Getting out of Our own Way

FatherTim

Been a few weeks since I’ve posted–my computer has been down. Fixed now. Planning to post two today. The first, below, was delivered on December 10, Advent 2. The next post is really Part 2, up in a few minutes.

Mark 1:1-8

1.

Let’s begin today by putting ourselves in the shoes of a Jewish person living in year 69 of the Common Era.

Two schools of political thought constantly vie for your attention.

The first says to live into the Pax Romana, for that is your present reality. God is ultimately in charge even of tyrants, and thus God will not let you endure any more than you are able. Though no one can really point to a scripture that says it, everyone knows that God wants you to bloom where you’re planted. And you’ve been planted in a time and place where and when Rome is in charge.

The second school of thought summons you to protest Rome, resorting to violence and even guerilla military tactics if necessary. This school of thought has been the predominant call throughout Jewish history. So why should it be any different now? Judas Maccabeus almost succeeded a couple centuries ago. And today the secret sicarii are nevertheless widely known as assassins against Rome. Thus, like Esther, you reason that maybe God is calling you to such a time as this.

In addition to these schools of thought, the empire’s leadership is a mess. In the year since Nero’s suicide, four—count ’em!—new emperors have come to the throne: Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and now Vespasian. It’s civil war, for crying out loud; something Rome has not experienced for a century, since Mark Antony’s death. And it’s a mess!

Ah, Vespasian. Nero commissioned him to lead an army against Jerusalem and flatten the Jewish rebels. His particular focus was the Temple, the very place on earth where God dwells.

Recently, however, after more than two years of besieging Jerusalem, Vespasian was called back to Rome as Imperator himself. And now, Titus, Vespasian’s right-hand man, who according to rumor is even more ruthless than Vespasian, is in charge of the Roman army.

What will happen in the coming months, you wonder? Food supplies have got to be running low! And Jerusalem’s army, so says the word on the street, is running out of weapons and supplies. Things looks bleak, apocalyptic even.

Fortunately, you live quite a ways away from Jerusalem, north of the Sea of Galilee a bit, outside Damascus, in Syria.

Here you’ve heard a lot about a certain Jewish man who seemed to call for a third political school of thought. He opposed the authoritarian oversight of the Romans; but at the same time opposed the idea of rebellion through violence. He was a teacher and healer, whose message and mission was love. His name was Jesus, from Nazareth.

You wouldn’t think much of him, probably—much more of him, anyway, than of the numerous other teachers, healers, mystics, and cynics of the day—except that this Jesus, in particular, has since gained a substantial following. In fact, a certain prominent Jew, Saul of Tarsus, now going by Paul, experienced a drastic conversion; from persecuting and even killing followers of this Jesus to becoming the most influential leader and thinker among all of Jesus’ followers, eventually dying for his faith at Nero’s hand.

Today there are even a few assemblies of Jesus-believers nearby, convinced that he was and is the Christ!

So, you wonder, is there something to it? Is Jesus’ third way the mean between the polarized extremes? Is Jesus’ way the genuine way forward for the Jewish people—and maybe for all people?

And then, in this context, it happens. A new manuscript about this Jesus has been circulating throughout Syria; and it comes to your synagogue.

Dropping everything, you run to see it; and, pushing your way to the front of the gathered crowd, there it is; and you read these words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Good news, you question? In our day and age? But how?

2.

Of course, we know this manuscript today as the Gospel of Mark. And we’ve read these words of proclamation again and again. It’s quite familiar to us . . . and it’s quite removed from its original context.

Still, I wonder, is its original, highly polarized political context all that far removed from ours today?

Our nation, the United States of America, is hardly united. Rather, it’s polarized. One can hardly enter into a political discussion today without emotion gaining the upper hand. Did any of you experience tension over politics during the family Thanksgiving get-together this year?

And even now, as I’ve brought the mere topic of politics into the pulpit, I sense a kind of collective feet-shuffling going on.

