Sunday, October 21, 2012

Pentecost Twenty-One
Isaiah 53:4-12
Psalm 91:9-16
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

I was watching one of those judge shows yesterday and the plaintiff was suing a man whose four year old daughter rain into her leg while driving a motorized scooter. The woman was injured severely with permanent scars on her ankle from the event. She was in her own driveway when it happened, and the little girl was using it to turn around, lost control and rain into the woman. The woman was suing only for the amount of her bill that was still due, having paid many of the doctor bills on her own. Unfortunately, the collection agencies were threatening to take out liens on her home because of the outstanding bills. The woman just wanted justice and her bill to be paid. She wasn’t even asking pain and suffering, which she might have expected since she had permanent damage.

The father refused to take responsibility for his child and said that he didn’t owe a penny to help the woman. She should have gotten out of the way of the child. When the judge asked if the child had been supervised he told her that his six year old son was out there with her. He had no answer for his own whereabouts and was shocked that anyone would blame him even though he was not there. Why should he have to pay? Why should it be his responsibility? The woman was there, she should have done something to avoid the accident.

The judge laughed when the man began using language that made him seem to be a victim. How could he possibly think that he was the victim in this situation? He was upset because the woman kept calling the police about his children, who continued to ride their bikes dangerously in the woman’s driveway, unsupervised. Now, we all know that kids will be kids, and we have to give them a little freedom to run and play. Perhaps it was a step too far to call the police. However, where is the line between neighborly permissiveness and practical handling of a dangerous situation? The father was never willing to restrain his children, and refused to deal with their inconsiderate actions. The woman had to do something for her own safety.

Needless to say, the man lost the lawsuit. As he left the courtroom, the man complained that he didn’t get justice, that it wasn’t his fault and that the judge refused to listen to him. He was not bothered by the damage done to the woman’s leg or her concern for both her own safety and that of the children. He wasn’t going to do anything differently. He believed his children were able to take care of themselves and they didn’t need him to watch them every minute of the day. He also had no problem with allowing such a young child to drive a motorized scooter. “She’s been driving it since she was three,” as if that would make it any better. It didn’t matter what anyone said, he was the victim and everyone else was to blame.

This is, unfortunately, the attitude of many in our world. I have a friend who is very good at blaming others for all his troubles, and we all probably know someone who does the same thing. It can get very frustrating because we can see that the lines of blame are not so neatly drawn. There are victims in this world, and we must be careful that we give them the help and comfort they need. But most people who play the blame game do so without considering their own fault in the situation. It is only when we realize our own fault and sinfulness that we can really create an opportunity for reconciliation and peace.

Isaiah sees the truth in this. We might want to blame others. We even blame God. But it is for our sins that He was wounded. In the NIV, the wording is, “we considered him stricken by God.” It is easy to do so, especially if we take the words of the psalmist to heart. How do we juxtapose the idea of a protective God who is our refuge with the reality that we will experience suffering in the world? The psalmist says that no evil will come or plague will infect us. He says that the angels will catch us if we fall. He says that we can walk on snakes and face a hungry lion and we’ll be safe.

Yes, we are meant to trust that God will protect us as we dwell in His house. But can we really expect to be saved if we jump into a lion’s den? When Satan quoted this scripture to Jesus, Jesus replied, “I will not test God.” There are those in the world throughout the ages who have taken this verse very literally and played with poisonous snakes to prove how faithful they are, but is that the kind of faith God wants from us? Does He want us to trust that He’ll protect us from our own stupidity?

The better question for this week is this: If we do something stupid in the name of faith, is God to blame when we get bitten by the snake or eaten by the lion?

But the best question is: Is God to blame for Jesus’ suffering on the cross?

We know the answer to that question: No. We are to blame. It is our sinfulness that put Jesus on the cross. “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

I have to laugh whenever I read the Gospel lesson for this week. James and John seek special privileges from Jesus, but that’s not the funny part. The funny part is the response from the other disciples. “And when the ten heard it, they began to be moved with indignation concerning James and John.” They were indignant that James and John would have the gall to ask Jesus to put them in places of honor, and yet it was not that long ago we heard them all arguing who is the greatest. Not much time had passed between these two incidents, perhaps a few days. Did they forget their own self-focus?

