Saturday, February 18, 2006

Questions...Earnest and Otherwise (Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time, Part 22)

[I have been far too slow about completing this series of blog posts which has a simple premise: I'm reading the Gospel of Matthew as paraphrased by the poet, scholar, and pastor Eugene Peterson with the idea of looking at Jesus with fresh eyes. I'm hopeful that in doing so, both those who have never read the Biblical accounts of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection and those who are familiar with them, will also see Him anew.

[I'm now at chapter 19 in this little project.]

(Peterson's paraphrase of the chapter, from The Message, can be found here.)

Sometimes as a Christian and a pastor, there are things I wish Jesus hadn't said. These things fall into two broad categories.

First, there are those things Jesus said that make me feel personally uncomfortable.

They're the sorts of statements that nail me whenever I'm feeling righteous and holier-than-everybody.

Or, that call me to account for some sin I'd even kept myself in the dark about, but which reading his words cast a light on, a light like those big spotlights that catch sight of escapees in those prison-break movies.

Or, Jesus calls me to do something I'd rather not do, like forgiving someone against whom I have a legitimate grudge.

Or, when He calls me to give up something that I find enjoyable or makes me feel superior to somebody else, like gossiping.

Jesus' words often smack me in the forehead like two-by-fours and when reading them, my first thought is to close my Bible and pretend I hadn't really read them at all, or that I hadn't read them correctly.

Second, there are those things Jesus said that, if I repeat them or affirm them, will probably cause people to call me to task for them and generally, get me into trouble with others.

A colleague from another denomination tells me that he suspects that lots of his fellow clergy feel discomfort with the words Jesus speaks about divorce at the beginning of this chapter, for example.

"They've cut some of it out of our lectionary [plan of Bible lessons for worship]," he said recently. Then with an impish--and I think, somewhat heroic--grin, he tells me, "I always put it back in."

The words Jesus speaks in this chapter are dangerous. They can lead some to take the wrong turn of spurning Jesus because they don't like what He says. They might lead others to the kind of self-righteousness that will separate people from God if they (and any of us) aren't careful.

Everything Jesus says here comes in response to questions, some earnestly offered, others rooted in agendas designed to entrap Him and pile up "evidence" to be used against Him later. But Jesus, wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove (what He once said all of His followers should be), is totally forthright as He faces down those whose questions are daggers aimed at His heart. He knows the agendas of His enemies.

He also knows the sincerity of the authentic searchers. To each, He gives straight answers.

So, put on your helmets and your body armor and delve into this chapter with me.

vv. 1-12: (1) Here, Jesus is confronted with a question by the Pharisees. The Pharisees were members of one of the main religious movements among first century Judeans. They thought, contrary to the teachings of the Bible, that one's relationship with God and eternal life are secured by adhering to rules. Jesus taught, as had the Old Testament, that while God's laws are useful guides for those who want to respond gratefully to God's love and blessings, a relationship with God comes to those who trustingly follow the God we see in Christ. (This is what the Bible is talking about when it speaks of faith.) The Pharisees were always trying to trip Jesus up. For more about the Pharisees, see here, here, and here, among other places you can google on this blog.

(2) Jesus says that the provision for divorce given by God through Moses, was "a concession to...[humanity's] hardheartedness." But, He goes on to say, "it's not part of God's original plan."

We all know that there are some marriages that must come to an end. Unrepentant adultery, indifference of commitment, and abuse all can end marriages long before judges declare unions legally finished. But every divorce, irrespective of how warranted it may be, is occasioned by somebody's sin, somebody's hardheartedness. Mature people can accept this.

One man, whose wife seemed incapable of remaining faithful to him, after going through counseling and repeatedly seeking reconciliation, finally decided that he had to end their marriage. Having prayed and counseled with the man for several years, I sadly agreed with his decision.

Often, after going through such an experience, the marital victim develops an attitude of self-righteousness. But this man told me, "Mark, I know that I had no choice but to go through with the divorce. I know too, that it wasn't my fault that she chose to live the way she did. But I also know that I brought my own sins to the table. There were things I did to sabotage our relationship. I bear some blame for the death of our marriage and it grieves me."

I told this man how healthy I thought that he was. Even when divorce is necessary--just as when war becomes necessary, or abortion, it happens because we human beings haven't quite figured out how to get along or resolve our differences. God made us to live in loving fellowship with others. He created marriage to be an indissoluble union between husband and wife.

(3) All of this points to an important truth about life with Jesus: The relationship with God that Jesus offers to all with faith in Him isn't something you can earn by abiding by holy laws. But Jesus isn't what's called an anomist. (The Greek word for law is nomos. To advocate anomia is to say that God's law is irrelevant and that what we do is immaterial.)

Jesus clearly said that God's law was inviolable. None of us is capable of perfect adherence to it. But Jesus fulfills it for us with totality. The New Testament makes clear that God expects absolute adherence to His law and that we human beings are incapable of such adherence. Christ, Who is not only God, but also a pure, sinless human being, takes our deserved punishment on the cross.

Once we have, by faith, received Christ and the new life He offers, God's law becomes a guide for those who want to gratefully respond to Him.

vv. 13-15: Children were disdained in Jesus' culture. But not by Jesus. He welcomed them and said that His kingdom was composed of people who, like children with parents or adults they trust, credulously placed themselves in His hands.

vv. 16-30: (1) A wealthy man asks Jesus what good thing he can do to "get eternal life." Jesus snares the man in the web of his self-righteousness by getting him to say that he had been obeying God's ten commandments all of his life. (Can you make that claim? I surely can't! I can't even say that about myself today or even about how I've lived or thought as I've been writing this post.)

Hearing this, Jesus wails at the wall obstructing this particular guy's relationship with God. He tells him, " go sell your possessions, give everything to the poor...Then come follow me."

In spite of behaving in an outwardly righteous manner, this man apparently had a different god he worshiped. The center of his existence was his money and all the comfort, power, influence, and ease it bought for him. He was so addicted to his god that when Jesus tried to get him to turn away from it, he turned away from Jesus instead.

Our gods may be other things beside money. The German theologian Paul Tillich, like Martin Luther before him, saw that this and other passages of the Bible demonstrate that whatever is most important in our lives is our god.

Jesus says, "Change your allegiance." Do what you must to make that happen and turn to Him. It only makes sense. Only the resurrected Savior will remain standing after all the little gods we worship are dead or destroyed. Only He can give us life with God that lasts forever!

In an earlier installment of this series, I told this true story:
A woman I met years ago told me the story of what happened to her after a little daughter died of leukemia at age 2. She and her husband had another daughter who was a year younger than the child who died. Because of the loss of the older baby and her overwhelming fear, this mother became overly protective of the younger girl. She rarely let her out of her sight and she showered her with attention and gifts.

One day, when the younger girl was two, the woman was visiting with friends. Suddenly, she realized that her daughter was gone, nowhere to be found in the house. They discovered her at the bottom of the friend's pool. She'd been there for awhile and it was doubtful that the little one would live. You can imagine the mother's agony!

