Monday, January 28, 2013

A New World: An Honest Mirror

Preached on Sunday, January 27, 2013

Scripture readings: Isaiah 58:1-14; Mark 3:1-6

I know someone who refused to look in a mirror. In their bathroom the mirror had a sheet draped over it. They so very much did not like to see what they saw.

Toadstools on the Family Place
and Some Pictures in the Country around Live Oak 
I’m not a big fan of mirrors, myself; but a mirror is almost a necessity of life. I wouldn’t want to shave without one. I’m not sure I could properly knot my tie without one. If I get something stuck in my eye, I need a mirror to see what it is. As I get older, I have more trouble with nose hairs; and I need a mirror to help me get them.

If I could ask someone to take care of these things for me then, maybe, I wouldn’t need a mirror. You might say that such a person would actually become my mirror. Instead of seeing my reflection in a mirror, I would see myself through them; through their eyes.

Maybe you have such a mirror as that.

My bathroom mirror serves a couple of other purposes. When I look into my mirror, I find myself able to see a man who needs a lot of prayer, and the mercy and strength of God. I don’t think I would know how to live without seeing that.

I also look into my mirror and see many other people who need prayer. They need grace, and faith, and transformation. They need guidance, and healing, and courage, and peace.

Half my mirror is covered with sticky notes with the names of people for whom I have been asked to pray; or I know to pray for them without being asked. I see them when I look in my mirror. I see people there whom I have never met. I may never meet them this side of heaven.

You are mirrors too. When I look at you, I admit being tempted to think more about myself, but I know, from experience, that there are much more important things to think about when I look into the mirror that is you.

I should see in you so many other people that I will never meet, and so many places and situations that I will never know. And I should be able to look into you and see a person who needs prayer; prayers for grace, and faith; prayers for transformation, and guidance; and prayers for healing, and courage, and peace.

Jesus is the perfect mirror in which we can see the face of God; and we can see the human face, as well. We can see our true face, and the faces of the people of this world. Only we may look into this mirror named Jesus and not see what we want to see. We may not see our reflected face as we desire to see it. We may decide to avoid the mirror, or cover it up, or pretend that it has shown us something that is not there. We may desire to smash it to pieces.

There were a lot of people who wanted to smash Jesus, the perfect mirror. There was a political party in Galilee called the Herodians. They wanted the Herod family to rule the people of Israel as they had once ruled, under Roman authority, through Herod the Great, the king who was visited by the wise men and who tried to kill the baby Jesus. The Herod family still ruled in Galilee, with the Romans’ permission.

Having the Herod family as rulers was a way to be the people of Israel, but with the benefits of the superior culture, and stability, and prosperity of the Roman Empire. And the Roman power, in the tradition of the Herod family, would be used to keep the faith of Israel and the God of Israel under control. The Herods would see to it that the faith of Israel and the God of Israel would not interfere too much in their ordinary lives.

Jesus, to their eyes, brought God and the life of faith even closer to them than the Jewish Law. Jesus would not only be telling them what to do and how to do it, the way the Pharisees wanted to do. Jesus would have them looking deeper, at their priorities in life. He would have them looking at the integrity of their own hearts. Jesus would have them care about the poor and the needy. Jesus showed them the essential emptiness of wealth and power, and everything they valued, compared to truth, love, and compassion.

The followers of Herod loved the world as it was, and they wanted to be a part of it. Jesus showed them the possibility of a new world, and a new life, that held nothing of value for them.

They would cover up Jesus, and the God whom Jesus reflected. They would hide from this God and this Jesus, if they could; and they were more than willing to dispose of him.

The Pharisees were also learning to hate the reflection they saw in the mirror named Jesus. Pharisee is a word that comes from the meaning “to separate”. They were “the separated ones” in the sense that they separated themselves from everything and everyone impure or unclean; meaning everything and everyone that did not conform perfectly to the laws of Moses in the Old Testament.

If a Pharisee touched a pagan Roman or Greek (which is probably what you and I would be if we lived in that time and place) he would have to go home and take a bath. The touch would be degrading to the Pharisees, and the thought that the Pharisee would have to take a bath, from our slightest touch, would be degrading to us. You can imagine what kind of world the Pharisees made for themselves.