That’s why it is so easy for us to play the blame game: we don’t see the failure in ourselves. We are quick to notice when others fail, but we are blind to our own. Sadly, we are best able to see very clearly in others that which is wrong in our own hearts. If I see someone who is judgmental, then I’m probably judgmental myself. If I see a spec in another person’s eye, I probably have a log in my own. When we look at others it is like we are looking in a mirror, and though we do not realize it, we are seeing ourselves in them. We are so focused on everyone else’s faults that we do not see our own. We play the blame game and forget that we are one of the players.

Jesus tells them to stop seeking the power and be what they have been called to be: servants. James and John had no idea what they were asking from Jesus. Those who sit at the right and left hand of the Messiah would suffer the same fate. Jesus had already been telling them that He would suffer and die, but they were so sure that Jesus would be guarded by God. The hymn of faith that is Psalm 91 was probably often on their lips. They were learning to trust God for everything. Surely God would not allow anything to happen to Jesus!

They were repeating the same temptation that Jesus faced in the wilderness from Satan. They thought Jesus was invincible and since they were part of His kingdom, they were invincible, too. But Jesus told Satan He would not test God, and He warned the disciples not to do so either. “The ways of the world might call for you to be great, but the way of God is different. Don’t try to be like them, be like Him.” And we see the ultimate manifestation of the servant on the cross, where Jesus willingly took our sinfulness on His own shoulders and paid our debt with His life.

We can’t be Jesus. We know that. Jesus was perfect, and what He did for us was beyond the ability of any human being. We can’t die for the sake of the world. We might be able to save a life or two and we might be able to help a few people see the grace and mercy of God, but we can’t be Jesus. Neither could the priests who were given the task to offer the sacrifices for God’s people in the Temple. The atonement that Israel received at the hands of human priests was limited and temporary, but what Jesus did for you and I was permanent. The writer of the lesson from Hebrews says, “…though he was a Son, yet learned obedience by the things which he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became unto all them that obey him the author of eternal salvation…”

The promises found in the Psalm are promises that seem too good to be true, and perhaps they are. We might die if we are bitten by a snake or a lion, and I don’t think that God intends for us to jump in the cage and risk our lives to prove our faithfulness. Yet, God is truly our refuge. He will watch out for us. He will guard us. He will answer our prayers. But we must be careful that we are faithful according to God’s will, not our own. He wants us to follow Him, but unless you are Daniel, He won’t lead you into the lion’s den.

Both the Old Testament and Epistle lessons give us a very clear picture of the will and purpose of God for Jesus. He was not to be a king who would sit on a throne in Jerusalem. He was both a suffering servant and a great high priest. He was called to serve others, many others. His service would not be to rule but to die. This is the task to which He was called and sent. He would be beaten and cut down not because of anything He did wrong, but for the sake of the world. He took upon Himself our sins. As priest He presented His own body as the sacrifice for the atonement of His people. His rule would not be for a brief moment on a throne, but for all eternity.

This story is so upside down and inside out. We have a difficult time understanding why God would allow Jesus to die. We can’t grasp the purpose of His suffering. We can’t see that it was the only way, especially since we don’t really want to see that we are the ones who brought this on. We want to blame someone else, whether it is our neighbor in his or her faithlessness or whether it is God Himself. It can’t be my fault.

The scripture for today from Isaiah says, “But he was wounded for our transgressions,” and there is certainly a place to understand that Isaiah was talking to a nation. But he is speaking to you and me, too. It is up to us to put ourselves into that statement, “He was wounded for MY transgressions.” When we do this, we’ll see that the blame game does nothing to make a difference in the world. While there might be reason to call ourselves victims, we need to remember that we have caused pain in the world, too. We need Jesus as much as our neighbor.

If we see that, we realize that our job is not to pass the blame to others, but to seek God’s help in sharing the Good News so that they too can receive the healing that came at the cross. If we stop blaming our neighbors, even when they are at fault, we’ll find the grace to forgive and be reconciled with God and one another in a way that will bring real and lasting peace to our world.

I think the woman in the court show would have been forgiving and gracious if the man had simply accepted responsibility, apologized to her and promised to supervise his children better. Could she have been more aware of the children as they played in her driveway? Perhaps. Should she have called the police every time she saw them riding their bikes near her home? Probably not. Even though she was the one who was injured and suffering the impending loss of her home, she did not act like a victim. She was ready to make amends between neighbors. Unfortunately it might never happen because the man thought that he and his children were victims. He refused to accept his own failure.

We can live as victims or as faithful followers of Jesus, knowing that by His own blood He has provided all we need to forgive and to be forgiven. We need to do both. The blame game will never change the world, but God’s grace will.

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