But then something happened as she paced in an emergency room waiting area, offering up desperate prayers to heaven. "As I prayed," she told me, "I sensed God telling me, 'You shall have no other gods before Me.'" The words, of course, are the first commandment, found in the Old Testament book of Exodus.

The woman said that she felt God was telling her that she had made her child or being a good mother her deities. She spent each day anxiously pursuing that god, trying to placate the demands it placed on her life.

Any time we allow anyone or anything other than the God we meet in Jesus Christ to be our deity, we're engaged in religion and anxiety will be the result.

When we surrender to Jesus Christ, relationship--with God and with others--replaces religion and peace replaces anxiety. Not perfectly, of course. We're human beings; we carry a lot of baggage. But Jesus brings peace, freedom, and hope. Jesus frees us from religion.
(2) A common notion in first-century Judea was that wealth was a blessing from God for those who were especially righteous. No wonder then, that Jesus' disciples were flabbergasted when He said, while watching the wealthy man walk away:
"Do you have any idea how difficult it is for the rich to enter God's kingdom? Let me tell you, it's easier to gallop a camel through a needle's eye than for the rich to enter God's kingdom."
There is some dispute about what Jesus meant exactly in the use of this hyperbolic turn of phrase. Some scholars point to the fact that the small openings through which travelers arriving at a city after dark were called "the eye of the needle." These small entry points were meant to provide security to the city, typically surrounded by walls, accessible until sunset each day by gates that were locked once darkness fell. Those who wished to enter the towns once those gates were shut could enter if they unpacked their camels, making it possible for sentries to limit access and thwart attacks.

Other scholars though, say that this phrasing to describe those tiny access points to cities--eye of the needle--was only used many years after Jesus would have made His observation in Matthew 19. Jesus, they insist, had reference to the ridiculously impossible prospect of a camel getting through the eye of a needle used in sewing.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the effect of Jesus' metaphor is the same. A person of wealth confronts the peculiar temptation to rely on their cash, rather than on Christ.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with money. This is why the apostle Paul says that "the love of money [not money itself] is the root of all kinds of evil." Money is morally neutral. Our use of it and our relationship with it isn't neutral.

Most of us don't possess the capacity to resist the temptations to which money can give rise. (Which, since I constantly pray that He will allow me to remain close to Him, is probably why God has never allowed me to be wealthy.) The man who meets Jesus in Matthew 19 evidently doesn't possess the ability to relate to money as anything other than an idol.

[Here are links to preceding installments in this series:
Long-Awaited Savior
Scholars from the East
The Freedom to Be Weird
This is a Test
Trusting What You Can't See
The Theme Taken to Its Ultimate Expression
Explicating the Beatitudes...and More
Authenticity and Trust
Jesus' Radical Ethics
Friend of the Outcasts...
The Conflict Deepens
Guidelines for Loving the World for Christ
No More Religion!
The Subversive God
Stories About the Kingdom
The Emperor Who Had No Clothes vs. the God Clothed in Humanity
So Much for Being a Milquetoast
Don't Ignore the Obvious
Watch Out for Arrogance!]

Friday, February 17, 2006

FYI: I'm Not This Mark Daniels, Either

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post informing readers of this blog that I wasn't the same Mark Daniels who had started another blog.

Now, it seems, I need to do it again. I have no idea who the Mark Daniels is who wrote this piece. While there's nothing especially objectionable to it, it wasn't written by me. (I myself have always advocated praying for pols of all stripes and have never felt that one party had a special pipeline to God.)

That other Mark Daniels who isn't me wrote this.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Buckeyes' Loss in Wisconsin Can't Tarnish Remarkable Season

After beating Michigan at Ann Arbor for a tough Big Ten road win last week and then defeating Illinois in Columbus on Sunday, my beloved Buckeyes men's basketball team lost to Wisconsin at Madison last evening. (Check out these notes on the game, too.)

Still, the Buckeyes have an excellent chance of making a strong run in both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. The Ohio State team, which, as I've pointed out before, promises to be a major contender for the Big Ten and national titles next year, has given we Buckeye basketball fans an unexpectedly magical season in a year that most thought would see a solid, if unspectacular, record.

All four losses the Buckeyes have experienced have been on the road in the Big Ten, which is nothing for the team to be ashamed of in a conference where road wins are almost as rare as fairy dust. (Making the win in Michigan all the more remarkable!) That followed an undefeated record in non-conference play.

As I've explained before, I grew up in Columbus and am a graduate of The Ohio State University. (That's what we were taught to call it, even when we wrote our tuition checks.) When I was a kid, I dreamed of playing for the Buckeyes and emulating my heroes: Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Mel Nowell, Jim Bowman, and Dick Taylor. The dream ran into several problems: I "grew up" to be a slight 5'9", couldn't handle the ball, ran like I had barbells in my shorts, and could only play defense by getting myself into foul trouble at about two minutes into the first half. (I am though, still a fairly accurate shooter, especially at three-point range.)

I love OSU football. But Buckeye basketball is my real passion. So, this has been a great year for me as a fan, in spite of living in Cincinnati, where it seems that the local media basically only cover the Buckeyes when they can gloat over an OSU loss of some sort.

The Buckeyes next take on Northwestern at home, followed by Michigan State in East Lansing.

A Cheney Resignation? I Don't Think So...But the Historical Connection is Interesting

Peggy Noonan speculates about a possible resignation by Vice President Dick Cheney.

Blogger Rick Moore speculates that the prospect of that happening are at 50%.

My comments (with editorial corrections in brackets), for what they're worth:
I think the chances of a Cheney resignation are less than 5%, although it is interesting that it's being discussed.

Cheney stepping down would probably create more problems than the President would deem worthwhile. Whoever would be chosen, unless thought to be too old [to run in 2008] or [seen as] nothing more than a caretaker, would automatically be the frontrunner for the 2008 GOP nomination. This would turn the President into a kingmaker and probably so offend [Republican] presidential wannabes in Congress that it would scuttle whatever marginal chance Mr. Bush has of getting some portion of his program passed before January 20, 2009, when he's scheduled to step down.

If the President were to nominate some grey eminence or some clearly apolitical leader with no interest in running for President, unless the choice was a particularly creative one, [it] would probably not enhance GOP prospects in either 2006 [should the choice be made before this fall] or [in] 2008, although it might gain the President some points for statesmanship.

The President's best bet at this point is probably to keep the Veep ensconced deep in the bowels of the Eisenhower EOB [with instructions to] Scott McClellan to answer all inquiries with a standard answer, "Cheney? Cheney who?"

The interesting thing about all of this is that it comes in the wake of Move-On's attempt to paint Mr. Bush as Nixon-Resurrected. It was in the first year of Richard Nixon's second term that his Veep, Spiro Agnew, was forced to resign after pleading no contest to charges of accepting bribes while [he was] governor of Maryland. That was in October, 1973, putting that event [on the Nixon timeline] just five months ahead of where Mr. Bush finds his second administration today. Less than one year after Agnew's departure, RN became the first--and so far, only--President forced to resign. I'm sure that Move-On will continue to play up the analogy, aiming at similar results.

