Outing Evil, sermon for Epiphany 4B, Jan. 29, 2012 on Mark 1:21-28

Outing Evil

Mark 1:21-28

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught

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them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

At the seminar yesterday we began by looking at features of some of the mythologies of the ancient world, from ancient Egypt to Mesopotamia.  These myths tell of the world of the gods and goddesses.    Sometimes they fight and kill one another, sometimes they create worlds and people to live in them.

Why myths?

Why do people tell myths?  Certainly the people who first told the stories of Marduk or Baal knew that they were making them up, so who would believe them?

That’s a very modern question.  People did not repeat their mythologies in the hopes that others would believe that one day the god Marduk killed the goddess Tiamat.  Rather, mythologies were told to explain why things are the way they are.

Why, ancient people wondered, is human life such a drudgery of work, sunup to sundown, and we live in constant fear that calamity will come upon us and leave us damaged, starving or dead?  “Well,” the ancient Babylonians would say, “when Marduk killed goddess Tiamat and her helper god Kingu, he had leftovers and he made humans out of them so that we could work like dogs all our lives and keep himself and the other gods fed with sacrifices.”  We were made for this difficult life: the myth of Marduk explains it all.

Myths explain reality

We humans have myths to tell us who we are: Are we important or just after-thoughts?  Are we made for a purpose, or are we simply at the mercy of forces greater than ourselves?  Can we achieve immortality, or is this all there is?

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The myths we tell, tell us about good and evil.  Myths tell us who is “us” and who is “them;” who our friends are, and who the enemy is.

That’s why there can be a “war of myths.”  Two different stories that disagree about these issues: who are we?  who is our enemy?  what is important?

Jesus and the War of Myths

I started this way in order to set the stage for hearing the story of Jesus that Mark tells.  Mark is showing us Jesus engaged in a “war of myths.” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 143)

What do we see Jesus doing in Mark’s gospel?  We see him casting out “unclean spirits;”  we see him healing people.  In Jesus‘ day there were exorcist and faith healers, that much was common.  But Jesus was engaged in a “war of myths” that made people around him so upset, by chapter 3 they were already planning, Mark tells us, “to destroy him.” (3:6).  Nobody would have any reason to want to destroy an exorcist or a faith healer if that’s all he was doing.  Jesus was doing much more, and for what he did, they wanted to destroy him.

Who knows Jesus’ identity?

Let’s look at the way Mark tells the story.  At the start, the very first thing we read from Mark 1:1 is the voice of the narrator, Mark, telling us inside information.  He says,

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus [Messiah] Christ, the Son of God.”

The first thing Jesus does is get baptized in the Jordan, coming up out of the water, a voice from Heaven says to Jesus:

11 “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

So now we have heard Jesus’ identity announced twice: by the narrator, Mark, and by God himself.

Jesus and the Spirit

Next, the Spirit drives Jesus out into a creepy wilderness in which he withstands the Satan’s temptations for forty days – the same number of days as the number of years the Israelites were in their wilderness of temptation – coincidence?  Hardly.  Israel, who was called, God’s “son,” (“out of Egypt I called my son” – Hosea 11:1) didn’t do so well with their wilderness temptations.  But Jesus, God’s “beloved son “cannot be conquered by the evil one, the accuser.

So Jesus returns from the wilderness, travels along the shores of the lake they call the sea of Galilee, and calls disciples to follow him in his mission to scoop up people for the kingdom of God.

The small synagogue

They leave their nets and boats and follow him and the first place we see them come to is the synagogue in Capernaum.

Synagogue in Capernaum, Galilee

It’s not very big really.  Maybe it could hold as many people as our church can, not many more.  Certainly the locals who attended Sabbath services in that synagogue all knew each other, even without name tags.

So, as this story goes, Jesus goes in and assumes the role of a local rabbi – a teacher (the word “rabbi” actually means, “my teacher”).  Teaching, in the synagogue, was teaching the bible, the torah of Moses.  Mark says,

21 “They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.”

