Series: The Meaning of Jesus – week 5 (see bobkaylor.com for others in series)
Audio: Listen to it HERE
As many of you know, I am originally from the New Jersey shore. I grew up in the Toms River area, just to the west of Seaside Heights where they film The Jersey Shore – oh,we are so proud. That’s where we went to the beach, played at the arcades, and experienced water slides.
Occasionally we would drive about 20 minutes north to another boardwalk in Asbury Park, which was nice but past its prime. Mostly we just wanted to drive by the Stone Pony, where Bruce Springsteen used to play, and ride the old Merry-Go-Round with the brass rings to grab as you went by. From the Asbury Park boardwalk, if walk south past the last arcade and food vendor, you come to a stretch of boardwalk that is very different. There are no stores, no arcades, no rides. You have entered Ocean Grove. There is just boardwalk, beach, and old houses. It feels like time stopped about 100 years ago.
Ocean Grove is a unique little town, that holds a very dear place in my heart. My youth leaders, Dale and Carol Whilden, live in Ocean Grove where Dale is a dentist, and part-time dental missionary. In his younger days, Dale was daring enough to invite our youth group over to his house for summer lock-ins. I remember campfires on the beach, walks on the boardwalk, nights in his Victorian era house, concerts on the beach, and the open-air amphitheater called The Great Auditorium.
Oddly, in the center of this quaint little town, is an old 6,000-seat concert venue known as The Great Auditorium. This is because Ocean Grove started in the late 1800s as a Methodist Camp Meeting. People from all over would come to camp in tents around the Great Auditorium where many very popular preachers of the day would preach. Today a combination of speakers, concerts, worship services, and festivals are held every summer in The Great Auditorium. I have seen Tony Campolo and Duffy Robbins preach there, participated in the summer Choir Festival, and attended concerts by Petra, Jars of Clay, and Third Day. It is a remarkable place.
At the very first gathering of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association in 1869,
Rev. Ellwood Stokes, who would become the first president…, felt compelled to speak. About an hour into the meeting, he said that he felt called upon by God to speak the first four words of the Bible: “In the beginning, God…” After having spoken those words, he said it was as if God had taken hold of the land as His own! (“Brief History of Ocean Grove”).
Today that idea carries on through the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association motto: “God’s square mile at the Jersey shore.”
Being good Methodists, no alcohol is sold anywhere in Ocean Grove and I remember a time when you were not allowed to drive in Ocean Grove on a Sunday. The residents would park just outside of town, mostly in Asbury Park, on Saturday night, if they had someplace to go on a Sunday. I remember the outcry when they decided to repeal that blue law in the late 1970s or early 80s.
God’s time, space, and matter
That concept of God inhabiting a place, is something we don’t talk much about today. We used to. Today many churches call the place where they gather on a Sunday morning the Worship Center. We used to call it the Sanctuary – it was special, sacred space.
We used to do that with time as well. A day was set aside for worship and family. We used to have Sundays to slow down a little. Today, one day runs into another. Work dominates and so we need Sundays for games, practices, shopping, and maybe even for an hour or two in the office.
There was also a time when we saw some things as special. The church used to designate some objects as “relics” – things with special meaning, significance, and the presence of God.
When it comes to space, time, and matter, human nature fills us with the desire to place things on a continuum, similar to what Bob talked about in the first week of this sermon series. On this continuum we have sacred on one end, and secular on the other. Ocean Grove – sacred: my office – secular. Sunday – for God: Tuesday – normal. The communion table here on the platform – holy: my dining room table – ordinary.
This was certainly the thinking of Jesus’ contemporaries. For the Hebrew people of Jesus’ day, the world was neatly divided into the sacred and the secular. I introduced this idea last Sunday when we talked about the Temple. We heard Jesus talking about the Kingdom of God/Kingdom of Heaven as a present reality, here and now, which was cause for celebration – the celebrations that Jesus talked about and lived.
I illustrated this thought with two intersecting circles: one representing our space, and one representing God’s space. The point of intersection for the Jewish people of Jesus’ day was the Temple. It was believed that the Temple was the center of the world, the place from which God was to rule and reign the globe. When the people of God went up to Jerusalem, they literally felt that they were entering into the place where Heaven and Earth met. More than just an emotional attachment, as I have with my memories of being with God in Ocean Grove, this was the most sacred of sacred space.
The same is true for time. For the people of Jesus’ day, the sabbath was time that God inhabited in a special way. This was not simply a day to rest and relax, for doing the New York Times Crossword puzzle, or watching some football game. It was for that, but more than that. Each sabbath was also a recollection of God’s promise to once again reign and rule.
