A sermon preached at Kowloon Union
Church on Sunday 10 June 2018, the Third Sunday after Pentecost, by the Rev. Dr. Judy Chan. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 138; I Cor. 1: 18-31; Mark 3:20-35.
Today’s Gospel reading from Mark is not
for the faint of heart. These are two difficult stories about people opposing
Jesus. The stories are told also in
Matthew and Luke, but in separate chapters. Mark, however, puts the story of
Jesus’ family together with the story of the scribes in a method we can call a
literary sandwich. That means Mark tells a story with a beginning and an end,
but inserts a 2nd story in between. So, the story about Jesus’
family are the two slices of bread, and the story with the scribes is the meat
in-between. Mark uses this sandwich technique several times in his Gospel. The
purpose is not to make a baloney sandwich! The purpose of putting two stories
together is to forcefully make a single point – and the point here is God honors those the world would shame; God
shames those the world would honor.
In Jesus’ time, honor and shame were
essential ways of keeping people in their place. Our modern idea of the
self-made man or woman didn’t exist. You were born in a specific town, to a
certain family, to a particular social class. And you likely stayed there all
your life. If you got lucky, you might move up a notch or two in honor through
a favorable marriage or patron. But heaven help you if you did anything
shameful that moved you down the social ladder. So, by and large, you knew your
place in the community, and so did everyone else. And woe to anyone who would
try to change it!
That’s why today’s Gospel reading is so
radical. Jesus is challenging everything about this system of honor and shame.
Not because he wants to move up or bring other people down. No, he challenges
the status quo because he knows the way things are, are not the will of God.
If you read the first few chapters of
Mark, you find that Jesus was breaking rules from day one. He chooses disciples
from the lowest classes. He teaches in the synagogue with more authority than
the rabbis. He heals the sickest patients without calling a doctor. He casts
out unclean spirits without incantations. He ignores restrictions on the
Sabbath. He even forgives sins. No wonder that Jesus’ ministry was a dream for
some and a nightmare for others.
Among those who thought Jesus was a
nightmare are the very two groups in today’s Bible lesson: his family and his
faith. No two groups in that culture carried more influence, no two groups had
so much at stake in the game of honor and shame.
Let’s start with his family, the first
slice of bread. Jesus is in Capernaum, his family lives in Nazareth. His fame
has spread throughout Galilee, to the point he can’t get away from the crowds.
He’s retreated to a house in Capernaum, but so many people are trying to get to
him, he can’t even eat. One of those groups is his family standing outside.
They’ve heard enough alarming stories to conclude the gossip is right. Jesus is
out his mind. He’s got delusions of grandeur, claims he’s saving people from
the Devil. He’s gone crazy.
Today, we’d probably say the person’s
maybe mentally ill. But in those times, being ‘out of your mind’ meant you were
possessed by a demon. That’s the only explanation people had. So, Jesus’ family
had no choice but to come to Capernaum and get him. They need to take him away
before things get out of control, before Jesus completely ruins their family’s
Well, it might be too late. Because
here come the scribes from Jerusalem, the meat of the sandwich. Scribes were
the Jewish experts on Scripture and religious law. Jesus might be wildly
popular among the Galileans, even in the synagogues. But Jerusalem was the
undisputed center of the Jewish universe. No one was more respected than the
Temple authorities. You messed with them at your own peril.
For the scribes, it wasn’t enough that
Jesus’ family just takes him home. They want to get rid of him once and for
all. Turning to the crowds they declare, This man’s not just crazy, he’s
positively evil. He’s not just possessed by a demon. He works for the Prince of
Demons - Beelzebub! That’s where he gets his supernatural power, not from God,
but from Satan himself. Don’t be fooled, people! Jesus is diabolical and he’s dangerous. Run
for your lives!
Now, against anyone else, this strategy
might have worked. But Jesus isn’t just anyone, and he wasn’t about to let the
accusations go unchallenged. So he confronts the scribes head-on. When I cast
out evil spirits, you say that’s Satan casting out Satan? How stupid is
that? Why would Satan cast out his own
soldiers? Why would Satan be working against himself? No way! Obviously then,
the one doing this isn’t under the power of Satan, for evil can only produce
evil. Obviously then someone stronger than Satan is here to take back, one by
one, all those things he’s stolen. Obviously then, the man who stands before
you isn’t crazy or evil. He is doing the works of God under the power of the
So, Mr Scribes, listen up. Here’s the
Gospel truth. Whatever sins you commit, however bad, even blasphemy, can be
forgiven, if you repent. But if you
willfully continue to call evil that which is indisputably good, if you insist
to identify the works of God as the works of Satan, that’s blasphemy against
the Holy Spirit. It’s the unforgivable sin that condemns you forever. And
there’s nothing else God can do about it.
