In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised 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.’
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
Sometimes, when we have trouble getting to sleep we listen to one of these sleep meditations on an app called Headspace.
It always starts the same way… Here we are, where the ocean meets the land. A lovely beach, surrounded by rocky cliffs… and in moments we’re asleep. Well, I’m asleep. The calm voice and the repetition with a breathing exercise thrown in seems to be enough to soothe us to sleep. It’s become almost a bit of a joke. I’m asleep before the end of the first sentence. Avril wants to stay awake to find out what happens next!
Repetition… familiarity… they can cause us to relax and that can, of course, be a good thing. But we can also become so familiar with something that we take it for granted.
So, here we are again… Back at the same verses of chapter 1 of Mark’s Gospel for the third or maybe fourth time in just a few weeks. I’ve said before that there are 10 sermons in every passage, but this is really starting to put that theory to the test. We’ve spoken about Jesus’ baptism, about John and ideas around confession and forgiveness. We’ve also spoken about Jesus’ mission. So, what’s left?
It’s the first Sunday in Lent so we have this reading again because of 2 verses. 12 and 13. “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
We always get readings about the temptation of Jesus on the first Sunday of Lent. I’m guessing that’s because we have had four whole days of giving up chocolate or crisps or alcohol or whatever you might have chosen to go without for Lent and we all know that making it beyond the first few days is the hardest part. So, we get Jesus, alone in the wilderness for 40 days, surrounded by wild animals, with nothing to eat. I think that’s maybe supposed to be encouragement? Look, Jesus managed 40 days with nothing, so step away from the M&Ms!
And of course there is something in all of that. We fast in lent to help wake us up from our regular pattern. The grumbling tummy is supposed to point us back to the purpose of fasting… to help us focus more on God. For us, the constant battle where we unconsciously go to the fridge and the voice that reminds us that we have given up the thing we are going for is supposed to have the same effect. Oh… I’m not eating this… and that’s because I’m supposed to be focussing on God… and now I am. At, least that’s supposed to be how it works.
And that’s all fine. In fact it’s good. Anything that reminds us to think more about God must surely be a good thing.
The other thing that’s missing is an account of the three temptations Jesus faced. You need to look in Matthew and Luke’s gospels for those. Mark, as usual, takes a much more sparse approach. So, to boil these two verses down to giving up crisps would be to miss out on more than a packet of cheese and onion.
As usual Mark packs an amazing amount into just two sentences in verses 12 and 13. Although I think he cheats a bit with the second one with all the semi colons, but still… his economy with words is impressive.
Mark tells us that immediately after Jesus’ baptism “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”
Drove him out.
This wasn’t a decision by Jesus to go on a silent retreat. He was driven by the Holy Spirit, out into the wilderness.
But why? Why not just get on with his ministry? After all, God has just said that he is pleased with Jesus.
Perhaps Jesus is a bit like an athlete? You can be fit, but not quite competition ready. In football they call it ‘match ready’. Jesus has been preparing for this his whole life, but now is the time for that final preparation.
The wilderness is a place of huge significance. It’s where Moses and the Hebrew slaves became the nation of Israel, God’s people. But it took them a while to work it all out. 40 years of mistake after mistake until they finally realised that God was serious about them. But they didn’t leave behind the slavery of Egypt without some persuasion.
The story tells of the angel of death killing the first born Egyptians and as the Israelites crossed the water they were chased by an army. They were driven into the wilderness too. There was no choice. No going back.
It’s not a place you would choose to spend any length of time, never mind 40 days! Jesus didn’t pack for the trip. We don’t hear that he pitched his tent, set up his camping stove and settled down in his down-filled sleeping bag to enjoy a good book.
He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
Forty days. That’s the biblical number for ‘ages’. Longer than a month. Longer than the time it took for the moon to complete a full cycle because out there in the wild that’s pretty much the only thing to mark the time. Day after day after day of… well… days.
They say the devil makes work for idle hands so perhaps it’s no surprise that Jesus was tempted by Satan, The Accuser. Unlike the other gospels with their three big moments of temptation for Jesus to turn a stone into bread, to jump and let the angels catch him, or to bow before Satan and rule all the kingdoms of the world, we only have this short mention that he was tempted but it seems that the temptation lasted the 40 days. Which for me seems more likely. Temptations aren’t often one time only things, are they? If I was to give up chocolate then every time I saw the bag of M&Ms chocolate with peanuts sitting on the table I’m going to be tempted. And sometimes that temptation will be stronger than others. But unless I throw it out it’s still going to be there… with its bright yellow wrapper and delicious chocolate filled with crunchy peanuts…
But I don’t think chocolate was Jesus’ problem. He was there with the wild animals.
This is where we really start to miss stuff. Yes, there are wild animals in the wilderness. Lions and wild dogs and even bears. So on one level, their mention is just an acknowledgement that they are there and the wilderness is a dangerous and unpredictable place, but there’s more.
Mark’s Gospel is linked closely to some other writings in the Bible and those links might also give us some hints about what could be going on here.
Mark quotes the prophet Isaiah just a few verses earlier and Isaiah paints an amazing picture of what’s known as the peaceable kingdom, where the lion and the lamb will lie down together. So, Jesus, sometimes called the lamb of God, could be literally living side by side with the lions, in harmony. It’s a sign of the coming of the new kingdom where peace and harmony will reign. After all, Jesus is the Word who was with God at the creation of all things.
Mark’s Gospel is most similar to the book of Daniel in the Old Testament. They are both what we call apocalyptic writings. And remember, apocalypse doesn’t mean the end of the world in some disastrous fashion. It means revelation. These books reveal something important about God.
If I was to ask you what story about Daniel you remember I’m guessing it’s Daniel in the lion’s den, the story where a man faithful to God was put in a lion’s den, but no harm comes to him. So this mention of wild beasts in Mark’s gospel could be an echo of that story, showing us that God is with Jesus, protecting him.
But the wild beasts might also be a metaphor for the world. Mark has already set out his challenge to the empires of the world from verse 1. The dangerous beast and wild animals could be the kingdoms and rulers of the world who Jesus has come to challenge with this radically new way of thinking in the kingdom of God which has come near.
The final part of the puzzle is that the angels waited on him. That’s the same thing we are told about Simon Peter’s mother in law when she is raised up from illness and the same way Jesus will describe his own ministry… a ministry of service.
John the Baptist called on people to repent and believe. Repent means to change your way of thinking. To have your mind blown! These two lines of wilderness temptation are conformation that the empires of the world have been given notice. Things are about to change.
But how will that happen?
How could such powerful nations, such powerful ideas, be overcome?
Our usual response to something dangerous is to either run away or avoid it or to kill it. Jesus isn’t about to take either approach. He will confront the empire head on… with love.
So, repent and believe because Mark, once again, in just two sentences, manages to blow our minds with an idea that is at the same time wonderful and terrifying…
The kingdom of God has come near… so hold on to your hats!!!
