“The Unanswered Question” Mark 1:21-28

I am no longer as squeamish talking about demons and their various manifestations as I once was. 

          I used to feel compelled to try to explain such things in the gospels because they seemed so foreign to our sophisticated sensibilities.   

          “They were unaware of mental illness back then…”  I would explain.

          “These are allegories of the kind of spiritual warfare Jesus waged..” 

          “They didn’t have any other way to explain epilepsy, or motor illnesses..”

          Explanations such as those to try to make sense of the outbursts, the thrashing child, the strange interjections, or the interruptions in the middle of Jesus’ teaching.

          But after the last four years of witnessing the upheavals in the world of politics, the proliferation of misinformation, the resistance to public health measures, and the persistence of conspiracy theories run amok, as well as actions of individuals online, at demonstrations and riots, I no longer feel compelled to try to explain demon possession.

          We have seen it firsthand.

          We have been befuddled by the nonsense coming out of an otherwise normal person’s mouth, their tortured logic or grasping at conspiracies.  

          We have watched as fathers, sons, mothers and grandmothers – many of them our own extended family members — have suddenly snapped in mid conversation to blurt out something hateful or hurtful comments on a subject with which we deeply disagree.

          We have seen mobs turn angry, protesters and police be possessed of a spirit of fear that drives to violence, or desensitized action. 

          Shoving old men to the ground.

          Beating people with flags.

          Breaking into the capitol, or the police station, or the storefront with willful destruction.   Arguments breaking out with fierce emotion over the wearing of a mask, or the closing of a bar!  

We have witnessed otherwise rational people get carried away in the heat of the moment or seized by something quite outside of themselves and quite outside of our comprehension with sudden violence and emotion.

          I think possession is no longer a mystery to us. 

          We seem to see it daily.

          So, it is not a surprise to me as a Pastor to hear of this outburst in the middle of Synagogue worship for Jesus today in the gospel.  (I’ve had annual meetings that have gone similarly!)

          No, what caught my attention this time was the demon’s question.

          “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come here to destroy us?  I know who you are, the Holy One of God!”

          It is a question that goes unanswered, and that is what catches my attention!

          Jesus silences the outburst, yes.

          Jesus then draws out the offending comment and casts out the thing that possesses the man.

          But, Jesus does not answer the demon’s question about whether or not he has come here to destroy “us” –whoever the “us” is here.

          Scholars are divided on this most interesting of questions.  

Who is the “us” that the protesting demon refers to?  Particularly glaring because the person possessed man follows the “us” with an “I” statement.  

          “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

          So, what is Jesus acting upon, an individual or a corporate entity here?

          Some scholars say that the “us” in this story refers to the Scribes.   Jesus has been teaching with authority, not as one of the scribes, and so maybe the sense here is, “Has Jesus come to destroy the authority and teaching of the Scribes in this community?  In Jewish culture?”

          “Have you come to destroy our authority, our power over people, our way of guiding and directing our own worshiping communities?”

          This is a real possibility, as clearly the scribes are feeling threatened by Jesus, by his popularity and the people’s reaction to his teaching.

          Other scholars say that the “us” here is referring to the corporate sense of the powers of darkness, the demonic, the “legion” of forces out there marshalled against God and God’s intent for this world.  

          They point to Jesus doing battle with the forces of evil, healing, opposing the powers of death and disease and destruction throughout the gospels and say that this is what the “us” referred to, all those things out there that combine to oppose God’s Kingdom and God’s reign in this world.

          I think both are possible, likely probable.  

I don’t think you or I will ever be able to tease out how dark forces sometimes drive public policies, or decisions, or teachings or assumptions in communities.

          Dark forces at work in the world or the self-preservation of power and privilege, can be used interchangeably.

          What I find more interesting is the silence of Jesus on whether he has come to destroy them or not.

          It is an unanswered question, and unanswered questions tend to hang in the air like a fog, obscuring any sense of clarity.

          And that, is perhaps the way Jesus wants it to be.

          If Jesus had answered, “Yes, I have come here to destroy you…”, then the onus on these things would be up to Jesus’ actions and his alone.

          Who else can cast our demons after all?

          Who else can contend with political forces and matters of power and privilege?

          “Only Jesus can take on these kinds of things, stand back and wait for him to act!”  We might be tempted to say.

          But Jesus does not answer the demon’s question.

          Instead, what Jesus does is call disciples, and then grants them power and authority over the unclean spirits and demons.