We are a politically polarized people today—just as in the day of Mark’s proclamation.

Along with this, and maybe in part because of it, fear is everywhere around us. God is omnipresent, we theologians like to say: always with us, in all circumstances and situations. But turn on the news. It’s not God that seems omnipresent to the culture, but fear. North Korea, gun violence, natural disasters—it feels like it’s only a matter of time before each and every one of us will be a victim. And thus, we are told, we should be frightened.

So it was in Mark’s day, especially for the Jewish people.

And what of religious similarities?

Our Jewish protagonist above had been exiled religiously, in a manner of speaking. The Temple was where God was believed to dwell on earth. Yet to live outside of Jerusalem meant to live outside of the regular, expected, normal parameters of worship. Synagogues were merely a temporary solution, a compromise to include those who were otherwise excluded.

Does not broader culture today feel largely excluded from the church?

And yet, broader culture still seeks a spirituality. Excluded people still yearn for God; they still confess, seek forgiveness, and pray.

3.

Curiously, the Gospel of Mark, after stating its intention to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; and in the highly polarized political climate of its day—curiously, the Gospel of Mark does not launch into political solutions. Rather, it focuses our attention immediately on a herald named John: you know, that eccentric guy who baptized people, proclaiming repentance for forgiveness of sins, down at the River Jordan.

John’s was a message about the coming leader, a man who was far greater than any earthly, political leader, whose way was not violent but the way of love.

As a herald, then, John was preparing the way for someone greater than himself, the coming Messiah. In this respect, he was determined not to let his ego get in the way.

Have you ever thought about this? John had disciples. In fact, Jesus’ first two disciples were John’s disciples first. And John let them go without a fuss. In fact, John actively encouraged them to quit following him in order to follow this new teacher on the scene.

That just doesn’t happen in our world! I mean, could you imagine in like 1998 Bill Gates calling up Steve Jobs to say, “Hey, Steve, I’ve invested the last few years in a couple of interns who’ve proven to be my best ever; and, well, deep down I believe your product is really better than mine. So, I want to do them and us a favor and send them your way. You cool with that?”

Yet this is exactly what John does with Jesus. No ego, no pride to get in the way; just the statement, “I must decrease so that Christ may increase.”

And what was John’s message?

If I were to take a survey, I’m willing to wager that most (if not all) of you would say, “Repentance.”

And that’s what it is over in Matthew’s Gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

But not in Mark. Or, not exactly anyway. Repentance plays a part, sure. But, in Mark, repentance is secondary to forgiveness.

Listen to the text again (emphasis added):

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

The people of the surrounding regions came to John and confessed their sins. They were forgiven their sins, John assured them, for God is love. In fact, there was one coming after John who was much greater than he; whose message and mission were love.

John’s baptism, which followed the people’s confession, was simply a response to God’s mercy, grace, and love; an act to demonstrate the confession’s authenticity. It was to say, “I’ve confessed and God has forgiven me; and to show that God’s grace is not cheap I will do something about it, I will be baptized right here and now.”

In other words, the Gospel of Mark portrays John not as a prophet of judgment but as a herald of love.

4.

So then, let’s put all this together:

  • The polarized, political climate of Mark’s day shares parallels with the political climate of our own day.
  • Fear is everywhere around us, seemingly in the air we breathe.
  • People feel exiled from the church but nevertheless continue to seek God.
  • And it’s Advent, a time of preparation.

We, the church, are John the Baptist today, a voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way; a herald to proclaim love to a fearful world.

It’s time to read the Gospel of Mark with fresh eyes!

It’s time to follow John’s lead and proclaim Christ to the hurting, fearful world around us!

It’s time for us to broadcast a message of side-by-side confession and repentance—without judgment!

It’s time for us to respond in love to a confessing, repenting culture!

And it’s time for us to get out of our own way, for us to decrease so that Christ may increase!

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