This is the last Sunday in what we call the season of Epiphany. Epiphany itself is the 6th of January, the day we remember the Magi visiting Jesus in a house in Bethlehem after looking for him in the royal palace in Jerusalem. A discovery that Jesus wasn’t that kind of king. We keep going with that theme of discovery, revelations, these little glimpses into who Jesus is and what that means for us until we get to Lent and Lent begins on Wednesday.
On this last day of Epiphany we remember a strange event with a name that before Harry Potter we might not have been that familiar with… transfiguration. That just means when the outward appearance of something changes. So in Happy Potter that means turning into a cat or a frog. That’s not quite what happens in this story about Jesus though.
Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a hill, and there on the mountainside Jesus is changed. Transfigured. But instead of being changed into something else, what happens here is that Jesus’ true nature is revealed. He is, I think, in this moment the same Jesus that the other Gospel writers will describe Mary meeting at the tomb on Easter Morning, and the same Jesus the disciples will meet in a locked room. He is, in this moment, the eternal Christ revealed.
One of the things that always amazes me about this whole happening is that these three disciples are invited to be a part of it. We have often seen Jesus wander off into the wilderness alone to pray, to rest and to spend time with God. But this is different.
Over the last weeks we have been invited to catch these glimpses, these little epiphanies, helping us to piece together just who Jesus is. That’s how the disciples had to do it too. Jesus didn’t sit them down and lay it all out for them. He invited them to follow him and see for themselves. And they did.
They saw healings and miracles. Jesus fed 5,000 people and then later another 4,000. He has walked on water and calmed a storm. He has healed people in public and in private, he has exorcised demons and he has told these strange stories called parables.
They heard Jesus teach and transform the way they thought about God, and the world, and their place in it. They heard Jesus’ radical reimagining of how the world should be and he has openly challenge the religious authorities and the empire.
And they were the good guys. They had a ringside seat to all that had happened and was about to happen.
Peter thought he had worked it all out. By the time we get to chapter 9 Peter had made his declaration about who he thought Jesus was. You are the Messiah.
But it’s one thing to know something and something very different when you actually experience it.
We all know that. Having to endure your friend’s holiday snaps and hear all their stories about wherever they have just can get pretty boring if you’ve never been there. It’s nice for a while, and you’re happy (and maybe a little bit jealous) that they have had a great time, but the photos and the stories are never going to sum up what it’s like to stand on a glass shelf 153 stories up in the Sears Tower in Chicago
or to cross the Golden Gate Bridge
or look across the Grand Canyon
or come face to face with the space shuttle.
Mark’s story of Jesus is what’s called apocalyptic writing. We have come to use the word apocalypse to mean the end of the world, usually is some kind of disastrous fashion with an action hero trying to save the day, but apocalypse actually means something quite different. Apocalypse means an uncovering or discovery of great knowledge. Apocalypse is actually very close in meaning to epiphany, just bigger!
So, as Mark’s story unfolds there are these apocalyptic moments, events that reveal something much bigger. Something huge and important.
The first one is Jesus’ baptism when God speaks. “‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. Bits of information don’t really come much bigger than that, but at Jesus’ baptism we are never quite sure who hears these words from God. Mark suggests that the experience is Jesus’ experience alone. In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised 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…. An apocalyptic moment for Jesus… Confirmation of who he is. And now an apocalyptic moment for us through the retelling of the story.
But I want to suggest something about this story we call the transfiguration. I think it’s in the wrong place. And once you realise that, and why it’s in the wrong place the whole thing makes much more sense.
Have you ever watched a film or read a book that starts with the final scene and then explains how we got there? I think this might be what Mark is doing here. If you have a Bible handy, if you flip to the end of Mark’s Gospel you’ll find that there are two endings. A short ending and a longer one. The short ending stops before anyone meets the risen Jesus. And that’s just odd… Why would you do that? That’s obviously what everyone else thought and so there is a longer ending that is an account of the risen Christ meeting the disciples. But what if there is already an encounter with the risen Christ in the story? What if that encounter is somewhere else? Like in chapter 9… right in the middle.
One of the strange things about following the lectionary, the readings for the week, is that when the church year changes we bounce about the story. We have spent the last few weeks working through chapter 1. All that stuff has happened in just one chapter so just imagine how much has gone on by the time we get to chapter 9.
Jesus has been healing and teaching and has started to talk about the end… It’s all getting pretty dark. He speaks about how he has to suffer and die and how his followers have to take up their own cross to follow him. It’s the only way. But the disciples aren’t listening.
Or rather, they don’t want to listen.
This isn’t what they signed up for.
Why can’t we just keep doing the healings and miracles and having everybody love us? Love you… we mean love you!
Is that how we feel? The journey to the cross is one nobody would choose to make.
It makes sense then for Mark to present us with the risen Christ here at the transfiguration in the middle of the story before taking us on that road to the cross.
We’ve spoken before about how the joy of Palm Sunday and Easter Day are hollow without the darkness of Holy Week. Mark, I think, agrees.
Mark is writing to a group of people who are most likely in Rome, right at the heart of the Empire, and who are and will continue to be hated and persecuted, tortured and killed for their faith, so for Mark it is hugely important to show his readers that this suffering is part of what Jesus calls us into. Jesus tells his followers to take up your cross… leave behind all that you know… sell all that you have and give the money to the poor.
Mark’s gospel is a hard and painful journey that leaves us much closer to the foot of the cross where Jesus dies, screaming in agony, wondering aloud why God has forsaken him. Peter himself will travel to Rome and will be crucified upside down there by the empire.
So, when you look at this strange transfiguration story as an encounter with the risen Christ, the universal christ, the Christ who was and is and is to come, it all starts to make much more sense.
Mark tells us this story to show Jesus’ place in things, in the Kairos of God’s time rather than the chronos of our time, by placing him there on the mountain with the other major figures of the faith story, Moses and Elijah.
Moses, the one, who despite all his misgivings and lack of confidence, led his people out of Egypt to the threshold of a new land and along the way met God on the mountain where God passes him by, just like he did with Adam and Eve in that story of the paradise of Eden. And Elijah, the prophet who spent his days holding the king and queen to account for all that he had done wrong, who after lying down under a bush and wishing to die because it was all just too hard, was cared for and restored to health by God and then met God on a mountain, not in the noise and fury of fire or wind or even an earthquake, but in the overwhelming silence, taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. These are the greatest of all the prophets, who the stories say will return when the Messiah arrives…
The disciples are terrified. Who wouldn’t be?
Peter blurts out something about making shelters because, perhaps, there in the wilderness Moses had built a tent, the tabernacle, where God would come and meet them. But he calls Jesus Rabbi. There, presented with the Christ, the Messiah revealed in all his cosmic glory, Peter tries to put Jesus back into his ordinary box… rabbi. Teacher. One of many rabbis. Just a man. I can cope with just a man, even if he’s a man who does all kinds of stuff I don’t understand… but this… I can’t cope with this.
