transfiguring Sabbath

Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Mark 2:23-3:6

I tell you again:
I am regularly struck
by how important these stories of Scripture are—
how vitally relevant,
how needed they are—
in our living and in our world.

I invite you this morning to picture our text as it unfolds.
Initially, we have Jesus walking through a grain-field.
Probably not parting the stalks and walking right through the crop,
but on a footpath.
There weren’t roads.
Romans built what roads there were—
and only between places significant to them.
Elsewhere there were well worn footpaths,
and where a footpath went through a farmer’s field,
he would plough right up to the edge of the path,
leaving the way for people to get through.
You remember the parable
of the sower sowing seed in his field,
and some seed fell on the—path?

So, we’re picturing Jesus
making his way through a grain-field
on a probably fairly narrow footpath
(a farmer’s not going to be overly generous with his land!),
ripe grain probably standing three to four feet high on either side of him—
disciples trailing along behind,
plucking heads of grain presumably to eat—
which was explicitly permitted in the Torah (Deuteronomy 23:25).
You couldn’t gather enough to carry with you.
You couldn’t harvest,
but you could graze your way through a grain-field.

But
we need to pause here in our imaging
to make a quick point about our translation.
Once again it obscures something important going on here.
The Greek vocabulary, the word placement, the sentence structure
(you know these fascinating things!)
are such that our text actually reads:
the disciples were plucking grains and making a way for him.
Not foraging on an existing path,
but forging a new path.

And it’s the same language
Mark used to begin his gospel
quoting Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’”
(Mark 1:3; Isaiah 40:3).

This is the royal imagery of a king,
who in the Jewish tradition
can make a road wherever he wants—
over whomever’s land—
through whomever’s fields and crops.

Now that’s probably not what happened,
you understand.
It’s Mark wanting to make a theological point.

So we have a story about something that happened,
and then we have theological affirmations
Mark saw the opportunity to load onto the story to make his point—
in effect saying more than what happened—
something not about what Jesus did—what the disciples did,
but about what Mark believed about who Jesus was.
Which is fine; it’s fine.
It’s just something to keep in mind.
Scripture isn’t always about what happened.

So we’re back to our image
of Jesus walking
with the disciples behind him
in single file—
maybe two by two—narrow path—
plucking grain.

Then we also have to picture the Pharisees following along behind,
right?
Behind the disciples because they saw what the disciples were doing.

So Jesus in front.
Twelve disciples.
Undisclosed number of Pharisees.
It was a parade through the corn field or the barley or the wheat.

And though I tend to imagine Jesus walking
the height and breadth of the land,
there’s no need to imagine that this Sabbath walk
involved more than the 1000 steps allowed on a Sabbath.
Especially since there were those Pharisees at the tail end.
They wouldn’t, after all, disobey the Sabbath laws.

Now I’m thinking the Pharisees
were probably none too happy to be in a grain-field—
thinking, “This isn’t what I signed up for.”
But they had been assigned the task of keeping an eye on Jesus
to try and catch him in something said or done
that could be used against him.

And they did—
the disciples picking the grain.
Not that there was anything wrong with the picking of grain per se.
It was rather the picking of grain on the Sabbath.

Now in my mind, this gets rather humorous.
Not just the parade through the grain field,
but the Pharisees,
at least twelve people removed from Jesus,
yelling up at him—
past the disciples
about whom they were speaking—
who were between them and Jesus,
“Hey, Jesus! Your disciples are picking grain on the Sabbath!”

And the disciples looking behind them,
at the Pharisees leveling their criticism about them past them,
“What are ya’ll fussing about?”

And Jesus striding on, way ahead,
asking about David.
And notice how he asked about David.
“Have you never read about David?”
Isn’t that like asking if a Latin teacher hadn’t ever read about Plutarch?
Of course they had read about David.
“You remember when David did this?
He and his men were hungry,
and he took the Bread of the Presence—
sacramental bread—holy bread—
bread he wasn’t even supposed to touch,
and he distributed it amongst his hungry men,
and they ate?”

In terms of Mark’s writing,
notice the link made between Jesus as royalty
(his followers making the road before him)
and David as royalty—
both with the power and authority of royalty.
You can see it, right? The theological point.

Not the point.
I mean, it’s a point Mark wants to make,
but the real point is that David ignored religious rules—
religious protocol,
to address the need of his men.
And Jesus claims that right.
Now here’s where it gets a little tricky—
He claims that right not for the need of his disciples.
They weren’t starving.
There were pretty clear understandings
that in life and death situations, Sabbath law could be suspended.
This wasn’t life and death.
This was pleasure.
This was fun.
This was a walk through the field.

Silence from the back of the parade.

And here’s where it gets even trickier.
Because they could have actually responded,
“Well, yes, as a matter of fact, we have read about David,
and we’ve read that particular story to which we think you refer.
But we only think you refer to it
because you’ve actually got it all wrong (1 Samuel 21:1-6).
Abiathar wasn’t the high priest.
There was no high priest in that story.
Ahimelech was just the regular priest.
David was alone in that story, his men weren’t there.
There was no mention of hunger in that story.
David did not enter the house of God,
and the story says nothing about the bread being eaten
(John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrigan, The Gospel of Mark
in Sacrina Pagina [Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2002] 111).

Jesus got the Scripture wrong?

Why didn’t the Pharisees call him on it?
Such was the authority of Jesus?
So focused on Jesus were they,
that they were utterly befuddled?

Jesus got the Scripture wrong?

Now he wasn’t making things up.
No, it’s all implied in that story in 1 Samuel.
Why else would David take bread but to eat it.
And he mentions his men even if they’re not there.
But it’s not the letter of the story that’s important to Jesus—
it’s not important who the priest was.
It’s what’s not said but assumed that’s important—
that even the priest acknowledged the importance of David’s need
over the sanctity of the bread.
Scripture isn’t always about what happened.

And I’m guessing there was a pause.
I’m guess Jesus was waiting.
“Are they going to let me by with this?
Okay. They’re not going to challenge me
on this scripture retelling.”
And he went on walking and talking,
“The Sabbath was made for humankind,
not vice versa.”
My guess is if they had challenged him on the Scripture
(as he just about blatantly invited them to do),
he would have gotten to his point of affirming that the Sabbath is for humankind
by way of affirming the same about Scripture.
Scripture is for humankind,
not vice versa.
“And so the son of man is lord of the Sabbath.”

Religion is made for people, not vice versa.
We still get that confused.

That bit about the son of man being lord of the Sabbath?
Again, not the point.
A point—
a christological affirmation of power and authority probably added by Mark.
But it’s added on to what Jesus was talking about—
celebrating creation can be a good part of celebrating Sabbath.

