I was at the New Milford (NY)/Edenville United Methodist Church in Warwick, NY, Sunday morning, October 7, 2012. The Scriptures for this morning, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (B), are Job 1:1, 2: 1 – 10; Hebrews 1: 1 – 4; 2: 5 – 12; and Mark 10: 2 – 16. Their services now start at 10 am with Sunday School at 9 and you are welcome to attend.
Ann told me that she thought this might be a bit more intellectual that some of my sermons, as if most of my sermons are not. But in this case, perhaps that is the case.
But when you are basing your message in part on one of the wisdom books (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs or Song of Solomon; the Apocrypha also contains the Book of Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach), the message will be somewhat intellectual. Such messages are the most challenging to write for they demand one think it through to the end. That’s not to say that every message or sermon that is written does make the same demand but when you are using something from the wisdom literature, it requires a little bit more than usual. I hope and pray that I have that challenge and that when it is done, you will be challenged to seek more information for yourself as well.
I have always been amazed at how the topics that dominate the news are always matched by the Scriptures that have been designated for that particular week of the year. In this case, the Gospel reading from Mark deals with the Pharisees questioning Jesus about the subject of divorce. And two weeks ago, there was an announcement that a fragment of papyrus had been discovered that suggested that Jesus had a wife. Of course, a week later, it was announced that this papyrus fragment was a forgery and not a very good one at that.
Now, why would someone want to make a forgery like this? What motive was there in doing so? Of course, from my point of view, I also had to wonder why it was such a poor forgery in the first place. There is, after all, a curiosity about the life of Jesus, in part because of Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code, and its plot that Jesus not only had a wife but a child as well and that child’s descendants can be traced through the blood lines of European families. Now, The Da Vinci Code is clearly a work of fiction but because of the nature of the topic, there were a lot of people who believed that there was some degree of truth behind it. After all, there is the notion that every myth has some element of truth in it. And since we know so little about the life of Jesus between the time He was 12 and engaging the Pharisees, scribes, and scholars in the temple and when He was thirty and He embarked on His mission, it becomes quite easy to imagine just about anything we want. And someone looking to make a few extra dollars can quite easily do so by creating a story that fits within the framework of what we want to believe.
There will be some who hear or read these words and feel that I have just given them justification for not believing in Jesus as the Risen Savior. To many people today, Jesus Christ is a myth. But who concocted this myth? And why?
That we are here today means that there is a degree of truth to the story of Christ, even if there are gaps in the story. And that the story of Christ has been told over the years across all of the continents should suggest that there is an element of truth to the story as well.
So, how we react to the story that Jesus may have had a wife and whether we choose to believe or not is a measure of the integrity or strength of our faith. How well can we stand up to the pressure of being questioned about our faith? How strong is our faith in our day-to-day life?
The Old Testament reading for today tells us of the story of Job, a seemingly rich and powerful resident of Uz. Job is characterized as an upright and blameless man who feared God and avoided evil. But in the first chapter of Job, he loses everything he has – his children, his servants, his flocks – only his wife remained.
The sad part about this is that we know someone who has suffered such a loss; perhaps we have suffered such a loss ourselves. And how did our friends, how did we handle this? Did we curse God and question why He would allow this to occur? And if God did allow this to occur, what does that make Him? What sort of god (and notice that I used a lower case god) would allow one of his beings, someone that was created in his image, to suffer as Job did in Chapter 1.
It is critical that we understand that one of the things that occurred in this reading still occurs today. When something goes wrong, when we suffer, we often presume that we have done something wrong. Listen over the next few weeks to the friends of Job as they make that same assumption; that Job’s suffering is a consequence of his having done something terribly, terribly wrong. But Job always asks, “what is it that I have done so wrong as to warrant such punishment?”
Others will argue that they want no part of a God that would allow a believer to suffer like Job. They would argue that such suffering and the level of evil in this world are perpetrated or permitted to go unchecked because faithful adherents to religion accept the notion that it is “god’s will”.