It was as if the Pharisees lived in a diseased world, where they were the only ones who remained uncontaminated by some world destroying plague. Leprosy was treated as the visible picture of the contamination of sin; if sin could be considered as a contagious, and disfiguring, and fatal infection.

Leprosy is a sickness that was common in Jesus’ day. It was considered highly contagious. It was also considered unclean. If you were a Pharisee and touched a leper, you would have to go home and take a bath. Maybe that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea, in the ancient world where no really good disinfectants were available except, perhaps, for wine and salt.

Mark tells us, in his first chapter, that Jesus deliberately touched a leper and that (afterwards) he couldn’t enter the towns. This may not have been only because Jesus was surrounded by such big crowds that there was no longer room for him in the streets of any town. The Pharisees may have tried to keep him out of their towns because he had touched a leper and so he shared a leper’s uncleanness. Lepers were not allowed in towns, and neither was the Jesus who handled them.

Other people came to Jesus for healing besides lepers. Even if they were not lepers, they often had wounds or illnesses that oozed, and bled, and discharged, and leaked: and Jesus touched them all. He brought them the message and the good news of a God who came into their towns, their streets, their homes, their rooms, and touched them where they needed it most.

Jesus reflected a God for whom lepers, and the people who leaked and oozed, were the very people you did touch; but that was unclean and unacceptable. The Pharisees would not consider such a God. In Jesus, they saw the world of such a God, and they saw where they would stand in such a world.

They saw it, reflected for them, in an uncompromisingly honest mirror. They wanted, with all their heart, to smash that mirror. They wanted to smash Jesus and make him stop.

Sabbath means “stopping”. On a Sabbath, almost everything stops. Everything stops: all working; all carrying; all making. There is no lighting of lights or fires, and no putting them out. There is plenty of food, but no cooking. There is reading, but no writing. There is no tying of knots, and no untying. There is no carrying of burdens. There is only what is needed for life.

The Sabbath is a day for life in the presence of the living God who does not need to work in order to live. To be holy as God is holy means obeying the command, one day in seven, to radically stop in the presence of God.

If a life is in danger, you may stop your holy stopping in order to save that life. Only you can do nothing beyond saving it.

If a wall collapses on a person, you can dig through enough of the wall to see if that person is still alive, and if he or she is still alive you may save them, but if they are dead, you leave the body where it is until the Sabbath is done. If a person is wounded, you may bandage the wound to stop the bleeding, but you cannot put medicine on the wound, because that is not needed to save a life.

The reason for this was the law. The law of Moses did not say not to dig the body out of the rubble. The law did not say to put no medicine on the wound. The law did not say to cook no food. But the law said to stop and do no work.

How far can you go before you stop stopping? How far can you go before anything you are doing becomes work? If you cannot answer this, the safe thing to do, according to the Pharisees, in order to keep the law to the letter, is to do nothing, because the law must be kept above all else.

Jesus did nothing but to speak, and to have the man with the withered hand stand up and stretch out his hand. None of this broke the holy stopping of the Sabbath. If Jesus did any more than this, it was nothing they could see or hear; but how could they be sure that he had done nothing else?

Perhaps Jesus had exerted great powers to achieve a healing, when the life of the man did not hang in the balance. Jesus must have broken the Sabbath. He must have made the day of blessing unholy and unclean when he healed a human being created in God’s image, when that human didn’t need to be healed.

The Sabbath is part of the Ten Commandments, and those commandments are found in two places: the twentieth chapter of Exodus and the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy. In Exodus the Sabbath rest is a mirror of God’s blessing of the creation. In the early centuries after Christ came, the Jewish rabbis wrote this about the day when God rested: “What was created on the seventh day? Tranquility, serenity, peace, and repose!” (third century, Genesis Rabbah 10:9) The rabbis, themselves, knew that the Sabbath was about perfecting, and blessing the creation.

In Deuteronomy, the Sabbath is holy because it is the mirror of the day when God set his people free from slavery in Egypt. Deuteronomy tells us that we are to give rest to others, because God has set us free.

This freedom from slavery is the Old Testament picture of salvation and grace. The Sabbath is holy because it is a day for giving blessing, bringing grace and deliverance into the world.

