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Insistent Praise

“Insistent Praise” 2 Samuel 7:18-29 and Ephesians 1:3-14 © 7.15.18 Ordinary 15B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Previously in the saga of King David, two weeks ago, he was facing a crisis of faith. Newly crowned as sovereign of Israel, David was seeking to consolidate all power in Jerusalem, his new capital. In order to centralize the worship of the nation, he decided to bring the ark of the covenant into the city. An enterprise that began with dancing, though, soon turned into mourning, as Uzzah lay dead, victim of a petulant God who punished him for touching the precious sacred object without proper ritual credentials.

That incident left David shaken and angry. It was only after three months of grieving and soul searching that the king finally brought the covenant symbol into his city. The dancing had resumed.

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Mystics of the Quotidian

“Mystics of the Quotidian” Mark 6:1-13 © 7.8.18 Ordinary 14B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Every Wednesday and Sunday, as I come into town, I’m greeted by a big green sign that proclaims Amory the home of Trent Harmon, “the last American Idol.” Prior to Harmon’s win in the TV competition, he came to town and did a concert. The Monroe Journal said: “March 26, 2016 will forever be known as Trent Harmon Day in Amory, as per a resolution presented by Mayor Brad Blalock in front of gobs of Harmon fans crammed in Frisco Park. An estimated 5,000 fans came from near and far to line a parade route, shout screams synonymous with a boy band sighting and give an overwhelmingly hospitable welcome fit for a king” (http://www.djournal.com/monroe/news/amory-welcomes-back-its-hometown-hero/article_312ec094-e4f7-59f9-855e-5bfa73044e36.html). Traci Huguley said at the time about fundraising for the parade: “Everybody is working together. All churches and sorts of people are coming together. It’s the most unifying thing that could happen for our town”  (https://www.clarionledger.com/story/news/local/2016/03/25/amory-mccomb-brace-idol-homecoming/82255976/). Harmon was a hometown hero.

Back in my day, Albany, GA, where I grew up, claimed country singer Ray Stevens in the same way. Some of you may recall that he had a string of novelty hits like “Guitarzan” and “Ahab the Arab,” along with more serious works like “Everything is Beautiful” and “Mr. Businessman.” Everybody said Stevens’ real name was “Ray Ragsdale” and that he was from out at Kinchafoonee Creek. (Yes, that’s a real place.) I was never sure whether the rumors of his origins were true, but when Stevens did a concert in the local high school auditorium, the mayor gave him the key to the city.

When Jesus came to Nazareth, the mayor made sure to be out of town on business, and calls to his assistants went right to voicemail. There were no cheering crowds. Nobody hung out a big banner saying “Welcome home, Jesus” or came up to him on the street asking for his autograph. Not even an offer to grab a cup of coffee and catch up on old times. Yes, he was well-known and had “made good,” as we would say. But the folks in Nazareth were not particularly pleased. As someone has said, their reaction was somewhere between amazement and annoyance. They were somewhat skeptical that the neighborhood kid who had played in their streets and grew up building chests and tables had anything wise and fascinating to say. He was no rabbi, no legal expert; what could he know?

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The God You Touch

“The God You Touch” 2 Samuel 6:1-19; Mark 5:21-43 © 7.1.18 Ordinary 13B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Anyone who has read the Bible knows that it’s full of violence, bloodshed, and general carnage, so much so that Phyllis Trible many years ago wrote a book entitled Texts of Terror. Just look at Judges in the Old Testament and Revelation in the New. Usually somebody convinced that he has a holy mission wreaks havoc in the name of God, alone or with others. Or at least, as in Revelation, he predicts the bloody demise of those seen as God’s enemies, who will be slain by Jesus, the Lion of God. The beautiful passages in the prophets describing the faithful love of God and his welcome to strangers and the marginalized get overshadowed by gruesome tales of holy war and the utter destruction of the heathen. As Mark Twain had it: “[In the Old Testament] God is always punishing…punishing innocent children…punishing unoffending populations… even descending to wreak havoc upon harmless calves and lambs…. If God had a motto, it would have read: ‘Let no innocent person escape.’”