But the patience of Job is neither a rejection of God nor blind acceptance of what is happening. Rather it is done with the notion that something will transpire that will bring sense to it all. Job will never curse God but He will demand that God show up to defend His actions. Job will do what his wife and friends will ask him to not do, “persevere in his integrity.”
Much has been made about divorce and marriage and what Jesus said and did not say. I think it important to note the differences between Mark’s recording of this encounter and Matthew’s recording. But what I think we need to understand is why the Pharisees questioned Jesus about this matter in the first place (and I don’t think it had to do with whether or not Jesus had a wife).
Keep in mind that John the Baptist was executed in part for his denouncing Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law Herodias as a violation of Old Testament law. There is commentary by the Jewish historian Josephus that Herod was also afraid of the growing political and religious movement John was leading and his arrest and execution, for whatever reason, was an attempt to put an end to that movement.
The encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees occurs in part of the territory controlled by Herod. We know that the Pharisees were beginning to see Jesus as a threat much in the same manner as John the Baptist and they, the Pharisees, probably felt that if they could get Jesus to make some sort of pronouncement similar to John’s, the same results would occur.
For me, the Pharisees saw themselves as keepers of the faith though it was more that they were keepers of the religion. Religion may be seen as how we reach out to God; faith is God reaching out to us. At times, the two will be in direct opposition to each other. Religion is the interposition of our thoughts onto God, making God what we want Him to be, not what He is. Faith is that which may be termed spiritual and is separate from religion.
I would rather not have such distinctions but unfortunately I have meet too many people for whom their religion is their faith. They are not interested in what one believes as much as they are in maintaining what is currently there. The Old Testament prophets sought to deliver the people from an idolatrous trust in their own religion with its shrines, both mental and physical so that they could be delivered into faith with its trust in the living free God who comes to us in the moving events of history.
How we see God says a lot about the integrity of our faith. If we see God as being on the edges of our lives, there when things go wrong, then I would make the argument that our faith is weak; its integrity low. For me, the Pharisees saw Jesus as a threat because He challenged their faith and they were unable to respond.
For me, there are too many people today who have such an attitude. Jesus has a place in their lives but it is only on Sunday mornings, between 8 am and 12 noon. When they leave church on Sunday, they quietly but quickly put God on the shelf in the closet where He can’t be hurt and they go about their business for the rest of the week. Such a faith cannot stand to be questioned and such individuals will not allow such questioning to take place.
But if you see God as part of the day-to-day occurrences of life, as One who comes at points of confidence and strength as well as points of weakness and uncertainty, then the integrity of your faith cannot be questioned. And if it is questioned, you can answer with both word and action and you see the opportunity to bring Jesus Christ to those who seek Him.
Ask yourself this, how do I see Jesus today? On his blog, “Irreverend Mike” wrote,
The issue is this – we tend to treat Jesus like he’s a fact to believe rather than a person in whom we place all our faith. This is what Christianity is about. It’s not a truth we believe in like we believe that 2+2=4, or that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. It is about Jesus, who is the truth, who tells us “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6). Being a Christian means having a relationship with this Jesus – following his way so that we may truly live with God.
When we forget this – and Jesus becomes to us just another thing that we can think and say is true – then we do not truly know Jesus. Not only this – but when Jesus becomes a thing to us in our minds, we begin to shape him into something he is not. We create an “imaginary Jesus”.
Your imaginary Jesus tends to think like you, agree with you and never challenges you. And this imaginary Jesus is nice! He gives you the assurance of eternal life and unconditional love – and you really don’t have to do anything. It’s a good deal. That is – if this was the real Jesus. Which it is not.