Jesus’ amazing teaching

The focus is on Jesus’ teaching.  What does he teach?  The odd thing is, there is no sermon here, no Beatitudes, no parables.  All we hear is the people’s reaction to the teaching:

22 “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

We do not hear what he teaches yet; all we hear is that his teaching is different.   We hear who it is different from – the “scribes.”  And we hear how his teaching is different, it’s “with authority.”

Authority can come from your education or from your job title, but of course Jesus has neither.  Authority can also come from experience.  You listen to an experienced fisherman to learn about fishing.

Could direct experience of God’s Spirit been the source of the authority behind Jesus’ teaching?  Probably so; in any case, the people were quite aware of it; in fact were “astounded” by it.

The man with no name

Now the camera focuses on one particular person in the synagogue hearing Jesus’ authoritative teaching.  Mark describes him simply by saying:

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 “Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit”

Small town, small synagogue, one conclusion: everybody knows this man.  Everybody knows him and knows about his “unclean spirit” (which is just a normal way of saying demon).  And yet there  he is, at home in their synagogue.

Mark is telling us this story on two levels at once.  Yes Jesus was an exorcist, and yes, he cast out demons.  But the way Mark sets up this scene, we are meant to see that this man is in his own comfort zone – everyone around him is comfortable with him in their place of worship.  What’s going on here?  The next part starts to reveal the message.

We hear the man with the unclean spirit :

 24 “he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 

Jesus’ identity is now announced for the third time. A third person with insider information, a demon, knows Jesus’ identity.

The forces of evil are in combat with God.  The forces of evil know that God is their enemy who plans to destroy them.  This is the war of myths in action.

Attempted naming

The demon tries to gain control over Jesus, God’s beloved son, by naming him; naming is how you control spiritual forces in Jesus’ world of the first century.  The demon names Jesus, “the Holy One of God.”

The demon’s attempt to overpower Jesus, God’s son, is a total failure.  In the war of myths, Jesus has the upper hand.  He is the one who has authority from his direct experience of God’s Spirit.  Mark tells us what happened:

25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”  26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.  27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 

The Authoritative Teaching

At the beginning of this scene and now again at the end, we hear about Jesus’ authoritative teaching, and how it amazed the people.  But all we saw Jesus do was an exorcism; we heard no teaching.

That is, unless the teaching that Mark wants us to hear is about the war of myths.  Remember, myths tell us who we are, who are the good guys and the bad guys, who are our friends and who is the enemy.

In this story, the enemies that do battle are the forces of good and evil.  The enemy Jesus does battle with is evil.

It is the kind of evil that has captured a person and has him under total control, and uses him for his own purposes.  It has so taken over this man that it has stripped him of his god-given identity; he doesn’t even have a name; he’s like a statistic.  To everyone he is simply the “man with the unclean spirit.”  The fact that he is being dominated and abused by evil bothers no one.

The demon knows Jesus has come to do battle with all of the spirits of evil, even if they are making themselves at home in the heart of the synagogue, the temple, or the tombs.

Who is the enemy?

In that synagogue, and among those people, according to their story, their myths, the enemy was not the forces of enslaving, destructive evil; the enemy was Rome.  The enemy was political.  The enemy was economic.  The enemy was the non-ethnically pure person.  The enemy was the one who broke sabbath.

But to Jesus, the enemy was evil that enslaves people, evil that has people in its power and destroys them.

Jesus is teaching us not to mis-identify the enemy, and his teaching has the authority of personal knowledge, personal experience.

But we do constantly mis-identify the enemy.  We think the enemy is the market, or the government, or the economy.  We could reach our true potential to be fully alive, fully human if only we could conquer that enemy.

Or the enemy is the people we are at odds with; people in the family who make us unhappy, people who live near enough to us to cause us grief.

But the true enemies we face are the ones that have the power to enslave and to destroy, which is what evil always does.  The true enemies are all of those powers that keep people in bondage – poverty, oppression, discrimination, violence and abuse.

