Previews of Coming Attractions

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the first Sunday of May in 2018, we considered the story of John the Baptist’s gruesome death at the hands of Herod Antipas, the reasons that Mark may have had for including it, and how that matters to the church in the 21st century.  Our texts were Mark 6:30-44 and Hebrews 13:1-3.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the player below, or paste https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/sermon05-06-2018.mp3 into your browser window.

As we continue our study of Mark’s gospel, you will be forgiven if you find this reading hard to accept.  After all, it seems so far-fetched, doesn’t it?  Who could think the powerful leader of an entire nation – a nation that saw itself as an example of moral purity, and whose leader enjoyed the complete support of the nation’s religious conservatives – who could even imagine that a leader such as that might be involved in multiple marriages, messy divorces, and tawdry cover-ups?  I know, it seems far-fetched, but please use your imaginations to at least consider whether such a thing could ever actually happen… Because, as the late, great Casey Stengel once said, “You could look it up.”

Before you think you know what I’m saying with this scripture text and a sermon titled “Previews of Coming Attractions”, let’s take a look at what is happening here.

Our text introduces us to “King Herod”.  This is not the same Herod of whom we spoke a few months ago at Christmas.  ThatHerod, also known as “Herod the Great”, was the man that the Romans installed to serve as their client king over most of Palestine.  Herod the Great was the ruler who met the wise men and who ordered the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem.  When he died several years after the birth of Jesus, his territory was divided among three of his sons and a daughter. Today’s Herod, also called “Herod Antipas”, was in charge of Galilee and some territory to the East of the Jordan river.

Herod Antipas divorced his first wife so that he could marry a woman named Herodias.  That might have been messy enough, but Herodias was also married to Antipas’ brother, whom Mark calls Philip but who apparently was actually, if not creatively, named Herod II.  Furthermore, not only was she Antipas’ sister-in-law, she was also his niece.

St. John the Baptist Rebuking Herod, Giovanni Fattori (19th c.)

Mark tells us that the most powerful religious prophet of the day, John the Baptist, had pointed out to anyone who would listen how immoral and unsavory this arrangement was, thus earning the hatred of Herodias in particular.  As you’ve heard, Herodias finally got her wish to have John silenced when her husband/uncle was running his mouth at a birthday party he’d given for himself.

By itself, it is a disturbing story for lots of reasons.  However, as we are looking at the Gospel of Mark, I think it’s fair to ask why Mark tells us this story.  What reason would he have for thinking that, out of all the important things to say about Jesus, the Kingdom, and the community that formed as a result of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, it was important to spend fifteen verses talking about the death of Jesus’ cousin?

Well, for starters, this story reveals the growing power of the movement that the Kingdom of which Jesus spoke had begun.  When the Gospel of Mark begins, Jesus is an itinerant Rabbi wandering the backcountry of the Galilee.  He’s got some impressive credentials and can preach up a storm, but by worldly standards he is nobody.  Yet as the Gospel progresses, people start to pay attention.  The crowds get larger, and soon enough Herod Antipas takes notice. The author of the second Gospel wants us to know that the person and work of Jesus was garnering some significant acclaim – so much so that the local government begins to get concerned about who Jesus is and what he is saying.

From a literary perspective, I think that the author of Mark is truly giving us a “preview of coming attractions” in this section.  There are some real and important parallels with what happens in this encounter between Herod Antipas and John and the trial and crucifixion of Jesus as ordered by Pilate. Look at this:

  • In both instances, the civil authority is more than a little fascinated by a religious teacher, and appears to be willing to keep him around for a while.
  • Both Herod Antipas and Pilate fall prey to their own egos and make the mistake of trying to impress a crowd with some sort of lavish gesture.
  • Each ruler allows himself to be manipulated by the hostility of another party – in Antipas’ case, it was Herodias, while in Pilate’s it was the Jewish leaders.
  • At the end of the day, both Antipas and Pilate are reduced to being mostly spectators at an execution for which they in fact bear prime responsibility – they become impotent actors in dramas that grow beyond themselves.

Okay, those things may give us an insight as to why Mark feels it’s important for us to know about the death of John, but why does he tell us this story now?  Jesus is clearly on a roll as his movement is taking off in Galilee; we’ve just seen an instance where Jesus is transferring some of his power and authority to his disciples as he sends them out into the countryside… why does Mark interrupt himself at this point with what is essentially a “flashback” episode – he breaks his train of thought to tell us something that had evidently occurred some time previous. Why would he do that?

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, Puvis de Cheyennes (1869)

Do you remember what I said a couple of weeks ago about the “Markan sandwich”?  We looked at chapter 5, and discovered how Mark started to talk about a man named Jairus and his sick daughter, and then interrupted himself to talk about the healing of a woman who had been sick for a long time, and then went back to the story of Jairus and his daughter.  As we talked about that passage, we noted that there are times when Mark chooses to insert some apparently unrelated material in the middle of a narrative in such a way that allows us to see both the original narrative and the interruption in a different light.  Here, he’s doing that again.

