What Have I Done to You?

n Advent, 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights began an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  Our texts for the third Sunday of Advent included Mark 1:14-20 and I Kings 19:19-21.   To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

Not long ago I was driving along and I thought I heard singer-songwriter James Taylor doing an amazingly beautiful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I was so taken with it that when I got home, I searched the internet, but could not find it. I couldn’t find it because, apparently, James Taylor hasn’t recorded that tune. I learned that day that James Taylor has a younger brother named Livingston, and now I’m a fan.

Have you ever found yourself reacting to someone you’d never really met before simply because they remind you of someone else? I’m not talking about “mistaken identity”, like when I’ve been asked for my autograph because someone thinks that I’m NFL broadcaster Dan Fouts; I’m talking about how you might treat someone nicer because she sort of looks like your grandmother, or how your neighbor’s child reminds you of the way your brother acted when he was younger.

When the author of Mark was writing his gospel, he went to great lengths to point out to people some of the ways that Jesus might have reminded them of someone that they ought to have known very well.

Ascent of the Prophet Elijah, Northern Russia Icon (c. 1290)

One of the most important characters in the entire Bible, and in our own faith story, is a shadowy figure named Elijah the Tishbite. He was widely regarded as Israel’s greatest prophet. He arose, seemingly, out of nowhere and called an unrighteous monarchy to account. He pushed the leadership of the people and the people themselves for purity in their spiritual lives. Elijah is one of two people mentioned in the Bible who did not die – rather, he was “taken up into heaven” in a fiery chariot.

Because of his reputation as a prophet, and because of the story of his having been taken directly to heaven, the people in Israel began to speak of Elijah’s return as the time when God would come and really set things straight once and for all. Four or five hundred years after Elijah’s death, the prophet Malachi wrote that Elijah would return at “the great and dreadful day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5). When faithful Jews observe the Seder meal at Passover, it is customary to set a place at the table for Elijah – the one who comes to announce the presence of the Lord.

Mark wants us to remember Elijah. The prophet himself will figure prominently in the gospel in later chapters, but even here at the beginning, our narrator intends for us to see echoes of the Elijah story. Here’s a bit of that story to jog your memory.

As I mentioned, Elijah’s concern was defeating the idolatry that plagued his people. One day, he challenged the priests of Baal to a showdown of faith – one that ended very badly for them and for their “god”. While that may have been a very good thing for a number of reasons, the fact is that the King and Queen of Israel were Baal worshipers, and when he humiliated them, they put his name on their “public enemies” list. He fled to the wilderness, where he spent 40 days and 40 nights bemoaning his fate. At the end of that time, God came to Elijah when Elijah was alone, and spoke to him as to what to do next.

The old prophet leaves his mountain hideout and re-enters the community, where he encounters Elisha. He places his mantle on the young man’s shoulders, and in so doing, invites him to come along. It might not seem like it to our 21st-century ears, but placing the prophet’s mantle on Elisha was a very concrete invitation. It would be as if I asked Lydia to come over here, and I took off my robe and stole and put them on her – it would be an indication of what I thought her future might hold, wouldn’t it?

And Elisha doesn’t miss the message. He goes through a very public display of leaving his home, his family, and his career and then follows Elijah.

The Calling of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew, James Tissot (in 1886-1894)

In last week’s reading from Mark, we read of another man who wandered into the wilderness. Jesus left Nazareth and found John the Baptist; after their encounter, Jesus alone hears a voice and sees a vision that directs him. He then spends – how long? Forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, following which he engages in his ministry. The first thing he does when he leaves the wilderness, according to Mark, is to come into Galilee preaching and teaching. Simon, Andrew, James and John all see Jesus and make a very public display of leaving their own homes, families, and careers in order to follow Jesus.

Do you see how the reading from Mark is set up to parallel the story of Elijah? Why would he do that? What does that mean to us?

You may remember that a couple of weeks ago when we began this study we noted that Mark invented the genre we call “Gospel”. Chapter one, verse one: “The beginning of the Gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…” So far, we have encountered John the Baptist and seen Jesus. Now, in verse fourteen, we actually hear the Gospel: “The time has come! The Kingdom of God has come near! Repent and believe the good news!”

