Monday, February 25, 2013

An End to the Slickest Trick Up Satan's Sleeve [Matthew 12.22-32] (15 January 2012)

Those who follow electoral processes the world over know of the phenomenon of anti-incumbency. The bane of corruption in our country has made many raise the cry for an anti-incumbent vote when the next general elections come about. But the question no one seems to want to ask is, “Will the new people prove to be any better?”

Believe it or not, Jesus addresses just such a question in our passage. In our passage, Jesus has just healed a person who was demon possessed, blind and mute. Our passage does not allow us to draw any causal links between the three. The people are amazed at this healing. And this prompts an accusation on the part of the Pharisees.

They say that Jesus can do such things because he is hand in glove with the prince of demons, Beelzebul. To them, Jesus is like the apprentice to the master conjurer Beelzebul and that together they had pulled off this hoax. 

The idea is that Beelzebul has ordered his demons to leave whenever Jesus asked them to leave. In other words, Jesus is successful with his exorcisms because he has made a pact with Beelzebul.

If I were in his place, I would have retaliated, gotten angry, and lost my cool. But Jesus does nothing stupid. Rather, he asks for reasons for their hypothesis.

The Jews had many official exorcists. These were professionals who were called upon to cast out demons from people who were possessed. Jesus asks the Pharisees, how they are able to distinguish between his so-called ‘exorcism’ and the supposedly genuine exorcisms of the Jewish exorcists. What criteria do you use to separate truth from falsehood?

You see from the immediate effects on a person, a true exorcism and a fake one cannot be told apart. This is because, for a fake to masquerade effectively as the real thing, there must be some positive effect for some time at least. If right away the person goes back to being tormented, then everyone would know it was a fake. So the immediate effects are inconclusive.

But more than this, Jesus points his finger at the Jewish exorcists. Let me ask you, why are there so many doctors? Because people repeatedly fall ill. Why are there so many engineers? Because we constantly want new things designed. Why do we have so many teachers? Because there are so many children in need of being taught. But the demand for something does not imply that what is supplied will have any worthwhile quality. There are quacks in every line of work – bad doctors, unqualified engineers and uninspiring teachers. The demand for something only ensures that something will be supplied. Quantity can be assured, but not quality.

So why was there a flourishing group of exorcists in Jesus’ day? With population being pretty stagnant, one could not hope for more clients. The only plausible reason was that they could hope for return business. Like a person going to the barber every few weeks for a trim, people used to visit exorcists regularly. 

Jesus hints at this a little later in Matthew 12 in the saying about the return of the unclean spirit. After a cooling off period, during which the delivered person experiences a semblance of freedom from oppression, the demon returns with others of its ilk.

So Jesus is asking the Pharisees a simple question, “Do you think God does such a patchwork job?” In other words, if God were behind the casting out of any demon, this should be a permanent state. There should not be a need to return for the same process to be repeated.

So Jesus actually turns the tables on the Pharisees. In effect he says that the repetitious nature of the work of the Jewish exorcists meant that theirs was not a permanent solution, only a temporary one.

But Jesus goes even further. He says that this temporary solution actually is Satanic in nature. Unbeknownst to themselves, the Pharisees have actually stumbled upon the driving force behind repeated exorcisms. In repeated exorcisms, Satan relinquishes one manifestation and assumes another.

If a person is too troubled with symptom A, Satan will give up symptom A and in a little time show up again with symptom B. When the person gets too troubled with symptom B, Satan will give that up too and resurface with symptom C.

This is the anti-incumbency I mentioned earlier. The person just does not want the current demonic occupant. But not having an occupant just does not seem to be a possibility. Moreover, at times, the new occupant proves to be worse than the previous one. And so the cycle perpetuates itself, lengthy periods of oppression alternated with brief periods of relative freedom. But never a full freedom that God alone could and would give.

Jesus is the one who gives full freedom. And he describes this in terms of plundering a strong man’s house. Jesus is clearly indicating that he is the one doing the plundering. However, this does not mean he is a thief! Rather, if a thief had stolen something that was mine and I went to his house, tied him up and recovered what was rightfully mine, I might be considered a vigilante but not a thief. So also with Jesus. If the law cannot do it, it must be done outside the law!

What rightfully belongs to Jesus is all of creation. Jesus depicts his exorcisms as a sign that he is reclaiming what is his. He is plundering Satan’s loot. He is releasing the captives. 

But this must mean that the strong man – Satan – is bound already, for Jesus is clear that unless the strong man is bound his house cannot be plundered.

Binding the strong man is in effect incapacitating him, defanging the serpent, rendering him unable to perform his quintessential trick. And Satan’s biggest and slickest and most effective trick is to make us believe we are free while we are still enslaved. Satan expelling himself only to resurface later is his slickest act.

And each time, as Jesus indicates later in Matthew 12, the resurfacing is worse. One addiction gives way to another that is more potent and more insidious. One habit yields to another that is more despicable and more demeaning. 

