This world has decided that every disagreement between people has to escalate and end with division. We’ve lost the art of conversation, overpowering it with the art of debate. We yell our opinions, take sides, and fight over everything. While social media by no means began this behavior, it has certainly exacerbated it until the great crime of our times is to not choose a side on every topic.
Currently in the ECC, that topic is homosexuality. Though it seems to be an old argument as far as the society around us is concerned, for the ECC it is the current issue and threatens to split the denomination in ways that arguments over atonement, baptism, worship styles, and women in ministry didn’t. As always in our society, the ends of the spectrum of beliefs on this issue are building battlements and shouting insults at the other side, while the majority of people in the middle become collateral damage.
Today’s text has something important to say to those sides. While Joshua contemplated the battle ahead, God’s chosen people vs. the city of Jericho, he is met by The Lord. And his first question is the same one we all are asking when we ponder this debate over homosexuality, or any debate within churches. “God, whose side are you on? Are you for us or for our enemies?” Hear the answer from God loud and clear, people.
Neither? How can God be on neither side of this debate? How can God not be won the side of those who follow His laws and obey His word? How can God not be on the side of those who humbly welcome and love people the rest of the church wants to judge? How can God be on neither side?
Because God is not on sides and in fact hates the division that “side” language causes. God is in unity, and humility, and dialogues, and learning, and loving, and obedience, and peace. To think that God in on one side and yet there are still two sides is to doubt the very power of God.
If you want to be “with God” on this or any other issue, then you need to stop trying to defeat the other side and instead love them, pray for them, listen to them, and allow them to follow God obediently in their own way. When we can stop trying to control the debate, then we can let God be in control of it.
It is an interesting thing that even today we are dealing with the fact that existent manuscripts of the gospels are different. Not in important or faith-destroying ways, but different nonetheless. Today, we find that the earliest manuscripts of Mark end with women leaving the tomb terrified. No Jesus, no Doubting Thomas, no road to Emmaus. Just three terrified women running from an empty tomb.
But somewhere along the way, someone added, or found, more of the story. Jesus, the Resurrected Jesus, appearing to Mary Magdalene, then to the Eleven and scolding them for not believing Mary Magdalene. Then the Ascension and the disciples’ ministries of signs and wonders. All of this added on to this odd ending Mark’s earliest manuscripts give us. Three terrified women running form an empty tomb.
It is an interesting juxtaposition reading this odd ending in Mark and the first chapters of Joshua. What begins with, “Be strong and courageous as you lead my people into the Promised Land” concludes with three terrified women running from an empty tomb. So which are you today? In the midst of all of your doubts and revelations, your calling and your walk with Jesus, are you “being strong and courageous” or are you running terrified? Are you entering a new task or running from a terrifying revelation of Jesus’ power? Whichever you find yourself in today, know that God is with you. Whether you are attacking a new phase in ministry or life, or fearfully avoiding what God is calling you to, God is with you and will be with you. And it is His “with-ness” that allows us to carry on. So carry on with God.
Mark names for us three women standing vigil as Jesus died, from a distance watching over the cross. These were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and Salome. We know that Jesus’ mother was there from other gospel accounts as well and Mark mentions many other women who had come up with Him to Jerusalem as well. This gathering of women take the role of Jesus’ caretakers as they had during His life and ministry, literally from the very beginning.
Mary, mother of Jesus: What was it like to raise the Messiah know Him to be the Messiah and what’s more, the Son of God? What was discipline like, for child-like disobedience isn’t always sin? What was it to help Jesus through His awkward adolescence? And then to watch with pride as the crowds followed, and with anger as the elders tried to tear Him down? What went through her mind as she watched at the cross? “Blessed are you among women,” the angel had said. I wonder if Mary doubted that, this woman who’s very name meant, “bitter”.