The first part of the “sandwich” is the passage we had last week: Jesus sent out the disciples to proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of God.

The interruption is our text for this week: the death of John at the hands of Herod.  And the conclusion of the sandwich will be our text for next week: the return of the disciples which leads to the feeding of the 5,000.  Let’s think for a moment about how these seemingly unrelated stories can help to interpret each other.

One of the themes in the Gospel of Mark is that the movement of the Holy Spirit is a threat to those who yearn for or worship the power or illusion of success that this world has to offer.  Do you remember that in chapter 1, we saw that just after Jesus began preaching about the nearness of the Kingdom, John was arrested by Herod Antipas?  Here in chapter 6, the disciples give evidence of the nearness of God’s Kingdom, and we’re told of John’s death.  In chapter 11, we’ll read about how the masses are responding to the presence of the Kingdom on the day we know as Palm Sunday, and that leads to the arrest and death of Jesus.  In chapter 13, Jesus gives his “farewell speech” to his disciples and he warns them that when they preach the Gospel, it will mean trouble for them and for those whom they love. 

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, by Jean-Leon Gérome (1883)

So one could argue that inserting a story about the death of John the Baptist into an account of disciples who are trying to point faithfully to the coming of the Kingdom of God is, for all intents and purposes, a “preview of coming attractions” for the ones who are Mark’s first audience – the Christians who are struggling to have faith while living under Nero’s persecutions in first-century Rome. Perhaps those believers have begun to wonder what they had done to deserve this kind of treatment and whether Jesus himself could be trusted, and Mark uses this story to say, “Hold on!  Hang in there! Be of good courage.  I see that you are facing imprisonment and suffering and death, and trust me – the story isn’t over yet! Nothing of eternal consequence has been lost!”

Can you see how that interpretation might fit for the first readers of this Gospel nearly 2000 years ago?

Unfortunately, there are too many 21stcentury American Christians who will read this passage and say, “Oh, thank you so much, Mark, for including this story. We, too, are suffering horrible persecution for our faith and this is a great encouragement to us.”

A recent survey[1]indicated that a majority of white Evangelical Christians see themselves as the most oppressed group in the USA.  It’s people who look like me, by and large, who believe that they face more persecution than anyone else: more than Muslims, more than atheists, more than sexual minorities.  When pressed for evidence of this claim, we hear about

  • The county clerk who works in a state where same-sex marriage is legal and who must therefore act against her conscience in issuing marriage licenses to homosexual couples
  • A Hollywood celebrity who is passionately outspoken about her views concerning gender and sexuality is disinvited from an appearance on a television program hosted by someone with differing views.
  • The Christian church that is threatened with the loss of its tax-free status after its pastor campaigned for a particular candidate in a recent election.

When I hear this, I’m sorry to say, I am tempted to respond with something less than compassion. Don’t get me wrong – there are important issues here, and they deserve to be discussed.  But to say that I am being persecuted because someone disagrees with me is, at best, a stretch and at worst, an outright lie.  The white church in America is experiencing some grief at the loss of extensive privilege that it has enjoyed for hundreds of years. I get that.  But let’s not call loss of privilege “persecution” or “oppression”. These are differences of opinion or inconveniences or cultural change, not victimization.

A writer for Foreign Policy magazine recently put it this way:

How will we know when American Christians are genuinely under threat? When they start changing their names from the obviously biblical “Andrew” and “Mary” to the more secular “William” or “Jennifer” in order to avoid hiring discrimination. When Christians in Congress hide their faith and instead loudly claim to be atheists. When Christians are regularly blocked from buying homes or renting apartments in the good parts of town. When the president of the United States calls for Christians to be banned from the country. Then we can start taking claims of religious discrimination at face value.[2]

A few moments ago I read to you a passage of Scripture that contains a direct commandment that is, unfortunately, impossible for many of my Christian sisters and brothers to keep. Hebrews 13:3 tells us to “remember those who are in prison…and those who are suffering…”

Most of us are literally incapable of doing this.  We cannot “remember” those who are imprisoned or who are suffering torture because we have never known them.  The word “remember” implies some sort of previous knowledge.  “Do you remember the last time that the Pirates won the World Series?” is an appropriate question, because that has happened in at least some of our lifetimes.  Yet if I were to ask, “Do you remember that time you had your photo taken with President Lincoln?”, that would be nonsense – because you cannot remember that which you never knew.

In the same way, too many of us have no awareness of or connection with those who are truly struggling or facing persecution for their faith.

Mark chapter 6 cries out to the church in Pittsburgh in 2018 to do at least four things.

First, can we all get down on our knees at some point today and cry out with thanksgiving to God for the fact that you and I have never known the kinds of anguish and suffering inflicted on John the Baptist, Jesus, the first disciples, or the earliest followers of Jesus?

Second, before we stand up from that prayer, we need to repent of and give up the notions of privilege that equate our loss of privilege with someone else’s suffering.

