Sunday, February 26, 2012

Getting on with His Job

 Texts:    Isaiah 50:4-11; Mark 1:9-15

    ONE OF THE MOST MEMORABLE OF this year's Super Bowl ads was the one where the young man thinks his parents are giving him a shiny yellow convertible Camaro as a graduation present, and responds accordingly.  We viewers understand right away that the real present is a mini-refrigerator for the cheapo apartment they figure he'll be getting, but he only has eyes for the fancy, expensive car.  One reason that ad works is because that's how a lot of young people feel about getting their college degrees: "I've worked hard these past four years, my parents are proud of me, I deserve a great job, a great car, a great life.  I'm great, I've arrived, it's all about me, me, me!  Yayyyy!!!"

    . . . Aren't you glad that Jesus the Son of God wasn't like that?  When Jesus of Nazareth was baptised by John in the River Jordan, He received the most wonderful gifts from His eternal Father.  As He was coming up out of the river, He saw the heavens being opened, and the Holy Spirit descending on Him in appearance like a dove.  For Jesus and those who had eyes to see, this was a sign that He indeed was the Anointed One, the Messiah.  This visible gift of the Spirit confirmed that all the virtues and powers that had always been His as the Son of God would also be His as the Son of Man.  The powers that belonged to His exalted office were His to use. 

    And with the anointing of the Spirit Jesus received His Father's approval: "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased."

    We sinners cannot understand how beyond price it would be, to have God the Father's complete and unreserved approval. We're too focussed on the material things of this world.  And we could never in ourselves deserve God's approbation. Our sins prevent us from being pleasing to God.  Only Jesus Christ could receive such an overwhelming gift; being God's beloved Son is His right and His alone.

    If Jesus had been an ordinary human being like you and me, if as an ordinary human being He'd been able to appreciate the value of the gifts He was given at His baptism, it wouldn't be surprising if He'd react like the young man in the commercial.  "Wow!  I'm really special!  My Father loves me, He's given me these great gifts, and I deserve every bit of it!  Hey, everybody,  I'm the Messiah, worship me now!"

    But Jesus didn't react like that.  Jesus had a job to do on this earth, and it's God the Father's great gift and blessing to us that His beloved Son kept His eye on the job, He knew what He had to do, and He carried it out.

    That said, we might expect that Jesus would get straight to work preaching and healing, right after His baptism.  Maybe address the crowd of John's disciples and those who'd come to be baptised, right there on the banks of the river Jordan.  But even though He is God's beloved Son in whom there is no fault, in whom the Father is well pleased, He still has preparation to undergo.  St. Mark tells us that immediately after this the Holy Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, compelled Him to go there, to be tempted by Satan.

    Did you get that?  It wasn't as if Jesus was spending time in fasting and prayer, and the Devil showed up unexpectedly hoping to trip Him up in a weak moment.  No, God the Holy Spirit deliberately sent God the Son into a barren, isolated place  to encounter the accuser of man, so He might be fully ready to do His saving work, to the glory of God the Father.  The word the English versions translate as "being tempted" has several layers of meaning.  Yes, it does mean "to entice someone to sin."  But it also can mean "to make a trial of, to put to the test, to discover what kind of person someone is."  It's one of the greatest jokes of the cosmos that Satan thinks he's so big and powerful and in control, and here God the Holy Spirit was using him-- simply using him-- to prove that Jesus Christ was pure gold all the way through, and binding Him even closer to His Father in heaven. 

    In our passage from Isaiah the anointed Servant of the Lord speaks of His motivation, dedication, and mission.  This was a prophecy of the Christ who was to come.  The Servant says in verses 8,

        Who will contend with me?
                    Let us stand up together.
        Who is my adversary?
                    Let him come near to me.

    Satan the accuser came near to our Lord Jesus in the wilderness, and went away defeated, for

        Behold, the Lord God helps me;
                    who will declare me guilty?

    No one, because Jesus the Servant of God put Himself wholly into the hands of His Father to vindicate and sustain Him.  In the wilderness Satan hoped to break and corrupt the Son of Man, but Jesus came out stronger, more focussed, and with greater integrity than before.

    So now, as Mark tells us, after John the Baptist was arrested--when the herald and forerunner was off the stage-- "Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.'"

