February 19 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Isaiah 43 18-25; 2 Corinthians 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12
Theme: "God Does New Things", is an obvious choice today. I'm biased, of course, because Isaiah 43:18-19 are my favourite verses in the whole of Scripture. But just think for a moment about the whole "Christ event". How many times did people misunderstand Jesus because they hadn't grasped the New Way God was opening up in Christ. "We have never seen anything like this!" exclaim today's crowd; and that response echoes through the gospel narrative like the chanting of a Greek chorus.
Introduction. Taken into captivity the Jewish people spent 70 years in exile. During that time they meditated on their faith stories. Understandably the story of the Exodus was prominently in their minds. Their God had rescued them from captivity in Egypt: surely he should now rescue them from captivity in Babylon. So where was the new Moses when they needed him? But that was how God worked in the past: this time he had something completely different in mind. Yes, he was still the Saviour God committed to his chosen people and to their liberation/salvation. But God was no slave to precedent: this time his agent of redemption was to be the Persian King, Cyrus. Who but God could have thought of that? The initiative in any situation is always God's: our role is simply to consent, to say "Yes" to what God is doing, as St Paul makes clear in our epistle reading. That is the problem confronting the teachers of the law in our gospel reading. They know that God alone can forgive sin: their mistake lies in thinking that God can only do this in accordance with the rites and procedures set out in the Law. The idea that God may take human flesh, come among his people, and forgive them in person was beyond their wildest imaginings.
Background. There is something easier and very often more sensible about doing things the way we have always done them, rather than constantly starting from scratch. To learn from the past – both our successes and our mistakes – is part of growing up, maturing, becoming more competent people. It's also an important element of getting to know other people: we build up a picture of them from our previous experiences of them. We trust people whom we have found to be trustworthy in the past: we are more cautious with someone whom we found unreliable in the past. And, of course, remembrance is an important part of honouring people who have died, or to whom we have reason to be especially grateful. In the Scriptures God often identifies himself in terms of the past: "I am the God of your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob"; "I am the one who led you out of Egypt." To remember the past in all those sorts of way is positive and healthy. That cannot be what God is talking about through Isaiah today.
But there is a dark side to our relationship with the past. We all know people who are stuck in the past, embittered by some wrong (real or imagined) committed against them. We all know of towns, regions, and countries mired in disputes, disagreements and even wars, technically long-since over, but still seemingly unable or unwilling to let those things go and move on to new arrangements for the future. And we all know that in the Church we are particularly deaf to what God is saying through the prophet Isaiah today!
Part of the problem (I would say it's a very small part!) is a blindness arising from a lack of imagination. We simply cannot imagine a different way to the way we have always done things in the past. But we only have to think of the reception prophets of all ages have received from their own people to know that seeing new possibilities is not the largest difficulty: trying them, letting go of past certainties and risking some new alternative is too scary to contemplate. There's another bigger part of the problem.
And the largest part is the awful challenge of forgiveness. I have lost count of the number of times I have listened to someone pouring out the anguish of their past..."My Father was a brute...my mother never really loved me...I was unjustly dismissed..." and tried to explore with him or her what would happen if he or she forgave the wrongdoer. Yes, forgiveness is unjust; yes, it can be agonisingly difficult, but is there any real alternative within his or her power? How else may they have a future better than their past? How else may Palestinians and Israelis have a peaceful and fruitful future than by forgiving each other (and themselves) for past horrors?
God is a God who makes all things new. When we intercede for someone, or seek God's help for ourselves, are we not asking God to change something or someone? Are we not asking God to effect change in the present circumstances? If we pray for an increase in church membership, do we leave the "how" to God, or do we expect him to follow our present practices, even though they have not succeeded in the past? When Jesus says, "Follow me" he gives no further detail. The journey of faith is a journey into the ever-new.
Isaiah. God has just reminded the people that he is the one who brought them out of Egypt and destroyed the Egyptian pursuers. Now he tells them "[But] forget the former things, don not dwell on the past!" There we see both the positive and the negative side of the past: we are reminded of God's power, love and commitment to his people, but we must not expect God to act in exactly the same way again. Now notice the use of the present tense in what follows: we are not told that God is planning something new, that sometime in the future he will do a new thing, but he is already at it, if only they had eyes to see. God acts in the eternal now: we live our lives in that eternal now, even though mentally we are forever brooding on the past or planning for (fantasizing about) the future. And what is this new thing he is doing at that moment? Well, he seems to be granting them absolution of their sins even though they had failed to observe all the requirements of the law relating to sacrifices and other offerings. He is offering them grace, a free pardon, but the gift goes unnoticed for another few centuries, until Jesus brings the same offering in person. And gets much the same blind response.