Thirdly, will you invest an hour of your time in the week to come learning about and looking for ways to somehow be connected with someone who truly is marginalized or persecuted?  Go home and do a quick Google search on the kinds of oppression faced by women and sexual and religious minorities in the nation of Pakistan.  Learn about the fact that there are only 300,000 Christians in the entire nation of North Korea, and as many as 75,000 of them are currently in forced-labor camps.  Ask me about the South Sudanese pastors I know who have not seen their families for months because they’ve had to choose between serving the Lord and living in a safe neighborhood.

Here’s the deal, beloved: this chapter is not included in the Book of Mark as an “attaboy” to me, encouraging me to bear up under the intense persecution that I, as a 57 year old white man in the richest country the world has ever known, must be experiencing. Instead, I think that it is here as a reminder for me to ask, each and every day, “How does the Gospel with which I’ve been entrusted affect any of the folks in the scenarios above?  What can I do to create a world that is more in line with the reign and rule of God that Jesus called ‘the Kingdom’, and how can I point to its nearness in the lives of those who truly are suffering?”

The author of Mark makes it pretty plain that Jesus was directly and viscerally impacted by the persecution and death of John.  In what ways am I bothered by the injustices of our age, and what am I willing to do about it?  May God have mercy on me as I seek to respond as did Jesus.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]https://www.prri.org/research/lgbt-transgender-bathroom-discrimination-religious-liberty/

[2]https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/democracy-post/wp/2017/12/12/no-christians-do-not-face-looming-persecution-in-america/?utm_term=.1c61c5fc9ff9

What’s the Plan?

On the first Sunday of 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 day included Mark 1:1-8 and Psalm 85. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

When I was eighteen years old, I was supposed to be on top of the world. In August of that year, the grown man across the street from my home stopped me and said, “David, congratulations on finishing high school. Now, you’re going to college! This is the best time of your life! I’d give anything to trade places with you!” And by November of that year, I was in college. I was “free” from all the limitations that come from living at your mom and dad’s home. My family, my church, my friends – they all sent me off telling me that wonderful things were in store for me. All of us had some pretty high hopes.

And yet, in spite of that, two weeks before Thanksgiving I found myself in a dark place. I was lonely, a little afraid, and overwhelmed with schoolwork. I missed my old life and, well, let’s be honest – I was already starting to worry about what in the world I’d do with an English Major… My reality seemed miles away from the expectations we’d had.

My hunch is that you know something about real life not matching up with what you’d thought it might be. Maybe you spent years, or even decades, in loneliness, wondering if you would ever find a life partner – and now you’re beyond frustrated because of the arguments you’ve been having over Christmas bills… Perhaps you’ve worked for months to bring the family together for a vacation, but then when you get to where you’re going, everyone is bickering about schedules or lost on their phones for the whole time.

Things don’t always work out the way that we think that they will, and, even more often, it’s tough to see how things can possibly work out when you’re in the middle of some crisis. Ask the parents of a newborn who’s got the croup and diaper rash how much time they spend wondering some nights exactly why all of this seemed like such a good idea…

The Ascension, Dosso Dossi (16th century)

The earliest followers of Christ lived in the first century Roman Empire. These people believed with all their hearts that they had seen the ultimate purposes of God in Jesus of Nazareth. They had been witness to miracles and healings. They were sure that the knew what Jesus meant when he said, “the Kingdom of God is among you!” Sure, they had suffered a great deal during the events of Holy Week and especially on Good Friday, but they knew the truth and the power of the resurrection. They had been there, many of them, for the miracle of Pentecost. Most importantly, they believed him when he stood at that mountain and promised to come again. Christ is coming again! He will return! He said so!

Now, normally, we have some sort of context to understand when a person says, “I’ll be back.” For instance, if you’re watching a movie with a friend whose phone keeps on ringing, she might sigh and say, “OK, just a moment. I’ll be right back.” And if you’re a good friend, you’ll pause the movie while your friend is out of the room.

On the other hand, you may go out to coffee with your brother who tells you that he’s been reassigned to the Virginia office, but not to worry, he’ll be coming back. You surely don’t pause the movie for him, but you plan the holidays and birthday parties around the expectation of seeing him again, and soon.

So when Jesus prepared to ascend into heaven on that hill in Jerusalem and said, “I’m coming back”, well, you can’t blame the disciples for saying, “That’s fantastic, Lord! When?” And sure, his answer was a little evasive – “that’s not up to me” – but you know that the Christian community was upbeat. “All right, Lord, you go and do what you need to do. We’ll be over here. Waiting. We’re pretty excited about this!”

And they wait. Five years pass. Then ten. Twenty. Thirty. All this time, babies are born, people get married, people die… The world marches on. Some of the disciples experience conflict and persecution, but still – Jesus does not return. The community began to ask, “Well, Lord? When are you coming? How long?”

And there was silence in the heavens.

On the 18th of July in the year AD 64, a fire erupted in one of the slums of Rome. It spread quickly and raged for three days. Ten out of the fourteen districts of that city suffered damage, and three were reduced to ashes entirely. Hundreds of people died, and thousands more were homeless.

