Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Lent Reflection: “Prepare the Way of the Lord”

There are several parts to a story that make it worth reading or telling. A good plot, interesting characters, and conflict and resolution are just a few of those characteristics that make a story stimulating. Perhaps the most important component that makes a story worth reading is the opening. Any story worth reading must capture the imagination of its readers through a good beginning.

It is well known among readers of the four canonical Gospels that each begins with a different opening. Matthew and Luke narrate the birth narratives of Jesus, although they do so differently. John speaks about the Word that existed with God, was God, and became flesh. Mark begins with a simple introduction and a quote from the Old Testament. But Mark’s beginning is packed with interesting points that contribute to his whole story about Jesus and that inform and move the readers who hear his version.
Gospel of Mark from Lindisfarne Gospels, British Library

Mark pulls no punches when it comes to the subject matter of his story. He is not writing a history of the Roman world or about any leaders in the Roman world. He is not writing a history of the Jewish people or about just any Jew from the first century. No, Mark is writing about this person called Jesus and specifically about the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Indeed, many scholars have suggested that verse one is Mark’s title to his whole story, signifying the entire purpose of this Gospel.

Following this opening verse, we read in verses 2-3 words from the Old Testament which Mark attributes to the prophet Isaiah. Yet, the statements found here actually comprise a mixture of quotations from the Hebrew Bible. Mark is actually quoting from three different Old Testament passages (Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, and Isaiah 40:3), but he clearly credits all of these to Isaiah. 

Why? Was he mistaken? Or, might there be some purpose behind this seeming error?

I think Mark desires that his story of Jesus be understood against the backdrop of themes that are found in Isaiah; specifically the theme of wilderness wandering, especially because the emphasis in Isaiah is on the hope of eschatological salvation in the wilderness.

Isaiah speaks about a new Exodus, which resembles the Exodus from Egypt, and he tells about a messenger of good tidings (Isa. 40:9). Mark has proclaimed that his narrative is about the good news of Jesus, who is God’s messenger of good tidings. Since Mark has introduced his narrative as a “gospel,” and has followed that introduction by naming Isaiah as the source of the quotation to follow, it is likely that he desires his readers to understand this story in light the theme of hope that we find in Isaiah and to see this hope coming to fulfillment in the coming of Jesus. 

It’s as if Mark is using these quotations at this juncture in the story as a way of picking up the story of the past and continuing the hope begun in that former time, in the time of Jesus’ coming. In other words, in the coming of Jesus, God is at work within Mark’s story, fulfilling the promises of the past. By using Isaiah as the backdrop to the story, then, Mark invites us to comprehend God’s presence and activity in the world in Jesus.

This idea is carried forth in the first statement that comes from the Hebrew Bible that Mark quotes, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you.” Clearly it is God who is sending God’s messenger ahead of Jesus, who we know is John the Baptist, who will be introduced in verses 4-8. John’s role is very specific; he is sent by God to “prepare the way of the Lord” a direct quote from Isaiah 40:3.

Stanzione, Massimo,The Preaching of St John the Baptist in the Desert
c. 1634, Museo del Prado, Madrid
When we read verses 2-3, however, there seems to be one path designated, but under two different names. “Your path” refers to Jesus, and the way/path of the Lord retains its original reference to God. So it appears that Mark is setting out a very close connection between Jesus and God, and he is telling us that the Lord, God, is active in the sending of Jesus to obtain the victory promised in the past, specifically by Isaiah. 

As God has been seen as active in sending the messenger, John the Baptist, so God is seen here as promising to enter into the creation to go the way of victory through the path that Jesus will take. The way of the Lord is the way of the Son and the way of God, which God will take in entering the world. 

The “way of the Lord” finds its fulfillment in the “way of Jesus” who goes to the cross to suffer and die for humankind. It is the way of God bringing about victory over God’s enemies through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

But the way of Jesus is also our way. We are called to prepare the way of God in our own hearts and lives and in our own word. In doing so, we are called to open ourselves to God by following Jesus’ way of service and self-sacrifice.

As we journey through another Lent, let us allow Mark’s opening to capture our imagination as to how we prepare the way of the Lord by proclaiming to all the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God as the fulfillment of God’s promises to God’s creation.

