Sunday, February 4, 2018

On Wings Like Eagles

As a native of the Philadelphia area of Pennsylvania, I want to draw your attention to our scripture reading from the prophet Isaiah on this Super Bowl Sunday,

“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles.”

Could it be a sign?! I’m sure a lot of my friends and family back home would like to think so, but…probably not! God hears the prayers of both sides for encouragement, protection, and strength to play their best, but I don’t think he takes sides in these matters.

If we want to know what God is actually saying to us through this morning’s reading, we would be better served by looking at the original context of this prophecy. Isaiah is writing to the people of Israel who were suffering in exile far from home. They wondered if God had simply given up on them, if his patience had run out, or if their enemies had simply proven too strong for him.

In response to these doubts, the prophet reminds the people of the power and greatness of God. 

In the ancient world, it seemed that every tribe and nation had their own gods and goddesses. If your tribe or nation was defeated by another, it must have meant that their god was stronger than your god.

However God—The God of Israel, the God of the Bible, our God—is  not some petty local deity. He is not just the God of Israel but the God of all the universe.

Although the strength and determination of men and women fail, although we sometimes loose heart, although even the strongest of human beings sometimes find themselves powerless before obstacles they cannot overcome, God is not like one of these. God is not a man or any other creature, but completely other than us. He is infinitely higher in strength, power, wisdom, and greatness.  There is nothing in the world that is more powerful than he is. Indeed, he is the creator and sustainer of everything that is.

Moreover, his wisdom and knowledge is not limited and partial like ours. He doesn’t forget. There isn’t anything that escapes his notice. He is all wise and all knowing. We on the other hand are anything but. Although God’s purposes may not be clear to us, although we may not understand his plan, we can be assured that God is absolutely competent, absolutely wise, and absolutely good in all of his judgments.

Because God is the creator and source of all things, because he is all powerful, everlasting, and all wise, he alone can sustain us. Our strength and our perseverance comes from him.

Some of us are all too aware of our limitations. When faced with our personal failings and weakness we too easily give up and surrender to despondency.  We despair at our ability ever to overcome.  Instead, we should look to God’s grace for the strength and power that we lack in ourselves.  Acknowledging our own weakness—the fact that our life has become unmanageable—should direct our attention to a power higher than ourselves.  The prophet exhorts us, “Lift up your eyes and see your creator.”

For some of us the problem is that we have not yet come to appreciate our weakness and limitations. We have an over inflated perception of our own ability and competence. We believe that we can manage everything on our own without the help of others. We neglect our need for rest, recuperation, and spiritual restoration. We work as if we were machines and never take the time to recharge our battery. Perhaps we believe we are too busy to pray, study our Bible, or slow down, be still, and know our God.  Unless we acknowledge that we are not God, but merely human, unless we acknowledge that we are utterly dependant on God at all times, we are bound to fall.

Jesus himself  reveals to us what it means to live a life humbly dependant on God’s sustaining power and grace.

In today’s Gospel reading we get a glimpse of  just how demanding Jesus’ ministry really was. Jesus came to town and the whole city gathered at the door. They brought to him all who were sick and all who were possessed by demons.  Could you imagine how physically and emotionally exhausting it must have been to be Jesus? Everyone wanted a piece of him.

I once read a comment from John Lennon about what it was like to be in the Beatles. Everywhere he went he was surrounded by screaming fans who wanted his autograph or even just to reach out and touch him, but that wasn’t the worst of it.  Wherever they went to perform, they would inevitably be greeted by a long line of sick or dying kids whose one wish was to meet the Beatles. How could they say no? How could they turn them away? And yet the physical exhaustion and emotional strain was almost too much for him. After all he was little more than a kid himself!

Elvis Preseley used to have to buy out an entire movie movie theater just to get some time to himself to unwind. Wherever he went fans would tear off pieces of his clothing and even break off pieces of his car!

Jesus was surrounded by the same kind of hysterical crowds, but more than that he was constantly confronted with those who were sick and desperate for healing. Our Gospel lesson tells us he cured many, but not all. There was a limit even to what Jesus could do. He inevitably needed a break. He needed to recharge.

The only way he could do that was to sneak away in the dark to a deserted place. Even then everyone was looking for him!

You may ask at this point, but isn’t Jesus God? Didn’t we just finish recounting about how God does not tire or grow weary, that he is limitless in power and might? Indeed we did.

Although Jesus was God, he became man for our sake. He accepted for himself the frailty and limitation of our human life. One of the reasons he did this was to reveal to us what a truly human life submitted to God really looks like. If even Jesus needed to rest and take time to seek the face of God, we certainly do!

“Those who wait upon God will renew their strength,  they shall mount up with wings like eagles.”