And in the middle of this apocalyptic moment where the disciples are full of doubt and wonder in equal measure, God speaks. ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’
This is who Jesus is, the son of God. The disciples heard it straight from God. The disciples can’t un-see of un-know it. This moment will travel with them way beyond the things that are recorded in Mark’s story.
But what of us? Are we left with the snapshots and second hand tales of an experience we might never have? Only three disciples went up that mountain. The other nine, just like us, didn’t share in that moment. But they, like us, still encounter this Jesus. This universal Christ who doesn’t only live on the pages of a book.
We meet him every day,
in the wonder of creation,
in the eyes of a friend or stranger,
in moments of compassion,
in a word of consolation.
Nobody ever said that following Jesus would be easy. Jesus himself said it would be difficult, costly even. But when the whole point is to completely transform the world then what would we expect?
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
It’s still light. Still daytime. The sun has not yet set.
Jesus has just been to the synagogue in Capernaum where he taught with authority and then performed his first public acts. He had authority they had never seen before and then to show what that authority looks like in practice he calls an unclean spirit out of a man who was also there with everyone else at worship.
Mark is so frantic in his telling of the story, but it matters that it’s still the Sabbath.
Immediately after Jesus goes with his brand new disciples, Simon (who is so new he hasn’t even got his new name yet), his brother Andrew, and also James and John, all back to Simon’s house where they discover Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed ill with a fever.
It’s probably important to say a bit about how houses were arranged in Jesus’ time because I think we probably imagine that they are like ours with lots of separate rooms. From childhood now we value our private spaces where we can spend time alone in our room, but life just wasn’t like that in Jesus’ time. People lived in one or two rooms, much like we did until fairly recently in our history. Houses were open plan. That meant privacy as we understand it just didn’t exist. People lived communally. Extended families lived together. If people were rich they might build more homes next door as the family grew, but in the main people lived all together in one place.
That’s has lots of implications, not least the problem of infection control. We have grown very used to the language of self-isolation in order to stop the spread of disease but that wasn’t a practical option in those days. Contagious disease was a huge issue and the only way to do something about it was to banish sick people. They were sent away. And because there were very few effective treatments something like a fever could be, and still is, very, very dangerous.
At once they tell Jesus about her. Again the urgency. At once… But that begs a question… why?
Why do they tell Jesus?
He hasn’t healed anyone who has been sick like this. So what are they asking for?
Again we need to think about what these people believed… and to some extent still believe… about the cause of sickness.
The cause of sickness was sin. People got sick because they had done something wrong. The worse you had sinned the greater the sickness. And if Jesus could rid someone of something like an unclean spirit then he would be able to cure Simon’s mother-in-law because both in their limited understanding were about removing sin.
That’s an idea that Jesus will challenge. For him sin is the stuff we do that damages our relationship with God and therefore limits our lives.
I love the description of how Jesus helps Simon’s mother-in-law. “He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”
It’s so simple. So stripped back. And yet like everything Mark writes it is so full of meaning.
Jesus takes her by the hand and lifts her up. And in so many ways that’s exactly what Mark’s gospel is all about. He lifts her up out of the thing that is limiting her life. He renews her. Jesus recreates her.
And people see it happen.
There’s always a sense that everything Jesus does is very public. Jesus is always on show, always in the public eye, always scrutinised by those watching. But this moment reminds us that in every encounter there is a personal Jesus there just for us.
It’s one of the great paradoxes of our faith. We recognise that our faith is found in community, in communion with God and with each other, but at the same time our faith is personal. Personal because our relationship with Jesus is ours… That’s personal… but I’d suggest that our faith is never private.
It doesn’t matter how many others are present, Jesus is there for each person.
And as Simon’s mother reaches out, through the touch of faith she is restored to life.
It quickly becomes obvious the wagging tongues have been busy. The Sabbath is over not when the clock strikes midnight but when the light fades and dusk comes. They have been waiting for the night to come and as the sun sets people start to arrive at the house all looking for Jesus. They want freed from all the pain they have become used to. The pain they have carried for too long.
And Jesus does the same for each of them as he did for Simon’s mother-in-law. He meets their needs. He lifts each one of them up.
The sick are healed and unclean spirits are driven out and silenced. Each person gets what they need from Jesus because to him each of us is somebody precious. Each of us is an individual with our own hope and dreams. Our own problems and issues. Our own joys and sorrows.
We should never presume to know what someone else feels. Even if we wanted to, you couldn’t walk in my shoes and I couldn’t walk in yours. Our experience is unique. It is ours and ours alone. But that never means that we are on our own.
Jesus attends to each of the people gathered there in turn. He treats each of them with compassion and dignity.
But it’s exhausting for Jesus. It takes a toll.
So, early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus gets up and goes to a deserted place to pray, to enjoy the silence away from the clamour and demands of the crowds. Again and again we see Jesus do this. Taking time out to recharge, to reconnect with God. It’s so important for him. I wonder if it is for us?
All of this takes place on the Sabbath and on the day after. The day of rest is followed by the first new day… the day where Jesus will rise from the tomb in the ultimate act of re-creation.
Sabbath is a hugely important idea. It’s not just a day off. It’s not even just a day where we worship God. Sabbath is holy. It’s the day of rest and recovery. Sabbath is a day of re-creation.
It used to be that everything stopped on the Sabbath. No work that wasn’t absolutely essential was done. That was taken to extremes and that’s an argument Jesus will have again and again. Keep the Sabbath holy is one of the commandments. It’s higher up the list than do not kill. I wonder how we managed to loose the sense of the importance of sabbath?
Other things crept in. I’m not at all for chaining up the swings and not letting anyone do anything at all on Sundays, but I do wonder if in our rush for convenience and ever increasing workloads we have been conned into seeing sabbath as a luxury rather than something that is completely fundamental to our wellbeing.
Walter Brueggemann suggest that we should think of Sabbath as an act of resistance. Doing nothing, producing nothing, buying nothing, is so counter-cultural we find it hard to even imagine what that looks like anymore. Practicing sabbath is standing against everything the world tells us is important and choosing instead to focus on what God tells us is important.
When you are training to run rest is included in any good training plan. It’s arguably the most important part. Without it you can’t improve. Without rest you can’t function properly. We all know the difference a good night’s sleep makes.
But the disciples come searching for him. Everyone is looking for you. They want more miracles. They just can’t get enough. Their need is so great. Their burdens are so heavy.
Restored by prayer and communion with God, Jesus is restored. He’s ready for what’s next.
Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns,’ says Jesus’, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
I wonder if all that we do is rooted in our connection with God?
If we take the time to pray and to rest in God before we begin any task?
On this last Sunday of Epiphany perhaps this should be our realisation.
The authority Jesus has is God’s.
The strength Jesus has is through God.
The Good News Jesus proclaims is about God.
And all of it is so that we can restore our relationship with God.
So we can be renewed and lifted up into life in all its fullness.
The first demonstration of power by Jesus in each of the gospels matters. They matter because they set out the theme of the Gospel. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus preaches a sermon about the law. In Luke Jesus resists the temptations before being rejected when he preached in his home town. In John’s Gospel Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding, an act full of meaning and symbolism of his coming death and resurrection.
