Living Faithfully With Shades of Gray

Sermon delivered on Trinity 1B, Sunday, June 7, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: 1 Samuel 8.4-20; Psalm 138.1-8; 2 Corinthians 4.13-5.5; Mark 3.20-35.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We live in a world that is deeply flawed and ambiguous. The more technology and others connect us, the less straightforward things seem to become and that drives most of us crazy because most of us do not like uncertainty and chaos in our lives. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us yearn to be black and white people who live in a world of certainty and predictability. As Christians, we look to God for guidance and security and stability but sometimes that is maddeningly frustrating. To make matters worse, many of us would probably engage with the Bible more if we thought it were robust enough to help us deal with the uncertainties of life. But I suspect many of us secretly (and some openly) look at the Bible as a product of a simpler age in which the writers just weren’t sophisticated enough to deal with the complexity of our lives or who were backward in their understanding of science and how the world really works, making them irrelevant for the very different age in which we live. But as our readings demonstrate today, nothing could be further from the truth. So I want us to look at how the biblical writers deal with ambiguity and uncertainty in the hope and prayer that we might begin to gain a greater appreciation of God’s word in Scripture as an essential resource to help us navigate through the complexities of life, and that we start to become (or continue to be) faithful readers so that God can speak to us in fresh ways and guide us in the living of our days.

This theme of living in an uncertain world emerges in our OT lesson. Simply put, did God want Israel to have a king or not? On the one hand, God tells Samuel that the people’s desire to have a king like the other nations is simply another episode in their sad story of rebellion against God, a rebellion that began almost as soon as God had rescued his people from their slavery in Egypt. Of course, God had called out his people Israel to be different from the nations so that they could bring God’s healing and justice to the world as our psalm attests (cf. Leviticus 20.26; Numbers 23.9). But now they want a king so that they can be like the people they are to help God rescue. Kind of hard to do that if you are acting just like those you are called to help, don’t you think?

With this in mind, we would expect God to reject his people’s request. But God doesn’t! Instead, God instructs Samuel to warn them what will happen if they get a king like the nations. Having a king requires human and physical resources so the people will find themselves being conscripted to do all kinds of work in service of the king and required to pay all kinds of taxes to support the monarchy. We get this because we are asked to do the same things to support our government today, and many of us grumble about it because we find it onerous and intrusive.

Samuel dutifully warned the people, but the people rejected God’s warning and as the subsequent history of the Jewish monarchy demonstrated, God’s warnings proved to be true (surprise, surprise). But why the rejection? The writer helps us understand where the people were coming from. They had just emerged from a very unstable period of their history and they, like us, desired a modicum of stability. That they were afraid of the people around them is evident when they told Samuel they wanted a king to protect them and fight their battles. That they also came to Samuel, the recognized prophet or spokesman for God, to request a king also suggests that they were not openly hostile toward God. After all, they wanted God’s blessing through his prophet. But this begs the question. Had they forgotten that God was their king? Had they forgotten God had a proven track record in defeating their enemies? We aren’t told. Instead we are left to wrestle with the ambiguity of the story. What was the best way to go?

And despite God telling Samuel that his people were rejecting God in asking for a king like the nations, God gave them their request after Samuel had warned them what would happen. So did God want them to have a king or not? Again, we are not told. In fact we are not given the answer without reading the entire story of Scripture because the tension is not resolved until the coming of Jesus of Nazareth and his ultimate kingly act of dying on the cross for the sins of the world. Even then Scripture does not give us an explicit answer. Instead, we are given a story and left to work it out for ourselves. For those of us who desire quick fixes and easy and straightforward answers, this ambiguity in Scripture can drive us crazy because it flies in the face of our consumerist, easy answer, gotta-have-it-now mentality.

But if we pay careful attention, in giving his people a king like the nations, God does not abandon or reject his people, even though he correctly sees that their request is just another symptom of their long-standing rebellion against him. Instead, God continues to instruct, encourage, and reprimand his wayward people, primarily in and through the prophets he sends, but also sometimes through good and godly kings like David, Solomon, and Josiah, kings who were deeply flawed themselves. David, the man after God’s own heart, would commit adultery and then murder to cover it up. And Solomon, the wisest of the wise, committed the ultimate foolish deed by taking as wives foreign women who were pagans and who would lead him to idolatry later in his life. So what is going on here? Are these good guys are not? Is God for his people or not? We are given the answer in the outworking of the story and this is the most compelling reason why we should read and engage with Scripture individually and together.

