Faith from the Fringes

Mark 7:24-37

A woman’s faith; Jesus heals a deaf mute

Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret.  In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet.  The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.

 ‘First let the children eat all they want,’ he told her, ‘for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’

 ‘Lord,’ she replied, ‘even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’

Then he told her, ‘For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.’

She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis.  There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him.

After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spat and touched the man’s tongue.  He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, ‘Ephphatha!’ (which means ‘Be opened!’).  At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosed and he began to speak plainly.

Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it.  People were overwhelmed with amazement. ‘He has done everything well,’ they said. ‘He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.’

What was Jesus doing in his ministry?  Quite simply he was announcing the kingdom of God.  He was saying that the reign and rule of God is present in me and because of his role as the prophet and priest and king of God – the ultimate prophet, the ultimate priest and the one and only messianic king.  He embodied in himself the presence of the kingdom like no one else before or since.  And when we read the miracles as in these two cases – of the woman whose daughter was delivered of her demonic affliction or the deaf mute – we are reading signs of the kingdom.  These things are saying “the kingdom is present if I am here and the finger of God touches you, that is the Holy Spirit touches you through me then the kingdom of God has drawn near to you.

That kingdom began with Jesus yet it is not completely fulfilled, that is to say the kingdom that he inaugurated, the kingdom that he brought with him was sealed through his death and his resurrection so that that kingdom can never be taken away – but we now live in this time where there is a conflict between that kingdom and the kingdom of darkness, ruled by the prince of this world as the apostle John calls him or Jesus himself calls him.

The kingdom will not come in its fullness until the return of Christ.  So, we look for the resurrection of the body, it’s not yet here.  We look for that place where there will be no more sickness, no more mourning, no more crying, no more pain – it’s not yet here.  It has began but it has not been completely consummated or fulfilled.

Now, those of you who like following the weather, and it is a bit of a thing, particularly in rural Australia to follow the weather.  You would recognize that because of where we sit our weather systems move from west to east across the country and we watch these big high pressure systems which sometimes dominate the whole of the Australian continent and then we see a low pressure system coming in from the west and you see as that gets closer the isobars get squished together.  Wherever the isobars get squished together the wind picks up and the dust etc.  Eventually the high moves out of the way and the low pressure system comes through and particularly when you have had a string of days over 35 degrees, we look for that here in SA.  Well, that is a little bit like what is happening with the kingdom.  The kingdom of God has come.  It is in this place at the moment where it is meeting another kingdom – the clash of the kingdoms is underway.  It was underway in a very exaggerated sense when Jesus was here physically but it continues here today and eventually that whole new kingdom will supplant this evil system which dominates the rulers of this world and we will enter into a new heaven and a new earth.

Some of us will see that when we die, that is as we pass from this life as we understand it into the eternal life which we have been promised in Christ and in which we have already now.  It’s sort of like moving behind the veil and into the presence of Christ where we see all things fully.  There will be a generation, I don’t know which generation it will be that Paul refers to as “those who are alive at his coming” who will also see that transformation.  But that transformation doesn’t happen without some sort of “unravelling”.

It’s that aspect of this story which I want to talk about for a little while this morning.  Why was Jesus out beyond the borders of ancient Israel?  He was way beyond the recognized boundaries of where the ancient kingdoms of Solomon and David extended.  He was out in the Phoenician region, Tyre and Sidon and if you were to look on a map you would find that they are way north.  The south, clustered around Jerusalem was dominated by protect and survive mode.  Protect and survive mode politically and religiously.  Protect and survive mode as recognized by the Pharisees who wanted to protect the law of God, protect the Holiness of God  Protect the behaviour which should accrue to God’s people.  They wanted to avoid anything that would transgress the Law, their life was filled with what we could call religiosity.  It was a religiosity which had, perhaps, good motives, wanting to keep the law of God and honour God’s holiness but it was Taliban like.  Taliban means scholars.  The Pharisees were indeed scholars and a little bit like the Taliban but perhaps not quite so violent.  They had a very mean streak and weren’t adverse to stoning someone to death if they thought it needed to happen.

You also had another group there called the sadducees and they were very jealous to guard the temple – partly because they were making quite a lot of money from it.  But whatever was happening down in Jerusalem, they looked at these other places beyond the boundary and those places were inhabited by rank pagans, dogs!

That was a term commonly in use.  The people out there were dogs.  They were evil doers.  They were not to be trusted.  They were infidels, someone that you wouldn’t give the time of day to.

In this particular passage in Mark’s gospel we find Jesus out amongst the dogs.  He is out in that territory.  Why was he there?  Possibly he was there because he was looking for some space.  We know that it had been a very busy time in his ministry.  We know that there would be no opportunity for him and the 12 to have any debriefing time together.  He wanted to get to a place perhaps where he and they could not be interrupted and that is true, I am sure.