But in Mark’s Gospel the first thing Jesus does is perform an exorcism.
So for Mark what possesses us matters.
That might sound like a really strange thing to say but as we work our way through this brilliant Gospel this year we’ll discover, I hope, just how true that it. And why it’s so important.
Jesus has ended up in Capernaum. It’s a little fishing village on the north shore of the Galilee but it’s one of those places with some pretty significant geography. Moving things by water was much quicker than by land so the lake was busy with cargo going north and south between Lebanon and Egypt. People passed through.
It was also just round the lake from the Roman garrison at Tiberius… just far enough away to not have to worry too much about the soldiers. In the other direction to the east of the lake is Gentile country. Capernaum is quite literally on the edge in all kinds of ways.
The other thing Capernaum is close to is some natural hot springs at Tagba. Hot springs were, and still are, a place sick people go to try to get well. To get rid of the things that cause them pain.
So place is important. Capernaum will become Jesus’ base for his ministry and it’s position will allow him to spend time with all kinds of people from all kinds of places. But what matters first here is even more important.
Have you ever had an ear worm? You know, a song that gets stuck in your head and just won’t go away? Annoying, isn’t it! But think… if something so silly and meaningless as a song can get stuck in your head, then imagine what it’s like when something more sinister gets in there and won’t go away.
Possession isn’t like the horror movies. Possession is an idea that takes over your mind. This man is in the Synagogue, among his friends and neighbours. He’s there at the time when he’s supposed to be worshiping God, but his thoughts are elsewhere on whatever desires or obsession fills his mind. He’s thinking about what he wants, what he can have, what he can control.
The use of power and violence has become acceptable. Encouraged at some levels even. But when someone challenges you, suggests there might be an issue, a problem, then the reaction can be pretty strong.
Let me give you an example about the use of power. In the TV debates we now get during elections Jeremy Corbyn when he led the Labour Party was asked a question that potential leaders have been asked for decades now. Would you press the button? Would you sanction the use of nuclear weapons? His answer caused shockwaves… He said ‘no’. And people were appalled.
Now there are plenty of problems with Corbyn, but not being willing to obliterate another country and cause what would almost certainly result in a nuclear war that would destroy the world was apparently something that meant he was unfit to be Prime Minister. Just let that sink in for a moment. Not being willing to take actions that would at the very least kill millions and leave vast areas uninhabitable for decades was a problem.
Or, to give a more current example, there is little doubt that what is happening in Gaza is an appalling use of force… and the world is standing by, allowing it to happen. To happen with bombs and bullets made here.
Isn’t it amazing how ideas take root. Isn’t it fascinating how power takes over.
Jesus’ reaction to what possesses this man is straight forward. Come out. Leave him alone. It’s a healing. The end of his torment. The triumph of God over evil.
But like most of Mark’s Gospel this is about more that one man’s problems.
Here, right at the heart of this religious country, in the very place and at the very time where God is supposed to be first in people’s thoughts, is an unclean spirit.
This story is the story of Israel. The religious authorities collude with the Romans and with their own local leaders to maintain their own status and power. The people are distracted from God by all the things that still distract us… worry, self-reliance, pride, arrogance, fear…
For the rest of Mark’s Gospel Jesus will battle with all of that. He will stand up against all of the things that possess people’s minds: power, corruption, greed, ambition, fear, domination… Mark sums it all up in the idea of Empire. A whole system created to keep people in line, to direct their thoughts away from their problems by providing small distractions.
The Romas called it bread and circuses. Make sure the people have just enough to eat to keep them working hard. And when times get tough and they start to complain you give them some extra along with some entertainment. Some kind of spectacle to distract them. Add into that the idea of a threat to your way of life from ‘outsiders’ which only we can keep you safe from and you have a pretty heady mix that’s hard to resist… especially when there is also severe punishment for not towing the line.
But it’s all a lie. A great big illusion. It’s an idea that possesses us. So much so that 2,000 years later we still can’t imagine another way, even though we know it’s not right!
Our religious life is often no better. There’s a man with an unclean spirit there in the middle of their worship. He doesn’t turn up at the end. He’s there with everyone else. And they don’t notice.
Perhaps they don’t notice the unclean spirit because they all have the same issues. They are possessed too. They have all bought into the same lies.
Nobody can see the problem until someone so different, so outside of the system comes along. And as soon as they see Jesus teach with the authority, the power of God, they see the problem. It’s so obvious. The contrast is so great to what they have been told until now that they all see it.
And the man with most to loose reacts.
I think we all have a bit of that.
We know the things that get in the way of God. In the way of the world being how God intends it to be. And perhaps we are in our own ways possessed too by those things because we can’t or won’t stop. By a way of life that is absolutely and undoubtably destroying the planet.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
The Good News is that Jesus has authority over all of it.
We are not alone.
We are never alone.
Even when things seem at their darkest.
Even when things seem hopeless.
Even when it’s all to much…
God is there.
Jonah 3:1-5,10 & Mark 1:14-20
Perspective is another one of those wonderful words that has two meaning. It can mean: the art of representing three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface so as to give the right impression of their height, width, depth, and position in relation to each other.
Matt Skinner of Fuller Seminary tells the story of his high school biology teacher who made them draw a pencil at the start of each class to help them be able to draw field notes of flowers and animals when they went out. Drawing the pencil helped them to get the perspective right.
One day one of the students handed in this…
Slide of circle with a dot.
The teacher was confused. What is this? I asked you to draw a pencil.
It is, Sir, said the student. It’s the end!
And he was right. It was just a different point of view. A new perspective.
We know immediately when we look at a drawing or painting if the perspective is off. Mostly. And when we don’t, like in an optical illusion, our minds are scrambled. But perspective also means a particular attitude towards, or way of regarding something. Perspective is a point of view. And we all have one of those.
I wonder what has shaped yours? What has influenced what you believe and how you think about the world? What has informed your point of view?
This week I’ve been teaching the latest two groups of people who (like Anne and Yvonne) are learning about leading worship in their own churches and that’s one of the questions we were thinking about. Why do you think and believe what you think and believe and where did that come from?
The question is based on the idea that each of us is in some way everything that has ever happened to us. We are a collection of experiences and all of it, to a greater or lesser degree, makes us who we are.
That can be anything, from what someone said to us in the playground when we were 6, to the words of a song, the pages from a book, your parents, the films you watched, the places you have visited, the people you are related to, the people you are friends with, the newspapers and magazines or websites you read, and the jobs we have done. All of it influences us. It colours how we see the world. All of it creates our point of view.
It affects how we understand the world. Things like relationships, what we think is fair, our attitudes to power, money, sex, family, justice, race, gender… all of it… even what we think about God, is seen from our own particular perspective that we have developed throughout our life.
So, for example, when we hear the story of Jonah what comes to mind?
Maybe two things.
‘Being a Jonah’ is to bring bad luck.
And Jonah was swallowed by a whale.