The first announcement of the Gospel as recorded in the first Gospel to be written consists of two announcements (“the time has come” and “the Kingdom of God has come near”) and two imperatives (“repent” and “believe”). The thing that God has long-intended to do is here! Pay attention. How do we pay attention? We repent. The Greek word that Mark uses is metanoia, and it means, literally “change of mind”. It speaks of being transformed, and re-orientation. And once we become open to this transformation, we live into it by believing. Pisteuete – have confidence in this thing; act as if it were true; depend on it – in short: believe!

Ah, but how do we do those things? What do “repent” and “believe” look like in our world?

Too often in modern and post-modern American culture, the word “repent” is used as a guided missile. An “evangelist” (literally, someone who is entrusted to carry the Good News) encounters a “non-believer” and hurls the invective: “You! Yes, you! Turn or burn, baby. You are so filthy, so miserable, so sinful… well, you make God sick! You better straighten up, buddy! You’d better get with the program like the rest of us holy people!” Yep, Good News all around!

And if that is how “repent” is interpreted, then the second part of the pronouncement to “believe” can often be heard as a call to abandon the intellect, turn your back on science, and just accept whatever I tell you to be true, you ninny.

Yet when we place those words in the context of Jesus (and Elijah, for that matter), we see that there is an entirely different mood and outcome.

Elijah places his mantle on Elisha, who asks a question. The old prophet immediately responds by saying, “Look? What did I do to you? This is between you and God. It’s not about keeping me happy. You do what you need to do.”

Jesus stands on the beach and calls out to the fishermen: “Come, follow me…” According to Mark, this is one of only three times that Jesus uses this particular word. It’s not the regular word for “follow”, but more appropriately “come along with me”, or “join me” or even “share this journey with me”. In other words, the call to repentance and belief is an invitation that is extended by one who wishes to share in the process, not browbeat some helpless people into theological submission.

I had a great example of this kind of invitation earlier this week. I was at my desk when I got a text from Marla (I’m still not sure how I feel about people who are in the same building, or even the same room as I am who send texts rather than simply walking over and conversing, but that could simply mean that I’m really old). The message read, “Come down to the side door. You’re gonna want to see this.”

That brief message had so much good in it: there was invitation, intrigue, presence, and anticipation. There was no sense of a threat; there was no scolding. My friend was inviting me to join her in a place she thought I would appreciate. So you know what I did: I got up and hightailed it to the side door – because I trust Marla. If she said I would want to see it, then I wanted to see it.

She showed me the back of her car, filled with nearly 300 brand new books that had been donated to the Open Door for distribution to the children of this community. She was right! I did want to see it. She had good news, and she showed me the good news. She also made me help her unload the good news into the church, but that’s another sermon I suppose).

Jesus, fresh from the vision and voice of God, fresh from his time of testing in the wilderness, walks over to the edge of the water and calls to those who are working hard: “Hey, fellas! Check this out! Come and see!” He walks a little farther, where he encounters a couple more men who are nearly finished with their daily tasks and says, “You’re gonna want to see this…” And they do! They get up and they follow.

I want to note at this point that the calls from Elijah and Jesus do not come at the time of optimum convenience. Nobody shows up at the house, or stops by the beach on a day when you are just hanging around with all of your stuff done, wondering “I wonder if anyone has anything interesting they’d like to show me? I mean, I’ve got a lot of extra time and energy right now. Maybe someone will invite me into a new place to serve…”

The call to walk with Jesus (as with Elijah) rarely seems to come when people are feeling exceptionally well-rested, well-funded, or well-equipped.

The call to walk with Jesus often requires a leaving of sorts. Sometimes this is dramatic, as when we are invited to battle through an addiction or interrupt an occupation. Sometimes it is disappointing, as when we are encouraged to let go of a relationship that we treasure, but we know to be toxic. Oftentimes, it is frustrating, as we think about getting up earlier on yet another day, or spending time at one more meeting… And we realize that leaving what we have known and come to love and trust is always filled with some kind of grief, even when we are pretty sure that we are moving into something that is better for us (that’s why we cry not only at funerals, but at weddings: we hope for what will be, but we kind of love what is…).