    This was Jesus' work, to proclaim and bring in the rulership of God on this fallen earth.  Isaiah foretold how He went about it.  His word of hope sustained the weary.  He faithfully declared all His Father gave Him to say, and He didn't turn back or rebel against saying it.  Jesus did what would be impossible for us-- He revealed that He was the center, the focus, the embodiment of the kingdom of God, but at the same time, He didn't preach Himself for Himself.  He didn't say and do things for His own comfort or to boost His self-esteem or His position in the world.  Everything He did in His ministry was done in obedience to God the Father, so sinners like you and me could be reconciled to God through Him and God glorified in heaven and on earth.

    Jesus did not turn backward from what He came to do, even when it took Him to the cross.  No, He

    gave [His] back to those who strike,
                and [His] cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
    [He] hid not [His] face
        from disgrace and spitting.

And because Jesus was pleasing to God, because He got on with the holy task the Father sent Him to do, the cross did not end for Him in disgrace and shame, but in vindication and glory.

    And because Jesus was faithful in word and deed to the job He was given to do, we, too, can share His vindication and glory.  The Scripture is clear: Jesus did what He did because He was the only one who could do it.  His fast, His temptation, His ministry, His cross, His resurrection-- all this He was willing to do, He did it all for you, to reconcile you to the Father and restore you to His love.

    This is something we can hold onto.  It's inevitable:  We will have days, weeks, months, when we don't understand what God is doing, when, as Isaiah says, we have no light and we walk in the darkness.  But there is confidence and hope for you who fear the Lord and obey the voice of Jesus, His Servant.  For His Spirit has given you an open ear to repent and believe the gospel of God's kingship.  To you is given the light of God and for you Jesus completed His mighty work of salvation.  Even in the darkness, even in the midst of uncertainty and temptation, the name of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is strong, and on Him we can rely.

    But there are those who will not accept what Jesus has already done.  They do not trust Him or accept the light He gives.  They claim to believe in Jesus, but it is an idol, a Christ made in their own image.  They claim to have light, but it is light they have kindled themselves, and such a torch will lead them astray.  Satan was only the first of those who preached the bad news of their own greatness, of grabbing the good things they feel they deserve, and those who follow him will suffer his punishment.

    But this is not what God our Father has in mind for you, not if you have put your faith in Jesus Christ, who was and is God's beloved Son.  He was tried and proven in His confrontation with Satan in the wilderness, He faithfully proclaimed the good news of God's kingdom, and when the time was right, Jesus opened up the door to the kingdom of heaven by the wounds He suffered in His own body on the cross.  He did the job you and I could never do.  You can trust and rely on Him, even in times of darkness, even when temptation seems too much to bear.  God has given you the greatest gift of His love any ordinary human being can ever receive, and that is the gift of His Son.  Believe the good news:  In Christ Himself you have the kingdom, and that gift will never be taken away from you, and in Him your joy will never end.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Glory Reflected, Glory Obscured

Texts:    2 Corinthians 3:7 - 4:6;  Mark 9:1-13

    SOMETHING I'VE NOTICED THESE past few years, and I'm sure you've noticed it, too, is how people like to leave their Christmas lights up all year round.  Now, they don't call them Christmas lights.  But you know what I mean.  The little white lights that stay lit in the trees outside buildings all summer.  Even more, the artificial evergreen trees in offices and homes that change decorations depending on the season.  Now it's a Christmas tree, now it's for Valentine's, now it's decorated for Easter, now for Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. 

    But always with lights.  Always with ornaments that glitter and shine.  Always echoing the glory that is Christmas.  We like glory.  We don't want it to fade away.   So we decide to keep the pretty lights burning all year round, and maybe the hope and optimism and sense of wonder and possibility will keep going, too.

    It's right to associate Christ and His birth with light and glory.  All of Jesus' life was glorious, in Who He was and what He did and in Who and where He is today, risen and glorified at the right hand of the Father.  Since that's true, it's hard to understand the gospel of Mark has so much about the glory of Jesus being hidden or concealed.

    From the first verse, we, the Christian reader, know that this Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.  We read how John the Baptist came in the Spirit and power of Elijah, proclaiming that soon One would come who would baptise with the Holy Spirit.  And how when Jesus was baptised by John, the heavens were opened, the Holy Spirit descended on Him like a dove, and the voice from heaven declared, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." 

