Monthly Archives: January 2015

THE IMMEDIATE RESPONSE TEAM MARK 1:1-14

According to the Gospel of Mark, as Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, “he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And [he] said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

Everything really important happens fast.

This is certainly true in the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the shortest of the gospels–only sixteen chapters long and cut off abruptly at the end. It has been suggested insects may have eaten the end of the ancient scroll, and if that could be proved it would certainly be a jolt to our fundamentalist friends. Imagine! The inerrant Word of God eaten by beetles! But setting that disturbing thought aside, we are left with a muscular, energetic little book, The Gospel in a Big Rush.  In it everything important does indeed happen fast.

In spite of its brevity, Mark’s account of the ministry of Jesus is endowed with a special authority because it is the earliest we have.  It is a primary source for Matthew and Luke, and because it is located so comparatively early in the developing Jesus tradition, the Lord of Mark’s gospel in many respects more closely resembles the historical Jesus than later versions. Jesus’ words in Mark are as close as we will get to the “ipsissima verba Dei,” the very words of the God made man. And in Mark the Lord is always in great hurry, which the historical Jesus probably was, squeezing his whole earthy ministry into three short years. He rushes from one incident to the next as if he has a cosmic train to catch–which in the profoundest sense he does. In Mark Jesus lives on the razor edge of eternity, constantly aware of his own impending death and impelled onward by the Spirit toward his ultimate destiny. His heartbeats are numbered and he knows it. So it is only right that in Mark’s Gospel his first public utterance is about the shortness of the present moment–“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” There are no hours left to waste on trivialities.

Everything important happens fast. So in his little book everything is immediately this and immediately that–Mark uses that word “immediately” 39 times, more all the other gospel writers combined. So it is that when the Lord calls the fishermen Peter and Andrew, the evangelist tells us that “immediately they left their nets and followed him.” They didn’t dilly-dally around. That is crucial to the meaning of the story–they responded to the emergent situation without delay. But you and I can take a moment to consider this–What if they hadn’t? Would Jesus have cooled his heels while Peter and Andrew tried to decide whether they really wanted to be fishers of people rather than fishers of fish? (In the Sea of Galilee those would have been a variety of tilapia—locally known as “St. Peter’s fish.”) Would he have hung around while they went home for lunch and talked the whole thing over with the missus?

We rather doubt it. In Mark the call to discipleship precedes and supersedes every other consideration, and it must be made quickly. Those who follow Jesus are intended to be his Immediate Response Team. And his call to “follow me” is never issued twice—certainly not in the same way. So when the Spirit of Jesus offers us an opportunity to follow him, beloved, we have to get busy and do it immediately. The biggest temptation we face is our tendency to dither, to revisit, to tweak, to endlessly reexamine, decide and then make revisions to our previous decisions. The things we consider longest and most deeply in the end we do not do. Everything really important has to be done fast.

Of course, we are all perfectly aware that rash decisions can be disastrous. I remember once a young couple came to me in distress. They had been living together for some time—“trying each other out” in the modern way—but they were planning to get married in the fall. I was to do the deal.  Now, however, all that was in jeopardy. They both said they still loved each other, but there had been a big fight, no prisoners taken. At the end of it she had told him she couldn’t trust him anymore and had given back his ring and gone home to her parents. He was genuinely perplexed by the heat of her anger. (I’m afraid this young fellow didn’t have what they call “an important mind.”)

So this is what happened. They had been saving up to buy a house together. Then one evening as he was driving home from work in his old clunker of a pickup, and he suddenly decided to stop at a dealer’s lot and look at the latest models. No harm in that. Right? (I bet you can already guess what had happened.) But he fell into the clutches of a salesman with a ready grin and a firm handshake who showed him a shiny new red pick-up truck and let him take a test drive. Before he left he had signed all the necessary papers. “It called out to me,” he said. Those were his very words—“ipsissima verba.” And he was naively amazed when his fiancé burst into tears when she saw his new sweetheart. “It was my money,” he said defensively. “I worked real hard for that money. And it called out to me.”

Now I could tell you those two patched it up and lived happily ever after, but I’m not going to do that. Partly because they don’t really exist, never really did–except as a negative example of what can happen if you respond immediately to the wrong sort of call. Act now! We have all heard those voices calling us to an immediate response. Don’t delay! The world is full of subtle and insistent salesmen with firm handshakes and ready grins, and they exactly know how to tap into our deepest fears and wishes. I know how to make you happy. I know exactly what it will take to fill your emptiness and mend your broken life. Try my product! Act now!