For the Pharisees, the law of stopping was more important than the law of saving, and blessing, and giving grace to others. They saw the stopping as the only blessing, and as an end in itself.

Even they should have known that it was a day for giving Good to the man with the withered hand. They wanted to put a cap on the blessing power of God. In that sense they were willing to do evil rather than good, for the sake of the law of the Sabbath.

In this way they were more concerned about stopping Jesus from working than they were about the blessing of the man with the withered hand. The Sabbath became a weapon against Jesus and against goodness. On that Sabbath day they thought more than ever about killing; killing Jesus.

When Jesus healed the man, he was giving him a new life. He was giving goodness. So the question of Jesus was to the point, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do Good or to do Evil, to save life or to kill?” They had already killed Jesus in their hearts. They had broken the Sabbath themselves and made it unholy and unclean.

This warns us about taking what we think of as holy and making it into a weapon against the Lord himself. Do we use our prayer, our music, our worship, our church, as standards for judging others? Do we use what we think of as our holy ways as an excuse to keep others from experiencing the love and the power of God among us? Do take the good things that we claim come from God, and make them into walls to shut others out; or into clubs for smacking them into agreement with us?

Jesus worshiped on the Sabbath with all his people. He was always found whenever and wherever they gathered to pray, and to study, and to listen, and to learn, and to rest in the blessing of God.

Jesus was also always found with those who needed healing and forgiveness and a new life. Jesus was to be found whenever and wherever the unclean and the unforgiven gathered.

The Sabbath is not so much about a day in time (one day in seven) as it is about the nature of God himself and his purpose to complete us as his creations, and to save us and give us a new life. There is no unit of time where seven days represent anything that happens in our world of time and space. The Sabbath has nothing to do with the motion of the sun, or the moon, or the earth, or the universe.

The Sabbath represents the grace of God working in time. The Sabbath is the work of God who creates us and promises to set us free, and to give us healing, and deliverance, and rest beyond this world of time and space.

Jesus died on the cross to give us a better Sabbath than any one day out of seven. Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead to bring us into a new world that is devoted to blessing, and to caring. When we create blessing, we create the Sabbath; not as a twenty-four hour day (not as one day in seven), but as a state of being and a way of life. Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead to give us a new world where there are only beginnings, and never any endings, where there are no more things that come to a stop.

The man, who stopped having a withered hand, stopped having a hand that stopped him. Now, no matter how hard he worked, and no matter what day he worked, he would always be at rest, because he had been blessed with the blessing of work. He could work and know the joy of work. He could laugh at his ability to work.

Now he could work and he could play as much as he could, because Jesus had refused to be told when to stop. Jesus had refused to agree that stopping, in itself, was holy.

When we look into the mirror of Jesus, we can see who we are and how we must let him change us in order to find our true rest. Our true rest, in Jesus, is found in creating blessing, and in being a blessing to others.

Monday, January 21, 2013

A New World: A Retriever Instinct

Jennie the Non Retrieving Labrador Retriever
Preached on Sunday, January 20, 2013
Scripture readings: Jeremiah 33:4-11; Mark 2:1-17

About twelve years ago, my parents bought a Labrador retriever from the county animal shelter, and they named her Jenny. My mom claims that Jenny doesn’t know that she is a dog. My mom claims that Jenny thinks of herself as a person. My counterclaim is that Jenny knows that she is a dog; but that she thinks the rest of us are dogs too; only very strange, and confused, and puzzling dogs.

One thing that Jenny definitely does not know is that she is a retriever. Jenny doesn’t know how to fetch. She knows how to run. She knows how to chase things, like the strange cats that shouldn’t be in her yard, that are not extensions of the pack.

But if you throw a ball, or a Frisbee, or a stick, or anything, Jenny is completely clueless. She looks at you and wonders why you threw that thing away. She tilts her head, in that doggy way, and asks, “What on earth is wrong with you?”

Jenny being manipulated by "Kit"
Jenny doesn’t know that she is a retriever. If the instinct is there, she doesn’t recognize it or know what to do with it.

God is, by nature, a retriever. God shows us this all the way through the story of the Bible, which is the story of God’s retrieval of a fallen world.