One thing about the Nixon analogy: In late-1973, his approval ratings in freefall and facing a Democratic-controlled Senate, where a new vice president would be confirmed, Nixon sought the counsel of Dem leaders as to who...could win quick approval for Vice President. Senate Democratic leader Mike Mansfield especially pushed then-House minority leader Gerald Ford. Nixon was more than willing to choose Ford, believing that Ford was so inept that the Michigan congressman would, in effect, be an insurance policy; Nixon was certan that no Dem would oust him if it meant that Ford would be elevated to the presidency. Nixon betted wrong and Ford was more effective than Nixon probably thought that he would be.

Today, of course, the Senate is controlled by Republicans. Yet, I think that, should the unlikely eventuality of a Cheney resignation happen, the President would be under some pressure to nominate a Republican of at least, a more moderate disposition, if not more moderate politics. Cheney, like Agnew, is seen as a partisan pit bull, although Agnew's reputation was born of attack speeches ("nattering nabobs of negativism," "an effete corps of impudent snobs") and Cheney's of behind-the-scenes infighting for his agenda.

I think that all of this is academic speculation, though. Barring some unknown circumstance, it's impossible for me to imagine Mr. Bush, every bit as stubborn and loyal as his father was, seeking or accepting a Cheney resignation.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Avian Flu Update #3: Migrating Birds Bring Disease Deep into Europe

This from The New York Times:
Health officials across Europe issued restrictions for commercial poultry farms Wednesday after reports that the deadly bird flu virus had turned up at a surprisingly early date in migratory birds in several Western European countries.

The virus was confirmed in mute swans in Greece, Bulgaria and Italy on Saturday, and in Germany on Wednesday. Likely cases were detected in the same species in Slovenia and Croatia on Sunday, Austria on Monday and Denmark on Tuesday.

Health officials had expected wild birds to carry the disease into Europe from Africa in the spring migration. But the swans were probably migrating south to wintering grounds on the Black Sea, officials said, and were driven west by unusually cold weather in Russia and Ukraine.
Just three days ago, an official in Bulgaria dismissed the possibility of an outbreak of the disease in his country. But now there are birds suffering from the disease there and only two more mutations are required for the H5N1 virus to begin spreading from human to human.

Is your community prepared?

Luncthime Thank-Yous

While eating my lunch--oatmeal, banana, baloney, I thought I'd link to some of the bloggers who've linked to this blog as a way of saying, "Thank you" and returning the love. I'm sure not to include everyone, for which I apologize in advance. (I'll link to all I know have this blog on their blogrolls in another post.)

Best of the Godblogs has linked to pieces here on several occasions.
John Schroeder at Blogotional has been very generous in his linking.
So has Rick Moore at Holy Coast.
Thanks to Tamar at Tamarika for several links.
And Annie at Ambivablog.
Thanks to Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit for several insta-lanches.
Charlie Lehardy always writes thoughtful pieces at AnotherThink and I'm honored by his links to this blog.
Thanks also to Hugh Hewitt for linking to several different posts.
Mark Roberts has been generous in his links and comments about them.
Tod Bolsinger of It Takes a Church has been more than gracious.
Craig Williams at Tabletalk...wonderful stuff!
I thank my friend, Richard Lawrence Cohen.
Thanks also go to the new radio host, Lores Rizkalla for links on her site, Just a Woman.
I had the honor of being the first commenter on Reader's blog, Either End of the Curve.
Jan at The View from Her has linked to this blog on several occasions.
Alex Jordan, the blogger with whom I interacted the most at last year's GodBlogCon, writes thoughtful pieces at Jordan's View and has been most encouraging to me.
Deborah White, committed Christian, liberal Dem, pro-life activist, and blogger extraordinaire has linked to my writings at several places, including here.
Then there's Pooh at The World According to Pooh. Thanks!
Timothy Thompson at Tim Thompson...Reflections has linked to this blog several times.
Thanks for the link at MC-Tech Solutions.
Joe Clifford Faust liked some of the things I had to say about Pat Robertson's social commentary recently.
Blogpulse Newswire gave mention of my short piece on Sir Tom Jones.
Thanks to Life in the Slow Lane for the links.
Someone is Watching linked to a piece I wrote about Matthew's account of Jesus' birth.
David Wayne of Jollyblogger linked to my article on the "canceling worship on Christmas" controversy and some other stuff.
Matthew Brown at Good Brownie (one of the cleverest blog names around) has also linked several times to Better Living.
Bruce Armstrong at Ordinary Everday Christian.
Thanks to a really bright young man, Spencer Troxell of Spencer Troxell Gets His Blog On.
Louie Marsh at The Marshian Chronicles.
Michael Meckler, author of my favorite blog on Ohio politics (and other stuff), at
Andrew Jackson at has linked here several times.
Ali at AliBlog is a wonderful writer and I'm honored that she has linked here several times.
Thanks to O
LaShawn Barber has also linked to Better Living.
Dave at Capital Region People linked to one of my pieces on the Paris Riots.
Chuck at The Chutry Experiment didn't agree with my assessment of 'The West Wing' debate.
Aaron Pina of A Ready Defense has also linked.
Nathaniel King of sophystication kindly linke to a piece I wrote about Narnia.
Mere-Orthodoxy did as well. Thanks!
Liz (ME) Strauss of Letting Me Be...Random Wondering and Philosophy has been a BL linker.
Bowden McElroy at Counseling Notes.
Dogmas of the Quiet Past linked to something I wrote about Christian faith and politics.
Attention Span linked to one of my posts on James Dobson.
Thanks to The Lazy Eye.
Thanks also to Mike's Noise. His site is a great place to go for music history, especially jazz!
All Things Beautiful, a site which I frankly don't always "get," has linked here.
Thanks to Tom Parsons, aka: Daddypundit.
The "blog between church and state," Fishkite, has been a BL linker.
Curt Hendley at The Happy Husband liked my piece on lessons I've learned from thirty-one years of marriage.
Iowa Voice cited other comments I made here about Pat Robertson.
PSoTD linked to my thirty-first wedding anniversary, too.
Sofa Sayings kindly linked to my piece on 'The Pictures in Our Minds.'
So did Rob Asghar at Dime Store Pundit. (And a lot of other times, for which I'm grateful.)
So did Don at It's What I Do.
Transterrestrial Musings liked the lessons I've learned about marriage.
Lunar World has been a linker. Thanks!
Thanks to Peter Bradley at Lex Communis.
And to the South Dakota-based Ridgecrest Blog.
Thanks to Stones Cry Out.
Ann Althouse at Althouse.
Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice has linked to this blog several times.

And of course (drumroll), there's my kid brother, the very funny comedian, Marty Daniels. This is his blog and this is his web site. (Go to his web site and find out how you can book Marty for a show at your corporate banquet, community festival, restaurant, or whatever. Marty really is smart, clean, and funny! I am prejudiced, but he is talented!

Thanks to all of you! Keep on blogging!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Valentine's Day Thoughts (Column Version)

[I write a column called Better Living for a chain of suburban Cincinnati newspapers. I adapted my lengthy Valentine's Day Thoughts post here and turned it into a column. Hopefully, the same basic message comes through.]