This was one of father’s favorite Uncle Ole stories. Uncle Ole was driving down a country road one summer’s day, when all of sudden oily black smoke commenced pouring out of his engine and his truck started to make a loud clunk, clunk, clunking noise. So he climbed out, raised the hood, and fanned away the smoke, but after he had poked around inside there for a while, he felt someone watching him. So he looked up and, lo and behold, a cow was looking over his shoulder.

“You’ve got a bad alternator,” said the cow, as plain as day.

Well North Dakota is a wonderful place, that’s for sure, but even there cows don’t ordinarily talk. Uncle Ole was so surprised that he took off running and didn’t stop until he reached the nearby farmhouse. Frantically he knocked on the door, and when the farmer answered, Ole gasped breathlessly, “A cow, a cow just told me what was wrong with my truck.”

The farmer only shook his head. “Was she a black cow with white spots?”

Ole nodded his head. “Yah.”

“Did she have one brown eye and one blue eye?”

“Yah,” said Ole, “that’s the same cow all right.”

“Oh her!” said the farmer. “Don’t pay any attention to her. She doesn’t know anything about cars.”

The world is full of experts who claim to know everything about everything and unafraid to tell you so. There is even a lovely, long word for such a person—ultracrepidarian.  It means one who criticizes, judges, or gives advice without knowing what he or she is talking about. And yes, I have fallen for the glib line of patter such people give us and you may have too. (Some of you may even have been married to one.) All of us have played the fool at one time or another. It hardly matters. Let’s just not let it happen again. What’s the point of getting older unless we learn something in the process? The truth is that no salesperson who promises us happiness or peace of mind can deliver on that promise. The only spring from which those things flow is a ready obedience to answer the call of Jesus Christ when and where ever that we hear it.

And what that call means varies for each of us and changes as our lives go along. It was different for each of those fishermen—Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John in the gospel of Mark. It was different for Mary the Mother of our Lord and for Mary and Martha of Bethany and for that woman of mystery Mary Magdalene and for that other woman with no name and a checkered past whom Jesus met at the well of Samaria. They each had a call, but each call was as different as each she could be—individual unto herself. The only thing that every call of Jesus has in common is its urgency, its immediacy, its grave demand—Come and follow me. And Jesus is always impatient with our dithering. As he says to Judas in  quite another context—“What you do, do quickly” (John 13:27).

So how do we know what Jesus is calling us to do? How do we discern the voice of Jesus calling us from among the babel of other voices we hear?  Well, if I tried to answer that one, beloved, I would be no better than that black and white cow who wanted to tell Uncle Ole what was wrong with his engine. I’d be just another ultracrepidarian—Heaven help me! But there is a guide to follow in the examples of those people in the Bible like Peter and Andrew and James and John and so many others Jesus called along the Way. They were never called to do anything easy or to anything that someone else could do just as well. In baptism each of us was given a summons to obey and a task to do, and in our obedience to that calling lies our peace,—and nowhere else. But obedience to the call of Jesus never serves to un-complicate our lives, beloved. Those first followers of Jesus probably never agreed on much, but they all would surely would have concurred on that. The call of Jesus messes up all our human plans. It turns our lives up-side-down. It is never, ever a summons to do what you would have done in any case if left to your own devices. And the call of Jesus is always time sensitive.

The time is grown short. So, as St. Paul writes early Christians in Corinth, from now on let those who have family responsibilities act as if they were free, and let those who weep forget their misery, and let those who are happy forget why they are happy, and let those who buy act as if they were penniless, and let those who are attached to the things of this world let go of them. Why? “Because the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:29-31).

I was checking out at the Walgreens Drug Store here in Tarpon Springs the other day. Things were particularly weird and wild—you know how things can get. An old man was wandering around, talking to himself, obviously drunk.  A woman was cursing her little boy and slapping him around. Everyone was being more mean and boorish than usual, and the nice Greek woman at the counter was standing there, surrounded by those tabloids with their lurid headlines, taking all this in. When my turn came I remarked, “Things are pretty rough in here.”

