Sunday, 23 November 2014

The opposite of joy (2 Samuel 6)



Psychopaths in office

Psychopaths in office. A 1982 report suggests: The best people to run the UK government in the event of a catastrophe - a bomb, for instance - would be psychopaths. Psychopaths would make rational, and not emotional, decisions. Psychopaths would be unaffected by loss and tragedy. Psychopaths would get the job done.

You might think that’s crazy. But don’t we detach ourselves when we’re facing a difficult decision? “Don’t get emotional,” we say to ourselves. “Don’t take it personally.”

Today’s talk deals with emotion: Delighting in God and desiring to serve Him. It’s a step up from knowing God. We want to delight in Him; enjoy Him. It’s a step up from doing God’s will. We want to please him; make him smile. It’s emotional. And that makes it uncomfortable for those of us who are guys. Delighting in God isn’t manly. It makes it uncool for those of us at Cambridge. We’d rather think about God than feel something about God.

Yet the strangest thing about our topic today is not simply the fact that we’re dealing with the emotion of a Christian believer. No, the strangest thing is: we’re going to look to a politician to teach us how to love God; a politician to teach us how to express our desire towards God. That politician’s name is David. Not David Cameron. But King David in the bible.

He is the man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). He is the man who wrote songs to God - the psalms (especially the First Book of the Psalms) - what are essentially love songs to God.

And in our passage today from 2 Samuel 6, he is a man determined celebrate the love he has for his God. “David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the LORD.” (2 Samuel 2:5) It’s a worship service. “David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the LORD with all his might.” (2 Samuel 6:14) I think of Hugh Grant in Love Actually, dancing around the apartment. Here, David gets down and boogies in his pyjamas. “David said to Michal, ‘It was the LORD who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the LORD’s people Israel. I will celebrate before the LORD.’” (2 Samuel 2:21) She’s calling him an idiot and David’s response is, “I don’t care. I will celebrate before God.” Here is a man determined to express his love towards his God.

Yet, at the same time, we see a man struggling to sustain that love and devotion.

“Then David was angry because the LORD’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah.” (2 Samuel 6:8) “David was afraid of the LORD that day and said, ‘How can the ark of the LORD ever come to me?” (2 Samuel 6:9) It’s personal frustration. “How can God ever be near me.”

What this passage teaches us is: The biggest obstacle to David’s joy is God. God is keeping David from enjoying God.

It’s not pressure. It’s not lack of prayer. The biggest problem you and I have when we don’t desire God, when we find it impossible to love God, is God. It’s not because we haven’t tried hard enough. Because, like salvation, love for God is something only God can do in our hearts. Only God can change your heart to love him. More than your degree. More than your life. Only God can do that.

If that is true, the question you need to ask yourself is not, “Do I love God?” but “Do I know who this God is?” It’s a fundamental question in any relationship. Do I know this person I am claiming to love? We might say we love someone but do so selfishly. The point is: We are not trying to psych ourselves into becoming more loving people. That’s not the point. Love is other-person centred. The point is to look at God as he really is and to know Him and to love Him. It’s knowing what pleases Him.

Kingdom of hearts

We see David doing that in Chapter 6. But just before we look at the passage, let me give you some context. Chapters 1 to 5 tell us that God has chosen David to be King over his people. He is God’s chosen King, chosen to rule over God’s people.

That’s a summary of Chapter 5. Verses 1 to 5: David becomes King over his people. The elders of the northern tribes come and say, “Be king over us,” and David unites all twelve tribes to become King over God’s people, Israel. And verse 6 to the end sees David becoming King over his enemies. He defeats the Philistines, who come up again and again in 1 Samuel. He defeats them in one final battle. David is king over God’s people. David is conqueror over God’s enemies.

So, why do we need Chapters 1 to 4? If you turn to the very beginning of the book, verse 1 reads, “After the death of Saul…” That is, the king is dead... long live the king. Saul is dead. David is King.

And yet, again and again, we see Saul’s name popping up in Chapters 1 to 4. “Meanwhile, Abner, son of Ner, the commander of Saul’s army, had taken Ish-Bosheth son of Saul… He made him king.” (2 Samuel 2:8,9) “The war between the house of Saul and the house of David lasted a long time.” (2 Samuel 3:1)

Saul is dead! But Saul’s kingship is very much alive. What we see in Chapters 1 to 4 is a struggle between two kingdoms: David’s kingdom and Saul’s. What we see is a struggle between two rules: God’s rule through David and man’s rebellion through Saul. Now, this struggle is resolved in Chapter 5 when David becomes king over God’s people and God’s enemies. The external struggle is over.