The true enemy is also apathy: being OK with the plain fact that there are people around us who are suffering under these evils, as if it were simply another normal sabbath day at the synagogue.

Which myth is true?

Which myth do we believe explains reality best?

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Who are we?   We are people whom God has called out of darkness into his light.

Who are we?  We are people who have been rescued from the kingdom of evil and who have become citizens of the kingdom of God.

Who are we?  We are people whom God has called to join him in his mission to confront evil in all its forms: in our hearts and in our world.

Who are we?  We are people of the Spirit whom God has called and commissioned to go out into the world with his authority, to bring healing, love and mercy to the people he made in his image.

We are committed to calling every form of de-humanization by its real name: evil, and to know to whom belongs the victory.

We are here, not to “be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good.”

“What’s Left” sermon for January 22, 2012, Third Sunday after Epiphany Year B, on Mark 1:14-20

 What’s Left

Mark 1:14-20

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and

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the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

The way Mark tells the story of Jesus is fascinating.  He skips right past Mary and Joseph, the donkey and the Inn Keeper.  No mention of Jesus’ birth or early years.  As Mark lifts up the curtain, the Jesus we see on stage is a full grown adult.

Mark’s Action Adventure

He is in action.  And it is, as they say, “a total God-thing.”  He goes down to where John is baptizing and is baptized and immediately heaven opens, God’s Spirit descends on him and God’s voice proclaims him as the beloved Son.  The imagery is startling and dramatic.  It’s apocalyptic.

Immediately that same Spirit of God drives him into the wilderness where he is tempted for 40 days and confronts the forces of evil, the Satan himself who is there, along with wild beasts and angels.  The way Mark tells it, almost makes it seem like a dream or vision.

But immediately we are given a scene of Jesus as a man walking beside a lake  in Galilee, meeting ordinary fishermen doing normal fishermen things like net-tending as if it were a normal day – but Mark shows us that it isn’t normal at all.

As he is walking in Galilee he is saying – actually Mark says he is “proclaiming” – “the Good News of God.”

 “Good News” – says the Emperor 

This is strange if you miss the code word(s) “good news”.  If you don’t know the code, you might think Jesus was just proclaiming God – as if God was news to a Palestinian Jewish person!

No, the word(s) “good news” is code for “Public Propaganda Announcement” from the Roman Emperor – like the “O my, how lucky we are to know it” good news of the Roman army conquering yet another pagan European tribe.

If the code for “good news” means public propaganda, Mark shows us Jesus “proclaiming” a message that some people might think is being intentionally provocative, if not subversive, calling it the Propaganda, not of Rome, but of God; the “good news of God.

 Times Up!

Something has happened; events are now in motion in a new way as never before.  The very first words we hear Jesus say are, “The time is

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fulfilled”.  Does this mean “Time’s up”?  Game over?  or does it mean “Time to begin!” “Gentlemen, start your engines?” Or is it a bit of both?  Actually, it’s both.

What event had started the countdown clock?  Mark has just told us John the baptizer had been arrested.  The authorities are getting nervous.  There is tension in this story from the start.

So if the time is fulfilled and the clock is ticking, what should the people who hear the proclamation of the Propaganda of God do now, and why should they do it?

Jesus says,

 “The reign of God has arrived; change your thinking.”  

This is the way it would have sounded like to those Galilean Jewish people to hear:

“The kingdom of God has come near, repent.”

 Josephus says, “Repent and believe in me” 

Change your thinking” is what “repent” literally means.  One time, shortly after Jesus’ days, a man named Josephus who was a Jewish military leader found some troops that were in a plot against him and said to them nearly the same words, “Change your minds!  Trust me.” Meaning change sides and join my unit – the fight’s on. (NT WRight, JVG, 250 cites Jos. Life 110 in LCL)

“Change your thinking” about what?  About everything, because everything is changing now. The time has come; God is doing something new!  The Kingdom of God has come!  “Believe it.”

