Sunday, September 20, 2009

Lectionary 25
Jeremiah 11:18-20 or Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22
Psalm 54
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

But they understood not the saying, and were afraid to ask him.

The Book of Wisdom was written for Hellenized Jews in Alexandria, people torn between the life of faith and the tempting cultural life in Alexandria. It was exciting to live there, with fascinating mystery religions, cults, astrology and other interesting religious perspectives. It is better than a life of servant hood and of suffering. It is very easy to get caught up in a world full of excitement and pleasure. It is a lot better to be on top, engaged in the rule of the day, part of the crowd. They would probably have joined in the cry, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Who wouldn't want to live by this doctrine?

The faithful get persecuted in this type of society. They are the outsiders, the ones unwilling to go along with the crowd. The faithful, those who willingly submit to a life of servant hood, are seen as weak and they are inconvenient to the life the wicked want to live. They are both the doormats and the stumbling blocks in this world. The writer of the Book of Wisdom says, “He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others and his ways are strange.” It is for this very reason that the righteous become the victims of the wicked.

The Old Testament lesson is a brief personal lament by Jeremiah the prophet over the suffering he faces. It is difficult enough to face persecution when it comes from the world and from the powerful. However, Jeremiah faced a more difficult situation. His own family wanted to destroy him. He was facing persecution because He was trying to tell the people about their unfaithfulness. He had to tell them that they broke the covenant, and that they are cursed by their guilt. Despite God’s saving grace, leading them out of Egypt, they turned from Him and would suffer exile. Jeremiah was not even to pray for the people or to offer a plea for them. They’d gone too far to be saved from the consequences of their rebellion.

I bet that Jeremiah would have preferred being ignorant. I imagine he’d rather not have been called to be a prophet in the first place. Jeremiah’s words fell on unwilling ears. He was opposed on every side; even his family was against him. His words brought the wrath of the leaders on his head, but they also had the potential of destroying his family. They would suffer the wrath also. So, his family schemed to destroy him, to stop his words to protect their lives. A plot against Jeremiah would have had a positive impact on those who perpetrated it: they would have found favor with those in authority; they may have been elevated by their courageous acts against the prophet. The Lord made this conspiracy known to Jeremiah. I’m sure that Jeremiah would have preferred not having this information. Who wants to know that their family wants to destroy them or that they care more about getting ahead than caring for a loved one?

We’d rather be ignorant. Now, that does not mean we like to be stupid, or that we are anti-intellectual. We simply prefer not to know some things. We don’t want to ask the hard questions. We don’t want to know what’s going on under the surface. We don’t want to find out that the people we trust are not trustworthy. We don’t want to find out that we are wrong. We don’t want to know the truth if that truth is hard.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells the disciples, “The Son of man is delivered up into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he shall rise again.” The disciples were confused by this saying, but they did not want to know what Jesus meant. It didn’t fit into their understanding of His ministry and purpose. They thought He was the Messiah. They thought He would be king. They did not want to know that He’d have to die to accomplish His work in this world. Just like the disciples, we really don’t want to know. We want to ignore the things that are hard to hear. Just like the disciples, we are afraid to understand the things that don’t make sense.

We see in this passage that the disciples were thinking about other things: worldly things. They were concerned about power and position. They were seeking greatness. The things Jesus said along the road didn’t make sense to them because it didn’t fit into their plans. They were going to sit at the right and left hands of the king. They didn’t want to know that their ambitions were flawed. Their desires became a source for conflict. They all wanted to be on top. They all wanted to be the guy to whom Jesus turned, the one to rule alongside Him in this worldly kingdom.

Jesus showed them another way. Jesus Christ, our Lord and King, did not rule over us or pursue a position of power. He was a humble servant to His disciples, even doing the most mundane tasks such as washing the feet of His disciples. He wanted them to learn that living in God’s kingdom was not about winning, or about being in power or positions of authority. It isn’t about being part of the crowd or being involved in the attitudes or activities of the world in which they lived. Yet, the disciples never really understood that Jesus was turning their world upside down. They were still thinking as part of the Empire, even if they thought they were going to help overthrow it.

When Jesus asked what they were discussing on the road, the disciples were embarrassed to tell Him. Were they beginning to understand what Jesus was trying to share—that being part of the kingdom of God meant sacrifice and self-giving? They did not want Jesus to know that they were arguing over which one of them was most important. In similar stories, they demanded that Jesus to tell them who would be the leaders at His side. They wanted to know who would be the CEO? Who would be the General? Who would be the boss? They want to know and understand the hierarchy of the ministry. But they don’t want Jesus to know that they are asking this question.