Yet the call from Jesus is personal, genuine, and non-threatening. “Come with me. You’re going to want to see this. Let me show you that for which you are longing. Enter into this new way of life with me.”

I was struck by an example of this kind of invitation to a new way of life as I reflected on the opportunities I have had to travel internationally. Someone says, “Hey, come to Africa!”, and you think, “Wow! What a change that would be!”

There are a whole series of announcements: I’d like to go… I’m getting ready to go… It’s time to go: the trip is at hand!

You find yourself milling around the terminal at Dulles airport, where it seems as though the whole world has gathered. There are voices everywhere, and monitors all around you. Some people hear an announcement that flight #877 is leaving for Addis Ababa, and they get up and go to gate A23. Some people, presumably, don’t want to go to Addis, and they keep on walking. Still others don’t understand the language in which the announcement is made, and so they continue in confusion.

You get to Addis, and you find yourself in an airport that is, to your mind, incredibly crowded, overwhelmingly smelly, and poorly laid out. It is filled with strange sounds, and the PA system seems to work about 1/3 of the time. If you can find one, you settle into a seat, hoping that you’ll be able to make sense of what is going on… and then you realize that the one who invited you to come on this journey is sitting right next to you. What a relief it is to travel with someone who has been there before. It’s still a little scary, but you can catch your breath because you know it’s not all up to you! What a relief, right?

The Gospel – the good news – is this: the time has come! The Kingdom of God is near to you! So come on! Jesus is inviting you and me into the rest of Mark. He seems to think that there are things that we’ll want to see.

None of us are going alone. I know, you think, “Well, it’s not really a great time for me to be thinking about making major life changes.” Yeah. Join the club. But it will never be a perfect time. So let’s see what there is to see. Let’s leave our boats, our nets, our current fascinations and walk a while with Jesus into the nuances of discipleship. It may be that we will find the life of deeper discipleship to be that one for which we are made! It may be that the purposes to which we are called reflect those we were given at our birth.

What has he done to you? He’s invited you. Thanks be to God, he’s invited all of us. May we have the grace to follow with him today. Thanks be to God. Amen.

After the Fireworks

Sunday, May 31 many of our sisters and brothers in faith were contemplating the mysteries of Trinity Sunday.  At Crafton Heights, we held on to the notion of Pentecost a little longer, and I wondered what life was like for folks after the big displays of God’s power.  Our scriptures included I Kings 19:9-18 and Acts 2:42-47

Think about a time you were in the middle of something – doing a job or working on a project, the only thing you wanted was to stop doing that thing. Have you ever felt as though what you really wanted was to quit whatever you were doing, but for whatever reason, you just couldn’t?

If that’s the case, then you can really identify with the story of Elijah. We’ve only read a portion of his story this morning, but let me tell you that he is THE prophet of God in the Old Testament. There are no books that bear his name, but Elijah is the one to whom people are looking when they want to know what the Messiah will be like. Elijah is HUGE in the Old Testament.

Elijah on Horeb, by Sieger Köder (German, 1925-2015)

Elijah on Horeb, by Sieger Köder (German, 1925-2015)

In our reading, we meet Elijah as he’s fresh from the biggest victory of his prophetic career – and that’s saying something. He’s been at Mount Carmel, where he’s challenged the pagan-worshipping leaders of Israel to a prophetic duel. There were 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah who were defeated by the power of the Lord. Elijah presided at a mass conversion of the Israelites back to the way of the Lord. God’s power was displayed in a mighty fashion. It was amazing.

And then the Queen of Israel finds out about it, and she sends Elijah a death threat. He throws up his hands and heads for the wilderness. He tries to quit his job as a prophet – he asks God to take his life. He’s burnt out. Take a look at Elijah here – he sounds like he is dealing with a classic case of depression.

He brings his complaint to God, and he seems to forget everything that’s just happened. “I alone am left,” he says. He overlooks the mass conversions, the incredible demonstrations of God’s power. “They want to kill me,” he says.