But what we see in Chapter 6, I suggest to you, is an internal struggle. Will God’s King submit himself to God’s rule? Will God’s king humble himself as God’s servant?
The holiness of God

David again brought together out of Israel chosen me, thirty thousand in all. He and his men set out from Baalah of Judah to bring from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim that are on the ark.
2 Samuel 6:1-2

Because I didn’t grow up doing to Sunday School, I’m ashamed to say that when I first read the bible, I thought the Israelites walked through the desert carrying this huge wooden boat everywhere with them for forty years. I thought the ark of God was Noah’s ark, foolishly, of course.

Most of you know that this ark is not a big boat with lots of animals in it - Noah’s ark in Genesis 6 to 8 - but is actually a small box, with God’s presence resting upon it. The ark was the size of your average coffee table (4 feet by 2.5 feet). It was a wooden box covered with gold. I met a student once who sheepishly admitted her dad built the ark of the covenant as a hobby in his garage. That’s because you can find the instructions for the ark in the bible, in the book of Exodus. God gave instructions to Moses to build the ark which travelled with the Israelites in desert. It symbolised God’s presence with them. It symbolised God’s protection over them. Inside the ark were symbols of God’s power, provision and word. That is, inside this box, Moses placed Aaron’s staff - a reminder of God’s power; a jar of manna - a reminder of God’s provision; and the two tablets of the Ten Commandments - God’s word to Israel.

None of these are mentioned, however, because verse 2, draws our attention to what’s on top of the ark - “the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim that are on the ark.” Crafted on top of the ark, on its lid, if you like, are two angelic figures, cherubim. And according to verse 2, God sits enthroned between these angelic figures.

What this symbolises is God’s rule as King over the universe. The lid, elsewhere referred to as the atonement cover, is a representation of God’s throne in heaven, where God rules over all his creation in the presence of his angels (Revelation 4 and 5). The ark, therefore, was a reminder to Israel that the King of the Universe was their King.

Why is this significant? King David who has just been established as King over Israel and over his enemies in Chapter 5 is bringing the ark into his capital city, as if to say, “Here is the true King.” The thirty thousand troops are not David’s, they are God’s. The kingdom is not David’s, it’s God’s.

They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on a hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the cart with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it. David and all the house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the LORD, with songs and harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals.
2 Samuel 6:3-5
A friend visited Singapore for the first time this summer and went to my church on Sunday. She’d never been before, so I asked her, “What was the sermon about? What did you think of the preaching?” She said, “I can’t remember!” but then added, “All I could remember was the pastor up on stage playing an electric guitar!” (I hesitated to tell her we first introduced that pastor to church members many years ago with the soundtrack of Hawaii Five-’O’ blasting in the background!)

The ark is being transported to the Jerusalem, accompanied by 30,000 soldiers. But this far from a military procession. It’s a moving worship service. David and all of Israel were singing with songs, harps, tambourines, guitars… it’s a long list of instruments; a full band. Here was the pastor leading his church with an electric guitar. Here was the Prime Minister jamming with the music team on Sunday morning!

Everyone was singing, dancing to the music. And the last person - the last person anyone expected to turn up at this worship service - was God!

When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The LORD’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God.
2 Samuel 6:6-7

You can imagine the scene replayed in slow motion. The oxen stumble over a the rocky path. The wooden cart jerks to a halt and Uzzah sees the ark of God slide to one side. Out of pure instinct, he reaches out to catch the ark before it reaches the edge of the cart. And BAM! Uzzah is dead.

What was he supposed to do? Let the ark fall to the ground? Then what? Ten guys would try to pick it up and all ten would get zapped by God’s wrath? How is that fair?

Two possible explanations for God’s response to Uzzah’s actions. The first possibility is irreverence - the irreverence of Uzzah. This was a worship service, yes, but a worship service that offended God. If you like, it was the kind of worship that made them feel good but made God look bad. Everything looked very good - the drums, the guitars, the energy, the enthusiasm. But it all made God look bad.

