Sunday, December 04, 2016

Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent, "His Name Shall Be Called: Mighty God," Psalm 72:1-14, Mark 4:35-41

Sermon 12/4/16
Psalm 72:1-14, Mark 4:35-41

His Name Shall Be Called: Mighty God*


            “And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” On this second Sunday of Advent, we’re thinking together about what it means to call Jesus “Mighty God.” Thinking of Jesus as God incarnate might come pretty naturally to us. Christians worship a Triune God. That is, we believe that God is a Trinity – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – three persons of God, but still one God. But in the story of the scriptures, though God’s people were longing for a messiah – which means anointed one, a title given to a king – they weren’t expecting the messiah to be God-in-the-flesh exactly. God’s best servant leader, yes. But God in human form? Maybe not. So, how do we come to see Jesus in the words of the prophet Isaiah, when Isaiah calls the promised child “Mighty God”?
In many cultures over the millennia, nations would view the rulers of their country as attaining their role, their position, because of divine decree. In other words, the ruler was in place because God or god(s) wanted them to be. And so, often, the ruler himself (and it has been predominately “him”) would be viewed as having divine qualities, divine power, if not being actually considered divine. Certainly, for the Israelites, there was no separation of church and state. The nation was God’s people, and the king was a servant of God. People were longing for a ruler, then, who would clearly be God-chosen, God’s servant leader directing God’s people.
The ideal ruler had a lot of responsibilities. The ruler would have “victory in war … success in economics … productivity in agriculture and … justice in social relations.” (20) Also, the king’s job was to “practice economic justice toward the poor and needy.” (21) It was written in to the law that the ruler would be the protector of the most at-risk in society. We read about this in our passage from Psalm 72, where the whole Psalm is a prayer of blessing for a king, containing a description of what a king who is serving God ought to look like: “May he judge your people with righteousness and your poor with justice … In his day may righteousness flourish and peace abound … May all kings fall down before him … For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.” The Psalmist speaks of a Ruler who is a protector of the poor and vulnerable, who cares deeply about their lives, a Ruler who is strong enough to shield them from violence and oppression.
            Still, Isaiah describes something more than a Mighty King. Isaiah says Mighty God, a bold claim. Does Jesus meet the criteria? In his book, Names for the Messiah, Walter Brueggemann writes, “Jesus is a carrier of divine power.” (22) The phrase “Mighty God” “asks about [Jesus’s] power in a world that is organized around many claimants for power, most especially the power of Rome. It is clear that [Jesus] will not compete with the power of Rome on the terms of Rome.” (23) Instead, Jesus insists that his power “is not grounded in the usual authority of empire; it is not an authority that comes … in coercive or violent ways. His kingdom, his claim to authority is indeed “divine” in that it is rooted in and derived from [the will of God], whose intention for the world is quite unlike the intent of Rome.” (24)
            We get a picture of Jesus, Mighty God, in our gospel lesson from Mark. Jesus has been teaching the crowds by the seaside. The crowds become so great that Jesus gets into a boat and teaches from just offshore, just enough to give him a platform, and a little distance from the press of the crowds. When evening comes, he says to his disciples: “Let us go across to the other side.” So they leave the crowds, and they head across the water. A windstorm rises up as they travel. The waves are beating against the boat, and the boat is nearly swamped. And through all this, Jesus is asleep in the stern of the boat. The disciples wake him, asking, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re about to die?” Jesus gets up, rebukes the wind, and says to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” He uses the same kind of commands and actions he would to drive out an unclean, harmful spirit from a person. And immediately, the wind ceases and there is total calm. Jesus turns to the disciples and asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Their only response is to turn to each other in awe and wonder, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” They’ve heard Jesus teach and they’ve seen him heal. But power over the elements like this – this is something different, something more altogether. There were many healers and teachers. But power like this was reserved for God. To have power over the chaos of a storm – to have the storm obey, like the unclean spirits also obeyed Jesus – this is the power of Mighty God.