          What Jesus does is send his disciples out two by two to heal, and to bring peace, and to engage in communities with scribes and pharisees and anyone who will listen.   They are to extend God’s peace to those they meet along the way, and if they are met with peace, to stay there and let their peace fall upon that community.

If they are met with resistance, then they are to shake the dust off and move on until they find someone who will accept their peace.

          Oh, and on occasion cast out such demons themselves, with prayer.

          If Jesus had answered the demon’s question with “Yes, I have come here to destroy you…” then the whole of the work of us as disciples would have been a kind of jihad against the forces of darkness in this world, and we would be consumed with rooting out darkness wherever it could be found.

          That, of course, becomes a kind of darkness of its own!

Because you see, the more you go looking for demons and demonizing others and their actions, the more you tend to find such demons, (at least find them in your own mind and estimation.)   

          The church has a long and shameful history of taking such an approach from time to time, through the Spanish Inquisition, the persecution and labeling of heretics, the crusades to reclaim Jerusalem.  

          Going out to look for demons is tricky business.   Jesus will not engage in that, neither should we!

          Instead, when such demons and unclean spirits raise their ugly heads, Jesus calls them out, identifies them, and sends them on their way.

          Maybe that is a cue for what we are called to do as disciples of Jesus in this day and age.

          I don’t think we will destroy either the powers of darkness, nor the inequalities of power and privilege that have developed over generations.

          It is not in our authority to go looking for them, or to destroy them.

          But I do think what we can do is call them out and disarm them when they are found in our very midst!

          I do think we can take away the power they have by naming them, not fearing them, and recognizing them, even (and especially) when they pop up where we least expect them, in our own midst and amongst the people with whom we regularly gather, love and care about.

          Our Synagogue—- our church!

          That, (it seems to me) is being faithful to what is modeled by Jesus in this Gospel lesson.  

          Jesus does not turn a blind eye to the conflict when it rises up in the midst of his own gathering, but instead acknowledges it, names it, calls it out and dismisses its power.

          “I know who you are…” the man says.

          “Well, then, be silent and come out…” Jesus responds.

          Jesus makes it uncomfortable for that demon that has been exposed.  There is convulsing and squirming and shouting, – but the offending demon eventually comes out and has no more power over that person, or over the assembly!

          This is what Jesus models by leaving the question unanswered.

          He does not seem to come to destroy, but he does not hesitate in engaging either, wherever the demon appears!

          If the season of Epiphany is all about us discovering God and watching what God has come to do in this world, then this is the lesson learned here, our “epiphany.”

          We are not called to go forth and find the powers of darkness to do battle with them, to seek them out and root them out.

          They will come and find us, most likely.

          They do!

          No, what we are called to do is to recognize the demons when they raise their ugly heads in our midst, to name them, call them out, and dismiss them from our assembly.

          This is not easy work by any means, but it is hope filled work, for it is less about destruction and more about restoration.

          Restoring this questioning man to his community.

Ending the outbursts and accusations by casting out the thing with which the man is possessed, the fear of destruction.

          And which us is not ready for Jesus to come and do such work of restoration and reconciliation in our own midst right about now?

          To cast out our fears and restore us to one another.


“The Time is Now” Mark 1:14-20

Nothing happens in a vacuum. 

The more one looks at the beginning of major events, critical moments, fateful decisions, and the beginnings of movements throughout history, the more one recognizes that there is usually a set of steps or “little things” that led up to the major event.

          Rosa Parks did not just decide one day not to move to the back of the bus.   There were a series of events and community organizing actions that led up to that one day, where it became a public moment, and the photographer was on hand.    The Bus Boycott was prepared for, the instructions given out long in advance, alternative means of transportation had been planned, all to put pressure on for civil rights legislation.

          Rosa’s actions were simply the signal, “now is the time.”

          For all the fanfare of Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” it would be foolish to think that he accomplished the goal of stepping on the moon on his own.  There was a decade of planning by armies of engineers and workers behind the scenes that led to this particular “moment.”   Everything done since President Kennedy’s challenge in a speech had led up to it.

          In the Gospel lesson for today we see Jesus begin his ministry and witness the calling of the first of the disciples along the shore of Galilee. 

 We often see this as the beginning of the movement of Jesus’ ministry, but if our experience of history is correct, (that every movement or event has a back story that leads up to it,) it might serve us well to try to understand the events that led up to this moment.  

          The critical event appears to be the arrest of John the Baptizer, which prompts one to ask “Why was John arrested?”  