“They often are,” she said. “You know, I think the End of the World is at hand. There are signs of it everywhere. Look how people act. Everything is falling apart.” It seemed like a rather strange thing for someone ringing up your aspirin and dental floss to say, but this is a strange world. And in truth is, I have frequently had that very same thought.

“Yes,” I replied, “it does seem that way. But when the power of love takes over from the self-serving politicians who govern us, then we’ll know for sure that the End is near.”

Whether the end of the world is at hand is beyond the knowledge of us human beings. Now you have a handy name for those who think they know for sure—ultracrepidarians.  But this much is certain, beloved, each of our individual worlds is coming to an end. Our end is always impending. We all live our lives on the brink of eternity. Our response to that rather scary truth, however, should not be fear or denial, but obedience. God has given each of us exactly enough time to accomplish the task we have been given. Our heartbeats, beloved, are numbered. We each have exactly enough—which is not an excuse to waste our time dithering and worrying about things that won’t happen anyway. Quite the opposite. It is the best possible reason to get busy and do what needs to be done.

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Under Your Own Fig Tree, based on John 1:43-51

In the Gospel of John we are told that “When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you get to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’”

People in the Bible are seldom presented to us as ideals. They are painfully real people–so real that at times they make us squirm. King David, called a man after the LORD’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14), was an adulterer, an accessory to murder, and a truly atrocious parent. His family life was a miracle of dysfunction. He is presented to us a hero of the faith, but a pitiful example of how to live it. And he is by no means unique in this. The lives of most of the characters in the Bible, both male and female, are the dog’s dish. It is neigh impossible to draw from them any guidance about how to live our own.

Nathanael, however, is the exception that proves the rule. In the Gospel of John we see him for only a glancing moment, but for that instant he shines. He is the perfect disciple, “the best a man can get.” Among Jesus’ disciples, who are certainly a basket of bruised and blemished fruit, he is what my father would have called “a true gent.” He even seems perhaps a bit too close to the ideal, and some commentators have suggested that Nathanael is not a real person at all, but a composite character representing the ideal Israelite, one who does not share all those dubious and shifty qualities of the Old Testament patriarch Jacob.

Jacob, like so many other bearers of God’s promise, also carries a lot of other baggage. The Book of Genesis gives us an abundance of excellent examples of his cunning and deceitful behavior. For instance, chapter 27 tells the unedifying tale of how he and his conniving mother cheated his hapless jock of a brother Esau out of their father’s blessing. In the story no one comes off very well–least of all Jacob, who ends up having to flee for his life from his angry sibling. Jacob, who is later given the name Israel, is a scallywag.

But Nathanael in the Gospel of John could hardly be more different—a son of Israel in whom there is no deceit. His name means “God has given,” and he is presented to us as a perfect package–devout and witty, reserved and passionate, the faithful Jew who is at the same time able to exclaim: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” The narrative of his calling is brief, and yet, like all of the Gospel of John, it is a chocolate layer cake of irony and mystery. It does not open itself to us immediately, but if we dig into it, the story rewards us with the opportunity to consider the habit of honesty, and specifically what it means to tell truth to ourselves about ourselves in solitude.

Solitude surrounds this story. Having met Jesus, Philip finds his friend, who seems to be alone at the time, and enthusiastically tells him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael, however, is not bowled over. And his brusque reply—“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”– reveals the stubborn, tough-minded attitude which the gospel writer fully approves. Skepticism is the groundwork of all real faith. But Nathanael is also curious as well as doubtful, and despite his misgivings, Nathanael accepts Philip’s invitation to “come and see.”

There are certain people in whom integrity burns like a hundred watt bulb. And even before they are introduced, when he sees Nathanael from a distance, Jesus recognizes him and says—“Now here is a genuine son of Israel—a man of complete integrity.” That’s a modern paraphrase from the New Living Bible. In the King James’ Version the Lord’s words are translated more literally and more elegantly—“Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile.”  The first translation casts Jesus’ remark into a positive statement, the second as a negative one, but the meaning of both is pretty much the same. In a world of counterfeits and frauds, here at last is the genuine article, the real thing.

