Sunday, September 9, 2018

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10, 14-18
Mark 7:(24-30) 31-37

Praise Yah! Praise Yahweh, my soul. While I live, I will praise Yahweh. I will sing praises to my God as long as I exist.

Israel was God’s chosen people. He called Abraham out of Ur and then worked for centuries developing them into the nation He meant them to be. They failed often. They turned from God in many ways. Even when He saved them from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites wanted to go back where they would have food to eat and roofs over their heads. After years, and dozens of kings, Israel was sent into exile because they had turned once again from their God. Even so, God gives them a word of hope through Isaiah.

They were far from Jerusalem; in their minds, they were far from God, for He dwelt in the temple. They wanted freedom, but they feared the future. They still had enemies, enemies that sought their destruction. What would happen if they were released? Would they even make it home?

In Chapter 34, Isaiah spoke to them about what God had in store for Israel’s enemies. The name Edom, while a specific place, was also used for all those who opposed God’s chosen people. Isaiah wrote, “For Yahweh has a day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion.” (Isaiah 34:8) God had plans for Edom and for Israel. The day would come when there would be joy again and the glory of the LORD would be seen. Through Isaiah, God offers the weak and downhearted a word of hope. “Be strong. Don’t be afraid. Behold, your God will come with vengeance, God’s retribution. He will come and save you.” What great promise these words hold, the salvation of God is near!

Great and wonderful things will happen that day. The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will walk and the mute will shout for joy. The desolation of the wilderness will be transformed into a place of praise and beauty. You can almost hear the exiles singing today’s psalm. “Praise Yah! Praise Yahweh, my soul. While I live, I will praise Yahweh. I will sing praises to my God as long as I exist.” They were weak and afraid, but God spoke a word of hope into their lives. They were exiled, far from home, unsure about tomorrow. Would they survive? Would they ever be near the LORD their God again? Yes, God had not forsaken His people. He was coming to bring healing and peace.

Israel’s problem, for most of their relationship with God, is that they never really trusted Him to be there when they needed Him. They turned to others. The sought the aid of other nations, even Egypt. They asked for an earthly king. They tried to find salvation in God’s creation, rather than from God Himself. The psalmist reminds us that we should never put our trust in men; they cannot save. They will pass away; their plans will come to an end. But those who trust in God will be blessed, for He is faithful. Hope is found only in the Lord.

Israel was in a bad place. They felt abandoned. They had little hope. However, Isaiah spoke these words of hope into their lives, words that promised transformation. The day would come when Israel’s God would come to save them, and that day would be the most spectacular experience. God’s presence among His people would change the entire atmosphere of the desert. It would heal brokenness and restore wholeness. The time was not at that moment, they only had the promise of what was to come. However, trusting in the promise the people are called to be strong and to not have fear. They might be in a bad place for a moment, but God would not allow them to stay there forever. He was coming and He would bring change. The enemy would be punished and those who are hurting would see God’s grace.

This promise was fulfilled when God saved Israel from Babylon, but the promise also looked forward to an even better day: the day of the Messiah. This passage from Isaiah points to the reign of Jesus Christ, whose very presence brought about healing and peace. He is the living water that will nourish the perishing people who are caught in the darkness of sin and death.

The Old Testament lesson gives us a hint of what it might be like to be in the transforming presence of God. He will bring healing, freedom. He will make the blind see and the deaf hear. He will give walking legs to the lame and words to those who can’t speak. All of creation will be transformed; the world will be brighter, cleaner, and fresher. The thirsty will have cool, clear water to drink. It will be a joyous time.

Our Gospel lesson shows us the fulfillment of the promises found in Isaiah. In this passage we see two examples of people being healed. First, a mother came to Jesus and showed Him that she believed He could heal her demon possessed daughter. Then a group of friends brought a deaf and dumb man to Jesus for healing. There any mention of faith in either story, yet in their act of approaching Jesus they believed that Jesus could do something. They received the answer to their request. Jesus brought transformation; He gave them healing and wholeness.

In the first story, the woman was not a typical follower of Jesus. She was a foreigner, a pagan. She was a woman. It is unlikely that she would even have felt comfortable talking to a man, particularly a Jewish man like Jesus. Yet, she sought Him out and interrupted a well-deserved and long needed moment of solitude with her request. Jesus seems to reject and ridicule this woman. It isn’t something that we would expect from Jesus. It is shocking to us to hear Jesus refer to the woman as if she were a mangy street mutt begging for a morsel that might keep her alive.

From the woman we learn about humble boldness. She knew her place in Jesus’ world, even if Jesus did not really think of her in that way. She knelt before Him and agreed with His assessment that she was a dog. But she was bold enough to seek His grace, even if it was just the leftovers. Her words made Jesus act. He said, “For this saying, go your way. The demon has gone out of your daughter.” At first Jesus indicated that He would not do anything for the woman. Her words changed His mind. The child received the healing the mother sought. With humble boldness - a boldness that first knows our place and trusts God's mercy anyway - we can seek God’s grace even when we think there’s no chance to receive an answer. He will hear and He will be present in our circumstances and we will know the transforming power of His grace.

What about the attitude of Jesus in the second story? He followed a strange ritual, putting His fingers in the ears of the deaf man, spitting and then touching his tongue. This sounds like some sort of pagan practice; I can almost see the old witch doctor in a frightening feather mask and cape screaming some strange words at the demons causing the deafness and muted voice. Jesus healed with just a word, why the weird acts? Was Jesus reaching out to this man in a way he might understand? The same, perhaps, is true of the woman. She expected to be treated as a dog; anything else, even compassion, might have been frightening to her.