I think these all say something else and it goes right back to the beginning of the scriptures.  At the core of Christian theology we believe in God the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  We began our worship service today in the name of God the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  The relationship of those persons within the Trinity, are relationships full of joy and blessing.  Each loves and honours the other, each glorifies the other, each receives from the other.  It is a divine perichoresis.  A beautiful constant interrelationship, other person centeredness within the Father, the Son and the Spirit.  It is perfect community.  But they don’t stop there.  The Father, the Son and the Spirit do all things together and together they bring about a creation.  They make the heavens and the earth and then they make all of the animals and trees and plants and then they make humanity in their image and in their likeness.  Think about this from Genesis chapter 1.  Think about the very moment they create they have to be centred outside of themselves.  All of that beautiful divine community that they are is now focussed outside of themselves and this creation.  And the purpose of that creation is that that creation might experience all of the fullness of what they know is in their triune life together.  That is the big, big, big picture, not just of the Bible but of the universe.  God has created you so that you could be embraced and brought in to that divine life.  He has created this world as a home for that to happen.  He has created this world so that all things will be penetrated with the love and the joy and the peace and the fullness of that community that the triune family knows.  That’s the purpose of the creation, that’s the story of scripture from beginning to end.

Within that big story there is a smaller story.  That smaller story has to do with our rebellion against that plan and purpose and God’s determination to bring us back into his plan and purpose.

I am telling you this now because the story that we have read from Mark 7 is a prime example of the sort of thing that God has to do time and time again.  Because instead of being other person centred. Instead of being focussed outward of ourselves we constantly tend to turn in upon ourselves.  Martin Luther defined sin as being curled in upon oneself.  But what happens to individuals also happens to churches and to Christian communities.  They always over time become increasingly curled in upon themselves.  They retreat into protect and survive mode like the Pharisees and Sadducees.   Instead of being an expansive and other person centred, opening and welcoming community which is constantly on the move, they become static, stuck, inward looking, self-centred, protective and that’s when they become really dangerous.  Because any group that operates like that, in the blink of an eye can become an abusive and persecuting community.

You don’t have to look very far in the history of the church to understand what I am saying.

Where does this story fit in that big picture – well, Jesus has taken the twelve out beyond the fringes not just to get rest but to say “I am here not to keep the protect and survive mentality going in the centre like the Pharisees”. “I am here to take the kingdom to the ends of the earth so that from the fringes amongst the strangest people in the strangest ways in the most unexpected circumstances they would enter into the fellowship of the Father and know the Son and be filled with the Holy Spirit.  “That’s what I have come to do!”

“That’s what I have come to do!”

!”  “I haven’t come to prop up the religious institutions in the centre. I haven’t come to vindicate your religiosity”. “Your religiosity is killing you, he says to the Pharisees.”  Paradoxically, these accounts of these two miracles are sandwiched between two accounts of unbelief and the unbelievers are the religious people.  The people who should have been believers in Jesus weren’t and the dogs on the fringe, at least that’s how the Pharisees and Sadducees would have referred to them – they are the ones who believe.  That’s the inversion that has happened.  They have become so inward focussed, so protective, so filled with their own religiosity that they have lost any view other person centred ness, of what the kingdom is doing out here.

So Jesus has taken the 12 out to the fringes to expand their view of what God is doing and also that when eventually Christ died and ascended into heaven and sent the Holy Spirit upon them.  When they found themselves out amongst the fringes they would know that this is familiar territory.  Jesus was here, well before we were.  He has gone ahead of us.  He has shown us what it is like out here.  We don’t have to stay hunkered down in Jerusalem.  We don’t have to keep living in protect and survive mode.   We can actually go out here safely.

There is this beautiful exchange which I will allude to briefly.  In the longer story of Matthew’s gospel it is made clear that this woman has been following along with these disciples quite a while now.  She is beetling along and crying out.  The disciple are being very much focussed on their exclusiveness, keep shooing her away like a dog.  Get, get, get back.  She is sort of like a little puppy running behind them.  She won’t be put off.  The disciples keep trying to put her off and she won’t be.  Jesus keeps moving.  Probably they are sitting down having a meal somewhere.   She’s still there!  This whole exchange changes if you hear the word that they used.  It was not dogs but both Jesus and the woman used the diminutive word of Greek form which means little dogs, puppies.   And she is crying out for help because she knows that no one else can help her.  And Jesus says to her very significantly,

“let the children be fed first”

Let’s notice that it is “first”.  That is what Jesus had come to as the prophet and priest of Israel.  He had come to Israel first – but not only!  He was travelling up and down, east and west, north and south in Israel to give all of Israel a chance to reject him.  That’s basically his ministry. But is has to be to them first.  But not only.

It is not right to give the bread from the table to the puppies, let the children be fed first.   She says “but if you’ve got little kids around the table, puppies get stuff don’t they?” The puppies still get fed under the table don’t they. True?

There’s this delightful exchange and I see it with a smile on Jesus face and a glint in her eye because they both know what is going on and the disciples are clueless and Jesus says “for such a statement, your daughter is well”.

Yes, the gentiles are going to come in.  People from the fringes are going to come in and it is not yet the time but you have broken through the barrier you’re one of these who are taking the kingdom by force yes, go your own way. It’s a beautiful, beautiful story.

And what would happen with her later, would happen with great multitudes.

