Sunday, September 09, 2018
Full Service Audio
“The time has come,” the walrus said, “To speak of many things: of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings.” I’m sure you’re all familiar with that phrase. At some point in your life you will have encountered it. It’s one of those amongst a canon of great literature that is almost impossible to understand on the surface.
Throughout the summer I have been reading various passages that I thought I knew, only to discover I didn’t. Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter was one. Despite all attempts to try to find the heart of it, it seems there is no consensus as to what Carroll was writing about. In fact most conclude it was nonsense, but good nonsense. Walruses and carpenters and oysters don’t normally talk to one another. And yet there is a poetry, a cadence, a wonder in it, so much so that many of you were miming it as I was speaking it.
There is power in the very words and images that are conveyed. To quote McLuhan, “the medium becomes the message.” Sometimes it is just the English language being put together in a creative way. But oftentimes when we encounter these phrases and we have no idea what they’re all about, we think there is nothing to it, but there is. Our passage this morning from the Gospel of Mark is one of those texts in that canon. I must admit to you I have read it many times over the years, and I have wondered what on earth Jesus was talking about.
“First, you give and you make sure that the children have what they want to eat, for it is not right to give the children’s food to dogs.” I’ve read this so many times over the years, especially in light of the fact that it is a result of a woman coming to Jesus requesting he heal her daughter, and this is his response. On the surface it sounds callous, dismissive, and racist. It seems that he is talking down to his woman in the most arrogant way. And this is our Jesus, the Jesus of the Gospel and the good news! What’s he talking about? It’s hardly a text that you would put in an Evangelist toolbox to help them win people over to the Christian faith. What on Earth was Jesus talking about?
The answer I think lies in what real estate agents tell us all the time: Location, location, location. Mark goes to great efforts in his gospel to tell us precisely where this incident took place, and it’s only then that you can figure out the power of this story. For this is ultimately a story about the vigour of faith.
The story is told that Jesus was in Tyre, which today would be the fourth-largest city in Lebanon. At that time it was part of Syria, for Syria came further south along the coast. It was located only 40 miles north of Galilee where Jesus lived, so it wasn’t very far up the coast. But it was a coastal town and a very powerful one, for it was there that the Syrian navy would sail their ships. Those that were from Tyre were famous for being the first sailors to plot their course via the stars. The sailors of Tyre invented modern navigation!
It was a powerful place, a place of influence and prestige, but it was a Gentile city. It was a city from the Syrians, and as you know historically they were the enemies of Israel and Judah. The Assyrians had invaded, and were a constant threat in the north, and Israel was always historically worried about Tyre, about the sailors and the ships that could come down the Mediterranean. But Jesus is there in a Gentile city, and I think he was on vacation. I think he was doing what we’ve done, some of us, taking a bit of a summer break. He wanted to be left alone and went to the coast; he went north for some relief from the heat of Galilee to the coast of Tyre.
As he was relaxing there, he encountered a woman – again, location, location, location. She was, we are told, a Syrophoenician, a person who lived in Syria of Greek descent, and represented – and you need to understand this – everything that was abhorrent to a Jew. Not only the Greek Empires of Alexander, not only the terrible threat of the Assyrians, she represented both of them in one person.
So here is Jesus, on vacation, resting in the city of Tyre, north of Galilee, and he is interrupted by this woman. This is when things start to get tense. The woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter. She says she has an evil spirit, or ultimately in Greek an unclean spirit. In other words some suffering that was attributed to weakness and evil, sin and mortality.
Jesus responds to her, and this is when we get to these words that seem so questionable. He says to her, “First, the children must be able to have what they eat, for it is not right that the food of children should be given to dogs.” Now this of course is rooted in traditional proverbs that were well known within the Jewish world, where the reference to children was a reference to the people of Israel and the reference to dogs was a reference to Gentiles. This juxtaposition of children and dogs was a classic Jewish/Gentile conflict. Jesus is therefore challenging this woman. He wants to know if she totally and fully understands the impact of what she’s asking. She is asking a Jew – and not just a Jew, but the attested Messiah of the Jews – to heal her daughter of evil in a Gentile town with her Gentile background. He wanted her to know the power and the impact of what she was doing.