Mary Magdalene: When Jesus cast 7 demons out of this Jewish woman, she devoted her life to Him in thanks. She is mentioned 12 times in the gospels, more than most of the other disciples. She stands at the cross, and we know she will weep in the garden as she encounters the risen Christ. Our oversexualized culture will try to make a lover out of her, but that is a cruel twisting for a woman who’s very name meant “bitter” due to her lot in life as a poor girl in a culture ruled by Roman soldiers with wandering eyes and hands.
Mary the mother of James the Lesser and Joseph: With her husband Alphaeus, this Mary supported Jesus during His ministry and gave up her son to be an Apostle. We know little else, yet this quiet, unobtrusive woman, yet again named “bitter”, was given the place of privilege to bear witness to the end of sin’s power.
Salome: With a name that means “shalom” or “peace”, Salome is assumed to be the wife of Zebedee and the mother of James and John, the “sons of thunder”. Salome and Zebedee raised their boys to be fishermen, and then sent them off without a word to follow this new Rabbi who eventually would prove Himself to be the Messiah. With her request to allow her sons to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand, we find a woman seeking a better life for her boys, and a woman of faith who stuck with Jesus to the end.
Loyal and humble, caretakers and witnesses, “bitter” and “peace”, these woman stand vigil, watching as the disciples couldn’t, and bearing witness to the source of our faith, the death and ultimately the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The blessings pronounced from Mt. Gerizim and the curses pronounced from Mt. Ebal would make a pretty impressive impetus for obedience. A few chapters ago we hear Moses command the people to divide in half, with 6 tribes standing on the lush and fruitful Mt. Gerizim and pronounce the blessings God has promised for those who are obedient to Him, and 6 tribes standing on bleak and barren Mt. Ebal and pronounce the curses God has promised for those who are disobedient. The Levites were to stand in the valley between them and shout “Amen!” for each of the blessings and each of the curses: “So let it be!”
I sometimes think following God would be so much easier if we were to see those blessings shower down upon us when we are obedient and the curses shower down when we are disobedient. So often I find disobedience in my life unpunished and obedience met with difficulty. And in those times, I long for the motivation of Gerizim and Ebal.
But in reality, were that to happen, we might live more obediently to God’s law, but we would do so out of selfish ambition or self-preservation, not out of love for God Himself. We’d obey because it would get us blessed, and we would avoid disobeying because the pain of the curses wouldn’t be worth it.
When my children were young, I knew I could get them to do what I asked with a simple show of force. “You put your pants back on or it’s a time out in your room!” But this didn’t teach them the value of what I was trying to teach them, and the obedience seldom lasted long. Instead, if they saw that I loved them even when I didn’t get them a new toy, and if they saw me comforting them when their bad decisions had caused real pain, or even when their bad decisions didn’t lead to anything bad at all, it was then that they learned obedience. In the midst of that obedience, love.
I wonder if God thought the same thing.
“But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer.”
In a victimization society, a person’s rights are of paramount importance. When we focus on those who have faced victimization, oppression, and individual or systemic marginalizing, public opinion will excessively side with the victimized. Given that the alternative is society siding with unjust power structures, this may be the best we can do. Today we see this elevation of the oppressed through movements like Black Lives Matter, MeToo, and a variety of LGBTQ-supportive movements. We also see it in modern media, which Walt Mueller calls “both map and mirror” of our society, reflecting it and yet guiding it simultaneously.
This means that we focus a lot in making sure we are given “our rights”. Whatever we feel we deserve, we will fight for. This is different than many cultures around the world where people recognize that they won’t get their due and so learn to live with it.
But Jesus takes a different stance at His trial. He neither fights for His rights nor succumbs glumly to being oppressed. Instead, Jesus remains silent. He has every right to stand up for Himself at His trial. Though the charges against Him are accurate – He did call Himself God which was punishable by death for any human – they fall apart when we consider that He was telling the truth! With the crowds on His side and holding the power elite in check with their numbers again and again, Jesus could have stood for Himself and argued His right to say what He did. He could also have raised a riot from the crowd – remember, these are Jews oppressed by their Roman overseers, marginalized to the point of revolt and upheaval – proclaiming oppression from the Jewish leaders or even the Romans. But instead, Jesus stood silent.
