must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening. . . .

"‘You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling place, which is among them.’"

There were similar rules in the Law of Moses for anyone, male or female, who had any sort of running sore or bodily discharge, especially blood. Emissions violated the physical perfection of one’s body. They were signs of sin and disorder. They were incompatible with wholeness and therefore with holiness before God. The blood of the altar brought forth cleansing and acceptance with the Lord, but blood in the wrong place and from the wrong source was polluting. We see that in our Ezekiel passage, where the Lord says that Israel’s wicked conduct was like a woman’s monthly uncleanness before Him. Misplaced, uncontrolled blood and every other bodily discharge made not only the one who had it ritually unclean, but also everyone and everything that person touched.

We mustn’t impose our 21st century ideas on this woman. It’s doubtful she’d gone around the past twelve years resenting this law and feeling the injustice of it all. Even as she suffered, she would have accepted that this was how things were. She wanted to correct her condition; she’d spent every penny she had trying to be cured. She wanted to stand again in the synagogue and the Temple clean and whole before her neighbors and Almighty God. But now she no longer even had anyone she could send to ask Jesus to come to her to heal her. She takes advantage of the facelessness and crush of the crowd and exercises the last hope she has. Jesus was there, in the middle of the scrum, and "If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed."

And her faith was rewarded. Free, free at last! Free from the blood, free from the pain, free from the debilitation, free from the impurity! We have read what happens next, how Jesus in His compassion draws the woman out and gives her the time to tell Him the whole truth about why and how she did what she did. Poor Jairus Mark doesn’t mention, but we can imagine what terrible anxiety he must be in. Every second longer that this woman talks is one second closer to its being too late for his little girl! But Jesus has all the time in the world to give to the healed woman, because He is God incarnate, Lord of Eternity. He certifies and declares her healing and her cleansing from her impurity. "Daughter," He says, "your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering." Her physical suffering ended the moment she touched His clothes; now, with the blessing of the Son of God, the suffering of her heart and soul and relationships are also at an end. In her the prophecy of Ezekiel is fulfilled; for her in Jesus Christ the Kingdom of God has come.

But the crowd and the messengers from Jairus’ house don’t know that. They’re not in on the secret of who Jesus actually is. "Your daughter is dead," they tell the synagogue ruler. "Why bother the teacher any more?" In other words, "There’s nothing even Jesus can do now. Give it up and come home."

Jesus ignores them. "Jairus," He says, "Don’t be afraid; keep on believing." Jairus, you believed in Me a few minutes ago; you can still rely on Me now.

Jesus forbids the crowd to follow Him any farther, but it’s likely they’d lost interest anyway. Everyone knows the child is dead. She was practically dead when her father set out on his desperate mission. The professional mourners are already there doing their job. What a laugh that Jesus should say, "The child is not dead but asleep"!

Now, some commentators claim that this means Jesus knew she was only in a coma. But how could He know that? He had not seen her yet. And this was a culture that did its dying at home. They knew what death looked like. No, this twelve year old girl slept the sleep of death, the sleep of those who go to the grave awaiting the resurrection. Jesus was a mighty healer, but what could even He do in a case like this?

He went into the death chamber taking only her parents and Peter, James, and John. He reached out and took the hand of that cold corpse and spoke life into it. "Talitha koum!"-- "Little girl, I say to you, get up!" Jesus Christ the Lord of life gave life where there was none, so that she stood up perfectly well and healthy. And as with the woman healed of the flow of blood, Jesus is divinely compassionate and commands that she be fed. This child is not a mere test case, a demonstration of His kingly power. She was a human being, an adolescent girl who’d be hungry and needed something to eat.

Jesus strictly orders everyone present not to let anyone know what He had done for that little girl. For it was not yet time for Him to reveal who and what He was. His Messiahship was not to be founded on the death and resurrection of the daughter of Jairus, but on the death and resurrection of the Son of God.