Rumors quickly spread that the Emperor, Nero, was actually responsible for the blaze. In an effort to deflect that criticism, Nero put the blame on the small group of Christians who lived in the city. These followers of Christ were a fringe group who were broadly misunderstood by most Romans. They were called atheists, because they did not believe in the Roman gods and goddesses. They were called cannibals, because they were said to eat the body and blood of their founder. And they were called incestuous, because even spouses called each other “sister” and “brother” and their most sacred rite – an agape love feast – was only open to members of their own community.

Nero’s Torches, Henryk Siemiradski (1876)

This group was an easy target for Nero, and so many believers were handed over to the magistrates and sent to their deaths on crosses, in the arena, or even burned alive to provide “entertainment” in Nero’s gardens.

And at that moment, you know that those who followed Jesus were saying to themselves and each other, “Is this how it is supposed to be? Is this what we are called to?”

In addition to all of that, as the first generation of Christians was dying, it occurred to someone that unless something happened soon, the stories of Jesus that “everyone knew” would be lost. Who would remember them for the next generation?

Taking Notes: Peter and John Mark, Craig Erickson (2014) Used by permission of the artist. See more at http://www.craigerickson.net/home.htm

Around this time, the tradition of the church tells us, the old Apostle Peter was sitting in a Roman jail cell awaiting his own execution for not respecting the divinity of the Emperor (Peter, essentially, “took a knee” when confronted with the claims of the Empire). He was tended to by a young man named John Mark, who was the nephew of one of the most respected leaders in the early movement, a man named Barnabas. John Mark had failed miserably in his attempt to join with Barnabas and Paul in a mission trip, but now comes to the aging disciple and helps him to record his stories of Jesus.

Peter and Mark are not trying to write history here, but rather to deliver a message. We know this because in verse one of the little book that bears Mark’s name, we read arche tou euangellio Iesuo Christu, Huiou Theou – “the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The book of Mark is the only piece of literature in the New Testament to actually call itself a “Gospel”. This little booklet can be tough to read, because it’s barely more than an outline. The incidents described are roughly chronological, but there are few attempts at contextualizing them. Sometimes, the Gospel interrupts itself with some detail or even another story. It is a lousy history book.

It is, however, a tender and compassionate pastoral response to a community in crisis. People want to know, “Is God still in charge? Is Jesus coming back? Does faith matter? What’s the plan, Lord?”

The Preaching of St. John the Baptist, Peter Bruegel the Elder (1565)

This morning, our congregation is going to begin a walk through the Gospel of Mark. We’re not going to rush, and I suspect it will take us most of a year to get through to the end. It’s a curious choice, perhaps, to begin this Gospel during the season of Advent as we prepare for Christmas. After all, there’s not a wise man in sight, and no sign of angels or blessed babies or even genealogies to open this Gospel.

And yet the theme of this morning’s reading – and, in fact, the entire Gospel – is that of expectancy. I think that British author C.S. Lewis captures this sense of anticipation and delight well in his series The Chronicles of Narnia when creatures throughout that kingdom continue to whisper to each other – even in the dead of the winter that has no Christmas – that Aslan is on the move.

Just as John the Baptist appeared in the midst of the desert announcing hope to those who are weary of the oppression of both an occupying army and a religious establishment that had lost touch with its reason for being, so the Gospel of Mark appears at a time of crisis and persecution to say that God has not forgotten his promise. Christ has come, Christ is coming, and Christ will come again. The Savior who appeared in the Judean wilderness proclaiming that “the Kingdom of God is at hand” is still wandering in the wildernesses of our own lives.

This Advent, as every Advent, is a reminder of the fact that Jesus is alive and active and still on the move. It is a season of profound hope for those who find themselves pinched between expectation and reality, and it is a season of reflection as we are called to consider what it would mean for you and me to repent – to turn around – and live in an awareness of Jesus’ presence in this time and place.

The first Advent of Christ was to a war-weary people living in a land of great injustice and deep fear. Advent of 2017 finds us living in a world that is seemingly on the brink of nuclear conflict… where it so often appears as though some bodies – notably the brown ones – matter less than the white ones, and where the color of money seems to be the most important hue of all… it comes to a culture where we are increasingly aware of the violence that is perpetrated against women and those on the fringes of society every single day.

The Gospel of Mark, then, comes to you and me at exactly the same time it came to its first readers: at the time when we are crying out, “What’s the plan, Jesus?”

And the Gospel – the euangellion – the message is the same: it is Good News in all of those horrible circumstances and more. Our call for this day is to listen to, and then get in line behind, John the Baptizer. To make the paths straight, and to prepare our hearts and our corners of the world for the inbreaking of the purposes of God as we come to know them in Jesus Christ. So let us, dear sisters and brothers, be alert as we enter into this part of the story – for the first, or for the fiftieth time. Thanks be to God! Amen.