When you hear the story of Jesus calling the fishermen to follow him, some of you will hear in your head the song you learned in Sunday School or sang at school assemblies… I will make you fishers of men if you follow me.
All you see is that bit of the story. The part someone else has told you about, probably a long time ago… and it has stuck. We think that we know it and so we don’t need to bother looking at it again because there’s nothing new there… is there?
I like when people tell me they don’t believe in God because then I get to ask them why not. What is it about God you don’t believe in. Mostly people say stuff I don’t believe either. And mostly the last time they gave any real thought to who or what God might be was a long time ago. It’s odd, because I’m pretty sure we don’t decide whether we believe in gravity when we’re 12… or quantum mechanics, or love, or… well pretty much anything really.
It’s a bit like thinking that a circle with a dot in the middle is what a pencil looks like. It is, but it’s far from the whole story.
If we do that then I think we have a problem. We won’t ever learn anything new. We won’t ever reconsider. We won’t ever change our minds.
Brian Cox, the physicist, was asked in an interview if he believed in God. His answer was brilliant. He said something along the lines of I haven’t seen any evidence to disprove the existence of God, so as a scientist I can’t say no, no matter how sceptical I might be. I have to be open to the possibility that new evidence will come to light.
We live in a world where that kind of openness is rare.
And that’s a huge problem for us today because reconsidering, learning something new, changing our minds is exactly what we are being invited to do.
Jonah is a brilliant story.
Johan is minding his own business when God tells him to go to Nineveh to tell them they are doomed if they don’t change their ways. Jonah didn’t want to do what God asked him because Nineveh was the worst place anyone could ever go. It was a terrible place full of violence. They have invaded their neighbours and committed awful crimes against them. Why would anyone want to go there?
And more to the point, why would I want to go there and tell them they are all doomed! That’s not going to end well for me. The only person who will be doomed is me!
So Jonah runs away in the opposite direction.
He gets on a ship and sails away. But there is a big storm and the sailors think it’s because of Jonah… so they throw him overboard. And then a big fish swallows him. And he’s inside the belly of the big fish for three days.
The fish spits him out and God tells Jonah again to go to Nineveh. And so he goes. Nineveh is massive. It would take 3 days to walk across the city. So Jonah walks for a day and in the morning he starts to tell the people that they have 40 days to shape up or God is going to destroy their city and all of them… and much to Jonah’s annoyance they believe him and they change their ways. Jonah goes and sits under a tree and sulks because God hasn’t obliterated Nineveh. Why? Because he doesn’t want them to change. He wants them to be punished!
It’s a morality tale. A lesson for all of us about the possibility of change even for people we either don’t think can change or who we don’t want to change because we wouldn’t know what to do with them if they did… We would have to change too.
There’s a great scene in the movie The Commitments when a two of the newly formed band meet at the dole office when they are collecting their unemployment benefit. Saxophonist Dean tells Jimmy “It feels better being an unemployed musician that an unemployed pipe fitter!” Perspective…
I wonder about the perspectives of those four fishermen Jesus meets.
They’re mending their nets getting ready for going back out on the Sea of Galilee to fish at night. It’s all they have ever known. They are fishermen. It’s not just a job. It’s their identity. They work with their family. James and John are with their dad, Zebedee when Jesus walks along and invites them to see the world differently. Come with me and I’ll make you fishers of people.
Come with me and I’ll help you to use what you are, what you know for a different purpose. Come with me and I’ll give you a completely new perspective.
The word that means change your perspective is repent. It means to re-think. To change your understanding. To get a new perspective. Come with me and I’ll open your eyes to how all this really works. I’ll show you why empire is a lie. How power and violence and wealth are illusions. How fame is false and how religion has been corrupted. And once you see it you can’t ever un-see it.
But to help them understand Jesus doesn’t use a load of big fancy church words. He talks in their terms. I’ll make you fishers for people. But that’s not the only option.
I wonder how that would sound for you? When Peter speaks on the day of Pentecost people hear his words in their own language. We’re surprise and confused by that but it starts here when Jesus talks fishing on the shores of the lake. What would Jesus say to you? hey you… yes you… come and follow me. Bring all that you are with you because we’re going to need it. Some of it will help you speak to people who have had the same troubles or the same joys. Come and see. The world looks different from Jesus’ point of view.
1 Samuel 3:1-20 & John 1:43-51
The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
I wonder if that is how it is today too?
I wonder if the word of the Lord is as rare in our day as it was in Samuel’s?
Is it true that visions are not widespread?
Has God really stopped speaking?
Samuel was just a boy. And by that we’re talking Primary school age having not yet reached 12 years old when he would become a man. He lived in the Temple and it seems he sleeps right beside the Ark of the Covenant. That’s the box containing the tablets of stone Moses had brought down from the mountain with the 10 commandments on them. These are the most holy of holy things, the box that contains the promises of God… and Samuel is allowed to sleep beside them because he is a child and children were incapable of sin. To sin you had to have understanding, capacity. Children didn’t have that so Samuel was allowed where among adults only the High Priest would enter.
Samuel was already unusual. He had been dedicated to God by his mother, Hannah. She had prayed and prayed for this child and when he came she promised he would serve the Lord. When Samuel was old enough he went to live in the Temple as God’s servant. Samuel was the opposite of Eli’s sons who, despite being in line to become the High Priest, had no regard for God.
The boy Samuel would have been involved in the daily tasks of the Temple. He would have watched and learned as Eli, the High priest, went about his work; leading worship, presiding at the Festivals, accepting sacrifices, and settling disputes. Samuel literally eats, sleeps and breathes Temple life… but Samuel did not yet know the Lord.
How could that be?
How could a boy who was a gift from God, an answer to prayer, a child dedicated to God, a boy who spent every moment of his life in the Temple, who slept beside the Ark of the Covenant, how could Samuel not yet know the Lord? How could Samuel be around all that religion and not know God?
It’s a good question. It’s a question we might ask these days too. The answer might explain why the word of the Lord was rare and nobody had visions…
Observance is one of those words with two meanings. It means “the practice of keeping all the requirements of law, morality, or ritual”. But it also means “the action of watching or noticing something”.
The first one is doing what you’re supposed to do. Keeping the rules. No more, no less. Observing the requirements doesn’t really suggest any kind of passion or even attachment. It’s just doing what you have to do.
Observing as in watching is kind of similar. You’re detached. You might be really interested in what you are watching, but it’s not yours. When we observe, we watch someone else’s practice or behaviour.
Observance is one of the things Jesus challenges. Sure, you might observe the law, you might do all the religious practices, but do you live it out?
Observance is doing the things because that’s what you’re supposed to do.
Observance is saying the prayers, singing the songs, attending the services.
Observance is watching, being present but not really taking part.
Observance isn’t any guarantee of actually meeting God, and it’s absolutely no guarantee of any kind of relationship.