It is like flying a kite. In order to get the kite higher you must allow the string to have some slack. If you only pull and keep the string taut, the kite cannot rise. But if you give some slack the kite will rise. However, though the kite rises, it is not free like a bird. It is still tethered to the string.

Having heard the accusations of the Pharisees, Jesus provides them with a very scientific way of proceeding. He gives them a testable hypothesis. He says that there are two kinds of exorcisms. One needs to be repeated every so often. The other is permanent. Moreover, there are two forces behind exorcisms. One is done by the Holy Spirit. The other is done by Satan. 

He asks them to match the type of exorcism to the force behind it. Is it more likely that the permanent one is Satanic or that the permanent one is powered by the Holy Spirit? Does God truly free people or does God keep them tethered? 

The obvious conclusion is that the permanent one is powered by the Holy Spirit and the temporary one is Satanic.

Jesus is telling them, “If my exorcisms prove to be permanent, then they are done by the power of the Holy Spirit and you have missed the arrival of the kingdom of God. But if my exorcisms prove to be temporary, then I too am like your exorcists.”

It is important to note here that it is possible to have the best intentions and still perpetuate something that is Satanic. The Jewish exorcists certainly believed that they were doing things for the good of people. They, like many today, saw possession as a very common, one might even say natural, state in which humans may find themselves. You drove one demon out today. But a week from today or maybe a month, you would have to drive out another.

Jesus tells us that this kind of a cycle is Satanic in nature. For God does not initiate half-baked temporary measures, but permanent ones. God does not deliver a person one day only to enslave on another day.

Jesus is telling us that the days of repeated exorcisms are gone. The days of Satanic self-expulsion are in the past. We now live in an unprecedented era of the Holy Spirit in which we can taste lasting permanent freedom from the oppressive forces of darkness that aim to bind us. “If I, by the Spirit of God, cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has overtaken you.”

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Consolation of Israel [Luke 2.21-40] (1 January 2012)

Most years we do not get the opportunity that we have today. Christians worship on Sundays for the most part and on one Friday of the year. Many churches do not even have a service on Christmas, unless Christmas happens to fall on a Sunday, as it did last year. Strange, isn’t it, to say ‘last year’ when it was only last week!? And it is only when Christmas falls on a Sunday that the following Sunday happens to coincide with the events narrated in today’s text. And Christians, being Gentiles for the most part, being non-Jewish, really have no point of reference for these events. Circumcision, purification, temple, the sacrificial system, all are foreign to us and we choose to avoid passages in the bible that deal with such aspects of Old Testament faith.

However, the reality is this: Jesus was born into a devout Jewish family and he died a devout Jew. And so, if we wish to understand who Jesus was and what he did – or at least what he was perceived to be doing – we cannot avoid passages that deal with aspects of Old Testament faith.

And so we have in today’s passage a event that happened on the eighth day of Jesus’ life. In other words, today is the anniversary of Jesus’ circumcision. And so today’s message is not a New Year’s message. I consider that Pastor Arun Andrews, who gave us a beautiful message yesterday, has already given us a New Year’s challenge, freeing today for a look at the events recorded by Luke.

Today’s passage is humongous, however, and there is no way we can cover all of it. But we can zero in on one character. And so let us focus on the person who makes a prophecy – Simeon.

Simeon is the third person – after John the Baptist and Elizabeth – whom Luke tells us is associated with the Holy Spirit. But Luke makes the association extremely strong by linking Simeon and the Holy Spirit not once but three times in the span of three verses. Luke tells us that he was righteous and devout and that he awaited the restoration of Israel and that the Holy Spirit was upon him – presumably a constant state of affairs. He was constantly under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

Moreover, the Holy Spirit had told him that he would live long enough to see the Messiah. What image did Simeon have of this Messiah? In all probability, his image of the Messiah initially coincided with the predominant views of the Jews. 

There were three primary kinds of Messiahs that the Jews expected. We most often hear about the military Messiah, a commander who was expected to drive out the enemies of Israel and restore the kingdom of David. But there were other Jews who expected a prophet Messiah, one like Moses who would give them the new law that Ezekiel spoke of. And still others hoped for a priest Messiah, one like Aaron who would restore the temple and the role of the priests a spoken of by Malachi.

Each of these views was existent at the time Jesus was born, though of course the view with the noisiest followers was the military Messiah. Strangely enough even among Christians, this is the view that is most often propounded. Maybe that’s something we Christians need to introspect over.

Whatever Simeon’s initial leanings, it appears that, under the constant guidance of the Holy Spirit, he developed a view that would have been rejected by almost all the first century Jews. Seven centuries of exile, deportation, slavery and occupation had made the Jews a very exclusivist people. For them, salvation was first for the Jew and only for the Jew. The Gentiles could, very literally, go to hell. The very notion of being a light to the Gentiles was pretty foreign at that time. The Gentiles were scum who had tormented the Jews and who deserved to be punished.