    Isn't that glorious?  But immediately we see that same Spirit driving Jesus into the obscurity of the wilderness, to be tempted.  We hear Jesus forbidding the demons He cast out to talk about who He is.  Even though people in the villages are thrilled with His miraculous healing power, He won't remain there and soak up the fame.  Jesus heals a leper, and charges the man not to tell anyone what He, Jesus, has done.  Jesus teaches in parables, and tells His disciples that He does so in order that those outside of His followers would not be able to understand.

    Yet He keeps on performing miracles that could only be done by the finger of God alone.  Jesus, why all this obscurity?  Why not just come out and proclaim who You are, that you're the Messiah, the Holy One, the glorious promised King and Ruler of Israel?

    Then one day, near Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks His disciples, "Who do people say I am?"  And Peter answers, "You are the Christ."  (St. Matthew gives us more; in his gospel, we read that Peter went on to say that Jesus is the Son of the living God).  Well, at last!  Now would be the time for Jesus to declare His Messiahship all over Galilee and Judea, to march into Jerusalem and take up His crown and reign.

    But no.  After Peter confessed the truth about who Jesus was, our Lord strictly charged the disciples not to tell anyone about Him.  More than that, He began to teach them that He would suffer many things and be killed by the chief priests and scribes!  And He told His followers, not just the Twelve but also those in the crowd, that if they wanted to be His true disciples, they had to be willing to follow Him to crucifixion, too!  Where's the glory now, Jesus?  Why must it be so hidden, so obscured?

    But as Jesus was teaching His followers that they must be willing to suffer the most demeaning of martyrdoms for His sake, He added this amazing statement, which we find in verse 1 of chapter 9 of Mark's gospel:

    "Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power."

Which is to say, "Yes, many standing here certainly will drink the cup of martyrdom for My sake, but some of you before that will see that the kingdom of God has come with power."

    That is, something will open their eyes and they will see and understand the power and glory of God's kingship, where it had been obscured before.

    Six days later, Mark tells us Jesus took Peter and the brothers James and John up to a high mountain by themselves.  And there He is transfigured before them, appearing in garments blindingly white, beyond any earthly power to bleach them.  Moses and Elijah appear and confer with Jesus, Moses being the one to whom God gave the Law on Mount Sinai, and Elijah being the mightiest of the miracle-working prophets.  This, indeed, was a vision of the kingdom of God having come with power.  Why shouldn't Peter respond in awe and worship?  Why shouldn't he want to build all three of them tabernacles, where they could shelter, where God Most High could be adored in their holy presence?

    But this was not God's plan.  This was not the final demonstration of His power and glory that He meant to reveal.  A cloud overshadowed them all; the glorious scene was obscured, and a Voice said, "This is my beloved Son: listen to him."

    Listen to Jesus, you disciples of His, for He has something even more hidden and even more glorious to reveal to you.  When the cloud lifted, Jesus only was there.  And as they came down the mountain, He charged the three disciples not to tell anyone what they had seen.  He had wanted them to get this glimpse of His unveiled glory, but they were not to go about proclaiming it.  They weren't to give the other disciples and the crowds the idea that this revelation was the kingdom of God having come with power.  So they were to keep it hidden, obscured-- until the Son of Man, that is, Jesus, had risen from the dead.

    Risen from the dead.  What could that mean?  If nothing else, it meant that Jesus had to die.  How could this be, if Jesus indeed was the Christ and the long-expected King?  And what about the prophecy that Elijah must come first, to be the King's forerunner and prophet?

    Jesus assures them that Elijah-- in the person of John the Baptist-- has come.  And they-- the authorities-- beheaded him.  And the Son of Man, Christ the King, must suffer many things and be treated with contempt?  Coming down that mountain road, Jesus left Peter, James, and John with more questions than they started out with.

    Only in Jesus' death and resurrection is the obscurity cleared away and the mystery revealed.  The glory of Christ is His cross, and His power is the victory He won there over sin, Satan, and death.  It's something we never could have imagined, but now that God has done it, we can see that Christ's work of salvation for us and in us is indeed the kingdom of God come in glorious power.