David says in 1 Chronicles Chapter 15: “It was because you, the Levites, did not bring it up the first time (meaning the ark) that the LORD our God broke out in anger against us. We did not enquire of him about how to do it the prescribed way.” (1 Chronicles 15:13) You see, hundreds of years ago, God told Moses: Only the Levites were supposed to carry the ark (even then, only those of the Kohathite clan, Numbers 4:15). It even came with a warning: “Or they will die.” And 1 Chronicles 15 which is a parallel record to 1 Samuel 6 has David laying the blame on the priests saying, “You guys should have known this!”

What was the problem? In their worship of God, they had ignored the word of God. They knew this would happen but they went ahead anyways. So, the first possibility is: They broke the rules. God was offended and responded with judgement.

It is worth mentioning that 1 Samuel 6 mentions the ark being carried on a wooden cart with two young cows pulling it. This was sixty years ago when the ark of God was captured by the enemy nation, the Philistines. They thought they had won a big victory by capturing Israel’s God. But kinda like a scene from Raiders, the ark proved too hot to handle. Their idols got smashed. People got sick with horrible tumours. Pretty soon, the Philistines were saying, “We’ve got to get rid of this thing.” What did they do? They put the ark on a cart. Hitched up two cows. And off they went, carrying the ark of God all the way to Abinadab’s house where we find it sixty years later in 2 Samuel 6.

And you need to see that sixty years later, the Israelites decide the best way to bring the ark of God back to their city was to copy their pagan neighbours. “How to we bring the ark back home? Let’s do what the Philistines did.” Ahio and Uzzah get two cows. They pop the ark in the back and off they went.

It’s worldly worship. It’s word-less worship (ignoring God’s word). It is worship that makes us look good but makes God look bad. That’s the first possibility as to why God responded in wrath, anger and judgement.

There is a second possibility: God was reminding Israel that He alone is God. David says, in verse 9, “How can the ark of God ever come to me?” You see, David took this sign of judgement personally.

This was the height of his career. He had organised this big event, got the crowd going, led the music team himself. Everyone was doing their part. Everyone, that is, except God. I think, David was frustrated and surprised at God’s actions that day. As a result, he dumped the ark where it was for three months.

You’re skeptical, I can tell (yes, even you reading this). Look back with me to Chapter 5, verse 20.

So David went to Baal Perazim, and there he defeated them. He said, “As waters break out, the LORD has broken out against my enemies before me.” So that place was called Baal Perazim.
2 Samuel 5:20

He’s boasting. “Look at the victory God has given me,” describing how God “broke out” against his enemies. Smashed, if you like. Think, Incredible Hulk. “Hulk smash!” David is saying God smashed the bad guys. They didn’t stand a chance. The Hebrew word was “Perez”, hence, twice we read that the place was called “Baal Perazim” or “This is the place God smashed the Baals”.

Now look at David’s reaction to Uzzah.
Then David was angry because the LORD’s wrath had broken out (or smashed) against Uzzah and to this day that place is called Perez Uzzah.
2 Samuel 6:8

“The place where God smashed Uzzah.” That’s what Perez Uzzah means. In the past, God smashed their enemies. Here, God judges his own people. God was reminding Israel, “I am holy.”

This Sunday, when you are in church, worshipping the same God of the bible, I wonder, is this the God you worship? This holy, awesome God?

For many years, the parents of a girl with a severe mental disability would come regularly to church. They would sit at the back with their daughter and listen to the pastor preach. One day, their daughter ran up to the stage, took the mic and made a scene in front of the whole congregation. Everyone froze. No one knew what to do, except to report to the pastor, “Pastor, that girl is causing trouble on stage.” Do you know what he said? “Good.” “At least, they see her.”

Is it possible to turn up in church, sing your heart out, leave with your convictions challenged, all the while ignoring the very God you sought to worship and very people you sought to worship with? Of course, it is. And at times, God in his wisdom and graciousness wakes us up to say, “Open your eyes.”

David took this incident to heart. He was frustrated. In the past God judged his enemies; not God poured out his judgement on Israel. But there’s more, because David then decides not to bring the ark back with him to Jerusalem. Instead, he deposits the ark into the care of man named Obed-Edom.