You may remember from a previous sermon that Pastor Bob talked about how there is an understanding among the religious of Jesus’ day that the story of creation is, in some sense, the story of God building God’s own Temple. On the first six days of creation, God builds. He forms earth and water, light and dark, sun and moon, animals and fish, and eventually people. Then on the seventh day, God rests. “This doesn’t just mean,” as N. T. Wright pens, “that God took a day off. It means that in the previous six days God was making a world – heaven and earth together – for his own use. Like someone building a home, God finished the job and then went in to take up residence, to enjoy what he had built” (Wright 136).
The people were then waiting for the ultimate Sabbath, the day when God’s work and plans in the world would come to full completion, and God would come again to inhabit his creation – this time even more fully. So that day of the week, set aside as the Sabbath (from root of “to rest”), was the sacred time to reflect on history moving forward toward that time of ultimate completion.
What the Temple was to space, the Sabbath was to time. There was also believed to be sacred stuff, or matter. When you read the Gospels you will pretty quickly get familiar with the concept of clean and unclean. This sounds like hygiene, but it is so much more. In Mark 7, we read about Jesus in a conversation with some religious leaders about him and his disciples eating without washing their hands (Mark 7:1f). Mark, probably writing to a non-Jewish community, includes an explanation:
“For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles” (Mark 7:3-4).
And we think, “good for you scribes and Pharisees, you should wash your hands, plates, utensils, and food before you eat to get the germs off.” But this is not about hygiene. Ritual washing is about making sure everything you put in your body is ritually clean, or holy. Eating something that was unclean would cause the person ingesting it to also become unclean, or unholy, and therefore unable to participate in their faith until they went through another ritual to be made clean.
The Pharisees, remember, expected strict adherence to the Law to be the way to encourage God to return to rule and reign from the Temple. In some sense they were assuming the role the sheriff in an old western movie who has been sent to “clean up this town.” They had good intentions, but they went about it in such a way that the Temple began to become divisive. People were being seen as either clean or unclean.
The poor were not blessed by God with wealth or someone to take care of them, so they must be unclean. People with diseases must have done something wrong, and are not favored by God, so they are unclean. That social status we hear in the Gospels of “tax collectors and sinners” had all done things wrong, so they were unclean. Those born differently-abled were also considered unclean. Maybe their parents had sinned in some way to make them unclean. Not to mention people who weren’t Jewish, they were certainly unclean.
According to the scribes and Pharisees it was fairly difficult to remain clean because any contact with anyone or anything unclean (like unwashed food or utensils) made you unclean. If something clean touched something unclean, the clean object/person would be made unclean. We see this illustrated in the parable Jesus tells of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
A Jewish guy is walking between cities when he is mugged, beaten, and left for dead on the side of the road. The first two people to walk up to him are both religious people: a priest and a Levite (a member of the religious class). Both of the religious people avoid the hurt man because blood and a dead person is unclean. Rather than becoming unclean, and thereby make them unable to perform their duties in their synagogue or the Temple, they walk around the hurt man and leave him there. The one who does the right thing is the Samaritan, a non-Jewish and therefore unclean person, who is not concerned about ritual cleanliness and just does what needs to be done.
Jesus does something very different. He reverses the flow.
Jesus heals a leper: Mark 1
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean” (Mark 1:40 emphasis added).
Leprosy, as the footnote in your Bible might indicate, was a generic term in Jesus’ day for any kind of skin disease. So we read that, and think the leper is asking Jesus to clean up his complexion. But leprosy was also a disease that made one ritually unclean. So this request is more than just about skin. This is about a man who has been disconnected from God, the Temple (the presence of God on earth), and his family and friends.
Jesus picks up on the leper’s language and reaches out to touch him, which ought to make Jesus now ritually unclean, and says, “I do choose. Be clean!” Mark continues, “Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean” (Mark 1:41).
Jesus is doing something here. For him the flow of cleanliness travels the other way. When something unclean comes into contact with Jesus, Jesus is not made unclean. Rather the unclean becomes clean. That is radical. And that is radically heretical to the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day.
You see, there were rituals and rites that had to be performed at the Temple in order for someone to be declared clean. That is why Jesus sends this man to the Temple authorities so that he can be officially declared clean and give an offering of thanksgiving before moving on.
Then at the end of this story about the leper we read, “Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country” because the leper had blabbed about what Jesus had done for him. This is not just about celebrity. This is about Jesus having to lay low from the religious leaders who see him as a heretic.
By “cleansing” this leper, Jesus has performed what was the role of the Temple. To put it another way, Jesus is usurping the authority of the Temple. And this is not the only time.
Another example – Mark 2
Another telling account is the story of the paralyzed man being lowered down through the ceiling of the home where Jesus was teaching so he could be healed (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus doesn’t at first heal the man. Instead Jesus says to the him, “You sins are forgiven.” After which the man might have said, “That’s really nice and all, but I was really hoping you could make me walk again.”
The scribes watching this start to grumble about Jesus claiming to forgive sins, asking the question that needs to be asked, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” In other words, who does this guy think he is.
Jesus then says, “‘so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ — [then] he said to the paralytic — ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home’” (Mark 2:10-11).