    St. Paul spells it out for us in our reading from 2 Corinthians.  He speaks in verse 7 of the ministry of death coming with glory.  By this he refers to the Law, given to Moses on Mount Sinai.  The Law of God itself is great and glorious.  It reflects His truth, His purity, His righteousness and love.  It gave the pattern for the kind of people the Israelites were to be, to reflect His image in the world.  But in the end, the Law brought death, because it went to prove how weak, sinful, and inglorious we sinful humans are.  We break God's law, and we are broken on it.

    Yet it was glorious!  So glorious, that whenever Moses came out from God's presence, his face reflected God's glory, and he had to put a veil over his face and obscure it, so the people could bear to be around him.

    But, Paul says, that glory, the glory of the old covenant under the Law, was passing away.  By its very nature it was doomed to blind human eyes to God's plan for our salvation.  For the Law is all about our doing good, our being righteous, our trying to live up to God's standards-- or lowering them to our standards, when we fail.  Isn't that the normal human way of getting in good with God?  We feel we have to earn it.  We're convinced we have to strive to achieve our place in heaven.  "No guts, no glory!" is the motto.

    But in Christ, all that is taken away.  In Christ, we see the glory of His cross and what He did for us there.  In His resurrection and ascension we see that God the Father has put His stamp of approval on the deeds of His beloved Son, and in His gracious will we share the glory of Christ.  Like the kingdom of God, we have not fully arrived.  As we are made more like Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are brought from one degree of glory to another.  And this is not our doing, it is always thanks to the work of Christ on what seemed to be a very inglorious cross.

    So, with Paul and his companions, we do not lose heart.  There is much in our culture that criticises Christians, that says we are fools, that claims that we're in the dark and it's the unbelievers and skeptics who have the light of wisdom.  Even in the Church there are many who say that the gospel message of the cross is outdated, that it's veiled to the world and therefore we should discard it and give the world something they can understand.  Some so-called pastors (I've heard them called "goat-herders") would rather spend an hour telling funny stories about themselves instead of five minutes preaching Christ, because it draws a crowd.

    Sadly, the gospel is obscured to those who are perishing in this world, for Satan, the god of this world blinds their minds and keeps them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.  But there was a time when that was true of us, too.  And the obscured glory of God is brighter and stronger than the blatant so-called glory of Satan and this world, and His Spirit was strong to enlighten our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

    Peter, James, and John had the privilege of seeing Jesus gloriously transfigured on the mountain with Moses and Elijah.  We by the Holy Spirit have seen the kingdom of God having come with power in our own lives, though Jesus' death and resurrection.  Like the first disciples, all of us still have times of darkness and obscurity to go through, before we shall see our Lord face to face.  But let us not lose heart.  No, we won't lose heart, we won't be discouraged, because the glory of Christ shines within us and His Spirit keeps us.

    One thing more, and I'll close.  To share in Christ's glory is to share in His obedience.  Often we're told to do and dare great things for Christ, and we feel down and disheartened because we're not out in the field as missionaries or evangelizing so as to convert hundreds every day.  How glorious that would be!  Maybe I exaggerate, but you know the pressure.  We can't do that! we think, so we just go back to the obscurity of our everyday lives.  But maybe our everyday lives are exactly where Jesus wants us to glorify Him.  It's in our daily work, our relationships, our ordinary struggles and joys that we take up our crosses and follow Him, and it's there that we in ourselves truly see the kingdom of God having come in power.

    For we follow Jesus Christ and reflect His glory, the glory that can never fade, tarnish, or pass away.  Amen.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Clean and Whole

Texts:    Leviticus 13:9-22; 45-46; Mark 1:40-45

    WHAT WOULD IT HAVE BEEN like to have been one of God's ancient chosen people?  As an Israelite you'd experience the overwhelming joy of knowing that the Creator God of heaven and earth was your God.  You'd enjoy the prosperity and blessing He'd bring you.  You'd be able to trust Him to fight your battles with foreign powers.  You could hear His very words from the mouth of His prophets.  No other nation had such blessings and privileges.  How wonderful it must have been!

    On the other hand, with all those privileges you'd have heavy responsibilities.  Or perhaps I should say, you had one great heavy responsibility:  As an ancient Israelite, from the time you were old enough to understand, it was up to you and to all of your fellow Hebrews to be a testimony to the nations.  Since the Lord God was your Father, all Israel together was the son of God on earth, and you were expected, as a nation and as individuals, to live up to the image and character of the Lord God Himself, that He might be glorified on earth and all nations be blessed through you. 

