Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Few Comments on This Sunday's Gospel Lesson: Mark 9:2-9

[This coming Sunday's Gospel lesson for Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where I serve as pastor, will be the same as the lessons in many churches around the world. Hopefully, these notes will help folks prepare for worship.]

Mark 9:2-9
2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

General Comments:
(1) This weekend brings us to the end of the Epiphany Season of the Church Year. (For more on the Epiphany Season, read here.) The sabbath lessons of the season are always bracketed by remembrances of Jesus' Baptism (the Baptism of Our Lord) and by the subject of this weekend's emphasis, the Transfiguration of Our Lord.

These texts fit in well with the Epiphany Season, one purpose of which is to highlight those incidents, especially the early ones, which pointed to Jesus' deity.

In both of these "Epiphany bookends," a voice from heaven affirms Jesus' "office" as Savior of the world, the promised Messiah. The voice's reference to Jesus as "Son" is more significant than it might seem. The term implies a closer kinship than that of an earthly son to his father. It means to have a single identity. Paul makes this explict in a few majestic verses that come at the beginning of his letter to the Colossians:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)
In his account of Jesus' Baptism, Mark diverges from those of the other Gospel-writers (Matthew, Luke, and John) by saying that the voice was only heard by Jesus Himself. But here, in his Transfiguration account, the voice is heard by Peter, James, and John (and presumably Jesus). The first time, the voice comes to affirm Jesus in the course He's about to pursue. In the second, the voice affirms the beliefs of the three members of Jesus' inner-inner circle.

(2) In the past, some Biblical scholars, who always seem to be looking for ways to deconstruct and reconstruct Biblical texts to suit their own preferred ways of telling the salvation story, held that this was originally an Easter story which Mark and the other Gospel writers read back into an earlier time in Jesus' ministry, as a way of indicating that His Lordship had been revealed to the disciples even before His death and resurrection. But as one commentator, Hugh Anderson, points out, that theory comes to grief in the face of an important fact: In all of the incidents recording post-Easter encounters with Jesus, the resurrected Lord speaks. He doesn't do that here.

(3) Beyond dying and rising for our benefit, Jesus also came into the world to establish a community of faith devoted to living in love toward God and others. This community of faith, which is essential to God's mission in the world, is called the Church.

Of course, on Pentecost Day, fifty days after His resurrection, Jesus would send the the Holy Spirit. He is the source of godly power that has energized the Church ever since, the One Who gave birth to the Church. (And keeps giving birth to it. Check out John 3:3.)

The Spirit came to call out the Church that, under Jesus' leadership had existed in embryonic form. (You can read about this in Acts 2.) In this embryonic fellowship, Jesus had created a spiritual and an organizational infrastructure.

In His leadership, Jesus employed a method that will be familiar to almost anyone who's gone through an executive leadership or business management program. It had several components:
He spent the least time with the masses; more time with His disciples or students or followers (a group which, Paul reports, numbered about 500 people); more time still with the Twelve (the apostles); and the most time with three apostles, Peter, James, and John. In other words, the greater the leadership role to be taken by people, the more time Jesus spent training them.

The make-up of Jesus' training program was mainly made up of three steps: He showed them how; He was with them as they did what they showed them; He set them loose to do what He'd showed them; He had them come back for debriefing and refinement.
At the Transfiguration, Jesus was with the inner-inner circle of Peter, James, and John (PJ2). In his commentary on this passage, Brian Stoffregen observes:
This is the second time the "inner three" are set apart in Mark. They witness the raising of Jairus' daughter from the dead in 5:37ff. It is then ironic that these three question what the rising from the dead could mean (9:9-10). The same word anistemi is used in both contexts.

The next time Jesus takes these three with him is in the Garden of Gethsemane (14:33). The three who have seen his power to raise the dead, who have seen his heavenly glory, also see his earthly agony. In these last two instances, they, especially Peter, respond poorly. On the mountain Peter wants to build booths. In the Garden they are to stay awake and pray, but they fall asleep three times.
It's a tribute to the power of God's Holy Spirit to transform people that these three unpromising characters gave faithful leadership to the Church as it carried the life-changing Good News of Jesus into the world!