The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah shows us God’s instinct for faithfulness, which is part of his holiness; and the anger of God which is God’s instinctive response to the betrayal of faithfulness, which is also a part of his holiness. In both of these ways Jeremiah shows us God’s instinctive love because, in the presence of both betrayal and anger, God is faithful, still, and God can be trusted to remain a retriever.

God is a retriever. He responds to our betrayals (which is what all of our sins are) and even to his own anger, through healing, forgiving, transforming, and restoring. “Nevertheless I will bring health and healing…. I will heal my people and will let them enjoy abundant peace and security…. I will cleanse them from all the sin they have committed against me and will forgive all their sins of rebellion against me. Then this city will bring me renown, joy, praise, and honor before all nations on earth….” (Jeremiah 33:6-9)

God came in Jesus to bring healing, forgiveness, transformation, and restoration to his people, and to all people so that they might become his people. This is the new world of Jesus. This is the new world that the good news of the gospel is about.

In the most powerful way, this new world has been created by the life, and the death, and the resurrection of Jesus. But Jesus lived his mission all through his life, just as we are to live his mission through our own lives.

Jesus directed his life, his words, his action, and his passion toward healing, forgiving, transforming, and restoring the world around him, and the people in it. His instinct for doing this stank in the minds of religious and self-righteous people. They detested the thought of forgiving and healing others.

They had sought their own value in a God which they had made in their own image, who did not require them to be healers and forgivers. In that frame of mind, they could not approve of what Jesus did, or what he stood for. They would never help him. They would try to stop him, and they would do all that they could to undo his work.

They did believe in goodness. They even believed that they loved goodness. But they made goodness itself unlovely. They were good people in the very worst possible sense of the word. They had exchanged a love of goodness for a love of status without changing its name.

They had lost their instinct for genuine goodness and they didn’t know what they had lost. Their goodness was diseased, and they were contagious, and they did not know it. Jesus insisted on rubbing the spiritual noses of those people, who did not share his passion for the healing and forgiving of others, in the smell of his unwelcomed faithfulness.

This was for the sake of their healing, and it was for their own good. These times were Jesus’ own wars of judgment against the rebellious people whom he loved; whom he had come to transform and restore. He laid siege to the fortified cities of their self righteousness. And he chose his moments carefully, as you must carefully choose the right moments to discipline a dog who is not clear on the issues at stake.

Jesus chose his moments. He made the healing of a paralyzed man into an x-ray of his critic’s brains. He did this so that the dye of his forgiveness would appear on the monitor of their thoughts, and show the dangerous blockage that had to be dissolved or surgically removed.

He could have healed the paralyzed man without saying anything about forgiveness. Everyone who comes to Jesus, for any reason, needs forgiveness. But here was an opportunity for a fresh teachable moment, and he had to rub their noses in his mercy while it was fresh. Maybe this teaching moment would reawaken their lost instinct to be retrievers like God: like Jesus.

The calling of Levi (who is also named Matthew, and who gave us the Gospel of Matthew) is another case in point.

The land of Galilee, where Jesus and the disciples lived, was a puppet kingdom within a province of the Roman Empire. It was ruled by one of the members of the Herod family. The first king Herod was the king who killed all the baby boys in Bethlehem when Jesus was a baby there, because Herod had heard, from the wise men, about the birth of a rival king in that little town.

Levi collected taxes to support the government of that little kingdom approved by Rome. Everyone knew that the little kingdom of the Herod family in Galilee worked for the Roman invaders and occupiers. Anyone who worked for them was considered a traitor.

The fact that Levi was willing to work for the Herod family, and for the Romans, meant that he probably didn’t care much what other people thought of him. His purpose in life was not getting the respect of others, but getting money; getting his cut of the taxes he collected.

As long as his bosses could trust him to deliver the goods, Levi could get away getting a lot for himself. There was no other reason for doing what he did. Levi was not a good person. There is no reason to expect that Levi was even a nice person, not even under the surface.

Just as Jesus could forgive and heal the paralyzed man, he could do the same for Levi; and he did it. Jesus transformed and restored Levi to a lost image and gave him a lost instinct.

Levi, or Matthew, was going to be a retriever sooner than he thought. Jesus had a plan for a teachable moment. He set it in motion by inviting himself to a party that Levi had not known he was going to give, in his own house, for the work of retrieving others, whether they knew they needed this or not.