Samuel’s daily life is both kinds of observance. We could say that Samuel is observing observance. He sees people rehearsing the required rituals, saying the stipulated sentences, and lending lip-service to the liturgy. They are quite literally going through the motions. Their hearts aren’t in it, never mind their souls. They are just doing what they have been told they need to do. Doing what is required.
One night Samuel is asleep in his usual spot, next to the Ark of the Covenant, when he hears a voice calling his name. He assumes it’s Eli because, well because who else would it be? He goes through to where the old man is sleeping and asks what he wants. Why did you call me? It wasn’t me. Go back to bed.
This happens again… and then again. It’s on the third occasion Eli realises what’s going on. What Eli does then is insightful and generous. It’s God. It’s God who is calling your name. When it happens again say, ‘Speak Lord, your servant is listening.’
I say it’s insightful and generous because God hasn’t spoken for a long time. Eli could just have sent the child back to bed. There’s nothing there. It’s just a dream. Go to sleep and leave me alone. But he doesn’t. Instead Eli prepares Samuel for something that he himself will not receive. God has already told Eli that he will be the last of his line. He will be the last High Priest of his house because Eli’s sons are a bad lot and Eli has done nothing to stop their blasphemy.
Eli could have been jealous of Samuel.
He could have tried to stop it happening.
He could have tried to keep control.
Tried to hang on to whatever power he had left.
But Eli doesn’t. Samuel, go back to bed… and wait.
Samuel does what he’s told. He goes back to bed and waits.
Ok. Sure. No problem.
I’ll just go and lie in the room with the box that the armies of Israel carried before them into battle. The box that laid waste to whole regions. The box that contained the very tablets God had written…
Go back to sleep next to that box and when the God who did those things speaks to you just say, ‘speak Lord, your servant is listening’.
I wonder what you would do if someone told you to go and lie down and wait for God to speak to you?
But Samuel does. He goes back to bed and waits. And God introduces himself. And Samuel listens. And their relationship begins.
And what a start it is…
The Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle’.
What an amazing image! Something is going to happen that is so amazing, so unexpected, so unbelievable that when people hear about it their ears will tingle. Our equivalent would be the hairs on the back of your neck standing up… or goosebumps.
Something incredible is about to happen!
But first… I need to tell you what will happen to Eli and his family.
When God is finished speaking to Samuel Eli wants to know what was said. He wants nothing but the truth because Eli knows that God is God, and whatever God has decided is the right thing to do, even if it means something difficult for him.
Eli wants Samuel to be able to tell him, one of the most powerful people in the land, the High Priest himself, that God has passed judgement on Eli and his family. If Samuel is going to be a prophet then has to be able to speak truth to power. He has to be able to tell the people what God wants, even to Eli who has been like a father to Samuel.
Hundreds of years later, someone else encounters God in an unexpected way.
Nathaniel is sitting under a fig tree. A fig tree is the symbol of Israel in John’s Gospel. Jesus himself says of Nathaniel ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’.
But Nathaniel is hesitant.
How do you know me? Because I don’t know you… apart from what my friend Philip has just told me. And he says you’re from Nazareth so, to be honest, my hopes aren’t that high!
Nathaniel is observant. An honest man who keeps the law and all the religious requirements, a man who watches what’s happening, but Nathaniel, just like Samuel, doesn’t yet know God.
I wonder if we assume that watching or listening each week to the hymns I choose, listening to the prayers I choose, hearing the bits of the Bible I choose, enduring 15 or so minutes of me talking at you about whatever I choose… I wonder, do you think that mean you know God?
The answer is no. No it doesn’t. This is absolutely no guarantee that you know God.
It could just be observance.
You could be just going through the motions.
You’re the only one who will know if that’s the case.
Are you observant…
Here, but not really?
Or are you like Samuel or Nathaniel… open to meeting God. Keen to follow up on the introduction…
The Bible talks often about fruitfulness. Jesus tells parables about a fig tree that doesn’t produce any fruit. Paul talks about the fruits of the Spirit.
Knowing God makes a difference. Things happen. Fruit is produced. Others are introduced to God.
Eli helps Samuel hear what God had to say.
It was the same for Philip… come and see… introducing Nathaniel Jesus. Come and see!!!
Philip couldn’t help himself. Come and see who we have found!
But Samuel could have ignored Eli and the voice calling his name.
Nathaniel could have just stayed sitting under his tree. Just carried on as normal.
I had supervision the other day and my supervisor Jane called me out on something. She asked me a brilliant question that I’ve been thinking about ever since. It’s such a simple question.
She asked me how my actual practice differs from my potential practice? What do I do… and what could I do. And why am I not doing all that I could do?
I’ve been wondering about it ever since. Why do I do what I do in the way I do it? Could it be better? How? And if I know it could be better… what’s stopping me?
I was chatting to my wife Avril about it for ages afterwards and eventually she asked the one question I’d been avoiding… have you prayed about it?
No. I hadn’t prayed about it. I hadn’t prayed about it at all.
We both burst out laughing. It’s not like you’re the minister…
That’s observance. Instead of being the first thing I did, prayer was the last option. If all else fails break glass…
But isn’t that what we do? God can be the last person we want to hear from. It’s not because God isn’t saying anything… We just don’t listen for God speaking.
I don’t think that’s because we aren’t interested. You are. You don’t need to be here. Nobody is making you come.
So is it because we just haven’t been introduced properly yet? That we don’t really know God? We’ve never moved beyond observing from a distance?
I think its hard to listen well because the world is full of noise. More than ever we are bombarded with images and sounds. Our lives are almost never quiet. People claim all kinds of things and steal our attention from what truly matters.
Kenda Creasy Dean tells the story of a class she taught at Princeton Theological Seminary on communicating the Gospel. The task was to think about how we could spread the Good News. How can we tell people about Jesus above all the noise?
The answers might be ones you would suggest. We could have adverts on TV and radio. We could have our own youtube channel, instagram, facebook, x, threads, tiktok… We could stand on the street corner with a megaphone…. or a great big set of speakers… So that’s what she did. She set up a room with all that noise, speakers, TVs, computers… and someone standing reading the bible. Of course the person reading the Bible couldn’t be heard over all the cacophony.
So, how could they make themselves heard?
What’s the answer? Make an even bigger noise? More advertising?
The answer that came from one of the students was profound in its simplicity… we need to get close enough to whisper.
Knowing God is about getting close. Close enough that we can share our hopes and dreams and worries and hurts and close enough that when God answers, when God whispers in that still, small voice, we hear. We listen. We pay attention.
And in that conversation a relationship grows. We get to know God. We get better at talking to God. At being honest. At being vulnerable. At listening and then acting, together with God.
Nathaniel’s life would never be the same. He blurts out a crazy declaration about who Jesus is… Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel! because that’s what the books say. That’s the right answer. It’s the right words. It’s exactly what an observant person should say.
Jesus tells him he’s going to find out what that actually means. And it is more than Nathaniel could ever imagine. And he will find out by being close to Jesus. By experiencing, not just observing from a distance.
For Samuel his closeness to God meant a life of telling the people the truth. And God let none of those words fall to the ground. And those who heard them… their ears tingled because Samuel was speaking God’s words.
