September 5 2021
There is a controversy among clergy regarding whether and how much we should counsel people with psychological disorders, or even common struggles like anxiety or depression. Of course, for those clergy with proper training in psychology this is not really a question; but this question arises in part because Priests and Deacons are called to proclaim the Gospel in Word and Sacrament and to oversee the spiritual lives of their parishes, but are increasingly asked to be therapists by young people especially, in order to just “be helpful.” Nearly all of my pastoral care appointments over the past few years have been about some kind of anxiety that a parishioner is experiencing, which is not surprising given all that has been going on. Where I land on this question is that I am always happy to meet with Parishioners who are struggling with anxiety, as so many do, in part because God does speak to anxious people frequently in Holy Scripture, God certainly has something to say to us when we struggle in this way.
Our reading from the 35th Chapter of Isiah this morning is one very clear example of this: as God speaks to the Prophet Isaiah, “Say to those who have an anxious heart.” Isaiah speaks in Chapter 35 on the precipice of dramatic, historic changes in the life of the nation of Israel, and everyone in Israel knows it. The walls of the world are closing in around them, their time as God’s chosen nation appears to be reaching an end or a dramatic reorientation, there are cataclysmic changes in the air; as there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the great superpowers of the world, Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon, will soon tear this obscure nation apart. So God’s people are anxious. Anxious about their future, where God fits into any promised future, and what darkness that future might hold. Is our future really as dark and bleak as it appears to be, God’s people ask.
Knowing the tendency of sinful human hearts to turn everywhere but where they should in times of tremendous anxiety, Isaiah continually says what amounts to the same thing to God’s people throughout the first 39 chapters of Isaiah: do not turn to military might, political coercion, or any of the gods of power and influence that so often tempt nations and peoples when they are faced with drastic changes leading to anxious hearts. Return completely and exclusively to the Lord your God for deliverance, a word which God’s people tragically do not heed. Here in this passage from Isaiah we do hear a reason for hope in response to Israel’s anxiety about a seemingly hopeless future; and reading it together with our Gospel reading from St. Mark, we come to discover that the hope for Israel, and for us, is not found where we so often look for it, in a what, perhaps a dramatic change in circumstances, a sudden return to the past or bold leap into the future; but true hope is found in a person, in a who. For Israel and for us, hope in the midst of an anxious future is not found in what might happen, or even change, but in who loves us.
When we think about the miracles recorded by the Gospel writers in all four Gospels, we should be aware of the fact that the miracles of Jesus recorded in the four Gospels are not a fully exhaustive list, there were many, many others. I love that section of St. John’s Gospel where he says that what is recorded in his own Gospel is not the whole picture because it cannot be, so that John then reminisces that if he were to try to write everything Jesus did, all the books of the world could not contain it. This raises a question, why would a Gospel writer choose certain miracles to record instead of others?
There are many ways to answer this question, but the first I will highlight this morning is that certain miracles connect Jesus with the Old Testament promises of God to his people very clearly, especially those promises found in Isaiah. Jesus is the one who was promised, Jesus Christ is the promised powerful presence of God for his people’s salvation.
If you were a problem child in Sunday School like I was, and sarcastically answered “Jesus” in response to any question asked of you about the Bible, you were closer to the truth than many Christians. All of Scripture is a witness to Jesus Christ, all of it finds its center in him, and our passage from Isaiah reveals this beautifully. The Prophet says, “say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘be strong fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance and with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” And the sign of God’s coming to his people in order to save them looks exactly like the miracle described in our reading from the Gospel of St. Mark: Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. Clearly, it is the intention of St. Mark’s Gospel to connect Jesus with this prediction of God’s coming to save his people, and the sign of his coming will be restoration and healing. The restoration of human bodies, and the restoration of all creation; as even desert wastelands will become lands of plenty.
So Israel’s hope for her future is not found in what might change about their military might or political strength, which are the obvious answers to the problems their nation face.Israel’s anxious hearts can only be stilled by the good news that God will come to them, and his coming will take a surprising form, and that it will come in the surprising form of a healer and restorer.
How can we read this good news given to God’s hurting and anxious people without connecting it to our own situations as anxious people this morning? We are right to ask the same questions as Israel in the face of an uncertain future that gives us anxious hearts, what future do we have, does God even fit into it, is it all really as bleak as it seems?
It does not matter which news we absorb and digest as part of our daily lives, whether it comes from the left or the right, all of it thrives on naming and sometimes expending any number of existential threats to our future, because anxiety is big business these days. And we do live in hard times: times with devastating hurricanes, famine, wars, earthquakes, fires, political unrest, sickness, and while this is not the first time Christians have faced circumstances like this, we do wonder where God is in the midst of it. The natural result of chaotic circumstances like these is always an anxious heart, and our first inclination will always be just to make it stop by finding hope in something, in a what.