He was not willing to take the ark of the LORD to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it aside to the house of Obed-Edom, the GIttite. The ark remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the LORD blessed him and his entire household.
2 Samuel 6:10-11

I heard a sermon on this very passage about Uzzah and ark by a pastor who said, “When I get to heaven, I want to meet this guy, Obed-Edom.” Of all the people in heaven, why Obed-Edom? Because, he wanted to know what it was like to Obed-Edom to wake up that day, hear the knock on the door only to open it to find David, surrounded by David’s mighty men (ala Expendables) and thirty thousand foot soldiers standing in front of his house, saying, “Do you have space in the garage per chance? We’d like to leave the ark of the covenant in our backyard.”

“Oh, and whatever you do, DON’T TOUCH IT!”

It was silly. David dumped the ark with this guy named Obed-Edom. But notice, his name isn’t simply Obed-Edom. It’s Obed-Edom the Gittite, or Gath-ite, meaning, “Of Gath.” Meaning: Obed was originally from a place called Gath. Who else do you know from this place called Gath? David would know. Back in 1 Samuel 17, David fought a giant of a man, a champion of the Philistines, named Goliath of Gath.

And here is David, leaving the ark of God into the care of a foreigner, albeit a worshipper of God, who was formerly from the Philistine city of Gath. Here’s the kicker, though - what is God’s response? He blessed Obed and his entire household.

Do you see the reversal? God judges Israel and blesses the nations. When Israel disobeys God, God responds with the same wrath and judgement he poured out on her enemies. At the same time, he is more than willing to pour out blessing on a Philistine who has turned to worship him as the true God. I think David saw this as clear as day and that made him afraid of God, frustrated with God, aware of God.

Two possibilities to explain Uzzah’s judgment: A reminder and a reversal. God reminds Israel that he alone is God. God reverses his judgement to remind us he is a gracious God. He does not owe David the kingdom. He does not owe Obed his blessing.

It is a dangerous thing to worship the true and living God. You can have the time of your life - singing the songs, serving in church, pouring out your worship before God. But is this the God you are worshipping? The God who is holy. The God who reveals his will in his Word. At times, God uses his blessing to remind us he is God. Other times, he will use his judgement, but all towards the same end. To remind us that he is God and we are not. We exist to bring him glory.

The humility of the King

As you read the following verses, keeps asking yourselves this question: Who is bringing the ark back to Jerusalem?

Now King David was told, “The LORD has blessed the household of Obed-Edom and everything he has, because of the ark of God.” So David went down and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing. When those who were carrying the ark of the LORD had taken six steps, he sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf. David wearing a linen ephod, danced before the LORD, with all his might, while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets.
2 Samuel 6:12-15

So back to my question: Who is bringing the ark back to Jerusalem? Answer: David, of course. He hears that God has blessed Obed-Edom and that triggers a change of heart. But did you notice: David is everywhere. It almost seems like David is single-handedly bringing the ark back to Jerusalem. As if, he hopped on his bicycle, headed straight for Obed’s house and single-handedly brought the ark back with him.

“So David went down.” “He sacrificed the bull.” “David danced before the LORD.” You know and I know, he didn’t do this himself, of course. And there is mention of “the entire house of Israel” in verse 15. But it is interesting that 1 Chronicles 15 lists a whole array of priests and Levites, lots of names there. None of them here.

Here, it’s David doing the sacrifice. If you look down to verse 17, David pitches the tent. Verse 18: David did all the sacrificial burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. David blessed the people. Verse 19: David gave every single person in the crowd, every single man and woman who turned up, a personal gift to bless each and every one of them. It sounds ridiculous the way it’s described. David here. David there. David everywhere, doing everything.

The application of this is NOT: The pastor must do everything. That is not the application of these verses. It is not that the pastor or Christian leader must be able to lead worship, cook the fellowship meal and teach the Sunday School kids. It’s not the CV of the ideal pastor: Captain of Everything.

Rather, it is a picture of David as the Servant of Everyone. He is serving God and this snapshot of his participation in every aspect of the worship service tells us there was nothing he was unwilling to be a part of. He did the sacrifices. He blessed the people. He joined the music team.

I made a joke earlier about David dancing in his pyjamas, but that’s not exactly true. The linen ephod that David puts on in verse 14 is the formal uniform of a Levitical priest. It was simple but dignified. He didn’t have his armour on, by the way. It means that if you took a photograph of the ceremony, the big procession heading up to Jerusalem that day, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell which one was David. He looked exactly like all the other priests doing exactly the same thing. Except for the fact, he was the most joyful of the lot.