The real Jesus isn’t like us. He is perfect and holy and filled with so much love – that we can’t handle it. The real Jesus isn’t content to leave you where you are in your sin, brokenness and failings. The real Jesus beckons you to follow him to do hard things and love people you don’t want to love. The real Jesus asks you for nothing less than your whole life, because after all – he gave his for you. (from http://irreverendmike.wordpress.com/2012/10/02/will-the-real-jesus-please-stand-up/
There comes a point when one must make a choice. We are reminded in the reading from Hebrews exactly why it was that Jesus began His mission in the Galilee and why He comes to this place and time today. Our salvation is found through Christ; His death on the Cross was so that we would be set free from sin and death. And having been set free from sin and death, we have the opportunity to find a new path in life and help others seek what we have found.
I find myself drawn more and more to the thoughts and words of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. During the 30s he was living in America and had the opportunity to stay in America when Hitler came to power. But to do so would have been too easy and he returned to Germany because he saw a church, his church, turning a blind eye to the horrors that engulfed his country. He began to feel that to religion was becoming separate from the world and that, in its silence, let the horrors of the Nazism grow and fester. A pacifist, Bonhoeffer would ultimately join the underground resistance against Hitler and lose his life just days before the concentration camp in which he had been a prisoner was liberated.
I have never understood, until perhaps today, why he would do that. But he thought that if one was to be truly Christian, there had to be a reliance on the Grace of Christ because it was only through that Grace that we could be free from self-concern and doubt and be freed to show a truly worldly concern for others. Being a Christian was, in Bonhoeffer’s thought, not merely an acceptance but an act of being in the world. It was more than what one did on Sunday but what one did throughout the week.
We are never asked to make a sacrifice such as the one Bonhoeffer made or even the one that Christ made. We are asked only to let Jesus into our hearts, our minds, and our souls.
Are we prepared to open up and let Jesus into our lives, not just on Sunday mornings but all day Sunday and then through out the week? Or will you be like the disciples who, despite what Jesus taught them, still tried to deny the children access to Jesus? We are all children of God and Jesus said to let the children come to Him.
But how many times has someone told another child of God that they could not come into the church because they were somehow different. Perhaps they were too loud, as a two-year-old might be; perhaps they were unclean, as Job became. And as Job became unclean, his friends deserted him.
I have not neglected the reading from Hebrews that comes with the passages from Job and Mark. It concludes by noting that Jesus Himself trusted in God and that He was and is with us, the children of God. And if He is with us, how can we deny others that same right?
I begin by suggesting that our faith is being questioned, in part by the “discovery” of the “Jesus’ wife papyrus fragment”, and how we might answer that. There was a time long ago when I felt that my faith was being challenged. I was enduring a series of setbacks and I could only conclude that perhaps I was a pawn in some game being played by individuals or beings outside the realm of my consciousness. I didn’t care that I was a pawn; I just wanted to know what the rules of the game were.
Amidst all of this, I obtained a book entitled The Passover Plot in which the author hypothesized that Jesus faked His death on the Cross. After reading it, I could only conclude that if someone was willing to undergo what has been acknowledged as the most gruesome form of torture ever devised by man, then there must be something to what He believed. Over the years I have come to see Christ in my life in ways that are not always easy to describe. But I have come to think that because others have believed and that belief has remained strong over the years then what I know in my heart is true. And if what is in my heart is true, then I am obligated to help others know that as well.
Perhaps this is not the best way to think about the integrity of one’s faith but consider this. I cannot say I am a Christian if I do not believe it in my heart and live it with my words. I cannot say that I am a Christian if I say to you that you must believe as I do. I cannot say that I am a Christian because I go to church on Sunday but ignore the hungry, the homeless, the needy, or the oppressed. I cannot say that I am a Christian if I say that I am saved but do little to help you find your salvation.
If there is to be any integrity in what we believe, what we say, and what we do, it has to begin with us accepting Jesus’ invitation to let the children come to Him. In this case the invitation is to each one of us to allow Jesus into our hearts. And then, after we have let Jesus into our hearts, our souls, and our minds, then we must go out into the world, not just telling people about Jesus but showing them how Jesus changes lives and offers hope. The integrity of our souls is at stake if we do otherwise.