Twain’s argument is given weight by the story of Uzzah and the Ark of the Covenant. As the ornate box, a kind of portable throne for God, was being moved from the home of Abinadab, Uzzah’s father, the oxen pulling the cart stumble and the Ark shifts in the wagon. Uzzah, out of respect for the religious artifact, puts out his hand to steady it. And zap! According to the tale, God kills him for being so insolent as to touch something sacred.

We’re rightly incensed at such a crude and primitive understanding of God and the holy. How can the deity whose actions are so cruel and barbaric be the same one who sent Jesus among us? And that’s a legitimate question. Some in the early Church said he was not. But there’s another way to look at the story.

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Five Smooth Stones

“Five Smooth Stones” 1 Samuel 17:1-54 © 6.24.18 Ordinary 12B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The story of the battle between David and Goliath is without doubt the best known and most popular tale in the Bible. Even people unfamiliar with Scripture understand the reference, so much has it become a part of our culture. For example, in the early 17th century, Caravaggio painted a famous and influential image of David holding Goliath’s head (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_with_the_Head_of_Goliath_(Caravaggio,_Rome). Emily Dickinson had a poem on the theme titled “I took my power in my hand…” (for text, see https://www.bartleby.com/113/1059.html). I vaguely recall an inspirational Lutheran cartoon from the 1960s named “Davey and Goliath,” in which Goliath was a talking dog, which is funny, given the giant’s complaint that David must think him a dog to come to him only with a stick. And of course, every news story, game, movie or TV show you and I have ever seen involving an underdog fighting a giant bureaucracy or an evil empire brings to mind David and Goliath.

As to my sermon title, it’s hardly original. Eugene Peterson near the end of the last century published a book called Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. Fr. Samuel Wells, vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London, challenged graduates at the Duke University baccalaureate in 2010 to identify the source of their power. His title? “Five Smooth Stones.” https://www.faithandleadership.com/five-smooth-stones. And there is a bestseller from the ‘60s about the Civil Rights Movement by Ann Fairbairn with the same name. But derivative or not, I couldn’t resist. I love wonderful images from the text that simply beg to be the focus of a message.

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Son of the New Day

“Son of the New Day” 1 Samuel 16:1-13; 2 Corinthians 5:14-17 © 6.17.18 Ordinary 11B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

When the servant brought word that he was to come from the pasture immediately, David was puzzled, then not a little frightened. There must have been a terrible accident; his father or one of his brothers had been injured or even killed. Or an enemy had descended on Bethlehem, ravaging the town. His home was in ruins.

But on questioning the messenger, the young shepherd found that none of this was the case. Instead, a prophet had come to offer sacrifice and was asking for David. There was a task the man had to perform, and only David could help him fulfill his mission.

The young man couldn’t for a moment imagine what a famous religious leader would want with a lowly shepherd. But he had been summoned, so he left the servant with the sheep and hurried home.

Without even a word of greeting to David, Samuel the prophet took out a flask of oil and poured it over David’s head in the presence of his family. He felt excited, proud, embarrassed, afraid, confused; his heart was pounding, his mind racing. The action of the holy man could mean only one thing. David was to be king.

After that day, in one way, nothing changed for him. Samuel returned to Ramah, in the north. Saul was still the reigning monarch. And the boy was still merely David ben Jesse, a kid who kept sheep. Nobody addressed him as “your majesty,” except maybe as a joke.

But in another way, everything changed with him and for him. Before this day, David wasn’t sure of his future. Prospects had been merely OK at best. According to the law of primogeniture, his oldest brother Eliab would inherit most of the family property. David, as the youngest, would get little. He had his music, but there wasn’t much of a living in playing the occasional wedding or bar mitzvah. Probably he would spend the rest of his life on hillsides surrounded by sheep, sheep, and more sheep. Good thing he liked mutton; maybe he could come up with a new sauce he could trademark and be mildly famous.