I wonder what it would mean for you and for me? There’s only one way to find out. You could stay sitting under your tree… Or you could come and see… come and see what God is doing… listen for what God is saying, get to know God and spend time with God. Invite your friends, your family to come and see…
Christmas doesn’t last long, does it? We get the big build up in the long wait of Advent and then in just twelve days we come to Epiphany, where we remember the visit of the Magi some significant time after the birth of Jesus. But we remain in the season of Epiphany for several weeks.
Epiphany means ‘A moment of sudden and great revelation or realisation’ so, that’s our lens for this and the coming weeks. What will we realise? What will be revealed?
Today we are catapulted back into a story we have already heard at the start of Mark’s Gospel.
John, this charismatic prophet, is out on the edge of the wilderness, heralding the coming of one who was much greater than him.
The Messiah was here.
And they didn’t even know.
Jesus comes to John and asks for baptism. calling on people to confess… to tell the truth about who they are and what they have done so that they can begin the hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation. That’s an important task and it seems like there is a real appetite for it as people come from all over.
But there is a reason John is calling on the people to sort themselves out beyond it being a good thing to do, which it is.
Something is about to happen that will change everything…
Or should that be ‘someone’ is about to happen?
We started reading at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel again today, just to remind ourselves how quickly Mark moves to the arrival of Jesus on the scene but before we get to what Mark tells us, I want to say something about how he tells us.
Mark is the oldest of the four Gospels, these stories about Jesus we find at the start of the New Testament in our Bible. And that’s something we take completely for granted… that we have bibles, ebook, apps or websites where we can just go and read this story. Until the invention of the printing press in around 1440 almost no-one had a book. Just for some context, the index of books in Cambridge University Library in 1557 lists fewer than 200 books. It now has over 8 million.
When Mark started to write down the story of Jesus it was at a time when nobody did that. It was hugely expensive. The materials were hard to come by and so things that were written down were precious. Instead, people memorised stories. We call it an oral culture. Stories are told and retold in a format that is easy to remember. So writing down the story of Jesus is in itself a revolutionary act, something fitting for a Gospel that is probably the most revolutionary of all.
So, this written account means that new believers will have a written text to make sure they get the stories right and that people don’t start making stuff up or getting confused or all the things that we know happen in the passing on of information. Send up reinforcements becomes sent up 2 and four pence…
So, these words are all important. Mark doesn’t waste a single one. His writing can seem brief, almost too short sometimes, but he manages to pack in much more than we often see at first glance. I’ve spoken before about how the first sentence, The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God is one of the most politically loaded sentences ever written and Mark just keeps on going.
We’ve spoken about John the Baptist, so let’s spend our time today looking at what happens when Jesus enters the story, and what sudden and great revelation or realisation we might discover.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised 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.’
Perhaps we should start with what’s missing. John doesn’t say anything. In Mark’s telling John the Baptist says the stuff about not being worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals before Jesus even appears. There is no conversation. No identifying of Jesus as the one. Nothing. We are told where Jesus came from and that John baptised him in the Jordan.
There’s an unspoken question that hangs around this story. What was Jesus doing before this? I mention this question, not to be flippant, but because this is the first time we have met Jesus. Mark has no story of the birth and at first look there is none of the preamble of John’s Gospel about all that in the beginning stuff. Fully grown Jesus just wanders up from Nazareth and gets baptised.
Why would the Son of God need or want to be baptised?
We speak of Jesus as being without sin, so what is he doing taking part in a ritual that is about confessing your wrongdoings?
But that’s not primarily what is happening, is it? Confession if you remember back to when we spoke about it at the start of Advent, is actually about truth-telling. Confession is one of those words that we use in different ways. We confess what we have done wrong, but we also confess what we believe. And both of those are about naming the truth. Naming the truth is the start of something, the first step.
So, when Jesus comes for baptism, it’s not because he has a long list of stuff he needs to get off his chest. For him this is a moment of truth-telling… God telling the truth about who Jesus is.
But look at who does that. It’s not John and it’s not Jesus either.
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.’
Right. Ok then. That was unexpected!
There’s a lot going on in those two sentences.
Let’s start with ‘The heavens are torn apart’. I’ve already said that Mark’s gospel is revolutionary, and not just because Mark has written this stuff down. Mark’s gospel is a highly charged political statement advocating a complete overturning of how the world works. So, we have to ask, how does that happen? How do things change?
It starts with truth-telling.
Someone tells their truth, their experience of the world and the way that something impacts on them. So, for example, in any civil rights movement, people speak out about an injustice or the application of prejudicial rules and how that affects them.
But telling that truth isn’t the only thing that happens. Just like where confession is the first step, it needs to lead to change or what’s the point? Change comes when the people hearing that truth realise their part in that and decide to work to get rid of the unfairness or prejudice.
These great movements for change start small. They start on the edges. The boundaries, because boundaries are the line where on one side people are in and on the other side they are out. Change is about boundary-breaking.
So, there, on the edge of the wilderness, at the Jordan, the boundary between the wild and the tame, the rough and the smooth, the place of wandering and the place of settlement, as Jesus comes up out of the water…
breaking the boundary between wet and dry, water and air…
The heavens torn apart…
The very boundary between us and God is ripped in two.
The Spirit, like a dove, breaks through
and a voice from heaven speaks…
‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
The truth has been spoken.
The confession has been made.
But what now?
Just as with any other confession we now have a decision to make. What will we do with this truth that has been told?
Will we deny it? Will we decide that it didn’t really happen? Will we pretend that it somehow doesn’t mean what it says? Or perhaps we will think that it isn’t a truth for us, here… now?
Will we try to disprove it?
Undo it? Trying our best to reseal the heavens and restore the boundary because to be honest, that would be better, wouldn’t it?
I mean who wants God wandering around among us?
That’s way too much responsibility.
That demands far too much from us.
Because the telling of that truth means we have to take seriously the fact that God has come to us in Jesus and that God is interested in reconciliation with us to transform the world.
But here’s the difference. Usually when someone who has been excluded or treated unfairly speaks their truth we can decide not to listen, or that their truth isn’t our problem, or that they aren’t even really telling the truth because their experience is so far from ours that we can’t even imagine what it must be like. So we ignore them and hope it will all go away. Or we punish them for exposing something that we all knew but went along with because it benefits us. We can decide not to move the boundary. We can decide to continue to exclude.
But that’s not quite the truth of this event.
God has decided to rip open the boundary. There is nothing we can do about it. We can’t put it back, no matter how hard we might try… and we have tried pretty hard throughout history!
The boundary is forever broken…
God is on the loose.
And that’s the truth…
And if that revelation or realisation doesn’t change everything, then I don’t know what could.
A sermon based on Luke 2:22-40.
When the angel appear to the shepherds in the middle of the night it declares to them “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” it all sounds great. Who doesn’t want good news of great joy for all people?