So why am I spending so much time on this? Because Samuel’s day was not so different from our own. For example, look at the ambiguity in the moral life of our nation. We are living in a cultural sea-change. For example, assisted suicide is becoming more acceptable. How do we square that with the Bible’s pronouncement that our lives are not our own but God’s (cf. 1 Corinthians 6.19-20)? How then should we respond to those who aggressively promote assisted suicide? Or what are we to do when SCOTUS legalizes gay marriage, an oxymoron in itself, later this month? Already the Christian view of marriage and sexuality is under intense attack and being dismissed as completely irrelevant, especially among younger people. Should we just throw in the towel and go with the flow? After all, I suspect many, if not most, of us didn’t adhere to a strictly Christian view about marriage and sex before we were married and we turned out all right. So what’s the harm? If we just  get on the It’s All About Sex and Freedom Bandwagon we can avoid being labeled as prudes or fundies or haters or whatever. And besides, we know a lot more about sex than the biblical writers, right?

But if we take a careful look at our own lives with our often libertine and cavalier views about sex of any kind, a different story sometimes emerges. In my own life, for example, I have come to realize that my earlier promiscuity helped contribute to my two divorces because I had focused almost exclusively on sexual pleasure while ignoring the commitment and trust that must accompany any healthy sexual relationship. And so it wasn’t until marriage number three that I learned how to do the hard work of commitment needed to make a marriage work. But now I am left to deal with the carnage of those broken marriages. More than once I have wished I had had a godly minister to counsel celibacy before marriage, but alas I did not. Perhaps (probably?) I wouldn’t have listened even if I had had one. More ambiguity.

There’s more to the story, of course, but I hope you see the point. Those who take seriously God’s intention for the relational happiness of his creatures are those who will enjoy the full benefits of living life the way God created us to live it. It’s not about following rules. It’s about living as God designed us to live. This doesn’t make the ambiguities go away, but my experience, along with countless others, confirm the validity and truthfulness of the creation narratives and God’s intentions for men and women. God’s truth remains God’s truth, even when living in a world that is deeply flawed and hostile to that truth, and we have to learn to deal faithfully with the resulting ambiguity and hostility. Samuel and his people would surely understand. When dealing with real people and their needs, it can get complicated.

We see the theme of ambiguity continue in our epistle lesson. Paul is defending his apostolic authority to the church at Corinth where some had challenged his authority on the basis of his massive suffering. If you really are an apostle, why are you suffering so much, Paul? After all, God is omnipotent and is supposed to protect his own. Instead of suffering, the world should be your oyster, but it is not. Therefore, we think you are a fraud. Sound familiar? If not, let me reframe it in a way that will. Why does a good and powerful God allow bad things to happen to good people, especially his people? This is the context for our epistle lesson and we are hard pressed to find a greater contradiction in our lives than this. Many of us ask the same question and it has caused many to fall from the faith, including one of my own children.

We notice that Paul does not offer a defense of God or God’s ways. Paul knows the risen Lord so well that he knows Jesus is able to take care of himself, thank you very much, without any help from Paul. Instead Paul points us to the reality of Jesus Christ crucified and risen, and encourages us to be eschatological (end time) thinkers. In the verses just preceding our lesson, Paul has talked about how Jesus’ death has brought us life by reconciling us to God. Now he talks about how Jesus’ resurrection promises us new bodies and new life patterned after our Savior’s. Our mortal bodies are transient and wearing out, the result of God’s curse on our sin (Genesis 3.19; Romans 8.20). But in Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has overcome our sin and his curse on it, and those who are in Christ are promised an incomprehensibly wonderful future in which we are clothed with immortal and indestructible bodies. We believe this by faith, of course, as Paul reminds us. But God gives us the faith to believe and encourages us to see this life for what it is: temporary, transient, and fleeting as opposed to the age to come where life and happiness go on forever. So Paul tells us not to put our ultimate loyalty on the temporary things of this world or focus on that which is beyond our reach. Instead, he encourages us to learn to develop an eschatological perspective that reminds us that our troubles are fleeting when compared to what awaits us in the new creation. Now for anyone who has suffered mightily, this can be hard to live out because enduring pain, even for a short while, can feel like an eternity. But Paul is telling us that faith in what God has done for us in and through Jesus and the power of the Spirit can help us overcome even our worst suffering.

