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Sermon for 1 February 2015

FIRST READING Deuteronomy 18:15–20

15 The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. 16 This is what you requested of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the LORD my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” 17 Then the LORD replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. 19 Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 20 But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak — that prophet shall die.”


PSALM Psalm 111

1 Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation. 2 Great are your works, O LORD, pondered by all who delight in them. 3 Majesty and splendor mark your deeds, and your righteousness endures forever. 4 You cause your wonders to be remembered; you are gracious and full of compassion. 5 You give food to those who fear you, remembering forever your covenant. 6 You have shown your people the power of your works in giving them the lands of the nations. 7 The works of your hands are faithfulness and justice; all of your precepts are sure. 8 They stand fast forever and ever, because they are done in truth and equity.
9 You sent redemption to your people and commanded your covenant forever; holy and awesome is your name. 10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who practice this have a good understanding. God’s praise endures forever.



SECOND READING 1 Corinthians 8:1–13

1 Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2 Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3 but anyone who loves God is known by him. 4 Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as in fact there are many gods and many lords — 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. 7 It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not bring us close to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? 11 So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12 But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.
GOSPEL Mark 1:21–28

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.



Of all the things we want in life, there are two that probably rank near the top: predictability and spontaneity. One could easily say that in today’s fast paced world we crave the comfort of predictability. So in order for us to achieve a desirable level of certainty in life we’re willing to work long and hard to advance in a steady job or a certain career, thus achieving a consistent source of income. To achieve our goals we earn degrees, save money, buy insurance and invest for retirement. We have a home, a family and live by a schedule, which gives structure and meaning to our days and nights. We labor diligently to build our lives on the secure foundation of predictability. Yet with all the effort we put into achieving stability, we also crave a certain amount of spontaneity.
One could also say that with all our consistency we also crave a certain amount of impulsiveness. We hunger for those unexpected moments that bring uncontained joy and unconstrained excitement to our day-to-day existence. We ache to be astonished and amazed. That’s one of the reasons networks like ESPN are so popular. There’s nothing like the unscripted, uncut, unpredictable moment-to-moment excitement of a live sporting event — whether it’s football, basketball, baseball, NASCAR, golf or bowling. That adrenalin rush we enjoy, that high level of anticipation we crave is why few of you will stand around very long after the service today. Instead many of us will be running home to begin the pre-game activities that will lead up to tonight’s Super Bowl. This isn’t to say that that’s necessarily a bad thing. The Super Bowl can bring family and friends together.
The Super Bowl party does give us an excuse to become load, enjoy the good fun of rivalry and root unconstrained for our favorite team. It lets us eat lots of good-tasting, bad-for-you food. And all in all it’s just good fun. And as a sporting event, it has absolutely no predictable outcome. The team you’re pulling for could win big, or your team might lose by a whisker. There are so many variables that can affect the outcome. Under-inflated balls, bad calls by either the team or the officiating staff; a single momentary misstep by anyone involved with the game can change everything. Even though the game is ordered by rules and stopwatches, guarded by referees and instant replays, it’s still an anything-can-happen event. Events like these can mirror life; unfair and unpredictable.
Oh we try to tame life’s uncertainties with long-range plans and short-term check-lists. But it’s the very uncertainty of life that makes every day so much fun and so frightening. It’s also the reason why faith drives us to utter dependence upon God’s promises, provisions and providence. Consider if you will one of the last play-off games. Let’s face it, Brandon Bostick blew it. There is no doubt about it.
The Green Bay Packers player #86 botched the catch after the onside kick in the closing minutes of the Green Bay vs. Seattle game and set up the Seahawks for one of the most amazing comebacks in the history of football, a team “drive to survive” that enabled Seattle to pull out a last-ditch, final-moment overtime win. Bostick unfortunately mangled his catch. However, one thing needs to be said, this tight end at least went for the kicked ball. He was on site, in place, and focused on victory. It just didn’t happen. Once again in life, random bedlam usurped the best planning, preparation and skill. The reality of life is that no matter how charmed a life we might lead, there isn’t a one of us who can say we “always win.” Failure and setbacks are part and parcel of the human experience. In fact, it’s the best that probably fail the most. Take for example, the father of our country, George Washington.