The Baptism of Hope

On June 5, 2016 God’s people at the Crafton Heights Church were privileged to celebrate the baptism of three delightful young children, and to know that the embrace of God includes, enfolds, and changes us.  Prior to sprinkling my young friends, we read about our brother John the Baptist’s ministry as recorded in Mark 1:1-8.  Then I spun what I hope was an imaginative yarn about the power of baptism and the place of hope in our lives.

 

St. John the Baptist, El Greco (c. 1600)

St. John the Baptist, El Greco (c. 1600)

Do you remember that day, so many years ago? Do you remember the time that the angry young preacher came around? He was so . . . so different. He was so . .. . so appealing and repulsive at the same time. While most of the preachers we had ever known dressed in fine clothes and stayed in the city, the one they called John wore rags and lived in the desert. The ones that we were used to were polite to a fault, and called us “Sir” and “Ma’am” and acted like they appreciated the offerings we put in the basket, but John yelled at us. Everybody knew that people who had been in the church all their lives needed to be ceremonially washed every now and then, and only the pagans needed to be baptized, but John claimed that everyone needed to repent, and everyone needed to be forgiven. Why, it was just unheard of.

I know that you know a lot about that day that John stood by the banks of the Jordan and hollered about baptism. But here is something that you may not have known.

In the crowd on this particular day was a widow woman, whose name was Susanna. She had come to hear the preacher because her life was hard, and she was hoping for something to make it easier. In fact, she forced her three sons to come with her, even though none of these teenagers would have gone along if the choice were theirs to make. Today, I’ll tell you the story of what happened to Susanna and her sons as a result of meeting John they call “the baptizer”.

As I have said, Susanna was curious. Nothing more, really. She was just wondering if maybe there could be some real hope and substance in a religion. She had tried to believe, but it seemed so unreal. But what she saw and heard that day touched her in a way that nothing else had, and so Susanna waded into the murky waters of the Jordan and asked John to bring her to the “one who was to come”.

Her oldest son, Simon, was appalled to see his mother associating with such a religious lunatic, and he made no secret of his shame and scorn. Oh, she was his mother, and he continued to treat her with some measure of respect, but it was a respect of the hands and feet, not of the heart. Weeks and even months after they returned to the village, he was filled with disgust at the notion of his mother falling for such hucksterism. As soon as he could, he left the village and moved to the city of Antioch, where he became a cloth merchant. Because he was her son, and because she was his mother, she continued to receive packages from him, and twice he went to visit her — twice, in the course of the 27 years until she died — twice, he took her money and tolerated her religion . . . but he could never really accept her again.

 

I was unable to find any citation for this image. If you know where it came from, I'd appreciate knowing.

I was unable to find any citation for this image. If you know where it came from, I’d appreciate knowing.

Now, the middle boy, whose name was Jacob, that was a different story altogether. Although he was only 17 the day that he was dragged out into the wilderness, you could tell that it was a day he would never forget. Jacob had been running with a group of young men who were enraged by the presence of a Roman army in the Promised Land. While their parents and grandparents seemed to be happy waiting for some miraculous deliverance, Jacob and his friends knew that nothing would happen unless the faithful took charge.

So when he heard John preaching about someone to come, someone who would be great and who would deliver the power of the Holy Spirit, well, Jacob just about ran into that water. He glared at John and practically demanded baptism, and as he came out of the water, he raised both hands high in the air and gave a shout – I’m not sure even now if it was a shout of joy or a prayer, but it was a shout that matched the determination on his face.

It was only a week or two after the baptism that Jacob and his friends formed an alliance with a group known as the Zealots – a political party that urged radical steps to overthrow the Roman government. They looked and waited for an opportunity to shake off the yoke of oppression – and always Jacob was looking for this powerful deliverer. There was a teacher who came to town, a man they called Yshua, or Jesus, who was really quite captivating to Susanna and to Jacob’s younger brother, Nathaniel. But Jacob thought that he was soft on the Romans and could not be the Promised One.

About two years after meeting John, Jacob and several of his friends were caught trying to cut the bridge out from under a Roman Garrison passing through the gorge. They were executed on the spot and their bodies left for the vultures and the jackals. It was three weeks before Susanna knew what had happened.

 

John the Baptist Preaching, Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1799)

John the Baptist Preaching, Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1799)

And the youngest son, whose name was Nathaniel, he was the most thoughtful one. When their mother ran into the water for baptism, he was not ashamed, like Simon. Neither was he eager to follow, as had Jacob. Nathaniel just watched. And, unbeknownst to his mother, he went back the next day, and the next. Something about what the preacher was saying had him hooked – but he wasn’t sure what.

Finally, about three weeks after he had first seen John, Nathaniel asked to be baptized. And when he left, he went straight home and asked his mother to be released from his duties at home so that he might follow John and learn from him. Although Susanna was afraid, she knew that Nathaniel would do what Nathaniel would do, and so she gave him her blessing and off he went.

He had been gone for a few months when he returned home to report that John had been killed by Herod, but that he was now following a new rabbi, a teacher named Yshua – Jesus. He was the one, Nathaniel said. Jesus was the salvation of which John had spoken. He was sure of it.

