Cross with Fish
Drawing based on ironwork at Benton Chapel, Vanderbilt University.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." 16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea--for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Mark 1:14-20 January 6 seems sure to become one of those dates when we remember exactly where we were as we watched the news unfold, and one of those dates that becomes distilled in our memories into iconic images: the pictures that tell the story of the day as we remember it.
As the shock has worn off, I find myself continuing to wrestle with two images from that day.
Outside the Capitol, rioters espousing white Christian nationalism and white supremacy and anti-Semitism and misogyny carried signs that read “Jesus Saves” and “Jesus 2020.” They knelt in prayer invoking the name of Jesus before storming the Capitol.
Inside the Capitol, meanwhile, Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester, Democrat from Delaware, found herself trapped in the gallery of the House chamber after others had been evacuated.
As chaos broke loose around her, Representative Rochester started to pray. The moment is caught on video.
In the name of Jesus, she prayed for healing.
She prayed for protection, for those protecting the lawmakers, and for all of her “brothers and sisters in this Congress who protect America.”
She prayed for peace: “Peace.” “Peace in the land. Peace in this country. Peace in the world.”
Reflecting on the experience the next day, Representative Rochester said that she knew that “God is bigger than this,” and so she laid down her sadness and her anger and she just started to pray.
Two stories of that one day.
—-- And the question on my mind is how do we move forward from this place?
How are we called as Christians ,.. to respond to a riot that distorted the symbols of the Christian faith in service of the agenda of white supremacy and white Christian nationalism?
As we turn our eyes to the future this week, how do we avoid simply papering over what happened under the guise of a false unity?
How do we heal from this breach? _____
Theologian James Cone, in his book God of the Oppressed, writes that story “is the history of individuals coming together in the struggle to shape life according to commonly held values.”
Cone wrote this about the ways in which the stories that shape us can also confine us.
“When people can no longer listen to other people’s stories, they become enclosed within their own social context, treating their distorted visions of reality as the whole truth.
And then they feel that they must destroy other stories, which bear witness that life can be lived another way.”
Cone describes the history of enslavement and genocide of indigenous peoples in this country as attempts “to establish the white story as the only truth in history.”
Cone wrote those words in 1975, but he could have written them on January 6, 2021.
But here’s the thing: although our stories can confine us, Cone assures us that stories can also liberate us.
He writes that the biblical story, which is independent of our own stories, “lays a claim upon us in our contemporary existence.”
“God’s story,” he goes on, “becomes our story through the faith made possible by the grace of God’s presence with us.”
God’s story lays a claim upon us and by the grace of God becomes our story.
I think that’s part of the answer of how we move forward from this place.
By embracing anew a very old new story.
One that shows us that things can be different. One that can liberate us from all that confines us.
And it turns out that today’s Gospel reading takes us right there.
In today’s Gospel reading, we hear the story of Jesus calling the first disciples.
To be a disciple is simply to follow.
To walk the same road that Jesus walked and to learn from him.
In calling us to discipleship, to be his followers, Jesus calls us into a new story.
A new story to shape our lives. A revolutionary story. The story of Jesus.
The story of Jesus: in which the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, the captives are freed, the oppressed are liberated. The story of Jesus: in which the man Jesus was killed by the forces of empire because he called out injustice, because he stood with the oppressed and persecuted.
The story of Jesus: in which Christ, the Son of God, was resurrected “thereby making good,” theologian James Cone writes, “God’s promise to bring freedom to all who are weak and helpless.”
The story of Jesus: the living Christ, in whose resurrection we find the promise that Christ is with us now and with us always.
That’s the story into which, by grace, we are called.
And that sounds like a story we sorely need. That’s the story that lays claim on us as Christians. _____
But Mark’s Gospel makes clear that when we step into that story, when we embrace it fully, we have to leave our old stories behind.
The disciples leave everything behind.
Their nets, their boats, their livelihoods: left behind.
James and John even leave their father. They leave all of it and follow.
They leave behind their old story, the story of men who fished for fish in a tightly knit seaside community, to step into the story of Jesus. And so, too, are we called, to leave behind our old stories and step into Jesus’ story.
We don’t necessarily have to leave our jobs and our families and our hometowns in order to follow Jesus.
But we will have to leave the old stories that keep us from giving the whole of ourselves to the One who says to us: “Follow me.”
Maybe those are stories that tell us that the point of life is to acquire things.
Maybe they’re stories that tell us that love is something we have to earn.