Here’s the thing—
the mind bender for the day:
the Pharisees were actually reacting to what Mark said happened
that didn’t happen,
that was nonetheless true.
I’ll say that again.
The Pharisees were actually reacting to what Mark said happened
that didn’t happen,
that was nonetheless true.
They were reacting to a path being made for a king.
They were reacting to that kind of authority given to Jesus.

And Jesus confirms their concern
by claiming authority to prioritize people over religion.
“You’re right to be worried about me
if you’re more worried about the letter of the word
than the word made flesh.
You’re right!”

Here’s the other thing:
that’s not just a Jesus thing! That’s not just a Jesus truth.
We need more people prioritizing people over religion—
and explicitly because that’s what their religion teaches them to do.
Imagine the power in our world
of people saying, “My religion teaches me
that my religion isn’t as important as you are.”

Which brings us to our second story.
The scene switches to the synagogue.
It’s still the Sabbath
(or maybe it’s another Sabbath).
Mark strung these stories together, remember—
maybe not chronologically, but thematically.

Our second story begins Jesus again entering the synagogue.
Again?
So maybe he had been in the synagogue,
left for a quick walk through the grain-fields,
and was now back?
Maybe.
Or is this could be indication of the regularity of Jesus entering synagogues?
Maybe.
Or maybe what we’re to hear is again,
another question about Sabbath from the Pharisees—
again another confrontation about Sabbath expectations.

Because a man was there with a withered hand.
And the Pharisees watched him to see if he would cure him on the Sabbath
so they might accuse him.
They’re focused on Jesus
in order to accuse him.
That’s what our text says—
which is in keeping with them following Jesus through the fields—
in keeping with the regular confrontations throughout these chapters—
which is to say that technically the Pharisees were doing their job—
which is to say technically they were not honoring the Sabbath!
They were intentionally focused on Jesus, not on God.
Now take just a second to think about the theological irony there!

Obviously aware of the Pharisees (and their questions/concerns/plans),
he asked them, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath?”
Silence.
And he looked at them with anger
grieving their hardness of heart.
He was angry at them;
that’s important.
But his anger came from grief;
that’s important too.
Much more recently Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote,
“The ancient rabbis knew that excessive piety
may endanger the fulfillment of the essence of the law”
(Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath:
Its Meaning for Modern Man
[New York: The Noonday Press,1951] 17).
Jesus, of course, being one of those ancient rabbis!

For these Pharisees in this story
were more interested in the law as a trap
than they were in honoring the law—
whatever they might have said in the way of justification.
And so they were more interested in the law as a trap for Jesus
than they were in the need of this man
whom they never saw
as anything except means to an end—
using the challenging reality of his existence
as their weapon.
They never saw the man.
They just saw how they could use him.

Jesus though, saw the man—
facing life with his own set of challenging circumstances.
And his understanding of the law did not forbid him to help;
it expected him to.

He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand,”
and as the man did, his hand was restored.
Technically Jesus didn’t do anything the Pharisees could object to.
He just talked.
There weren’t any rules about not talking on the Sabbath.

But the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired
with the Herodians against him
how to destroy him.
Now that sounds like a really appropriate Sabbath focus to me doesn’t it to you?
More evidence of their priorities.
Herodians were those invested in the secular power of Herod.
Normally Pharisees and Herodians would have kept worlds apart—
focused on what each felt most important.

So we note there were unusual alliances.
We have these unusual alliances
within the ranks of those who followed Jesus
(consider the zealot and the tax collector),
and we have these unusual alliances
in opposition to Jesus
(Pharisees and Herodians).

Which leads to this significant question:
what’s important enough to bind us together
despite our significant differences?
What binds us as a church together despite significant differences?
What binds churches together despite significant differences?
What binds the people of God together despite significant differences?
I wish we could answer that.

What do you think Jesus saw when he looked at the Pharisees?
Because he saw them, didn’t he?
He saw the man, right, and his withered hand?
I think when he looked at the Pharisees
he saw men who had allowed grace to wither—
who in prioritizing the letter of the law
had let the spirit wither.

Now, our stories in no way comprise a rejection of Judaism—
nor even of Pharisees per se,
but the mentality of absolutism—
of dualism—of certainty,
and the prioritization of being right—
of religion as control—
as system—
as ideas—
not relationships.

We’re not talking about devaluing Sabbath.
And the ancient rabbi would agree with the more modern one.
“What we are depends on what the Sabbath is to us”
writes Heschel (Heschel, 89).
“What we are depends on what the Sabbath is to us.”
“Yes. Precisely,” I think Jesus would have said.

Sabbath and religion and scripture are all to be seen
transfigured into light and love.

So important these days.
There are too many people prioritizing religion
over what religion is supposed to help us be and accomplish.
Too many people judging on the basis of religion
instead of loving as an expression of their religion.
Using religion as means to some end as a weapon.
Not seeing the hurting people in front of them
in desperate need of gospel—good news—
in desperate need of words of grace and truth.

I’m not saying religion isn’t important.

It’s like children need structure
to be comfortable—
to feel safe and secure
as they grow.
And then they also need to resist it
in order to grow.
And, growing, they will question the structure,
the rules, the expectations—
all for the good.

Because we want them to take what is right
and reject what is not.
We want them to assess and discern for themselves.

We want them to move from external motivation
to internal.

But it’s a process.
It’s sequential
and consequential,

and comprises one of the most challenging tensions of parenting.

As Dawn Baker has many a time said,
“When your child is running through the busy parking lot,
and you yell, ‘Stop!’,
you really don’t want an argument.
It’s not the time or place to affirm the child’s autonomy—
the child’s independent spirit.
You want and you need to be obeyed,
so then when they’re older, as they grow,
they assess the rules, they assess the context,
and they can choose for themselves
not to run through the busy parking lot
when you’re not there to watch them.

Our stories are in no way to reject our need for Sabbath.
We need it far more than we celebrate it.
“What would be a world without Sabbath?
It would be a world that knew only itself
or God distorted as a thing
or the abyss separating Him from the world;
a world without the vision of a window in eternity
that opens into time” (Heschel, 16).

We so need Sabbath.
You so need Sabbath—
contemplative time—
reflective time.
We so need what is not valued in our world and our culture—
of go go go do do do.
We need to be removed;
we need isolation;
we need solitude;
we need sabbath;
we need rest.

It’s not about being tired—
though it’s that too.
It’s about competing priorities;
it’s about peace and wholeness and holiness;
it’s about recognizing limitations
and then transcending them
in affirming them.

It’s about obedience
to the spirit
that begins with the letter but cannot end there.

Sabbath—
it’s about rest.
Well, you circle round again.
It’s about depth.
Circle round again.
It’s about setting apart and being set apart.
Circle round again.
It’s about transcendence.
Circle round again.
It’s about us and the way we live our lives given transcendence.
Circle round again.
It’s about peace within that challenge.
Circle round again.
It’s about how we see people—
see the people in front of us and care for them.
Circle round again.
It’s about God.