Now, though, a new vigor surged through him. There was a spring in his step, a new confidence in his demeanor. He knew there was a real future ahead, full of responsibility and difficulty, yes, but also adventure and power. He felt somehow closer to God, too. Yahweh had always held a special attraction for David, but now…now, the one David called his “Shepherd” seemed almost to live within him. Yes, indeed, things had changed. And even if he had to wait years and years, David knew Yahweh, the Lord, would fulfill his promise to make him monarch of Israel.

If David felt surprise and acquired a new confidence because he was chosen by God, so did Israel, the nation over which David ruled for so long after he did in fact ascend the throne. This one man, for all his faults and failures, captured the imagination of men and women in Israel alike. As the renowned scholar Walter Brueggemann pointed out some years ago, there had been no one like him before. After the failure of Saul, the first king, pinning hopes on a monarchy might have seemed misplaced and foolish. But David showed the possibilities for a ruler. He wasn’t cast from normal molds; there was something extraordinary about this man. Though David slept in an adulterer’s bed and his hands were soiled with the blood of Bathsheba’s husband, Yahweh did not abandon him. Chastise him, judge him, yes. But give up on him? No. (See Walter Brueggemann, In Man We Trust: The Neglected Side of Biblical Faith: 29-33, 38-40.)

And in the way Yahweh treated David was a message of hope for Israel as well. When the people sinned, when the nation was full of injustice and men and women had turned from the true God, there was a promise of forgiveness. There could be a new start. If the number seven stood for God’s work of creation in the beginning, then eight was the symbol of a new creation, and this eighth son of Jesse was its firstborn. He was the progenitor of a race of faithful folk not bound to Yahweh by externals like ritual and words, but in the deepest part of their being. And from him eventually would come the One who would fulfill all God’s purposes for the world and make everything new.

It’s quite a story, isn’t it? And in this amazing narrative, we discover elements of our own. We find all sorts of exciting clues about that new creation God promises and David stands for: how it comes, what it means, why it matters.

First, the new creation comes on God’s initiative and on God’s terms. Throughout the morning’s text, it’s clear that God is fully in charge. He has rejected Saul as king. He rouses Samuel from his grief and gives him a new mission. He passes over the seven sons of Jesse to choose one whom nobody expected. He speaks, he anoints, he gives the Spirit. David, the eighth son, the harbinger of a new creation, will be king by God’s will and in God’s way.

Because it’s given by God, the new creation can’t be conjured, cajoled, crafted, corralled, co-opted, comprehended or commanded by us. If and when we try any of that, God will snatch it from our hands and claim it again as his own. We can’t pin down the new creation, because it comes from the Spirit. And we know from Jesus that the wind of God blows where it wishes, and we can’t tell where it comes from or where it’s going. God in sovereign freedom and love decides the what, where, why, when, and how. All we can be concerned with is the who, and that’s you and me and all our neighbors on this planet. We’re called to be open to what God will do among us, attentive to the voice of God that commands and comforts, ready for the coming of the Spirit when God anoints us for the particular tasks he’s given each of us. We receive with gratitude and praise what God bestows.

So the new creation comes at the initiative of God, by the sovereign action of God’s hand. Second, the new creation undermines the current order. Put another way, the new creation doesn’t depend on the cooperation of the Powers That Be. Notice that God commanded Samuel to anoint a king even though there was already a reigning monarch. God circumvents the usual processes of politics and power. He doesn’t consult with Saul about his successor or let him know what’s going on. And Samuel would have gone ahead with the anointing of David whether the village elders welcomed his visit or not.