After that, Susanna met with Nathaniel a few times, and even hosted Jesus and his friends once or twice. And, like her boy, she came to admire and even love the carpenter’s son. But after a few years, Jesus was killed, and instead of returning home, Nathaniel became more convinced than ever of his faith. He claimed to have eaten and spoken with Jesus after he had died. He left the country altogether, and was never heard from again. There were rumors that he was killed by a tribal council in Greece, but nobody knows. He just disappeared.

And so years later, in the twilight of her life, Susanna runs into an old man she thinks she recognizes. His name is Simon, called Peter. And he was a friend of Nathaniel’s. He was a friend of Jesus’. He was, in fact the leader of the group that was now called “The Way”.

And this old lady pours her heart out to the preacher. “What do I do now?” she asked. “How can I believe? What is there left for me to hope for, really? This baptism, this faith, this Jesus — it has alienated me from one son and killed my other sons. When will the promise come true? How many more sons will disappear?”

 

St. Peter in Prison, Rembrandt Van Rijn (1631)

St. Peter in Prison, Rembrandt Van Rijn (1631)

And Peter, grizzled, hot-tempered, smelly, old Peter responded to this woman. One translator words his statement this way:

God isn’t late with his promise as some measure lateness. He is restraining himself on account of you, holding back the End because he doesn’t want anyone lost. He’s giving everyone space and time to change . . . since everything here today might well be gone tomorrow, do you see how essential it is to live a holy life? Daily expect the Day of God, eager for its arrival. The galaxies will burn up and the elements melt down on that day, but we’ll hardly notice. We’ll be looking the other way, ready for the promise . . . So my dear friends, since this is what you have to look forward to, do your very best to be found living at your best, in purity and peace. Interpret our Master’s patient restraint for what it is: salvation.[1]

At the end of the day, the old preacher said, really, all we can do is hope. And we’ve got to act like we have hope. He didn’t answer the old woman’s question, exactly. He just tried to encourage her, he tried to help her to see that she doesn’t see the whole picture, but that soon she will. “Hang on and keep trying” is what he essentially said.

Now why in the world would I spin this yarn for you on this baptism Sunday, the first Sunday in June, in the year of our Lord 2016? Because there’s a new preacher on the block who rants and raves? Because I suspect that there’s someone here who’s ready to join the rebellion?

No, that’s not it. I’m telling you what might have happened because I think that the world in which we live is a lot like the one in which Susanna and her sons lived. It’s a world that has lost hope. We live in a culture that can’t imagine what real health and healing and wholeness might look like, and so we spin our wheels. We are unsure about the future – we look at the coming election and we shake our heads; we think about terror attacks and gun violence and refugee crises and healthcare costs and… well, many of us don’t like to think of what will happen. It seems pretty out of control sometimes.

When we get lost in our fear about the future, we lose hope. And because we lose hope, we don’t have any reason for big changes in our lives. “Rather than make big moves, we relax, settle into present arrangements, old habits, circular movements. We cling tightly to what is rather than dare to dream about what we ought to be.”[2]

 

John the Baptist, detail from The Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

John the Baptist, detail from The Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

Now listen to me, beloved. I am not John the Baptist. I am not the voice crying in the desert, eating locusts, wearing camel’s hair.

I am Dave Carver. I am a pastor. I tell stories. I walk with God’s people in Crafton Heights, and in Malawi, and in a few places in between. I am more apt to be eating wings and wearing khakis.

But today, today, let me play the part of John the Baptist. Let’s make this a grand production, and let me be the person who will yell about the One who is far greater than I! Let me tell you about the One whose sandals I am unworthy to untie. Let me be the one to spread the waters of baptism on unsuspecting little girls this day…

And in a sense, let me even pretend that I am more than John the Baptist, because John could only look forward, dimly, to a time when a man would come and assume his ministry and lead the people forward. But where John had the sands of the Jordan river for his platform, I have the rough-hewn rock door of an empty tomb as mine; where John promised that God was coming, I can tell you that God has come — that Immanuel – that God is with us. John had words to say, and I have words to say, but Jesus of Nazareth is the Word of life, the message of love and hope from God the Father.

You see, that’s worth hoping about. That’s worth getting excited about. Because just as my made-up friend Susanna was not forgotten by God in the length of her days, neither have you nor I been forgotten by God in the stories that we have lived. We are not beyond him. We are not too far away. We have reason for hope.

 

The Berlin Wall in the late 1980's

The Berlin Wall in the late 1980’s

In 1987, I had the privilege to go to Germany. While there, I spent hours driving through East Germany to the city of West Berlin. Some of you may know that in those days, there were two Germanies: the free and democratic West and the poor and communist East. Two governments, two nations – separated by an ugly cement structure called the Berlin Wall. And I drove and walked along the Berlin wall. I saw “Checkpoint Charlie”, where visitors could gain access from one side to the other — if the guards felt like it. I saw markers indicating the spot where children had been shot trying to make it from one side of the wall to the other. I saw mile after mile of razor wire, I saw tanks and guns and ugliness. And I saw what hatred looked like.

