Friday, September 22, 2006

Love Behind Enemy Lines 2

Mark 7:31-37

In Love Behind Enemy Lines 1 we considered Jesus' healing of the Syro-Phoenician woman. The scene now shifts, in Mark 7:31-37 to the Decapolis. This was a region of ten cities in Palestine, east of the Jordan river, including Damascus, mostly populated by pagans. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, “The cities of the Decapolis…were organized entirely along Hellenic lines; had Greek worship and Greek games, and were always hostile to Jews.” (Richard Gottheil and Samuel Krauss, “The Decapolis”)

So again we have Jesus in foreign territory, behind enemy lines, as it were, continuing to break through racial and religious boundaries and take the love of God to all people in need. Here some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him. Again we see faith being exercised for the sake of another. Earlier a mother on behalf of a demon possessed daughter; here friends on behalf of a deaf mute. A couple of weeks ago I went to hear two lectures at Whitley College by Professor David Bebbington, a leading historian of British evangelicalism from the University of Stirling. As well as being an historian he is also a keen observer and commentator on worship practices and he was asked during question time what he believed was the major change in worship in Great Britain over the last 40 years. His reply was disturbing. He said that intercessory prayer - prayer for others beyond the congregation - had all but disappeared in evangelical and charismatic churches. There was plenty of prayer for those present in the church. Many people received prayer at the altar for all kinds of personal, physical, emotional, and spiritual problems, but prayer was rarely offered for anyone not present. Historically this has always been part of the church’s liturgy. We are commanded in scripture to pray for governments and all in authority. It doesn’t matter whether we voted for them or not, we are to pray for them. We must pray for peace, pray for our church leaders, pray for the sick, pray for the hungry, pray for the homeless, pray for those who struggle with mental illness, pray for drug users, pray for those who cannot pray for themselves.

When asked why he thought this alarming trend had developed Prof. Bebbington said that in his view it was a result of the widespread cultural concern for authenticity which had also become of central concern in the churches. Now authenticity itself is certainly a good quality, but here’s how it plays out. Since I don’t really know the exact political causes of genocide in Darfur and people in my congregation may not have even heard about it, there’s no point praying about it. Since I don’t know anyone in East Timor it would seem inauthentic to pray about the situation there. I’m not sure whether its right for the Prime Minister to send more troops to Iraq so I won’t pray for them. And since people in my congregation have different opinions about whether the war in Iraq is even justified I had better not mention it. Not many people in our congregation know our National Superintendent and his wife so what’s the point of praying for people hardly anyone knows? When it comes to praying for major social problems which seem intractable, such as poverty or gambling, or drug abuse, if we are not ourselves directly involved in addressing such issues we think it would be inauthentic to pray about them. As if not praying was somehow more noble than praying! We hear an accusing voice saying. “What’s the use of praying about it if you don’t do something about it” to which of course we could as easily reply, “What’s the use of doing something about if you don’t pray about it?” People forget that praying is doing.

The people who brought the deaf mute to Jesus did not seem to suffer our contemporary angst about intercession. They had a friend in need, and they brought that friend to the place where he could get the help he needed - to Jesus. Jesus then quietly took him aside, away from the crowd, stuck his fingers in the mans’ ears and spat on his tongue. You thought he gave the Syro-Phoenician woman a hard time. At least he didn’t spit on her! What Jesus was doing here of course was touching the affected areas. He put his fingers in the man’s ears because this was the location of his disability. He spat and touched his tongue because it was here that the secondary effect of deafness was located- his inability to speak clearly. He wasn’t completely mute but his deafness had made it impossible for him to speak well. These were invasive procedures, as healing cures often are. No one likes to go to the doctor and be prodded and probed but we submit to it because our health is at stake and we want to be well again. When I first met with an orthopaedic surgeon regarding my hip replacement I found him impersonal, gruff and downright unlikeable (eventually the opeartio was performed by another surgeon - just in case Dr. Falkenberg is reading my blog as unlikely as that is). I mentioned this to my GP who is quite the opposite kind of doctor and he said, ”Yes, surgeons; are often like that; They prefer their patients unconscious.” Well Jesus is the perfect combination of GP and surgeon. He knows how to show understanding and compassion. He prefers his patients, not unconscious, but alive and well. At the same time he knows every medical procedure in the book, and he has all the specialist information to address whatever it is that ails you.