Even stranger in this story, however, is that Jesus told the man not to tell anyone about what happened. He also told the man’s friends. Yet, how can someone possibly keep silent when their tongue has been loosed? We don’t know how long the man had suffered, and I’m sure there was a million things he wanted to say. He would now be able to say thank you to his friends, I love you to his family. He would be able to hear the same words. He would be able to do business, earn a living. Jesus transformed His life. Yet, with all these wonderful things to say and hear, the most important would be praise to God for this incredible gift. When you are transformed by the presence of God, how can you remain silent?

Though Jesus repeatedly told the man to keep silent, his joy was so great he could not keep silent. Do we feel that same sort of joy? Do we receive God’s grace with such an enthusiasm that we can’t help but share it with others?

Isn’t it interesting that God’s presence would loosen the tongue of the mute so that they might sing for joy? Yet Jesus commanded the man in today’s passage not to tell anyone. No matter what He said, the man would not be silent. He could speak and the words that poured forth from his lips were songs of joy. Perhaps his voice joined those of the Israelites singing today’s Psalm, “Praise the Lord!” After living as a deaf and dumb man, unable to hear or speak, it was natural for the man to sing “Hallelujah!” His life was transformed by that strange encounter with Christ.

I’m not an expert, but in the simplest terms the electricity from a battery is created by a chemical reaction. The chemical reaction is started by the movement of electrons from the positive to the negative terminal. When the appliance is turned on, the current is allowed to move in and through the battery causing the chemical reaction that creates more electrons. If you just take a wire and hold it to both ends of a battery, you will create electricity in the wire. An appliance (load) is placed along the wire to slow down and control the electrons, using the electricity for practical purposes. If there is no path along which the electricity can run, the battery does nothing. It just sits there, lifeless.

Faith is like a battery. It is a gift from God, who places it in our hearts to transform our lives. Faith moves us to action. When we are “turned on” we can make things happen. By faith we can be God’s hands, His feet, and His mouth: His presence in this world. What happens when a battery is not used? Though a battery has a long shelf life, they do not last forever. Eventually they become useless. It is even worse if they sit too long in an appliance without being used. The batteries can become corroded and destroy the appliance. It is best to use the battery once it is installed, to make the light bright or the radio sing. The battery is useless otherwise. Isn’t it interesting that the appliances are lifeless without the battery and the battery is lifeless without the appliance? We need faith to accomplish God’s will and God installs faith into our hearts so that we will be His hands, feet and mouth. James writes, “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself.” Just like a battery.

Mark tells us that the more Jesus ordered the people to be silent, the more loudly they proclaimed God’s glory. They sang praise to God and they told everyone about the good things Jesus could do. They were so amazed and said, “He has done all things well. He makes even the deaf hear, and the mute speak!” This brings us back to the Old Testament prophecy from Isaiah. Jesus was, even from the beginning of His ministry, fulfilling the very things that were promised of the One who would restore Israel. And we see in the story of the Syrophoenician woman that Jesus’ power was not limited to Israel. Jesus would restore all people to God. Our faith makes us part of that salvation story: first as recipients and then as God’s hands sharing His grace with others, no matter who they are.

Faith does not justify sin. Faith admits our sinfulness and trusts in God's mercy. Faith recognizes that we are sinners in need of a Savior and that Jesus Christ is the one who has saved us. We might be able to point to a good life, but there are truly none of us who are good. Our good works will never save us, but James asks, “Do we have faith if we do not live as God has called us to live?” Do we have faith if we justify our sin? Do we have faith if we treat people according to what we see on the outside? Do we have faith if we seek what is best for ourselves rather than doing that which God has called us to do?

When James asks “Can faith save you?” in relation to the good works he is describing, he isn’t suggesting that good works will save a person. What he is saying is that those who are saved, who live in the faith that comes from grace, will have the same mercy on those whom they see that need to be saved. When we see someone who is hungry or naked, we’ll offer them what they need. It is not enough to wish them well in their hunger and nakedness. James writes, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man says he has faith, but has no works? Can faith save him? And if a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you tells them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled’; and yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs, what good is it?”

Faith without works is a dead faith, not a living faith. Just as the God who comes to save us does so in an active and powerful way, so too we are sent into the world to be God’s hands and share His grace with others. Isaiah talks about the work God is going to do in the world. The eyes of the blind will be open, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame shall leap like a dear and the tongue of the speechless will sing for joy. God will take those who can’t do things and make them people who can. Faith calls for action: seeing, hearing, leaping and singing! Faith is about praising God for His mercy and grace. And then it is about going out into the world to help others see, hear, leap and sing. God gives us the faith and in that faith we do.

We learn from the time we are very small children about the Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” There is an even greater law at work, the law of God, the “Royal Law.” This law is not about an equal action and reaction, it is about love: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

So, James follows up this treatise on favoritism with a comment about works. We are called, by faith, to a life of mercy. But if we do not show mercy, our faith is as good as dead. Mercy means loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Mercy means loving our neighbor whether they are rich or poor, native or foreigner, healthy or sick, young or old. Mercy means being God’s hands, feet and mouth for them. It means being God's presence in the world so that the world will be transformed by His power.

Jesus did just that. Whatever His attitude about the people who disturbed His peace, Jesus was God’s presence in the world, not only in word but also in deed. He brought transformation. He gave sight to the blind, hearing to the death, feet to those who could not walk and voice to those who could not speak. He did this for us, too, even though we may not have ever thought ourselves as blind, deaf, lame or dumb. We were once prisoners to sin, but He set us free and brought us through the desert with life giving water. He gave us sight to see the truth. He gave us ears to hear His Word. He gave us feet to go out and He gave us voice to sing praises to God. He calls us to live our thanksgiving in very real and tangible ways, ways that will transform the world. He’s put the battery of faith in. Now turn it on and go. Praise God and do whatever you can to make a difference. Manifest the faith that has been given so that the world will see the glory of God.

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