Thanks be to God.

sometimes, we only know to sigh

Sometimes, God,
we only know to sigh—
sighs too deep for words—
gratefully remembering
You know.
You know the bent to violence.
You know the hate—
the horizons of living drawn in so close
in fear.
You know the rigid adherence
to certainty and being right
that preclude grace and trust and wonder.
You know the pettiness—the selfishness.

So You know grief.

You know the worst of the world
and yet,
You do not allow
Yourself to be defined by it—
nor to be defined against it.
You love.
Always.
All.
And so always extend all the possibilities
of redemption.
We sigh,
amen.

we pray, our God, not because

We pray, our God, not because it’s something we have to do,
but because it’s something that has to do with who we are,
not because we believe we can thus change what is,
but because we believe we thus express our trust in who is,
not because we believe in magic transforming circumstance,
but because we believe in presence transforming us through circumstance,
So we pray by grace with faith in community.
We pray through trust in relationship with courage.
We pray with assurance in hope through love, amen.

we pray You

We pray, our God,

in the midst of all our circumstance—
and in the world as it is,
we pray hope.
We pray health.
We pray wholeness.
We pray blessing.

We pray depth.
We pray truth.
We pray growth.

We pray forgiveness.
We pray reconciliation.
We pray transformation.
We pray commitment.
We pray persistence.
We pray consistency.

We pray grace.
We pray love.
We pray You,

in Your name,
Amen.

to mount up with wings like eagles

Isaiah 40:21-31

So working on the bulletin this week,
I googled “mount up on wings like eagles, images”—
looking for something to put on the bulletin cover.
And guess what popped up?
Well, the text, of course, typically in calligraphy.
And then, without exception,
beautiful pictures of majestic, powerful, soaring
bald eagles—
magnificent birds.
I’ve admired them in the Colorado mountains
and from the shores of the Choptank at Lillian’s farmhouse.
We saw one in a field east of here on our way back from a soccer tournament.
I can’t remember if we were on Glen Arm Road or Long Green Pike.

Here’s the thing.
Bald eagles have never existed in Palestine.
Golden eagles, yes.
Bald eagles, no.
Our national bird though. Our national animal.
And I know most of you don’t associate this verse with our country—
with any kind of triumphal chosenness,
but I tell you true,
there are many in this country who do.

And sure enough, there’s an all organic cotton classic t-shirt
from American Apparel for $23.95—
along with posters, coffee mugs, embroidery,
iPad cases, iPhone cases, mousepads,
refrigerator magnets, keychains, postcards, shipping labels,
jigsaw puzzles, canvas bags, neckties, sweatshirts, stickers—
and that’s on just the first two of 63 pages!
All with bald eagles and Isaiah 40:31.
You can get a similar t-shirt for $17.99 from Christian Apparel.
I started wondering what Christian Apparel might be.
Pre-washed?
If you order a shirt, you get a coat too?
Which got me to wondering if American Apparel is, in fact, made in the USA.
Which eventually reminded me to get back to the sermon.

So within all the familiarity,
and all the familiar claimed and commercialized—nationalized—
what do we even still hear in the words of Isaiah?

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?”
Get the order? Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Because yes, I’ve heard, but that doesn’t always mean I know.

I’ve told you the story before,
that furlough we were in Tennessee,
missionaries in residence at First Baptist.
I was in seventh grade, and I so wanted to believe.
My sister had already been baptized—
my younger sister. That was part of it.
And in church one Sunday, every head bowed, every eye closed,
one of the ministers said, “If you want to accept Jesus as Savior—
if you want to, raise your hand.” And I did.
“If you believe Jesus saves, leave your hand up.”
And I left my hand up.
I wanted to believe,
and I did believe that Jesus saved.
“Then John Ballenger, come on down,
you are the next believer on The Price of Salvation Is Right!”
Not really.
And I really don’t mean to mock that church or those people.
It was a good place to be. Good people.
But there was a profound disconnect
not acknowledged there for me
between what I did believe,
what I wanted to believe,
and what I could not believe.

So, yes, I’ve heard God is creator.
Yes, I’ve heard God is all powerful.
Yes, I’ve heard the stories.
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Yes. I was born into a preacher’s home.
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
See there’s that disconnect again!
Yes, it’s been told to me. Yes, I’ve heard.
But no, I don’t understand. I don’t know.

It’s almost like our poet’s assumed the logic of politicians:
if I say it enough, surely it’s true.
If I repeat it enough—if people hear it enough,
surely everyone will understand.
It doesn’t work that way!
Well, it doesn’t work that way for me.
It apparently does for more than I would have thought!
So I tell you, just to be clear,
worship here at Woodbrook is not about
beliefs and doctrines repeated over and over and over again—
affirmations made over and over again—
it’s not about a story told over and over again
in the hope and the belief that repetition
will lead to understanding and knowledge of God.
Worship here is rather about a story told and retold
and reframed and reimagined and reimaged
because we hope and we believe that reiterations of that story
might allow us to recognize that story in our living
and then claim it for ourselves.

Now it did occur to me,
thinking about hearing and knowing,
and then thinking about creation and creator—
because that’s how the text goes on—
it did occur to me that God spoke and all was created.
For God to be heard was and is for creation to exist.
So in some respect, to hear God is to know all that is, right?
Which is actually less interesting to me
than wondering about the possibility of the inverse.
To know all that is, is to hear God.
Is that true?
Hmmm.

Can we hear the prophet asking us, “In what you’ve known—
in what you know, have you not heard God?”
Now that’s interesting!

Notice, by the way, the three occurrences of “have you not”.
A negative question expressing a certain wonder—
I can’t believe you haven’t heard God!
Not arrogantly or self-righteously dismissive, I don’t believe,
but honestly incredulous and ultimately hopeful.

Then we have three positive affirmations:
God sits above the circle of the earth,
stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
spreads them like a tent to live in.
God brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

The first two affirmations concern the power and the authority
of God as creator—
God as maker of the heavens—maker of the stars—
significant in Babylon, that city of star-gazers and worshippers.
The third affirmation though,
is about God as unmaker of princes and rulers—
and that in the capital city of successful, powerful empire—
which makes our text explicitly political as well as pastoral—
provocative—challenging.
Have you not heard?
Do you not know?

There follow three occurrences of the word “scarcely,”
each emphasizing the fleeting nature
of those princes and the rulers of the earth—
their kingdoms and empires—their power.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
God blows upon them, and they wither,
and the wind blows them away like dust.

Notice the passivity of earthly power compared to God’s activity—
their responsiveness to God’s initiative.
Who’s in charge? Who’s in control?
Who’s not?