What is going on? Remember that David is God’s chosen king over God’s chosen people. This passage shows us just what kind of King he would be: a servant King. A King who serves his people. A King who loves God and does his will above all else.

This is God’s chosen, humble, servant King. Problem is: Not everyone wants a King like this.

As the ark of the LORD was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, she despised him in her heart.
2 Samuel 6:16

Michal is David’s wife. That’s the tragedy of this scene. David’s own wife looks at him, sees clearly his joy in serving God and despises him in her heart. His own wife. But notice how Michal is repeatedly described as “Michal daughter of Saul.” Saul’s kingdom is very much alive. And Michal is her father’s daughter.

When David returned home to bless his household, Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and said, “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would.”
2 Samuel 6:20

“Stupid man.” That’s what she’s saying. “Act your age.”

It is possible that Michal’s words are motivated by jealousy, when she criticises her husband’s behaviour in front of other women. Go back to 1 Chronicles 15 though and you will find only men listed among the priests on duty. Now we know that women were there (“all Israel,” verse 14; “both men and women,” verse 19). But I don’t think Michal was referring the gender of the audience as much as she is their rank and class. “The slave girls of the servants,” is another way of saying, “the lowest of the low.” “You’re not acting like a king. You’re acting like a nobody. Like an idiot.”

At first glance, David’s response sounds mockingly cruel. “Nyeeeh, nyeh, nyeh, nyeh, nyeh. God chose me. I am king. Your daddy is deeeaaad!”

David said to Michal, “It was before the LORD, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler of the LORD’s people Israel - I will celebrate before the LORD.
2 Samuel 6:21

Is that what he’s doing - mocking Michal - by saying, “God’s on my side. I win, you lose”? Of course not.

Rather, David is saying, “I am not a king like your father. I will never be a king like your father.” For Saul, the kingship meant status. It meant privilege and respect amongst his peers. For David, it meant humbling himself before the true King. God’s verdict alone was all that mattered.

I met a son of a Chinese pastor who told me what it was like growing up as a pastor’s kid. People admired and respected his dad. After all, his dad was the pastor of the Chinese Church. In fact, he described how members of the church would leave fresh fish on their doorstep. Now, if you did that for a local pastor, they would think it was an insult - leaving a dead animal on their doorstep (“Your sermon stinks”) - but for a Chinese pastor it was a sign of honour and respect. Fresh fish - how delicious!

The sad truth is - though many respected that pastor, few knew him well enough to love him. It was cultural thing - leaving gifts by the house, paying the bill in the restaurant. It what you would do for your boss in your company.

You see, even for a pastor, even for a Christian leader, it is possible to respect the position and ignore the person. I would caution those of you aspiring to positions of ministry: Is it the position you desire? Is it the significance and attention it promises? Michal’s dad was the king. If you like, her daddy was the pastor. But her idea of being a pastor’s wife meant respect, dignity, status - not humility, servanthood and sacrifice. It was a shock to her system. It didn’t make sense to her and that’s why she ends up despising both the person as well as the position.

“I will be even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honour.”
2 Samuel 6:22

David is saying, “You think I’m an idiot. I tell you, I’ll worse than an idiot. I look in the mirror and I see a sinner. I see a nobody but by the grace of God. And I would rather everyone see me for the loser that I am. Because then they would see how great God is in choosing me and loving me into his kingdom.”

Is that what people see when they look at you? When you go home, do your uncles and aunties say, “Wah, kam lek chai! Kam lek lui! Tok Cambridge ah! (Wah! Smart boy! Smart Girl! Studying in Cambridge!)” The same uncles and aunties then scold your cousins, saying, “Why you so stupid? Can’t you be more like your Che Che and Ko Ko?” What do you say? Of course, most of us saying… nothing. We might feign embarrassment on the outside. Inside our hearts, we beam with pride. We think, “Yeah, I am hot stuff!”

Remember what Paul said to the Corinthians.

Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become ‘fools’ so that you may become wise.
1 Corinthians 3:18

Friends, I invite you to do the same. By Cambridge standards, you are wise, I know. But be ‘foolish’ in love for Christ. In the years that you spend here as a student. In the decision to choose this job or that one. What would the ‘foolish’ option be, that in God’s estimation, would actually be so much wiser for His glory, not your own? Be the kind of fool that says to the world, “I’m worse than a fool. I am a sinner. But I am loved by God and I serve my Saviour.”