Whatever they are for each of us, following Jesus, stepping into his story, means leaving behind the false stories, the self-referential stories, all of the life-limiting stories that keep us from him.
And this moment in history is calling us to take seriously the work of untangling ourselves from all of those stories, conscious and unconscious, that stand between us and the revolutionary, liberating story of Jesus.
The events of January 6 make that much clear.
Those who invoke Jesus’ name in support of white supremacy and anti-Semitism and all manner of hate are not telling the story of Jesus. They are attaching the name, Jesus, to a very human story of hate and fear.
And it’s important that we speak truth to that lie.
Yes. But that’s not all there is for us to do.
I heard a talk on Monday by Resmaa Menakem, author of the book My Grandmother’s Hands, which is about healing from racialized trauma.
Someone asked him how white people who want to be allies in the fight against racism should be responding to the Capitol Riots.
“Don’t distance yourselves from your cousins,” he said. “Ask yourself what’s my part in this?”
It’s a challenging answer. And an important one as we consider what stories we need to leave behind to fully embrace Jesus’ call.
Because the truth is the underlying story of white supremacy that was on display on January 6 is one that we all have to reckon with.
All of us, in this country, no matter what body we are in have been shaped, in part, by our country’s racial history.
And leaving that behind means acknowledging that, and then working to understand and start to undo the impact of that the pervasive story of white supremacy.
That means understanding privilege, learning to be anti-racist.
That’s hard work. But it’s necessary work.
Work we’re called to do if we are to leave the old, life-limiting stories behind and step fully into the story of Jesus and the good news of liberation and justice that he proclaims
Jesus called the first disciples out of their quiet lives into lives of speaking fierce and dangerous truths. Lives of healing the sick. Feeding the hungry.
Proclaiming the good news of God’s Kingdom come near.
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes their story this way.
“Until that day, everything had been different. They could remain in obscurity, pursuing their work as the quiet in the land, observing the law and waiting for the coming of the Messiah. But now he has come, and his call goes forth. Faith can no longer mean sitting still and waiting - they must rise and follow him.”
We, too, must rise and follow him.
That means setting down “the human ballast,” as Bonhoeffer put it, that we have “overlain on the pure Word of Jesus.”
It means giving up trying to fit Jesus into the stories we tell and instead allowing his story to claim us. —-
And I think that’s where we start this process of moving forward.
By letting his story claim us. Fully.
And that asks much of us.
There’s a lot to leave behind, as we embrace Jesus’ call and step fully into his story.
But there’s good news in this story. Plenty of it.
Because the story of discipleship is not really about the disciples.
It’s a story about Jesus. About grace. The grace we need to do what we need to do. Jesus didn’t send the disciples forth alone.
He met them where they were, and called them to follow.
Jesus is the one who meets us where we are, who comes to us in our place of uncertainty, not knowing.
In those moments when our despair and our anger and our not knowing what to do drives our knees into the dirt, Jesus meets us there.
And reminds us that as disciples, we walk in his story.
We are called, with the help of God, to live lives that bear witness to the fact that things can be different.
We can be part of that story.
Follow me, Jesus says.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that if we say yes to his call, we don’t know where the road will lead.
“Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows the journey’s end. But we do know that it will be a road of boundless mercy.”
A road of boundless mercy. It starts with answering, with the whole of our lives, those astonishing words.
“Follow me.” By grace, we will. Follow him.
Into his challenging, transformative, amazing story. The road awaits, friends. The time is now.
John 1:43-51 43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ 46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’
John 1:43-51 I’ve mentioned before that baseball was an essential part of my life growing up in central Ohio. I began playing in first grade for my hometown of Gambier, Ohio. We played other teams in the area, teams from other little rural towns with names like Bladensburg, Martinsburg, Howard, Utica, and Danville. We weren’t very good most years, winning some, but losing most games against the other towns. But over time, I really began to dislike the town of Danville, Ohio.
At a population hovering around 1,000, Danville was able to field three baseball teams of farm kids, and they were all very good. Their teams were bigger and stronger and faster, their pitchers threw harder, and they all knew it. Their fields were also better, with outfield fences and huge stands for all the overly involved parents and families, who gathered and watched us get trounced every spring. It didn’t help that their town mascot was a blue devil, and their main restaurant in town was called the “Devil’s Den,” all images my very religious mother associated with Satanism.
But, when I was in 8th grade, the doctor’s office my mother worked for moved to Danville. And then my aunt and uncle and my three cousins moved from Alabama to be closer to us. And they settled in Danville, and I spent a lot of time at their house. And in high school, one of my closest friends, who I met at church, was from Danville, and we spent many weekends driving around the country roads in and around Danville.