General Washington lost more battles than he won. Or, consider one of the most successful companies in history, Amazon. Anyone here want to ask Jeff Bezos the CEO of Amazon about the Fire Phone? Fire Phone launched with a price tag of $199. You can now buy one for 99 cents. Or check out Hebrews 11 and its “great cloud of witness,” the stories of the saints. If you could look at the stories behind every “witness” in that “cloud,” it would appear that the cloud is a nimbus cloud not an angelic cloud, a rogue’s gallery filled with failures and faults. Even the story of Jesus isn’t just one long success story.
Jesus Himself suffered sorrows and was acquainted with setbacks and grief. In fact, what could paint Jesus’ true humanity more vividly than His disappointments? From personal experience Jesus gave us a roadmap of how to deal with difficulties: when the game doesn’t go as expected, or someone shuts a door in your face, pick yourself up, shake yourself off, knock the dust off your feet and keep moving on to the next doorway of opportunity. In this week’s gospel text we also see what happens when Jesus gets a big “win.”
Jesus is riding high as He heals a man possessed by a demonic spirit. He wows the synagogue crowd to no end with this healing. The witnesses to this miracle, those present in the synagogue, exclaim the greatness of Jesus’ powers, and they revel in this unexpected display of the supernatural. Amazement and awe washes over them as they realize they’re seeing something “new” and are witnessing in Jesus a remarkable and an unexpected form of “authority.”
This triumphant showing at the Capernaum synagogue comes at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, just after He called His first disciples. The eager readiness of these witnesses to follow Jesus’ message and mission would seem to put an immediate stamp of unqualified success on His ministry. And yet, we all know the rest of the story. When you catch the ball, and heal the sick, the crowds go crazy glad. But when you run into difficulty and are unable to heal due to a lack of faith, or do the unexpected, like eat with publicans and sinners, the crowd goes crazy mad; at least part of it does anyway.
In Mark’s gospel, the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry is nothing but a string of success stories. Jesus exorcises unclean spirits. He heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. He cleanses lepers and makes those who are paralyzed walk again. He restores a withered hand to full mobility. Jesus even calls the sea into submission and then raises the daughter of Jairus from her deathbed. Jesus was definitely on His way to the Super Bowl. But as we also read, His successes came with consequences.
When Jesus healed the man with the withered hand, He did so on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6), an act that made His strict Torah obedience questionable and instantly put Him on the “no-fly” list for the local religious authorities: “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (v.6). Jesus was only doing what God sent Him to do — to offer hope and healing, God’s presence and compassion, to bring the kingdom of God near, whenever and wherever He was called upon to do it, no matter what day of the week it was. But His obedience to His mission ultimately cost Him everything.
Jesus’ faithfulness to His mission cost Him the “stamp of approval” of the religious authorities, instantly transforming Him from an asset into a threat. It cost Him the sense of astonishment and awe that had surrounded His words and works in the local synagogues. The more He succeeded, the more setbacks He encountered, and the more He was viewed with suspicion and alarm.
When Jesus returned to His hometown of Nazareth, this turning tide slapped Him in the face. Mark’s gospel gives us another glimpse into a Sabbath synagogue service in Mark 6:1-6. Standing in the most familiar of home territory, preaching with power and authority, the reception Jesus receives in Nazareth is anything but accepting. Instead the hometown crowd kicks Jesus’ message out of bounds: “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hand! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us? And they took offense at him” (vv.2-3) Confronted with this utter rejection, Jesus “could do no deed of power there.”
In other words, because of their lack of faith, Jesus failed to heal facing a home-town crowd. Face to face with the unpredictability of the human species, Jesus could only be “amazed at their unbelief” (v.6). Jesus’ disciples, His followers, must have also felt the sting of this reversal. They’d been riding the wave of success and popularity along with Jesus up until this encounter. Now, suddenly, they had their first real taste of the bitterness of failure and the smarting sting of rejection. At the very moment of what was expected to be Jesus’ greatest triumph, was His greatest setback.
However, Jesus’ reaction to this obstruction wasn’t to crawl under the porch and lick His wounds. In Mark’s gospel Jesus immediately calls together all His disciples and sends them out “two-by-two” to teach and preach in the villages of that region. In the face of an impressive obstacle, Jesus responds by increasing the scope and magnitude of His mission. Jesus’ disciples never get a chance to wallow in their letdowns because their Master has picked them up, dusted them off and sent them out, empowered with His authority, to bang on new doors and banish evil. And despite the loss in Nazareth, the disciples go out and do exactly that. As the saying goes, they “fail forward.” And as we’ll read, the “Mission of the Twelve” is a huge success.
Jesus goes on and continues His mission, preaching the message of the kingdom, healing the sick, casting out demons, and miraculously feeding the crowds that follow Him. Jesus’ human life, like each of our lives, was marked by great highs and great lows; by mountain tops of tremendous triumph and pits of deep despair. Human life is lived out on this beautiful garden planet God created. But even before we knew that our nest was round, not flat, we have always known our garden home has huge “ups” and impressive “downs.” I love the story of the 85-year-old woman, inspired by George H. W. Bush’s celebration of birthdays, who decided to take up sky diving.