Are you king over your own lives or is God the rightful ruler over your life, your degree, your online habits, your marriage, your credit card? A pastor recently challenged me, when he said, “We do not live our lives by years, by months; or even by days.... but by moments.” Do we surrender each moment to Jesus and say to him, “All my life is yours”? Or do we isolate moments for our own gain and pleasure - “I decide what I do, what I say because this part of my life is mine”?

The passage ends on a terrible note. “And Michal daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death.” (2 Samuel 6:23) It’s a horrible, horrible judgement upon her and any woman, to be deprived of the joy of children, of being a mother. But the bigger picture reminds us that this is a judgement God pours out on Saul’s house and Saul’s rule. There would be no more descendants in Saul’s line. In contrast, Chapter 7 is God’s great promise that David’s kingdom would continue for eternity. From his line would come a King to rule the nations. From his line would come Jesus who died to save the nations.

The opposite of joy

At the same time, the end of the passage reveals an important lesson. It reveals the antithesis of our joy in God. The opposite of joy is not sadness from God but pride in self. I am king over my life. And I like it that way.

The scary thing is: Saul was king for forty years. Many people wanted a king like Saul, a king who embodied power and prestige and fought their battles for them. But the more they strived for that kingdom, the less they submitted to God and to one another. The opposite of the joy that comes from serving God and submitting in God is not sadness. It’s pride. People can be very happy serving themselves and God lets them, for a time.

On the other hand, the person who rejoices in God does not always look like a happy bunny. David is angry, frustrated, and I suspect, depressed during those three months. But his joy was centred on God. It was not an emotion. It was his submission. It meant he always located his source of significance outside himself, in God’s approval. In God’s love.

The main thing that is keeping us from delighting from God - it’s not our quiet time, it’s not having the right emotional make-up, it’s not our circumstance. Ultimately, if you are a real Christian, the only thing keeping you from delighting in God is God himself. There are still parts of us that resist submitting to him. And the last thing you should do in such circumstances is try to fake it. A report last year, suggests: 25% of CEOs are psychopaths. They get the job done, but fake the emotions of empathy their employees expect them to have. You can fake the emotions people expect you to have as a bible study leader, a pastor, a father, a mother, a husband, a wife, a dutiful Cambridge student serving on the Christian Union. You can do that, and no one will be the wiser, but God.

And what you would lose is God himself. Don’t let that happen. Locate your joy in God and any and every circumstance. That’s what our Lord Jesus Christ did on the cross. It meant scorning the shame. People thought him a fool. But Jesus did his Father’s will and set his sights on the Father’s joy. And that’s how we know Jesus is God’s chosen King to rule over his people and over his enemies. Fix your eyes on him.

For the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:2

Monday, 1 September 2014

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Unworthy

For as long as I’ve read this passage in the bible, it has puzzled me. I told a couple friends yesterday that I would be speaking this weekend on Mark 7:24-30, the story about this woman approaching Jesus to heal her daughter. Now, Jesus does a lot of healing in the gospels, but when I said to my friends, “It’s the one where Jesus talks about the dogs,” they both went, “Oooh, that one.”

Maybe you know it too. It’s the kind of passage you only need to have read once for it to stick in your mind. A woman comes to Jesus in desperation. She is begging him to heal her daughter. And Jesus says to her, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

Man, what did Jesus mean by that? For the past fifteen, sixteen years, I have been asking that question. “Lord, isn’t that harsh?” It’s not the kind of passage you hear sermons on. Prodigal son, sure. Parable of the soils, you get that - at least - once a year. But the one where Jesus compares the Gentile woman to a dog? When was the last time you heard that preached in your church, or taught in Sunday school?

I don’t think it’s because we are offended by that story. I think it’s because we are confused. Maybe, like me, you’ve looked at this passage before and gone, “That’s just too difficult. I need to know the Greek word for ‘dog’.” Or, if you are a pastor or a bible study leader, maybe it’s because you are afraid it will offend someone else who is visiting your church. “What if a non-Christian walks in who has never read the bible before? He’s never going to come back.”