The shepherds rush to Bethlehem and find the baby all wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger… and they are indeed overjoyed. They are so happy they tell anyone who will listen about what the angels told them about the child before returning to their sheep, still singing praises to God.
I wonder, how many times in your life have you felt like that?
So full of joy that you had to tell everyone all about it?
I wonder what caused such joy?
And how long the joy took to fade a bit as life returned to normal?
Or how long it took you realise that people are happy for you but that the joy isn’t theirs?
One of the good bits about the days between Christmas and New Year is that the TV schedule is different, not that most of us even watch what’s on the TV at the time. It’s all apps and on demand now.
It turns out there are loads of brilliant kids animations on. If you haven’t seen the amazing adaptations of the Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler books like The Snail and the Whale and The Gruffalo then you’re really missing a treat.
The other day Avril had gone out and I made a coffee and turned on the TV, probably to watch whatever sport was in. Instead I found myself watching the Disney Pixar movie Inside Out. I’ve seen it before but it was at a part I didn’t really remember. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Inside Out is an absolutely brilliant story of what goes on inside the head of Riley, an 11 year old girl. Inside her head is a command centre where Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger struggle to work out how to react to what’s happening to Riley when she moves from Minnesota to San Francisco.
Joy is in charge and she just wants Riley to be happy all the time. Everything goes wrong when Joy and Sadness get lost and have to journey through Riley’s mind, through her imagination, memory banks and her subconscious. Joy eventually realises that Riley needs Sadness too… and that some of what Joy thought were purely happy memories were actually tinged with sadness. And we all know that sometimes the moments of greatest joy come after a sadness. “Joy comes in the morning”.
I think we all recognise that. There are times when we have moments of great joy but those are often moments when something changes, when we realise that things will never be the same again.
That’s what’s going on just a few days after Jesus’ birth when Mary and Joseph make the short journey from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to present Jesus at the Temple and offer a sacrifice… of two turtle doves. Luke seems very keen to tell us that Mary and Joseph have fulfilled all the requirements. Jesus has been circumcised, as required. As their firstborn son he must now be taken to the temple along with Mary to take part in a ritual of purification that happens after birth. Remember, there are very strong religious ideas around blood at this time and so anything that happened where bleeding would occur needs a ritual of purification afterwards and this has nothing to do with sin or anything like that. It’s a health and hygiene thing.
At the Temple Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus meet two people we almost never talk about as part of the Christmas story, Anna and Simeon.
We read that Simeon was righteous and devout. He was looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.
I wonder what it was like to live with that promise? You will see the Messiah before you die. It’s been a long, long wait. There must have been times where Simeon was discouraged. Times where he doubted the promise. Times where he lost hope.
Prompted by the Holy Spirit Simeon goes to the Temple when Mary and Joseph are there… and taking the baby Jesus in his arms he starts praising God in words that have been used by the church across the centuries…
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’
It’s known as the Nunc Demittis and it has become a part of the night prayers of the church, which are sometimes called compline. It’s a prayer of praise and thanksgiving. I can go in peace because I have seen the promise of God fulfilled. This ancient hymn of praise also makes an appearance in the traditional funeral liturgies, a time where we give thanks for someone’s life but also a time where we are sad because they have died.
Just look at what Simeon tells Mary and Joseph in the midst of his joy… “‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And he tells Mary that “a sword will pierce your own soul too.’”
Jesus is the Messiah. This baby is the one the prophets told of. He is the one Simeon has waited patiently for. Jesus is the source of great joy, the prince of peace, if we want him to be… but there will be some people who aren’t going to like what’s coming and they will do everything they can to oppose Jesus and all he stands for.
Jesus will bring change. Transformation. Jesus will remind the world of God’s priorities. Just look at what Mary sings when she discovers she will become pregnant:
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
There are some people with much to loose and those people almost never let their power and position and wealth go without a fight.
I imagine that Mary must have known this. The magnificat, the song she sings, isn’t a song Mary makes up. It’s Hannah’s song from hundreds of years before. It’s the song that Hannah sings in praise of God when she finds out she is pregnant with Samuel, the boy who would become the High Priest, the boy would take over from the line of Eli, the boy who would anoint David as Israel’s great king… ending the line of Saul. Samuel is the priest who would usher in the greatest changes in Israel’s history. And there were many powerful people who didn’t like it.
There was also a cost for Hannah. Her prayer for a son was answered. Her joy was so great that people thought she was drunk! But her son, her only son, the son she had wished for with all her heart, would be left at the Temple to live a life dedicated to God.
Simeon isn’t the only one who has been waiting, waiting for a long, long time. Anna was a prophet who has spent every day in the Temple waiting. She, like Simeon, was very old. She had spent all of her time there in the Temple and as soon as the Holy child appeared she knew. Anna’s response was to do what prophets do… she started to tell everyone who the child was to everyone who was looking for change.
Their wait is over. Their joy is complete and Simeon is content. Anna and Simeon have found what they were looking for.
I wonder if that’s how it is with us? Christmas has come. The Christ-child has been born. And that’s enough. It’s enough to know that light has come. Enough to know that hope is present. Time to put away the tinsel and get back to normal.
But perhaps we shouldn’t. Perhaps we should take at least a couple of weeks to celebrate the great joy that comes with the birth of Jesus but as part of our celebrations we should consider the implications… and consider what our response will be, even in the face of the opposition the Gospel provokes.
Howard Thurman, wrote
I will light candles this Christmas,
Candles of joy, despite all sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch.
Candles of courage where fear is ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens.
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all the year long.
I wonder, now you have met the child… what candles will you light?
What message will you spread?
What transformation will you bring?
What light will you bring to the darkness?
What do you notice?
What do you wonder?
What do you realise?
So as we listen to this week’s reading think about What do you notice? What do you wonder? What do you realise?
About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray.
As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.
Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendour, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem.
Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ (He did not know what he was saying.)
While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.’ When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen.
The next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met him. A man in the crowd called out, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. A spirit seizes him and he suddenly screams; it throws him into convulsions so that he foams at the mouth. It scarcely ever leaves him and is destroying him. I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not.’
‘You unbelieving and perverse generation,’ Jesus replied, ‘how long shall I stay with you and put up with you? Bring your son here.’
Even while the boy was coming, the demon threw him to the ground in a convulsion. But Jesus rebuked the impure spirit, healed the boy and gave him back to his father. And they were all amazed at the greatness of God.
What do you notice? What do you wonder? What do you realise? I’ll post my answers in the comments. I hope that you’ll be curious about the passage and that you’ll post your answers to the three questions in the comments too.
To help us to Scratch the Surface we are going to think about 3 questions:
What do you notice?
What do you wonder?
What do you realise?
So as we listen to this week’s reading think about What do you notice? What do you wonder? What do you realise?
‘But to you who are listening I say: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’
What do you notice? What do you wonder? What do you realise? I’ll post my answers in the comments. I hope that you’ll be curious about the passage and that you’ll post your answers to the three questions in the comments too.
If you want to dig deeper then join us for our bible study on Thursdays on zoom!