And again, imagine these words offered in the heart of the empire—
words of resistance—words of rebellion.
May the force be with you!
And you hear (how can you not hear?) the implicit exhortation:
consider your allegiance.
To whom do you make it? To what?
Is it worth it? Is it worthy of it?

So in the city of empire,
the power of empire is dismissed
in comparison to Creator God.
What is military power?
What is this economic prosperity you think is such a big deal?
What is victory? What is conquest?

To whom will you compare me,
who is my equal? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see.

Nice—nice writing, by the way.
Are we going to look up on high to see God’s equal?
We look up to the stars, worshipped in Babylon,
only to hear the prophet go on,
who created these?
These are all subordinate to the one who made them—
the one who brings out their host and numbers them,
who calls them all by name.
Because that one is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.

Now there’s a claim!
Within the vastness of the night sky—
so much more impressive back then before all our light pollution—
reclaimed in some of the Hubble pictures
I’m sure you’ve seen.
Not one of those stars goes unnamed.
Not one goes missing

So why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“I feel like I’m hidden from God.
I don’t feel like God cares about me”?

Why do they say that?
Why do we say that?
Because that’s the way we feel.
Don’t you know they felt unknown—
unnamed—missing—
hidden—disregarded—
overwhelmed—controlled—
manipulated by the very power
the prophet so casually dismisses,
and unable to see God confronting that power on their behalf.

Again, none of this should be read, in any way, dismissively,
but pastorally—
caringly—
reassuringly—
hopefully.

In what you know—
even your aloneness, your exile, your fear,
have you not known God?
In what you hear
in the world around you—
in the depths of your being—
in your own questions and doubts and frustrations,
have you not heard God?
For God is there.

The Lord is the everlasting God,
Creator of the ends of the earth.
God does not faint or grow weary;
God’s understanding? Unsearchable.
God gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.

All those stories you’ve heard of old?
Those stories of God as creator? God as redeemer? God as sustainer?
They’re still happening—
still unfolding.
Creator God is still creating,
and creating within the chaos of your own living—
creating possibility—creating hope—
the power and strength to endure—
to persist.

We are reiterations of the ancient stories
that we tell to help us recognize just what story’s still going on—
all around us and within us.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?

Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and never fall weary,
walk and never grow faint.

Now whom does the prophet address here?

Many of you will know (or recognize when I start reading)
the sonnet, “High Flight,” written by the pilot, John Magee,
who was actually raised in the anglican church

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth,
and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds,
and done a hundred things You have not dreamed of —
wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence.
Hovering there, I’ve chased the shouting wind along,
and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
where never lark, or even eagle, flew;
and, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
the high untrespassed sanctity of space,
put out my hand and touched the face of God.”

I think that’s precisely what is meant here in our text.
But it is also precisely not to whom these words are addressed.
These are not words written to a trained pilot
who knows these feelings from his own experience—
who has climbed and soared and hovered and seen—
who anticipates what he has known.

These are words addressed
precisely to people who don’t know such experiences—
who imagine them—
who dream them—
written precisely to earth-bound people
who have no basis from which to understand what they’re hearing.
They’re written for a captive people—a people in exile—
a broken-hearted people—aching—
so far from feeling young—
so far from feeling energetic—
so weary—
fainting in in their living—
fainting in their believing—
fainting their hoping—
fainting in their trusting.

“The concluding verses state a drastic … either/or,”
writes Walter Brueggemann.
“Either folk will be faint, weary, and exhausted
indeed even youths ….
Or those who hope and wait and expect Yahweh
will have strength to fly, to run, to walk
with no weariness or fainting.
Yahweh is the single variable
either weakness or Yahweh”
(Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66
[Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998] 27).

Do we believe that?

How is this not just words?
How is this real? How is this true?

So, first, there’s nothing “just” about words.
Right? They’re “just” words.
Words created all that is.
Words continue to create.
Words are how we take shape
and shape our place in the world.
We believe in words made flesh—
then and now—
words that shape relationship
and possibility.
We believe in words of truth—
words that name what is,
and we believe in words that build up—
that raise up—
that soar,
and create, in their being shared
and in their being heard, the possibility of dreaming—
of hoping.
That’s first. There’s no “just” to words—”just” words.

And second, I know we’re not in exile—
a captive people in a foreign land,
but you talk to just about anyone.
We are weary.
We are wary of promises of rest and energy.
We fall to bed exhausted.
We wake up not rested.
We’re over scheduled.
We’re over booked.

Many of us have watched our children
after church on a Sunday morning, running—
after supper on a Wednesday night, running—
running through the facilities,
and after saying, “Stop running!”
added, “What I wouldn’t give for just a little bit of that energy!”
And sometimes more materialistically—capitalistically,
“Boy, if we could bottle and market that!”

So what do words offering the promise of soaring exhilaration—
of joy and refreshment mean
for us us today as to them so long ago?
How are they true? How are they real?

Well, for us, I guess—I hope,
they can serve as reminder of “those moments.”
Because there are “those moments.”
There are church moments of community and conversation.
Whether those are in here—in this room—
in the dark everyone holding candles in a big circle singing “Silent Night”—
everyone here in a line down the center aisle
to receive the sign of the cross in ashes on their foreheads—
sitting here watching someone be baptized—
remembering the saints.
Or in Fellowship Hall: eating together, praying together, sharing life.
In a Sunday School room,
in a hospital room, a funeral home,
in Kentucky, on the Eastern Shore.
There are those moments.

There are those moments when the Bible illuminates.
And you see, sometimes just for a moment,
so much more than you had before.
Or you catch a glimpse of how much more there is to see.
Like those moments you catch a glimpse of someone
in an unguarded moment, often a vulnerable moment,
and you realize whether you really like them or not
how much you love them.
There are such moments.
I hope you’re now thinking of some you’ve known.

So I certainly don’t mean to dismiss—deny—
downplay—ignore—
the straightforward imagery of our text—
the promise of transcendent moments.
But when I remember the context—
the exiles—
the captives,
I would also say this:
sometimes it takes that kind of word power—
that kind of image energy,
not to feel exhilarated—
not to feel like gliding above the clouds,
but just to make it through the day—
just to keep your head above water.

You mean this is just exaggeration?
No.
I mean it’s the assurance required for the moment—
the assurance and reassurance needed in the moment for the moment—
the reminder of transcendence
which we sometimes need not to transcend,
but to survive—
not to soar, but to limp.

I know of a ninth grade girl
who woke up one day with compromised vision.
Doctors could not figure out what was going on.
They could not figure out what had caused this.
They could not figure out what to do about it.
The best they could offer her was this:
“Maybe one day you’ll wake up
and everything will have gone back to normal.”
So she has to live with this terribly challenging condition
as if it will never change,
hoping every day she wakes up that it will have.
Now you can’t do that
without having both a stark acknowledgment of what is
and a transcendent vision of hope.