What I mean is God’s actions don’t depend on our approval. As someone has said: “In the Bible, God does things theologians would never approve of.” And a line from an old TV movie comes to mind: “You’d be surprised at the things we do around here without running it by you first.” In our arrogance, we think God should consult us. But he doesn’t submit his actions to a vote, because whether temporal decisions are made by bishops, elders or congregations, the Church is a monarchy, ruled by our Lord Jesus Christ. And so too is the universe. God will work his will in spite of us, but he would rather work through us. And all the opposition by principalities and powers, by thrones and rulers and institutions and frightened followers won’t stop God from accomplishing what he means to do, and that’s to bring in the new creation he promised in Christ.

And if the new creation doesn’t depend on the cooperation of the Powers That Be, neither does it depend on the usual suspects. I mean the beautiful, the strong, the well-connected, the wealthy, the known and the respected, those that the world turns to more often than not when selecting leaders, entertainers, and role models. God doesn’t see as people see; they look on the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.

The supposition in ancient times was that the firstborn son would get the lion’s share of the inheritance and would lead the family upon the passing of the patriarch. And, like modern people, the ancients valued good looks, stature, popularity, and strength. So Samuel, not withstanding his being a prophet of God, naturally expected Eliab, the first son of Jesse, would be the one anointed. Nope. Neither were any of the other seven. The anointed was to be the eighth son, someone so insignificant and young that his father had not even thought to invite him to the feast and visit with the prophet! What could David do? He was just a shepherd, and there were thousands of shepherds. The irony, of course, was that when he was summoned and presented, he turned out to be really good looking. There’s beauty among the ignored and forgotten, sometimes seen and recognized only by God.

We live in a day when pundits and power brokers routinely judge the worth and credibility of people by externals like wealth, skin color, looks, weight, country of origin, and on and on. The Church, on the other hand, is called to be a demonstration of what God intends for all humanity, which is to value everyone as a unique creation of God. That starts with affirming our own gifts and worth as children of God, no matter what we have or look like. Each of us has something special to offer our families, our neighbors, our world.

The same applies to small churches like this one. To the world’s way of thinking, 25 or 30 or 40 people on a Sunday morning or a Wednesday night don’t amount to much, and I’m ashamed to say there was a time in my ministry when I bought into that. But small churches are the right size, to quote an old book title, whether preachers and the public recognize it or not. In a recent article, David Pannell profiled John Armistead, the regular supply of Unity Presbyterian near Plantersville. Mr. Armistead highlighted the wonderful gifts of small churches and the problem with valuing only the big and the beautiful. He noted how so many preachers want what he derisively termed an “influential and important ministry” and feel no calling to small churches. “They have to be taught that impacting the lives of 25 or 30 people can be just as satisfying as impacting the lives of 2,500 or 3,000….” Then this: “If people want to go to a megachurch and that meets their needs, that’s fine…. But some people don’t feel like they’ve worshipped if they’re in a darkened room and they’re watching the preacher on a screen because he’s so far away they can’t see him otherwise. Some people still prefer the intimate, loving koinonia of a small church” (David Pannell, “An undiminished faith,” Daily Journal: Saturday, June 9, 2018: 10A; http://www.djournal.com/lifestyle/religion/in-nearly-years-of-life-armistead-has-worn-many-hats/article_7d88683f-f578-5f77-81f4-b23cdeb229d0.html)

Whether as individuals or as a corporate body, let’s think outside the box of the world’s definitions of what makes a leader or what size a church needs to be. Everyone of us has something to give, whoever we are. Let’s not buy into the limited vision of the world, but rather see ourselves and others as God sees, looking on the heart.

So, the new creation comes by the action of God. It doesn’t depend on human cooperation and isn’t limited by human standards. But finally, the new creation comes to us both in marker events and in the day to day. It may arrive unsought, unbidden or by our expectation, from our seeking and discipline. David didn’t wake up that morning knowing that he was to be anointed king or the Spirit would come mightily on him. His father and brothers had not been at the center of a plot to overthrow King Saul and install David. Samuel had no idea that God would command him to go to Bethlehem for a politically and personally dangerous task. Yet the day turned out to be a marker event not only in their lives, but in the life of an entire nation. Indeed, because Jesus is the descendant of David, it was a day that changed the universe.

