s121g97 Somerton Park Sunday 9 Pentecost 2 1/6/97

"He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was restored." Mark 3:5

As one progresses in the ministry, one often finds new things popping up. The ninth Sunday is one of those which doesn't always come up every three years, depending on just how many Sundays there are after the Epiphany before Lent, Holy Week and Easter. So I have preached on these readings only once before. I've never taken the opportunity to point out that the reference to David entering the house of God and eating the bread of the Presence, was in fact in the reign of Ahimelech the high priest, not Abiathar, as Mark remembers Jesus saying.

Secondly a small explanation. Some may think that some of the Old Testament readings are a little longer than usual. They are indeed, and in fact longer than I would have preferred. After Irene and I had printed out quite a number I realised I had used a longer set meant to facilitate reading the Old Testament in course, rather than another set which relate to the gospel reading for the day. So we have some longer readings for a few weeks. The new lectionary is taking some getting used to!

I thought I would look up the occurrences of the phrase "hardness of heart" and was interested to find it only used three times. Here in the situation of Jesus and the Pharisees who were seeking an occasion to complain about what Jesus did. Secondly, in Mark's gospel also, in Jesus reply about the admissibility of divorce. The law was given to Moses because of their hardness of heart. And finally in the letter to the Ephesians, the author speaks of the Gentiles who live "in the futility of their minds ... darkened in their understanding ... because of their ignorance and hardness of heart."

Of course Pharaoh "hardened his heart" and Jesus questioned the disciples on occasions: Are your hearts hardened? (Mark 8.17)

So "hardness of heart" means quite a number of things all at once.

Firstly, it means an attitude of cynicism and fault finding. The Pharisees in the gospel reading for today could not see past how Jesus upset their own preconceptions about the faith, to see the good in what he was achieving, and set about conspiring to destroy him.

Secondly it encompasses the human faults and failings, our inability to be ideal and perfect. So as a compensation to our inability to live faithfully in the state of marriage, God allows divorce and remarriage.

Thirdly it means a blindness, from which we cannot cure ourselves. This blindness could affect Jesus' very disciples, and was linked to lack of understanding.

Fourthly, it means unbelief, for St Paul states: "Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were "hardened" (Romans 11.7)

Fifthly it is of the nature of sin. Hebrews speaks of being "hardened by the deceitfulness of sin" (3.13)

Sixthly it means something about retaining one's own position of power and authority - so Pharaoh wanted to keep Israel enslaved because it added to the perception of his own importance.

Seventhly it manifests itself in trying to stop others doing things. The Pharisees would have preferred the disciples stop home. They wanted them to stop plucking the ears of corn. They wanted to stop Jesus helping people.

And finally to me it means an uncaring attitude. So the Pharisees did not care that the disciples were hungry, they did not care about the man with the withered hand. I guess they would have rationalised that it served the disciples right - they should have made some provision beforehand about what they should eat. Again they would have considered the man with the withered hand afflicted by God, so didn't deserve any consideration. It would have been a quite different matter if it was their hand that was withered. But because it was someone else, someone who therefore didn't matter, Jesus shouldn't have broken the law for that other person.

So our attitudes towards others have a vital link to our faith. We cannot "have faith" and be cynical and fault finding, bringing others' human faults and failings to light, blind to any good others may do, deceitful, retaining positions of power and authority, stopping others from exercising their gifts or making their contribution, without caring. For all we might call ourselves "Christians" if we as individuals cannot look beyond our own preconceptions of the faith and see the good others are doing then we are in fact only replicating what the Pharisees did.

Our faith and our sight are inextricably linked. Our feelings of natural compassion are a sign of the faith we hold. Our willingness for God to listen to someone else's prayers and not just our own, is at the very core of our faith.

And this is true, not just on a personal level, but on a corporate level also. As Christians we allow that God listens to the prayers of the Scribes, Pharisees, Saducees, the Herodians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox, Mormons, Jahovah's Witnesses, Atheists and Agnostics. God listens, and is as likely to answer their prayers as ours. God answers prayers whether we have the right faith, enough of the right faith, or even if we have no faith at all - when we and all want to do something good.

I recall once driving an elderly and rather infirm clergyman and his wife into the city, to Church Office. He was one of those old school types. I managed to get a park close to the Office quite easily, and my passenger priest commented: "God answered my prayer that you would find a convenient park - you just have to have faith." I had to bite my tongue before I responded that more likely it was my prayer that God answered - the one that I find a park close by - so that he and his wife wouldn't have to walk too far.

We read that Jesus looked "with anger ... grieved at their hardness of heart". Every time Jesus got angry, a little reading shows it was because he came across people getting in other people's way of coming to God. So he was angry with the money changers and the pigeon sellers, not because they changed money or sold pigeons, but because they got in the way of ordinary (unreligious) people on their way to God. He got angry with the disciples who tried to keep the parents from bringing the children to him. And he gets angry here because others wanted to stop him curing the man with the withered hand, who as a cripple, was officially not eligible to enter the Temple at all. Jesus, curing the man, cleared away the barrier the law placed from him taking his place as a full "child of Abraham". (Lev 21.19) He is angry with the Pharisees, who would, it seems, preferred that the man not be cured and remain less than a full person, both physically and spiritually.

And despite the fact that we have read the "wrong " lesson from the Old Testament, the reason God spoke to the boy Samuel, was because God was angry with the sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas who were also getting in the way of ordinary people coming to God. They "lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting." (1 Samuel 2:22).

We need to be a little careful about discussing righteous anger which is a quite different matter. Righteous anger purports to excuse us when we get angry when someone does something to harm us. Such anger might indeed be justifiable, but unless it is confessed and forgiven it can become a way of life - which is sad for all concerned. Pauline Hanson is angry, and is surprised that others get angry back. Is the pen mightier than the sword or the other way around? Jesus teaches that neither can be justified. (Matthew 5.21)

God is not into that sort of anger, righteous or otherwise. God only gets angry when people get in the way of other, ordinary people, who want to come to him. Jesus, at his arrest, trial and crucifixion showed no anger towards those who arrested, accused, convicted and executed him at all. That is the difference.

As I type these words, I wonder just how far we can take them. "God only gets angry when people get in the way of other, ordinary people, who want to come to him."

Looked at the other way: we see that God is not cynical and fault finding. God knows our own human faults and limitations, God sees them and takes them into account, far more quickly than we do ourselves. God has no need to use deceitful methods, God empties himself of all power and authority - the crucifixion was indeed real. God enables people - all people - to come to him. God cares.

So God doesn't get angry when we neglect him occasionally, when we find ourselves succumbing to the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil. God might be disappointed in us, even as we rationalise and justify ... No, the only time God actually gets angry is when we "get in the way of other, ordinary people, who want to come to him." It is only then that God ceases to believe in us. What more terrible fate could befall anyone, but the fate that God ceases to believe in a person, as God ceased to believe in Hophni and Phinehas.

The good news is that God hasn't got hardening of the arteries, and provided we don't get in the way of others (for that can be done as easily in the name of Christ as any other name), God believes in us, overlooking our failures and encourages us as we travel along the way.


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