Now, to a Jewish person, this is a shocking announcement.  To say the word “kingdom” out loud, in public, where you could be heard and reported was risky, to say the least.  To Jewish ears at that time, this sounds like an announcement that the climax to the whole story of Israel has started.  Israel’s dream is coming true right now.” (NT Wright, JVG, 228)

The arrest of John was the catalyst, like the death of that poor man in Tunisia who set himself on fire – the event which started the whole Arab Spring of uprisings.  Now the Propaganda is from God and about God: the Story of Israel has reached its climax.  The Kingdom of God has arrived.  Believe it – rely on it!

 The call is simple

Mark leaves as much out of his story as he puts in.  He shows us Jesus simply walking by the water, coming upon normal fishermen, and,

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in the context of proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come, simply says to them,

 “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

The word “immediately” keeps popping up, giving this story a sense of urgency.    “immediately they left their nets and followed… immediately he called them…”.  The pace is fast.  “John’s been arrested: time is up.  Here we go.  Fall-in. Move out.”

We don’t hear any explanation.  Mark does not tell us anything – not the look on their faces, not their own personal reasons for being so willing to drop everything and fall-in behind Jesus, not what they said to the people they left, almost nothing.

All Mark wants us to know is that they left behind things, important things, and important people, and followed Jesus.  They left their nets, they left their father and his boat and his hired men, and they followed.

 The Vision of the Kingdom

The only reason Mark gives for their motivation to follow Jesus is the vision of the Kingdom of God that Jesus was “proclaiming;” the reign of God; the God-thing; the climax of the story of Israel is happening in Jesus, right now, immediately.

And so they followed.  And so we are called to follow.  We are addressed by Jesus’ words, “Follow me, and I will change what you are fishing for with those nets; I will give you a new quest, one that is profoundly more significant than you have ever been on.”

You’ve been fishermen, in quest of fish; you’ve been after economic security.  You’ve thought your life was defined by family ties and geography.  It’s now going to be about so much more.  It’s going to be about the Kingdom of God.

 The New Fishing Expedition Begins

In other words, Jesus says, You will join me in a whole new fishing expedition; this time, it’s for people.  This is a total God-thing.  This is about God’s quest to find people who desperately need God’s rescue-net.

It will be about lowering the net down for people who are caught up in evil and setting them free from demonic forces.  It will be about lowing down the rescue net for the sick who need health care, and it will even be about holding out a net for untouchable lepers who are being shunned and excluded – and all of this is literally chapter one of Mark’s story of Jesus and the Kingdom.

Follow me” Jesus calls, and I will make you fish for people who are notorious sinners, and even eat at their tables in their homes.

Follow me” and you will see the kind of work that God says is OK to do even on the Sabbath.

All through Mark’s gospel we see Jesus reaching out across boundaries to scoop up people into the net of God’s love.  He crosses gender boundaries, extending God’s healing to women and girls.

He even crosses ethnic boundaries, embracing Romans.  He reaches out to people who are not Jewish, who do not worship Israel’s God, and extending the rescue net to them and their children (for example, the  Gentile woman, of Syrophoenician origin whose daughter had been possessed, Mark 7).

 The New Family

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Do you see what is going on here?  Jesus has brought the Kingdom of God; now it the time: it has started to form.  The Kingdom had formerly been a Jewish thing for the family of Abraham.  Now, however, the definition of the family has been radically expanded.  God has found sons and daughters that he loves and calls his children in places where formerly, we only saw strangers and aliens.

Would it be worth it to leave the safety net of the little world up on the North end of the Lake in Galilee and follow Jesus?  After the disciples who originally left home and followed Jesus had seen Jesus doing all of this for some time, Peter looks around at what he has left and says to Jesus:

 “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” (Mark 10:28 )

Has he not yet made the connection?  Has he not yet seen the point that the family has radically expanded?  Does he not yet understand what all of this fishing for people has been about?  So Jesus answers Peter by saying:

29 “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news,  30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.  

 The Invitation

There are different kinds of people here today.  It’s possible that some here have not yet come to know that God’s love and grace extends to you.  Maybe for whatever reason you have not thought of yourself as part of the family.