This won’t be explained by Mark until chapter 6.  

John isn’t arrested for his baptizing activity at the Jordan River.   

          John is arresting for pointing out Herod’s “ethics violations as a ruler.”  

Herod had married his own brother’s wife, a marriage meant to solidify political power. There was some irregularity about the matter of divorce for Herodias.  

John (who is all about repentance, after all) preaches that Herod is in violation.  “It is not lawful.”  John says that Herod needs to repent. 

That is what precipitates John’s arrest, and John’s arrest appears to be the last straw for Jesus.

          “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.”   

If John can no longer call leaders to account and call for their repentance, someone else will have to take it up, and clearly Jesus sees himself as that person, and so on that day along the fateful lake shore Jesus issues the call to action.  

The time has come to leave the nets.

The time has come to leave the house and the family.

“Come, follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

We marvel at how quickly the disciples answered that call, and Mark’s immediacy here amplifies it.  

“How could they?” we wonder, “just leave their father in the boat?   The nets on the shore?”

John Domonic Crossan, the Roman Catholic biblical scholar looks at some archeological evidence from the time of Jesus to help make some sense of this.  

Crossan points to discoveries of fishing boats from the time of Jesus and he notes how often the boats were patched with mis-matched wood and makeshift repairs.  

Such things are evident in modern day Somalia as well, where those who make their trade as fishermen have done so under extremely harsh economic conditions.  

The boats are a patchwork quilt of inadequate repairs because the fisherman simply cannot afford to do the work properly!   They are making do because they have no choice.

Crossan theorizes then that Jesus’ ministry, his teaching, did not just start overnight.   He had been talking to fisher folks for quite a while!   He had been listening to their concerns, observing the hardships of the Galilee.

He already had the title of “Rabbi.”

He has been speaking of God’s Kingdom as it is described in Isaiah, Micah, Zephaniah, and the Prophets, that longed for “some day.”

Jesus had talked about “the day of the Lord” and the “Year of Jubilee” when the poor would at last have a portion again, as promised of old.

The Kingdom of God does not operate the way this world operates, and that too has been evident for a long time.  

In the Magnificat Mary had sung Hannah’s song from the days of Samuel the prophet, long before Jesus was born.

 “God has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

In the Beatitudes Jesus taught the reversal of fortunes,

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

It is a world turned upside down that Jesus proclaims, one promised by the Prophets of old that Jesus comes to usher in.

When Jesus announces his own ministry in Luke’s gospel he reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

  These are the teachings that we hear the gospel writers record for us, but no teacher simply starts from scratch on day one.

Thoughts are formed.

Lesson plans are honed, practiced and tested with those who will listen.

Crossan theorizes that Jesus had connections with Peter, James, John, Andrew and the others, instructing them long before he called them as his disciples to follow on this day. 

They had long chafed under Rome’s taxes and occupation forces.

They had long watched as one puppet king after another set themselves up, clamor for power, scheme and connive to keep the status quo for the rich and the powerful while the benefits and blessings of the fertile Galilee region were denied to those who actually lived there.

When Jesus calls his disciples along the lake shore, he is not introducing them to some new teaching, not starting from scratch.

He is instead saying, “Now is the time!”

Now, with John’s arrest, we can put up with this no more!

Now, with the arrest of John it is time to talk about the Kingdom of God coming in wider circles, proclaim it in the towns and the villages, time for to you become “fishers of people.”

You will not need your nets.

You will not need hooks or bait.

You will become “fishers of people” by calling people out of the water in which they currently swim, this world where might makes right, where the rich hoard wealth and the poor are left to their own devices to suffer.

You will become as fisher folk, pulling people out the of water they currently swim in so that they can do what fish do when you pull them out of water…  they can die to the old way of life and begin to envision something else!

John had called for repentance.  Just clean up your life up, get ready.  Tweak this life a little bit, live it better, be more honest, be more just, be ready for the one who is to come.

Jesus calls his disciples out of the currents of this world and begins to instruct them on how to live in a new way, with a new set of directives, which are rooted in the promises of old!

Nothing happens in a vacuum!

The call of Jesus on the shores of the lake are all rooted in the words of the Prophets.

Rooted in the living out of the commandments where the care of the neighbor was to have been the chief concern.

Rooted in the lessons learned in the wilderness, where this day’s bread, the Manna, was sufficient and hoarding of more than you needed for this day only made it rot and become infested with worms.

Jesus begins teaching that one is not to store up treasures on earth, he points to the lilies of the field, he tells those who follow him to give, and store up treasure in heaven.