Jesus and Temple
This is the rub that Jesus has with the scribes and Pharisees and all the religious leaders of the day. Jesus is doing what can only be done by the religious authorities in the Temple. He declares people clean, he forgives sins. Oh, and one other thing, he apparently ignores the Sabbath. There’s a story about Jesus and his disciples picking grain on the sabbath, one about encouraging a man to break sabbath by carrying his mat home after Jesus heals him, and several about Jesus doing healings on the sabbath, all of which bring the ire of the religious authorities.
Again, Jesus is not observing that separate, sacred time. Instead Jesus is celebrating the ultimate Sabbath, that seventh day where God will come and inhabit all of his creation. Jesus is declaring that day has already come in him.
Throughout his ministry Jesus serves as the herald announcing the reign the God here and now. He also acts as the one through whom the reign of God is coming. In other words, what Jesus is doing is replacing the role of the Temple and its leaders with the very presence of God dwelling in him.
Let me try to get at this another way, very briefly. One of the basic tenets of the Christian faith is the doctrine of the incarnation – meaning that somehow Jesus was God and human all at the same time. Or to put it another way, Jesus is the place of intersection between God and humanity. But rather than it being just a part of him (where there is this whole other human part – and whole other God part) these two circles fully intersect. There is not a point of intersection, but rather overlapping. Both are fully contained in the one.
Jesus then has replaced the Temple. He is that intersection of the Kingdom of God and this world. One need no longer go to that spot for a place of intersection. Now each one needs to follow Jesus, to enter into that space, the complete intersection of God’s space and ours.
This is not just about people. Sin has distorted, or broken, the original intent of creation to be the dwelling place of God. But 2 Corinthians 5:19 tells us that, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (emphasis added). In other words, in Christ God is reconciling, repairing, reestablishing the entirety of creation as his dwelling place – his Temple. Jesus tells us there is still a day to come, when the creation will be fully restored in the end.
We read in Revelation 21 that there will be one day a new heaven, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem. Most telling, we are told that there is “no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb [a symbol for Jesus]” (Rev. 21:22). Jesus is the Temple.
No longer sacred v. secular
I think we have the right idea today of not separating the sacred and the secular. I think that is exactly what Jesus is talking about as he goes around throughout his ministry forgiving sins, declaring people clean, and ignoring the sabbath laws. The problem is, I think we have gone the wrong way.
We have made everything – all time, all space, and all matter – ordinary. We have declared that Sunday is a day like all the others, so we might as well just get to work. We have decided that a church building is just like our office building – just bricks and mortar. We have decided that our communion table really is not different from our dining room table. We have declared, in essence, that nothing is special.
That is the opposite of Jesus’ message. What Jesus is saying instead is that your Tuesday, when nothing of any eternal import seems happens, is just as sacred as your Sunday. That your office is as filled with the presence of God, as is the room in which you worship. That the meal you share around your dining room table is as much about sacred community as the meal that will be shared at the communion table in a few minutes.
Jesus is not saying that everything is mundane and ordinary. Rather, Jesus is declaring that God is present in everything. Everything is sacred. Everything is holy. Everything is spiritual. By following Jesus, we begin to have our eyes opened to see the holy in the ordinary.
There is this piece of Celtic theology that has made a significant impression on my heart. It is the idea of the “thin place.” The Celts understand what we have been discussing of the Kingdom of God and our world coexisting, as I described it last week as a sphere within a sphere. The image they use to describe what separates one world from the other is a veil – a thin, permeable layer keeping the two worlds apart. The Celts say that there are times and places where the veil gets thin, and we experience in a powerful way the other side, the Kingdom of God. When that happens, one has been in a “thin place.”
The subtle difference, which is far more than semantics, is that when you have that experience, it is not that God has sent his spirit from his realm far away to give you that moment before the spirit returns to God. Rather it is that the spirit has lifted the veil, made it thin enough, for you to see through to the fullness of the Kingdom of God that is here now and is still to come in fullness one day.
That happens, just for a moment, on a mission trip with the youth group, at a rally or retreat, in a class at church, over coffee with a friend, during a Bible study or a worship, or on the beach in Ocean Grove as a teenager with my youth group.
Ocean Grove is a thin place for me. So is the sanctuary in the church where I grew up. So is this platform, and being with the TLUMC youth on a mission trip wherever we are, and the room I use as an office in my house. They are holy ordinary places.
Holy ordinary places. May you and I stop longing for the holy to come to us, and find those holy ordinary places in our holy ordinary living.
Jesus came to tell us that every space, every moment, everything is filled with the glory of God.
“A History Of Ocean Grove.” The Historical Society of Ocean Grove. http://www.oceangrovehistory.org/Histories/OGHistory.htm.
“Brief History of Ocean Grove.” Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association. http://www.ogcma.org/
Wright, N. T. Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters. New York: HarperOne, 2011.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org.