And God says to him, “I’m coming. Go out and stand before me.” But Elijah doesn’t do it! He stays hiding in the cave. And God unleashes some incredible fireworks – there is rock-splitting wind, there’s an earthquake, there’s a tremendous fire. But what does Elijah do? Nothing! He’s still hiding in the cave. The fireworks don’t impress him. “I’ve seen it,” he says. “I know the tricks. I just want to quit. I’m all alone, and I want to die.”

After the fireworks, there’s a silence and a calm — and that’s enough to draw Elijah from the cave. But look at him. He’s still hiding – wrapping himself in his scarf, hiding his face. He’s still miserable – he repeats the exact same speech to the Lord. He’s unchanged by the very appearance of God!

Have you ever been depressed and someone has tried to cheer you up? Someone has tried to talk you out of it? Doesn’t work very well, does it? Look at what God does with Elijah. He listens to the little speech. He doesn’t argue with the Prophet. But he doesn’t let him quit, either. He gives Elijah a new mission – to anoint the kings of Aram and Judah. He gives Elijah a new partner – Elisha. He promises that there are at least 7000 faithful servants who have not bowed and worshipped the idols. Now you could say that God not only doesn’t let Elijah quit – he puts him on a committee! But I prefer to say that God shows Elijah his place among the people of God. He reminds him of the fact that he belongs to God – and to God’s people.

Now, if we flip ahead to the New Testament reading, you’ll see that there are fireworks here, too. Last week we spent the Sabbath remembering all that happened on the day of Pentecost. There were tongues of flame resting on the heads of the followers of Jesus. People were given the gift of speaking in new languages. Peter preaches a powerful sermon, and more than 3000 people are converted that day. And Luke could have stopped the story there, but he didn’t.

We Are All One in Jesus Christ, by Soichi Watanabe, (Japanese, 2009)

We Are All One in Jesus Christ, by Soichi Watanabe, (Japanese, 2009)

Luke goes on to tell us that after the fireworks, those who believed in Jesus were regularly gathering for teaching, fellowship, shared meals, and prayer. And what happened is that God used this time after the fireworks to change the church. What had been a group of a couple of dozen followers of Jesus who were scared to death slowly changed into a community of vigorous believers who found their identity as being the People of God. They came together for teaching, fellowship, shared meals, and prayer — and found that God had transformed them into the Body of Christ. After the fireworks of Pentecost had gone off, that Body continued to be together. They continued in faithfulness, even when in the days after that outpouring of the Spirit their leaders are arrested and jailed. They continued to meet together, to dwell together, and share life together.

So what? What is the application for those of us who are seeking to be faithful Christians two thousand years later?

Is it just me, or did many of you come into this room because of, or after, the fireworks? I know, you weren’t up on the mountain and you didn’t live through the windstorm or the earthquake or the firestorm; I know you didn’t all of a sudden start speaking in other languages. But you’ve seen fireworks, all right.

Some of you are here because you had a baby, once upon a time, and you figured that God’s hand was in that and you ought to figure out what it was all about. Some of you are here because a marriage started, and you wanted to start if off right. Others of you got here because a marriage ended, and you were looking for God’s presence in the midst of that firestorm. I think it’s safe to say that there are a lot of us who are here because of the fireworks.

The question is this: are you in the room, or are you in the family of God? Are you a part of the furniture, or are you a part of the body of Christ?

For a while, we’ve been easing out of the “high holy days” of Lent and Easter. Pentecost marked the last big holiday in the church for a long time. From here on in, we’re in “ordinary time”. Time that is given to us to discover what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ as we go through the ordinariness of our lives. I would suggest this morning that one of the core truths of scripture is that consistent investment with and involvement in the body of Christ is essential for faithful living.

What does that mean? Well, it means that being here is important. That it’s important for us to be together in worship, as we are now; it’s important for us to be together in study, as we were during FaithBuilders and as many of us are at other points in the week; it’s important for us to be together in the business and administration of the congregation in venues such as the Preschool Board or the Congregational Life committee.