This is not a winning tactic in our society, nor was it in His. But it was the will of God for Him, and so He obeyed. This poor Jewish carpenter turned Rabbi, oppressed by the Romans and the Jewish elite, gave Himself to be the Passover Lamb for us all while not admitting to crimes He had not committed. For Jesus, silence was the right response to His own oppression. Wisdom requires a lot of prayer and thought for us about our application of this principle.
Perhaps one of the most convicting stories of human sinfulness is today’s story of Jesus in Gethsemane. As Jesus, the Son of God, the One to whom we’ve pledged not just our lives but our eternities, is wracked with terror, grief, and loneliness, his followers fall asleep. Now I’ve fallen asleep on people in my life. Late night talking with friends at a sleepover, watching a really boring movie with an old flame, even in conversation with my wife in the living room. And I’ve fallen asleep on Jesus before. It used to be that my prayer time each day was before bed, until I realized that I regularly fell asleep in the middle of my prayer, my conversation with Jesus. Someone comforted me with the idea that parents love it when kids fall asleep in their arms. But I could never get over this story.
We argue about what is sin and what isn’t all the time. Is homosexuality a sin? Is drinking a sin? Is having wealth a sin? But we seldom argue about the smaller things that can still be sinful. Is falling asleep on God a sin? Was falling asleep on Jesus in the garden sinful? I guess we have to ask what sin is.
“Sin is all in thought, word, and deed contrary to the will of God,” we recite in Confirmation. Prof. Neill Plantinga defines sin as “anything that is not the way it’s supposed to be”. If something is not fulfilling it’s original purpose as determined by God, then it is sinful. This is an awfully wide span of what is sinful and what isn’t. Sometimes we get worried or touchy about placing so much, even falling asleep, in the sin category. But while the span of sin is large, the good news is that the span of grace is even larger! To hold such a vast view of sin requires us to hold an even vaster view of grace, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be!
“…when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover Lamb…”
Mark makes no bones about what Jesus is about to do. He has told us numerous times from Jesus’ own mouth that He is about to die, to be killed in fact, but also to rise again. And here, he tells us why.
On the night of the first Passover, the Jews were huddling in Egypt in their homes awaiting the final plague of God. He had turned the Nile River to blood, brought flies, gnats, locust, boils, and frogs to cover the land, the land of the Egyptians had been in complete darkness (though not the land of the Israelites) and now came the last and worst plague of all. Since the firstborn son carried on the family name, got the inheritance, and ascended the throne, this final plague in essence wiped out the future of the entire nation of Egypt. With the death of the firstborn sons, the plagues were complete, Pharaoh’s heart was finally broken of its hardness, and God’s people were free.
But the angel of death sent for the firstborn of Egypt didn’t distinguish between Egyptian and Israelite. So God gave them a way out. A perfect, spotless lamb was to die, to be killed in fact, and it’s blood put on the side posts and top of the door of every Israelite home. When the angel of death saw the blood, it would pass over that house, not killing the firstborn. Hence, the practice and remembrance of the Passover Lamb was born. A perfect, spotless lamb was sacrificed so that it’s blood would rescue the family from death.
And so, thousands of years later, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover Lamb in remembrance of God’s salvation from death in Egypt, Jesus shared the bread and wine, the body and blood of the Lamb, with His disciples. And through His sacrifice, His blood rescued them all from death. And that blood still rescues us from death today. For those who put their faith, their trust, in Jesus, death is averted and eternal life begins. Will you let Jesus be your Passover Lamb?
Waiting is hard, and waiting a long time is harder. As a kid, waiting for Christmas was always hard, as proven by the fact that most of our teachers seemed to just give up the week before Christmas break and show movies. They knew none of us had the attention for a lesson when we were waiting for Christmas to come. Today, waiting for the weekend, or a day off, or even a paycheck can be hard.