[For an insightful and helpful discussion of the connection between Mark's Transfiguration account and the Old Testament figures of Elijah and Elisha, read Peter J. Leithart's Brazos Theological Commentary of the Bible volume, 1 & 2 Kings (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2006), pp. 171-117.]

Memo to Fox and Walden Media

Last night, with our daughter visiting from Florida, we decided to watch a 2008 film that she hadn't yet seen: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. I love the Narnia novels and loved the Walden-Disney film based on the first in the series, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

I wrote an enthusiastic review of the first film. But, on the theory that "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all," I wrote nothing about the second one.

But in light of the fact that the Disney people, collaborators on the first two films, have dropped out of a film based on the third Narnia novel, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and Fox has signed on, I thought that I'd mention what bothered me so about Caspian and what I think may have bothered others, especially those who are as devoted to the C.S. Lewis books as I am.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe film, the Walden-Disney team departed here and there from Lewis's novel, but as I pointed out in my review then, it didn't do so in ways that did violence to the story or the characters. The same can't be said of Caspian. A few specifics...

(1) Much of Lewis' Prince Caspian is about a journey, a physical trek that mirrors an inner struggle within the four Pevensie children--Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. The question is whether they will lessen their physical struggle and heighten their usefulness in Narnia's time of need by heeding both Aslan* sightings and the counsel of the first Narnian they encounter, a dwarf named Trumpkin, or whether, flush with the excitement of returning to a world in which they'd once reigned as kings and queens, they'll rely on their own good sense.**

The producers of Caspian seem to have made the decision that their audiences would never sit still through a plot involving so much interiority and so many character issues. They turned their Caspian into an action flick with extended--and sometimes, boring--battle scenes, far more battling than appears in the novel.

(2) Too much violence and too much romance. Violence does appear in the Narnia novels, handled deftly by a writer who understood that his reading audience would largely be composed of children. Lewis never shielded his readers from the reality of violence. Nor did he dwell on it unnecessarily.

The Caspian producers seemed intent on making a kind of Lord of the Rings film, filled with epic battles and fairly graphic violence. While it's a mistake to dismiss the Narnia novels as "children's literature"--they are great literature which I never encountered until I was an adult and yet came to love then as my favorite fiction of all time, their fantasy has a different feel from that in the Tolkien novels. Where the Ring stories are dense and clearly pitched to more mature readers, the Narnia books are more readily digested by younger minds and imaginations. I didn't feel that the makers of the Caspian film respected that when it came to violence.

And as to romance, while it's true that in Lewis' novels, Susan would ultimately betray Narnia because of her obsession with things like fashion, boys, and popularity, there is no hint that she and Caspian were attracted to one another. Here, as in the decision to turn this into an action flick, the producers seem not to have trusted the audience to accept a story that didn't include the cliche conventions of Hollywood.

(3) The film is way too long. If I lost interest in it at times, I can only imagine what families with little or no knowledge of the Narnia stories must have thought.

(4) In spite of the length though, the film spends precious little time helping us to understand the characters or why they do the things they do.

If I were to grade the Caspian film, I would give it a C+, as opposed to the Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe movie, which would garner a stirring A+.

As Fox and Walden undertake a $140-million production of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I hope that they'll think a little less like Hollywood and a little more like Lewis. Otherwise, a series that began with the promise of bringing to life wonderful novels which had previously only been done badly on screen, will come to grief, artistically and, I think, commercially.

*If you've never read the Narnia novels, I hope that you will. I won't give away too much by speaking about Aslan here.

**You needn't be a literary genius or a believer in the God of the Bible to see how this struggle mimics that faced by Moses and the ancient Israelites in the wilderness. It took them forty years to take an eleven day trip, largely because they opted for their own good sense rather than God's leading. This same motif, in different forms, can be seen in other ancient literature as well as in myths, with all of which Lewis would have been fully conversant.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Rating Presidents: Not a "Parlor Game"

Historian Rick Shenkman has a point. The rating of presidents--a recent survey among historians called Abraham Lincoln our greatest president--probably doesn't even rise to the level of a parlor game. Parlor games, he says, have rules. But both historians and the public tend to rate presidents by highly movable goal posts.

I myself have been guilty of playing this game, having several years ago named my choices for the country's best presidents. (I remember that at the time, the whole country breathlessly awaited my decision.)

