Sunday, October 8, 2006

Eighteenth Sunday in Pentecost
Genesis 2:18-24
Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? Or the son of man, that thou visitest him?

Christians describe their relationship with God in many different ways. For some, the relationship is like a friendship – Jesus is their friend, they talk to God as if He is a friend. Jesus is brother for many. For others, it is more like a parent and child relationship, God as Father and they are the child. For yet others, the relationship is like Creator and creature, Shepherd and sheep, Teacher and student, Master and servant, Pilot and co-pilot, CEO and employee. Ok, so pilot and CEO aren’t found in the Bible, but there are biblical references for many different types of relationships between God and His people. One analogy that is widely used throughout the scriptures is the picture of God as the husband and God’s people, and later the Church, as His helpmate.

In this week’s Old Testament lesson, we see the first images of this type of relationship. The story is set ‘in the beginning’ before history, before the fall, before the story of God was lived out among His people. There, in the garden, stood a man. Though God and the man could certainly live peaceably together, God knew that man needed another – a helpmate. He brought the animals he had formed before the man, who named each one. Whatever word the man said was the name the animal would be called. This act of naming gave the man a position of authority over the animals, but also of great responsibility. He would rule over them and care for them, just as God ruled over the man and cared for him.

It is amazing to look at all the creatures that God has created, some which are simple, others are very complex. Some are big, some are small, some are fast and some are slow. Some are quiet, some are very loud. Man is not ‘best’ at anything. He is not the fastest animal, or the strongest animal, or even the most dangerous animal. He is not the biggest or the smallest. Two things can be said about man. He is the most intelligent, though in many cases it is hard to see that in the actions of human beings. Even more important than the intelligence is that man was created in the image of God.

There are people in this world that would love to spend all their time among the animals, ignoring the companionship of other human beings. Animals are trustworthy, even if they are dangerous. At least you know a crocodile might bite you. You can’t be so sure of human beings. Intelligence can be abused, leading a man to lie, cheat, steal, manipulate and abuse those around him. The word “man” is used in the most general sense, meaning all human beings. Certainly women can be manipulative, too.

Yet, despite the fact that there are people who would rather be with an animal, God realized that none of the animals were suitable to be a helpmate for the man. A dog can be great company, a mule can carry a load, a bull can pull a plow and a goat can give milk. But none of these animals could give man what he needed to be complete. None could be a suitable companion. He could not create community with the animals.

So, God created for man a helper, a helpmate, a partner. God caused the man to sleep and He took a rib from his side. Out of the rib He created woman, named such because she was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. She was a reflection of man, just as man was a reflection of God. When God put man and woman together, He created community. He built a new relationship, one that was between people. This relationship would later stand as the example of what God intended for the relationship between Himself and His people.

Notice in this story that we see that the first human relationship is not one of mother and child, teacher and student, master and servant. The first human relationship is one between husband and wife. This is a vital relationship, the foundation of community. This was also a permanent relationship. It was meant to be lasting, even eternal. They were once two, and they were bonded into one. As the scripture says, “They became one flesh.” This is not simply a reference to the sexual act found in marriage. They complete one another in flesh and in spirit. They make one another whole. Then they make offspring – truly one flesh brought together by two beings. They make one community, the joining of two families into one. The joining of man and woman brings together two and establishes them as one.

This does not mean that husband and wife is the only type of relationship, but it is the first and it is a most important relationship. It is also the one relationship that God establishes as permanent. Even the parent and child relationship is temporary, since the man and woman leave their homes to create one home and children. A teacher and student relationship is temporary; as the student grows they may even become the teacher. A master does not hold on to power forever. But a husband and wife are one flesh forever.

This is why God uses the example of the husband and wife to describe His relationship with His people and the Church. That relationship is not temporary. The Church will never become a teacher over God. She will never be master. We try to be in charge, to define the will and purpose of God, to establish the boundaries and the rules around which God, and Jesus, will work. For the past few weeks we have seen the disciples trying to lead Jesus, to tell Him what He should do. With Peter rebuke Jesus over the talk of the cross, the disciples trying to establish a hierarchy and John trying to control who works for the kingdom, we see a very human reaction to the relationships Jesus is forming around them. They don’t want Him to reach out beyond themselves because that threatens the hold they have. They want to hold on to the temporary relationship, ignoring the one that will be eternal.