All this came as a surprise. And that’s one way God’s new creation descends on us. As a surprise. Not the kind like a fly doing the backstroke in your soup or a reckless, speeding driver coming out of nowhere. No, the good kind, like a parent returning from deployment and showing up in his or her child’s classroom or the Facebook or email message from an old friend you had lost touch with. Serendipity. Lagniappe. That little something extra that makes a big difference. And the day becomes a marker that we go back to again and again for sustenance and sanity, because it reminds us that in God’s new creation, anything can happen, and God’s intention for us is good.

But the new creation can also come to us in the day to day. David was out tending sheep. No doubt the Jesse family was going about its business. As we do our jobs or enjoy leisure or go to school, simply living day in and day out, God comes to us.

Every day is full of possibilities. Indeed, I would say every day is a sacrament. If a sacrament takes ordinary things like food, drink, and water and makes them holy, then indeed each moment is a sacrament. God makes it so, because he’s always present in the smallest of activities, always speaking even in the silence, always seeking us even in our darkest despair.

Frederick Buechner’s lines are the classic statement: “There is no chance thing through which God cannot speak—even the walk from the house to the garage that you have walked ten thousand times before, even the moments when you cannot believe there is a God who speaks at all anywhere. He speaks, I believe, and the words he speaks are incarnate in the flesh and blood of our selves and of our own footsore and sacred journeys…. [God] says he is with us on our journeys. He says he has been with us since each of our journeys began. Listen for him” (The Sacred Journey: 77).

The new creation is the saving work of God in Christ among us, in us, and throughout the world. However it comes to us, by surprise or expectation, it changes everything. Wherever we encounter it, in the rush of our daily living or in the still silence of our hearts, it makes the ultimate difference. Whatever else it means, it means this: we are changed, and so all our relationships are changed as well. No place is the same; no task is the same; no conversation or thought or feeling is ever the same, because we’re part of something new, the grand purpose of God that is beyond us yet goes forward through us.

Is the possibility and reality of a new creation good news for you and me today? Doesn’t each of us long for a fresh prospect when we find ourselves on the margins of life, when the future is as barren and lifeless as a ghost town, when the best we can do is never good enough? Don’t you and I want to know that what matters in the long run is not how we look or what we have or what we do, but what’s in our hearts? Do you wish, as I often do, that the past could truly be past, and those specters of regret, shame, and guilt from bygone days that haunt you and me were banished forever? Do you want to know that God can use you and me, even at our worst, to accomplish his purposes, that in and through this rough and raw material of our stories God’s will is done?

It was because of David, the eighth son, this son of a new day, that Israel believed. And we too believe because of our David, also born in Bethlehem. He was rejected and crucified in shame, but raised in power, taken from the depths to the pinnacle, declared both Lord and Christ. By his resurrection, he too is a son of the new creation, the eighth day. God is always doing the unexpected, taking the course not immediately obvious, bending every human rule to accomplish his purposes. That’s why a shepherd can be king, why a carpenter can be Christ, why these clay pots that are our bodies can be vessels for the will and work of God.

A Tragic Inversion

“A Tragic Inversion” Mark 3:13-35 © 6.10.18 Ordinary 10B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

One particularly awful day in my first pastorate, I got a call from an eccentric, perennially anxious woman in the church. I’m ashamed to say that back then I would have crossed the street and pulled my coat up over my face just to avoid speaking to her; she was that weird and obnoxious. But there she was, on the other end of the line. She had a theological question, she said. I braced, given my prior experiences with her, for a long and largely unintelligible harangue. My heart sank when she, in a strident tone, demanded that I define “blasphemia” for her. She meant “blasphemy,” of course. Her specific interest was blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

I don’t recall what I answered, but I’m pretty sure I stammered out some textbook response, given that such was my MO then even more than now. What I should have done was find out what prompted her question, what fear or anxiety she had that led her to call me. But I was too clueless and, truth be told, too uncaring even to ask.

