Sermon; 2 Pentecost/Proper 4B; Mark 2:23 - 3:6
We have come out of what some people refer to as liturgical time – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter – and have officially moved into Ordinary Time. During liturgical time the season shapes the lessons and experiences for particular remembrances and celebrations. During liturgical time we prepare for Christ's arrival, both in Bethlehem and yet to come. We celebrate his birth. We prepare and cleanse ourselves through prayer, fasting, and repentance. We celebrate Christ's victory over death.
During Ordinary Time, however, the lessons shape the season. Instead of a particular theme directing our worship, it is the life of Christ and the Sunday lessons that help shape our discipleship. This is Ordinary Time not because the season is long, ordinary, and boring; it is Ordinary because the season is counted in ordinal number sequence: the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, etc., Sundays after Pentecost. Those Sundays are also counted by what is properly read on specific days: Proper 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, etc. You can see this on the front of your bulletin every Sunday.
In the 3-year lectionary cycle, we are in Year B and the gospel focus is primarily taken from Mark – with one exception and that being five weeks roughly in the middle of the season that come from John. Our journey through Mark will examine and help shape our discipleship as we spend time with the life of Christ and not the events of his life. But Mark has a particular focus that we must pay attention to – the cross.
Mark is often described as a Passion narrative with an extended prologue. Mark is the only gospel to proclaim itself as such: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God.” And the purpose of this gospel is to bear witness to Christ as both proclaimer and embodiment of the kingdom of God, and to challenge readers to follow Christ to the end. It is this Passion narrative, this gospel, which will help shape us over the course of Ordinary Time.
As I said, we have just come out of liturgical time with the celebration of Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. Immediately before that we celebrated Easter, seven weeks of celebrating Christ's resurrection and his victory over death. Now here we are in Ordinary Time where our focus, thanks to Mark, shifts back to the cross. This is a little like, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Wait . . . what? So as Ordinary Time begins, so does our journey to the cross.
First, we need to get caught up. We heard from the end of Chapter 2 and beginning of Chapter 3 today. Because the calendar starts where it does, we are picking up the story already in progress. The first 15 vv of Mark introduce the coming of Christ into the world, the announcement of that coming by John the Baptist, the baptism of Christ, his struggle against worldly and hostile powers, and his preaching about the arrival of the kingdom of God in the here and now. And from 1:21 to 3:6 we are given a series of five healings and five controversies. We come into today on the back-end of this cycle with the last two controversies.
So far Jesus has healed a demoniac, Peter's mother-in-law, a crowd of Galileans, a leper, and a paralytic. And now he's gotten into trouble with the religious leaders for forgiving sins, eating with tax collectors, not fasting, and (today) plucking grain and healing on the Sabbath. Remember, in Mark things move quickly.
Mark begins by claiming that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one, the Messiah. According to Mark, Jesus is the one who will restore the throne of David and usher in the kingdom of God. However, this kingdom does not mesh with what neither the people nor, especially, the religious leaders expect that kingdom to be. Because of this disparity, Mark doesn't so much reveal who Jesus is over time as much as he reveals and clarifies what he must undergo and what that means for his followers. Again, Mark is taking us to the cross.
One of the issues that cause the religious leaders to turn on Jesus and look for ways “to destroy him,” as Mark writes, was the issue of the Sabbath. I say, “One of the issues,” because, with the exception of only one other place in Chapter 6, Sabbath controversies do not show up again. It's as if Mark is saying, “Here's the first reason people wanted Jesus dead.”
As I read this story, it occurs to me that Sabbath observance has become an idol. What was originally created to assist people, ie Sabbath rest, has become something else entirely. It has become a worshiping of the thing over the reason why it was created in the first place, and even over God himself. Paul says something like this in Romans when he wrote, “they worshiped the creature instead of the creator.” And that is the definition of idolatry.
Jesus attacks their idolatry head on when he points out that the needs of the hungry trump the idolatrous worship of the Sabbath. He attacks their idolatry head on when he points out that doing good and giving life again trumps the idolatrous worship of the Sabbath. When Jesus does this, when he challenges the leaders' power and position by saying that the kingdom of God is not predicated on the mis-worship of the symbol of God's goodness, the Sabbath, but on God's goodness put in practice, those leaders work to silence and kill Jesus.
Some people might argue that there are no current issues that have a similar response in today's world. I beg to differ.
Here's one: This country was founded, at least in words if not in actuality, on freedom and equality for all. This country is supposedly based on freedom of speech and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And the symbol of those values is the flag.
But lately, and I don't know when this started, the flag, like the Sabbath in Jesus' day, has taken on a life of its own. It has become an idol unto itself. There are people who forget that, like the Sabbath was to represent God but was not God, the flag is there to represent the country, it isn't the country.
So when people like Tim Tebow or Colin Kaepernick kneel in protest over issues they care deeply about, what should our response be?
If we are like the religious leaders of Jesus' day, we become upset that the symbol is being desecrated. If we are like the religious leaders of Jesus' day, we will become outraged that those people dare to challenge our understanding of what that symbol is. If we are like the religious people of Jesus' day, we prefer to worship the thing over the reason for the thing.
But if we are like Jesus, we will see those acts as challenging idolatry. If we are like Jesus, we will see those acts as working to challenge idol worship and bring us back to seeing what's really important – the reason for the Sabbath, the reason for the flag, and the goodness that lives therein.
The problem, though, is that we have instilled those things with an awful lot of power. We have allowed them to become idols, and challenging them can be costly.
In our journey with Jesus through Mark, we are being asked to go to the cross. In this journey, I think we are being asked to do two things:
put to death those idols that separate us from God; put to death our worship of the thing; and
be prepared for some serious backlash by those who idolize the thing over the reason for the thing.
Our journey to the cross with Jesus through Mark has just begun, and it will be anything but ordinary.