If any of us has made you feel like an outsider to God’s love, we repent; we are sorry.  Please forgive us.  Please don’t let us stand in the way.  God loves you and wants you to know yourself as his child.  “Come,” Jesus says, “Follow me.”

 Taking Family for Granted

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Most of us here have probably understood ourselves as part of the family so long we don’t remember it any differently.  To us, Jesus says, “Follow me” by joining my fishing expedition.  To whom do we need to extend the rescue-net?

From time to time we are reminded how blessed we are to live in this county (excuse me for a moment, friends from other countries), like on the Fourth of July or Memorial Day or Thanksgiving.  We don’t live under tyranny; we live in freedom.  Most of the time, however, we are so used to it that we simply take it for granted.  It’s a typical human failing.

But in the same way, we get used to looking around rooms like this one and seeing each other, and recognizing each other as brother and sister in the family of God, as if it’s normal and expected.

 We were the “them” before we were the “us”

Nothing was further from the truth.  In Jesus’ day, we were those European tribes that the Roman army was going around conquering.  We were the pagans wearing animal skins with bones in our noses about whom the Roman emperor would proclaim his “Good News” – his public propaganda of victory when we were subdued and brought into his “civilized” Empire.

We are Gentiles.  We are the kind of people that even Peter had difficulty eating with.  We were the unclean, the untouchables, the outsiders to the family.  We are that extended family that Jesus told Peter he would get after he had left behind his fishing village in Galilee.

But we have been included!  We have been invited into the family.  We have been scooped up in the net of God’s loving embrace.

Now we are the ones who Jesus calls, “Follow me.”  “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

Time is up.

Here we go.

Fall-in.

Move out.

The Kingdom of God has arrived.

Grab the nets, head for the boats.

Get fishing.”

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Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, January 15, 2012, John 1:43-51

Whither, not Whence

John 1:43-51

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43   The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”  44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.  45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”  46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”  47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”  48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”  50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”  51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

We call our community “Gulf Shores” for reasons that are far more clear to me than the reasons they call our neighboring community Orange Beach.  We are clearly on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, so we are “Gulf Shores”; but so far, I have never seen their beaches orange.  (Somebody is probably going to meet me afterwords and start talking about sunsets; but sorry; the sky gets orange, not the beach – not the way I see it anyway).

The Story from the House of Hunting

They call the place where this story in the gospel of John is set “Bethsaida” which means the “house of hunting.”  Back then fishing could be considered a form of hunting too.  Bethsaida is right on the shores of the lake where the disciples went fishing.  It’s at the north end of the fresh water lake that they call the Sea of Galilee.

That would be the territory governed by Herod Phillip, one of the four sons of King Herod the Great.  So we could call the place King Phillip’s House of Hunting.  But that sounds like a dating service so perhaps we shouldn’t.

Hunting and fishing is all about finding.  In this story, set in the House of Hunting, a lot of “finding” is going on.  Jesus finds Phillip – not king Phillip, but just a normal man named Phillip.  Phillip finds Nathanael, and tells him,

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

If hunting and fishing is all about finding, this story is off to a great start.

Hitting a Snag

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But it hits a snag right here.  Nathanael is not so sure.  He can see that their fishing line has something tugging on it, but he’s not sure it’s a fish.

 “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Nowhere in the law of Moses is Nazareth ever mentioned.   In all the talk in the prophets about the future, when God would return to Zion as king, in all of the prophecies of the time when the world would be put to right, when swords would become plowshares and everyone could sit under their own vine and fig tree without fear, Nazareth is never mentioned.  So Nathanael has reasons for his skepticism.

Phillip has the advantage over Nathanael in this discussion, an ace in his hand, so now he plays it.  Phillip has actually met Jesus personally; Nathanael hasn’t yet.  So Phillip plays his card, saying,

“Come and see” 

How Does He Know?

