Unexpected Strength

Preached on Sunday, February 5, 2012
Scripture: Isaiah 40:21-31, Mark 1:29-39

When prophets start asking questions, the God’s people know it is time to sit up and listen.

  • What does the Lord require of you?
  • Do you call this an acceptable fast
  • Is it right for you to be angry?
  • Should I not be concerned for Nineveh?
  • Why do you want the day of the Lord
  • Have you not seen? Have you not heard?

An essential part of the Temple culture, even in exile, the voice of the prophet speaks God’s very words into the reality of God’s people. Being prophetic might sound great from where we stand. We know the whole story of God’s redemption, of God’s mercy, of God’s grace. But when Jonah and Joel and Micah and Amos and Isaiah were speaking, they were not providng comforting, pastoral word about how God was going to save the people. They were preaching a hard word – calling the people on their “stuff” and exhorting them to seek God’s mercy in repentance, through changed lives. Make no mistake, the people who were yearning in exile heard these words as judgment.

These words must surely have seemed like a “kick-em-when-they’re-down” kind of thing. Wandering in exile for years, knowing themselves to be forsaken, perhaps ultimately rejected by their God, this prophecy of Isaiah which begins with words of comfort cuts both ways. That God is merciful is true. That God is judging is also true. That God wants to redeem and heal his people is true. That God require the people to turn their lives toward him is also true.

But the people seemed to have what one scholar calls theological amnesia. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the very beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?” They had forgotten that not only is God a powerful and demanding Lord, but that God is also merciful, just, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. As they cry out in their amnesia, it’s not surprising that after speaking words of comfort, Isaiah would need to try to get their attention another way… recounting the powerful and gracious acts of God.

Isaiah rightly asks: How can you keep living this way when the Lord of all creation is your God? How can you be afraid of the hard work of repentance when time and time again, the strength of the Lord has lifted you as if you were on eagles’ wings? Is God’s will and desire to show mercy somehow not to be believed just because God also requires changed lives for those who live in covenant relationship with him?

In Mark’s telling of Jesus’ life, it isn’t so much amnesia. Yet the questions about his authority and the fundamental rejection of him as someone worth listening to is more a symptom of intentional glaucoma that infects the people. In his book, Binding the Strong Man, a Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Ched Myers raises this question at the beginning of his comments on the passage we just read: These “miracle” stories raise important concerns. Is Jesus simply “curing” the physically sick and the mentally disturbed? If so, why would such a ministry of compassion raise the ire of the local authorities? [p. 141]

In many ways, these very questions plagued Jesus throughout his ministry. Here at the very beginning, we see that very few people recognize or trust his authority. They see the miracles, but seem to expect that something else is going on behind the scenes. Maybe this Jesus fellow has ulterior motives. Maybe he’s just in it for his own glory. Maybe he’s going to turn out just like Herod and Caesar – giving the appearance of mercy and grace, but all the while preparing a trap to ensnare, to enslave. What if he just wants to grab all the power for himself and leave us with no authority whatsoever?

What’s interesting here and throughout Mark’s gospel, it’s the people who have the most at stake, the most to lose in the way of power, social position, community leadership, these are the ones who fail to recognize who Jesus really is. Those who do recognize the authority of Jesus are the ones who have every reason to fear power and authority. The demons Jesus casts out name him as the Holy One of God, children, bleeding women, outcasts, working class folks – people with no power – these are the first and the last to recognize that Jesus’ miraculous power offers more than just a physical change. These weakest, these most oppressed see and understand what it means to be touched by the mercy of God. The ones who receive his healing touch are able to understand at a fundamental level the difference between the small picture: the visible and obvious curing of a medical affliction and the big picture of their restoration to community as a person of value.

Palo Cristi Presbyterian Church and before that, our predecessor congregations or Camelback and Sunrise Presbyterian Churches have never been known for great and obvious power. Yet this small, seemingly insignificant congregation, surrounded by money and power far greater than we have ever aspired to have, has tried to follow in the tradition of Jesus’ healing ministry. One might argue that we haven’t done many great earth shattering miracles, yet opening the door, opening the table to the LGBTQ community has showed God’s mercy to people who would find no welcome in other religious houses. By taking our small teams of people to Mexico and to Habitat builds, we haven’t stopped homelessness, but we have demonstrated what the prophets expected the people to do-to give up something of themselves for those in need.

This is hard work. The work of breaking down the status quo is costly. It takes time, it takes a deep commitment to God’s will for justice and mercy. And it begins first in each one of our hearts as we allow God to prophetically reshape our lives so that we can be better able to reshape the world. Make no mistake, Jesus didn’t go to the cross because he was an itinerant doctor who dispensed medicinal healing to people’s physical ailments. He was brought to trial, beaten and crucified because he used his holy power to bring merciful healing to a sick culture. The unexpected strength of this no-good from Nazareth brought unexpected and even unwanted change that lifted the oppressed out of their enslavement, that freed the rejected from those who would lord it over them. That’s why he was killed. For those sins he died. And to this he has called each one of us. Amen.
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