This appears to us at times to be deeply ambiguous. To which Paul replies, try it. Learn to ask the Lord to give you what you need to bring glory to his name and you will not be disappointed, even if you do not completely understand the whys and hows of it. I am living proof that it is true. Look at my sufferings, doubts, and fears (and believe me, I have a ton of them). But they have not conquered me. I have conquered them in the power of the Lord made available to me in and through the power of the Spirit (cf. 2 Corinthians 12.7-10).

If you are in the midst of sickness, suffering, or sorrow of any kind right now, I encourage you to take to heart Paul’s admonishment and encouragement as you come for intercessory prayer and anointing in a few minutes. A careful reading of Scripture will yield the unshakable belief that God is indeed present and active in his world, even in the midst of suffering and despite the deeply contradictory fact that God allows evil to operate in his world at some level. Despite this, God has overcome evil and works to bring healing of all kinds out of his tender love and mercy for us, and to bring honor and glory to his name. What God wants, God gets. Bring this understanding and faith to the healing stations and expect God to act on your behalf, even if God does not grant your specific request. Is this ambiguous? You bet it is. Would Paul and countless other Christians understand? You bet they do. Seize the power that is yours!

Turning last to our gospel lesson, we see the ambiguity of the kingdom coming on earth as in heaven playing out in Jesus’ confrontation with his enemies and family. Mark does not tell us what Jesus is doing in this house, only that he is so crazy busy he hasn’t even had time to eat. People are mobbing him, wanting to get healed. His reputation has preceded him and folks want in on the action, perhaps not so that the kingdom will come but rather to get healed. Who can blame them? Already we start to see the ambiguity crackling in the story.

But there is every reason to believe Jesus was engaging in exorcisms. He was just fresh off his confrontation and defeat of Satan in the wilderness (Mark 1.12-13). And the parable Jesus tells has to do with Satan. His enemies have just accused him of operating under Satan’s authority. According to them, this is why Jesus has been so spectacularly successful in his healings and exorcisms. They can’t deny that there’s something extraordinary going on with Jesus, they just don’t think his healings are signs that God’s kingdom is breaking in through him. This, BTW, is the unforgivable sin Jesus is talking about. If you have ever worried about committing the unforgivable sin, relax (unless, of course, you think and tell others that Jesus operates under the authority of Satan rather than God, then you’d better worry). The sin is unforgivable because it blasphemes Jesus and God, ascribing God’s works to Satan. For those who level this accusation, having Jesus’ forgiveness would be irrelevant because they don’t see him for who he really is. And since Jesus is the only way to the Father and the only Way, Truth, and Life, rejecting Jesus and his message means that God cannot forgive such a person because it is only in and through Jesus that our sins are ultimately forgiven.

We notice Jesus responds to his critics, not by tit-for-tat, but rather by characteristically telling a parable. Astonishingly he tells us that he is a robber who has come to bind the strong man and take his possessions. The strong man, of course, is Satan who has usurped control of God’s good world and corrupted it, bringing about death and despoiling God’s good world and creatures, especially his image-bearing ones. But now that Jesus has come, the strong man’s days are numbered. To be sure, he is powerful and still active. That’s why he needs to be bound. But Jesus is more powerful and has come to do just that, to rescue us from the control of Satan and transfer us into God’s kingdom (cf. Luke 10.17-19; Colossians 1.13-14). This is why Jesus’ critics are wrong in their accusations about the source of Jesus’ healing power. And of course God would ultimately defeat Satan in Jesus’ death on the cross as all the NT writers attest.

This helps us make sense of Jesus’ response to his family. They think he’s crazy too. He’s abandoned his role as first-born son and is off preaching, teaching, and healing. Why isn’t he tending to his family? This was especially important to Jews of Jesus’ day and here we see Jesus breaking the mold and expectations for being a good Jewish son. But Jesus would have none of it because he had bigger fish to fry. He had come to rescue his Father’s world from the dark forces that had enslaved it. And he had come to rescue us from our sin that enslaves us and causes us to die an eternal death without God’s gracious intervention. Those who could see this by faith were his true family. The kingdom had to take priority over flesh and blood loyalties, important as they are, God-given as they are, because the kingdom was and is the true reality.

