Thursday, June 7, 2018

Recognizing God At Work

Mark loves to sandwich two stories together to make a single point, and Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 3:20-35) has some elements of that. In the beginning of the passage, Jesus' family hears that Jesus and his disciples have been so busy attending to the needs of the crowd that they haven't even had time to eat, and they went out to retrain him because people were saying that he had gone out of his mind. At the end of the passage, the family shows up to come and get him, presumably to take him away to a quiet place so that he can calm down and recover, but, when someone informs Jesus about it, Jesus responds, "Who are my mother and my brothers?...Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

On its own, that's the kind of passage on which I'd want to preach. Jesus' earthly family cannot believe that anyone--even their own, special son--could work that hard, do that much, perform that many miracles. But Jesus, rather than rebuking them harshly, uses the opportunity to teach the crowd that submitting fully to God's work and God's will is how we find our true identity. Those who follow Jesus as "crazy Christians" can call themselves Jesus' mother, sister, and brother.

But then we get to the stuff in the middle, and I find myself glad I'm not preaching this Sunday.

The scribes come down from Jerusalem and say that Jesus is performing these miracles by the power of Beelzebul. The scribes were the keepers of the religious law. They were the interpreters of how God's law, God's rules, applied to various circumstances. This was, it seems, a semi-official pronouncement. People had been wondering--either aloud or at least in their hearts--where Jesus, who was not an officially sanctioned religious figure (whatever that meant in 1st century Palestine), was getting this power. He's either of God or against God, but he's clearly got some power. The scribes were the ones who would have made that sort of determination, and they come down on the side of Satan--that Jesus was of Satan and not of God.

Jesus responds to them in parables. Satan cannot cast out Satan. A house divided against itself will not stand. If you want to plunder a house, first you must bind the strong man. Jesus applies a rational response. It makes no sense that the work he does is by Satan. He, who was casting out demons, cannot be on the side of demons. Not only are the scribes incorrect in their spiritual assessment of where Jesus' power comes from, but they are also failing to make any sense.

Jesus offers a profound, rational pronouncement: Anyone who blasphemes the Holy Spirit will be guilty of an unforgivable sin. We seem to get sucked into that sentence. "Unforgivable sin" has a certain scary ring to it. But Jesus is just trying to make sense of the mess unfolding all around him. If you need the Holy Spirit to receive forgiveness and you deny the Holy Spirit's work, how can you ever have forgiveness? If God is at work in your life to show you God's presence yet you deny that God is at work, how can you ever recognize God?

When you sandwich the two pieces together, it softens the concept of the unforgivable sin yet heightens the requirement that we submit to God's will. Even Jesus' own family comes dangerously close to rejecting the work of the Holy Spirit. Clearly, Jesus is channeling an other-worldly power. He's working so feverishly that he isn't even stopping to eat. His family comes to get him because they've heard that he is out of his mind. But he's not out of his mind. He's full of the Holy Spirit. And those who are likewise willing to submit fully to God's work get to claim a share in that family. Those who find it easier to label the Spirit's work as madness find themselves not only out of the family but guilty of an unpardonable sin.

How do we recognize God at work? God shows us God's own presence. Is it always gentle, comforting, and easy? Not hardly. It's rarely serene and sweet. Think of all the ways God is at work around us. Think of all the people who have gifts of the Holy Spirit. Those of us who prefer buttoned-up religion may have a hard time recognizing God at work in strange ways, but that's how God works. If we want to be part of God's family, we must ask God to help us let go of our preconceived notions of how God works and accept that sometimes even those who think they know God the best may have it wrong.

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