Apart from the story of his call, we aren’t told anything much about Nathanael. The only other mention of the name Nathanael in John’s Gospel is in a list of those disciples who saw Jesus after his resurrection(21:2). There we are told that his hometown was Cana, the site of Jesus first recorded miracle (John 2:2-11), a village about nine miles from Nazareth, from which Jesus haled. So he was in a position to muse rather sarcastically whether “anything good” could “come out of Nazareth,” which was apparently a tough little burg in Jesus’ time. (And still is by some accounts.)

In the other gospels–Matthew, Mark, and Luke—a disciple called Bartholomew is mentioned in passing, and that may be our friend Nathanael under a different name. But we aren’t told anything much about Bartholomew either. Extra-biblical tradition, however, is anything but silent about Bartholomew’s later life. A number of colorful legends flock around him. The Church fathers Eusebius of Caesarea and St. Jerome tell us that he journeyed to India to preach the gospel there, and we learn elsewhere that he ended his life in Armenia, where he converted the king of that country to faith in Jesus. This did not, however, prevent his falling into the hands of the king’s pagan brother, who had him skinned alive.

So if  in fact Nathanael and Bartholomew are the same person and even half the tales told about him are true,  his calling was the beginning of a great voyage of adventure that ended in a gruesome martyrdom. But all that lay far in the future on that day Nathanael first met with Jesus. But was that encounter really their first? Jesus was certainly a stranger to Nathanael, but Nathanael seems to be well known to Jesus.  “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile,” he says, or an extravagant compliment to that effect.  And Nathanael, understandably puzzled to be so singled out for praise by someone upon whom he had never clapped eyes before, replies—“Where did you get to know me?”

And now the story, which had been quite straightforward heretofore, takes a sharp turn to  the peculiar and marvelous. Jesus says, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  Nathanael had been alone under the fig tree—or so he thought–but Jesus says he “saw” him there. Did he see Nathanael with the eyes of an omnipresent God? Or is there some more ordinary explanation? How you answer, beloved, rather depends upon who you think Jesus was when he lived among us. Was he more God than man, or more man than God. We can’t settle that question here. That’s up to you.

But Jesus’ words about the fig tree raise the interesting question–What does it means to be alone?  Are we ever alone? Really alone?  All of us are alone with ourselves—or so we think–even when we are in the company other people. Right now, reading this, you are alone with yourself, and I am alone with myself as I write it. I cannot break through the wall of your solitude, nor can you break through the wall of mine. Solitude is our shared human condition. What we make of it is who we are.

Some people are deeply uneasy with their solitude, because they associate it with feelings of loneliness and abandonment. We all know folks who can’t stand silence. They have to have the noise of the radio or the television playing in the background of their lives. Love should enrich and deepen our solitude, but for some people that’s not how it works. They are willing to remain trapped in miserable relationships rather than be alone and free.  We all know them–parents who cling to their children and children who cling to their parents long after they should let go because they are afraid to be left alone. They dread old age because it may leave them isolated. They fear death because of the awful loneliness of it. We all know those people because, from time to time, they are all of us.

I remember that when our children were small, they each had a cozy little room and a warm bed. But when the lights went out, they would silently creep out into the hall, pulling their covers behind them, and lie down on the floor at the foot of our bed, and there you would find them, like exhausted swimmers, deeply asleep. You had to be wary on the way to the bathroom not to step on one of them.  It must have been rotten uncomfortable as well as cold, but that didn’t seem to matter. Loneliness is the shadow that pursues us from the nursery to the nursing home. Something in all of us fears it.

But for you and me, beloved, as followers of the Lord our solitude is—or at least should be–our most precious possession, because it is only in solitude that we meet our true Self, who is Jesus Christ. “Where did you get to know me?” Nathanael asks Jesus, amazed that an apparent stranger should presume to know him. And Jesus replied, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  He had thought he was alone there, and in one sense he was. But in our solitude we encounter that Self who is more closely acquainted with our secret life than we ever will be.

What all Lord knew about Nathanael’s secret life we are not told. The content of our secret lives is never altogether pretty.  What all the Lord knows about your secret life and mine is no one else’s business–and in one sense doesn’t matter so very much. What matters is that in our secret life is that you and I are completely honest with our true Self. What Jesus commended in Nathanael was that in his solitude he was without pretense. He was not a perfect human being—no one is—but Nathanael  under the fig tree  told the truth about himself to himself, and in that sense he was “truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

So what about us, beloved? Are we honest under our own fig tree? No one else’s life can really be a pattern for your life and mine. Our discipleship is a private project. But in one sense Nathanael is an example worthy of imitation. We are too often less than honest in our solitude. In the mirror of our souls, we pose ourselves in the best angle possible. We pretend that we are wiser, stronger, braver, better than we really are. And we never try to blame others for our own mistakes. We try to fool others in order to deceive ourselves. But our true Self is not deceived.