I recently made a discovery: Although I’ve prepared a fresh sermon for every wedding over which I’ve presided during the last twenty-one years, I really only have one wedding sermon.

It follows a pattern similar to those old anti-drug public service announcements in which we see an egg in a frying pan and hear a voice-over announcer say, “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?”

I start by saying, “This is love” and then typically quote the words of Saint Paul in the Bible’s famous “love chapter,” First Corinthians 13. Paul says, among other things that, “...Love cares more for others than for self...doesn't want what it doesn't have...doesn't strut, doesn't have a swelled head, doesn't force itself on others, isn't always ‘me first,’ doesn't fly off the handle, doesn't keep score of the sins of others, doesn't revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back [and] keeps going to the end” (That’s from verses 4-7 in The Message paraphrase).

If put to a vote, most people, no matter their religion or even if they have no religion, would agree, “Yep, that's what love is like.” They’d also acknowledge that for relationships to work, love like that--committed, perseverant, forgiving, charitable, selfless--has to exist. This is love.

Which brings the next point in my one and only wedding sermon: No human being can love like that on their own steam. “Yes, I can!” you may object. Speaking for myself and, I’m confident, for all but one of the six-billion inhabitants of the planet, I can only say, “You may be the exception, but I doubt it.” We’re so mired in ourselves that no matter our good intentions, resolutions, or passions, at some point, our capacity to love spouses, children, parents, friends, and neighbors with the love that Paul portrays will break down. We’ll gloat when we’re right, take the bigger piece of cake, make dinner plans without consulting our spouse, go berserk when the child does some innocuous thing of which we don’t approve, and smirk when Mr. Success gets his comeuppance.

Love, it turns out, is not about what we feel. Feelings change. Love is about what we do for the good of others, often in spite of how we feel. So, we know what love is and how essential it is for the success of our relationships. We also know we can’t muster that kind of love under our own power.

So, here’s the third part of my one wedding sermon: The love that we can’t personally manufacture, we can import from God. This is how I talked about it in the wedding message for my friends, Jim and Nancy, last year:

“When I blow it again in my life [failing to muster real love],...I need to ask God to fill me with [His] love...And [I’ve learned that] a God Who went to a cross and rose from death, all because of His passionate and unconditional love for us...’ answers that prayer."

To have the love required to make all of our relationships work, we need to go into the import business. Those with surrendered hearts and open wills can import the love they need for strong marriages, good family relationships, and wonderful friendships when they ask for them from the God Whose heart of passionate, committed love has been made plain for all to see in Jesus Christ.

If you’re ever present at a wedding over which I preside, the words of the sermon I deliver may differ from this. But not the message.

Some Valentine's Day Thoughts

It's Valentine's Day. (It's Saint Valentine's Day, actually. But I won't quibble.) The theme of this day is love, or at least some versions of that term.

The Bible has a thing or two to say about this subject, understandable since it's God's Word and one of the Biblical writers, John, summarizes God's character by saying simply that, "God is love."

In twenty-one years as a pastor, I've presided over many weddings and one of the themes that most couples seem anxious to underscore when they marry is love. Often, they pick the Bible's so-called love chapter, First Corinthians, chapter 13, to be read during the ceremony. But I sometimes wonder if they know what they're doing. The portrait of love painted by the writer of the passage, Paul of Tarsus, is, well, downright scary.

In Eugene Peterson's rendering of the passage, it reads like this:
1If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don't love, I'm nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.

2If I speak God's Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, "Jump," and it jumps, but I don't love, I'm nothing.

3If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don't love, I've gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I'm bankrupt without love.

4Love never gives up.

Love cares more for others than for self.

Love doesn't want what it doesn't have.

Love doesn't strut,

Doesn't have a swelled head,

5Doesn't force itself on others,

Isn't always "me first,"

Doesn't fly off the handle,

Doesn't keep score of the sins of others,

6Doesn't revel when others grovel,

Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,

7Puts up with anything,

Trusts God always,

Always looks for the best,

Never looks back,

But keeps going to the end.

8Love never dies. Inspired speech will be over some day; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. 9We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. 10But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled.

11When I was an infant at my mother's breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good.

12We don't yet see things clearly. We're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won't be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We'll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!

13But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.
The first thing that should be pointed out about this passage is that Paul didn't write it for weddings. In fact, he didn't even write it regarding marital relationships.

The words were written to a first-century church in the city of Corinth that had a problem. Some people who had the gift of tongues, the ability to speak in a kind of heavenly language, claimed to be spiritually superior to the people in that church to whom God had chosen not to grant that gift.

It had created a rift within the congregation, one faction composed of spiritual snobs who spoke in tongues and the other nursing resentments, legitimate and otherwise, against the first group.

Why this particular spiritual gift became such a bone of contention, I'm not sure. But jealousy and envy, even among Christians, because other people have gifts and blessings we don't have is a chronic human problem. "She's popular and I'm not. I hate her." "He seems to have the ability to make sound investments and I can't even balance my check book. What a creep he is!" "He's a great mechanic and I can't even pound a nail in straight. He's so stuck-up." It happens to preachers, too, this jealousy thing, "Why does he or she have a big church with an ample budget and I have to struggle all the time?" "Why are people so wowed by so-and so's preaching? What am I, chopped liver?"

And when it comes to what the Bible calls spiritual gifts, those special endowments granted to all Christians, for the good of the whole Church and for our own areas of service in the world, we never seem happy with what God has chosen to give to us. "I seem to have the gift of service, but I'd like to be a leader!" "I have the gift of being an administrator. But that's backroom stuff. I'd much rather have something that will get me notice, like the gift of teaching."

Nothing is more destructive of relationships than envy and jealousy. That's exactly why Paul wrote this portrait of love.

Recently I've discovered that, though I write a new sermon for every wedding, I really only have one wedding sermon. Each time I stand before a couple, I deliver exactly the same message, whether this passage for First Corinthians is read or not. It's sort of like that old anti-drug PSA that showed an egg in a frying pan in which a narrator said, "This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?" My wedding sermons begin something like this, "This is love. We can't love like this..."

And I really believe that we can't love like this. Not on our own steam anyway.

Has any human being in the history of the world--apart from Adam and Eve before they fell into sin and Jesus, Who also happened to be God and was conceived in Mary's womb by the Holy Spirit--loved anybody else--be they lover, child, friend, enemy--in ways that conform with Paul's daunting description in First Corinthians 14:4-7?

I know that I haven't!

And I've never met anybody who has.

And yet, we all acknowledge that for our relationships to work, there must be love.
Not the syrupy, banal stuff sold as love by the writers of romance novels, the composers of sappy songs, or the creators of greeting cards.

Not the "love" that the diamond-sellers and florists say can be measured in how much we spend.

Not the "love" that views our beloved as someone we can use, per Bob Seger in Night Moves, most rap artists, and the cynics who churn out pornography.
Love, according to the Bible, isn't even primarily about our feelings at all. Love is a tough-minded commitment to the good of others.