And not 500 yards from the wall, in West Berlin, I saw several brand new office buildings going up. And I asked my German friend, “Why in the world would you want to build those things so close to this wall? Is it to show the people in the East that you are succeeding and that your way of life is better than theirs?”

She was quick to reply. “No, that’s not it at all. We are building these here now because when the wall comes down and we are once again a single country, then the office buildings will be in the middle of town.”

wall-1I saw years of hatred and razor wire and people being shot. She saw a nation healed. I laughed at her idealism. She had a party about two years later when the Berlin wall was removed. And now, how many Germanies are there? And what’s the capital of Germany?

Where are the walls in your life? Where is hope held hostage? People of God, beloved, will you let me play John the Baptist today? Will you let me rant and rave a little bit, as long as you feel the water of hope splashing on you?

Our God has not forgotten . Our God is gracious, and waiting even for me and for you. So hope. And act like you have hope. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

[1] Eugene Peterson, The Message 2 Peter 3:8 ff.

[2] Will Willimon, Proclamation 5, Series B 1993, p. 21

You Tell ‘Em, Lord!

On December 8 the folks at Crafton Heights engaged the season of Advent by listening to the teaching of John the Baptizer in Matthew 3:1-12 along with the prophecy in Isaiah 11:1-10.  

Do you remember that day when we were coming home from school, cutting through the yards down behind the bus stop and all of a sudden Mrs. Johnson came flying out of the house yelling at us because she was sure that we had vandalized her vegetable garden?  I mean to say, she lit into us that day.  And then, about a block on further, we ran into Kenny and Joe, who were laughing so hard because they were the ones who had smashed her pumpkins, and we got blamed for it.  Do you remember how scared we were to go home that day, afraid that she’d already told our parents and we’d get in trouble?

Do you remember you great it was the next day when your big brother, Carl, beat the living daylights out of Kenny and Joe?  Wow.  I still owe Carl for that one.  That was great.

Do you remember last July when you got that speeding ticket?  As I recall, you were rushing around trying to get out of a meeting at work in order to get home in time for your daughter’s softball game – I think it was the championships or something like that.  They caught you red-handed going 50 in a 35 zone.  I remember how you tried to plead your case, but that cop was not having any of it.  When you told me that story, I mentioned to you that my neighbor was a police officer and we made a few calls and by the time you got to court, you didn’t have any points or a fine.  That was sweet, wasn’t it?

Do you remember the time a bunch of self-righteous arrogant jerks showed up at the church retreat, but the speaker – I think his name was John the Baptist – really let them have it?  I mean, those guys were totally out of line.  They were so full of themselves, and John – BAM – he just let them have it.  It was just delightful to watch when they got what was coming to them!

Don’t you love it when you get to witness power being used to correct an obvious wrong?  We hate to see anyone victimized, and it seems so good when a poorly-behaving person “gets what’s coming to him”.  Next time you log onto Youtube, just type in “Bully gets owned” – you’ll see more than 70,000 hits.  When the “bad guy” finally gets paid back, well, it’s just delicious.

So delicious, in fact, that sometimes we fail to see just who the bad guy is and how the power is directed and what the “fix” could be.

John the Baptist Preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee Giovanni Francesco Rustici (and/or?) Leonardo da Vinci (1506-1511) in Florence, Italy.

John the Baptist Preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee
Giovanni Francesco Rustici (and/or?) Leonardo da Vinci (1506-1511) in Florence, Italy.

Our Gospel reading for today shows us a group of religious leaders from the first century who knew all the prophecies.  They knew that the Messiah was coming, and that he would bring truth and justice.  They knew that God’s anointed one would establish God’s intentions in a powerful fashion.  Yet too often, they – and we – assumed that those intentions were directed against someone else, rather than toward our own hearts and minds.

Here’s what I mean by that: John, the son of Zechariah, has begun to preach the nearness of God’s intentions for the world.  In doing so, he begins with an invitation to repentance.  The word that he uses is “metanoeite”, means “change your mind” or “act like things are different”.  And the crowds can hear that message.  Many people can understand a part, at least, of what he says, and so they open their hearts to the transformative word and their lives are shaped and arranged and re-arranged by God’s spirit.

But the religious leaders assume that God’s word is not spoken towards them, but rather given as a tool that they can employ against someone else.  In this view, the Word of God is not an invitation to consider how God is alive and active and moving in my world, calling me to be more like him each day; instead, it’s an instrument with which I am called to shape, to carve, to manipulate you into the person that I think you should be.

The church of Jesus Christ invites us to consider today’s scriptures during the season of Advent so that we might remember that the reign and rule of Christ is a gift – a gift that comes directed towards us – and so that we might remember that anyone who wants to follow Christ does so beginning with repentance.  If we want to follow Christ, we have to be willing to leave the path we’re already on.  Metanoeite is a word that contains within it a description of what needs to happen: if we are going to follow in that way, we’ve got to be willing to give up on this way.  If I’m going to live as though I believe that that is true, then I have to be willing to consider the fact that this may be less than the truth.