Now honesty to other people is a good thing, beloved, and it certainly sometimes seems as rare as rocking-horse manure in our public discourse these days. We live in a world that pretends to place a high value brute honesty. People say and write all sorts of things in the name of honesty, trespassing every rule of civility and good taste. They exercise their civil right to free speech in order to insult, belittle, and debase those with whom they disagree and call that telling the truth. But that is bullying, beloved, not honesty. Real honesty has within itself its own limits, which come from the Holy Spirit, who always counsels us to love and keep silent much more often than she tells us to speak.

Honesty to other people is a very good thing and so rare, but it is not the place to start. We need to begin by telling the truth to ourselves about ourselves under our own fig tree. And having done that we cannot help telling the truth openly in every situation. But be warned, beloved. Righteousness goes against the very grain of our society, which runs on the oil of sham and self-delusion. In winning friends and influencing people telling the truth definitely has its limitations. If you are a person of complete integrity—“an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile”–you always run the risk of being skinned alive like our friend Nathanael. That’s just how it is, beloved.

But the closer we get to a life without deceit, the closer we get to the heart of Jesus, our true Self. In our solitude he is always present, and he is always saying to us—“Tell it all, brothers and sisters.” Like the song says—“Tell it all.”

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On Approval. The Baptism of Our Lord. Mark 1:4-11

(Preached at Christ Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg FL  Jan. 11, 2015.)

In his Gospel the evangelist Mark tells us that at Jesus’ baptism when he “came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”

My parents were good people, but they didn’t hold with spoiling children. My father particularly. He was a righteous man, perfectly honest and upright in all his dealings–and so patient! We lived on a ranch out in western North Dakota, and he had more than his share of frustrations to contend with, what with the frightful climate—North Dakota’s weather is always five degrees colder than hell or hotter–and the machinery that was always breaking down, and the cattle that were always getting out and running amuck, and two boys to raise, who also sometimes ran amuck.  It was no Infants’ Sunday School picnic! But in all that I never once saw him lose his temper or heard him swear or even cuss. He got down on his knees every night next to his bed to pray—I saw him do it–and he gave ten percent of all that he earned to the Lord. My father was generous to the poor and gentle with animals. His neighbors loved him like a brother. And when Clayton Roen died half the county turned out for the funeral.

He gave my brother and me everything we asked for within reason, but most of all he gave us an example of what it means to be a righteous man. But he did not believe in spoiling children, and with us he did not hand out meaningless compliments. He didn’t hand out compliments period. Not to us anyway. Generous with everything else, he was tight as bark on a dog with his praise. He expected us to do things right the first time, and he did not praise us for doing them that way. He were not spoiled, heaven knows, but we were never told we had done well either. And I have spent my whole life hungering and thirsting for my father’s word of approval. It’s not a big tragedy, in the great scheme of things. It’s just the way it was. He loved us and I think he was proud us when we did well, but my father never said so. And with approval, beloved, it is not enough that they just know it, or guess it, or sense it—children need to hear it.

In fact, we all need to be approved, no matter where we are in our lives. Husbands need to speak a word of approval to their wives, and wives to their husbands. Maybe as we get older and we have more self-doubts, we need that word of approval more and not less than when we were young, and if there is any tragedy it is that there are so many people who wait and wait and wait for the approval they all need to hear spoken and never do.

This is the day on which we commemorate the Baptism of our Lord. Mark’s Gospel tells the story of how God broke into our world to give Jesus his clear word of approval. What Jesus did before his baptism is hidden in deep darkness. He certainly had a life before that, but it was lived in obscurity. No doubt he lived a life not so very different from our own, a life of ordinary joys and sorrows. Without a doubt he shared out fears and uncertainties, and then one day he came to be baptized by John in the river Jordan. And there he stepped out of his old life into a new one, a strange life that we will never understand that would ultimately lead him to the cross and the empty tomb. But on the way Jesus had a tough row to hoe—that’s the biggest understatement ever made!–and he needed all the encouragement, all the strength, all the fortitude—what an excellent old word that is!—all the fortitude he could muster to do what had to be done. He needed the approval of God and as well as man to face the hatred of his enemies and the misgivings in his own heart.