He models for them the feeding of the hungry.

He lifts up the broken and touches the untouchable.

And all of that is like being pulled from the water in which you swim!  It’s not the way the world is supposed to work!  It’s not the way we do things!

That is the feeling, because in Mark’s gospel the progression of Jesus and the pace at which he works and moves is relentless, leaving those he interacts with gasping for breath like a fish out of water.

The demons are cast out.

The sick are healed.

Sins are forgiven and the outsiders brought into the inner circle.

The heroes become the villains, and the long-despised Samaritan becomes the hero.

Like fish out of water those who do not understand that Jesus’ movement is the upending of this world’s structures and expectations right now gasp and gape at his actions!

But, to all those who begin to catch a vision of this Kingdom that Jesus proclaims, they recognize those actions are all rooted in the promises of old and it is for them like being plunged through baptism into the freshest of streams and the clearest of waters. 

This is how life is meant to be!  Why are we waiting for “Some day” any longer when by following Jesus we can have it now!  

The time is now!

All that Jesus teaches and proclaims is rooted in the promises heard in the Prophets of old, Jeremiah had promised that on that day “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

This is that day!  Jesus says.

Swimming in the waters we were meant to inhabit since the dawn of creation, in the Kingdom not of this world’s making, but of God’s making where Grace and truth are found and abound. Now is the time, to pull people out of the currents of this world so they can see a new way to live.  Not “someday”, but today, and Jesus has come to show you how.

“No Longer Under A Fig Tree” John 1:43-51

The occupational hazard of being an old Humanities Major is that you tend to want to make connections and see parallels across art, literature, science, history and everyday life. So, I have the musical “Hamilton” stuck in my head today, specifically the song “One Last Time.”  

 If you’re not familiar with the song, it is the moment when George Washington informs Alexander Hamilton that he will not be seeking re-election as President.

After years of service to the new country he has helped formed, Washington decides the time has come to step down to assume a quiet civilian life.  “We’re going to teach them how to say good-bye, so the nation goes on after me.”  Washington intones.

Washington then asks Hamilton to help him draft his resignation letter.  In the song that follows, Washington sings, “when I’m gone, like the scripture says, ‘Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.’….’I want to sit under my own vine and fig tree, a moment alone in the shade, at home in this nation we’ve made.’”  

          The scene depicts the peaceful transition of power that we have enjoyed in this nation for over 250 years, and that we saw threaten a little over a week ago.

          So, as a good Humanities Major I’m weaving together Hamilton, and the events at the capital where we saw what happens when a President is unwilling to “say good-bye.” – and this Gospel lesson where that phrase jumps out at me again, as Nathaniel sitting under the “fig tree.”

          That image of “sitting under a fig tree” is used repeatedly in the Hebrew scriptures as a reference to prosperity, security, safety and rest.

          It shows up in 1st Kings.  Under Solomon’s reign “all of Israel and Judah lived in safety, from Dan to Beersheba, every man under his vine and fig tree all the days of Solomon.”  (1st Kings 4:25)  

          It shows up again in the writings of the prophets, in Isaiah, in Micah, and in Zechariah, as an image of an idyllic life either promised or elusive.  An indicator of prosperity and rest, or “having it made in the shade…” as my dad used to say. 

          So, I began to wonder if we might have missed a part of the call of Nathaniel by not noticing all that the fig tree symbolized for Israel.

          Little is known about Nathaniel, only in fact what is recorded here and another brief mention of him in a list if disciples in chapter 21.

          He is called “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”   This is the only place in the New Testament where that term “Israelite” is used, and it’s connected with someone under a fig tree.  

We infer a lot from his few words here.

We infer that Nathaniel was skeptical.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  he asked when Philip tells him about Jesus.

Which might have been about skepticism, but it might also have been a comment that was born out of his own privilege and perception.   The “big city” near Nazareth was Sepphoris, rebuilt by Herod Antipas at the time of Jesus to impress the occupying Romans.

Sepphoris sported a Roman Theater, it had Roman baths, and was used as a commercial trade center, with all the modern amenities.  If you looked for anything “good” to come out of the Galilean region, well, it is probably going to come out of that shiny new city, not out of dingy old Nazareth.

We infer that Jesus revealing that he had seen Nathaniel “under the fig tree” was a spacial reference, like you or I would say “sitting under the cottonwood” or “under the oak tree.”  Maybe it was, but you know the kind of tree that one sits under communicates something.