Who knows what Jesus was thinking in Gethsemane—
sweating blood—grieving—praying for an alternative way.
We know he knew Isaiah.
What if it was these verses—
not in triumphant glory—
“I’m going to soar right out of here—right out of this.”
But in the committed, “Nevertheless, thy will.”
Nothing soaring about that “nevertheless,”
but who has ever flown higher?

Maybe today you soar.
I hope so.
And maybe you even want a t-shirt!
It won’t get the fullness of your experience,
but I’ve got a Bar Harbor t-shirt that doesn’t either!
I would encourage you to try and find one with a golden eagle on it!
Perhaps more often though, it’s not about reading scripture
and thinking, “Oh, yes. I know this. I experience this.”
As much as reading and wishing—
reading and dreaming—
reading and hoping—
reading and thinking, maybe one day,
and getting through this day
with a modicum more grace—
not having given up on love.
And that’s really nothing that could go on a t-shirt.
It’s nothing of which to make a product,
but words—images—assurances
with which to maintain a faith.

let there be grace

Jonah 3:1-10

It’s such a familiar story
with the word of the Lord coming to Jonah son of Amittai,
saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city,
and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me’
(Jonah 1:1-2).
It’s actually, though not translated that way, a threefold imperative:
rise (get up), go, and then call out (proclaim).

Now did Jonah do that?
Do what God commanded?
No.
What did Jonah do?
Well, he did get up.
He obeyed the first command,
but then he ran away—
sailed away.
And why?
He didn’t want to go to Niniveh.
Why not?
Because they were the great enemy.
Yes.
They were the great enemy,
but it wasn’t fear for his life—
for his safety that motivated him to run away.
They were the great enemy,
but neither was it the fear that, were he to go,
his facebook page would crash
from the number of vile comments
questioning his patriotism, his faith, his sanity, his God.
No, they were the great enemy,
and he was afraid God loved them too.

Now we won’t find that out until later,
but later, Jonah will explicitly say,
“O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?
That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning;
for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2b).
So he ran away.
Ran away from love extended to others—
ran away from love extended to them
ran away from a story too big for him to accept.

Now could he escape God?
No. Of course not.
And there’s the whole thrown-overboard,
swallowed-by-the-great-fish part of the story—
the three days and three nights in the belly of the fish—
the psalm prayed from the belly of the fish—
the being spewed forth onto dry land from the belly of the fish.

And so it is, with today’s text, already well into the story,
we begin again—
with essentially a repetition of Jonah 1:1—
except Jonah’s father’s name isn’t repeated,
and the phrase “a second time” is added.
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time,
saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city,
and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’”
Again that three-fold imperative:
arise (get up), go, and call—proclaim.
Literally, God says, “call to her the calling I am wording to you”
(Phyllis Trible, The Book of Jonah: Introduction, Commentary,
and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VII
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1996] 510).

It’s also true that chapter one, verse two
stresses preaching against the city—stresses the wickedness of Niniveh,
while the second command, chapter three, verse two
stresses preaching to the city and stresses Yahweh’s message—
not the wickedness of the city
(James D. Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve
Hosea-Jonah
in Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2011] 438).
Now whether that’s a change in God,
or a change in what Jonah hears listening to God,
we can all consider.
Just let that simmer.

So this second time, Jonah was told to get up,
and Jonah got up. (He did that the last time, too.)
And Jonah was told to go to Niniveh,
and Jonah went to Niniveh. (That’s new; he didn’t do that last time.)
And Jonah did all this according to the word of God.
The repetition of the phrase “the word of the Lord” in verses one and three
creates an inclusio—a set of parentheses—
within which God’s word is first relayed and then obeyed—
at least the first two of the three commands are.
What about that third one—to call out—to proclaim?
Well, we have to wonder about that one.
Something else to consider—to let simmer.

Niniveh, we are told, was an exceedingly large city.
That’s how our translation reads: “an exceedingly large city.”
You want to know how the Hebrew actually reads?
“A city great to God!”

I trust you’re noticing over time
how often our translations shortchange or even totally fail us.
Makes you question taking translations literally, don’t you think?
Makes you question taking them at face value.

So Niniveh, the city representing the great enemy of Israel,
was a city great to God—a city important to God—
consider that!
And so big it took three days to walk through it.
Now that’s just ridiculous!
Nineveh was certainly not an insignificant city,
but it wasn’t the capital of Assyria at the presumed time of Jonah.
Nor was it as big as it was going to get—
with eventually an archeologically verified circumference
of seven and three quarter miles—
which is big,
but with an average day’s walk comprising
somewhere between 20 and 25 miles,
three days would mean somewhere between 60 and 75 miles.
Y’all ready for this?:
circumference equals diameter multiplied by pi. Remember that?
So a diameter of between 60 and 75
would mean a circumference of between 189 and 236 miles.
Baltimore’s beltway is 51 1/2 miles.
Washington’s is 64 miles—as is Atlanta’s perimeter.
This isn’t truth. And it isn’t just exaggeration. This is ridiculous.

Now how much ridiculousness does it take
before you begin to acknowledge it?
So looking back do we now say:
swallowed by a giant fish and alive in the belly of that giant fish
three days and three nights? Ridiculous!
That’s Pinocchio! That’s a fairy tale.
Just consider it, okay? Consider it ridiculous. Let that simmer.

Jonah walked one day into the city.
Now it’s not about distance, right?
So it’s rather about a not even half-hearted venture into the city.
Whereupon he did, in fact, call out
(the third part of the commissioning—the third imperative)—
he did call out in in apparent obedience to God’s command,
but outside that inclusio formed by the word of God—
the inclusio that included obedience to the first two commands.
This proclamation was outside that obedience,
and consisted of only five words—
y’all would probably love a five word sermon!
Five words that it’s very hard to believe, in light of this story,
would be the calling God worded for him.

Within those five words, there’s nothing like “this is the word of God”—
no “thus says God”—
no kind of prophetic formula whatsoever.
Nothing about repentance.
Nothing about the possibility of redemption.
And there’s nothing in those five words about God either—at all.
Just: “within or after 40 days, destruction.”

But the Ninivites, we read, believed God!—
the God unmentioned by Jonah!
Something we wouldn’t know in even the best translation
is that the verb “believed” (the Ninivites “believed”)
has the same root as the name of Jonah’s father,
whose name means “belief” (Jonah 1:1).