It’s entirely possible she had been reading this morning’s text or its parallels. Maybe she had looked at a couple of others from later biblical traditions that talk about unforgiveable sins. Like this one from Hebrews: “…it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt” (Hebrews 6:4-6). Also this: “if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment” (Hebrews 10:26-27).

Those were the texts that gave justification for the views of the third-century bishop Novatian. He insisted that Christians who avoided martyrdom by agreeing to burn incense to the Roman gods and the emperor could never be restored, even if they repented. Apostasy was the unforgiveable sin; Christians must live in complete holiness their entire lives long and choose death rather than dishonor Christ by participating in a pagan political ritual.

Or maybe my parishioner had seen a passage from 1 John that distinguishes between a sin that leads to death and one that doesn’t (1 John 5:16-17). More likely, I suspect she had been taken in by some fearmonger masquerading as a theologian, preacher or church school teacher who had found her to be easy prey. Her question was probably prompted by a need for reassurance that she had not, in fact, committed the unpardonable sin. But I couldn’t and didn’t hear her.

I’ve known and read about other people afraid that they had been cursed by God, even if their worry was not the unpardonable sin. My own maternal grandmother was convinced that a disease she struggled with from the age of 28 was sent by a vengeful God who was angry with her because of the time in her teen years she made fun of a disabled woman. Michael Kierkegaard, father of the great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, believed God’s curse lay on his family, and that he himself had committed the unforgivable sin. He had become enraged at God one day in his early life as a desperately poor tenant farmer’s helper, before he had obtained the riches he enjoyed at the end of his days. The elder Kierkegaard wanted to know why he and those he loved had to endure suffering and want. On a hill, he solemnly swore at God, and from that day on, carried a burden of guilt and sadness.

What help does Mark offer anyone who worries about being cut off from God because he or she has committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? Let’s look at the story, which is part of a larger unit about the way people react to Jesus. The gospel writer will show us two erroneous understandings of our Lord. One arises out of concern for Jesus, the other from hostility.

The scene is probably Jesus’ home in Capernaum, though it could be somebody else’s house; the text isn’t clear. He’s back from a mission tour with the twelve he’s just named as apostles. They’re all trying to relax and have a bite of lunch, but word spreads quickly in a small town, so soon there’s a crowd around the door. Jesus’ mother and brothers arrive with the intent to take charge of him. In the original, it says “arrest,” “take by force.” The family thinks our Lord is several sandwiches short of a picnic; he’s gone off the deep end. He’s become a crazy religious fanatic who needs to be protected from himself. Whoever heard of the firstborn son forsaking security, tradition, the family business, and material possessions to go out on the road for who knows how long at a time with a ragtag bunch of men that included two known terrorists, some hotheads, and a Roman collaborator? He was exposing himself to all sorts of danger from the authorities and from the crowds. Clearly, he needed a guardian to handle his affairs.

The scribes, who were teachers of the Jewish law, were not so kind. For them, Jesus wasn’t crazy or eccentric or unconventional. He was in league with demons, in fact, with the Prince of Demons, Beelzebul, originally a Canaanite deity, whose name meant “lord of the house.” The Hebrews had mockingly corrupted it to “Beelzebub,” “lord of the flies” and eventually connected the old god with Satan.

We talk about “demonizing” one’s opponents, and we mean that metaphorically. The scribes intended their accusation to be literal. They couldn’t argue with Jesus’ results. People were healed. The crowds saw in Jesus a deliverer, someone who could help them. He was extremely popular. So, if you can’t discount the message, then vilify the messenger. Get him out of the picture. Demean and discredit him so no one will believe him. Jesus was able to cast out demons, the scribes said, because he was an officer in Satan’s army, and the minions of the devil therefore had to obey him.