Isaac Newton sit under the Apple tree as he ponders gravity, observing one fall.

“Under the spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands….”   That’s a piece of a poem by Longfellow that I learned in grade school.   

Maybe it tickles in the back of your mind as well, as somehow important, somehow powerful, having some lesson to teach.

So, if you remembered that poem, you might remember that it told the tale of a hard-working blacksmith and of his interactions with his fellow villagers, children, and generally of his character. 

The final line of the poem reveals what the image is meant to convey.

 “Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend, For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped, each burning deed and thought.”

          We learned that poem in elementary school to remind us of the power of community, responsibility, citizenship and how futures and lives are forged and shaped by life’s interactions.  The Chestnut tree was important for is symbolism of how it provided for community.

And so, I wonder now if having Nathaniel, the Israelite leave behind the fig tree to follow Jesus is important?   He is also symbolically leaving behind a life of ease, rest and security to learn what it is to be a Disciple, a servant.

Nathaniel is quick to call Jesus “Rabbi” and acknowledge him as “Son of God and King of Israel.”  

I wonder if Nathaniel realized that he would be traveling the back roads of Galilee, living a life dependent upon the hospitality of others instead of upon his own resources?  That he would be learning from Jesus, yes, the Rabbi. But that he would also be witnessing the kind of power and authority that Jesus exercises over the hearts of humans and over the demons that afflict humankind.   The power of the Son of God, and the King?

Jesus says that Nathaniel will see “greater things than these….” – but to what is Jesus referring? Is he referring to the premonition that he had, seeing Nathaniel under a tree? Or, is Jesus referring to something else?

Is Jesus referring to the fact that there is something greater than you just sitting under your own vine and fig tree, taking care of yourself?

There is something greater than just living for your own comfort and ease, Nathaniel.

There is something greater to be found in following Jesus and choosing a life of servanthood to your neighbor.   Something greater found in having a vision of a coming Kingdom to proclaim.  God’s Kingdom which is no longer about being an “Israelite” (which is a nationalistic title) but rather about being a Child of God and seeing the world as more than something to criticize.  Seeing the world as something that God loves and comes to save!

There is something greater to be found in finding the culmination of Moses’ laws and the prophets hopes and visions in this person of Jesus who walks and talks with you and shows you how to live for something else besides your own comfort, security and safety!  

Something greater to be found in the God made flesh who invites you to “Come and See” things that you cannot see as long as you are just sitting under your own fig tree, focused on living some idolized life of self-preservation and ease.

This story and recent events have me thinking about what kind of pursuits that we engage in. What are we looking for, considering to be our desired goal in life?

Nathaniel has no need for Jesus really.  He has it “made in the shade” from all outward appearances.  He is perfectly content to cynically sit there under his fig tree and to critique the rest of the world as it passes by.

But evidently, Andrew senses that Nathaniel needs more than that, or is looking for more than that. 

Andrew is not content to leave Nathaniel there, in his cynicism and judgmentalism. 

The old stories still have meaning and power, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

You can’t just sit there scoffing at everything!  There are still stories that form and forge us, and to which you must reconnect.  There is one who calls you out of our own comfort into the world to make a difference there, to proclaim a Kingdom where justice and equity is possible, so “Come and See.”  We think we have found the one who can change the world!

What does it mean that Jesus is not content to leave Nathaniel under his tree?

“When did you get to know me?”  Nathaniel will ask Jesus, which is a curious kind of question for someone whom you have just now met!  

Nathaniel senses that Jesus “knows” him more deeply than just as a passing acquaintance. 

Jesus is not content to let him go back to the old life of ease under the fig tree, and instead invites him into “greater things.”

Could it be that Jesus does the same to us?  Is not content to leave us where we are?

Maybe I’m just an old Humanities major who connects too many dots. But it seems to me that cynically judging the events of this world does not have the power to change them.  Following Jesus into a life of servanthood does.  Maybe we have lost touch with some things with which we would do well to reconnect.

If you think that the goal of your life is to have it “made in the shade?”   Well, you may discover that you find it hard to believe in anything anymore, let alone anything good, or coming from unexpected places.

If you are content to sit under your own vine and fig tree, you might be surprised to find that Jesus seeks out those who are comfortable and invites them into greater things.  Greater things that involve engaging in a life of serving and forging a better world, rather than just watching it pass you by.

Maybe I make too many connections, or maybe I am on to something about how God wants to reconnect with you, to make the Laws of Moses and the Prophets come alive again by lifting us out of our comfort zones and our own preoccupations with wealth, rest and safety.