Given that realization then, let me invite you to think about something that really angers you.  When you look at our world, what do you see and want to scream, “this is evil!”?  I know that you are aware of plenty in the world that falls short of God’s intentions as you have come to understand them: it may be racism, it may be animal abuse, it may be economic injustice, it may be abortion…  Whatever the issue or concern is that has just come to your mind, let me ask you, for a moment, to not run and grab your favorite Bible verse.

This is what I’m afraid of: I’m afraid that when we confront that thing we understand to be evil that we are so overwhelmed by it that we pick up our scriptures and we start to use them to hack away at that issue, at those who see things differently, or at those who have not recognized the truth in the same way that we have.  We use the Word of God as a tool to prop up our own opinions, or we behave as if God needed our support to validate his own cause.

This Advent, ask for the truth of God to come to your life.  Ask the spirit of the Lord to show you the path you are on – and the path that you should be on – when it comes to your conduct and outlook on this area of life.

In Advent, we celebrate the fact that God comes near.  God chooses to speak.  God invites us to hear.  So when it comes to consumerism and greed, or our culture’s changing views on sexuality, or the racial divides in our world, let me implore you to begin with an open heart.  Where do I stand when it comes to my own greed and acquisitiveness?  How do I understand the power of my own sexuality?  In what ways am I shaped by the color of my skin?

I need to ask those questions in light of God’s word.  I need to know where I am a creature of habit, with biases and fears and insecurities.  I need to confess that I am broken in each of these areas, and more.  When that happens, then I realize that the Word of God that comes is a gift to a world that is not as it should be, rather than as a threat to be used against those who are different from me.

Look at it this way: Advent points us to a story in which all of the best characters are humble and lowly and tentative.  There is an unwed teen mother and her newborn baby; there is the quiet man who has been publicly shamed by the fact that his fiancée is pregnant before their marriage; there are the shepherds who have been told for their entire lives that they are insignificant outcasts.  The backdrop for the entire narrative is a backwater country that has been filled with an occupying army and is seething with resentment and oppression.  God’s word, in this case, does not come in order to break people.  No, in fact the opposite is true: God’s word comes to those who are already broken.

This month, I invite you to join me in asking God to mold our hearts so that we might first hear his word and then shape our lives to it before we go out and pound other people with it.  I’m not suggesting that we abandon principles or act as if every proposition is equally valid…but I am suggesting that if we begin the day secure in our own success and confident because of our correctness, then when we look to scripture we’ll be tempted to use it as a weapon, rather than receive it as a gift.

We do that, don’t we?  We hold onto our favorite Bible verses and we just let other people have it.  Most of us, at least in this room, are probably too polite to do that to strangers.  We don’t run down to the bus stop or the Walmart and start beating up people with the Bible.  But when it comes to one of those issues that we care about, and we think that we’re going to get into a discussion with someone else here, well, too many Christians are tempted to want to fill our bag with favorite scriptures as if we were collecting rocks to throw at an enemy.

This morning I was struck by the fact that John called the religious leaders of his day a brood of vipers.  Serpents that are full of poison that can kill.  And that image collided with Isaiah’s prophecy of children who play near the homes of venomous snakes.  And I was horrified to connect the dots in my head and realize that in many ways, our own religious practice can be toxic to our children.  I was horrified to think that in many ways, church can be a place where children are abused in one way or another.  The news has been overly full in recent years of accounts wherein some children have suffered physical abuse.  But that’s not the only poison in the church, is it?  If we make the church a place where we are right and they are wrong; where God might love everyone but we’re clearly his favorites; where hate is taught as a theological virtue…then we are no better than the religious leaders who came out to challenge John.

Each Advent, we deck out the sanctuary in purple and blue not only because those are the colors of royalty, but because those are the colors for reflection and confession.  The Kingdom of heaven is near.  Thanks be to God for that.  How can we shape our hearts and our lives so that we might be appropriate recipients of and ambassadors for that Kingdom where the wolf and the lamb lie down together, and where the poison has no power over the child?

Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.  Change your mind.  Act like things are already different.

 

We need you so desperately, O God:

we need to accept you for who you truly are, not what we expect.

Too often, we choose flickering candles and bulbs over your true light:

we choose to hide who we truly are;

      both the sins that shame us,

      and the potential that frightens us.

Too often, we choose quick fixes over your true justice:

            we choose to be right rather than righteous,

                   in our countries, our communities, and our covenants.

Too often, we choose cheap thrills over your true joy:

            we choose to fill our lives with what we can own or ingest,

                 we choose safety over surprise.

Too often, we choose our schemes over your plan:

            we reject leaps of faith in favor of small, secure steps,

 we reject selfless giving in favor of our own fiscal prudence.

We need you so desperately, O God.

We need your light, your justice, your joy, your plan.

Hear us, forgive us, and help us accept you for who you truly are, not what we expect.  Amen.[1]

 


[1]  This Advent Prayer is adapted from a longer version written by James Hart Brumm, ©2008 Brummart Publishing.  Used by permission.