He sat down and explained that greatness in the kingdom of heaven was not as it is in the world where the rulers seek fame, power and possessions. In the kingdom of heaven, the least are the greatest. Welcoming a little child is like welcoming God Himself, and if they want to be first they must be the last and servant of all.

We see in this story how quiet we can be when the truth is in our face but how vocal we are when we follow our own understanding and desires. They disciples do not want to understand what Jesus truly wants them to know, but they are quick to argue over their own opinions and ideas. They are silent when they face God’s wisdom but loud when discussing their own. This isn’t odd: we all have a skewed idea of what makes a truly wise person. We think in terms of flesh, earth, natural things. Jesus wants us to see something greater, something beyond ourselves.

Jeremiah probably didn’t want to hear what was happening with his family. He may not have even wanted to hear the Word of the Lord. Yet, he humbly accepted the task God put before Him. He spoke to the people despite the danger. He trusted that God would do what was right. For him, wisdom meant going against what he wanted and doing what God intended. It meant being a servant, speaking a word to a people who needed the truth. The disciples were seeking what they thought was right, ignoring God’s plan.

Our passage from James talks about wisdom. He calls us to consider our ignorance and the reasons for it. We might be afraid of the truth. Jesus and His disciples are opposites: Jesus is wisdom incarnate while the disciples were ignorant (ignoring the truth.) We often act like the disciples, but we are called to be like Jesus. We desire prestige and position like the disciples, but we are called to be like children, trusting in God’s grace and seeking His favor above the favor of the world.

James reminds us that we ask wrongly. Our prayers are self-serving and they create walls between people. We are called to live according to the wisdom of Christ rather than that of the world, the kind of wisdom that considers what is best for all—for the community, for your neighbors, for your family. In that wisdom we’ll know what it is for which we should be asking, because it will be according to the heart and wisdom of God.

David was experiencing much the same thing as Jeremiah, facing persecution and threats from people who were close to him. David was hiding among the Ziphites, which means he must have trusted them to protect him. But they were traitors. Saul knew that David was God’s intended king, but he thought that if David were dead he might be able to hold on to his reign. He relied on men like the Ziphites to betray David. David was betrayed, but he was able to lift his voice to God, crying out for salvation from his enemies. In the psalm he sings, “Save me, O God, by thy name.”

Knowing the right people can get us a better table at a fancy restaurant or it can get us free ice cream at the local grocery store. Knowing the right people can get a road fixed more quickly or it can get a child into a better school. We rely on the clout that comes from the right name when we are job hunting or when we are making a major purchase. My Dad was once able to get me a better deal on a car and a friend once got me a discount on an electronics purchase; all I needed was their name.

The name of the Lord is the manifestation of His character and accessibility to His people. We cry out to Him by His name and He hears our prayers. In the psalm we once again hear a cry for vindication. David asks God to judge him according to His own strength (the strength of God) not according to the strength of David’s life or importance. Vindication would come not because David was greater than any others. It would come because he trusted in God. Vindication comes not to the glory of God’s people, but to the glory of God.

Jesus says, “Whosoever shall receive one of such little children in my name, receiveth me: and whosoever receiveth me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me.” What we do we do not do by our own power, but because we have been given the power by the One whose name brings salvation to the world. We do what we do in His name and when we do so, we do it also to Him.

David trusts that God is his helper. In the psalm David begins with a cry for help, then a confession of trust in God, and finishes with a vow to offer thanksgiving and praise. David is confident that God will save him from his enemies. He comforts himself in the knowledge that God is faithful to His promises. That’s what it means to be wise like a child, not ignorant of the truth but trusting in God in the midst of it. When we face persecution, we too can cry out to God with our worries and fears. Like David, we can do so with the assurance that our helper God hears our cries.

The disciples did not yet understand, but then have any of us really come to fully understand what God intends for us? We still want to live in that world where we “Eat, drink and be merry,” because we know that our lives are limited. Who wants to be persecuted when going along with the crowd can be so much fun? Who wants to be a servant when there’s a chance for a position of power and authority? Perhaps we don’t really want to be ignorant, but we’d rather follow our own wisdom. James writes, “Whence come wars and whence come fightings among you?” We become involved with conflicts and disputes because we follow our cravings rather than trust in our God. We ask for the wrong things. We seek pleasure and in doing so we turn from God.

And so Jesus asks us, “What were ye reasoning on the way?” Other versions translate this “What were you arguing about on the way?” We are no different than the disciples. We still want to win. We still want to be the one at the top. We still want to be the most important one in the Kingdom of God. But Jesus says, “Whosoever shall receive one of such little children in my name, receiveth me: and whosoever receiveth me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me.” God sometimes shows us what we don’t want to know, but He promises to be with us through it. Jesus showed us the child because a child trusts without condition. Can we? Or would we rather ignore the truth?

Back to Midweek Oasis Index Page