Sermon: January 19, 2020—Epiphany 2 NL2
I love the word “obfuscation”. For me, it’s right up there with “soporific” and “farraginous”. It’s a good word for this time in American history when truth is at more of a premium than ever before. As in, “Quit obfuscating the facts!” Or for your parents, “Your claim that you only went to your friend Brayden’s house last Saturday is little more than obfuscation!”
It’s also a good word to describe the teachings of Jesus—at least, on the surface level.
We get a veritable feast of parables in today’s reading from Mark. A parable, of course, is a story. But’s it’s not just any story. Jesus’ parables tend to be pithy. They aren’t fables because they have no moral principle. Sure, we can (and we will) sing, “Lord, Let My Heart Be Good Soil”, but even that song recognizes that we can’t make ourselves be good soil for the seed of God’s Word—only God can do that. They’re allegory to some degree, but Jesus doesn’t make clear what each element of the story is supposed to represent. Even in the Parable of the Sower, the sower is just the sower. They’re more like riddles. They force the hearer to think about what the Reign of God really looks like. They cover up the more obvious meaning; the meaning we want to put on God and God’s Kingdom, and invite us to look deeper. Closer.
There is obfuscation, not just in the parables, but in Jesus himself. Did you hear what Jesus says to the disciples after he tells the Parable of the Sower? “To you,” he says, “has been given the secret (or the mystery) of the Kingdom of God, but to those outside, everything comes in parables;
in order that,
‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”
Now, Jesus is quoting Isaiah 6:9-10. This part of Isaiah is the culmination of Isaiah’s call. You know. “Here I am, Lord!” I’ve always wondered what would happen if the songwriter put Isaiah 6:9-10 in the song as well!
“Say to these folks, you’ll never understand.
you’ll look on, but never you’ll see!
Harden their hearts, and minds, and wills,
lest they turn and be healed.”
Not such a nice, sweet, domesticated God now, huh? That is one of the constant struggles we’ve had in the church. A struggle since the times of Marcion, who wanted to cut out the entire Old Testament and most of the New! We want to domesticate God and make him into our image. We want him (and I’m using the male pronoun deliberately here) to stay in his heaven until called upon. Until he’s needed. Until we need specific instructions, advice, or help, thank you very much!
But God is not that kind of deity. God does not stay in God’s heaven. God, rather, in a mystery beyond our understanding, becomes human in the man Jesus. And in quoting these lines from Isaiah, Jesus, God-hidden-in-human-flesh, gives us our first insight about the Realm of God: it can’t be spoken of in a direct way.
God’s Realm has to be spoken of, rather, in a way that is indirect. A way that uses stories and symbols and motifs. It’s like looking at a faint star. Some night, when it’s dark and clear (and hopefully not 20 or 30 below zero!), go outside and look toward the north. Find the Big Dipper. The second star in the Dipper’s handle has a companion star above it, one that can be barely seen with the naked eye. If you look directly at it, chances are you won’t be able to see it. But when you adjust your gaze just a little, and focus to the side of the star, you’ll find that it appears brighter. God’s Realm is like that. When we try to perceive it directly in this world, we will not see it. We can see and hear and conjecture all we like, but we will never perceive the reality of God’s Kingdom if we try to approach it directly.
So yeah, Jesus wants to obfuscate our understanding in one sense. Because when we think we’ve got it all figured out, we’ll go right back to placing God where we want God. We’ll call you when we need you, God! That’s not understanding at all. Nor is it healing and forgiveness. No, for Jesus to heal the world—to truly heal its sickness—Jesus teaches and lives in a way that the world never expects.
He himself will have to suffer and die to heal. Jesus talks about this later in the Gospel. When James and John are arguing about who is the greatest, Jesus takes that moment as an opportunity for teaching. “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Jesus’ own life is a parable. God comes into our midst as one of us, as one like a careless, prodigal sower, scattering seed here and there, in the hope that some of it will grow to yield an abundant harvest. God’s Realm comes to us like the seed, which when placed in the earth becomes something greater than we could possibly imagine. God’s Realm comes to us like the tiniest of seeds, which grows into a weed that spreads like wildfire (that is, after all, what mustard can do when sown!). And God comes to us, not as a great king or lord, not as one who threatens to punish us for our sins (although we would deserve that), but as one who becomes humanity’s servant. I want you to reflect on that a moment. How offensive is it that the Lord of the cosmos should be the servant of you and me? It is incredibly offensive because it breaks that image we have of the imperial God in his heaven, who demands that we earn our way. Or our image of the nice, sweet God who is there when we need him. No, the true God is neither. Neither imperious nor nice. God obfuscates those false images in Jesus so that we can begin to learn who God really is.
And in learning who God really is, the servant of humanity, we learn about real greatness. Real salvation. What it really means to be a child of God.
Let us pray.
Jesus, your entire life is a parable of God’s love, healing, and forgiveness, hidden in you. Help us to receive that love in the way you choose to give it, not in the way we would prefer. Amen.
© 2020, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.