We can speculate on what kind of prior knowledge and preparation Levi had had for following Jesus, but Mark gives us none of that. He only tells us that Jesus could walk up to a person and say, “Follow me.” And that person would follow him. That is the point.

The critics of Jesus were right, that no one but God could forgive sins. They would also have believed that only God could give a person a new heart and mind. This tells us who Jesus is, because Jesus could do it all.

The critics did not believe that Jesus could inherently do what only God can do. They did not believe that Levi and his friends could be truly changed by Jesus and become, through Jesus, anything but sinners. But they were wrong.

Levi had definitely been a sinner, and Levi was still a sinner, just as we all are. But Levi was no longer owned by his sins. They were not his goal, and he was no longer led by them.

Levi was now owned by Jesus. Jesus became his goal, and Jesus led him. And so, Levi was healed, forgiven, transformed, and restored to the image of God through Jesus.

The heart of this new life would be in the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. It is through the cross and the resurrection that we all die to ourselves and are reborn in Jesus. But the cross and the resurrection, just over the horizon, already lived in the heart of Jesus as he walked this earth in Galilee. They were his essence and this was his power to give to the paralyzed man, and to Levi and his friends, new hearts and minds.

Jeremiah tells us, in the thirty-first chapter of his book, what only God can do. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:33)

This is what Jesus was doing. This is what he still does. God’s forgiveness is not a word, or a gesture, or an idea, it is a living, powerful thing, a living power that changes minds and hearts. In the cross and the resurrection there is a new life; a whole new world, that becomes ours when we come into the world of Jesus by faith; when Jesus brings his new world into our hearts and minds by faith.

We need to know that our faith is not the power that makes this happen. It is the power of God. The Holy Spirit brings the faithfulness of God, in Jesus, into us.

Our faith is trust in what the Lord offers us and promises us. Our faith is a trust that is willing to open itself and consent to his will and his work within us and through us.

The prophet Jeremiah tells us that God’s forgiveness retrieves his people from their rebellion. There is a conflict when God’s own people do not consent to God’s rule, God’s kingdom over them.

We see the same rebellion, and the same lack of willing consent, in Mark’s telling of the story of the healing and forgiving of the paralyzed man and the calling of Levi and his friends. There is a conflict between even God’s own people and the instinct of God to be a retriever.

Mark puts us into the scene of this conflict to create a teachable moment for us; to show us the real face of God in Christ, and to hold a mirror to our own hearts and minds. Do we willingly consent to join the kingdom of God, which is a kingdom of retrievers? Is there an obstacle within us, so that we see the sin in others and yet we do not see the passion of God for the healing of their sins? Or do we see the whole picture and give to God our consent?

The critics of Jesus were right, because no one but God can forgive sins. Nor can anyone but God give to people a new mind and a new heart.

We would sometimes dearly love to have the power to do this (to reach into someone’s mind and heart and make them new, and make them over). But that is not in our power. Our real power is to pray for them; to pray to the God we meet in Jesus; who faithfully loves us and who also faithfully loves those for whom we pray.

Levi consented by giving the party that Jesus wanted and inviting his friends to meet Jesus. Levi consented and cooperated with the king of the retrievers, and so he became a retriever too. So should we.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A New World: An Ancient Faithfulness

Preached on Sunday January 13, 2013

Scripture readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-13

You may not know this, but I have always enjoyed the history of language and words. In teaching and preaching this helps because, as followers of Jesus, we have inherited so many odd words.

The way of Jesus is a path that goes back thousands of years. If you do any hiking, you know how you need to pay attention to landmarks, and a lot of the landmarks in the way of Jesus seem to take the form of words: odd words. One of those words is “gospel”.

In the Bible, we have gospels in the plural. We have the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Luke, and the Gospel of John. These are written things that tell us about Jesus: where Jesus came from, how Jesus started out, what he said and did, and what became of him.

But a gospel is not originally a written thing at all. The Gospel of Mark, as far as we know, is the very first gospel to ever have been written.

Mark began this written thing with these opening words: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” But the idea behind his writing of this written thing was not: “Hey, I’m going to invent a new kind of written thing. What shall I call it? Shall I call it a microwave? Shall I call it a zipper? No! I shall call it a gospel!