So it was that as he was coming up out of the waters of Jordan, St. Mark tells us, “he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.”  The heavens were ripped apart, cut open as with a kitchen knife, and the violence of that image is intentional. God the Father ripped open his creation to send his Spirit upon Jesus, and to speak his approval clearly and unambiguously—“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  As far as approval goes, it doesn’t get any better than that!

Jesus also had an earthly father named Joseph, whom the Bible is at pains to tell us was a “righteous” man, a good man in every human way, not unlike my own father. And we can hope that Joseph gave the boy Jesus those words of approval that all children need. But important as parental approval is, it is never enough. It has to be spoken in human words, which are faltering and easily misunderstood and never come at quite the right moment. And furthermore by the time Jesus began his ministry, at age thirty years or so, that good man Joseph had dropped out of the picture. Mary, Jesus’ mother, was very much around, but presumably Joseph was dead. It happens….

Now, beloved, humanly speaking there is nothing more important than parental approval. If you have children—or grandchildren even—if there is anyone you love and care for like a parent—it is never too late while you are still alive to give them that clear word of approval. Yes, they will have done things of which you don’t approve. Yes, you may not be crazy about their choice of husbands or wives or whatever. Yes, their lifestyle may not be yours. But as St. Paul writes so beautifully to the Philippians–“Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is anything excellent and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about those things” (4:8). Focus on those excellent things, and then take that one next necessary step–say it. Say–I am proud you and I am well pleased with you and your accomplishments.

But as important as the approval of earthly parents is, it isn’t enough. It doesn’t outlast our lives, for one thing. In time parents slip away from us. It happens. And all of us, if we live long enough, wake up one day to find ourselves orphans. We need that word of approval that lasts a lifetime and more, that will take us all the way to our cross, where ever our cross may finally be planted.  We need the approval of the One who ultimately matters.

That’s why baptism is so necessary–necessary for all of us without exception. The sinless Son of God did not need God’s forgiveness–he hadn’t done anything wrong–but he did need God’s clear word of approval, which lasts a lifetime and gives us the strength to do what needs to be done, which once given can never, never be taken away. And that very human need is what brought him to the Jordan River to be baptized. And there Jesus received the approval he needed to step out of the darkness of one life and into the light of another.

Florida really is The Fruitcake State. I like it here just fine. The climate suits me. But when you read the local news you just have to hope and pray that you don’t fit in here too well. For instance, it was reported that over New Year’s a couple of fruitcakes–John, aged 31, and Amber, aged 25–high on methamphetamines, got “stuck” in a janitor’s closet at the Environmental Science Center at Daytona State College. After two days squatting in the darkness, they finally broke down and called 911. They told police that they had hidden in the closet out of fear and had gotten locked inside by accident. But the police said the janitor’s closet was unlocked. In fact there was no lock on the door at all. John and Amber could have gotten up and walked out at any time. Instead they remained trapped in their glass case of emotion, surrounded by darkness and the stench of their own filth. In the closet police found the copper scouring pads often used for smoking crack, but no actual drugs. They were used up. So this little fruitcake couple was  only charged with trespassing. Happy ending!—I guess.

Now we may shake our heads with wonder and amusement at the thought of those two poor stoned souls, sitting for two days in the darkness of an unlocked janitor’s closet, reeking of filth, trapped by their fear, when at any moment they could have stood up, opened the door, and walked out into the light, but without baptism and the word of God’s approval—You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased–we would be no better off than they.

When we forget our baptism, we too are in danger of getting caught in our glass case of emotion. Some of you will remember that Will Ferrell used the phrase—caught in a glass case of emotion–in the movie Anchor Man to describe the feeling of terror that threatens your very moral fiber while you happen to be trapped inside a phone booth. Funny scene!—but the reality is not funny at all. Apart from our baptism that is where we would all be, always and forever caught in that glass case of our fear.