Taking It Personally.
· Is there some area of your life in which you are stuck, some grievance which comes back into your mind from time to time? Is there some part of the past that you have never let go – that is still adversely affecting your present?
· In general, what is your attitude to change? Are you open to it or suspicious of it? Are you inclined to draw a line in the sand or go with the flow and see what turns up?
· Has there been an occasion in your life when you experienced God nudging you in a new direction? What was that like? How did you respond?
· Ponder verse 25. How do you feel about it? Does it really touch you – move you to thanksgiving and praise – or does it strike you as superfluous to your needs?
Corinthians. This short passage does not rank among the clearest in St Paul's writings. He seems to be dealing with our propensity for "double-mindedness", the difficulty we find in being whole-hearted in our commitments. We run hot and cold (or mostly tepid!): we say "yes" to Christ but act in a way that is unworthy of him. So Paul is calling us to give the same unqualified "Yes" to Christ as Christ gave to God, not by our own strength of character but by the power of the Holy Spirit given to us.
Taking It Personally.
· With the beginning of Lent just a few days away, this is a good passage to use in conducting an audit of your spiritual health. How unequivocal is your commitment to Christ? Is your response "Yes", or "Maybe", or "To some extent" or "Sometimes".
· What might you need to give up (not just for Lent but for ever) if your commitment to Christ is to grow stronger?
· Spend some time pondering verse 22 – perhaps even commit it to memory. Let the truth of it sink in. Do you believe it? Ask God for the grace to accept it fully.
Mark. What a wonderful story this is! Marvel over the detail. Jesus has come "home" (back where he was in verses 29-32 where he healed Peter's mother-in-law and spent all day healing crowds of people). Now he's back and the surgery is resumed. But this time the focus is on one patient, a man with paralysis. Notice the structure of this part of the story. Four bearers carry their prostrate friend. They dig a hole and lower him down. Remind you of something? Of course, it's a funeral scene! At the bottom of the "grave" the "deceased" meets Jesus, who raises him up. Yes, it's a resurrection story! But wait! There's more! We have the first signs of opposition in the form of a chorus of teachers of the law. What are they doing there? Checking out the rumours about Jesus, I guess. They think dark thoughts, and the wonderful irony is that they are on the right track. God alone can forgive sin. The problem is that they do not put two and two together and recognise God incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, but then again it was something of a stretch, wasn't it?
What triggered such dark thoughts? Jesus said to the paralysed man, "Son, your sins are forgiven." Pay careful attention to this. He did not immediately tell the guy to get up and walk: he forgave him and then healed him. We have a sacrament in reverse here. Remember what the Catechism says a sacrament is: the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. Jesus forgives the man (inward and invisible grace) and then heals him physically (outward and visible sign). The healing works as a sign because of the widespread belief at the time that illness (such as paralysis) is caused by sin. The sin having been forgiven, the man can now be set free from paralysis.
Notice, too, that even though Jesus read their thoughts, the teachers of the law did not seem to change their initial assessment of Jesus: compare Nathaniel's response in John 1:47-49. They were so stuck in the past they were not open to the new thing God was doing in the present (and in their very presence). Again ironically, what the teachers of the law could not see, the crown at least glimpsed: they praised God; and recognised that something entirely new to their experience had just happened before their very eyes.
Taking It Personally.
· Do you agree or disagree that we tend to focus more on physical health than on spiritual well-being? Are you more impressed that the paralysed man could walk again or that his sins were forgiven?
· Reflect on the words of the Absolution on page 408 of the Prayer Book. Do you "know" that you are forgiven? Are you "at peace"? Cast your eye down the page. Let "the peace of Christ rule in your heart". Notice that word "rule": not "reside" or "dwell" in your heart (alongside or with everything else), but "rule" or "govern" everything else.
· Pray that "the word of Christ may dwell in you richly".
· Praise God for all that you have seen through these Scriptures today.