The gospel has become nothing more than a written thing to most people; if most people have ever even heard the word at all. The gospel is not a written thing. It is news. It is good news.

The word “gospel”, in Old English, clearly means “good news”. But we don’t speak Old English any more, and so the word “gospel” is often a very odd word to anyone who speaks English.

Mark wrote in Greek. The Greek word literally means good news.

The New Testament world of the Greeks and Romans used the word to describe things like the message of a decisive victory in a war where the fate of the kingdom, or the empire, hung in the balance. Poets used this word to celebrate the Emperor Augustus as the divine figure who was the best thing that ever happened to Rome. They considered his birth to be the greatest gospel in history. It was the good news that had changed their world forever.

Mark knew that the word gospel was a revolutionary word. He was writing about a source of good news that contradicted every other good news that the world could throw against it.

Most of all, Mark used the word gospel because he knew the Old Testament. He knew the prophets had spoken about the good news that belonged to God. It would be the victory of God over our world; the victory that all happiness depends on. It would be the best thing that had ever happened to our world since the creation. It would be the achievement that will change our world forever.

It would be shocking and surprising news beyond anything that this world deserves. It would be news that came from the ancient faithfulness that God has always shown for a fallen world that has tried with all its might to shut him out. To a world that was blind to God, the news would be, “Behold your God!”

Mark has the message of the prophet Isaiah in mind, although he also inserts some words from the prophet Malachi. It goes like this: “You, who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You, who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’ Behold, the Lord God comes with power, and his arm rules for him. Behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.”

You have to know that recompense means “pay-back-time” and that this is more than a little scary. But we like scary things, if we are sure that it really has nothing to do with us. In this case we always think it is the other guy who needs to be scared; isn’t that right?

And then here is the really shocking part about the Lord God of power and might and his payback time. “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” (Isaiah 40:9-11)

Mark knew what the prophets in the Old Testament said about the good news, and he tells us that Jesus is it. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” is Mark’s way of saying, “Here begins the good news that the prophets promised to us. Here begins the good news that has changed our world forever.” Behold your God!

In the classic movie version of “The Wizard of Oz”, Dorothy’s house gets picked up by the tornado and then it’s dropped again in another land. When Dorothy looks out her widow on a world filled with beauty and color, she says, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” Mark is saying that we are in a new world that is not the world that existed before Jesus came.

Some of us have memories of a day when our world was changed. If you are married, your personal world changed with your wedding. If you are parents, your personal world changed when you have held your new born child in your arms. In your personal world, those are God’s gifts, not only of good news, but of a new world based on that good news. You live in a world that has changed forever.

The larger world is different. The days when the world, as a whole, changes are not usually good news.

December 7, 1941 was described as a day that would live in infamy, and it certainly did that for America. It drew America into the Second World War that was already raging around the world without us. It was one of those days that changed the American world.

May 8, 1945 was Victory in Europe Day, and September 2, 1945 was Victory over Japan Day. Those days brought the good news of the end of a war that had affected everyone. Those days seemed to change the world, and the lives of millions. And yet the nature of the world did not change.

In my life time, there have been plenty of wars, but I don’t know if (in my life time) we have ever fought a war that we have truly won. I don’t know if (in my time) we have ever fought a war that was ever truly over and done with.

It is hard for many of us to know what it means to live in a time of victory. For Mark, Jesus is the king of the kingdom of God and Jesus is also the victory of the kingdom of God.

Jesus is the sign of a world that has changed. Jesus is the point at which our world is no longer a blind world that cannot see God. In Jesus the world can see God and know God. “Behold, your God!”

Jesus is God reaching across centuries and centuries of waiting, centuries of promises, centuries of hopes. The time of Isaiah and the prophets came back to earth in John the Baptizer. John was the voice of the ancient prophets preaching repentance and the complete turning around of life that people need in order to have their hearts and lives open to whatever God is ready to do next.

When we follow Jesus we may think that we don’t need all those centuries of Abraham, and Moses, and David, and the prophets. We don’t think we need the Old Testament, or the laws, or the ancient holy days, or the prophecies. We think they are just the preliminaries to the things that matter.