Now one scholar I read made the point
that the Ninivites didn’t believe Yahweh.
She points out it reads they believed Elohim
which she suggests is “a generic term for god
rather than the particular Israelite name”
(Trible, 513).
My theory is sometimes scholars think they have something
and then they go with it even if it doesn’t make much sense!
Preachers do that too!
Elohim is the most common Hebrew term for God/god
(Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, general ed., The New Interpreter’s
Dictionary of the Bible, Volume 2
[Nashville: Abingdon, 2007] 248)

But that did lead me into further word study,
And I know that y’all are all rejoicing inside.
You’re just not showing it!
But you’re rejoicing inside
because we’re going to do a word study!
Basically in the first chapter,
there are 12 references to Yahweh and five to Elohim,
but two of those occurrences of Elohim do not refer specifically to God
(Jonah 1:6 the captain asking Jonah about his god
not knowing who that God was).
One other occurrence of Elohim is used in conjunction with Yahweh—
as in Yahweh Elohim—the Lord God.
So in the first chapter, Elohim is only used once for God by itself—
compared to Yahweh’s twelve references.
In the second chapter, Yahweh is used six times,
Elohim twice, but only in conjunction with Yahweh—
so not once used by itself to refer to God.
Then in our chapter, Yahweh is used twice at the beginning
(the word of the Lord forming that inclusio).
After that, it’s all Elohim in the mouths of the Ninivites.
Let it simmer.
The fourth chapter, if you’re interested,
reverts back to the predominant use of Yahweh.

We’ll let that simmer too,
but I think it is legitimate to suggest that the Ninivites
were not in relationship with the Lord—were not converted.
They did not know the Lord as Jonah did—
as even the sailors did (since Jonah did mention Yahweh to them,
and they did refer to God as Yahweh)—
not the Ninivites.

And yet the people of Niniveh responded immediately—
no sense whatsoever that they had 40 days.
They act like the destruction’s imminent—
tomorrow or later today!
They proclaimed a fast,
and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When the king heard about all this
(somehow the last to hear?!),
he removed his robe,
he covered himself in sackcloth, and he sat in ashes.
Then he had a proclamation made in Niniveh
that there would be no tasting—
that meant no eating
that meant no drinking
(you weren’t allowed to taste)—
anyone—no one in Niniveh—
human or animal—of the herds or the flocks.
He proclaimed that all humans and animals would wear sackcloth
and would all cry mightily to God
turning from their evil ways and the violence in their hands.

So see I have to wonder if there’s some suggestion
that to do evil and to hold violence in your hand
means your destruction is at hand?
More for the simmering!

But basically, the king issued a redundant proclamation—
ordering the people to do just what the people were already doing.
He just added the animals, the herds and flocks—
which—I mean, I’m thinking—ridiculous—again, right? Are you?

And yes, I’ve heard and read that this was all to indicate
the absolute seriousness—indeed the desperation
with which Niniveh received Jonah’s news.
The absolute seriousness? Seriously?
After the whole alive in the belly of a fish three days and three nights?
After the city big enough it would take three days to walk through—
a city bigger than Baltimore, Washington and Atlanta put together?!
After babies in sackcloth diapers?
(I’ll just bet they were crying mightily out to God!)
And cows and oxen and goats and sheep
coated with ashes, wrapped in sackcloth? Seriously?

It’s all exaggerated.
It’s extreme—it’s ridiculous—
it’s cartoonish—buffoonish—absurd—hilarious.

“Who knows,” says the king, “God may relent.
God may change God’s mind—
turn from fierce anger, so we do not perish.”

When the biblically literate person heard or read this—
that bit about how God might relent and change God’s mind—
turn from fierce anger, so that we do not perish,
well, there’s all kinds of significant resonance with Joel—
a prophetic word addressed
to the people of Judah, the people of God.
And in Joel, Yahweh asks for fasting—for a returning to God—
who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger,
abounding in steadfast love. Sound familiar?
And who knows if God will turn and relent. Familiar?
Put on sackcloth—sanctify a fast.
Even this—
how the animals groan—even the wild animals cry to you
(Joel 2:12-14; 1:13-14, 18, 20).
Isn’t that fascinating?
And in Joel, after we’re told the people of God,
were invited to repent,
we’re not told if they do—
just like Jonah!
We’re going to let that simmer too.

That’s an important “who knows,” by the way.
Who knows, God may relent.
“Who knows” keeps this from being manipulative.
This is not cause and effect.
This is hope and grace.

When God saw this,
God did change God’s mind about the calamity …
hmm. Elsewhere that word is translated evil.
God changed God’s mind about the evil—
the doom—the judgment that God was going to bring.
And God did not.

Now you remember Jonah’s five word proclamation
foretelling destruction?
The word translated “destruction” or “overthrown”—
well, it can mean that. It can.
It can also mean “turn”—
and it can be associated with deliverance!
From Deuteronomy: Yet … the Lord your God
turned the curse into a blessing for you,
because the Lord your God loved you
(Deuteronomy 23:5).
From Jeremiah: I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow
(Jeremiah 31:13).
The word Jonah proclaimed as threat—
as destruction—
“overturns itself; it holds countermeanings”
(Trible, 512).
Isn’t that marvelously rich?

So do you hear it?
Not evangelistic affirmation that the enemy was converted.
No, no, no. What I hear is that these Ninivites
were more children of the faith of Jonah’s fathers than Jonah was—
even if they did call God by another name.
Preach that church!
Preach that!
God cares more about a contrite heart than about what people call God.
God cares more about evil rejected and violence renounced
than the words of religion.

A lot simmering, isn’t there?
So considering all we’ve got to consider—
what all we have simmering—

the ridiculous doesn’t mean the meaningless, does it?
Because here’s the thing: we don’t question the ridiculous.
We don’t question what we know doesn’t make sense.
And this story’s not about the parts we accept but don’t believe.
It’s not about the man in the fish, the immense city, the five word sermon.
It’s about the parts we don’t want to accept but can’t not believe:
that a prophet, that a child of God, that the son of belief doesn’t believe.
It’s like the players in Hamlet:
“the play’s the thing to uncover the conscience of the king.”
The make believe (ha!) reveals who does and who doesn’t believe.

Because believing is not about claiming God,
believing is about being claimed by God.
And because it’s a terrible thing to fall into the hands of love—
to realize there is no one excluded.
There is no them; there is no one to blame;
there is no one to mock; there is no one to reject;
there is no one to whom to feel superior.

This is not the story of a city that changes,
but about one person who may or may not change.
It’s not about the enemy,
but about whether the children of God can love the enemy.
It’s not about them, it’s about us.
It’s not about “the extent of God’s grace,” as is often claimed
(Nogalski, 413)—
that’s a given!
It’s rather about the faithfulness (or the lack thereof)
of those who claim God’s grace as theirs—
that foolishness of the world’s that is God’s wisdom—
the foolishness of loving the enemy.
Given the extent of God’s grace—
given the extent of God’s love,
when God loves them—when God loves all of them,
will we celebrate, or will we sulk?
Will we share or will we hoard?
Do we proclaim God’s love to others
or claim God’s love all for ourselves?