Maybe, — but you won’t know, unless you are open to the invitation to “come and see.” 

“Baptism for Repentance” Mark 1:4-11

There is something pleasing to God about repentance.    That’s the conclusion we come to in the Gospel lesson for today.

It is a curious Gospel lesson in many ways.  It prompts, (and has prompted through the ages,) many questions.

          Why does Jesus have to be baptized?   If Jesus is without sin, what need is there for him to repent or be baptized? 

          What kind of repentance would Jesus even end up doing? 

          What is it about a baptism of repentance that gathers such crowds out by river Jordan?    All of Jerusalem and the whole Judean countryside are going out to see this, experience it.  

Is it just the sight of John, or is there some deeper need that his ministry of washing taps into?   A need perhaps to be cleaned up, or a need to turn around, or simply a desire to go out from one’s normal pathways into the wilderness and turn around out there from something in one’s past?

          So many questions.

          Who sees the heavens opened, the Spirit descending?   Is it only John?  Is it just Jesus?   Is it Jesus and John?   Is it everyone? 

Who sees the heavens opened and hears the voice of God seems to depend upon the Gospel writer, as there is nuance in each telling of this story.

          But there are at least two details upon which all of the Gospel writers will agree.  

          This is about Repentance and repentance is an action with which God is well pleased.

          Maybe we need go no further than that this week.

It’s been a rough week as we have had to review the events and the turmoil of the last four years that culminated in it.

          We’ve seen firsthand what a world without a sense or a need for repentance looks like, and it has not been pretty.

          It doesn’t matter which side of the political spectrum you’ve been on, insistence and doubling down has been the order of the day, the mode of operation, for everyone.  Punching and counterpunching, those have been the words used.

          No sense of repentance! 

          It doesn’t matter where you have been on the health care debates, mask or no mask, doubling down and insistence has been the way things have been approached, mandates and lock downs, protests and ignoring of urgings by health professionals, denial of science or insisting on one’s own “facts.”   Rebellion and refusal, insistence upon “my rights” whatever you happen to believe those “rights” are.

          There has been no sense of repentance, no pausing to consider direction, no turning around or turning over.

          All of this insistence has yielded up a hefty helping of the virus out of control, divisions among communities and families, the nation’s Capital building stormed, shots fired, murder rates higher than ever in the city and government and society near the brink of collapse.

          A world where no one even raises the possibility of repenting of an action is simply not a pretty world in which to live.

          So, dropping all the heavy theological implications, and the questions and all the wonderings about “sin”, maybe this year is a good year to just consider the two things that all the Gospel writers agree upon.

          Jesus goes to John to participate in repentance, and repentance is something that pleases God.

          We should try it for no other reason than that.

          We should try it, because so far insistence has not worked out so well for us.

          We can speculate all we want about the reasons why the crowds were going out to John to be baptized for repentance, but maybe the reason pure and simple is that they were just sick of living in a world without repentance!

          Maybe they were tired of all the energy it took to always be “insisting.” 

Insisting upon their own way, and all the division they felt living under the demands of Roman occupation, or the Pharisee’s law, or their extended family obligations.

          Always someone insisting… that you be better, that you do better, that you follow through, that you do this or that you avoid that.

          Always an insistence on measuring up or meeting standards or meeting expectations.

          Now in the wilderness arrives someone who invites you to come down to the river and wash all that insistence away.

          Wouldn’t you be tempted to go out and see what that is about?

          Aren’t you tempted now?

          We have tried insistence, and it has not born the kind of fruit we expected.  

It has not gotten us our hearts desires.  

It has not secured for us long term power, control or security. 

It has not made our world safer, or our kids happier, or made our future any brighter.

          Might we want to turn around from all of that?

          Might we want to try repentance, and the humbling of hearts, and the softening of minds?

          There is something pleasing to God about repentance, because it opens up opportunities again.

          It is as if the heavens open, and a new spirit descends upon us when we stop insisting on our own way!

          Maybe we make this thing happening at the River Jordan much too complex. 

          Maybe what pleases God most in Jesus coming out to John for a baptism for repentance is recognizing that God knows Jesus doesn’t have to come to repent anything, but that Jesus chooses to come. 

He chooses to assume the posture of repentance because it changes his own posture toward the world and toward those around him.

          Would it be worth a try for you to do that as well?

          Assume a posture of repentance, go down into the waters of Baptism so that you can come back up and see things differently, see those around you differently?