When Jesus had applied his treatment he looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to the man “Ephphatha!" (which means “Be opened!”). At this, the man's ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. What was in this look to heaven? What was in this deep sigh? In looking to heaven I wonder if he was looking to his Heavenly Father, as he did before he raised Lazarus from the dead. “Father the hour has come, Glorify your name.” He had laid aside his divine privileges when he took on the conditions of human existence. He knew he had to look to his home country and to his Father to gain the power he needed to perform these miracles of healing. So he looked up to heaven.

Accompanying this look was a “deep sigh.” How do we read this “deep sigh”? Did it come from the physical and emotional tiredness he must often have felt in his ministry? This was draining work indeed. Was there perhaps also in it that “deep sigh” at the heart of God for a universe broken by sin, sickness, disease and death. No matter how many people he healed there would always be another and another and another. While the kingdom was being announced as having come in the person of Jesus at the same time it was not then and is still not yet fully come. Everywhere around us we see the evidence of sin’s destructive power. We groan along with creation until it is delivered from the frustration to which it has been subjected because of sin. We are still waiting for that wonderful day when the glorious liberty of the sons and daughters of God will be made known and everything will be set right. But that day has not yet come. He looks to heaven and he sighs, but then, thank God, he speaks. And what he speaks is a life-giving word - Ephphatha! (“Be opened!”). At this, the man's ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. As simple as that - “be opened” and it was done.

In both of these stories we see that Jesus’ love and compassion reaches out to all people regardless of whether they are identified with the covenant community of God’s people. It’s not that there is no difference between those who are in the church and those who are not. But the difference does not lie in God’s unwillingness to bless people who are still to come to faith in him, or who have a kind of faith we might find difficult to see. In any case, we should not hesitate to bring to Jesus, both in our prayers, and as we are able, in our witness face to face with their Saviour. We can’t say, “They are not Christians; they wouldn’t be interested.” God is interested in them.

"The biblical scholar and homiletician, Fred Craddock, tells the story of a missionary sent to preach the gospel in India near the end of World War II. After many months the time came for a furlough back home. His church wired him the money to book passage on a steamer but when he got to the port city he discovered a boat load of Jews had just been allowed to land temporarily. These were the days when European Jews were sailing all over the world literally looking for a place to live, and these particular Jews were now staying in attics and warehouses and basements all over that port city. It happened to be Christmas, and on Christmas morning, this missionary went to one of the attics where scores of Jews were staying. He walked in and said, "Merry Christmas." The people looked at him as if he were crazy and responded, "We're Jews." "I know that," said the missionary, " What would you like for Christmas?" In utter amazement the Jews responded, "Why, we'd like pastries, good pastries like the ones we used to have in Germany." So the missionary went out and used the money for his ticket home to buy pastries for all the Jews he could find staying in the port. Of course, then he had to wire home asking for more money to book his passage back to the States. As you might expect, his superiors wired back asking what happened to the money they had already sent. He wired that he had used it to buy Christmas pastries for some Jews. His superiors wired back, "Why did you do that? They don't even believe in Jesus." He wired back: "Yes, but I do."(Dirk Ficca, “The Look On His Face.")

If we believe in Jesus we will have a similar generosity toward people that crosses racial, ethnic, and religious boundaries. Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone about his healings but the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” Why Jesus does not want people to tell others about him is uncertain. Perhaps he wanted to wait for the right time before making his Messianic identity public. One thing’s for sure, though. He has not sworn us to secrecy, but has done exactly the opposite - commissioned us to preach the good news.

Pray for those you love who are in need. Don’t give up on them. Argue with God. Don’t be easily put off if he delays his answer. Be like that stubborn Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30 whose love for her daughter was so great that she took desperate measures to get help for her - talking back to Jesus until she got the help she needed. As you are given opportunity introduce people to Jesus as the friends of the deaf mute man did. Have the same confidence that they did when overwhelmed with amazement they declared, “He has done everything well.”