So off they go to see Jesus.  As they approach, Jesus sees them coming.  When they get within speaking distance, Jesus takes the initiative again.  Like a hunter who has found his game without the game knowing he is watching, Jesus says to Nathanael:

“Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 

It’s quite an odd greeting.  Were Israelites typically deceptive but Nathanael is an exception?  Who knows?

Nevertheless, it does make us think about the fact that the original Israelite, the father of the 12 sons who became the 12 tribes, Jacob himself, whose name was changed to Israel, was indeed deceptive.  Jacob was the one who deceived his older brother Esau and stole his blessing as the firstborn, his birthright.  Anyway, Nathanael is not deceptive like his ancestor, says Jesus.

But the point is that saying something like Jesus did implies that Jesus knew him already – knew him well enough to know not just what he actively did, but knew what he didn’t ever do – and you have to know someone pretty well to know that.  Nathanael wonders how this could be possible, since they are meeting for the first time, so he asks Jesus:

 “Where did you get to know me?”

Jesus’ reply shows even more unexpected special knowledge:

 “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

New Conclusions

Now Nathanael is shocked into forgetting the whole Nazareth issue.  He has “come and seen” as Phillip told him to do, and now he gets it.  He jumps to the conclusion that God is at work in a unique way in Jesus.  Maybe he is indeed the long awaited king that is returning to Zion, God’s anointed Son.  Nathanael blurts out:

“Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

Jesus could understand how this special knowledge might be impressive, but he also knows more.  He knows that Nathanael and the other disciples will see even greater things; things that make it clear that being in Jesus’ presence is being in the presence of God.

 “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”  51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” 

Jacob’s Dream

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This reminds us of Nathanael’s ancestor Jacob again.  This time we are remembering that odd dream that he had in which he saw a vision of angels on a two-lane ladder from heaven to earth.  When he woke up, he called the place “Bethel” which means “house of God”  – which of course is a temple.

In the ancient world, temples were thought of as the place where heaven, God’s dwelling place, was connected to earth.  Angels are God’s messengers, so they are coming and going from there, delivering the mail.  In other words, the place where angels come and go is the place where God connects with the earth – the temple.

Jesus is saying that God’s connection to the earth is in himself, and that soon enough, Nathanael will see it happening – like water turned into wine,

people healed, even restored back to life, and all kinds of things.  In fact, the very glory of God will be seen in Jesus, who is, after all, the “word made flesh”  as John has told us in chapter one.

This story about hunting and finding has come to quite an unexpected place for Nathanael.  He first thinks that Phillip hasn’t found anything worth finding, then he thinks he may have found Israel’s true king, but in the end, he is told that he has found the person in whom Israel’s God connects with the earth.

“Follow Me”

What is there left to do except to answer the call that got this whole story started, the call of Jesus:

“Follow me.”

As it turns out, the question is not where did he come from, but rather, where is he going?  Whither? not Whence? as they used to say.

This is exactly our quest: to follow Jesus.  We believe that Jesus is that meeting point of heaven and earth, that finding him – really we should say, being found by him, is exactly what we are are “hunting” in our deepest hearts.  So we are committed to following Jesus.

The Scary Test

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But this brings me to one of the scariest problems I’ve heard of.  It comes from a book written by one of my seminary professors, Scott McKnight.  He teaches a course on Jesus, in which he gives his students a test.   The test asks questions about what Jesus is like – what would he do or not do.  Then the test asks very similar questions about the students themselves.  He says,

The amazing result…is that everyone thinks Jesus is like them!” (The Blue Parakeet,  p. 49)

Instead of becoming more like Jesus, we try to make Jesus like ourselves.  Instead of following Jesus we end up following a mirror of ourselves.  Jesus ends up looking like a middle-class white American whose golf game could use some improvement.

How can we become like Nathanael, people in whom there is no deceit?  Someone once said, “never underestimate the power of denial” – what is denial but self-deception?  If we think that Jesus thinks exactly like us, wants what we want, dislikes what we dislike, we are deceived indeed.