In this week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus just reentered Judea after spending time traveling through the lands of the Gentiles. He was back amongst His people and they were waiting for Him. The Pharisees were scheming to deal with Jesus, for His ministry was already causing troubles in Jerusalem. They wanted to catch Him in some secular offense so that the Roman officials would get rid of Him for them. Herod had recently beheaded John the Baptist. Of course, it was Herod’s wife that insisted on the beheading because she was offended by his stance on Herod’s divorce. So, the Pharisees asked Jesus about the issue. “What do you say about divorce?” If Jesus upset Herod, Herod (or his wife) would see too it that there would be another beheading.

Jesus answered with a question, “What does the law say?” They answered that Moses allowed them to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her. It was probably according to this law that Herod received his own divorce. Jesus’ words here are difficult for us to deal with in this day when divorce is rampant. More than fifty percent of all marriages fail. I would suggest they fail because we have forgotten that this relationship was designed to be permanent. I know people who have walked into a marriage with the assurance that if it didn’t work they could get a divorce. There was never an eternal commitment.

The problem with this law of Moses was that the only one with any power in the relationship was the man. He could decide for whatever reason that the woman would be sent away, as well as any children that may have been created during the marriage. They were left to fend for themselves in a world that ignored and rejected women and children. While a modern single mom might be able to support her family, society did not allow such independence in Jesus’ day. Not only were they left alone and unable to support their family, but they were also unable to find another husband because they were damaged.

So, Jesus might seem very harsh in this statement, especially in light of the fact that Paul allows for marriage in certain circumstances and even Jesus gives just cause in Matthew. We might also want to reduce this passage to little more than Jesus protecting the women, but there is so much more involved. Divorce hurts not only the woman, but also the man, the children, the family and the community. Divorce takes what no man should separate and it causes division. It takes what was meant to be permanent and makes it temporary. It destroys what God has put together, taking control of the relationship out of the hands of God. It puts man about God.

This is why Jesus said it was because of hard hearts that Moses allowed the certificates. Hard hearts were not just hard against the relationship between the man and woman, but also between God and the man. If the marriage were ordained and blessed by God, then only the hard heart of someone whose relationship with God is broken. Obviously this was not a pastoral moment for Jesus. He was not dealing with a man and a woman dealing with irreconcilable differences. He was dealing with a group of men determined to undermine Jesus’ ministry. They wanted to be in control. They had hard hearts. They wanted to justify the way they’d been treating women and children and families and communities. They wanted to justify the way they had been living in relationship with God.

Would Jesus have had mercy on those who can find no other solution to their problems? Of course. Would He have offered forgiveness for the woman who had to leave an abusive situation or the man who let a non-Christian spouse out of the relationship? Of course. He would have offered comfort and peace, hope and love to those suffering in the midst of human frailty and failure. For those caught up in the scheme for ending the ministry of Jesus, He had the harsh reality of the truth. When divorce separates a family, it divides what God intends to be one, whole, complete.

Hard hearts divide an even more important relationship, however. It divides the relationship between God and His people. The Pharisees were seeking to destroy Jesus and the work He was doing for God in this world. They were divorcing themselves, in a sense, from the very One who gave them life and relationships. Their hard hearts kept them from living a whole and complete life with their own ‘husband’. It is much too easy for us to decide that we do not need to live in a relationship with God, to go our own way. It is much too easy for us to think that we are an island. If we can easily give up the human relationships that so bless us on a daily basis, how much easier it is to put aside the relationship that we have with God who seems so distant and invisible? Their rejection of Jesus certainly shows that they were far from the God of their forefathers. They were missing the very fulfillment of the words of the prophets and they were too interested in their own control to see it.

