1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
First Congregational Church of Anchorage : 21 January 2018
How do we respond to the urgency of the Spirit of God without absorbing anxiety? Especially when 2000 years later we are often told that the actual end is still looming any day now?
We have two readings today that can be and have been used as motivating texts for people to hurry up and do something, whatever the something is that a preacher might imagine. I say, as new ministry team terms are beginning this year, maybe when Jim Munter and Kathy Means call you, join in as if the end of the world depends upon you!
We attempted to see the Northern Lights last night. If we had, then that would probably be the end of the sermon, or maybe caused me to rewrite a few parts. But the solar winds were apparently too slow and nothing happened.
Like so many things, there is nothing we could do to make the lights happen. I cannot force it or prevent it. What I can do is gaze in wonder and allow myself to be affected, even changed, maybe even when waiting does not produce the outcome I had wanted. I think this is how the Church should imagine things such as the transfiguration of Christ, or the column of flame in Exodus. To say much is to drone on to long; to stand speechless is to understand a little. To see a glimpse is beyond comprehension.
For Paul, maybe more speechlessness would have been helpful. It seems sometimes that the more he says in his letters to the churches, the more he has to unsay. This text is one of those that most of us will find troubling, at least a little. So maybe looking at it a different way might help.
Eugene Eung-Chun Park, who is the NT professor at San Fransisco Theological Seminary, translates 1 Corinthians 7:29a-31b a little differently than most English translations. The difference is quite stark in meaning, and his arguments as to why are very compelling. His translation goes like this.
“I say this, brothers and sisters. The time has already been drawn up short with the result that from now on those who have wives would be just as those who have not, and those who are weeping just as those who are not weeping, and those who are rejoicing just as those who are not rejoicing, and those who buy things just as those who have no possessions, and those who deal with the world just as those who do not deal with it.”
Urgency without anxiousness. Instead of continuing to compare one thing against another as in the translation we read in the bulletin, in Park’s translation, Paul is saying that the difference will not be important. It becomes difficult to put a concrete value on one half of the list over the other.
Is being married better than being single? Maybe for Paul. Not weeping seems to be better than weeping almost always. But does not rejoicing seem better than rejoicing? Having no possessions might seem better theoretically, as if there is nothing to distract, but having nothing in many cases can cause great suffering. The difficulty with Paul’s list is that it necessarily induces us to start ranking what is better and worse, even if that was the exact thing he was attempting to undo.
It seems to me that Paul was attempting to say that all of the measurable ways in which we might divide ourselves as different than someone else, all the ways we are told we don’t quite measure up, everything we place value in and around during our life will not be as important as we make them out to be.
Whether we are married or not, whether we have reason to rejoice or mourn, whether we have many possessions or just the clothing on our backs, when the reign of God becomes real among us, it will change the way we value everything, and even the way we value the lack of everything.
But the key point in this is not to reintroduce panic, or anxiety. There is a peacefulness that lies beyond the measurements and valuations we make. When we can see the world for what it is and also see the realm of God breaking in, then the reflex reaction to stress and panic begins to fall away.
It doesn’t mean that life will be any easier, but the way we value what happens, and the way we compare our experience with what we understand about the presence of God, allows for us to live with urgency without falling into anxiety.
But I can still hear a voice of question. I might even venture to say that in Paul’s call to urgency in an uncertain future, he might have over played his hand. He makes the very common Greek dualistic move to separate the spiritual from the physical, and imply that the physical realities we face will no longer matter in God’s perfect spiritual reality.
But connecting those two parts is exactly what Jesus was doing. He was living proof that all of the real stuff of this world has timeless value and everything in all the heavens and in the midst of creation is connected together, even in his very person as experienced by the people around him
Maybe that is where much of the anxiety comes from. How could we ever imagine life outside of our physical lives as Paul instructs and the church has proclaimed throughout the centuries? It is one thing to tell someone who is rejoicing to live as though they are mourning, but a very different thing to tell someone in deep mourning to live as though they are rejoicing.
If that was the goal of my pastoral relationships with you, I would rightly be found incompetent and cruel.
Because even if the world was somehow ending next week, which is unlikely, and since we wouldn’t know it anyway, to tell someone who is suffering from starvation or lack of medical care that they should live as if they had plenty, or to instruct everyone with plenty and good health to live as if they were lacking all, would do very little to nothing about the looming end of the world we can’t even see or imagine.
The story in Mark describes Jesus’ time in the wilderness as a jarring push by the Holy Spirit. John has been arrested, and now this movement, which Jesus is now the presumably the driving force for, is not safe.
Responding with great urgency in this moment cannot be easy. If the Romans and local leaders can and will take John, then no one is safe. The question then, it seems to me for Jesus and his followers, as well as the people who were following John, is not a question of if they will be outcasts, but when it will catch up to them.
This is not an easy realization, and not for the faint of heart. It is a time of urgency, when even the option of turning back might be lost; might be too late. But urgency and anxiety are two different modes of response.
One way knows a deeper truth and follows because any other way would be impossible to imagine. The other thrashes and flails, trying to form a truth capable of being managed, taking what comes and needing to control it.
But some truth is bigger than our ability to manage or control them. Some realities of life are bigger than us. It is then when the wilderness journey of Jesus becomes a real place of solace and preparation, not of separation and torment. The wilderness is no longer the loss of everything, but the distance to see things for what they are, and then walk out with a clearer notion of how things will go, and choosing to do it anyway. The Spirit drove Jesus into life, not out of it.
Urgency, not anxiety. It is a recognition that our very current situations have eternal importance, that they are part of something bigger. There is no separation of the physical and the spiritual. The moments when we can gather together and reflect on bigger truths and retrain our focus on what God is doing, the more clearly we see what is in front of us for how important it is and where it stands in the larger arc of creation.
There are real concerns in the world, and we can choose to participate in a more caring, equitable, and responsible community and world, but that is all we can do. There is urgency in what we do, but only in that we choose to participate. What we do or don’t do has value, but that value is not dependent upon how we place it, or even how right we think we are.
You have the power to begin to see the world differently, to disrupt the ways in which people and creation are treated as if they do not have endless and irrevocable value. But you do not dispense value. We do not have that power.
The wilderness, the driving out by the Spirit of God so that we might look back with new eyes is awaiting, even provoking us in quiet understanding that the details of our world are bound in the same wonder as the endless expanse of the heavens. It is not a question of whether we belong up there or wherever you might imagine. The question is whether we are ready and urgently living as if the realm of God as Paul speaks of is bound together with this very moment. Amen.