But baptism breaks open that glass case. It tears apart the sky so that God can speak again his word of approval–You are my child, with you I am well pleased. And once that word is spoken for us it can never be unspoken. It is an everlasting promise, sealed with the blood of Jesus, who came to the Jordan to be baptized, and then went out from there to live the life and die the death that sets us free. And then on the third day he rose again and lives today to proclaim to the whole creation that the door of the dark closet called death is unlocked. In fact the lock itself is now utterly gone. So whenever we find ourselves in danger of being trapped there, all we need do is remember our baptism, and then stand up and open the door.

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Saying Yes Matthew 2:1-12

In the Gospel of Matthew we read: “On entering the house, the wise men saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered his gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

You know, beloved, in all my long life I have never once been invited to a baby shower.  Lately the world has changed a lot. Everything has been turned up-side-down, and I understand that these days men do sometimes get invited to these affairs. But I myself never have been to one, and so I depend upon others to inform me what goes on there. I know they involve games, the sillier the better, the giving of practical gifts and practical advice, and some sort of food, probably cake. Beyond that for me baby showers remain a profound mystery. But I do hear stories. . . .

Thirty some years ago when we were pregnant with our first child and I was a pastor in Brunswick, Maryland, the ladies of the congregation gave a baby shower in my wife’s honor, and, true to form, I wasn’t invited. But I heard all about it afterwards.  There was a certain elderly lady in that church, a sort of local “wise woman,” who was always called upon at baby showers to pronounce on the sex of the unborn child—boy or girl–depending on  how the expectant mother was “carrying”  the baby. In my wife’s case there was no doubt whatsoever, the wise woman said. It was a girl. That was obvious because she was carrying it so high. She had never once been mistaken in her long career as a wise woman. And she brought along a gift, the frilliest pink baby dress you can imagine, to seal the deal. It would be a girl for sure.  Well, a few weeks later Paul was born. From the very beginning he was unmistakably a boy and has been ever since.

As I said I have never been invited to one, so I have no first-hand experience, but from what I hear baby showers must be very strange affairs indeed.  And that goes double for the first one we know of, which took place in Bethlehem sometime after the baby Jesus was born. It was a surprise baby shower—a surprise for everyone involved. And men were invited to that one, wise men.  According to the Gospel of Matthew they arrived unexpectedly from the East bringing the strangest, most impractical gifts for the new baby. They said they had been invited by a star of all things. We can imagine that perhaps a super-nova appeared in Orion, the constellation of the royal house of David. But whatever had happened in the sky, a star or a comet, to them it signified that a new king of the Jews had been born. They received their invitation and off they went.

We have to wonder exactly who these mysterious “wise men” were.  In Jesus’  time there was a large and prosperous Jewish colony in the city of Babylon in modern-day Iraq. The Jews of Babylon were famous throughout the ancient world as physicians and astrologers. And in all likelihood it was from Babylon in the east that these Jewish star-gazers came.

But who they were is not nearly as important as why they came. They didn’t have to. They had a thousand, thousand excellent excuses not to come. Travel in ancient times was a dangerous and often fatal undertaking. There were cut-throats and bandits along the road, there were wild animals and wilder people on the way, and there was a great, nasty desert to cross with all the unpleasantness  involved in that. The wise men had a thousand, thousand good reasons not to accept the invitation of the star, but they did anyway. When they appeared and announced that they were looking for the “child who has been born king of the Jews,” the evangelist Matthew tells us that King Herod was “troubled” and all Jerusalem was stirred up like an ant hill. Everyone thought it was the most peculiar thing they ever heard of, following a star to find a baby.

But clearly those wise men were acting on an interior direction. They didn’t care what everybody thought. They had a calling from God. They had seen a message written in the stars that invited them to seek out the newborn king  of the Jews and shower him with gifts. And to the invitation they said, Yes, thank you so much. We would be delighted to come. And they did. And in the end they did in fact find the king—although certainly not in the circumstances they were expecting. But “they knelt down and paid him homage [anyway]. And opening their treasures they offered him gifts. . .”  What a strange story! But how wonderful. And peculiar.

Or is it? Each of us, beloved, has an interior star, invisible to the rest of the world, that beckons us. We each have received an invitation, and we are never really at ease until we say Yes, I will be delighted to come. At the beginning of this New Year I think that many of us, myself included, are not altogether happy with our comfortable lives as we have been living them. We would like to find more joy in living, more excitement, a greater sense of spiritual fulfillment. We desire a change, but we are not exactly sure how to make one at this late date. How do we go about altering the direction our lives have taken up to now, especially if everyone–including our own bodies–keeps telling us we are old and need to be careful with ourselves? But it really doesn’t matter which square we occupy on the board of life. Young or old or somewhere in between–none of us is where we know we should be at this beginning of 2015, and somewhere down deep inside we know it.