Jesus’ love goes behind enemy territory into the camp of sinners and he touches them and heals them and brings them into his family. We are called to follow him outside the camp, to go with him behind enemy lines, to risk the shame of identifying with those who do not yet know him, so that they will have a better chance of finding out who he is. They may not yet believe in Jesus, that is true. But we do, and because we do, we can never give up on anyone.

If you liked this post you might also enjoy Love Behind Enemy Lines (1)

Monday, September 18, 2006

Door to Another World

Our church is undergoing remodelling at the moment. A couple of weeks ago Christop visited and took this great photo. I wasn't sure what it evoked in me. Hopefully not "this church is a door to nowhere" or "we serve free bricks." Christop assures me had something else in mind. "I was thinking more along the lines of a gateway to a different kind of world. Or the idea that the church isn't dependant on buildings."

Friday, September 15, 2006

Love Behind Enemy Lines

Mark 7:24-37

In the story of Jesus' encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman and the story of a deaf man from the pagan region of the Decapolis that follows it, we have examples of Jesus’ love going behind enemy lines into pagan territory and reaching the foreigners beyond the boundaries of Israel.

Jesus treats the Syro-Phoenician woman quite rudely and there seems no getting around that fact. This is even clearer in Matthew’s version (15:21-28). Mark doesn’t tell us exactly what the woman said when she made her request but Matthew tells us that she cried out “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly” and that when Jesus heard this he “did not answer a word.” So the first thing he does is ignore her.

The next thing he seems to do is disqualify her whole race from receiving the benefit of his ministry. When the disciples urge him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us,” Jesus seems to disqualify her whole race when he answers “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

He has ignored her; he has racially slurred her; and now he just comes right out and calls her a dog. Matthew tells us she knelt before him (Mark says she begged him) and cried out “Lord, help me!” and he replied, “It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs.”

The amazing thing is that none of this deterred her. She just flat out contradicts Jesus in Matthew’s account when she says. “Yes it is, Lord. Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table.” What incredible tenacity! What holy stubbornness! What great faith! And this last thing is what Jesus ultimately commends her for. Jesus said to her, in Matthew‘s account, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour. Her faith was in her answer as Mark’s account makes clear, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Do you really think Jesus was rude and uncaring toward this woman and that he needed to be convinced of her plight before he would have mercy on her and her daughter? Of course not. This woman was driven by love for her daughter. Sure she was a Syrian - a Syro-Phoenician - a Gentile dog, but Jesus knew that a pagan mother’s tears over her tormented daughter were seen by God just as surely as the tears of a Jewish mother. “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” That cry went up to the ears of a merciful God and was answered.

The deaths of Islamic children in southern Lebanon are as painful to the father heart of God as the deaths of Jewish children in northern Israel. God doesn‘t take sides in politics. He’s not half so interested in whether Israel has a right to defend its borders or Hizzbolah has a right to exist in Lebanon. He sits in the heavens and laughs at the schemes of men but he weeps at the blood of children and the tears of mothers. Larry Huch, a Texas pastor and a regional director of Christians United for Israel, was recently defending Israel's right to self-defence at a rally in Washington, DC. In his speech he said, “We will not turn the other cheek.” What the…? Run that by me again. “We will not turn the other cheek?” Now we all feel that way sometimes - that the teachings of Jesus are hard or even impossible to obey, but to come right out as a minister of the Christian church and say it? “We will not turn the other cheek; We will not obey the teachings of Jesus. We will no longer see the Sermon on the Mount as our code of conduct or even as our ideal.” Now hopefully Pastor Larry said this in an unguarded and unconsidered moment caught up in a flush of political rhetoric, engaging his mouth before his brain was in gear. But this is what happens when the racial or political definition of a person makes their blood more excusable to spill. Makes their mother’s tears less keenly felt because they are our enemy’s tears. Makes their father’s deaths more acceptable because after all he was a terrorist and deserved to die.

