A Moment of Decision
In Mark Chapter One, things have been going really well for Jesus. He has answered the call of God. He has weathered the temptations in the wilderness. He has begun to heal people. It's not clear just how much people understand who he is— the demons and the unclean spirits knew, but the people are unsure— but even so, as it says, "his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee." As the disciples say, in another place, "Everyone is searching for you."
Then he met a leper. A leper comes to Jesus, and asks for healing… ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ And it says, "Jesus, moved with compassion, reached out his hand and touched him and healed him."
At that point, everything changes for Jesus. He crosses a line. Someone, somewhere, who has connections, notices him. Rev Professor Bill Loader says "the life of grace must dodge between the powers." As we receive God's gifts, and bring them to others, we are always at risk of resistance and violence, from the powers opposed to God's vision for humanity. They may strike back, and this is the point where they begin to notice Jesus and push back.
It says he "could no longer go into a town openly" … and we assume it was because he was so popular. But maybe it was also because the authorities had noticed, and it was dangerous. Because…
when he does go home, in Chapter 2, the scribes are there waiting— the lawyers are on his case. It says, "6Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ "
Do you notice that it says some of the scribes were sitting there? That's not accidental. It's a cultural way of saying they were making a solemn statement… a judgement about him. They were speaking ex cathedra, from the Bishop's seat, as it were. And in their hearts: they had a deep visceral reaction against him at the centre of their being.
And all through Chapter 2, where ever he goes, scribes and Pharisees are watching and complaining, because Jesus keeps crossing the line. He forgives sins. He hangs out with the tax collectors and sinners, he doesn't fast (unlike John's disciples and Pharisees). And his disciples pluck grain in the cornfields on the Sabbath, breaking the Sabbath, but Jesus says it is allowed because he is Lord of the Sabbath.
And that brings us to Chapter 3.
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. [A man with a withered hand has all his power for life shrunken and removed from him; this is talking about his place in life, not merely his physical hand.] 2They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ 4Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent.
That silence means they knew Jesus was right. They could not disagree with him. But neither would they let God heal their hearts.
5He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.
Do you see how there is a hand stretched out again, just like in the story of the leper. (It's exactly the same words in the Greek.) The stretching out of the hands is like a package that holds all the other stuff of the stories together. In fact, in the very first thing Jesus does when he leaves the synagogue in Chapter One, is to take takes an anonymous, invisible, woman by the hand… and lift her up.
What happens when he heals the man? There is one more verse: 6The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
This is chapter 3 verse 6. Jesus' fate is sealed then, that early, because of the choices he made to be faithful to God, and to what he understood to be God's call. The religious people who had longed for him to come had rejected him. In the rest of the gospel of Mark, he only once goes back into a synagogue, and that's in his own home town. And they reject him, too! (Mark 6)
Lent begins this week, and we will reflect on the great cost to Jesus as he draws closer to Jerusalem and to his death. And upon what this might mean for us! And the church takes one Sunday, the last reading before Lent, to say that Jesus was in just the right place. He stands on the mountain top with Moses and Elijah, the great heroes of the faith. God says, "This is my son, the beloved, listen to him." God reminds us: listen to him, to Jesus.
It is the beginning of a sombre time. In Lent we consider the costs. We remind ourselves we should listen to Jesus. Not just to what he says, but to what he does. And what we see, is that all through those first two chapters, he crosses the boundaries. He reaches out to those who are not included, to those who have been rejected, to those who have been called unclean, and he makes them whole. This is our calling. We will hear it very soon in Lent (in two weeks' time) when Jesus will say to us here in Hare Street, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." Crossing the boundaries costs us.
But I want to say something else. It is because the disciples cross the boundaries with Jesus, it's because they follow him away from their familiar and settled lives, and it's because they begin to follow… that they end up on the mountain.
It's not that God would love them any the less if they had not followed.
It's not that God would have rejected them; indeed, the Pharisees will be there in heaven with us, for God rejects nobody. But the richness of life now comes because we cross the boundaries with Jesus.
And the pain… but pain will come anyway.
Someone was reflecting on wedding vows recently and about all the uncertainty of a marriage. They said, one thing about the vows is sure; in sickness. There will be sickness. There will be pain. There will be death. The only question is if we spend life in the poverty of playing it safe, in the poverty of staying within the lines, in the poverty of going with the majority or,
whether we will cross the boundaries with Jesus, and embrace the riches of life.
Think about the best of your life— did it not come from love, from giving of yourself, or the giving of others to you, despite the cost?
So this Lent, see the glory. See the cost. Do not be afraid.
This is my son deserving of Alleluias
Listen to him, come down and do for others
Go now you must leave though it terrifies you
Valleys await, and I will come down there with you
Though we cry,
“Stay here with us, we’ll raise you the perfect dwelling
Beyond compare befitting of all your glory
Stay here with us, we’ll raise you the perfect dwelling
And never leave this place,”
but heaven’s voice cries out compelling…
(At Average Transfiguration Bandcamp Nathan Schleicher - vocals, guitar, Emily Carlson - piano, vocals, Bonnie Shippling - vocals)
Andrew Prior 2017