Monday, February 3, 2014

“What Are You Looking For?”

The stories of Jesus first meeting his disciples are interesting. Although they differ slightly in the details, Matthew, Mark, and Luke narrate Jesus calling his disciples to follow him. He meets them while they are fishing and he calls them to follow him for he will make them fishers of men.

In John’s Gospel (1:29-42), we find Jesus first meeting two of John the Baptist’s disciples. John declares that “Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”, and as he and his two disciples are standing there on the next day, Jesus walks by. John once again declares to his two disciples, “here is the Lamb of God”, and John’s disciples begin to follow Jesus.

Ottavio vannini, san giovanni che indica il Cristo a Sant'Andrea,
17th century

The reaction of Jesus once these two begin following him seems somewhat strange. Unlike the stories from the other three Gospels, Jesus does not say to these disciples, “Come and follow me.” Instead, he asks them, “What are you looking for?”

It seems a bit odd that Jesus, who seems inviting to the disciples in the other three Gospels, is, here in John, somewhat put off by these guys who are following him. It’s almost as if he is asking them, “What do you want with me?” “Why are you following me?”

To this question, the disciples give an odd response, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Not only is their answer to Jesus’ question another question, but it does not in any way, at least on the surface, reveal their motives for seeking after Jesus. If anything, it almost suggests that they are stalking Jesus to the extent that they not only follow him, but they also want to know where he is staying so they can stalk him some more.

What exactly were these disciples looking for?

We can say with a great deal of certainty that John’s words to them about Jesus being “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” must have caught their attention, for it was at this point that they begin to follow Jesus. We know that Jews were looking for the Messiah who would usher in a new age in which the rule of God would overthrow the oppressive Roman power, bringing in a time of justice and peace and the restoration of Israel.

Moreover, the idea that Jesus was God’s Lamb would probably have resonated in the hearts of these disciples who were seeking forgiveness and redemption, not only for themselves, but for all of their people. And so, it is John’s words about Jesus that cause these disciples to follow Jesus.

Consider also the answer they give to Jesus’ question he put to them. Although their answer is another question, perhaps buried in that question is the real answer to what they were seeking.

“Rabbi, where are you staying?” they ask. The question implies that not only do they want to follow Jesus, but they also want to remain with him. The idea carried in their question suggests that they saw something in Jesus they had not seen in others, and they not only wanted to be associated with him, they wanted to be in intimate friendship with him.

Perhaps this is precisely why Jesus asked them what they were seeking. Maybe he was skeptical of their desires. He may have thought that since they had heard he was God’s Lamb that they might want to follow him to get what they can from him and to use him as a means to an end. Perhaps he was testing them to see if they were going to follow him to find power or something of that nature.

Maybe Jesus asked them what they were looking for just to see what was in their hearts concerning him.

And for all of us who seek to follow Jesus this is the first question we must ask ourselves. What are we looking for from Jesus? What do we want from him?

Some seek after Jesus to find wealth, thinking that the health and wealth gospel will bring them prosperity. Others seek after Jesus as a way to combat against those who are different from them. And still others believe Jesus to be their ever present and personal helper who gets them out of jams.

Jesus does not desire to be any of these to us. Rather, from what we learn from this passage and what we can gather from various stories involving Jesus and those around him, Jesus seeks to be in intimate relationship with those who choose to follow him.

Jesus certainly calls us to follow him in costly and liberating discipleship, but more than anything, he calls us to be with him in intimate relationship.

It is in this relationship that we find our being and our identity. It is in being with Jesus that we find the meaning of our existence and the abundant life he promises. It is in fellowship with Christ where we find hope even in the midst of despair, comfort in the midst of pain, and fullness in the midst of emptiness.

Moreover, in his response to the two disciples’ question, “Where are you staying?” Jesus invites them to “come and see.”

“Come and see” may imply that in their remaining with Jesus they will receive a revelation of him that will change their lives. They will experience a deep sense of the presence of God in Jesus as the Word made flesh. Indeed, this seems to be what happens as Andrew, one of the two who follows Jesus, goes to get his brother Simon, telling Simon that they have found the Messiah.

All of us at some point seek meaning out of life, and there are those who are consistently struggling to find a sense of meaning and worth. What are we looking for? Jesus invites us to come and see and to come and be with him to find that meaning. 

