Sunday, July 29, 2018

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 136:1-9
Ephesians 3:14-21
Mark 6:45-56

He got into the boat with them; and the wind ceased, and they were very amazed among themselves, and marveled; for they hadnít understood about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

I have been reading a pile of commentaries on the book of Revelation as I have been preparing for our Sunday school class in the fall. I wondered, as I began reading the fourth book last night, whether I was doing unnecessary work. After all, most of the authors have given similar facts about John and life in Johnís world two thousand years ago. There have been a few differences in the interpretation book, but overall they have had more in common and ultimately came to the same conclusions. I am glad I am reading so many commentaries; the repetition has helped build my knowledge and understanding of this strange and mysterious work.

Repetition helps us to learn. Children learn math through flash cards. They learn how to spell by practicing the words over and over again. They learn the dates and places of history by repeating them over and over again. Bible memorization programs use repetition to remember the verses. They recommend writing the text on a note card to carry in your pocket to take out and read while you are waiting in line. They suggest putting a sticky note on your bathroom mirror and on the front of the refrigerator. You learn that text because you read and reread it each time you look in the mirror or open the refrigerator. Eventually that text is written on your heart, not by osmosis, but by repeating it in your mind and mouth.

It appears that God wants us to learn something very important in todayís Psalm. The psalmist repeats over and over again ďfor his loving kindness endures forever.Ē Godís lovingkindness endures forever. This is a message we need to know. It needs to be written on our hearts. So as we read this psalm, we hear it over and over again. It makes sense in todayís passage that talks about Godís goodness, His good works, the goodness of the world He has created. He did all this because His loving kindness endures forever. He is God of gods and Lord of lords because His loving kindness endures forever.

Yet, it makes less sense when you look at the rest of the Psalm. The psalmist goes on to talk about smiting the first born of the Egyptians, and then smiting and slewing kings. He is telling the story of how God moved Israelís enemies and oppressors out of the way so that He could lead His people to the Promised Land, but smiting and slewing doesnít sound very loving and kind. It made me wonder what the word translated ďlovingkindnessĒ really means. Iíve learned over the years that sometimes our English translations do not do justice what the Hebrew text meant to those who first heard it.

After all, many English translations are based on the Greek translation of the Hebrew texts, the Septuagint. The word here in Hebrew was ďhesedĒ and the Greeks understood this to mean loving kindness. The word can also mean: love, kindness, unfailing love, great love, mercy, loving, kindnesses, unfailing kindness, acts of devotion, devotion, favor, approval, devout, faithful, faithfully, glory, good favor, grace, kind, kindly, loving-kindness, loyal, merciful, well. These all give us a sense of the word, but it leaves out something important. It is actually a loving loyalty based on a covenantal relationship. Godís Ďhesedí (lovingkindness) comes to us because He has established a bond between Himself and His people. When we share that Ďhesedí (lovingkindness) with others, we do so because we are in a relationship with them, but even more so because we are in a relationship with Him.

Another word that needs understanding is the one translated ďendures.Ē There is no word in the Hebrew for this; the word is added so that we will understand that this is about the ongoingness of Godís lovingkindness. It is not something that will fail, it will continue no matter what else happens. A bible scholar has retranslated the passage, ďBecause forever is His loyalty.Ē God will do what He has said He will do because He has established us as His people in a covenantal relationship. This is about Godís faithfulness to His promises. He is the God of gods, the Lord of lords. He has done good things for His people. He created the heavens and the earth, the sun and the moon. He kept His promise to Abraham by saving His people from Egypt. He delivered them into the Promised Land, just as He promised. He remembers His people, saves us from our adversaries, and provides for us. He is good and He deserves our thanks and praise. This is a matter of trust; we can trust God because forever is His loyalty. Godís lovingkindness endures forever.

It is important that we see the main purpose of Godís Word. The Psalm tells the story of God and His people, but ultimately it is about Godís faithfulness. My studies of the book of Revelation have led me to some decisions about how we will study it. Iím sure that many will want to talk about the usual things: the millennium, the mark of the beast, the frightening images of death and destruction. When we look at the book as a whole, however, we find that there are other images that are even more powerful than those that are the usual focus of the book: blessedness, worship, victory, rest, love, family, hope and peace.