    God spelled out exactly how you were to reflect His image and glory, in the Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai.

    There were three parts to it:  the moral law, which defines how people everywhere should treat one another and themselves; the civil law, which laid down how Israel was to govern itself as a nation; and the ceremonial law, which dictated how the Israelites were to relate to God and glorify Him on this earth.  The ceremonial law went beyond how and Whom you worshipped.  In pretty much everything you did your life was to be a proclamation of the wholeness, purity, and integrity of the Lord.

    The creed of God's people Israel was this:

    Hear, O Israel: The Lord your God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).

The whole purpose of the ceremonial law was to present Israel to the world as a people who reflected the perfect oneness and unity of the Lord our God.  They were to be holy as He is holy.  Pure as He is pure.  Clean and whole as the Lord is clean and whole.

    So, no wearing clothes made out of more than one kind of  fiber.  No sowing your field with more than one kind of seed.  No plowing that field with two different kinds of animals under the yoke.  No violating the integrity of your skin by getting tattoos or cutting yourself as a sign of mourning for the dead. No eating of beasts that wouldn't be acceptable to God as a sacrifice.

    Why?  Because mixture and confusion was a sign of the sinful brokenness of this fallen world.  Your daily life had to stand against that and testify to the pure and undivided character of God.

    As an Israelite you might think, "I don't totally understand all this, but it's something I can try to do.  Just like I can do my best to avoid sin by keeping the moral law."

    But then you'd come to the commands set forth in our reading from Leviticus 13.  And read that if any of God's people should break out with a defiling skin disease, and the priest should determine that it is
chronic and spreading, then that person is to be ostracized from the community.  As it says in 13:45-46,

    Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!'  As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.

And possibly you'd think, "How is it my fault, or the fault of my family, if any of us should contract a disease like this?  I'd never choose to have running sores break out all over my body!  I'd never ask to have my skin go all flaky and scaly all over!  Why must I be separated from God's people?  Why must I cover my mouth as if I were mourning for the dead?"

    That'd be easy to answer if the Bible really was talking about leprosy, what today we call Hansen's disease.  True leprosy eventually eats the structure of your extremities away and it's terribly contagious.  You could understand why a Hansen's disease sufferer would be permanently quarantined.  But this isn't what is being described in Leviticus.  Archaeological evidence from the ancient Middle East shows that true leprosy wasn't prevalent there till the fifth century after Christ.  It occurred from time to time, and the ancient Greeks had a word for it, elephantiasis.  The word lepra or lepros, which we find in our Mark passage, refers to other sorts of diseases affecting the skin.  Same with the Hebrew word tsara'at, the term Moses used in Leviticus.  Here's where the 2011 updated version of the New International Version is a real improvement.  This word tsara'at doesn't necessarily mean a skin disease that is infectious, but it definitely signifies one that is defiling according to God's ceremonial law.

    So, what skin diseases could get you ostracized from the camp and later the towns of Israel?  Given the descriptions in Leviticus, it'd be conditions like favus, a disease prevalent in the Near East and northern Africa that affects the scalp.  Or chronic psoriasis.  Or eczema.  Yes, the same skin diseases some of you may have struggled with.  Talk about "The heartbreak of psoriasis"!  Not only would you be perpetually unclean, so that you were excluded from worshipping God at His Tabernacle, any undiseased person other than the priest who touched you would be rendered temporarily unclean, too.

    You'll notice in verses 12-13 of our Leviticus passage, that if a person's skin disease spreads so that he turns white all over, the priest can pronounce him clean.  It wasn't the disease itself that excluded a person from the presence of God, it was the visible confusion and unwholesomeness evident on his skin.  The Lord's people were to be holy, clean, and whole outside as well as in, inside as well as out.  They were to be visible models of the purity and wholeness of God, and an Israelite walking the streets with his skin red and white and flaking where he should be a nice even brown would testify instead to sin, degeneration, and death.

    And it's true, no one would choose to look like that.  But when it comes down to it, none of us chose to be infected with the sin of Adam, either.  None of us woke up one day and said, "Hey, I think I'd like to be dead in trespasses and sins!"   We were born into this fallen condition-- but we can't claim innocence.  Because every day by our own sin we confirm that we go along with it.  Under God's covenant with Israel, psoriasis and other chronic defiling skin diseases were a sign of the inward, inborn sin of mankind breaking out and flaunting itself on the outside of a person.  They proclaimed the broken, unwholesome, unclean state of this world that sets itself against the purity and oneness of the Lord our God.