But I now think that, while I had good reason for picking the presidents I had on my list--my top four were Washington, Lincoln, FDR, and Eisenhower--it probably is silly to put together such ratings. The challenges facing Barack Obama, in spite of the overused rhetoric to the contrary, are not the same as those that faced Roosevelt. (The current set of presidential challenges are both less severe and more complicated than those Roosevelt dealt with, it seems.) Comparisons are tough and usually, subjective.

It's probably safe to say that Grover Cleveland was a better president than Franklin Pierce, though. (In his defense, Pierce would no doubt win any presidential tippling contest.) But generally, I suppose, it's always foolish to try comparing apples and oranges--or, Washingtons and Kennedys. Or Madisons and Wilsons.

At least that's what I think this week.

Am I a Genius?

For not taking vitamins?

This article could lead you to think so. But don't believe it!

I don't take vitamin pills, basically because every time I've started, I've found myself incapable of maintaining the habit. So, as in other areas of my life, a bad character trait--in this case, my tendency to procrastinate in the adoption of something I've been told is good for me--has spared me.

I'm willing to let the early adopters have their day in the sun. If you wait around long enough, you always look like a genius.

[Thanks to Ann Althouse for putting me on to the NYT article.]

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Need to Get Small

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

2 Kings 5:1-14
Once, on a vacation with Ann’s family, we found ourselves in a massive two-storey sporting goods store that seemed to have a good sale on things like sweat pants, T-Shirts, and tennis shoes. But this was a sale with a twist. To take advantage of the full discounts the store was offering, customers had to sing along with karaoke accompaniment, their voices and video images beamed all over the store packed with customers for everyone to see.

That was such a humiliating prospect for one of my brothers-in-law that, in spite of his being a thrifty guy who always looks for good deals, he was content with a smaller discount than he would have gotten had he sung for just two minutes.

Our son Philip and I felt no such hesitation. We grabbed a couple of microphones and sang one of the all-time hokiest pop songs ever: The Carpenter’s Superstar. That’s the song that Chris Farley and David Spade sang at the tops of their lungs in Tommy Boy. “Don't you remember you told me you loved me, baby? You said you'd be coming back this way again, maybe. [Here's my favorite part] Baby, baby, baby, baby, oh baby. [People actually get paid for writing stuff like this.] I love you. I really do.” Phil and I sang and cha-ching, we got our full discounts.

Now, this did happen in Las Vegas and what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, unless you’re a preacher looking for a good sermon illustration. But how many of you think that you’d sing for a packed store in order to get a discount on some clothes or shoes?

And how many of you are too Lutheran to do that?

The truth is that most of us will do almost anything to avoid public embarrassment…even me. What’s behind that?

There are lots of potential reasons, many of them altogether healthy and appropriate. But one unhealthy reason that people avoid being publicly embarrassed, I think, is the fear of belittling themselves or of being belittled by others. We are social beings. Our reputations are important to us. And the Bible agrees that they should be. Proverbs 22:1 says that, “A good reputation and respect are worth much more than silver and gold.”

But sometimes a legitimate desire to enjoy a positive reputation becomes a paranoid refusal to take risks, to try new ventures, or to honestly admit things like...

“I don’t know,”

“I don’t know how,”

“I don’t understand,”

”I’m afraid,” or

“I need help.”

We hate the idea of appearing small or helpless. And men, let’s face it, that’s especially true of us. One person has suggested that a good definition of men is, “The gender that refuses to ask for directions.”

And yet, as I read the Bible, one of the things God seems to keep insisting on is our need to get small.

Not small in achievement.

Not small in dreams.

Nor small in self-esteem.

But small compared with God. Small enough to call God Lord and to take directions from God alone. Small enough to admit that we need God for life in this world and life in the world to come.

We see that theme again in our first lesson for today, taken from Second Kings. It centers on something that happened in the life of a proud man who was widely hailed as a person of power and importance in his country. Naaman was a commander from the country of Aram, a place you and I know today as Syria. This incident took place sometime during the late ninth century BC. It happened about one-hundred years after God’s people, the nation of Israel, had split into two different kingdoms because of their hunger for power and because they couldn’t get along any more: Judah, with its religious and civic life centered on Jerusalem, in the south, and Israel, whose religious and civic life centered in Samaria, to the north.