Now, beloved, I know that these things are true:

I know that your living room sofa is far more comfortable than these pews ever will be. And I’m pretty sure that your TV room is a lot cooler than this old building is right now. You can get a better preacher by turning on the television or checking out YouTube. Our music here isn’t bad, but let’s be honest. If it’s sheer talent and performance you’re after, you’d be better off visiting iTunes.

Some years ago, I left this building and was convinced that we had just witnessed a profound worship event. Everything just clicked, if you know what I mean. There was special music. The sermon was good. Prayer time was open and honest. There was a crowd here. You know the kind of service I mean… So a friend of mine was unable to be here. I gave him the recording and said, “wow, you really missed something special. Check this out.” The next day he called me back and I asked him what he thought. His first reaction was, “the soloist was very flat on the special music, and the choir was out of synch. Also, you mumbled quite a bit on the sermon. And it was too long.”

I was convinced it was a worship service that changed lives. I still believe that. But he wasn’t here to experience it. He didn’t see the face of the soloist as she led us in worship. He couldn’t see the faces of the people listening to the choir. He didn’t see the Jr. High students paying attention to the sermon. He had the recording, but he wasn’t in worship.

There’s something about being together with a group of believers that makes all the difference in the world. You could find more comfortable seats, better preaching, and more quality music in other places, but you’d miss something essential to faithful living — you’d miss being able to participate in this part of the body of Christ.

“Uh, Hello, Dave! You’re preaching to the choir, now. Take a look, Pastor. We are here.”

Yes, you are, but now you take a look. I’m not really preaching to the whole choir, am I? There are some empty seats. There are people missing.

And the world – and our culture – says, “Hey, it’s their choice. They know how to get here. I’m not going to be pushy or nagging.” The culture would say to us, “You know, they were here last week. Can’t expect too much. After all, summer is just beginning…or it’s softball season… or I’ve got people coming in from out of town…”

Yet the Word of God tells us that we are one body. That we belong to Christ, and that we belong to each other. Who is not here this morning? Why aren’t they here? And do you realize that we are diminished by their absence?

Oh, it’s not about the numbers. Sure, our numbers would be higher if everyone was here. But it’s much more important than that. Scripture tells us that people who belong to Christ and to each other spend time together doing things like teaching, and fellowshipping, and sharing meals, and praying. And if a significant number of us start behaving as though our presence or absence here is insignificant, then we’ll lose our ability to really behave as the body of Christ. And if that happens, then we’ll find that we are not effective in the ministry to which the Lord calls us. And if that happens, we will find that we succumb to the same depression and alienation that threatened Elijah’s ministry.

So what am I asking you to do, my friends? Two simple things. First, I want to encourage you to be here in worship each week. If you’re not traveling and you’re not ill, then you ought to be here. Because worship is different than anything else in your life. Going out to brunch or playing in a sports league or getting a head start on your shopping are all things that you do. Worship is where you find out who you are. The culture will tell you that it’s one item on the menu of choices that you’ll make this week. And I’m telling you that if you lose your connection with the Body of Christ, none of your other connections will have much relevance or impact. So will you be here – not for me only, but for you, and for those other members of the body in which you share.

The second thing I’d like you to do is to look for the people who aren’t here, and tell them that you miss them. I’m not asking you to call people and harangue them for not showing up. I’m not asking you to play detective and try to find out why they’ve missed the last two weeks. I’m simply asking you to reach out to one of your fellow disciples and say, “Gee, I missed you at worship today. Are you all right? You’re in my thoughts.” In fact, why not take a peek around during the offertory and see who’s here. Then pull out your phone and send a text to someone saying, “I’m here, and I don’t see you here. I wish you were here.”

Tell them that you miss them. Because we do, you know. We are called to an incredible mission. We are given a great responsibility. And we can’t do it without everyone being represented. It is one we share as the body of Christ in this place at this time. Right now, you might not even know why you miss that person; but I pray you’ll have a chance to discover her gift or his ministry as they have the opportunity to share it here, with the rest of the disciples whom God has called in this place. Be here. And look for those who aren’t. Amen.