Love says, "No matter what. No matter how often I may fail. No matter how often you fail. No matter how angry I may get at you. No matter how angry you may get with me. No matter what hard times we go through. No matter how dizzying our successes. No matter how my ego may be tempted to walk away from my commitment to you as a spouse, a child, a parent, a friend, a neighbor. No matter, I am committed to doing and thinking and living and striving for what's best for you."

Love moves away from looking out for number one. Love looks out for us, partners in a community of mutual commitment that includes God and you and me.

If that portrait doesn't frighten you, go back and read Paul's words again until you do get good and frightened. Until you can declare, "This is love. This is how I need to live. And I don't know how to live this way," you're not ready to read what I have to say next.

All of which leads to the third point I make with every couple over whose wedding I preside as they stand before the altar to become husband and wife. I put it this way at the wedding of my friends, Jim and Nancy, last year:
I wish that I had some pearls of wisdom with which I could dazzle you and everyone else who’s here today. But I’ve found that most of my wisdom is of the imported, downloaded variety, not original with me. I hope that it won’t surprise you that most of it has come from the Bible and has, without any exception that I can think of, been confirmed by my experiences in life...

When I blow it again in my life [failing to muster the love needed to make my relationships work], I realize again what I need to do. I need to ask God to fill me with love I simply cannot muster on my own. And a God Who went to a cross and rose from death, all because of His passionate and unconditional love for us, is fully capable of filling us with the love we need to make our marriages and other important relationships work.

After nearly thirty-one years of marriage, this is one thing that I have learned: The best way to begin a marriage is by asking God to help us to love each other fully and unconditionally, even when we may be displeased with one another. And the best way to keep it going and strong is by asking God to help us love each other fully and unconditionally, even when we may be displeased with one another...

...if I could summarize my message for you today, it would be this: Go into the import business. Keep importing God’s love into your lives and your marriage and the wonderful love that exists between you today will only keep growing!
"This is what love is like: selfless and giving even when we're not happy with the one to whom we're committed. We can't love like this because we're human. But those with repentant hearts and open wills can import the love they need from the God Whose heart of passionate, committed love has been made plain for all to see in Jesus Christ. Any questions?"

[Previous posts on this subject:
It's Time to Dethrone Romance
Celebrating Thirty-One Years of Marriage: Ten Things I've Learned
God and Sex]

Monday, February 13, 2006

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Mark 2:1-12

[Each week, I present my thoughts "on the fly" regarding the Bible lesson on which worship at our congregation, Friendship Lutheran Church, will be built the following weekend. I do this mainly to help the people of Friendship get ready for worship. But because I mostly use the lectionary--the Bible lesson plan--used by the vast majority of Christians around the world, hopefully others will find it helpful, too.]

The Text: Mark 2:1-12
1When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. 3Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. 5When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7“Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? 9Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? 10But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” —he said to the paralytic— 11“I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” 12And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
A Few General Comments
Both in terms of Mark's telling of the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection and the working of the Church Year, this is a transitional text.

In chapter 1 of Mark's breathless, journalistic account, Jesus has performed many miracles, signs of Who He is as Messiah and enfleshed God. Throughout the chapter, He's hailed as the mighty miracle-worker who is bringing a new teaching from God.

Except for the disappointment likely to have been felt by Simon and companions when Jesus refused to back into Capernaum in order to heal more people or the disobedience displayed by the cleansed leper who told others what Jesus had done for him, Jesus hasn't until this section of Mark encountered any conflict. He has been in a period of His ministry known to every leader--whether of corporations, universities, countries, towns, villages, social service agencies, unions, and churches: the honeymoon phase.

In a way, our Bible lesson presents us with yet another account of a healing by Jesus, akin to several that have been given in Mark's first chapter. But a new element is introduced here, too, one that will become increasingly prominent in Mark's telling of Jesus' story: Jesus is in conflict with others, specifically here with the religious elite. These conflicts will grow until Jesus is largely abandoned, the whole known world, Jewish and Gentile, content to have Him dead.

So, in terms of Mark's narrative, we're moving away from the unadulterated adulation Jesus has so far enjoyed to the beginning indicators of His eventual rejection by the world, from healing stories (and exorcisms) to controversy stories. This bloc runs from Mark 2:1 through 3:6, with an additional such story at Mark 3:20-30.

In terms of the Church Year, on this second-to-last weekend of the Epiphany Season, this Bible lesson gives us a foretaste of Jesus' death on a cross, a major theme of the upcoming Lenten Season, the dramatic climax of which will be Good Friday when the death of Jesus is remembered in solemn commemorations. Lent this year will begin on March 1.

Verse-by-verse comments
v. 1: (1) At the end of the first chapter, because of the disobedience of the cleansed man (Mark 1:40-45), Jesus has been forced to spend time in the wilderness.

The Greek word in the New Testament is, eremos, which can mean country and desert, as well as wilderness. It's the same word used to describe the place to which Jesus went when He was tempted by the devil and where He spiritually refueled after His first foray into public ministry. It earlier described, too, the place from which John the Baptizer proclaimed his message of repentance. The term also conjures images of Genesis 2:4ff, the second of the Genesis creation accounts, which portrays God bringing life to a dead desert. One other connection the word suggests is to memories of the people of God, sprung by God from their slavery in Egypt, wandering in the desert wilderness in the Old Testament book of Exodus, on their way to the promised land.

Now though, Jesus returns to Capernaum, which Mark portrays as Jesus' home. Several commentators believe that Mark implies Jesus tried to slip into the city unnoticed, but to no avail. In light of Mark 1:45, this makes sense.

(2) The text says that in Capernaum, Jesus was at home. Did Jesus actually own a home in Capernaum? Both Matthew 4:13 and John 2:12 might lend themselves to supporting such an idea, although most scholars believe that this was Peter's place and Jesus used it as His home during His ministry. This would make sense in light of the fact that Peter, as a fisherman, was probably well-off, the owner of an ample home.

v. 2: (1) Surrounded by the crowds, Jesus teaches at his home, rather than at the synagogue.

(2) So far in Mark's Gospel, the only specific quotation from Jesus' teaching or preaching is Mark 1:15. I would surmise that this same simple, urgent message is "the word" that's mentioned here.

vv. 3-4: (1) According to The Interpeter's Bible:
A village roof in Palestine was made of saplings laid flat, with branches and twigs spread over them, and clay patted down over this and baked in the sun...
Such a roof would have been easy to tear into in order to lower a paralyzed man on a mat into a house by way of ropes.

It was, according to the Broadman Bible Commentary, common for houses in that region to have external stairways that led to their roofs.

(2) The term paralytic, which transliterates the term used in the original Greek of Mark's book, paralytikos, doesn't necessarily exactly equate with how we would use the term today. According to Brian Stoffregen, "it could refer to any type of 'lameness' or 'weakness' as the phrase 'paralyzed knees' in Hebrews 12:12 seems to suggest. We can't know the exact infirmity of the man who was brought to Jesus, except that he was unable to walk."