But here’s something we might overlook. The bleeding woman touched Jesus. The Law said that anyone an unclean person touched would be contaminated, too. But Jesus does not withdraw and undergo the rituals for cleansing. Jesus touched the corpse of the dead girl. Here is what the Law says in the book of Numbers about that:

"Whoever touches the dead body of anyone will be unclean for seven days. He must purify himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day; then he will be clean. But if he does not purify himself on the third and seventh days, he will not be clean. Whoever touches the dead body of anyone and fails to purify himself defiles the LORD’s tabernacle. That person must be cut off from Israel. Because the water of cleansing has not been sprinkled on him, he is unclean; his uncleanness remains on him."

But Jesus doesn’t observe this ordinance, either. In fact, He goes to Nazareth and teaches in the synagogue the very next Sabbath. Is Jesus guilty (as the scribes and Pharisees claimed) of flouting the Law of Moses? Or is the secret factor about Him at work here?

Of course it is. He is the Son of God. He is the Lord of holiness who as it says in Ezekiel 36 sprinkles the water of cleansing on us. He is the Lord of life who makes disease and uncleanness, sin and death as though they had never been. All our impurity can never contaminate Him.

Except . . . except on a dark dirty Friday on a hill called Calvary when He took all our uncleanness and corruption on Himself, that we might stand pure, whole, and acceptable before Almighty God. Your sin and mine was like a twelve-year issue of menstrual blood, but the blood of Jesus shed for us on the cross makes us pure and clean, fit to enter His Kingdom. In our trespasses and sins we were dead and rotting corpses, but faith in the dead body of our Lord Jesus Christ makes us whole and makes us deathless children of God. He purged away all our impurity on that cross and three days later rose again, revealed as our pure and holy Lord and King.

The people in Jesus’ day didn’t realize who He was. But now the secret is revealed and the promises of the Kingdom are for you and for all whom the Lord shall call. What a great miracle that is! In His divine compassion, Jesus put forth His power and did all this for us! The secret factor of Christ the Son of God is a secret no longer; no, Jesus commands us to spread the news throughout the world!

But maybe this means nothing to you as yet. Maybe you’re trying to clean yourself up before you come and fall at His feet. Can you be hygienic wallowing in a cesspool? Give it up. Maybe you’re still kidding yourself about how offensive your sins are to God and you’re hoping to earn your way to eternal life by your good deeds. Can a stinking corpse run a marathon? Give it up. Your situation is worse than you realize and the blood of Jesus Christ is your only hope.

But there is hope in Jesus, overwhelming, abundant hope. He will never fail you, never send you away, never let you down. His heart is moved with compassion for you, for He is your Great Physician. Nothing is impossible for Him, for He is the Son of God the Father Almighty. Like the woman in the crowd, reach out now in faith and Jesus will cleanse you from all your sin. Trust Him like Jairus, and Jesus will give you new life like the life He won when He came forth triumphant from the grave.

No other Messiah. No other healer. No other god. Jesus, in our helplessness, help us, we pray. Look with compassion upon us, cleanse us from all our sins, give us new life in your name, and fill us with Your peace. Amen.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Lord, the God of Salvation

Texts: 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; 1 Samuel 17:1-54; Mark 4:35-41

"AS GOD’S FELLOW WORKERS WE URGE you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says,
‘In the time of my favor I heard you,
and in the day of salvation I helped you.’
"I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation."

"I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation."

These are the words of the Apostle Paul that begin our epistle reading for today. He wrote initially to the church in Corinth, in Greece, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, these words are for us as well. God’s grace and salvation is an urgent matter. We must not receive this gift of God in vain; that is, merely outwardly or to go along with what our friends and family are doing; no, the salvation of God must be received sincerely, humbly, with awe and holy love, that the grace of our Lord may have its effect in us.