The story that takes place with the man with the deafness and the muteness is even more fringe because Jesus goes down there through the Sea of Galilee and right across the other side.  A huge detour.  Like going to Victor Harbor via Renmark.  It doesn’t quite make sense.

That region was called a Decapolis which means that was 10 cities and as far as the Roman empire was concerned, that was the end of civilization, there was no Roman province beyond that, that had any civilized Roman occupation.  And there, he performs his other sign of the kingdom.

(Pastor Noel explains this in further depth in the online worship small recording for 5 September)

What are these two things saying?  Sandwiched as they are as passages that major on the unbelief.  I think they are a very salutary reminder of our tendency to want to cluster in the centre to revert to protect and survive mode and to lose sight of the great work that God is doing on the fringes.

You would remember in the scriptures there is a story of a tower which people built up.  It was called the tower of Babel. They said that they would build a tower that would reach to heaven.  In other words, a stairway to heaven.  It’s a stairway to heaven because once we get to heaven and we have built the tower we will make a name for ourselves they say.  God looks down to see the tower – a tiny little lego block and you know the rest of the story.

Interestingly enough they build the tower out of baked brick.  Not mud brick like most things were made from but from baked clay bricks. What did they use for mortar, to stick the bricks together?  Pitch, tar.  Why would you build something that is bricks and pitch to make it waterproof?  Why would you make it waterproof?  Well, once upon a time there had been a flood hadn’t there.  And God had done what God would do and we are just going to make blinkin’ sure that God can’t wash the tower away.  Because we are going to build the tower and we are going to make it reach up to heaven.  And of course you know the rest of the story and instead of knocking the town down he just scatters them.  Confuses their languages.

That story represents us in so many ways.  Individually, as communities we resist unravelling.  We are constantly trying to build at the centre.  We are constantly trying to protect and secure.  We think that unless we build a name for ourselves that unless somehow our tower is baked brick and pitch so it is impenetrable.  Unless we do that, something will happen and God says “you can do that all you like but something is going to happen anyway”.  Because God is intent, absolutely intent on making sure the his open-hearted, other person centred, huge hospitality of a triune community is open for the world.

Wherever it meets that religiosity that typified things down in the centre he always does something, always.  That is the history of the church.  You can go through the last 2000 years.  You will see it happening again and again.  But why do we resist the unravelling?  Basically it comes to this.  We think that our security lies somewhere other than God. We are happy to have God plus so long as there is always a plan ‘B’.   A lot of the time we put more faith I plan ‘B’ than God who is actually plan “A”.

This week I went to visit an old friend, probably the last time I will see him this side of heaven.   Since I last saw him his metastatic cancer has wasted him away to a little skeleton of a man.  There will come a time where there is no plan “B” possible.  Like in that space there is no plan “B”.

What happens to us individually happens to institutions as well.  Churches shrivel until we are beyond the possibility to fix it.  We have got this sort of technical mindset in the West in particular is that if you just give us enough time and resources, programmes, money we can fix stuff.  God says “look, I am not interested in all your fixing”.  “I am interested in your relationship with me”.  “If all of your attempts to fix the unravelling are more important to you than I am then I will just not fix the unravelling”.  And when the unravelling happens we think “What will become of us?”  Personally, the man who came and proclaimed the kingdom of God and reached out and touched the deaf man’s ears and spat on his hand and touched his tongue. And the man who released the daughter’s demonic spirit – that man, he has gone through the deepest of all unravellings even though he was and is the Son of God.  He also was and is the son of man.  And into his humanity he took into himself all of the fear, the anxiety, the alienation and the pain and the grief and the sorrow and the sin and the shame and the guilt and the dislocation and it unravelled him on the cross.

“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”.

But that unravelling for Christ is the ravelling in for us.  He was undone so that we might be done.  He was excluded so that we might be brought in.  He was unravelled so that all of our fear of unravelling would be put to bed and we could live by faith.

And this man who died and rose again says to us this morning as a person facing whatever you have to face “I’m a very safe place for you to unravel because I have been there and I know what it is like.  Any unravelling you are facing is not too big for me, I can take it.”

And he says to us as communities who face unravelling, all nations that face unravelling – there is a kingdom of God which is above anything that you can imagine and why would you resist that unravelling when the kingdom is at the end of it.  Why would you insist on building a tower when in my Father’s house there are many mansions?

And so, beloved, I just bring these words to you because I believe we are in a time of deep unravelling.  I am not talking about just this congregation but we as a world that used to be once a Christian world, Christendom world.  Things are being unpicked, God’s unpicking it all! … and we can’t scramble and fix it and put it all back together.  Nations will rise and nations will fall but in that unravelling, the one who is doing it, the one who is with us and through us, in us- has been through the greatest unravelling of all time.  He says there is actually someone far bigger, far greater and I am here to open up the beautiful divine, Triune family to you.

I hope as we hear these words they kindle faith in us, not fear, so that we can be open to whatever the Lord has.  “Yes Lord, is the response” “Yes Lord” is the response.  The response is … “yes Lord!”

In Jesus name.  Amen.





Sunday 8:45am
(1st + 3rd of Month)