Wow . . . if Jesus’ words to the scribes seem harsh, they
are. So harsh that Christians ever since then have lived in fear that they
might have unknowingly committed the unforgiveable sin. Let me put your hearts
at ease this morning. If you are so concerned that you might have blasphemed
the Holy Spirit, you probably haven’t. You can’t blaspheme the Holy Spirit by
accident. According to Scripture, blasphemy requires that you intentionally and
persistently attribute the works of the Holy Spirit to Satan. And I don’t think
any of you sitting here have ever done that or ever will. Do you agree? That’s
not to say though, that doesn’t stop some people from trying.
In 2006, an atheist website presented what they called “The
Blasphemy Challenge.” They challenged people to upload YouTube videos of
themselves saying “I deny the Holy Spirit” or “I blaspheme the Holy Spirit.”
Thousands of people participated. Were they struck by lightning? Will they go
to hell? Well, not based on this publicity stunt.
One pastor said it was sad to see and meant to be shocking.
But he asks, “How can these people be blaspheming the Holy Spirit when they
don’t even believe in the Holy Spirit, Satan, or God?” As ridiculous, dangerous, and unwise as the blasphemy challenge is –
this isn’t a case of an unforgivable sin. God can and will forgive the
blasphemy challenge, just as God will forgive any other sin. But you have to
humble yourself and ask to be forgiven. The only sin for which there is no
forgiveness is the sin for which no forgiveness was asked. God never rejects
those who earnestly seek him. That’s the promise of God in Jesus Christ, that’s
the promise of Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
Let’s wrap up this sandwich the way
Mark does. Back with the family, the last slice of bread. After Jesus dismisses
the scribes, he still has his family waiting outside. Does Jesus have a word
for them too? Yes, but not directly. When someone tells him that his mother and
brothers and sisters want to see him, he replies instead to those sitting
around him. “Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God
is my brother and sister and mother.”
What does Jesus mean? Is he dishonoring
his own flesh and blood? No. I don’t think Jesus means to disown his birth
family. But he absolutely refuses to accept that anyone is left out of the
family of God. And that’s just what the religious leaders and social customs of
Jesus’ time did. They shamed and shunned people based on social class,
occupation, gender, age, religion, disability and disease. They dictated who
was inside and who was outside based on ‘sacred' traditions that were nothing
more than man-made categories. And Jesus refused to play the honor and shame
game by those rules any more.
As Rev. Andrea Ayvazian asks, who are
the ones Jesus calls his true family?
as well as Jews, peasants, people possessed by demons, sick people who were
untouchable, women who should not be present, tax collectors who were despised,
shepherds who slept outside with sheep and smelled, tanners with weathered,
stained hands. Who is Jesus claiming as family? The misfits . . . the outcasts, the powerless.”
Now you might wonder, what qualifies
this odd group of people to be inside the
house with Jesus rather than outside
where everyone thought they belonged?
Nothing actually. And that’s the point. They’ve done nothing to deserve
the honor of becoming a relative to a King. The only thing they did was to
trust in Jesus and follow him. Trust in Jesus and follow him. It seems so
simple, yet Jesus’ family and the religious leaders of his day just couldn’t
get it. That doesn’t mean they never would. The other Gospels tell us later
that Jesus’ mother and brothers believed in him and became leading lights in
the early Church. Praise the Lord.
We get a glimpse of the early Church in
our epistle reading for today. Here St Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth
just how they got chosen by God and why:
your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human
standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose
what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the
world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world,
things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might
boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus,
who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and
redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in
the Lord.” Or as the Message Bible
says, “If you’re going to blow a horn, blow a trumpet for God.”
Let me end with a story about someone
who did exactly that. His name was Dwight L. Moody, better known as D.L. Moody.
He lived in the 1800s in America. His father died when he was four years old,
and his mother struggled to care for nine children. It’s said Moody didn't
attend school beyond the fifth grade; that he was coarse, simple, and had awful
grammar. He never became an ordained minister, but he did become one of the
greatest evangelists of the 19th century.
Once, D.L. Moody and his friend singer
Ira B. Sankey got an invitation to sing and preach at Cambridge University in
England. The whole University, however, was outraged that this backwoods
American preacher would dare to appear and speak in the center of culture of
the English world. They well knew that he "murdered" the King's
English. So, some of the students who
weren’t Christians decided that when Moody spoke in the chapel at Cambridge
they would hoot him off the platform.
Well, Moody began by asking Sankey to
sing. As soon as he finished, Moody stepped to the edge of the platform and
looked directly at the students who were gathered there. Then he said these
remarkable words, "Young gentlemen, don't ever think God don't love you,
for he do!" The students were dumbfounded by that beginning. Moody went
on, and in a few minutes, he again said, "Don't ever think God don't love
you, for he do!" Something about the very ungrammatical structure of these
words captured them. The intense earnestness of this man spoke right to their
hearts, beyond all the superficial, external things. The ringleader of the
student group sought out Moody that day for a private interview, and D.L. Moody
led him to Christ. A great awakening came to Cambridge University at the hands
of one humble servant of God.
honors those the world would shame, God shames those the world would honor. That’s how salvation came into the world. That’s how
the church came into existence. That’s how you and I become related to the King
of Kings. Trust in Jesus and follow him.