Once again, we are confronted by more ambiguity. Is Jesus working for God or Satan? Is this the only way the kingdom comes, by spectacular events and displays of power? What about ultimate loyalties? Do we give them to Jesus or share them with other people and things that are important to us? And what happens when we don’t give our ultimate loyalty to Jesus? Can and does he still work in and through us? Does he still love us or are we toast? Again, Mark does not answer our questions explicitly. Rather, he points us to Jesus’ works and teachings, and ultimately to the cross and empty tomb, inviting us to form our own conclusions. Here is the evidence, he says. What do you think?

Stories like our gospel lesson should make us pause and reflect because many of us are frankly embarrassed about exorcisms and the demonic. We consider ourselves too enlightened and sophisticated to believe in things like evil spirits and dark spiritual forces. As a result, we tend to dismiss stories like this as products of primitive and unenlightened minds. But then evil rears its ugly head and smacks us in the face and we don’t know what to do about it. We blame it on people, not powers. We want to blame the background and upbringing of evildoers. For example, we’ll try to explain why some folks in our culture seek to join ISIS and other terrorist groups. They’re disenfranchised and disadvantaged, we say. That’s what’s causing this. But this is just not true in general. Rather, it is our attempt to control our own fears about the unpredictability of evil and those who commit it. Perhaps it is time for us to rediscover and give credence to Jesus the exorcist as well as to the reality of dark and unseen spiritual powers. After all, Paul reminds us that:

…0ur struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6.12).

This is more than “the devil made me do it” kind of mentality. Of course we are culpable for our sins. But behind our sin is more than background and genetics. There are dark powers involved in the sin and evil we commit, and in deeply mysterious ways beyond our understanding.

Notice too that Paul, like Jesus, never offers an explanation of why God allows the powers to operate in his world, let alone why God allowed Satan to usurp control of this world and its peoples from God. So, yeah, they allow us to wallow in our ambiguity. But they give us something much more. Jesus tells us that he has come to defeat the power of Satan and shockingly he did that ultimately on the cross. Paul goes on to tell us in the same passage that I just quoted to:

Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil (Ephesians 6.10-11 ).

Jesus and Paul don’t tell us the whys. They tell us what to do about it, ambiguous as that might be. But as we have seen, the Bible is full of ambiguity and a sophisticated narrative of how God’s people are to respond to it—primarily by faith and obedience.

So what does that look like for us who try to live faithfully today? While there are lots of things I could focus on, I want to focus primarily on living and loving with faithfulness. This means that we as Christians must persevere in the midst of our sufferings and in living with our deep flaws and ambiguities. This must first and foremost manifest itself in how we treat each other, and here at St. Augustine’s we do a splendid job overall. We are patient with each other and we put up with each other. We don’t run away when someone ticks us off. We persevere.

Persevering is much different than trying to win the battle against evil. As we have seen, the enemy is real. But we do not have to win the war against the enemy because the battle has already been won in the death and resurrection of Jesus. God has won the war and continues to fight the fight for us, and all he asks is for us to stand firm in our faith as a witness to a hostile and alienated world. We are to engage in this spiritual warfare in both our community life, i.e., in how we treat and hang with each other despite our differences, and in our private lives when no one is watching, i.e., spiritual warfare typically gets fought in the mundane, not the sensational. And so we are confronted with questions like will we be honest or will we lie? Will we be faithful or will we compromise? Will we love or will we walk away? Will we suffer or will we choose the easy way out?

Of course, if we try to engage in this spiritual warfare on the basis of our own strength, we are already defeated because the strong man is much stronger than we are and we do not have the power to bind him. But when we are faithful to Jesus, when we take up our cross and follow him, persevering in love and truth and fidelity, even when it is terribly costly to do so, we can have confidence that our work and lives are not in vain because we have put our hope and trust in the One who has rescued us from the strong man and his minions. Do you believe this? If you do, it means you will have fresh power to live and real purpose for living, even when you are walking through the darkest valley and in the midst of the deepest ambiguities of life. It also means you have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.