In the same way, in our own lives, when we begin to follow Jesus, we think of the time we spent before we knew him, or before we followed him, as only empty time. We think it was nothing more than the preliminaries that preceded the important stuff. We may even think it wasted time.

Jesus is the faithfulness of God fulfilling the law and the prophets. Jesus is the faithfulness of God waiting for you and planting the seeds of his love for you even before you know him, even before you follow him. Jesus is the faithfulness of God who has been weaving his promises of love around you even before you were born, even before time began.

Jesus, coming to John, is God saying “yes” to all the seemingly wasted time in the world, all the delays and postponements, all the waywardness, all the failings, and the misunderstandings, and the false starts. Jesus is God saying “yes” to you. Jesus, coming to John, is God saying, “I was always there. I was always at work. I was always with you.”

There are no preliminaries. It all matters. It is all part of the story of the good news of God.

Jesus, coming for baptism, and coming out to see the heavens open and hear the voice say, “You are my son, whom I love,” is God creating a new human race. Jesus is a new human life that can come to change. Jesus is a new human life that can turn around and to have a new heart and mind. Repentance means to change inside and out.

In a fallen world, it is human nature to always hold something back. It is human nature to want to be in charge and to be a kind of god to ourselves and to others.

In a fallen world it is human nature to rely on your own strength, and to do your own will, and to own yourself; your thoughts and your feelings. Even when you think you will turn one hundred and eighty degrees from that, you don’t.

In Jesus, God creates a new human nature that does turn and repent. In Jesus, we trust in a God of ancient faithfulness who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. In Jesus, God is faithful to us, and gives us the beginning of a faithful life.

In Jesus, God creates a human being who can see what only faith can see and hear a voice that says, “You are my son, you are my daughter, whom I love. In you I am well pleased.” Jesus can go from seeing and hearing his Father into a desert where he has nothing but hunger, and thirst, and heat, and cold, and yet he can remember what he saw and heard, once upon a time.

It is not so accurate to say, merely, that Jesus was sent into the desert. It is better to translate it as Jesus being driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit. Instead of being sent, the Greek very nearly says that Jesus was tossed and thrown out into the desert.

Sometimes it seems that God has tossed us or thrown us away, and that God has taken everything away from us so that we have nothing. All the temptations that came to Jesus, in one way or another, were temptations to think this. Jesus was tempted to forget that he was the Son who was loved. He was tempt to live as though we was not loved and as if being loved were not enough.

All sin is either a rebellion against love, or else it is a way of replacing a love that we do not believe in with, or else it is a way of filling the emptiness of a love we have never heard of, and yet a love for which we were made. Sin may be a way of saying, “Since my life does not matter, I will suit myself.”

God created each one of us in his image; not to be his statue or his puppet, but to be his spitting image, his living child. God does for us, in Jesus, what he designed and created us for, in the beginning: to say, “You are my son. You are my daughter. I love you. I am pleased with you.”

Following Jesus may seem to throw us into a desert where we feel abandoned and alone; where this world seems no longer willing to give us anything, because it does not understand what we are doing or why. When we faithfully follow Jesus into this desert we are never separated from the God who says, “I love you. In you I am well pleased.” Following Jesus by faith means hearing these words and remembering them in our desert of temptation.

Half the good news of Mark will focus on the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. On the cross and in the resurrection Jesus finished the good news that began with his birth and his life.

To be in Jesus we have to die to ourselves in the love of Jesus on the cross and be raised from the dead trusting in his faithfulness. This is the good news of how we are saved from our sins and how we are born into a new life.

The good news has its rehearsal in the Lord’s Supper. We humbly live in Jesus by taking Jesus into us, just the way he humbly gives himself to us: baptized for us and tempted for us, as well as dying and rising for us. It is just as humbling for him to come to us in the form of bread and wine. We are fed by his faithful humility.

When Jesus shows himself to us, it is as if the heavens are torn open, and the Holy Spirit descends upon us, and we see what no human eye can see. We see a different world. We see the world of victory that Jesus has won for us, on the cross and in the resurrection. We can live in that victory even when the path of Jesus takes us through the desert, because we live in a new world filled with the ancient faithfulness of God.