So, we skip this passage. Lots of other great stories in Mark’s gospel to cover. No need to dwell on this one. The problem is, it is right next to some really popular bible passages: the one where Jesus feeds the five thousand. The one where Jesus says, “It’s not what goes into a man but what comes out of him that defiles him.” Those passages. And every time we preach those powerful words in our churches, our congregation is going to notice, “Hey, what about this one right in the middle.” And they are going to leave wondering, “Maybe it’s just me who doesn’t get it. Maybe, it’s not so important as the other big statements that Jesus makes in the bible.”

Now, I don’t have some special insight on this particular passage. What I have is a confession that I have been ducking this difficult part of the bible myself. So a couple of weeks ago when I got the invitation to speak at a local church gathering, I prayed, “God, I’ll try. Please don’t let me mess up.” It’s not boldness, it’s a confession of sin and cowardliness; an act of repentance. I want to be able to say to my God, “I’m not cherry-picking my favourite stories. I want to speak what you want me to speak.”

When I spent the first couple of days just reading this passage, over and over again, I’ll be honest; it was hard. I just didn’t get it. And it made me so nervous. “What an idiot.” I was worried that I was motivated by pride: intentionally choosing a hard passage to preach on, and it definitely was there; that temptation to prove myself. Each time, I would go to God in prayer, asking for his forgiveness, begging for his help. I read around the passage. I read Mark’s gospel. I went through the commentaries, the Greek, for both this and Matthew’s version of the same event. In the end, I got no further than I had started. I was stuck.

But something strange happened. I found myself being intrigued by Jesus’ words in a way I haven’t been for some years. In the past, when preparing a sermon, my prayer would be, “Lord, help me to be clear. Help me to understand your word and to preach it as clearly and faithfully as possible.” These past week, my prayers have been, “Lord, help to understand you. Why are you speaking like this? What were you thinking?” I was being surprised by Jesus in a way I hadn’t been for a long time. The passage made me curious, like I was reading God’s word for the very first time. I was stuck, yes. But I became dependant, curious, anxious, excited about who this book was talking about: Jesus.

He surprised me. It made me realise that I had been taking him for granted. It made me realise I had my own impressions about Jesus that I was used to and comfortable with; that I relied on those impressions to assume he would act a certain way or do certain things. After all, I have been a Christian for seventeen years. I have preached about him to others. Of course, I know what he’s like. But I was speaking about, praying to and worshipping at the feet of an impression. A right impression, no doubt, to some degree, but still, an impression. And God was using this passage to remind me that the bible is his Living Word, actively speaking about a Living Saviour. And that I need to keep coming back to this book to be renewed in my mind about who it was who died on the cross for my sin.

The title of the sermon is, “Have you met Jesus?” By the end of it, I hope that Christians and non-Christians alike, will be able to answer that question; either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. The service is an event specially organised for guests at the Harry’s and Andy’s international cafe’s. Most have never stepped into a church building before. Most have never heard the bible read. Most have never met Jesus.

Why then this passage? In Mark’s gospel, it is the section in all sixteen chapters of the gospel, where Jesus crosses the border and speaks to a Gentile. Everywhere else, Jesus is on home territory speaking to a home crowd. This is the only place in the whole bible where Jesus engages with an international, in an international context - in a global mission context - to use a modern term.

Furthermore, Jesus does the most powerful miracle in all of Mark’s gospel - save the cross - right here in this passage. We read that the woman’s daughter is healed, that the demon is driven out of her. But the amazing thing is, Jesus doesn’t say word. He doesn’t go down to her house. He just says to her mum, “Go home. It’s done.” Nowhere else does Jesus do this (the closest is the healing of the Roman commander’s son in Matthew 8, an encounter with another Gentile). Everywhere else Jesus says a word or if you look at just the verses after this (Mark 7:31-37), he spits and touches the guys’ tongue and ears (bleagh). Not here. Jesus just says, “Go.”

For those two reasons alone - that this passage is expressly written for internationals, and that this is the most powerful healing miracle in answer to the prayer of an international - well, why not this passage? But there is a more compelling third reason. This passage about the Gentile woman’s faith, I think, is crucial if we are to understand the surrounding passages about what it means for us to put our faith in Jesus as God’s people.