It is good that we spend time studying the scriptures, because the more we know it, the more it is written on our hearts, the more it helps us through times of difficulty. As we keep Godís Word close, we keep God close and we walk more firmly in His ways. It isnít always easy. Some of the stories of God are hard to believe. They are outside our human experience. They are impossible scientifically. One many canít make a few loaves of bread and a few fish feed thousands of people.

One of the most surprising lines of scripture is found in todayís Gospel passage. Mark tells us ďtheir hearts were hardened.Ē How could they have lived and worked and walked with Jesus for so long, about two years at this point, and not believe Jesus could do miraculous things? The passage ties their hard hearts with their misunderstanding about the feeding of the five thousand. What did they believe happened on that hillside that day? Did they, like so many in todayís world, simply downplay the miracle because they could not explain it?

There are some, even in the Church, who have suggested that Jesus did not really feed more than five thousand people with just five loaves and two fish. They insist that others had food available on that hillside that day, like a modern pot luck meal that miraculously feeds everyone. In this way all were fed; they claim there is no reason to make this story supernatural in character. Perhaps the disciples had a similar mindset. It doesnít explain how they ended up with twelve full baskets of leftovers, though.

This miracle is so outside our natural experience that it isnít surprising that we moderns want to diminish the miraculous aspects of the Jesus story because we have a more thorough understanding of science and the world. Intellectually we know that five loaves and two fish cannot feed more than five thousand people. We also know that a church potluck dinner can be miraculous in the way a crowd is left stuffed and satisfied because everyone contributes to the meal, so why not believe this could be the explanation?

The trouble with this, as Mark tells us in todayís passage, is that their misunderstanding (whatever it was) of Jesusí miraculous feeding of the five thousand left them unable to believe that Jesus could do other miraculous things. They were frightened by Him when He came to them on the water. They were amazed when the winds died down after He got into the boat. They had a hard time believing the things they were experiencing with Jesus; their hearts were hardened.

We often think of hard hearts in terms of rejection, not just unbelief. Take, for example, the story of Pharaoh. His heart was hardened against the God of Moses, but not just that he didn't believe, but that his hard heart caused him to do harm to God's people. We have a hard time thinking that the disciples had hard hearts because they continued to follow Him. They didn't reject Him, they simply did not know what to believe. We have similarly hard hearts when it comes to Godís miraculous work in our lives, often finding some physical, earthly explanation for the miraculous rather than believing that God could and would do such a thing for us. In this way we are no different than those who opposed Jesus in those days, who argued against Jesusí work because it did not fit their understanding of the world.

We see Godís lovingkindness in the relationship Jesus had with His disciples. They had hard hearts, just like the Pharisees, but that didnít stop Jesus from showing them who He is. He didnít abandon them because they didnít quite understand. He continued to pull them in His wake, knowing that they would one day have the Holy Spirit to make all this clear. He continued to let them witness His power as He heals the sick.

I find it interesting that in this story the people recognized Him, and then ran throughout the region to call those who were sick into His presence. People were drawn to Him wherever He went, laying their sick in His path so that they would be healed. Many even believed that all they needed was to touch the edge of His cloak and they begged Him to let them do so. ďAnd as many as touched him were made well.Ē They seemed to believe better than Jesusí own disciples.

God does not cast us away. Jesus continued to walk with the disciples at His side, loving them even though they did not really know Him. That lovingkindness, that ďhesed,Ē is not conditional. There is nothing we can do to earn it or expect it from God. It is given freely because God made a covenant with us. He loves us and we are bound to Him because of that covenant, not because we have done anything to deserve it. He offers Himself for us to know, to love, to trust and we are called as His people to respond to His ďhesedĒ with joy and praise.

We spend many hours on Bible study, learning about God through the scriptures. We often make it so complicated, even arguing over the meaning of one passage or the application of another. There are libraries filled with books that interpret and explain the scriptures. My own library is made up of hundreds of volumes, some of which I do not quite understand because they are written at an intellectual level far greater than my brain can comprehend.