Naaman’s country, Aram, was a powerful and frightening neighbor for Israel. As our lesson notes, Naaman often took his armies into Israel and kidnapped people to be slaves. For this and, apparently, other exploits, Naaman was a BMOC—Big Man on Campus—in Aram.

Our lesson underscores how big Naaman was in several places. He was, we’re told, “commander of the army,” “a great man and in high favor with his master [the king],” and “a mighty warrior.” You didn’t mess with Naaman.

But Naaman had a problem. He suffered from leprosy. In Biblical times, 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, hands and feet. For people who lived in those times, leprosy was a more than a physical ailment. It was also a spiritual and social affliction.

In popular culture, people regarded leprosy as a curse from whatever deities in which they believed. Even in Israel and Judah, among God’s people, 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. 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 disheveled, and shout out, “Unclean! Unclean!” when they walked down the street. The leper lived a lonely and isolated life.

Either Naaman’s leprosy had not gotten so horrible or his status as a hero in Aram was so great that he was not yet forced to live in isolation. But it must have been humiliating for someone so powerful to deal with the whispers of condemnation behind his back, the averted eyes of those who stood in judgment of him, and the prospect of being sent away with no army to command and no one to look up to him.

Our lesson says that a little girl, a slave from Israel working in Naaman’s household, took pity on her master. She suggested that he go to Israel and see God’s prophet, Elisha, who had taken over the ministry of the more famous Elijah in about 848BC. Elisha, she said, could cure Naaman of his leprosy.

Naaman was just desperate enough to ask his king for permission to go to Samaria—Israel—to seek a cure. Going to Israel in itself must have seemed humiliating to Naaman. But as we read on, we see that he hadn’t gotten small enough in his own eyes. Both he and his king assume that it will be the king of Israel who will free him from his leprosy. He takes gifts—including silver, gold, and clothing—along with a letter from his king asking for a cure. The king of Israel is sure that it’s a pretext for picking a fight. He knows that he can’t cure leprosy and if he can’t, he’s sure that Aram will attack his country.

But then Elisha the prophet gets wind of Naaman’s visit. Elisha sends word by way of a servant that Naaman should come to his place. Naaman expected to be given the royal treatment by Elisha. But instead, cooling his heels outside of Elisha’s house, Naaman is given Elisha’s instructions through a servant. “Go, wash yourself seven times in the muddy Jordan River.” This is the last straw for Naaman, utter humiliation. How small should he be expected to become? The Jordan, he complains, is a creek—or a crick—compared to the great rivers back in Aram!

Finally though, Naaman is convinced to follow Elisha’s directives and he is healed, this great man suddenly having the “flesh of a young boy.” Naaman learned something that Jesus would tell His disciples some nine-hundred years later, “Unless you have the faith of a child—until you get smaller than God and trust in Me—you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Naaman humbled himself to receive the healing God offered through His prophet. More importantly, this foreigner came to believe in God, entering the Kingdom of God. You and I need to be small enough to embrace the great promises of Jesus to be with us today and to give all who repent for sin and trust in Him eternity.

We also need to subordinate ourselves to Christ to lead the kinds of useful lives God has in mind for each of us. This is a lesson God has had to teach me repeatedly.

Years ago, I chaired the planning committee for the assembly of the Northwest Ohio Synod of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It involved planning everything surrounding the annual get-together of about 200 churches and it turned out to be an extraordinary event. People left the assembly excited. The feedback was almost universal as people told us, “That’s the best and most useful church convention we’ve ever attended.” In spite of all the good feelings though, I was bummed. The bishop hadn’t taken the time to tell everybody what a wonderful job I had done, or how hard I had worked, or how it had been my vision that had been executed in that convention. (Can you imagine that?) But one day, as I was sitting in my office, praying, a thought crossed my mind, a thought I’m certain came from God: “Who were you doing all of this for, hotshot, you or Me?”

Naaman learned that all the honors of the world mean little. But he also learned, as many of you have in a lifetime of following the God we know in Jesus Christ, the truth of James’ words in the New Testament: “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up" (James 4:10).

May you be lifted up as you surrender each day to Christ. Amen