    It seems very hard and even unfair, the fate of the person with a defiling skin disease under the Old Covenant.  But in His holiness God had an eternal plan and purpose that would be fulfilled through the Law working in His people Israel, a plan that would more than justify the discomfort suffered by any human being on this earth, a plan that would bring restore all who were cast out and heal all who suffer from the mortal disease of sin. God called Israel to be His son on this earth, to grow up to reflect the integrity of His holiness.  We know from the Scriptures that the Jews failed miserably at this task.  We know from our own hearts that if we'd been in their position, we would have miserably failed, too.

    But at the right time there came a Man from Nazareth, a Man born of an ordinary woman of the house of David, of the people of Israel, yet conceived by the Holy Spirit and so born without sin.  From the very start of his gospel our writer St. Mark proclaims this Man Jesus to be the Son of God.  Jesus Christ will succeed where Israel failed.  He will be the One who truly reflects God's cleanliness and wholeness standing against a defiled and sin-broken world, and through Him the purpose of Israel will be fulfilled.  This Man Jesus was not merely whole and clean and holy in Himself, He had the power to impart wholeness, cleanliness, and purity to others who were in every sense filthy and defiled.

    And so in verses 40 through 45 of Mark chapter 1 we read how a man suffering from one of these defiling skin diseases, not necessarily leprosy, approaches Jesus, probably in the countryside outside one of the villages of Galilee.  He's heard about Jesus' power to heal, but he hasn't dared come into town and join the crowd waiting around Jesus' lodgings.  He falls to his scabby knees and begs, "If you are willing, you can make me clean."

    St. Mark writes that Jesus is filled with compassion.  It's not that Jesus feels sorry for the man because he is excluded from society and heals him so he can go back to his home and family.  No, Jesus feels for him from the heart because this sufferer is excluded from the household of God by the defilement of sin, and his skin disease is only a symptom of that estrangement.  Jesus replies, "I am willing."  He touches the man-- actually touches his loathsome flesh--and He declares, "Be clean!" and by the creative power of His word He makes it so.  By this mighty work of mercy Jesus shows that He is in His own flesh the One who is eternally whole and clean, the One Whom no contact with evil can defile, the One Who makes the broken whole and before Whom defilement flees.

    But until the New Covenant is sealed in His shed blood on the cross, the Old Covenant is still in effect.  So Jesus orders the cured man to go to the priest and offer the sacrifices Moses ordered for those who were cleansed of defiling skin diseases.  We can read about those sacrifices and the ritual of making them in Leviticus 14.  They were, as Jesus says, to serve as a testimony to all the people of what God had done in His mercy to make the broken whole and the impure clean.  But the healed man does not head for Jerusalem to make the prescribed offerings.  No,  throughout the countryside he spreads the news that God was at work in Jesus of Nazareth, that here was a Man who could touch a leper and cleanse him and not Himself be defiled.

    As Mark writes, this was fame Jesus wasn't seeking, and it made it impossible for Him to minister in the towns any more.  But it didn't matter: People streamed out into the wilderness to hear Him and be healed by Him, no matter were He might be.

    Brothers and sisters, for the ancient Jews skin diseases were only an outward sign of the sin that defiles us all from the heart.  If we appeared to each other the way our sin makes us appear to God, no horror movie special effects could depict the terrors we would see.  But Jesus Christ was and is the only-begotten Son of God who was willing to take the loathsomeness of our sins on Himself on the cross, even though for awhile it caused His Father to turn His face from Him.   He atoned for our sins and wiped them out totally so that we might be clean.  In the place of your old brokenness and defilement, Jesus Christ gives you His wholeness, His purity, His integrity.  And now when God turns His face towards you, He sees the glorious and holy face of Jesus Christ, the new Israel, His beloved Son who is the perfect image of the Father's righteous splendor.