The writers of Hebrews tells us that God spoke first through the prophets and then through the Son. The Son was not simply a man, but He was the One through whom everything was created. “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. Man – Adam – was the image of God, but Jesus was more. He was the Word of God. This passage does not simply define Jesus’ divinity. It also defines His humanity. Jesus was fully divine and He was fully human. He was not only One with God, but He came to be in relationship with man as the Son of Man.

Hebrews quotes the Psalm for this week, asking the same question about God’s relationship with man. “What is man, that thou art mindful of him? Or the son of man, that thou visitest him?” The New Revised Standard Version translates this passage in the plural. “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?” This is a good question. What are we that God would care so much about us? After all, we are not much different than those Pharisees, desiring the control. We also have hard hearts, trying to justify our frailty and failings. We would turn away the outcast, the oppressed, the ignored and the rejected. We break relationships as easily as we create them, turning away from the communities that are built between two, three or more. We do not keep God in the center of these things. What are we that God is mindful of us?

Yet, the writer of Hebrews makes the connection between the Psalm and our Lord Jesus Christ. God is mindful of human beings, most especially His Son. And through the work of His Son, human beings will be crowned with the glory that He will share with us in the day of His coming again. Though there is much outside our control in this day, because sin has made this an imperfect and chaotic world, the day will come when all things that are in His control will also be ours. We are heirs, brothers and sisters to the One who is not only the Savior, but the one through whom all things were created.

We can almost imagine the Psalmist sitting on the hillside overlooking a field full of sheep and cattle, perhaps with wildflowers blooming and the sun setting in the west. In the beauty of that moment, seeing the strength of the bulls and hearing the bleating of the sheep it is easy to see that God is Creator and Sovereign over it all. Most of us have a place we like to go to be inspired and awed by the majesty of God’s creation. For some it might be the beach, for others the mountain. Wherever it is, even if it is in the bosom of family with the cry of a baby and the love of a spouse, it is good to sign praise to God for His grace.

Grace is what we see exemplified in Jesus’ actions at the end of the Gospel lesson. The children were coming to Jesus; parents were bringing them forward to be blessed by Jesus. It might have been a chaotic time, with children screaming or running loose, adults trying to keep them away. I can see why the parents might have wanted Jesus to bless their children. After all, children did not live very long in Jesus’ day. Something like sixty percent died by the time they were teenagers. If a brief touch from Jesus could heal a sick man, certainly a touch of blessing would give the children life.

However, the disciples weren’t interested in meeting the needs of the children. They spoke sternly to the parents. This is another example of how the disciples could not see the Kingdom, they were looking in the wrong faces or at the wrong situations. They did not see the Kingdom in the faces of those children because the children were annoying and unimportant, perhaps even invisible to them.

But Jesus answered them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” They are the heirs. They are the ones whose hearts have not yet gone hard. They don’t want control, they want love. They don’t need to be in charge, they just want to be with Jesus. By telling the children to go away, the disciples were, once again, dividing the Kingdom. They were keeping the little ones from their love, their Jesus.

God desires for us to be in relationship – with Him and with one another. He has designed His people to live in community, to care for one another. He has established no hierarchy, but rather has blessed us with one another. Whether we are young or old, male or female, we have been created in His image to reflect His love and mercy and grace. Love, mercy and grace can only be shared in relationships. While we might build up relationships with the rest of creation, there are no creatures besides other human beings that can truly meet our needs for companionship and help. This is what makes us different than the animals. It is what makes us special in His eyes. It is why He is mindful of us, so much so that He has given us His Son for our salvation.

So, He calls us to live in these relationships, keeping Him in the midst of them so that they will remain strong. He calls us into relationship with Him, to be His helpmates from now and forever. We stand with Him, caring for the world He has created, for the people whom He has given us and building the community He seeks to build into the Kingdom of God. When our hearts harden, and we lose touch with our Creator, we can easily toss away others and become an island. We can even let go of the most important union between people, the relationship that is the image of God’s love for us. This love is eternal. Thanks be to God.

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