(3) In these verses, apart from another attribute that Jesus will note in v. 5, the men who lower the lame man into the house also exhibit friendship, persistence, and one of the two essential ingredients of prayer, desperation. (The other is faith, with which we'll deal momentarily.)

v. 5: (1) Whose faith does Jesus observe? Some scholars believe that it was that of the four men who lowered the paralytic to Jesus. They undoubtedly were included in Jesus' observations. But why not include the paralytic in their number, too? Is it likely that the friends would have brought the paralytic to Jesus without his consent? Whoever the they of "their faith" may be, faith is shown to be a dynamic thing. One acts on faith. It isn't a sit-back and do-nothing attribute.

(2) Stoffregen points out that "whenever 'faith' mentioned in conjunction with miracles, it seems to imply perseverance---overcoming obstacles in order to get to Jesus."

(3) Stoffregen also says that the "next time 'pistis' [the Greek word for faith] is used, Jesus is criticizing his disciples for having no faith (4:40). Instead they were afraid..."

(4) The ancient Hebrews believed that before any physical healing could come to a person, first they needed forgiveness of their sins. This was rooted in their notion that illness was punishment from God for sin. There is simply no evidence to suggest that Jesus ever thought this, as can be seen from His willingness to heal all sorts of folks and to touch those society deemed untouchable (Mark 1:40-45).

So why is it that the first thing that Jesus tells the paralytic is that his sins are forgiven? Stoffregen says:
The fact that he is declared forgiven while he remains paralyzed indicates that his relationship with God is not dependent upon his health or illness. Jesus, by forgiving first, without any healing, is attacking the common belief that sin caused his paralysis...Jesus' words and actions undermine the common religious thinking of his day.
I believe that we can go one step further and say that by pronouncing the man's forgiveness, a consequence that always flows from coming to Jesus Christ in submissive faith, Jesus has done much more for this man--and something of more enduring value--than He will do in providing him with physical healing.

It's interesting too, that any notion that Jesus is refuting the idea that the man's sin caused his condition by offering forgiveness before the man even thinks to ask for it.

vv. 6-7: (1) Scribes were the professional teachers of Scripture in first-century Judea. The Interpreter's Bible points out that their questioning has a strong foundation in the Old Testament. Leviticus 43:25, for example, says that only God can forgive sins. Leviticus 24:16 says that the penalty for blasphemy is death by stoning.

Blasphemy, by the way, is defined at as:
1 a A contemptuous or profane act, utterance, or writing concerning God or a sacred entity.
b The act of claiming for oneself the attributes and rights of God.
2 An irreverent or impious act, attitude, or utterance in regard to something considered inviolable or sacrosanct.
If Jesus weren't God-in-the-flesh, He would be totally out of line to declare people forgiven. Of course, Jesus has specifically given the Church the responsibility for declaring forgiveness in His Name (Matthew 16:19).

v. 8: Jesus' understanding of the thoughts of the scribes was intuited supernaturally.

vv. 9-10: I love The Interpreter's Bible's explanation of what Jesus says to the scribes:
It was obviously easier to utter idle words in the name of God than to enable a paralytic to walk...
But in order to demonstrate His authority to forgive sins, Jesus then heals the paralytic.

This underscores the place of miracles in Jesus' ministry (and even the ministries of the modern Church). They are signs that point to Jesus' deity and to His ability to deal with our most basic issue as human beings, the condition of sin which alienates from God, the source of life, and from each other.

This is what Jesus means in verse 10, when He tells the scribes His reason for healing the paralytic, to demonstrate that "the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on the earth."

v. 11: (1) Here's the point at which "the rubber hits the road" for the paralytic. Jesus commands him to get up, take his mat, and go home. At that moment, the man had to decide if he had sufficient faith in Jesus to follow this command. While Jesus certainly knew how the man would respond, the man didn't. Until we dare to act consistently with the trust in God we profess, our faith is just yammering or an intellectual belief system.

(2) In last Sunday's text, Jesus effectually traded places with a leprous man. Stoffregen points out that after time in the wilderness during which He couldn't be "at home," Jesus was now making it possible for this healed paralytic to walk to his own home and there enjoy the simple blessings of daily domesticity. Jesus couldn't really enjoy these; He was always surrounded by crowds. Once again, it seems, Jesus is exchanging places with someone.

v. 12: The crowds, as happens with all miracle stories, are understandably amazed!

One final note: Stoffregen rightly points out that as we progress through his narrative, Mark is showing us how as Jesus progressed in His ministry. Jesus made progressively larger claims for His authority. Stoffregen writes:
There is an expanding arena of Jesus' authority: in his teaching; over unclean spirits; and now over sin and disease. Each time it produces some kind of amazement among the people--a reaction that will continue throughout Mark. Jesus continually surprises the people all the way until the empty tomb.
I hope to present more reflections and ideas on the text later in the week.

Two Items of Interest

Before closing the book on the Bible passage that was the basis for our congregation's worship this past weekend, Mark 1:40-45, here are two items of interest:
A moving sermon on the text by novelist Frederick Buechner.
An interesting overview of Hansen's Disease, from

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom!

The opera world needs a jolt. Or so thinks Peter Gelb, about to take over as director of New York's Metropolitan Opera. Critic Anthony Tommasini explains:
In a recent interview, Mr. Gelb said that contemporary opera could use a jolt from composers who have worked in musical theater, jazz and popular music. He also said that the opera world had much to learn from the Broadway model of working on a show for months in advance, with members of the creative team bickering and bartering, revising, throwing out songs, writing new ones, jiggling the book, trying to get things right.

So he is inaugurating a collaborative program with the Lincoln Center Theater. Nine composers of diverse profiles will initially take part, ranging from the elegant musical theater composers Adam Guettel and Jeanine Tesori, to the brash (some would say crass) contemporary classical composer Michael Torke. Wynton Marsalis has been tapped from the world of jazz. The gifted pop singer and songwriter Rufus Wainwright, a passionate opera buff, will try his hand at writing one. Scott Wheeler — who, in the interest of full disclosure, is a good friend of mine — is a more proven choice. His "Democracy," commissioned by Pl├ícido Domingo for the Washington National Opera, had a successful premiere there last year.

Mr. Gelb's idea is that as these operas are written, they will be developed in workshops, where problems can be assessed and changes made. Some will make it to full productions at the Met. Others may be found more suitable for the smaller stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Then again, a work may be deemed unsuccessful and not produced at all.
Tommasini has some reservations, though. For one thing, he appears to believe that rather than wasting time on the development of crossover composers, the Met should focus on the cultivation of known opera talents, encouraging them to "think big."

He also feels that dabbling in musical theater is not what the Met should be about. No matter how dismaying Mr. Gelb may find the overcommercialization of that genre, Tommasini argues, it's not the job of the Met to develop productions which, ultimately may be appropriate as a sort of musical comedy, rather than as an opera.

He further wonders whether the workshop approach Gelb is instituting--working with composers who haven't previously written operas--will be fruitful.