The same temptations that afflict Israel in the face of anxiety about her uncertain future afflict all of us as human beings. For those of us with more “conservative” dispositions, we will fall into the temptation of looking for a return to a better time, a past golden age we have invented in our own imagination that never really existed and may not be perfect, but it is at least an imperfection we know and understand. We may long for a time when our nation and our world looked and acted exactly like we think it should; or we may long for a time when sickness and death still felt like optional paths, something not necessarily required of us, so long as we have the right doctors and the right pension plan, or a time when the sufferings of others around the world did not feel so near to us as they do in our digital age. For those among us with another disposition, perhaps a “progressive” disposition, we may be tempted to believe that the only option available to us in the face of so much anxiety is just to undermine and change everything, reorder everything, forget the past altogether, all for a better and brighter future, a future which, again, can only exist in our imagination, and a future which will ultimately fail us.
Our first communion hymn this morning is Bonhoeffer’s Prayer, based on a poem written by the German Pastor-Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer with music from the French monastic community Taize. I had only heard or sung this hymn before with Christians in Germany (Germans love to sing it for obvious reasons), and I did not even know it had been translated, and I am delighted to find it as part of our hymn rotation. The poem comes from one of many letters that Bonhoeffer wrote to a very dear friend during his two years in a Nazi prison camp, all of which expressed Bonhoeffer’s anxious despair about the church’s future in Germany, and in Europe, a church which effectively bowed down to Nazism when the world needed her witness most. Bonhoeffer stood on such a precipice of change, and an uncertain future, and he struggled with finding hope in the midst of anxiety. What could save him, save the German Church, save the nation and the world? He wrote in one anguished letter, “anxious souls will ask what room there is for God.” Anxious souls will ask, what room there is for God.
His answer is that the room for God is where it always is, at the center, even at the center of our conflicts, our struggles, our sickness, our death, our uncertainties, and our anxieties, because the center of all things is Jesus Christ, and he is where we find God. In his prison cell, Bonhoeffer found the answer for Himself, the Church, the world, and the answer is not a what, but a who: Jesus Christ, because in Him we find God.
When anxious souls will ask, our hope is not in a change to out chaotic, anxiety-inducing circumstances, as much as we wish for those changes; our hope is not in temporary fixes founded in human wisdom and power, but that we would turn to Jesus Christ and completely trust in Him alone and nothing else. Hard as this may be, this is good news for anxious souls like ours, that God has come among us in Jesus Christ, is among us now, and will come again.
As I conclude, I will offer one final reason why the author of Mark includes the miraculous healing of a man who is both deaf and mute in his testimony of the life of Jesus Christ that has always been recognized by the Church. Because deafness and muteness describe all of us when we first encounter Jesus Christ. We cannot rightly hear God, and we cannot rightly speak of God, without Jesus Christ’s miraculous intervention in our life that leads to faith, belief in Him.
Like this deaf man when he first encounters Jesus Christ, we too are unable to hear God speaking to us, we cannot recognize his voice without his own intervention, without him unstopping our ears that we might hear him speak, and listen. What an irony it is that Jesus laments so often of his own people and their leaders, that they quite literally “do not have ears to hear” what he is saying. While they have ears which function in the sense that they can receive and process noise, they do not have ears to hear the very Word of God when He stands in front of them, and speaks directly to them. And yet, it is a deaf man who hears Jesus, because Jesus opens his ears.
And not only does a deaf man who cannot speak hear the Word of God, he suddenly becomes the most unexpected witness to Jesus Christ with his own tongue, as he proclaims all that Jesus has done for him, in spite of Jesus’ own request that the man be silent, a strange request which falls, again ironically, on deaf ears. The man and his friends do not listen, but instead go throughout the countryside proclaiming zealously what Jesus has done for them. All leading the crowds to ask how else a deaf man who cannot speak might become a messenger of good news but for the power of God.
Here is a true Christian witness, a man who knows Jesus’ miraculous intervention in his life where we find a miracle greater than the man’s healing, the miracle of faith in Christ. Here too in this deaf, mute man we find a picture of the Church, both here at St. Peter’s and around the world. It is not a flattering picture, is it? But we are just like Him.
Seeing as it is only by His own power that we can hear Jesus Christ speak, and by His power that we can speak of Him, that we would hear Him speak His restorative and healing words into our anxious hearts, I would like to conclude in prayer. I begin by praying that God would forgive us here at St. Peter’s Church for hearing and listening to those voices around us which lead us to seek answers in the whats of the world, and draw us away from the one in whom we do not have an anxious future. Lord Jesus Christ, shut our ears to human wisdom, human noise, and open them to the good news that Jesus Christ is among us, and that He is for us. That he is here to restore us and redeem us. And we pray that Jesus Christ would shut our lips, tie our tongues, and confound our speech when we wish to speak our own answers and offer our own wicked solutions to the anxious chaos of the world around us, especially those answers which appear noble and sensible to us; and that He would open our lips to proclaim His praise, and to offer our lives as Thanksgiving for what He has done, is doing, and promises to do for us. Amen.