All of this intellectual discussion of the scriptures is good; it is important and vital to our growth and maturity in faith. However, it does no good if our search for truth takes us away from the simple message found in the texts. Godís lovingkindness endures forever.

We need the encouragement of this text. We are no different than human beings have been from the beginning of time. We need to hear repeatedly that God loves us. He has loved us from the Garden of Eden until the end of the world. Unfortunately, it did not take very long for us to mess things up in this beautiful world that God created. Adam and Eve failed to trust in the Word of the Lord and they were cast out of the garden. There they lived long lives, tilling the soil and working hard. They were obedient to Godís command to be fruitful and multiply. The sons they bore lived at odds with one another, until Cain murdered Abel. He became a restless wanderer, sent away from the presence of God for the evil he did to his brother.

Adam and Eve had more children, but as time passed the generations of men became more and more wicked in the sight of God. Things became so nasty that God regretted creating mankind and He decided to destroy the world. However, there was one who found favor in the eyes of God. Noah was a righteous man, a man who lived in a right relationship with God the Creator. God told Noah to build a large boat, an ark, and to fill the ark with every kind of animal. God was planning on sending a great flood to cover the entire earth, to destroy that which had become so evil and destructive. The grace in this story is found in the fact that God spared Noah, his family and the animals so that they could repopulate the earth when the floodwaters dried.

Noah obeyed Godís command, despite the absurdity of the request. After all, how can one man possibly build an ark large enough to hold so many for so long? It did not help matters that the wicked men ridiculed Noah for such a silly project. God gave Noah the strength to persevere and when the ark was finished, God helped Noah to fill it with the good things of His creation. When the time was right, God closed the doors of the ark so that Noah and his family would stay dry and safe.

Imagine what it would have been like at that time, for both the eight people on the ark as well as those who were drowning outside. After all, those screaming men and women were neighbors, friends and even family. Even though they were wicked, it must have been quite difficult to let them die without trying to help in some way. But God knew that the only way to save mankind was to begin anew. It rained for forty days and forty nights until even the highest mountains were covered with water. The waters stayed for one hundred and fifty days.

God remembered Noah and his family. He stopped the rainwater and blew across the waters. Noah sent a raven and a dove to see if the waters had receded. The raven flew back and forth until the water dried, but the dove returned. A second time Noah sent the dove it returned with an olive leaf. The third time the dove did not return. The ark came to rest on dry ground and God ordered Noah and his family to leave the ark and reestablish the earth. The animals were freed and Noah built an altar of thanksgiving to God for His mercy. He promised to never destroy the earth again. Then God established a new covenant with His people.

And though Godís people repeatedly returned to their wicked ways, generation after generation, God remained faithful to this promise He made between Himself and Noah. Future generations would remember the story of Noah, and I cannot look at a rainbow without thinking of the love and mercy of God. The rainbow reminds us of Godís lovingkindness. We deserve nothing but His wrath, yet as we wait patiently for the final fulfillment of all Godís promises at the end of days, we know that God is loyal to us now and forever.

The passage from Paulís letter to the Ephesians is a prayer for Godís people, that they who bear His name will experience the love of God fully and completely as He transforms our lives and makes us whole. In this passage, the word for love is the Greek word ďagape.Ē While there are similarities between these words, the love of God found in and through Jesus Christ is an even deeper, more permanent word. It is a word that calls us to more than trust. It calls us to a self-sacrificing love of God and neighbor. It calls us to an active life of trusting God.

We are comforted by the story of the disciples because we see that forever is Godís loyalty even when we our hearts are hardened by our inability to believe. We see the crowds flocking to Jesus, seeking His grace, but we are reminded that they did not all continue to walk with Him to the cross. It was those disciples who struggled with knowing Jesus as He is that trusted Him until the end. The disciples, that rag-tag bunch of misunderstanding misfits, may have had hard hearts in this story, but they stayed the course and followed Jesus anyway. They trusted Him long enough to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit so that they might know Jesus and experience His lovingkindness in a very real way. May we stay on that same course, trusting that He will always be lovingly loyal because we are part of His covenant people, experiencing His grace in ways that will continue to make us well.

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