Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Veiled Disclosure

Ps. 29; Mk. 1:4-11[1]

In 1980, Oral Roberts claims he saw a vision of Jesus looking him straight in the eye. Mr. Roberts was alone at the time, meditating in his prayer tower about the funds he needed to complete his “City of FaithMedical Center. His “vision” of Jesus occurred as he was looking out the window. Of course, that meant that Jesus was standing about 900-feet tall! When he made that claim I don’t think I knew a single person who believed him. But apparently Mr. Roberts had plenty of believers, because he raised the entire amount—all 120 million dollars—through contributions from his followers.

Now, it’s not too hard today to see through that kind of claim. The “City of Faith” went defunct only 8 years after it opened. Regardless of the outcome, the idea that somebody would see a vision of Jesus standing 900 feet tall is simply ludicrous! So what made it possible for Mr. Roberts to convince so many people that it was true?

In part, it’s because the Bible has many stories of supernatural events. Some of them, like the resurrection of Jesus, are central to our faith. Others, like floating axe-heads and chariots of fire, are not. The question is, which ones do you believe? For many, it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. Either you have to suspend all reason and common sense and take at face value some pretty incredible stories, or you assume that everybody knows those kinds of things don’t happen, and refuse to believe any of it.

Some in an earlier day resorted to “rational” explanations of the unusual events in the biblical stories—Jesus didn’t walk on the water, he was standing on a hidden sand bar, etc. But that fails to take the Bible’s claims seriously. For example, while we might be tempted to overlook some of the more “unbelievable” elements in Jesus’ Baptism, they are central to the story. The opening of the heavens, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus, and the divine voice all point to the message Mark conveys to us all from the very outset of his Gospel—this story concerns “the son of God” (Mk. 1:1).

Ironically, however, what Mark conveys with his account of the baptism of Jesus is something that no one else in the story ever recognizes—not the Jewish religious leaders, not the political power brokers, not even Jesus’ own disciples. The only person who recognizes Jesus as the “son of God” in Mark’s Gospel is the Roman Centurion at the cross!

And that calls attention to the inherent problem in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is the son of God in that he serves the least, in that he is rejected by many, in that he suffers and dies for us. That was certainly not what anybody in that world was looking for in a “son of God.” “Sons of God” are supposed to do miraculous deeds, draw huge crowds of followers, enjoy tremendous success, be recognized by one and all! But this “son of God,” when it came right down to it, did none of these things. Yes, he is said to have worked many miracles. But when his reputation as “son of God” was on the line, indeed when his life was on the line, he refused! Jesus was an unlikely “son of God”; he was an unconvincing messiah, an improbable savior.[2]

During the season of Epiphany we celebrate the unveiling of Jesus as the savior; we celebrate the light that shines in the darkness and the voice that speaks truth over the tumult. But we have to recognize that the light and truth of God in our world is not nearly so “majestic” as the Psalmist proclaims—breaking cedars and stripping the forest bare and shaking the mountains! The fact is that the light and truth of God is easy to miss! The reality that we call salvation is one that is amazingly inconspicuous. God’s work in this world is not obvious.

Recognizing the light and truth of God, recognizing Jesus as “son of God” and savior, always has been and always will be a matter of faith, which always involves “a leap into the darkness of the unknown.”[3] Karl Barth asks what it was that drew the men and women of the Bible “out and on to the edge of all experience, thought, and action, to the edge of time and history, and impels them to attempt to leap off into the air, where obviously no [one] can stand.” His answer is their encounter with God.[4] I don’t think that means that they saw their own visions of a 900-foot Jesus! But they did have a genuine encounter with God. [5]

I think that’s what Paul meant when he said, “The God who said, ‘Out of darkness the light shall shine!’ is the same God who made his light shine in our hearts, to bring us the knowledge of God's glory shining in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Whatever language you use—whether it’s the somewhat supernatural language of the Bible or the more “sophisticated” language of modern philosophers and theologians—it’s the same reality of God that encounters us today.[6] If we look with eyes of faith, we can see God’s light already shining in the darkness—because it’s shining in our own hearts. If we hear with ears of faith we can hear God’s truth over the din of all the voices competing for our attention. It’s the voice that tells us that there is nothing we have to do to make God love us any more that God already loves us, and there’s nothing we could do to make God love us less.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/11/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 102; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 164.

[3] Karl Barth, Romans, 98-99.

[4] Karl Barth, Word of God and Word of Man, 76.

[5] Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, ?, says that faith “stretches far beyond the limitations of one’s own psychological strength, for it is anchored not just in the soul of the individual but in God’s self-disclosure in history.” Faith “is grounded in the historic Christ-event which is understood as a definitive breach in the deterministic chain of human trial and error, and as a dramatic affirmation that there is light on the other side of darkness.”

[6] Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember, 29-30, says, “The ancient myths and dreams of a power beyond power and a love beyond love that hold the cosmos itself, hold all things in existence reflect a reality which we can deny only to our great impoverishment; and the dream of a holiness and a mystery at the heart of things that humankind with all its ingenuity and wisdom can neither explain away nor live fully without goes on being dreamed.”

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