Jesus was not rejecting this woman or her race, though he seemed to be at first. He was a master psychologist. He knew how to bring out the best in a person’s faith. He strung her along for awhile so that she could exercise her faith and demonstrate the earnestness of her request. Might he sometimes do the same for us? We pray and he seems to ignore us. We plead and his silence seems like an insult to us. We intercede for our loved ones and the heavens seems shut up like brass. What do we do? Go away dejected? Nurse a grudge against him? Or are we like this woman? Insistent. Not easily dismissed. Worrying the Lord night and day until he gives us what we want for those we love. Do we have in our prayers the honesty and the courage and the integrity to contradict God, not to take “no” for an answer? When Jesus seems to say to us as he said to this woman, “It is not right…” do we just give in and say, “oh well that’s it then“ ? Or do we say as she said, “Yes it is Lord. Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table.” OK I’m a dog; I’m unclean; I know I’m a stranger to the covenants and promises of Israel. I know all that. But I’m a mother and I have a sick child, and I will take whatever crumbs you toss my way to see her get well again.

Our dog Ami sometimes jumps up on a chair while we are eating dinner and looks longingly at what we are eating hoping for a handout. She closes her eyes, as if in closing her eyes we won’t notice she’s there. This is her passive approach. But if that doesn’t work and she’s particularly hungry and what we are eating is meat-based, she may adopt her more aggressive style which is to utter a little growl that says “gimme food” and make a little snapping motion with her mouth as if to say “…and stick it in ’ere!” Of course she runs a big risk in adopting this more aggressive approach, because while we may be willing to accept her presence at the table with her eyes closed she is very likely to be roused on and sent away if she tries this more aggressive stance. But if she’s hungry enough it’s a risk she’s prepared to take. This Syro-Phoenician woman seems to have a similar strategy and to run a similar risk. She approaches Jesus and calls out for mercy but when he seems to ignore her and dismiss her she gets more insistent. When he says, “It is not right to feed the children’s food to the dogs” she growls back and snaps out, “Yes it is. For even the dogs eat the food that falls from the table.” Jesus sees great faith behind her aggressive petition and her strategy pays off.

When this woman went home she found the demon had left her daughter and she was once again in her right mind. And it was all because of the compassion of a loving God and the insistence of her faith against all the odds that she would be heard. Lord give us such faith!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water

The worst film I have seen this year, hands down, is M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water In fact each of his films after a great start with The Sixth Sense was a little less accomplished than the previous one. The only good thing about the film is Paul Giamatti who is a great actor and does his best with the poor material he has to work with. Shyamalan needs to give up this whole "Writer-director-auteur-cameo filling player of all instruments in the band" thing and hire a decent writer. He has to put some distance between his own undisciplined vision and the final product. If he has minders and advisers he sure isn't listening to them. The dialogue is indulgent and stupid new age psychobabble crap (boy I really did hate it didn't I?) It's a bedtime story he made up for his kids and on that level maybe it works but if I'm going to shell out my hard earned dollar (OK the Boy Wonder paid on this occasion but you get the point) I want a better story than "a water person came to the earth people to save the world but the big bad wolves with grass for fur ("scrunts" - almost a very bad word indeed) tried to kill her so all the people in the apartment got together to save her, then the big eagle came swooping down from the sky and the earth and water people could now live in harmony again. " Puh-lease! When he is told this mythical story the main character shows no incredulity at all, buys the whole scenario and when he passes the story on to everybody else in the building they show a similar and totally unrealistic propensity to just accept the whole far-fetched story without question. OK all fantasy films are far-fetched - no problem there, but there need to be real world characters who find the fantastic elements of the story at least somewhat difficult to believe, in order to provide a sense of authenticity to the narrative. In previous films the director has written himself into relatively unobtrusive cameos. This time he has a major role - no less than a misunderstood writer who will write a book that others will read which will change the course of human destiny. Such humility! And he's not even a very good actor. I have enjoyed all of his films until now. For awhile I thought maybe he could have been this generation's Hitchcock but now the wheels have fallen off all of that. Ironically, he takes himself far too seriously to be considered seriously any more. And what's with those monkey things that turn up at the end to chase the scrunt away? Simian versions of the lupine scrunt they look like something the intern cooked up playing around with the digital software when everybody was out of the studio getting krispy kremes. Okay I'm finishing this post before I lose my last trace of composure.

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

"What the...?" of the Week

"We will not turn the other cheek." - Larry Huch, Texas pastor and a regional director of Christians United for Israel, defending Israel's right to self-defence at a rally in Washington, DC.


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