    This promise is for you and your children and for all the Lord our God shall call.  If you have never trusted in Jesus Christ, repent and turn to Him now, and He will cleanse you from your sins and give you His righteousness.  If you have turned to Him in faith and are sealed to Him in baptism, keep relying on His saving health day by day.  The old earthly nature within us is still defiled and diseased, and it fights against the wholesome new heavenly nature Christ has put within us.  But day by day, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are becoming more and more conformed to the image of Christ.  More and more we are being revealed as citizens of the New Israel whom Jesus shed His blood to create.  Just like the Israelites under the Old Covenant, we New Covenant believers are called upon to reflect the wholeness and purity of God in the midst of a degenerate and defiled world.  But be encouraged: Jesus by His power has cleansed us, Jesus by His power will keep us, and Jesus by His power will present us clean and whole before the God who is His Father and our own.

    Now to him who has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation, be praise, honor, majesty, and power, now and forever more.  Amen.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

This Is Why He Came

Texts:    Isaiah 61:1-9; Mark 1:29-39   

       ONE OF THE MOST DIFFICULT things about  being a Christian, especially a Christian pastor, is dealing with people's misconceptions about what Jesus came to do on this earth.  Especially hard to deal with is when unbelievers ask, "If  Jesus is so great, how come you Christians still suffer from diseases and troubles like the rest of us?  How come I can insult your God all I want and I'm perfectly happy and healthy?  Guess He's not so powerful after all!"

    Even Christians can wonder why a loving Jesus who healed so many people when He walked this earth doesn't reach down from heaven and heal them.  Is it because they don't have enough faith?  Or is God punishing them for some sin in their lives?  Or maybe, just maybe (we hardly dare even to think it), Jesus doesn't care to heal us-- or He can't?  But no, no, it's got to be a lack of faith on our part.  Or something.  After all, didn't Jesus come to give us healthier, happier lives and heal us of all our physical diseases?  Why doesn't He get on with it?

    It's hard dealing with this not because there's no answer to it, but because first you have to clear away a fundamental misconception about who Jesus is and what He came to do.

    That's not easy.  Even Jesus' disciples saw things this way, early in His ministry when they came looking for Him the morning Mark records in chapter 1, verses 35-37 of his gospel.  The afternoon before, we read, Jesus healed the mother-in-law of Simon Peter.  And that evening, the whole town of Capernaum showed up at Peter and Mrs. Peter's house so Jesus could heal those who had diseases.  He drove out demons, too, just like He'd driven out that nasty one in the synagogue earlier that day, which you can read about in verse 21-28.  Such power!  Such authority!  No sickness, no infirmity, no minion of Satan, could stand against the command of our Lord Christ!

    So why wasn't Jesus busy doing the same thing that day?  What was He doing out in this solitary place (verse 35) praying?  Come on, Jesus, come back and get to work! Hey, Jesus, "Everyone is looking for You!"  Don't You realize there are still sick people to heal and possessed people to set free?

    That's how we're tempted to feel about Jesus and His work, both back then and today. The unbeliever thinks Jesus doesn't eliminate all sickness and suffering because He can't.  The Christian believes He can, and so often can't understand why He doesn't.

    Yes, Jesus does know that everyone is looking for Him. But He knows they need more than physical healing.  His reply to the disciples is this, in verse 38:   "Let us go somewhere else-- to the nearby villages-- so I may preach there also.  That is why I have come."

    "That is why I have come."  Why?  To preach.  Not primarily to heal the broken bodies and tortured minds of suffering humanity, but to preach.

    To preach? we might ask.  To preach what?  Well, let's look  back at verse 15 of this first chapter of Mark.  There Jesus says, "The time has come.  The kingdom of God is near.  Repent and believe the good news!"

    Jesus came to preach the kingdom of God.  He healed and cast out demons to show to us that He was and is the Anointed Servant of God who can and does exercise power and authority against everything that would rise up and rebel against the that divine kingdom.

    We talk a lot these days about "Kingdom living" and "Kingdom ministry" and even "Kingdom kids."  But in the Gospel of Mark in particular, the term "kingdom of God" focusses on God Himself.  As Isaiah puts it in chapter 61, God being savior, God being grace-giver, God being provider, God being judge.  God Almighty is the focus and center of His kingdom; He is its Sovereign Lord and King.  The kingdom of God is that state of affairs where God is totally in charge and all resistance goes down before Him.

    This is what Jesus came to proclaim.  He came to prove that He Himself was the Anointed divine King in whose person the kingdom of God has come.  When He cast out demons and healed diseases it was amazing, stupendous-- but it only served to illustrate that He was, as Mark says in chapter 1, verse 1, "Christ, the Son of God."

