Sermon on Mark 9:30-37

One of Mark’s themes this morning is once again the incomprehension, even stupidity, of the disciples. Hope for us all here.
Why is this such a constant theme of the gospels?
Once again, God’s plan for creation’s salvation in the Messiah, conflicts sharply with what the disciples are expecting.
This is despite the words of so many of the prophets, that show the real concerns of God for Israel and the world.
This is not a conflict between faith and works, which so many protestant theologians have interpreted Paul and highlighting, and which our passage from James shows is not part of the New Testament, and recent scholarship shows was not part of the Ajewish theology of the times.
Instead There always seems to me to be a surface conflict at the heart of the Old Testament, between the vision of Israel in the books of history, and the vision in the books of prophecy.
Both start in the covenant given by Moses at Sinai.
But the narrative of the histories concentrates on the promised land, to the exclusion, it can sometimes seem of all else. The vision of Israel as a light to the nations is lost. As part of that vision, God wanted Israel to live to certain standards. There are admonishments not to take up the customs of other peoples. These become seen as mandates for ethnic cleaning and exclusivity. And it doesn’t work, because keeping oneself holy for God isn’t about having neighbours who are exactly the same as you, or not eating with people who are other. Israel does become as other nations are – they ask God for a king like other nations do, they build a temple, like other nations do, they start worshipping idols of wood and stone, like other nations do.
The notion of Israel was never as narrowly ethnic as it is sometimes popularly portrayed. Rehab the prostitute and the book of Ruth show us that anyone who is willing to enter into God’s covenant is part of Israel, and numerous other examples show us that those who despise God’s covenant are not part of Israel.
It is unfortunate that it is stories from these historical books of the bible that we most often seem to teach young children at Sunday school. It is because they seem simple narratives I think, but the message of these books is actually deeply hidden and quite complex, and at odds with the surface narrative.
This is the narrative that the disciples are locked into. Their narrative of universal salvation requires that Israel should be re-established as a sovereign power, ruled by the Messiah. Once that is done, then the God will use that power to impose the Kingdom of God onto the world. The end goal is correct – the role of humanity, Israel and the Messiah, is to bring creation back into the right path. But they have misunderstood the means, and their faith in their version of the narrative is so strong that even Jesus cannot change their minds.
We should be able to understand this, I think, in these days of fake news, and reinforcing echo-chambers.
To counterbalance this natural human tendency, God sent us people like Ruth, and Isaiah, and Amos, and Hosea, and all the rest of the prophets.
These stories and prophets can be harder to read. The language of prophecy can be obscure and feel over complex. We get confused even by the meaning of the word prophecy in English. People get hung up on whether these people are genuinely predicting the future, or whether it is all written after the event. This doesn’t actually matter. What prophecy is doing is interpreting the past, the present and the future.
Their message is one where Israel should be an example to humanity, but using what we would now call soft-power, rather than hard-power. They are reminding Israel that it needs to be true to the essence of the law. Righteousness, justice, compassion and charity are at the heart of God’s plan for the world, and at the heart of the law he gives Israel. Their role is to model this behaviour for the world.
The kingdom of God will not come from compulsion, but from persuasion. In the narrative of the disciples, the Messiah will redeem Israel, and Israel will redeem humanity. Jesus’ narrative is the same. What changes are the means, which will be self-sacrifice and humility.

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