Yet Tommasini isn't just throwing stones. He concludes:
Still, through this program Mr. Gelb will at least keep essential questions about the nature of contemporary musical drama before the public for years to come. Meanwhile, in his quest to shake up the Met, he is skewering sacred cows. He plans, for example, to replace the Met's hugely popular production of "Tosca," a Zeffirelli extravaganza, with something grippingly modern for the incandescent soprano Karita Mattila, possibly directed by George C. Wolfe. I can't wait.
Speaking as someone who isn't really into opera or into classical symphonic music, either, I can vouch for the interest that's roused in me when I learn that Elvis Costello has written an opera, or that Billy Joel has written pieces in the classical genre for piano, or that Paul McCartney has composed a symphonic poem, an oratorio, and a stream of chamber pieces. It causes me to, at least occasionally, listen to classical music while pecking away at the computer. When I like something I hear, I even periodically buy a CD that wouldn't have otherwise interested me.

Don't you think that Bruce Springsteen has an opera ready to erupt from his volcanic mind? What might Stevie Wonder, with his penchant for storytelling and melody, do in an operatic production? And isn't a shame that Roy Orbison, with his penchant for passion and pathos, didn't write some symphonic pieces? And Bono, in his homage to his late father, has already talked about the "opera in me." Just imagine any number of rappers being set loose to work with classical music or with operas.

Music isn't static. It's dynamic. Every genre of music is the result of some fusion and cross-pollenation, of permutations that some composer created, deliberately or unwittingly. When it comes to music, I say, "Let a thousand flowers bloom." And if the peonies find a way to pollenate the roses, the result may be awful. But it could be stunning. The only way to know for sure is for composers to try. The Met appears committed to helping them to do just that.

Possible New Bird Flu Deaths in Iraq?

This from the New York Times.

How long before al Qaeda accuses the US of causing the birds to migrate to Iraq?

And it's interesting that so far, deaths appear to have occurred among Kurds and Shiites, but not the Sunnis. I can't believe that no one has tried to make something of that yet, especially in a region so marked by deep suspicions.

Praying the Alabama Church Arsonist Gets Caught

Or arsonists, as the FBI seems to intimate. A tenth church building was set ablaze on Saturday.

But this time, the fire wasn't set during the darkness of the pre-dawn hours. This one happened in the afternoon.

That appears to be typical of people who perpetrate crimes like these. They become emboldened by the notoriety of their crimes, certain that they can act with impunity. In the meantime, they create more clues by which investigators eventually find them.

Question About Cheney's Quail-Hunting Accident

Why was Mr. Cheney hunting a former Vice President in the first place? (I know that it's Q-u-a-y-l-e. But you know how many variant spellings there are. You know, like potato[e].)

In comments here, Pooh quoted that master hunter, Elmer Fudd, who said, "Be vewy, vewy quiet. I'm hunting wabbits."

Pooh also linked to this post in which it's suggested that Mr. Cheney was emulating a former Vice President, Aaron Burr, who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel.

Fortunately, it's possible to laugh a little bit about this incident because Harry Whittington, the accidental victim, will recover.

[For some reason though, I keep remembering History of the World, Part 1, in which Mel Brooks plays King Louis XVI. Told that the peasants were revolting in one scene, Brooks' Louis responds, "You're not kidding. They stink on ice." But when told that the people were alienated from their monarch, Brooks' Louis seems to be hurt. "They are my people. I am their king," he says, explaining their mystical connection. This happens while Louis is out shooting clay pigeons. After making this speech, he yells, "Pull!" Instead of a clay pigeon though, a peasant is catapulted into the air and Louis fires away. Does Dick Cheney, by any chance, think that lawyers stink on ice? Just wondering.]

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Avian Flu Update #2

I've resolved to present information on the Avian Flu virus and its potential mutation into a human-to-human contagion. The virus has been contracted by human beings who have had direct contact with poultry, of course, and has proven extremely deadly. With two slight mutations, health care officials tell us, humans will be able to contract the disease in the same ways other viruses are passed along. The potential for a horrible pandemic is immense. We must be prepared.


  • Write federal and state officials, urging them to stockpile more sufficient supplies of Tamiflu, a drug that may help persons who contract Avian Flu to survive
  • Urge local officials, the company you work for, and the church you attend to develop plans in case an Avian Flu outbreak occurs
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Learn the "elementary school teacher" way of covering your mouth when you cough, coughing on your arm, on the inside crease of your elbow
  • Educate yourself about Avian Flu and its risks (this blog is one place you can go for information)
  • Pray that this disease can be contained and that a major killing pandemic be averted. Ask God to empower and inspire the efforts of government leaders and public health officials to avoid a disaster.
Here are some links to articles about Avian Flu that have come out in the last 24-hours:
A Basic Avian Flu Q-and-A from the Orlando Sentinel
A Good Summary of Yesterday's Statement by the UN Bird Flu Chief
British Plans for Dealing with Avian Flu (including a poultry registry for flocks exceeding 50 birds)
Here are links to past informative articles, as well as posts I've written on various aspects of the Avian Flu threat:
BBC Q-and-A on Avian Flu (the best introduction I've found)
Eyewitness: Surviving Bird Flu (story of a rare human survivor of the disease, whose brother succumbed to it)
Officials Warn of Catastrophic Flu Pandemic
Drugs Plug Gap Ahead of Flu Vaccine
Who Besides Governments Should Have Avian Flu Pandemic Plans?
What Are Implications of Avian Flu for 2008 Presidential Race?

Touched, Cleansed, and Sent

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church during worship celebrations on February 11 and 12, 2006.]

Mark 1:40-45

I’m going to do a very dangerous thing today. I usually begin my messages with a story designed to get you interested. But no story today! My plan is to simply retell the incident from Jesus’ ministry that’s in our Bible lesson. It’s about a man suffering from leprosy and how Jesus healed him.

Today, when we use the word leprosy, we have a specific malady in mind. It’s called Hansen’s Disease. It’s caused by a virus which was discovered by a Dr. Armauer Hansen back in the 1870s. According to one source, it’s a “a chronic infectious disease caused by [a] bacteria... [It]...can cause severe deformity of the feet, hands and face....The infection leads to a loss of sensation in the affected areas.”

In Biblical times though, the word leprosy was used to describe a whole host of different diseases that caused skin lesions or loss of feeling, especially in the extremities. For people who lived in those times, leprosy was much more than a physical ailment. It was also a spiritual and social affliction.

Once a person was certified as suffering from leprosy, he or she was considered dirty and unfit for fellowship with God or people. For fear that others would somehow contract their disease, lepers had to leave home, family, and work behind. They were barred from worshiping at the Temple or at local synagogues. People often threw stones at them to keep them at bay. So that others could see and avoid them, lepers were required to wear torn clothing, leave their hair dissheveled, and shout out, “Unclean! Unclean!” when they walked down the street. The leper lived a lonely and isolated life.