    Because as grievous and tragic as physical and mental sickness are, even worse is the spiritual sickness that lies beneath them.  Brothers and sisters, all the diseases that mankind ever suffered are only symptoms of the real problem, the sin that's within and around and among us.  Out of the heart of man, out of our hearts, comes the sin that disrupts our relationship with God.  It was human sin that let evil into the world, human sin that perverted our relationship with creation such that viruses and bacteria are our enemies, instead of under our dominion.  Human sin creates economic and political systems that keep people in slavery, poverty, and despair.  Human sin brings about injury, injustice, ruin, and disgrace.

    Certainly, Jesus Christ had the ability to heal every last person in Galilee and Judea, with Samaria, Lebanon, and the Decapolis thrown in.  He could have lived a long, long, life doing nothing but that.  But that wasn't what He came to do.  If all our Savior did was save our bodies, our souls would remain just as dead and damned as they were before He encountered us.  But He came to do far more than that.  Jesus came to preach the arrival of the kingdom of God, the year of the Lord's favor, the day of His judgment.  Jesus, the living Word, brings in the kingdom of God by His word, the same creative word that spoke the universe into existence.  The preached word of Jesus is powerful, authoritative.  His Spirit is in it, and it gives life where there was none; for those who have been called according to His purpose, His word has given life to us.

    Today at Grace Church we have celebrated the Sacrament of Christian Baptism.  In Baptism we acknowledge that we, too, have been in rebellion against the kingdom of God, dead in trespasses and sins.  We were helpless, and needed to be raised and recreated after the image of Jesus Christ.  St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans writes how mankind died through the trespass of our first father Adam.  Sin reigned in death-- until Jesus came with the perfect act of righteousness, His death on the cross, so grace might reign through righteousness to bring us eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. When we were baptised we were baptised into His death.  Sin is defeated in us through Him, God's kingdom rule is established in us, we are freed from the bondage of sin and liberated to serve God in holiness and joy.   This is true for D--; it is true for all those who have been transformed by the word of Christ preached for repentance and faith.

    Every healing, every exorcism Jesus ever did pointed forward to that one great and final act when He would bring healing to our sin-sick souls and utterly crush the head of Satan the prince of demons.  Isaiah looked forward to that day, and spoke of the time when the Lord would make an everlasting covenant with His chosen people.  This is the new covenant made in the blood of Jesus Christ.

    Why did Jesus Christ come?  He came to die and to rise again, that we might truly be healed.  This is how the kingdom of God was established on this earth-- by that one perfect sacrifice that Friday afternoon on Calvary.  By His death death was confounded and the power of sin and Satan broken forever.

     Oh, yes, even as Christian believers we will yet go through the trials and terrors of this fallen world.  Times of suffering and disease will still be ours.  We, too, will experience the death of our mortal bodies.  But we have this comfort, that we can look to Jesus Christ and know that He has given us the health that matters, the only health that will last: the salvation of our souls and the promise of new and immortal bodies like His own.   Sickness and suffering do not defeat us, for Jesus has come preaching the good news of the kingdom of God, and He by His grace has made us His own.

    If you will permit me a personal story: Last Maundy Thursday when I preached at Grace Church, that was the first time I'd appeared in the pulpit with my own hair; that is, the first time since I lost it to chemotherapy.  More than a year before that, in February 2010, I'd been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  At that time something I'd read led me to believe that I might have only four months to live.  That prospect focusses the mind wonderfully.  What did everything I'd been preaching all these years mean in the light of that?  And I was led to ask, All right, how much do I love Jesus Christ?  But then I realized the better question was, How much does Jesus Christ love me?

    He loved me enough to go to the cross to purchase my salvation so I might be made fit for the kingdom of God.  And that's how much He loves you, too.

    There are many who scoff and insist that Jesus has no power to heal.  There are others who desire Jesus only for His power to heal, but otherwise would leave Him alone.  In sickness or in health, let us be those who bow the knee to Him in humble joy.  The kingdom of God is near to you, even in your heart, established by the word of Christ preached to you in His name.  Hear what He declares to you by the power of the Holy Spirit, and repent and believe the good news.  For that is why He came. Amen.