Our Lord resoundingly refutes the argument of the Torah teachers by showing the faultiness of its logic. Of course, when are people who have their minds made up and their hearts full of malice and hate ever interested in reason or logic? No doubt our Lord knew that, but he nevertheless points out the silliness of the scribes. Why would Satan undermine his cause, allow his kingdom to be divided, by permitting or ordering the eviction of lesser functionaries from their hosts? His realm would fall apart. Jesus isn’t a friend and helper of Satan; he’s his enemy, the one stronger than the Prince of Darkness who will tie him up, plunder his belongings, and rob him of power.

Jesus continues with a stern warning. Whatever sins and blasphemies people commit will be forgiven. But blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an eternal sin.

For Mark, our Lord’s exchange with the scribes and their charge against him is the key to understanding such an unpardonable sin. That Jesus’ family thought him insane was irrelevant. Instead, the author focuses on the statement of the teachers that Jesus had an unclean or evil spirit.

Some years ago, a religion professor (Carl Walters, Jr.) observed that the scribes were “the professional theologians who knew what God had said and how he had acted—what he was supposed to say and how he was supposed to act….” He went on: “Because they are threatened by his popularity, offended by his unorthodox ways, and blinded by their refusal to open their eyes to the possibility that God is speaking and acting directly in a new way through this rabbi…they say he is a representative of Satan….” The scribes label Jesus as precisely the opposite of what he is. They call good evil. We might wonder if they also would have agreed with Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost: “Evil, be thou my good” (Book IV). Our Lord warns that such a viewpoint is a potentially tragic inversion.

To be fair, Jesus doesn’t say the scribes are guilty of an eternal sin. He simply warns them that they’re about to cross a line; he fires a shot across their bow. Mark’s language in the original seems to indicate that continued behavior of the same sort would result in the teachers’ guilt becoming a permanent feature of their souls.

There are some important clues in the story that help us decipher the mystery of the eternal, unpardonable sin. First, our Lord was warning against the consequences of a closed heart and mind. Those are the only things that can thwart, block, the forgiveness of God. Think about it. God is able and willing to forgive any sin. And grace may be irresistible, as the old Calvinists taught, but only in the sense of being immensely attractive and winsome. We’re courted by the Spirit, but we can say “no.” God doesn’t force his way into our hearts; the Spirit will not assault us with salvation against our will. The religious leaders were so jaded and so self-righteous that they had things exactly backwards. That tragic inversion I spoke of. The work of God they called the work of the devil. Rules were paramount, while people in need were dispensable. So in the nature of the case, they were unwilling and unable to accept the love and care of God, the presence of the Spirit. Their hearts were hard, persistently so, and as the late writer Fred Craddock said, that condition “foils the dynamics of forgiveness.” It’s not those who are spiritually sensitive, with tender consciences, who commit blasphemy against the Spirit. It’s those who are on the outside religious and say the right words, but inside are corrupt and hateful and wouldn’t know the reality of God if it rose up and bit them on the nose. They’ve lost the capacity to accept and demonstrate the love of God. And God lets them go the way they have chosen. There is no forgiveness not because God is unwilling, but because it’s neither wanted nor asked for, so convinced is the evil person of the propriety of his or her perverse path.

The classic commentator William Barclay had some helpful observations: “So long as a man sees loveliness in Christ, so long as he hates his sin even if he cannot leave it, even if he is in the mud and the mire, he can still be forgiven. But if a man, by repeated refusals of God’s guidance, has lost the ability to recognize goodness when he sees it, if he has got his moral values inverted until evil to him is good and good to him is evil, then, even when he is confronted by Jesus, he is conscious of no sin; he cannot repent and therefore can never be forgiven. That is the sin against the Holy Spirit.”