The Teaching Spirit

But how can we ever get past our own personal echo-chambers?  Later in John’s gospel, near the end, this question is going to come up.  The disciples are going to be sharing the last supper with Jesus.  They have been following him during his earthly ministry, but at this point,  they hear him say that he is leaving, returning to the Father. Thomas asks Jesus, “how can we know the way?”  How can we follow Jesus when Jesus is no longer physically present?  Jesus replies:

   “I have said these things to you while I am still with you.  26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14:25-26)

We believe that the Spirit is active in our days, helping us to see how to follow Jesus.  We do our best to study Jesus; we read the gospels and take note of how Jesus lived, who he took time for, how he responded to people, what kind of people he reached out to.  We learn from Jesus.

And as we do, we expect that his Spirit will teach us.  We humans can be slow learners.  It took us a long time to understand his teaching about

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slavery, and a longer time to understand the Spirit’s teaching about women in ministry.

These were hard for us to learn, because we thought Jesus looked just like us, thought like us, wanted what we wanted, which, for us white men, was to stay in control.

Being Uncomfortable

One thing we can see clearly from the gospels is that Jesus was continually pushing people outside their comfort zones.   One test of whether or not we are following Jesus as the Spirit leads us in our days is to ask what topics make us uncomfortable?  What kinds of people do we feel comfortable despising, as if they came from Nazareth?

Following Jesus is not the most comfortable option in our times.

We are living in times in which money justifies just about anything imaginable.

We are living in time in which security justifies just about anything imaginable.

We are living in times in which the idea of staying in fellowship with those who have different opinions seems completely dispensable.

We are living in selfish, angry times.

None of this is of the Spirit.

Rather, the Spirit leads us to follow Jesus, imitate Jesus, emulate Jesus, because in him, we see the meeting point of heaven and earth.  In him, we are truly found.

“Come and see.”

“God’s Plunge”, Baptism of the Lord, Year B, January 8, 2012, Mark 1:4-11

God’s Plunge

Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

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Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. 

Mark 1:4-11

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Our bibles begin with the strange dark picture of a watery world without form: empty; void; chaos.  How did it get there?  How long has it been like that?   We are not told; only that there is nothing there but a deep darkness.

But it is a beginning, because God is beginning to create.  God’s Spirit is there, God’s breath, God’s wind is blowing, and a voice sounds out over the waters from out of nowhere:

“Let there be light!” and there was light.”  

God then separated the light from the darkness: again we wonder, how?  There is no open space of sky that has yet been created, no land has yet been made, no sun yet.  Light without sun?  Separation of light and dark without space between them?  Perhaps we are to think below the surface and see that essential separation of light from darkness as the first step God always takes in creation.

Is the light goodness and the darkness evil?  Is that the essential separation?  Is that what God’s presence does when God creates the conditions for life – distinguishes evil from good?  Without making that difference, between light and darkness, there is only anarchy and chaos.  Life in those conditions cannot be good.  So God begins by creating light, and separating the darkness.

 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.  5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called

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Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

The End like the Beginning

There will be another day, we are told in the book of Revelation, when God will make a new heavens and a new earth.  When that new creation comes, just like on the first day of the first creation, there will be light, without the need of a sun.  No evil will be there anymore.  It will be good again.

But between the first and final creation, there have been many dark nights, and many dark days.

It is “the people who have walked in darkness,” Isaiah said, who finally will “see a great light,” but it has been a long dark walk.

They say the easiest sermons to preach are the ones about how bad the world is.  Once you start thinking about the darkness all around us, the wars, the terrorists, the brutal repressive regimes, the drug gangs, and about the evil that is much closer to us, the unfaithfulness, the deceptions, the cruel words and broken relationships, you can keep up a diatribe that lasts all day.  It has been a long dark walk.

But the God who made the original separation of light from darkness made a world that was essentially good, not evil; and God’s constant desire, ever after, has been to bring goodness out of evil.

So instead of abandoning the world to its darkness, God has found ways to enter the darkness.  God’s Spirit, God’ breath, God’s wind has never been reluctant to blow into dark places.  God has always known that our only hope is that by some means, God must be with us.