But the woman demonstrated such vigour. I love this woman! She says, “For even the dogs can eat the crumbs under the children’s table.” Even those things that are discarded she was willing to eat. In other words, she came humbly. As we’re told by Mark, she fell on her knees. She came honestly and sincerely to him; she came with an open heart and an open mind. She just wanted her daughter to be healed. Clearly at this point Jesus had become a rock star. He was well known, and the stories of healing people and performing miracles in Galilee had wandered up the coast to Tyre. Even the Gentiles heard about Jesus.
It’s a little bit like what we’ve been experiencing with TIFF. When you ask me who half the people are, I’ve haven’t heard of them. I have no idea who they are. But you know, it doesn’t really matter because they’re here. They’re in our city, that’s what matters. It’s great to have them here, and it’s exciting, even if I don’t have a clue what they have done.
For the people in Tyre, Jesus was there. They didn’t know everything that he had done; they hadn’t witnessed all the things that they would’ve heard of in Galilee, but he’s now in town and we’d better see him. This woman realized the need in her life and she went to him. A Gentile woman goes to a Jewish man and asks him to heal the child. What did Jesus do? He honoured her. He honoured her vigour, her faith, her commitment, and her courage. He saw the need of the woman first, and despite all the historical animosity, despite all the dangers to him when he would return home, he nevertheless healed the Syrophoenician’s daughter. He wanted to know that she understood the power of that moment. This was Jesus – not the Messiah just of the Jews now – this was the Messiah and Lord of All, and she got it, and the daughter was healed. Jesus had done the work of God, vigour.
That Syrophoenician woman should be our example of what a vigorous faith should look like. For oftentimes we become lackadaisical in our approach to Christ and faith. We think that it is just something that we treat as an ordinary thing, and just once in a while open up the doors of our hearts and mouths and ask for something. But it’s that vigorous exchange of faith, it’s that living dynamic relationship that faith is really all about. It’s the persistence of faith that makes this Syrophoenician woman so much an icon for us. If there’s a hero here from our side of things, it’s her. If there’s a hero from God’s side of things, it is Christ. But for us she is an example of vigorous faith.
When you think God’s not hearing you or you think that God is saying no – and sometimes God does say no, and sometimes God wants to know what is really in our hearts – that is not the time to give up on the relationship. That is the time to remain vigorous in your faith and look to what happened to the Syrophoenician’s daughter.
There’s a second story here, and it is also quite strange. Jesus now moves we’re told by Mark to Sidon. Sidon was the city where many of the great oligarchs of the Assyrian Empire arose. This was a city of warmongering and violent leaders. Israel had suffered under the hands of people from Sidon. Yet here is Jesus going up the coast, further north to Sidon, to once again get away from the crowds. But this time the crowds won’t let him. It’s not just a woman who comes to him, it’s the crowd actually bringing people to him. The rock star has arrived in Sidon – and Jesus has nowhere to go.
A deaf mute is brought to him, and Jesus is asked to heal him. What does Jesus do? He retreats; he takes this man with him and then it’s said – and this is strange – he sighs. Sighing to me implies disinterest, doesn’t it, like boredom? When you sigh it’s a sign of derision, but not in the biblical world. To sigh actually means to pray. It means to invoke God’s gift. It’s a sigh of a hunger for the things of God.
Jesus takes this man aside and then he does something really weird. He puts his fingers in his ears and then he touches his lips. Why would he do this? Because the man was deaf and mute. Jesus couldn’t tell him what he was going to do, he had to show him what he was going to do. He had to touch him to heal him. And the two areas that needed healing, Jesus touched. We read that the man was healed. He was restored. He could hear and speak.