Second, the unforgivable sin isn’t something done in ignorance, inadvertently or only once. It’s not any of the things people have been told it is at various times in history, like cursing, adultery, suicide, apostasy or resisting church authority. Those who claim it’s one specific act have an agenda of fear and oppression to carry out. Rather, the unforgivable sin arises out of persistent, hostile, intentionally evil attitudes toward the activity of God in the world, that is, against the Holy Spirit. The unforgivable sin is a total lifestyle of rejection of God’s work in Christ, intentionally and unremittingly. It’s done with full knowledge of consequences toward God and neighbor. As someone once wrote: “the unforgiveable sin does not describe a single act that merits eternal judgment; certainly it is not an inadvertent word or deed; not does it have to do with….the unevangelized…. The unforgiveable sin applies to those who, after knowledge, deliberately and persistently reject Christ and refuse to recognize his work as the work of God.”

Finally, if someone is concerned that he or she has committed the unpardonable sin, that’s a sure sign that such is not the case. Caring about hurting God or being under his judgment is an indicator of a relationship, a signal of faith. No one who may have committed the unforgivable sin would even care. God doesn’t matter to him or her at all, ever. Michael Kierkegaard and my anxious parishioner back in the 1970s need not have been so worried.

Of Jesus’ many hard sayings, the one we’ve been reflecting on this morning is no doubt one of the most difficult. I hope I’ve shed some light on it. Let me finish simply by affirming that bad news is never the last word. If we must talk about someone being separated from God by the persistent and intentional choice to do and speak evil, because that’s what Jesus does in the text, then we also need to hear his reassurance that anyone may be related to him by word and deed. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” That included those recalcitrant scribes, and anyone anywhere, anytime considered unlikely to care, to repent, to value the love of God. Those in Jesus’ big family have found in him not an eccentric who needs protection from himself or an agent of the Devil, but the One who lives and does God’s will. They’re the ones who believe in and want to be with him. They follow in his footsteps, risking disagreement and scorn, working for the day when brokenness, pain and fear will no longer hold humankind hostage. For threatened power brokers and fear merchants, those who are brother, sister, mother to Jesus want to turn the world upside down. And in the kingdom of God, indeed the last shall be first, and all the powers that deform and destroy human life and that of all creation will be put down.

Such good news, proclaimed by our Lord and his disciples in every age, ought never be obscured by preoccupation with God’s judgment or talk about an unforgivable sin. Matters of mercy and judgment belong only to God. We do not and cannot judge who had committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Rather, we hope in God’s good word to all and hold out for even the most unlikely the hope of forgiveness and the promise of life, certain that God’s future for us all is merciful and just.

Epiphany in Clay Pots

“Epiphany in Clay Pots” 2 Corinthians 4:7-15 © 6.3.18 Ordinary 9B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Back in the day, there was a wacky San Francisco comedian who was looking for a wife. On TV, in theaters, and on the street, he asked women: “What do you think of my face?”

If Paul the apostle had posed the same question to his Corinthian converts, they would no doubt have responded: “You’re kidding, right?” We might have agreed.

We have no idea what Paul looked like, since of course there are no photos or even paintings, and there aren’t many clues in the New Testament. His opponents claimed that his letters were strong but his bodily presence was weak (2 Corinthians 10:10). We do know the apostle suffered from some sort of problem with his eyes. There’s a passage at the end of Galatians, his second epistle, in which he complains about how large he must make the letters when he’s writing with his own hand (Galatians 6:11). He refers in that same letter to a “physical infirmity” and later in 2 Corinthians to a tormenting “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7), which may have been the aforementioned problems with his sight or maybe frequent seizures. He had also been flogged countless times, he says, and suffered various kinds of abuse and deprivation for the gospel, which no doubt left emotional and physical scars (2 Corinthians 11:23-30).

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