(This post is a shorter version of a sermon preached on 1/19/14 at First Presbyterian Church, Monticello, Arkansas. You can listen to the audio version here.)

Friday, January 31, 2014

Authentic Discipleship is Both Costly and Liberating

Tuesday, February 4, would have been Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 108th birthday.  Bonhoeffer’s story is familiar to many; a story about his resistance to a Hitler controlled Germany and his participation in the plot to assassinate the Nazi leader.  It was this public resistance and criticism that eventually led to Bonhoeffer’s execution on April 9, 1945, at the age of 39.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)
Yet, even though his story is familiar to many, it is his writings that still serve to penetrate our hearts and minds concerning what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  Perhaps his most popular book is The Cost of Discipleship, a deep and challenging assessment of what it truly means to be a disciple of Christ. 

It is in this book that we find the author state very powerfully that grace cannot be cheap.  “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship.”  Instead, Bonhoeffer coins an almost paradoxical phrase to describe the experience of salvation and discipleship: costly grace.  In his words, costly grace is “costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

In the Gospels, we find Jesus calling those who would become his followers.  In the first chapter of Mark’s story, Jesus calls two sets of brothers, all of whom are fishermen.  He calls them to leave their nets, to leave their families, and to follow him.  

In this story, and other call stories, we discover the tension that Bonhoeffer points out as that which epitomizes the gospel: Discipleship is both costly and liberating. 

When Jesus comes upon these fishermen they are doing what they normally do on any given day; they are fishing.  Indeed, this was their life; this was their existence.  Fishing was what was routine and comfortable for them.  While their occupation as fishermen was hard work that brought many challenges, it is what they knew and it is who they were.

Yet, when Jesus calls them, he calls them to leave their lives as they know them.  He calls them to turn away from their normal existence and to let go of what they know best.  How costly is such a decision? 

While leaving fishing may not seem big to us, let’s take into account what Jesus demands from another.  A rich man approached Jesus wanting to know how he might gain eternal life.  Jesus told him to keep the greatest commandments; to love God and to love others.  Jesus then told the man, “Sell all your possessions and give to the poor.”  At this demand, the man turned away, refusing to accept the cost.

We must be careful not to distance ourselves too much from this story.  In calling us to follow him, Jesus always demands that we relinquish our claims; our claims of independence, our claims to security and freedom, our claims to what we own, and our claims to live our lives as we see fit.  To answer the call of discipleship is always costly.  If it is not, it is not discipleship.

Yet, even as we speak of discipleship as costly, we must also view it as liberating.  The call to the two sets of brothers to leave what they know, what gave them comfort and security, is at the same time a call to find liberation and hope in something that is transformative. 

The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew, Church of Sant’ Apollinare, Ravenna, Italy
While their lives of fishing certainly gave them a sense of normalcy, they were unknowingly missing what authentic life with God was like.  Jesus’ call for them to leave their nets and follow him was a call to embrace a new liberating existence. 

But true liberation comes through the unadulterated practice of authentic love through service.  Discipleship that liberates us, but that also costs us, is the discipleship through which we take up the cross and follow Jesus.  It is the practice of finding greatness, not through power over others, but through becoming a servant of others.   

Authentic discipleship means that we choose to be last, putting the needs of others before our own.  This is the liberating power of the gospel.

When Jesus calls us to follow, and when we respond to his call, we are responding to and accepting a way of life that is both costly and liberating.  And only when we understand, accept, and welcome this tension, can we truly live out authentic discipleship that is, in the words of Bonhoeffer, “exclusive to his person.”

In order to accept the call of Jesus to follow him, we must relinquish what holds us back from the true gospel and what prevents us from becoming authentic disciples of Jesus.  We must count the cost of discipleship, and we must be willing to move from our status quo existence of comfort, security, and that which we know as normal, to embrace the transforming and liberating power of the gospel.  

This is authentic discipleship that is both costly and liberating.

(This post is a shorter version of a sermon preached on 1/26/14 at First Presbyterian Church, Monticello, Arkansas. You can listen to the audio version here.)