After she attended instruction classes, the day came for her first jump. Strapping on a parachute, she stood awaiting her turn to leap out of the plane. But when she looked at the ground below, she lost her nerve. Finally, she reached into her pocket, pulled out a small transmitter and radioed her instructor on the ground, “Help! I’ve gotten up, and I can’t fall down!” Ups. Try Mount Everest. The highest point on the planet is 3350 meters or 29,035 feet above sea level.
Today when we fly in huge airliners we sit in pressurized, warmed cabins, with oxygen carefully circulated for us to breath, because anywhere above 15,000 feet just doesn’t bode well for human existence. Despite the hazards of these high altitudes, what do we call those moments in our lives when we unexpectedly experience the grace of God, the greatness of joy, the wholeness of being — we call those moments “mountain-top experiences.” Short on oxygen?; maybe. But we’re able to pump new life, love, and commitment into us because of being lifted up to such a lofty place. But in this life we also experience the flip-side of the coin.
There are also impressively low places on earth, depths that make staying alive a true struggle. On land, the lowest place on earth is around the Dead Sea which lays 413 meters or 1354 feet below sea level. Closer to home is Death Valley, California, which lays 282 feet below sea level. But “how low can we go?” The deepest part of the sea is a ripped ribbon on the bed of the Pacific Ocean called the “Mariana Trench.” It’s over 1500 miles long, but only about 40 miles wide. Within that “Trench” there’s a particular drop off called “The Challenger Deep,” which is the deepest known point in all the oceans. The Challenger Deep plunges down to a depth of 10,994 meters — or 36,070 feet below sea level. If Mount Everest were placed in the bottom of the Challenger Deep it would be covered by over a mile of seawater.
Just as our human home has almost unbelievable heights and depths, so do our individual human lives. No one has to tell us that in the course of our days we’re going to have “highs” and “lows.” By age five, before the first day of school, we’ve got that. But what we need to know, as people of faith, is that Jesus can walk with us through our experience of life’s highs and lows, that Jesus walks these lonesome valleys with us, that Jesus climbs these thin-skinned mountains with us. The Bible records for us the tremendous high and lows that Jesus experienced throughout His ministry.
His birth was announced by angelic hosts, but then His parents had to sneak off to Egypt in the dead of night to keep Him safe. They brought Him back to Nazareth and raised Him there under the radar of the authorities, but His hometown would utterly reject and ridicule this “home-town boy,” even try to stone Him to death in an honors killing. The religious authorities in Jerusalem welcomed Him, listened to His message with amazement, and even worshiped with Him. But that same audience turned on Him, called Him a blasphemer, put a price on His head and called in the Roman authorities for a “head hunt” to get rid of Him. The crowds that waved palm branches over Jesus, put robes under His pathway and cried hosanna as He entered into Jerusalem, were the same crowds who only days later cried out for His crucifixion and then stripped Him of His robe.
New Zealand theologian and pastor Alan Jamieson, in his book Journeying in Faith (2009), puts it like this: The stark reality is that each of us at some point in the journey will fail. I don’t mean a little hiccup that everyone could understand and which could be talked about politely over scones in a home-group discussion. I don’t mean the failures we admit to as modern Christians that we aren’t reading our Bibles as often as we would like, or some equally inane slip-up. I mean fail in a way we desperately want to hide. Fail in a way that we’re embarrassed to acknowledge.
When this happens, we too face the choice: either to try and hide and pretend nothing happened by putting on masks to cover our reality; simply to give up on trying to live Christian lives and walk away; or the initially very difficult and courageous option to face up to what we’ve done. In the end these are the only options. The biblical option is clear. The Bible doesn’t try to sanitize or sweep under the carpet people’s failures, no matter how embarrassing they might have been. It seems the Bible deals with failure in such an upfront and honest way for two reasons. First, it reminds us that the biblical characters, like us, are very ordinary people: They are people like us, because of their failures and weaknesses, therefore we can identify with. And second, because the agenda of the Bible is to show how God is at work.
Each of us this morning is facing a week where we will “win” some and “lose” some. This week we’ll catch some of the balls and we’ll drop others. Story-tellers say that you can always have a happy ending to every story — it just depends upon where you decide to stop the story. For those of us who follow Christ, the story never ends. The ups and downs, the soaring successes and the falling failures, are all part of the story. And the story doesn’t have a plotline that’s dedicated to making you look good. The story has a plotline dedicated to us glorifying God’s power and enjoying His presence. The question is, how will we handle success and failure this week? How will we encourage others who have failed?
The central claim of Christianity is that we’re accepted in our sinfulness, forgiven and understood as we are, with all our moral confusions, both of intellect and will, understood when we don’t do what’s right . . . God knows, understands, forgives and offers us the divine love, the divine mercy . . . and that’s why it’s called good news and not good advice. However, we must be willing to get in the game, to be on site, in place, and focused on the mission to which God has called us. Failure and setbacks are part and parcel of the human experience, but thanks to God’s endless patience, forgiveness and love we can have strength in our failures and joy in our successes so that in all things we may give glory to our Father in heaven.

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