Niniveh, you see, is just across the river from Mosul,
a city now controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
It remains a city great to God—
its people beloved of God.
And while we pray most earnestly
for their rejection of evil—for their rejection of violence,
the question Jonah raises is what we do—
when beyond ridiculous absolutes—
beyond stark divisions into us and them,
God reminds us they are my wayward but beloved too.
The question we hear God asking is this:
do we reject evil?
Do we put down the violence in our hands and in our hearts?

And maybe we hear God saying this:
it’s destroying not only you—
but me—
who I revealed myself to be in the world—
what I taught—
who and what I entrusted to you.

Don’t cheapen my dream by what you deem reasonable!
The dream instilled in my people
has always been a non-violent alternative
to any smallness of vision
that invests in what is only part of the whole—
has always been a surprising wholeness—
a challenging integration—
seen by eyes that see it is only in all of creation’s interdependence
that evil is defeated—that violence is defeated—
that calamity is averted.
Now that is a story ever deepening—
ever expanding—
ever challenging us to grow—
to discover what we do not yet know.
“Dream with me.
Dream my dream with me,” says Yahweh Elohim,
“and change the world.”

let there be light

Genesis 1:1-5
Mark 1:4-11

Seven things to note—
seven things worth considering
in the first part of our text—
some of which don’t mean as much as others,
but seven things building on each other
to mean so much more than is said,
and it all begins with John the baptizer—
and there’s the first thing to note:
“the Baptizer” as a title is so much more active—
so much more more dynamic than the more familiar “the baptist.”
Right from the get-go, John the baptizer is a doer.

Second, our text begins with John the baptizer
appearing in the wilderness.
Since the time and the events of the Exodus,
the wilderness had represented God’s liberating work—
the promise of freedom.
In our psalm for today (Psalm 29),
we read responsively that Qadesh was in labor.
Qadesh was the springing off point in the wilderness
for the children of Israel entering the promised land.
it was from Qadesh that the spies were sent into the promised land.
Wilderness is always the antecedent to promise fulfilled—
a moment overshadowed by the power of the Most High
pregnant with possibility—
a time and place of waiting and preparing, yes,
and trusting.

Third, appearing’s an interesting verb choice, don’t you think?
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness—
out of the blue.
No back story in Mark—
just the appearance,
but not just the appearance
because he appeared proclaiming—
as if presence and proclamation were inextricably intertwined.

Fourth, he appeared proclaiming
a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
So he was preaching baptism and he was a baptizer.
He was in the wilderness
doing what he was saying—
like unto a word made flesh!
There’s something important in our faith
about a direct correlation
between what we say
and what we do.
We are, after all, children and followers of the God,
who spoke creation into being—
who said, “Let there be light,” and there was, and it was good.

One of the first of Frederick Buechner’s many insights to strike me
remains one of the striking:
“In Hebrew the term dabar means both ‘word’ and ‘deed.’
Thus to say something is to do something”
(Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking).
So so far, we have some sense of the interconnectedness
of someone’s whole being,
who is himself connected to—part of a much bigger story.
Good stuff, isn’t it?

Fifth, it was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Now here’s where it gets fun!
A couple of things to unpack here.
Y’all may know the Greek word translated repentance, metanoia,
literally means a change of mind.
“Although in popular usage it often has a sense of regret
for what is past,
it is generally used in a more positive way
in the New Testament, implying a deliberate turning,
or conversion, to God”
(Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark
[Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991] 37).
In fact, Archibald Thomas Robertson—y’all know the name?
A Virginian, a baptist—Southern Baptist at the time,
a graduate of Wake Forest,
became professor of New Testament at Southern Seminary,
author of the Word Pictures in the New Testament commentary series—
A.T. Robertson deemed this translation of metanoia as repentance
“a linguistic and theological tragedy”
(A.T. Robertson. “Word Pictures in the New Testament – 2 Corinthians” (PDF) (29). Grand Rapids, Missouri: Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved 14 November 2014).

There’s actually a completely other Greek word
that is also translated repentance in the New Testament
that in the Greek too carries the meaning of remorse.
Not this one.

Referring specifically to identifying John the baptizer’s
preaching as one of repentance,
Robertson quotes his father-in-law, John Albert Broadus—
y’all know the name?
These are good names to know—part of our good baptist heritage—
a Virginian, a baptist, a graduate of UVA,
who taught New Testament and preaching
at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY
and became Southern’s second president.
Broadus named translating
John’s preaching as a preaching of repentance
the worst translation in the New Testament.
“This is John’s great word …
and it has been hopelessly mistranslated”
(A.T. Robertson, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/robertson_at/wp_matt.pdf).

So Eugene Peterson, in The Message,
refers to John the baptizer
preaching a baptism not of repentance but of “life-change”
(Eugene Peterson, The Message//Remix
[Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2003] 1825)
Metanoia represents a commitment to the future
not determined by the sins of the past.
It’s looking ahead, not looking back.

You remember the prophetic word of Isaiah?
“Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth,
do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert”
(Isaiah 43:18-19).

What if we, as the church, didn’t stress—hadn’t stressed—
the whole you have to feel bad about what all you’ve done wrong—
where you’ve fallen short—where you blew it thing?
What if it were all about where you’re headed—
what you’re going to do now
what you’re going to do now differently
what you’re going to do tomorrow?

And if it’s different, yes, there will be some remorse,
and yes that might be important,
but to focus on the future
is not to focus on the remorse.
It’s to focus on the hope.
It’s to focus on the change.

Sixth, John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness
preaching a baptism of life-change for the forgiveness of sin.
Now “a fringe prophet had no standing
and no business getting into the forgiveness of sins.
The establishment had that covered;
it was their work, their right and their responsibility”
(Kathryn Matthews Huey)..

That’s why Marcus Borg identifies John as “an anti-establishment figure.”
Proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins
“countered the temple’s claim to be the mediator of forgiveness.
John was an anti-temple prophet and,
as we shall see, Jesus followed him in this”
(quoted by Kathryn Matthews Huey).

Now I’m thinking John was not so much anti-establishment and anti-temple
as he was enthusiastically for life change!
Institutional religion too often gets hung up
on what we’re supposed to quickly move beyond—
the sins of the past,
instead of the possibility of the future—
too hung up on what we’re against instead of what we’re for.
And heaven forbid institutional religion
maintain the darkness by rationing the light.

Seventh, consider for a moment
the physical description of John’s dress and diet:
his dress is explicitly reminiscent of Elijah (2 Kings 1:8).
His diet is that of the nomads.
So John is identified within the realm of the prophets,
the messengers of God,
and located specifically within the wilderness—
that place where God is working—
that preparatory place.

