Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Mark 3:7-12 - of parades and promise

The sheer numbers still astound me. The Pittsburgh Steelers had a victory parade in downtown yesterday and 250,000 people showed up. One quarter of a million people braved bitter cold temperatures, long waits, and ridiculously high parking fees in order to see a bunch of football heroes drive through the city. Perhaps more surprisingly, not one arrest was made. It was unarrested joy. The pictures show people standing so thick in the streets that the cars carrying the players look like boats navigating a sea of people. People in this town and throughout the so-called “Steeler Nation” have had their spirits so uplifted by this Super Bowl victory that they assemble in the hundreds of thousands from hundreds of miles away to celebrate. As I was talking with some lifelong Pittsburghers this week about this game, one of them said, “It’s about time we won that trophy! Twenty-six years we’ve had to wait for that!” as if the Vince Lombardi trophy belongs in this town and in no other. The mass of people gathered yesterday is ample evidence of the sense of relief this homecoming has brought to the city.

I can’t help but draw a comparison to the crowds who flock to see Jesus in the beginning of Mark’s gospel as he starts his ministry in Galilee. Literally, a plethora of people come from miles away—Tyre, Sidon, Jerusalem, Idumea, and from lands beyond the Jordan—in order to see him. And, in order not to be overcome and crushed by the crowds, like Hines Ward or Jerome Bettis, Jesus orders his disciples to have a boat ready so he may push out into the sea. Jesus does this, actually, at several points in the gospels, sometimes teaching to the masses from just off the shoreline. People sense relief that a wonderful miracle worker has arrived in the land—could he be the hero they have so long expected?—and they want to press upon him to touch his hand…touch his cloak…be healed…be made whole. While on some level it is good news that Jesus brings hope and healing through miracles and blessings to people, I think, in fact, the story of Jesus and the pushy plethora is actually another example of how we humans clamor and hunger for the instant fix. We have a tendency to flock to whatever might give us easy promise and quick relief. The prospect of actually waiting for deliverance makes us balk: “Can you believe we’ve had to wait 26 years for this?”

As we follow Jesus’ ministry from this point, the crowds seem to fall away as he gets in greater trouble with the Jewish authorities. Jesus begins to talk about his crucifixion and teach about suffering. We find out that Jesus will not chiefly be a miracle healer, who has come to take away our aches and pains at the touch of his cloak, (although it is true that death and sin stand no chance against his purifying powers). Rather, Jesus has come to be a sufferer. The ransom he will pay for many will come about not through dazzling works of healing and demon exorcisms, but through his dying. It is difficult to say whether this is the type of Savior that the plethora will want, but we have a good indication of this from what happens at his crucifixion. He dies almost utterly alone, the bulk of the crowds having given up on him. In fact, the only person left to make a declaration of faith when it’s all said and done is a solitary Roman soldier. Not exactly a parade.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian who died in a Nazi concentration camp after speaking out against Hitler’s regime, was also an outspoken critic of the church in Germany in his time. He understood that standing up for Jesus—truly following his call and wanting to be a part of his power in the world—entailed a good deal of suffering. Following Christ was not a “quick fix” that would end all problems. It meant perseverance through the grace of God in the face of the world’s temptations. In one of his letters from the concentration camp prison, Bonhoeffer writes, “It is not the religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.” In other words, when we truly see Jesus for who he is and what he does, we realize he has come not only to dispel our darkness and show God’s power and mercy point-blank, but to dispel our darkness and show God’s mercy through his own suffering. It is the call of the Christian to realize that if we are a part of Christ, we can’t help but also be led into the suffering of the world, even into our own suffering. We know that Jesus is victorious over sin and death and therefore we need not fear such darkness or let it convince us into thinking our faith is simply a set of religious actions or duties. Pressing in on Jesus is more than reaching for blessings for ourselves. It is stepping into the suffering of the world and bearing Christ’s blessing there.

Ironically, we begin to understand this because of what the demons say about Jesus in the gospels. In Marks’ gospel especially, it is the unclean spirits, not the plethora of people who identify Jesus for who he is, the Son of God. But Jesus commands them repeatedly to be silent. Jesus knows his story is not over yet, his messiah-ship not been fully defined. Although the unclean spirits correctly attest Jesus as the Son of God, he still has not gone to the cross. Jesus has not fully lived his identity as God’s Son and our Savior until he has suffered. In other words, Jesus without the cross is not fully Jesus.

What does this say to us? For one, we always view Jesus and therefore, God, through the lens of the cross. Without that central event, nothing that Jesus does or says bears any lasting significance. He would be just another authoritative miracle worker. But our God redeems us through his self-giving death, and Jesus is more than just a specialist doctor that we go to when things start getting rough for us.