But look at what Simeon says. “For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”

Under the influence of the Holy Spirit Simeon had come to a view that refused to make Yahweh a local, tribal god fighting it out among other local tribal gods. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit Simeon recovered an understanding of the reality that Yahweh was the only god, the god who had chosen Israel so that through Israel he would bless the Jews and the Gentiles. Yahweh is the god who wept when Israel went astray and when Egyptians died during the events recorded in Exodus. And Yahweh is the god who rejoiced when Israel was faithful and when the Syrian Namaan obeyed the directions of Elisha. Yahweh, in other words, was not just concerned with one nation in one corner of the world, but with all nations and peoples around the entire world. This was a revolutionary view in those days and it could have come to Simeon only under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

And the Holy Spirit leads Simeon to more. In fact, he is the only person in the Gospels who seems to actually know what is going to happen to Jesus a few decades later. He tells Mary and Joseph, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

What? Everyone there would have known that Simeon was awaiting the revelation of the Messiah. But what was he saying? This child will cause the falling and rising of Israelites? Was the Messiah not supposed to deliver Israel from her enemies? What Simeon was saying opened the door to the possibility that some in Israel might be excluded from the work of the Messiah. That was contrary to what the Jews expected. They expected every Jew to be included in the work of the Messiah.

And this child would be a sign that will be spoken against? Actually the word is much stronger. A sign that would be rejected. Who would be foolish enough to reject God’s Messiah? A person would reject something only if that something would disappoint him. How could the work of the Messiah be disappointing to anyone? How could the work of the Messiah not be up to standard?

And what was this about revealing the thoughts of hearts? The Messiah was someone who would restore Israel to her former glory – either the kingdom, the office of the prophet or the priesthood. But he was not supposed to be some mind reader! Why was Simeon not mentioning the three offices – king, prophet and priest – that actually involved the ritual of anointing? Who wanted a Messiah who would read minds when all of Israel was under Roman occupation? That just seems to miss the obvious need and provide the unnecessary.

And what was this about a sword piercing Mary’s heart? Becoming the mother of the Messiah was a secret, quiet hope of most Jewish girls in those days. In a highly patriarchal culture, the glory of a woman was in her children. And what could transcend the glory of being the mother of the Messiah? That was supposed to be a glorious, joyous role, not one that causes pain. In context, Simeon was saying that the rejection of Jesus would be so severe that it would go much beyond disappointment for Mary. She would not simply experience shame. She would experience a sword thrust into her heart.

Simeon, in true spirit of the Old Testament prophets, could be understood as being a party pooper. The circumcision of a male child was a huge occasion of tremendous joy among Jews and more so if that child was also the first child. Mary and Joseph would have entered the temple with hearts dancing with joy. And before they could proceed with the rite of circumcision, Simeon comes and upsets the applecart.

Why would he do such a thing? Luke clearly tells us that he came that day to the temple under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. There was no coincidence involved. Moreover, it seems even the timing was not coincidental. And while others would have endorsed a fully grown Messiah, Simeon goes to these new parents and carries their baby. Don’t you think that strange? Perhaps we who already accept Jesus as the Messiah fail to comprehend how astounding that act would have seemed.

The differences between a grown man and a baby are easy to observe. Apart from the obvious size difference, we can see that a grown man can fend for himself; a baby is helpless. A grown man can be independent; a baby is utterly dependent on care givers. A grown man can make decisions for himself; a baby has decisions made for him.

And so Simeon sees the baby Jesus and sees what the Holy Spirit had trained him to see. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel. Now you will remember that the Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The word that the NIV translates as ‘consolation’ is the same as the Septuagint uses in Isaiah 40.1: “Comfort, comfort my people.” Now it would not be okay to depend solely on one word. 

However, if you do a study of the word נָחַם in the Old Testament you will find that it occurs so frequently in Isaiah 40-66 that the Jews called that portion of Isaiah ‘The Book of Comfort’. And it is in these chapters that we find what that comforting would look like. All the Songs of Yahweh’s suffering Servant are to be found in these chapters. Apart from the book of Psalms, Christian worship books use passages from these chapters more often than any others. Why? Because we in hindsight now see what Simeon under the influence of the Holy Spirit saw with foresight.

Simeon saw that the power of Yahweh, the strong arm of the Lord, the mighty hand of God is revealed not in his blasting everyone who comes in his way like the local, tribal gods claimed to do. Rather, Yahweh’s strength is revealed in the fact that he is secure enough to be vulnerable with sinful humans. In the baby Jesus, Yahweh reveals that even by becoming so helpless, so dependent, so much at risk, he will accomplish his purposes for all of creation.

And so under the influence of the Holy Spirit Simeon celebrates the vulnerability of Yahweh made real in the baby Jesus. This baby would grow up and become a man. And in that man the vulnerability would continue until he was nailed to a tree. “My eyes have seen your salvation.”