            Passages like this one are known as theophanies. A theophany is one of those fancy church words that means a simple thing: A God-appearance, where the glory of God is revealed in a particular act or moment. You know the word epiphany – when something is revealed suddenly, when we have sudden clarity – a light bulb moment. A theophany is when God is suddenly revealed – when the presence of God in our midst is revealed. In Jesus, we encounter the ultimate theophany – the ultimate revealing of God’s presence, God-with-us. Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus does what only God can do, revealing the glory of God.
            It’s that same revealing of God’s glory that is woven through the story of Jesus’ birth. Listen to what Luke tells us: “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’” A Mighty God comes in the Christ-child, and God’s messengers fill they sky to tell the news.
            Jesus, God-with-us, carries divine power that is different than the power the world knows. Brueggemann says, “Jesus exercises counter-power that refuses the coercive, exploitative power of Rome and instead enacts abundant power that makes life possible.” That’s the aim and focus of Jesus’ power: Jesus, Mighty God, makes abundant life possible. (24) We see this in the gospels when Jesus casts out unclean spirits – he has power over that which makes chaos and disorder, stumbling blocks to life. And we see it when he calms the storm. The spirits, the storm – they obey Jesus because in him is the power of Mighty God. Writes Brueggemann, “Clearly the two adversaries of Jesus, the unclean spirit and the storm, are forces of chaos and death. They are agents of ‘uncreation’ … Jesus contains and subjects these deathly chaotic threats by creating space for new life.” Creating space for new life – that’s the work of Jesus in the world.
Jesus, Mighty God, doesn’t promise a lack of chaos in the world. Instead, our Mighty God-made-flesh in Jesus promises to draw from the chaos abundant life and hope, where the alternative is death and despair. This is the ultimate hope we have as people of faith, as we recite these words from apostle Paul at graveside services: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” We believe that Jesus brings life, where we expected death.
But beyond longing for or trusting in Jesus’ ultimate giving of life eternal instead of the hopelessness of death, what does it mean for us, for our lives now, for Jesus to be Mighty God, Lord of Life? We have to ask ourselves: Where do we need to allow Jesus to create space for new life in us? Where is our life full of chaos, where is death and despair threatening to take hold of us? The more we can offer our whole lives to God, even those parts of our life – especially those parts of our life we’re embarrassed by, the stuff of our life that makes us feel ashamed or weak or overwhelmed or like we just can’t handle it anymore – when we offer that to God, and let go of protecting and hiding the chaos of our lives, God can get to work drawing out new life from the mess. We have to be vulnerable. We have to be ready to offer our obedience, our willingness to follow this Mighty God. But I promise, the Lord of Life can transform your chaos, can transform your hopelessness into joy.    
Not only can Jesus create abundant life out of the chaos we entrust to him, but Jesus also invites us, his disciples, to carry out his work, his mission, by being co-creators, by helping to make paths for creative, new, abundant life to take place. How are we making pathways for new life in world? How can we nurture creative energy for life in our families, in our congregation, in our community? God makes us caretakers of the garden of earth, and we can work to make sure what God is growing is soaked in light and water and planted in good soil. Who do you know who is feeling hopeless who needs some words of encouragement? Who is beginning a journey with God of new life that needs your support? We are called to clear the path for the Lord of Life to be at work in the world.
On the flip side, we have to do some self-examination in this season of Advent. Jesus wants to make new life of our chaos, and wants us to help make new life pathways in the world. Sometimes, when we turn away from God, we find ourselves instead making stumbling blocks, putting barriers in the way of God’s paths. Sometimes, we find ourselves stirring up the chaos, in our lives, and in the lives of other, instead of working with God to create life. In these days that feel so chaotic, when the temptation to add the swirl of hate and anger can be so tempting, we must ask ourselves: Am I adding to the chaos? Are my actions toward others leading them toward hopelessness, or toward abundant life? Jesus speaks in some of his harshest words in the gospels toward those who get between others and their life with God. There are so many ways that God might bring new life out of your chaos, but it will never be through causing chaos for others.
Jesus is about the work of making space for new life in the world, in our lives. Let us be about the work of making space for Jesus. In these Advent days, and all the days that follow, let every heart prepare him room, room for Mighty God, the Lord of Life. Amen.

*References throughout are from Chapter 2 of Names for the Messiah by Walter Brueggemann.


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