And what does the man want to do? He wants to tell everybody that he had had this experience. “Oh, not another one,” Jesus must have thought. “I’m trying to have a vacation here, people, and all you want to do is keep coming to me time and time again. Don’t tell anyone about this.” But there was something more sinister behind that. Jesus knew that as word got out back in his home area that he had been healing Syrophoenician women, the ‘dogs’, in Tyre, and he had been healing deaf mutes who were seen as being ritually unclean and not allowed into the temple, he was touching them and associating with them in Sidon, Jesus would suffer. Eventually when he came home, if people knew Jesus had taken the good news, the healing salvation of God beyond the bounds of the people of Israel and into the heart, the gutsy heart, of the Gentile world, he would be persecuted.
Jesus did not want people to know about this because he knew the effect it would have. If the Syrophoenician woman had shown vigour, Jesus shows valour. He’s willing to risk everything for the sake of taking the good news and the Gospel and the healing power of God into the Gentile world. But this is also a profound story of the victory of faith.
We can’t understand the true impact of this without understanding the passages from the Old Testament that speak of that day. The great prophet Isaiah in Chapter 35 wrote these words, and you’re going to see exactly what I mean when I read them. This is what Isaiah wrote hundreds of years before Jesus about the Day of the Lord: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and there will be streams in the desert.”
Isaiah prayed for a day when all the nations would be able to jump for joy, to hear and see. When Jesus touched this deaf man, this mute man, he said, “Ephphatha.” And ephphatha literally means “be opened.” Be open to the power of God; be open to the grace of God; be open to the love of God. May your ears be open and your tongue be open, but all a sign of the wondrous things that God was doing in his ministry.
Jesus was revealing the very power and hope of Isaiah. Isn’t it ironic that during the days of Joshua, Tyre and Sidon belong to Israel? And now in Jesus’ time it belonged to Syria. But still the Messiah of the Jews was there healing, restoring and saving.
My friends, this summer I have shared a concern that I’m sure many others have, and that is that there is this growing sense of fascism, of competition, and trampling on others in order to elevate ourselves. And we Christians sometimes wonder whether we are an artifact of the past, and don’t have a prophetic voice in the midst of it. We’re worried about our social status or whether our denominations hold together and we have a cultural voice.
Well actually none of that really matters, does it? What we have is the Lord of Life. What we have is Christ. What we have is a voice and a power and lordship that goes into the whole world with the word of truth and love. What we have is the power of the Lord of Lords and a vigorous faith that embraces that. A faith that shows valour in the face of difficulties, and a conviction in the victory of the power of God is what this world really needs. Christ’s love trumped politics.
Christ’s love oversaw all the divisions and ethnicities of the divided. Christ’s love transcended the hatreds of years of animosity and wars and of violence. Christ brought his healing, saving presence into the midst of a broken world.
And the fact of the matter is, friends, no good is ever done without both vigour and valour. No change ever takes place without a commitment to something great, like the Syrophoenician woman had, or like Jesus had, when you touch the ear and the tongue of the deaf mute.
I look within our own church. This morning we heard from our people who went to El Hogar how they cared for children in a land far away. Or when I see and hear what our refugee committee is doing for our refugees – and you have no idea the amount of work and commitment many people are putting in. But no good is done without sacrifice, no change occurs without a commitment, and all of this is seen in Jesus of Nazareth who went to Tyre and Sidon and risked everything to restore and to heal the broken.
In the past when we have faced problems as a world and as a nation, there have been those who have gone quietly about their business assuming that nothing needs to be done or said, while others have pointed out many things wrong that need to be righted. In the light of Christ and Christ alone, we need to hear of him more. The Syrophoenician woman should be in our ears and the deaf mute should be before us as examples of the power of God. “The time has come,” the walrus said, “to talk of many things,” of God in all his glory and the King of kings. Amen.