As our Bible lesson for today begins, Jesus is met by a leprous man. It was a cheeky thing for the leper to do, a brazen act born of desperation! He “came to [Jesus] begging Him, and kneeling he said to [Jesus], ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’”

Did the man think that Jesus was God? Some scholars say he did; others say he didn’t. But whatever the truth is about that, two things are certain: The man had heard of Jesus’ reputation as a miracle-worker and he was desperate for an end to his uncleanness. He wanted not only to be cured of his physical ailment, but cleansed so that once more, he could live, work, be with his family, and worship.

I love the way the leper puts his request to Jesus: “If you choose...” He believes unquestioningly that Jesus is capable of bringing an end to his suffering. He’s heard the reports of what Jesus has done in other places. Because Jesus is the sovereign Lord of the universe, we know as we read about this incident that Jesus is capable of saying, “Yes!” to the man’s request. But the leper also knows that whether Jesus does that or not is entirely up to Jesus.

For those of us who, like me, have never suffered much in our lives, this attitude of complete surrender may be difficult to understand. My observation is that his attitude isn't hard to understand for those who have suffered a lot, though.

My friend Ron, who many of you have met, is a wonderful and inspiring pastor. He was also among the last Americans to be hit by polio. Infantile paralysis, as it was called, is a disease of which our young people may never have heard. It was horrible and it was frightening. Then, in the 1950s and 1960s came the Salk and Sabin vaccines, effectively ending the disease in our country.

Those cures came too late for Ron, though. In the fifty-plus years since he contracted Polio, Ron has become increasingly immobilized. Today, he’s confined to a wheelchair. I’m sure that there have been times when Ron and his family have prayed that his affliction be taken away. But I have never heard Ron complain about his lot in life. I’ve never heard him rail against God. Instead, he's been a source of hope and faith in Jesus Christ for thousands of people, including me.

Like the leper who approached Jesus and asked to be cleansed, Ron also surrenders to Jesus. When he prays the words that Jesus teaches us to pray, “Your will be done,” Ron seems to really mean it! So did the leper that day he bowed at Jesus' feet.

Our translation tells us that on seeing and hearing the leper, Jesus was “moved with pity.” That’s an okay rendering of the passage, but it doesn’t quite get at how deep and dramatic Jesus’ response to this man’s pleading was.

You see, first-century Judeans didn’t think that our emotions were centered in our hearts. They thought our emotions were centered in our guts, literally in our bowels. (Anyone who's ever had to endure the stage fright associated with making a public speech will probably say that they were onto something. But it is hard to imagine a picture of bowels on a Hallmark Valentine's Day card, isn't it?) Mark effectively says that Jesus’ feelings about this man were like a mammoth volcano in His gut! He felt compassion for the leper down in the very core of His being! That’s exactly how passionately God loves and cares about each of us.

But Jesus moved beyond mere feelings to do the incredible. He “stretched our His hand and touched” the leper while saying that He did choose to cleanse him. “Be made clean!” Jesus says. Now I am amazed that Jesus cleansed this man. But I am even more amazed that Jesus touched him.

Nobody touched lepers. The person who did was considered unclean themselves. It was as though they had contracted leprosy. They would have been barred from Judea’s religious life. They too would be required, as the Old Testament book of Leviticus said of lepers, to go to a priest to be certified that they were clean and worthy of being around others. In a very real sense, Jesus exchanged places with this man. The celebrated teacher and miracle-worker had taken the place of someone spurned and rejected and sidelined.

That in fact, is exactly what Jesus has done for all of us. He went to a cross not because He deserved to be executed, but because we deserve to be executed. He went there not because of His sins--He had no sins. He went there because of our sins. The New Testament says that God the Father made Jesus the very embodiment of “sin, [He] Who had no sin.” Because Jesus exchanged places with us, accepting the punishment we’ve earned, all with faith in Him, all who surrender to Him and to His Lordship over their lives, and all who repudiate their sin can live with God forever. Don't ever get over the miracle of that, folks!

The leper, Mark tells us, was cleansed immediately. (Immediately is one of the Gospel of Mark's favorite words, appearing there some forty times.)

Then, Jesus warned the man not to tell anybody about what had happened. Why did Jesus say that?

For the same reason that Jesus had told others not to go blabbing about Him before His crucifixion and resurrection. The new life that Jesus offers, a life unencumbered by the burdens of sin and death, a life that's whole and everlasting, is free. We can’t earn the new life that Jesus offers as a free gift. But the only way we can grab hold of Jesus’ gifts is if we lay down all the junk we try so hard to hold onto: selfishness, self-promotion, self-justification, and our favorite sins, whatever they may be. The cross makes it clear that Jesus hasn't come to be a genie at our behest. He's come to deal with out most basic problem: our alienation from God, the source of life, an alienation rooted in a condition called sin.

The New Testament writer Paul says that the old self must be crucified so that the new self can rise with Jesus. Even Jesus’ closest followers had the mistaken idea that Jesus had come to do miracles for them. They thought that Jesus was a king who had come to do their bidding. It was only after Jesus died and rose from the dead that they realized He had come to change their characters, fitting them for eternity with God. That begins when we admit our need of Savior Who'll take the cross for our sins, not a heavenly rabbit’s foot.

Jesus told the leper to go straight to a priest to be certified as cleansed and therefore, worthy to return to normal life. But of course, the guy couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He told everybody about what Jesus had done for him.

I wondered as I studied this passage this week, what would I happen if I stood up here and told people not to talk about Jesus. Would we all go out and evangelize the world?

But the fact is that on this side of Jesus’ death and resurrection, you and I have been given different marching orders from those Jesus gave the cleansed man. Our call is to tell our friends, family, co-workers, and fellow students: “Jesus touched me and cleansed me of my sins. He’s made me right with God. He’s given me a new life. He can do the same for you.”

When the leper, in what one commentator called, “exuberant disobedience,” told how Jesus had made him whole, the crowds flocked after Jesus.

Maybe if, in response to Jesus’ commission that we make disciples and be His ambassadors, we told people how Jesus has made us whole, crowds would flock to Him again. Maybe if in exuberant obedience to Jesus, we told others about Christ, our community would begin to change as more and more people, like the leper, surrendered to Him and felt His touch in their lives.

One of my favorite musicians is the Canadian folk rocker, Bruce Cockburn. After he had gained fame in Canada, Cockburn became a Christian. Although he’s never lost his edge as a political radical and still can rock out with the best of them, he’s written many songs about his faith. One I especially love is called, Somebody Touched Me. It reminds us of how it is that when the God we know in Jesus Christ touches us, we’re made whole and new. Here it is. As you read the lyrics, consider how Christ has touched, cleansed, and sent you so that others can know Him as God, Savior, and Best Friend, like you do.

Somebody Touched Me (copyright 1990, Bruce Cockburn)
Somebody touched me
Making everything new
Somebody touched me
I didn't know what to do
Burned through my life
Like a bolt from the blue
Somebody touched me
I know it was you

Somebody touched me
Deep in my bones
Turned a key in the hole
There was somebody home
Some would say that I'm dreaming
But I swear that it's true
Somebody touched me
I know it was you

Somebody touched me
Like the rain on the wind
Left me alone
Feeling like I'd been skinned
But I know you're with me
Whatever I go through
Somebody touched me
I know it was you