All of our Scripture passages this morning have to do with the salvation of God, including the Psalm we recited for the Responsive Reading. It stands to reason: From start to finish the Bible is the story of God’s salvation. The saga of His work for humanity from the days of Adam to the days of the New Testament church is often called "salvation history." There is nothing in this life more essential for you to know. There is nothing in this world more disastrous if you ignore it or take it for granted.

We don’t use this word "salvation" much outside the Church. But we all know what it means to be rescued or saved from some terrible situation. Maybe you’re caught in a flash flood like the ones that hit the area last Wednesday, and the water picks up your car and rushes you into the nearest creek. But a brave policemen comes in a boat and fishes you out. Maybe your house catches fire and you’re trapped inside. Then a strong fireman comes and saves you. Or maybe you don’t have quite enough to pay your mortgage. But a generous relative or friend comes along in the nick of time and gives you the cash you need. In all these cases, you were in a desperate fix and somebody came along and rescued you from it. You received salvation.

But the word "salvation" these days seems reserved for use by the Christian Church, and really, that’s appropriate. Because as bad as it would be to be swept away by a flash flood or to be burnt up in a fire or to have your house sold out from under you, far, far worse is the situation all human beings are in that makes us all need the salvation of God. Financial loss, even utter destitution, could never be as devastating as the loss of fellowship with God forever. Physical danger, even physical death, is nothing compared with the agonies of eternal death and hell that await those who insist on continuing in their sin. The God of salvation rescues us from dangers that we cannot even imagine this side of eternity. His saving power is better and stronger and more effective than the most heroic earthly rescue could ever be.

And as wonderful as policemen and firemen and generous friends can be, far more glorious and worthy of praise is God Almighty, who rescues us from eternal death and everlasting loss. Jesus our Saviour knew it would cost Him everything to come to our rescue: Position, dignity, reputation, His very life-- even in that terrible moment of abandonment on the Cross, He suffered the loss of His relationship with His Father. Christ our God was not compelled to save us. We didn’t earn it; we didn’t put Him in our debt; when He saved us it was not because we were so cute and winsome, like kittens up a tree. Rather, out of His own free grace the Lord our God chose in love to grant us salvation through our His Son Jesus Christ. Such grace must never be taken for granted or received in vain!

I wonder, when we read the responsive Psalm, did you see yourself as one of those who knows the name of the Lord and trust in Him? Or did you recognise yourself as one of "the enemies," the wicked nations who dig pits to trap the righteous? When you heard the word of the Lord as written in the seventeenth chapter of 1 Samuel, whom did you identify with? Were you cheering for David and Israel, or for Goliath and the Philistines?

If I believed in betting, I’d lay money you were all identifying with Israel, with those who seek God. But why? On what basis? The Scripture teaches us in the Psalms and in Paul’s letter to the Romans that no one seeks God. We read in the Letter to the Ephesians that naturally-speaking, we non-Jews were separated from Christ and excluded from citizenship in Israel. We have no right to claim the salvation of God! And even if we can claim some Jewish blood, the Old Testament Scriptures teach us that Israel was not chosen by God because it as a nation was stronger or more numerous or more deserving than any other people. As human beings, the Jews of old were just as rebellious and disobedient as the pagans were. All of us start life as enemies of God; we deserve nothing from Him but defeat and destruction! So how can any of say that like David we’re soldiers in the army of the living God? How can we rank ourselves with the righteous and not only wait for God’s salvation, but also confidently expect it?

But we do, and we can, for by His grace God makes us part of His covenant people, with all the rights and privileges pertaining to our position with Him. The Lord long ago called our spiritual father Abraham and made a covenant with him, a covenant that was all about what God would do for Abraham and his seed; all Abraham had to do was humbly receive God’s favour through faith. That covenant was not set aside by the secondary covenant that God made with Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai; in truth, the covenant of Sinai was tributary to the earlier covenant, showing us more clearly His divine righteousness and our sin and driving us to depend on Him alone for salvation.