Now I don’t pretend to know your business. I don’t know exactly what God is inviting you to do. But I will give you this one New Year’s admonition–say Yes, beloved. When life offers you an opportunity, and possibility to grow, an invitation to an adventure with only a reasonable risk attached, say, yes. Say, yes. Spend yourself while you can, and forget about the loose change.

It is so much easier to say “no” to life than yes. Those of you who have raised children know that kids learn to say “no” long before they learn to say yes. They say it again and again, louder and louder—no, no, no, NO! And as we get older is becomes easier and easier, when life offers us something, to just say “no” to it. We have a thousand, thousand good excuses. I’m too busy. (That’s a joke!) I’m too poor. I’m too tired. I don’t like to go out at night. Or alone. Or whatever. I need to save myself. (And for what?) Or worst of all—I’m afraid—which for a follower of Jesus Christ is the very worst excuse of all.

Oh, I know all your objections before you make them, beloved. In the past you have all have gotten yourself into trouble by saying yes. You’re not alone. We all have a bunch of regrets banked away somewhere, maturing in our heads like savings bonds, the result of having said “yes” perhaps too quickly. Once bitten, twice shy, as they say. And we all have our limitations—there is no point in denying that.

But at the beginning of this year of our Lord 2015 we need to look hard at this charming story of the wise men and find in it a truth that matters. (The Bible doesn’t say there were just three wise men, by the way. It doesn’t tell us how many there were. There may have been two or twenty. That matters not.) What matters is that when God offered them an invitation to come to a shower for a newborn king of the Jews, they had a thousand excellent reasons not to. The weather was uncertain. (It does look like rain, doesn’t it?) Their arthritis was kicking up. One of them could feel a nasty cold coming on. (Or maybe the flu.) The road was dangerous and long, and they might have a flat tire on one of the camels after dark. They were tired and afraid, and it is always easier just to stay in your warm little home and save yourself.

But they spent themselves instead. They didn’t sit around and rot like the bunch of old miserable charlatans they might have become. Instead they got up and followed the star. They said yes to the invitation of life and not no. And in the end they did find a king—although not, as I said, in the circumstances they were expecting to find him. And on the way they had the time of their lives, you can be sure. In fact, the way was probably even worse than they expected, but they had the time of their lives.

I can’t tell you what to do, beloved—you wouldn’t listen if I tried.  You’re not the boss of me, you’d say. And I’m not—thanks be to God! But this much I know for certain, and I have to say it–when with our whole heart we say “yes” to life, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that was in Jesus, grabs us by both our hands and starts to dance.  And the music lifts us out of our shoes. Therefore, beloved, say yes and not no. That’s all it takes to change the direction of our lives for the better, beloved in the Lord.

That’s what those wise men did. They said yes and offered their strange gifts. There are so many mysteries in the story of their coming, we have to wonder why the evangelist Matthew bothers to tell us exactly what those strange gifts were—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Such impractical things to give a new baby! But maybe that’s why men don’t invited to baby showers more than they do—because they come up with such ridiculous gifts, not something practical, not diapers, or baby powder, or even a frilly pink dress.  Instead, “opening their treasures,” the wise men brought out what they had, and that’s what they offered.

So maybe the impracticality of their gifts is the real point of the whole story. You and I worry way, way too much about being practical, beloved—so much that we hesitate to give the Lord what we have. But whatever God has given God wants back. He gave them to us in the first place, so who cares if our gifts seem impractical, naïve, useless, and downright silly? Offer them anyway. Give what you have and don’t fret about what other people think. It is never too early or too late to realize that it is absolutely futile to waste your life trying to satisfy other people and their expectations.  Instead do what those wise men did—accept the invitation of your star and shower Jesus with whatever you have.

Today, at the beginning of 2015 we each have a decision to make. We can sit around and save ourselves until we have nothing left to save. Or we can say yes to life, spend the cash and let the credit go, and follow our star to where ever we may end up. God alone knows where that will be! But, beloved, the choice is up to you.

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Filed under Gospels, New Testament