And that’s how John considers himself.
“I am the opening act
I’m here to warm up the crowd!”
And as the warm up act, John clearly sees himself—
identifies himself as the inferior to the coming superior.
He offers three examples of how that’s evident:
one is coming greater/more powerful than I;
I’m not worthy to deal with his footwear;
I baptize with water, he with the Holy Spirit.

Alright. Now seven things to note in the latter part of our text.
In those days—
so in the midst of all this—
in the midst of all this symbolism and preparation and hope,
Jesus came—didn’t just appear.
He came from Nazareth.
There is a back story here. We don’t get the details,
but we know there’s more to the story than just this.
It’s bigger than this.
He came from Nazareth of Galilee—
so not from where the crowds came, Judea and Jerusalem,
but not from the wilderness either—from Nazareth,
and he was baptized by John in the Jordan.
That was first.

Now second, there’s absolutely no indication
John recognized Jesus,
but what’s important anyway is that Jesus recognized John—
and chose to identify himself
with an outside the system life-change movement—
with a wilderness promise of a future not determined by the past—
or the present—past and present forgiven!
Jesus chose all that
before he ever began his public ministry.

Third, Mark has no sense of the problem
that the other gospels evidently had with John baptizing Jesus.
In his account, Matthew includes John’s protest,
“I’m not worthy to baptize you; you should baptize me” (Matthew 3:14).
Luke has John already in jail when Jesus is baptized (Luke 3:18-22),
so doesn’t even have John baptizing Jesus.
And John has John testify to Jesus but not baptize him (John 1:32-40).

Because how could Jesus, the one for whom John prepared the way,
be baptized by the one just preparing the way?
This is the problem of investing more in hierarchy than in story.
Of course, it’s not just that John baptized Jesus,
it’s also the question as to how Jesus could be baptized
for repentance and forgiveness of sin?
According to traditional theology he had nothing of which to repent, right?—
no sins requiring forgiveness.

So, in the first place, imagine just not being concerned with any of that!
That never crosses Mark’s mind—
not at all defensive about Jesus—
not at all defensive about God—
not at all defensive about his faith.
I came across I think it was a Karen Armstrong interview
in which she identified fundamentalism
always as an expression of fear—
and particularly the fear of a loss of identity.
Mark’s not scared.
You begin to see fear enter the picture with Matthew and Luke and John.
Mark’s not scared.

And remember, it wasn’t repentance anyway!
But rather the commitment to a way into the future
that constituted in its trajectory a forgiveness of sin.
What’s wrong with Jesus thinking, “That’s for me!
That’s what I’m a part of—
a movement forward into God.”

To the extent that institutional religion tries to exert control,
it gets in the way of God.
To the extent institutional religion lives in fear—
in fear of its own existence—
in fear of its own survival—
its fear of God’s reputation—
invested its own success—its own language—its own traditions—
when the desire to respect God yourself
turns into the perceived need to protect God from others,
God is undermined.
God is cheapened.
God is domesticated—
God who is bigger than both our fear and our truth.

And just as Jesus 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.”

Fourth, we live in a world of public acclaim.
I don’t know if you’ve notice this:
if someone pays you a compliment,
you look around to see who else heard.
It doesn’t even have to be a compliment for many—
as long as someone’s talking about you.
You wish more had heard.
You tweet it—post it—boost it,
and wait for the public response to it.

The way this story is written though,
makes it sound like only Jesus head this voice.
And we do, of course, as readers, but no one in that crowd.
In Matthew and Luke, it’s shaded toward more people hearing it,
and John explicitly says everyone there heard it,
but in Mark, just Jesus.
No fear.
No defensiveness.

So how did Mark know?
In Mark’s gospel, we have what’s called an omniscient narrator, right?—
one who knows what only Jesus could have known—
who gives us the details no one in the story would have
or could have known.

Now, if you don’t necessarily believe
in the divine inspiration of Scripture as a dictatorial process—
I think that’s right, the process of dictation is dictatorial?
Interesting, isn’t it?
Then how would Mark know what he knows?
Was he making things up?
No no no no no.
Was there a Jesus tradition?
Jesus told someone who told someone who told the writer?
Maybe.
Though I wonder why you wouldn’t make more of that—
if you had Jesus’ diary, so to speak.
In the end though, gospel is less biography than faith affirmation.
Mark didn’t care about the crowd’s reaction,
he cared about the reaction of his readers.
He cared about us.
So while we may turn to the gospels to see how Jesus lived,
we see that only through what people believed of Jesus.

Fifth, how many of y’all have heard of the so-called Messianic secret in Mark?
It has to do with stories like this scattered throughout Mark
that seem to suggest there is a secret,
but it’s less about a secret in Mark
than it is the truth that not everyone knew.
Not everyone understood.
And not everyone knows and not everyone understands—
far fewer than think they do!

And even more true than that,
to great extent we only see what we expect,
and Jesus is not—
Jesus is never what we expect.

So sixth, in the end, Mark sets us up.
Did you catch it? Mark sets us up.
With John talking about how much more powerful
Jesus will be,
and saying that precisely as someone
to whom people flock.
Now maybe from the whole Judean countryside
and all of Jerusalem might be somewhat of an exaggeration, but still!
This was someone about whom people were talking.
This was a distinctive, powerful presence,
saying, “The one coming after me
is so much more than I am.”
And then, Jesus is there,
and John the baptizer, doesn’t even recognize him!
He baptizes him and doesn’t know who he is.

Jesus doesn’t appear in the wilderness
impressively—powerfully.
He came from Nazareth up in the Galilee.
He came beautifully and gracefully—
full of love and grace—surprise and wonder.
God is always fulfilling what we’re awaiting.
Too often, we just don’t see it.
We’re waiting for something more impressive—
more conclusive—
more powerful as we understand it.

Seventh, finally, we are in the Sundays after Epiphany,
and the more we come to see who Jesus is—who God is,
the more the light brightens and intensifies.
The more we focus on the brightening, intensifying light of God,
the more we see that light
unmediated and uncontrolled by any perspective—
by any person or people—by any religion.

That light, it shines into tomorrow—
full of hope—full of promise.
We’ve been offered so many clues through Advent.
We’re offered more in the promise of the Holy Spirit—
the Holy Spirit will come—
in the expectation of Jesus coming again.
Look ahead, Jesus is coming.
Keep looking ahead—
keep looking ahead with hope.
Keep looking ahead with expectation.

Who says we’re out of the wilderness?
It’s just not physical anymore.
Who would argue that we’re not still wandering?
Not still searching—not still waiting?
Who would say we don’t still need water from rock—
grace and peace in a world like ours.
That we still need food in the desert—
sustenance for living the way
that is so different.

This moment—this moment is overshadowed
by the power of the Most High,
as will the next one be,
and they are all pregnant with God’s possibilities.

It’s coming.
It’s coming.