          “The beginning of the Good News” Mark says, starts with this scene.   John baptizing for repentance out in the wilderness, and Jesus coming to be baptized.

          Maybe all we need to do to see the good news as well is to stop our insisting upon our own way and open ourselves up for some repentance, even if we don’t think we need it.

          Even if others can’t figure out why we do it.

          Just do it.

          Do it because there is nothing more Christ like, it seems to me, than choosing to do something simply because it pleases God.

          Mark’s Gospel tells us that God gets busy in this world through Jesus after this scene, the heavens open, the Spirit descends, and Jesus moves with new purpose.

          Might that be the same for us?   No longer insisting on our own way, might we behold the Spirit’s direction and feel it’s power upon us?

“Grace and Truth Stuff” John 1:1-18

There is a vast difference between being told how to do something and being shown how to do it, and we all know which technique works better.

          This is the genius behind YouTube instruction videos.   You can learn how to do almost anything on YouTube.   Type in something you need to do, and someone will be willing to walk you through whatever it is, step by step and show you how it can be done.

          Need to replace the battery in your particular model of laptop?  

There is a video on that.   You can watch the person disassemble, dig into the guts of the machine, lift out ribbon connectors and make comment on where the problem spots will be, show you how to re-seat them.

          Need to know how to fix a leaky faucet?   You can look it up by brand, style and even preferred plumber!    Rich Trethewey of “This Old House” will show you how to do it this way….

          Want to know how to make a Beef Wellington?   Would you prefer to be taught by Jacques Pepin, Bobby Flay, or Julia Child?

            Sure, you can still buy repair books, cookbooks with illustrations and directions, but just reading the directions is never as clear as watching someone actually do it and learning the craft of it directly from a master.

          John in his gospel begins the story of Jesus in this way.  In the sweeping narrative he writes: 

          “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

          John insists that what is happening in Jesus is God coming to be with us “in the flesh” full of grace and truth.  

          “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”  he says.

          Over and over in John’s gospel we hear Jesus insist when asked that if you wish to see God, you are to look to Jesus. 

This “becoming flesh” thing is for us the equivalent of a YouTube tutorial.

          It isn’t that we don’t know what God’s hopes and dreams for us as a people are.  It’s not that God has been silent through the ages, or hasn’t given instructions or teachings to us.  

That was the point of creation from the beginning.  God walking in the garden, talking with Adam and Eve, providing the world in order.   

“Tend, nurture, have dominion, be fruitful and multiply.”   You can do this!

That was the point of God calling Abram out of Ur, to walk with him and bless him in order that Abram might be a blessing to all the nations of the earth.   “Show them how you can walk into promises.”

God was Instructing us how to live in the Covenant at Sinai, Moses bringing down the laws from God on the tablets of stone.

          “Because you are my people, this is how you are to live together.” God says in those commandments and reiterates time and again.

          “I am the Lord your God, there is no other.”  

“Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” 

“Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” 

“Honor your Father and Mother.”  

“Do not Kill.” 

“Do not Steal.”

“Do not commit adultery.”

“Do not bear false witness.”

“Do not covet….”

          The commandments had come to us through Moses.   They were clear.  They were concise.  They were the written instructions on how we are to live.

They were to be inscribed upon the heart, kept ever before you, affixed between the eyes, fastened to the right arm, as reminders to us that these commandments were to shape everything we saw, and every action we undertook.

The laws given by Moses were the way to live, act, treat one another and go about  daily life.

          But such written laws are not always so easy to interpret.      

          The instructions given by IKEA on how to assemble a piece of furniture are also detailed and concise. And yet, if you have ever tried to build a piece of furniture from them you have found yourself turning the instruction sheet one way and then another trying to get the right perspective on the written and illustrated words there.

          If you treat the laws of Moses like a recipe or like an IKEA assembly guide, isn’t just a little bit of license and adjustment well within the expectations?

          Or if they are like a recipe, no one makes the same recipe exactly alike.

          There are always “extra bolts and parts” left over after you’ve gotten the IKEA shelf together.

          If you slavishly adhere to the recipe in cooking, you often still discover that it does not come out the way Mom used to make it.   Techniques do matter!   There are imperceptible changes and adaptations that take place over time.  

          “Mom did it this way, put in extra here, left out this….”

          The law came through Moses, but over time the law has been tweaked and interpreted, or taken way too literally, or not taken seriously enough. 
          There are so many things that can go awry with things in writing, after all!