Friday, January 10, 2014

Sharing in Christ’s Baptism is Sharing in Christ’s Death

The most ancient ritual in Christianity is baptism, a practice that served the early Christian community as an initiation rite in which the ones who chose to follow Jesus entered into this new life through the waters of baptism. Believers submitted to baptism in reflection of Jesus’ own baptism.

The early church must have considered Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John to be vitally important. Matthew, Mark, and Luke narrate his baptism, and the Gospel of John implies the account of Jesus’ baptism.
The Baptism of Jesus. Arian Baptistery (ca. 5th-6th centuries)

What was the meaning of Jesus’ baptism?

If we consider Jesus’ baptism as it appears in the earliest Gospel, Mark, we find it is this event that introduces the readers to Jesus. Mark says nothing about the birth or the childhood of Jesus. Indeed, from Mark’s Gospel, we know nothing about Jesus before his baptism. He is introduced to the readers at the baptism. What is the purpose of this?

Mark is telling us that the baptism of Jesus is the point at which Jesus is authenticated by God and at which he receives his commission and vocation as God’s Son. The purpose of his baptism was to receive God’s commission which presented Jesus with a new vocation. From that point on, Jesus will follow the ‘way of the Lord.’

The term ‘way’ is significant in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus and his disciples are often said to be on the way or the road, and while we can take this in the literal sense that they were travelling, it also serves metaphorically for the way of discipleship, which begins at baptism.

The narrative structure of Mark helps us understand this. From the point of when Jesus is baptized, he travels the road of discipleship, preaching the Gospel, teaching the ethics of the kingdom, healing the sick, confronting religious and political powers, and facing temptations and opposition all along the way, until finally he is put to death as a rebel of the state.

How does this structure apply to the disciple, the follower of Jesus who listens to Mark’s story not simply to learn about Jesus, but who are called to respond to Jesus in faithful discipleship?

The life of a disciple begins with baptism, which leads the follower into a new vocation of preaching the Gospel, healing the sick, living the ethics of the kingdom, confronting religious and political powers, facing temptations and opposition all along the way, until finally we reach the end, death.

But there is something interesting about this concept of baptism in the Gospel of Mark. The Greek word for baptism is used five times in Mark, two of which occur in chapter one referring to the baptism John was performing and Jesus’ own baptism, and one in chapter eleven when Jesus asked the religious leaders about the origin of John’s baptism.

The other two occurrences of this word are found in Mark 10, where we find the unusual exchange between Jesus and the brothers, James and John.

James and John come to Jesus seeking seats of authority on the right and left of Jesus when he comes in his glory. In response, Jesus asks them a very daunting question,

 ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ (Mark 10:38)

What does Jesus mean by the use of the word baptism at this point? To get at his meaning, it might be helpful to notice that he draws a parallel between the cup and the baptism, making a connection between the two.

In Mark’s Gospel, the cup that Jesus will drink is his death. He prays in the garden that God would take away the cup of suffering that he is about to endure. Moreover, the tone of his question to the brothers implies something challenging, even feared. So, it is not the case that Jesus is specifically thinking of baptism in the sense of being washed by water.

Jesus is not simply speaking about getting sprinkled or dunked in the setting of a nice church around people who love us. No, the baptism of Jesus that he mentions in the question he puts to the brothers, like that of the cup, is his suffering and death. His death is his baptism.

The Baptism of Christ by Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1304-06)
Indeed, there is literary evidence of the connection between Jesus’ baptism and his death. In the baptism by water that Jesus submits to in the first chapter of Mark, the author tells us that the heavens were ripped open (1:10). When Jesus breathes his last from the cross, the author tells us that the curtain in the temple that schizo, is used to describe each phenomenon, linking Jesus’ baptism with his death.
hid the Holy of Holies was ripped open from top to bottom (15:38). The same Greek word,

Moreover, there is also a connection between the conversation between Jesus and James and John and Mark’s portrayal of the death of Jesus. James and John request seats on the right and left of Jesus (10:37). The only other time the right and left of Jesus is mentioned in Mark is when two other rebels are crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left (15:27).

Thus, baptism for the followers of Jesus is not just participation in his water baptism, but also in his suffering and death. Sharing in Christ’s baptism is sharing in Christ’s death.

(This post is a shorter version of a sermon preached on 1/12/14 at First Presbyterian Church, Monticello, Arkansas. You can listen to an audio version here.)