If waiting for a week for the weekend is hard, and waiting for two weeks for a much-needed paycheck is harder, imagine how hard it is on us that we have waited 2000 years for Christ’s return! For a very long time people were sitting outside on hilltops watching the sky and waiting for Jesus. This is what prompted the Apostle Paul to command Christians to get to work and do something rather than spending all day sitting on a hill waiting for Jesus and all night mooching off of family and friends for food and a bed.
Eventually, people gave up watching the sky and got back to business as usual, but with the assurance that He would return soon. Then it became a theological dogma that Christ would return, and everyone believed it would be during their lifetime, just not this week. And eventually we came along, the first generation to NOT believe that Christ was returning in our lifetimes.
So today we proclaim that Christ is coming again, but we don’t believe we’ll see it. We raise our hands in despair at the world around us and cry, “come, Lord Jesus!” but it’s not a prayer we believe will be answered on the spot. So what do we do with teachings like this from Jesus, who says, “wait expectantly”? Waiting is hard, and long waiting is harder.
The bad news is that we must be disciplines to continue waiting expectantly regardless of how we feel or even believe. The good news is that Jesus has promised His return, and when He does return, He will bring redemption with Him. We will see this world redeemed into the New Earth of Revelation.
And I for one can’t wait.
I don’t find preaching to be an onerous or nerve-wracking task. In high school, I quickly got involved in drama and music, and found even there God preparing me for a life in front of crowds. And while I take the prophetic role of the preacher seriously, I’ve seldom truly been afraid of it.
Early on in my career, I read this passage we just read today. And for the first time, the prophetic role asserted it’s gravity in my life. Prophets bring God’s message to the people, as opposed to the Priest who brings the people’s needs to God. But Moses warns against false prophets, those who speak for God without God’s permission. These prophets are to be killed. Wait, what? Killed? For a bad sermon? Um…..
And how would the people determine whether the message was from God? If it came true, of course. Now, today’s prophetic speakers know if a message comes from God because we have His Word, the bible. True preachers simply lay out God’s word, not adding their own opinion or subtracting anything God has given in it. But in the Old Testament, they didn’t have the Bible, and so these Prophets were their only direct communication from God. So if they speak for God and it doesn’t come true, then they are not speaking for God. And they die.
I, being a speaker, put myself immediately into the shoes of the prophet. Here I am, minding my own business, when suddenly God shows up and says, “Tell my people…” Now I have a decision to make. If I do, I’m literally putting my life in God’s hands. If He changes His mind, or waits too long to fulfill the prophecy, I die. If what I hear is a bad dream, the advice of another person, or even a demonic message disguised as God, I die.
So how do we know when a message comes from God? How do we discern a preacher’s prophecy? Well, we can wait to see if it comes true, or, as Jesus says, we can know the voice of our Shepherd well enough to know when the voice is from someone else. But that takes a long time of listening to His voice, a lot of prayer, and a lot of wisdom.
Following God is serious business. Today we read about ultimate consequences for those who lead others away from God. Death comes to those who worship other gods, and to those who lead others to join them. Following God is literally a matter of life and death in this passage.
We hear all the time from people that a God of love would never command His people to kill someone just for breaking one of His laws or having a different opinion (usually stated as “thinking for themselves”). Two things about this line of thought. First, it passes judgement on a society not our own, distant from us in both time and space. Things were different back then. And things still are different in the Middle East. We cannot pass judgement on a time and place this far removed from our own. Second, it contains a philosophy that has been killing the church for centuries, namely that following God isn’t that important. It’s not a matter of life and death, but of opinion. We can think differently and it’s ok. God just wants an hour or two of your time each week, a prayer before bed or before meals, and the rest is up to you.
Few in their right minds advocate today for a death penalty for religious tolerance. But taken too far, this belief that God isn’t all that important leads us to sleeping through church, having only a “private faith”, or living out our faith only when we don’t need to be at work, with family, at the game, or in bed napping.
God matters. In fact, God is truly the most important part of our lives, for only through Jesus Christ can we find truth, hope, and eternal purpose in this life and the next. What could possibly be more important than that?