Four Words

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

If you had only four words to describe Jesus, what words would you choose? In fact, why don’t you do just that: before reading any further, jot down the four words that most seem to capture Jesus and then think about why those words are important to you. Don’t worry, this isn’t a right/wrong kind of exercise, it’s more of a chance to explore what attributes about Jesus are most important to you.

Once you’re done, go back and read the passage from Mark assigned for this Sunday again. Because right there you’ll find the message of his whole Gospel in a nutshell. Even more, you’ll find what I think are Mark’s four words. Again, this isn’t a right/wrong exercise, it’s just a way or paying attention to Mark’s message, a message that still has the capacity to change lives. So here they are:

Compassion: Mark doesn’t often relate Jesus’ psychological state, but he does here. When Jesus sees this man approach him in need, he is moved immediately to compassion. Not judgment: “What have you done to cause this to happen?” Or reprimand: “Stop embarrassing yourself on your knees and, what’s more, keep your distance.” Or demand: “What will you do with your life if I heal you?” Or any of the countless other responses that were common both then and now to such supplication. No, he just feels compassion. This is Jesus, keep in mind, Word made flesh, Son and Man and Son of God. So this is also God: not primarily judgmental, or directive, or demanding, but compassionate.

Touch: There is an intimacy to touch that we can take for granted. Ask the elderly, the ill, the depressed, or the isolated just how rare and beautiful human touch is and you may be surprised (or maybe just reminded) that there are few gestures as profound, loving, and healing as human touch. (In this regard, when you have time watch at least the opening scene of My Life as a House.) Jesus could have healed with a word, with a gesture, or with a command, but instead he reaches out to touch him. Here, too, is God’s character revealed, as we discover a God so eager to be in relationship with us that God takes on our form and flesh, assumes our lot and our life, so that God can reach out to touch us in love.

Willing: Jesus does more than simply respond to the man’s plea; he affirms his deepest hopes that, though a leper, he still has value, dignity, worth. That he is, finally, a child of God. Here we are again greeted — or, perhaps in this world of religious division — confronted by God’s often surprising and always uncontrollable mercy and grace. As Jonah learned the hard way, God is indeed “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Jonah 4:2). God, that is, is often far more willing and eager to bless than we are to be blessed.

Lonely: Make no mistake. These acts of mercy, while perhaps free, nevertheless cost Jesus. There is, as my colleagues and I talk about on this week’s “Sermon Brainwave” podcast, an exchange going on here, as this man, now healed, is also restored to his community, while Jesus can no longer travel freely or even enter the towns anymore. But I want to be careful with words like “cost” and “exchange,” as I don’t mean that his healing is like some super-power that he must replenish. Nor do I want to go to the kind of cost or exchange common theories of atonement that rely on a substitutionary or penal view of the cross. In those systems, as I try to get at in Making Sense of the Cross,
Jesus needs to make payment to an angry, or at least all-just God. And frankly, if he’s making payment I don’t see how we can call it forgiveness.

Rather, what I mean is that love always costs something. We don’t know why Jesus asked the man to be silent — the whole “Messianic secret” thing — but maybe it was because he knew this would make it difficult to walk and talk and preach and heal freely. Whatever the reason, and whatever the risk, he nevertheless heals, heedless of the cost. He trades places with this man — losing his freedom that this man may find his — out of love. Love costs. Ask any parent, or grandparent, or lover, or friend. Yet that is what we find in God.

So maybe one way to get at this text this week, Working Preacher, would be to invite people to think about — or even talk about — the images they hold of God. These images — often crafted or absorbed when we were children — are often powerful and sometimes unconscious things. Inviting them to name the four words they think best describe Jesus and God might be a start. Keep in mind — and remind your folks — that this isn’t a right/wrong thing. It’s just away of getting those often deep-seated and unconscious images. After naming and exploring these a bit, perhaps we could invite people to consider Mark’s words and the image that flows from there.

How are Mark’s and our visions similar? How do they differ? What’s a stake? The point, let me be clear, isn’t to critique defective images of God — who really imagines God rightly? — but instead to keep affirming, keep offering, keep proclaiming an image of a God who is compassionate; reaches out to touch us in love; is so willing and eager to embrace us in healing, forgiveness, and grace; and eagerly embraces the pain and sin of the world out of love for us, for us and the whole wide world we live in. To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t mind hearing (and participating in!) that kind of sermon! 🙂

Whatever direction you go, Working Preacher, know how much I appreciate your fidelity to this wildly compassionate God. Blessings on your proclamation!

Yours in Christ,