It was this covenant of grace that David the shepherd boy appealed to when he walked into that valley to answer the challenge of Goliath of Gath. More than once in this passage David refers to his opponent as "this uncircumcised Philistine." Is David just calling names? Absolutely not. Circumcision was the sign the Lord gave Abraham to signify that he and his descendants were the people of God. It identified Israel with Him and His salvation. But there stood Goliath, insulting the armies of Israel and thereby mocking and defying God Himself. Goliath cursed David by his false gods, who could not save. David relied on his covenant Lord, the God of Israel’s salvation, and through God he defeated the giant and won the victory.

We can claim God’s salvation in our day, for the covenant of grace that God made with our father Abraham is made perfect in His Messiah, Jesus our Saviour and Lord. We inherit His salvation through the new covenant made in His blood. David the son of Jesse took his stand in the Valley of Elah, but Jesus the Son of David took His stand on the hill of Calvary, and there He defeated the ultimate enemy, Death. Now through God’s favour we are included with His covenant people and rejoice in how He has saved us.

We can even rejoice in situations that might make the unsaved world think hadn’t received salvation at all; at least not the kind the world would understand. Paul writes in our reading from 2 Corinthians of troubles, hardships, distresses, beatings, imprisonments, and so on and on. There’s some good things listed in here, but mostly it’s one long tale of suffering and woe. They’re the kind of thing we’d beg to be rescued from, but for Paul they became credentials that proved that he and his fellow apostles were truly the servants of God. For if Paul and his fellow-workers were suffering, it was for the sake of Christ who first suffered for them and for us all, that we might receive the salvation of God.

Our passage follows on from Paul’s teaching in chapter 5. There Paul reminded the Corinthians that Jesus Christ died for us, that He has reconciled us to God through His blood. That is the salvation our God offers us! Everyone who proclaims this gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ, like Paul is an ambassador of God the King, and like every duly-appointed ambassador, each one must show his or her credentials.

All who bear the name of Christ, especially those who are ministers of the salvation of God, must be ready to commend themselves by their willingness to suffer for Jesus’ sake; they must show themselves genuine by their holiness and graciousness of life and by their kindness and love to all people, especially to the people of God; they must demonstrate their total dependence on the Holy Spirit and the power of God. They must be willing to suffer rejection, even rejection by the very churches whom they love.

How could any human being bear such a cross? Only through the power of the Lord, the God of our salvation, working in him.

Paul could bear all his hardships and even display them as proofs of God working in him, for Jesus Christ was and is the God of his salvation. Through Christ Paul was assured of life and joy and fellowship with Almighty God, in this life and in the world to come. And so we can be assured as well.

As we go through life, often we’re like the disciples on the boat with Jesus that night on the Sea of Galilee, tossed by the storm and thinking He doesn’t care if we drown. But we’re forgetting who this Man is. He is Jesus Christ, the Lord, the God of our salvation. His very name reminds us of that-- for it means "Jehovah saves." At His word giants fall, wind and waves are calmed, and our very sufferings for His sake become badges of honor, credentials that show we are ambassadors of our Lord the crucified and risen King.

Our God is the God who saves. Jesus the Son of David came down into the valley of this world and won for us the salvation we need, the rescue we could never manage for ourselves. Hear Him as He speaks to you in love through the words of His servant Paul. Do not receive God’s grace in vain. Don’t ignore the Good News for some pleasure or interest in this world you think is more important. Don’t allow the troubles of this life lead you to despise the salvation won for you by Christ on Calvary, to make you think He’s helpless in this fallen world. Rather, know that it is in the midst of battle and storm and difficulty that the Lord shows His saving power most clearly. It is when we face our helplessness, when we have given up any hope of saving ourselves, that He moves us to turn to Him and accept the salvation He brings.

This good news is for you if you’ve been a Christian for ninety years, or if you’ve just been going through the motions and aren’t yet a Christian at all. The Lord, the God of your salvation offers His grace to you through His Son, your Saviour Jesus Christ. In humility and trust, accept what He has done for you. For with Paul, I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.