If you remember, Mark Chapter 6 (the chapter before) records the amazing miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand. And you may or may not realise this, but Mark Chapter 8 (the chapter after) has Jesus feeding the four thousand. In both cases, Jesus multiplies the bread and the fish. In both cases, the disciples collect the leftovers - seven basketfulls in Chapter 6 and twelve basketfulls in Chapter 8.

Now keep that in mind as we look at what Jesus says to the Gentile woman.

“First let the children eat all they want,” he told her. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to their dogs.”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied. “But even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Mark 7:27-28

Jesus directly connects her request for healing with the imagery of the bread. You simply cannot read that and not think of the feeding of the five thousand and the four thousand happening before and after. They are like a huge sandwich - two big pieces of bread - sandwiching this encounter with the Gentile woman, as if to say: This is what it is all pointing to. Jesus says to her, “Do you realise what you are asking me to do? You want me to give you this bread which is reserved for God’s children in God’s family. That’s not right.”

As first impressions go, Jesus sounds insensitive, cruel, racist, insulting. But within the context of Chapters 6 to 8, Jesus is opening our eyes to see that this is not some isolated incident involving yet another random healing event of another random person. This Gentile woman’s response is crucial if we are to understand what Jesus is doing, not just among the nations but also amongst God’s chosen people. He is testing them.

After all, we know from John’s gospel, he does the exact same thing back in Israel. In John Chapter 6, the crowds come to Jesus - having just experienced the miracle of the bread - and they say to him, “Give us this bread always.”

Jesus replies, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” What happens next? They leave. Everyone is gone. Jesus is too strange for his own people. “This guy is just weird. He wants us to eat his flesh.” Jesus tests them. He tells him he is the bread. And they leave. They fail the test.

But not this Gentile woman. She passes the test. “Yes, Lord.” “I don’t deserve the bread,” she’s saying. “I don’t deserve to be in God’s family,” she hears the same difficult words of testing from Jesus and she passes. “But even the dogs under the table eat the crumbs.” Remember what the disciples did in collecting the baskets and baskets… of crumbs? She’s saying, “That’s all I’m after. The leftovers that the children have dropped on the floor after they have stuffed themselves full. The crumbs.”

Five hundred years ago, Thomas Cranmer wrote a prayer we still say today in our churches. “We do not presume to come before this, your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy even so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.” Where is that from?

You see, five hundred years ago, Cranmer looked at this passage and concluded, this is us. This is who we are before a holy, awesome God: unworthy. Like this woman, we come before God with nothing to our credit except our sin. But still we come, trusting not in ourselves, but in the same gracious, loving, merciful Lord Jesus Christ, who spoke to that woman two thousand years ago.

But there is a difference. Unlike that woman, we come before God asking for the bread. The prayer continues, “Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat this bread and drink this cup, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed by his precious blood.” Unlike this woman, we know that Jesus offers us more than crumbs. He gives us a seat at the table as God’s sons and daughters in his family.

To the Israelites, who had their fill, who came to Jesus looking for more bread, Jesus says, “I am the bread.” And they reject him. He says to the woman, “This bread is not for you,” and she replies, “All I’m looking for is the leftovers.” This woman who is so desperate, so hungry, so helpless, bows before Jesus and places him above her desperation, above her hunger, above her needs.

Friends, the most loving thing God can for us is not to give us what we want, not simply because most times we ask with wrong motives. Even if what we want is something good - healing, security, stability, peace - all good things, but there is yet something else more infinitely precious our loving God offers us. He gives us himself.

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Yet on the cross, that’s precisely what happens. God the Father takes all of Jesus’ righteousness, goodness and love; he gives it to us. And he takes our sin, our hatred, our punishment and puts it on his own son. We get taken in. Jesus gets kicked out.

That’s the gospel, or at least, Jesus’ presentation of the gospel to this Gentile stranger in a Gentile land. He doesn’t say that to many people, but out of love, he says it to this woman. “Do you understand what I am about to do for you? Do you understand the cost, the scandal, the pain that is involved.”

“Yes, Lord,” she replies.

Have you met this Jesus - before whom we are not worthy to pick the crumbs from under his table - but who makes us worthy by taking our punishment on the cross and giving us his place at his Father’s table? Have you met Jesus who surprises us again and again with his grace in forgiving our sin and restoring us as sons and daughters of God? If so, you can pray this prayer. You are in the family.

We do not presume to come to this, your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy.

Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat this bread and to drink this cup that our bodies might be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.

Amen.