Secondly, it says that because we know that Jesus has conquered death already we may be freed to embrace our suffering and our fears and that we may expect new life when we do. Jesus bears with us in the long haul, not just on the sunny days of the parade. Sometimes that involves a little waiting, but it is a promise made good by his blood.

And thirdly, the gospel means that we have been given the power and gifts to meet the world wherever and whenever it is suffering—wherever people are waiting for peace and justice and mercy—for the sake of God. It means we must not rush to cling to false hopes and quick fixes but point others (as well as ourselves) to the crucified One—the only one—who gives life eternal.

This is joy. This is unbridled, unarrested joy.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Presentation of Our Lord

I have a particular nativity scene that I set up at Christmas that my mother got for me in Peru one year. Each of the clay figurines of the nativity scene—Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus on a hay-pile and two animals—are designed and painted to look like the Qero Indians who live high in the Andes Mountains there. So many nativity scenes put on display at Christmas-time try hard to make the figurines look like the real Bible characters. This one doesn’t. Its makers took the meaning of the incarnation so seriously that they turn the Holy Family into a Qero village scene. For example, Mary has braids and wears a small hat, just like most Qero women do. Baby Jesus is shown looking like a baby Qero Indian: he is tightly wrapped in a papoose, much like many native peoples conveniently bind up their babies to keep them warm and easy to transport. My favorite aspect of the nativity scene is actually the two animals: a llama and an ox, two animals that Qero Indians tend. Nativity stories in the gospels don’t specifically say animals were present at Jesus’ birth, but if there were, I highly doubt llamas were there. They are only found high in the Andes Mountains where the Qero Indians live. At first sight, this Peruvian nativity scene seems a little strange, but soon it becomes endearing. Instead of imagining what the Mary, Joseph, and Jesus looked like and might have worn as a first-century Jewish family and forming their figurines in that image, the Qero Indians astutely observe that if Jesus was, in fact, God made human, he could have looked something like them—human that they are.
The letter to the Hebrews tells us this about God’s action in Jesus Christ: “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death…[Christ] had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a faithful high priest in the service of God…” (2:14-15, 17). No matter what our nativity scenes at Christmas look like, the message of the incarnation is that the God who has created us—whether we are Pittsburghers or Qero Indians or first-century Jews—has become like us in order to save us from death and sin.
To be sure, the story of Israel and Jesus’ Jewish identity should not be forgotten: Jesus was indeed an Israelite born to a certain Mary 2000 years ago in Bethlehem and not in Peru. Nevertheless, the Qero Indian nativity scene reminds me of this powerful truth that always needs repeating: God has put on human flesh. Jesus is born for us and presented to us as one of us. Our God is not so distant and removed that he does not want to get physically involved in the often messy goings-on of this creation—like an offensive coordinator in a football game who stays way up in the booth calling shots on his Motorola radio system. God doesn’t even coach us from the sidelines. Rather, we know that God actually gets in the game with us. God loves us immensely—enough to become like us in each and every way and bear the bruises and scrapes and sufferings of human existence. He experiences childhood. He learns from his parents and follows Jewish law. He lives under a harsh government and experiences the loss of several friends. He knows betrayal, wedding bliss, and temptation. But although the life of Jesus Christ is filled with these very common and regularly painful human experiences, none of them is undertaken simply so that God may relate to humankind and as one former president would say, “feel our pain.” As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, Jesus becomes like us in every respect so that he may be a “faithful and merciful high priest to God and make atonement for our sins.” God undertakes the human experience through Christ—even to the point of death on the cross—so that we may then be free of death and sin and undertake God’s experience. That is our salvation. That is our redemption. God becomes human so that humans may become divine.
That is what the writer of Hebrews is saying to us, and why I so enjoy the message behind the Qero Indian nativity scene: no matter what pain and trial and torment we feel as humans on this earth, Christ has felt it, lived it, endured it—and been crushed by it, too. However, we also must remember that he has conquered it all and is risen from the dead. Jesus is presented to us so that we may ultimately be like him, even in his risen glory.
That is why it is indeed good and right—it is salutary for our human existence—for us to gather at the table of God’s priestly sacrifice and eat and drink of these common, earthy gifts as often as we can. Sharing the Eucharist every week is one gracious way in which we are presented again and again with the message of His Presentation: God has given us his very life. Gathering in the temple as Jesus’ true family and partaking of God’s Word in Scripture and the sacraments are akin to keeping a nativity scene out year-round. We are offered the very salvation that God has prepared in the presence of you and me and the Qero Indians and all peoples everywhere, a true light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to God’s people, Israel.