Toorak Uniting Church

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Opinion leaders wanted…

Isaiah 35: 3 – 7a     Psalm 146     Mark 7: 24 – 37
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
7 September 2003, 10.15am

The world is a mess. There are a couple of mighty powers trying to expand their sphere of influence, trying to spread the net of their culture and their economy over as large and area as they possibly can. Establishing sovereignty over other countries with less political clout or military power as they go along. Alliances come together and fall apart. People fight for their freedom and the right of self-determination. Streams of refugees roam the world looking for safety, for a chance of prosperity, for peace.
The "smaller" countries desperately try to line up with those of the bigger ones that they hope offer them the best prospects. Offering their limited military and economical support if only the big guys will keep looking after them.

That is the situation Israel is in, in the 8th Century BC. Egypt and Assyria fighting over the countries that lie between them, the countries we today call the Middle East. Disputing sovereignty over the most important trade routes of the then known world.
Israel at that time caught somewhere in the middle, terrified of being overrun by one or the other. For now they have put their cards on Assyria, and with reasonably good results. They are still an independent nation at the time Isaiah writes the chapter we read today, but it is a tentative situation they’re in, and they know it.
If they would have had newspapers like we have today, I bet that the headlines would have had something to do with the balance of power between Assyria and Egypt on most days… on Egypt slowly moving north and Assyria slowly moving south… moving in on that small patch of land reigned by one King Hizkia.
And apart from living in constant fear about losing their independence because the fighting has everything to do with the trade routes, at times the supply lines will get cut off and necessary food and other goods will stop making their way to Jerusalem and surrounds.

A frightening situation, not unlike the situation we find ourselves in today.
Not a situation that inspires hope and a lot of confidence and trust in the future. Who dares to say that in ten years time the Middle East will be a rose garden tended by Israelis and Palestinians alike? Anyone here that believes that the stream of refugees washing up on the shores will dry up because there will be peace in the countries they are coming from? Aids a thing of the past? All children of the world well fed, well educated and heading for good and fulfilling lives?
Who would dare put that to paper as a serious proposition of what the world will look like in the near future?
Not many I would think!

You have to be mad to do that, or perhaps a prophet...

Isaiah, in a situation that looked as glum as the world today, does dream, does believe that something is about to change. That there are possibilities. And he shares that vision with those around him. A vision that 28 centuries later still inspires people is still so vivid and compelling that it is hard not to feel a twinge of hope when we read it. Beautiful music has been written to go with it, people have copied it, cherished it, recited it over the centuries.

And on this spring morning in Melbourne we read it, again.
If only this could come true, some day, somehow, wouldn’t that be just wonderful?

Weak hands strengthened, feeble knees firm, God coming to save us, the eyes of the blind opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame leaping, the speechless singing for joy.

If only.

But it did! And it does!

Mark tells us that once upon a time this dream started to happen, came true, in a man called Jesus. All on his own he started the Kingdom of God, made it true in his life, in his words, in his deeds. In him Isaiah’s vision became real, tangible, just like that.

He fed the crowds with five loaves of bread and two fishes. He heals a little girl that has become possessed by evil spirits. He unstops (very literally) the ears of the deaf and enables the tongue of the speechless to sing for joy. He heals a blind man just after that and again feeds the crowds, this time with seven loaves of bread.

Now wait a minute. Miracles don’t happen. There must be another explanation. Loaves of bread don’t multiply, deaf people don’t start hearing by somebody just putting their fingers in their ears. No way are you going to speak when somebody touches your tongue with his spit and says: "Open up." Impossible.
It must have been psychological or something.

No way is this vision of Isaiah going to come true.

And there we are, 21st century skeptics who know it all. Losing our vision because we can only see the immediate, losing our witness because we cannot get our tongues to speak, not able to hear what scripture really says because we have scientifically advanced stoppers in our ears.

Of course miracles don’t happen. And Mark, 2000 years ago, knew that as much as we do. If he had thought it was a regular thing he would not have written a book about it. And: We don’t hear Jesus healing everybody and everything. It is just here and there things happen, under well defined circumstances. And when those things happen they always relate back to the visions and dreams of the prophets. It is not just any old miracle, all are signs of the dream of the old prophets coming true... Lame walk, blind see, deaf hear, dumb speak.

The bread miracles happen when people start sharing, when the five books of Moses and the two tablets of the law are put into practice, when the seven Noachite commandments for the gentiles are shared among those living on the other side, in heathen territory.

The girl is healed when the mother comes to Jesus and with great faith demands crumbs of his blessing to come her way. She demands from him to make the vision true for her and He does. Crumbs, makes you wonder what a whole loaf of the stuff He is giving out would be like.

The deaf man is brought to him by people who trust that with Jesus the impossible might be possible. And they get a part of that loaf of living bread as well.

Jesus does not make a fuss about it, as he didn’t make a fuss about any of his miracles. He takes the man away from the crowds and tells him not to tell anybody. It is not a spectacle, a show, the healing hardly gets attention. It is the dream surfacing, the vision breaking through in reality for just a moment and then it is back to the common difficulties of everyday living. There will be another miracle to perform, more people to be fed, more disciples misunderstanding, more opposition to encounter, great suffering looming in the distance...

The man, however, in the midst of all that becomes a sign, an opinion leader. He makes the connection to Isaiah 35 and maybe some peoples’ hearts missed a beat when they heard the story: It is happening, it is coming, the Kingdom of God is starting here and now, in our very midst. Look at me, I am living proof of the prophecy coming true! It makes the air of expectancy grow around Jesus, the expectancy that the heavens will open and angels will come to serve Him, that God will take action.

However, there is a reason Jesus tries to silence this opinion leader in the first instance. The message is not ready to be spread just now. Only after the whole story has unfolded can it be properly understood what those miracles mean, and even then……

The word becomes flesh. In Jesus what has been written down over the centuries about God’s vision and God’s love and faithfulness becomes reality in the here and now. But in the flesh the word does not go the way of glory, of God stepping in with power and might, but it goes the way of suffering and humiliation. And only through that does it come to glory, to new life and a new future.

God comes into the world, not to take us out of whatever is bothering us, but to take us through it to the other side, to another perspective. And that is much better than the other thing.

In a world where war and violence, hunger and pain, sickness and misfortune seem to rule, in a world where the one that lived love and justice and peace to an extent that is not possible for ordinary mortals was put on a cross, in a world where we find it difficult to believe that miracles can happen and that dreams will come true, God comes and shares that reality with us.

Dodging nothing of the pain, the powerlessness, the helplessness that we live with, but taking it upon Him, through death and destruction to new and different life, a life that is there in the middle of it all, inviting people to become part of it. Unstop their ears, open their mouths and become living signs of something happening, here and now.

In the same way God fiddles around with spit and earth in Genesis 2 when He creates people, Jesus uses his hands and spit to make part of Isaiah’s vision come true. He moans and he sighs, it is not an easy job to turn the world around and make miracles happen.
But it can be done even though a new creation starts with hard work.

We are invited to believe that. To sing with psalm 146 words that resist hopelessness and skepticism. The princes of this earth are of no importance, those who work with the Lord and trust in Him, however, will work miracles, will be miracles themselves in the sense that once touched by Jesus, their ears unstopped, their tongues loosened, they will be living signs of a different way of living.

Opinion leaders and living signs of the Kingdom of God in a world that does not believe such a thing possible.

Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2003


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