God with Israel in Wilderness

God was with the Israelites in the wilderness over many dark years.  They worshiped him at the tabernacle, the tent shrine made of heavy curtains.  It was like a mobile temple that they could set up and take down on their long journey through the wilderness to the Jordan River, the border of the promised land.

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There were curtains that formed the outside edges of the tabernacle, curtains that separated the holy place inside, and another curtain separating the holy of holies.  Behind that last curtain was the ark of the covenant where God’s presence was invisibly enthroned between the wings of the two cherubim.

Solomon’s Temple Curtain

Years later, when Solomon built the permanent temple, it’s walls were solid, except for one: there remained one curtain, the final separation marking the boundary of the holy of holies.

There is something essential and important about God being behind a curtain, and something odd and troublesome.  God is light, and in God there is no darkness at all.  God is holy.  Of course God’s sacred, holiness must be separate from the profane world of human evil and darkness.  That much is essential and important.

God behind a Curtain, or in Heaven

But the God who stays behind a curtain is hardly “with” people in the ultimate sense.  The God behind the curtain is not with them close enough to wipe away tears.  His nearness is oddly out of reach; that much is troublesome.  Perhaps behind the curtain, his light is less illuminating.

The Israelites, of course, understood that God was not contained in the temple.  But the only other way they could think of God was to imagine him up in heaven.  The earthly temple was thought of as a small replica of the heavenly throne-room where God sat as King of the Universe.

The distance between heaven and earth is large, and they felt every inch of it.  The prophet cried out,

“ O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”  (Isaiah 64:1)

Tearing Open the Heavens

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One day God did tear open the heavens and come down.  This is exactly the way Mark describes what happened that day Jesus came to the Jordan river to be baptized.  Listen again to the way Mark describes the scene:

10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 

Into the darkness God’s Spirit again plunges down after tearing open the heavens.  It is a new first day of a new creation.  Again a voice is heard over the waters, announcing what has happened.  God’s Son has been anointed by the Spirit to be Messiah.

God is With us

Now God is with his people – all the way with them.  Not up in the heavens a long way away.  He is all the way in their world with them – soaking wet with the water that they have been baptized in.  He is with them in the water that has washed their sins; he is close enough to wipe tears – close enough to shed tears.  The separation is over.  The distance has been brought near.

Jesus has been anointed by the Spirit for his ministry of announcing the Kingdom of God.  It is not finished yet.  It is like the moment at which the prophet Samuel anointed David as king to replace Saul.  David was anointed but could not take the throne until Saul’s resistance forces had been overcome.

Jesus has been anointed by the Spirit, and now his ministry of overcoming the resistance forces of the evil one has begun.  There are still dark days that remain between the anointing and the final triumph.

How will the victory over darkness be achieved?  The beloved Son of God who began his ministry down in the baptismal waters of our humanity and sinfulness, finally overcomes evil by allowing it to exhaust its dark powers on him.  He finally absorbs all of the evil as he is lifted up on a cross.

Listen as Mark describes that moment:

37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.  38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.  39 Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” 

Another tearing open, another voice of acclamation, and now the final separation has been eliminated.  God is with us.

As the book of Revelation puts it,

“And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with people, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.” (Rev. 21:3)

Baptized with Christ

We have been baptized into Christ, into Messiah.  We have been buried with him by baptism into his death and raised to walk in new life, to walk in

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the light as he is in the light.  We are now to live in communion with him, close enough to let him dry our tears.

And close enough to see his tears.  Close enough to weep with him for the darkness that remains.  Close enough to experience the blessedness of those who mourn for the suffering that darkness causes.

We have been baptized into his ministry to humans, and we have also been anointed with his Spirit.  He is with us here and now, and with us, by his empowering Spirit, as we venture out in services of mercy and compassion.

He is with us as we gather at table.  He is with us in the bread and in the cup, giving himself to us again, by his powerful Spirit.  He is with us as we come to recognize that those feasting with us are indeed members of the body of Christ.

He is with us, sending us out to be the body of Christ in the world.