          You can argue with words written, what the author might have meant, what the instructions written really were. 

          “See here, it says, insert tab ‘A’ into ‘Slot B’….and that’s just what I did…never mind the fact that I might have picked up the wrong two pieces, I still followed the instructions!”

          Words alone, even on a page, are subject to interpretation and to context.

          So it is that God comes down in Jesus to embody what God envisions, because it is much more difficult to dispute what you are shown than it is to argue with what you have heard or read!

          That’s one of the reasons why as a Pastor I often get nervous when people like to quote scripture as “God’s Word” in justification of something.

          “The poor you will have with you always.”  Jesus said that!

          And yes, Jesus did, in specific reference to Judas’ fixation on the cost of the ointment that Mary had poured upon him.   But the words were not spoken as a justification for ignoring the needs of the neighbor.  

          They were spoken to help Judas see how he was missing the larger point of the beauty of what Mary was doing.

          Show me a place where Jesus in his life and actions ever modeled dismissal of the needs of others, and if he did, did not quickly move amend his actions!

          What Jesus came to show us is what God in the flesh would do, and what God deeply cares about. 

          Not just the words, not just the commandments, not just the expectations laid upon us from the outside, but true engagement in this world, with all of the complexity that comes with such engagement.

          “This is what God would do if God were here….”

          And so, in Jesus, God is here.

          Now watch and see just what God does!

          Watch as God in Jesus surfaces all the places where just following the letter of the law is not enough, or can get you into trouble, or fall short of the hope and dreams of God.  

Recognize just how much adhering to what God would do ends up being a lot of fudging with the instructions!

          Healing on the Sabbath?   Jesus is breaking one of the laws of Moses there!   Jesus does it anyway, because God is much more interested in health and wholeness than with rules and regulations.

          Forgiving sins – God alone is supposed to be able to do that!   Jesus does it anyway, partly because he is God and can, — but then Jesus goes on to confer that power to forgive sins upon his followers.

He does so because God is much more interested in life and wholeness than in keeping score or retributive justice.

          Touching lepers, including the outcast, talking to Samaritans and Gentiles… all those things that we thought the Law of Moses was so clear about!  Jesus goes ahead and does them anyway because the original intent of God was for life and wholeness and a creation healed and whole, and using the law to perpetuate brokenness is mis-reading the intent.

          Time again the Word who becomes Flesh, full of grace and truth, ends up calling into question what we thought were all the hard and fast rules and written instructions!

          This should give us pause at the beginning of the new year.

          Many of us will or have undertaken that time honored tradition of “New Year’s Resolutions”, and the people who do life coaching and time management kinds of things will urge you to “Write them down!”

          Once committed to writing, you will find them easier to adhere to, refer back to, keep.

          Or at least you will have something to argue against when you want to fudge on them!

          “No one had any idea there would be a pandemic when I made that resolution to go to the Gym last year, and so when the Gyms closed… well……”

          Writing down your resolutions are no guarantee that you will live them out.

          Living them out however, in daily action?  That will make them a habit, and habit has a way of becoming a way of life over time.

          That’s what the ministry of Jesus is about, in no small way.  It is three years of him living out with his disciples an alternative way of being.

          Three years of blessing the poor, healing the sick and caring for the broken, lifting up those left by the side of the road or excluded from society.

          Jesus’ ministry is three years of showing us what it would be like if God were here.

          “If God were here, this is what God would do….”

          But more than that.

          Jesus does not do that alone.

Jesus invites his disciple to experience it as well and engage in it with him.

          He sends them out, two by two, when they think they really aren’t ready yet, and says, “You’ve seen me do it, do it on your own.”

          Or as John puts it, “gives them the power to become Children of God,”   filled with God’s  Grace and empowered by the truth as well.

          This is the ultimate YouTube video experience, because no matter how many times you watch someone else fix the computer, or fix the faucet, or make the recipe, there come the time when we you turn the video off and have to launch into it yourself.

          This is, after all, the reason why you watched in the first place, so that you could one day do it on your own.

          “The Word became flesh” is about God doing more than just telling us what to do or giving us the commandments for us to figure out for ourselves.

          It is God coming to show us how it is done, this Grace and Truth stuff… and then setting us loose with the full authority to do it!

          Because Grace and Truth have walked in among us and have shown us how to live, it can be done.           This is what God would do if God were here, and because God in Jesus has conferred grace and truth to us, God is here in you, child of God!  God is with us empowering us to do the grace and truth stuff!