Although Jesus was the eternal son of God, he demonstrated through his humanity the source of all strength and life. He did not rely on his own power but casts himself always upon his heavenly Father. 

When we do the same, we will find ourselves lifted up from despondency and hopelessness. We will find new sources of perseverance and new strength.  We will not remain chained to our weakness or the limitations of our nature, but we will sore high above the world, the flesh, and the devil bourn up on the wings of the Spirit.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

One With Authority

Mark 1:21-28

There is something different about Jesus. There is something astonishingly different about Jesus. The things that this man says are powerful in a way that is greater than any other teaching they have heard before. He speaks with such conviction! Such certainty! All the people of the synagogue are astonished by him. Mark frustratingly doesn’t tell us what Jesus spoke, but it is enough to strike terror in the forces of evil for an unclean spirit calls out from within its host, “Have you come to destroy us?!”

With simply a command Jesus cast the spirit out of the man with a shriek. It is quite a dramatic scene. “What is this?!” the people ask. They had never seen anything like this. This was a new teaching with authority.

Every other teacher stood on some authority other than themselves. The scribes and the Pharisees stood on the authority of the law. The law itself was where the real authority lay. They received that authority as something handed on to them. Moreover that law was authoritatively interpreted by men who came before them. The scribes belonged to different schools of interpretations, different denominations if you will, built on the teaching of well-respected Rabbis. There was the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai for instance to name the two leading systems for interpreting the law in Jesus’ day.

These were two men whose interpretation of the law was considered to have authority. If as a scribe or teacher you wanted what you taught to have credibility you would say “Hillel said,” or “Shammai said.” To accept their interpretation of the law meant carrying their yoke. In general the yoke of Hillel tended to be a lot less strict and easier to follow than that of Shammai.

The people were in essence saying, “This teacher Jesus does not teach the yoke of Shammai, Hillel, or any other interpreter of the law, he is offering a whole new teaching entirely!”

There is more though. Jesus’s teaching was more unprecedented than they were even able to articulate at that moment. Hillel and Shammai were both interpreters of the law, but Jesus spoke as if he himself was greater and more authoritative than the law itself. He spoke as if he were the lawgiver himself!

A more contemporary Rabbi, Jacob Neusner gets to the heart of Jesus’ difference with every other teacher of the law. In his book, “A Rabbi Talks with Jesus” he explains in a straightforward and unapologetic way why, if he had been in the Land of Israel in the first century, he would not have joined the circle of Jesus’ disciples.

For Neusner at the heart of Judaism is the sanctification of the world through the observance of Torah. Jesus, he says, turns the focus away from Jewish Law and ritual to himself. Jesus lifts up his own word as the word of God himself, higher even than the Torah. It is true that Jesus said he did not come to abolish the Torah but to fulfill it, but this implies that his own teaching is the perfect realization of Torah, the reality to which it points, and is therefore greater. 
As a deeply committed follower of Judaism, this is simply not a claim Neusner feels he can accept.

Christians often look to our Old Testament lesson today, Deuteronomy 18, to show that even the original law giver, Moses, understood that the message that he brought was not the final an ultimate message. There was another who was to come, one greater than himself, who would be an intercessor between God and his people.
Many Jewish commentators have insisted that this prophecy was meant to refer to a succession of prophets rather than one prophet in particular. They point out that God raised up many prophets after Moses to lead his people.

In the books of Acts, however, both Saint Peter and Saint Stephen, name Jesus as this prophet like Moses who God promised to raise up after him.
God gave the law to Israel through Moses and made a covenant with his people. Every other prophet called people to obedience to the law and foretold of the coming of Christ and the promise of a new covenant.

Only Jesus fulfilled all the promises of God. He was the one not only that Moses spoke of, but all the prophets spoke of. He speaks with the very authority of God himself!
How can we be sure that the authority that Jesus claims for himself is true? One of the ways in which Jesus’ authority is demonstrated and proved is through his mighty deeds, his miracles, healings, and especially his exorcisms.

Jesus not only spoke with powerful and compelling authority, he did things that nobody else could do. He opened the eyes of the blind, he healed the sick and the crippled, and he delivered people from the powers of evil.

Where did he get these powers? How was he able to do these things? He must be from God. Jesus spoke and God listened. God powerfully confirmed Jesus’ authority through signs and wonders, through the power of the spirit. Other teachers came in the name and the authority of men, but Christ in the Holy Spirit and with divine authority.

The evil spirits recognized his authority; they shrieked and howled because they were powerless to oppose him. Some claimed that Jesus himself was acting under the power of these spirits, but as Jesus said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” He was not an ally to these demonic powers but their greatest threat.

Jesus still to this day has authority over every power that oppresses and enslaves you. He has the power and the authority to set you free.  Fall at his feet and let him break your chains. Let him prove to you in whose authority he has come.