Today, my sister lives in Danville with her husband and six children. Her children play baseball on those same fields I played 30 years ago for the same teams that triggered my youthful prejudices. And whenever we go back to visit family, I spend a lot of time in Danville.
Nathanael’s prejudices for the town Nazareth in today’s gospel may be the result of something like this, and the story in today’s gospel is about how prejudices break down when we get to know one another.
John’s gospel has moved past the cosmic origins of Christ and has begun telling the story of Jesus of Nazareth and the calling of his first disciples. Andrew and Simon Peter are already on board when Jesus returns to Galilee, the rural region north of Jerusalem. Here, Philip joins Jesus too and runs to tell Nathanael of Jesus. Later in John, it states that Nathanael was from Cana in Galilee, a small town geographically close to Nazareth.
The region of Galilee was rural, agrarian, religious, and mostly poor, but it was also diverse. Since the eighth century BCE, conquering nations forcibly moved populations around their empires in an effort to control their subjects. Galilee was one of the places where populations were moved in and out over the centuries. Today we might think of rural areas as places where families can put down roots for generations and some Galilean towns like Nazareth looked like this. Others town, neighboring towns, however, might be ethnically and culturally very different.
Cana is the location of Jesus’ first miracle in John, and while small and rural, it was more cosmopolitan and wealthier than its neighbors. Meanwhile, Nazareth was a tiny town of perhaps 400 people during the first century CE, known for being a pretty poor and profoundly religious place. It’s possible that Nathanael’s prejudice stems from the cultural differences between the two neighboring towns.
But there might be more to the story. Nazareth has become troubled in recent memory. In 6 CE, the local protectorate of King Herod was replaced by the Roman official Quirinius, and local taxation of the peasant population in Galilee to Rome had doubled. This led to a series of violent revolts against Roman occupation by bandits led by Judas the Galilean, a revolutionary leader from Nazareth. This group was ruthless. Not only did they target Roman strongholds, but they also burned the house and property of their fellow countrymen who paid the tax, seeing them as complicit in the occupation.
Judas’ revolt did not end well. Rome massacred Galilean Jews from Nazareth and other Galilean towns. It’s possible that the region harbored resentment toward the town of Nazareth because one of theirs brought so suffering down on everyone.
Also of note, In the early second century, likely around the time of our gospel’s formation, another revolutionary, Simon bar Kokhba from Nazareth, would stand against Rome with similar motivations. His movement, and the surrounding region was again, met with the same disastrous results.
As an inconsequential place, as a poor place, as a place that bred revolutionary bandits, Nazareth, in particular, was not seen by Nathanael as a fitting place for the coming Messiah. When Philip runs to Nathanael and tells him that he’s found a new leader, Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth, Nathanael can’t believe it.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael complains.
Philip’s answer is straightforward. “Come and see for yourself.”
The dialogue that transpires between Jesus and Nathanael is pretty cool, with symbolic elements. Jesus meets Nathanael with affirmation, despite his prejudices, stating that he’s an honorable man of God. When Nathanael asks how Jesus knows him, Jesus says that he saw him under the fig tree, a symbol of national hope, freedom, and prosperity in the Hebrew Scriptures and the gospels. Nathanael then gives three titles to Jesus, Rabbi, meaning teacher, Son of God, and King of Israel, to which Jesus tells him that he will see even greater things if Nathanael joins the cause.
Place and prejudice are current issues for us, issues that we are living with today. We track the pandemic by country and state, and region and watch as the colors change in our counties from green to yellow to red. We think about wearing masks in the same way, associating geographic locations with mask wears and non-mask wears. During the election, we watched closely as states and their counties were color-coded in one of only two colors, either red or blue, marking regions of the country as siding with our political leanings or against them.
In a recent Mother Jones article entitled “There’s No Such Thing as ‘Trump Country,’” Becca Andrews lays into this notion that we can write off entire regions and their people because of a color-coded map. Andrews reminds us that places do not vote, get COVID-19, or wear masks. She writes,
Country is just that—country. The cotton fields in the county where I grew up do not have a political preference, nor do the soybeans or the pastures or the highways that connect little farming communities together like pearls on a string.
She also notes that where she grew up in western Tennessee is often labeled “Trump Country” by both white supremacists and those willing to write off an entire region as “other” or a lost cause. Yet, this same region contains multitudes of people of every type of color, shape, politics, religion, and citizen status. Writing off places as “other” forgets all those living there working for justice, love, and safer, more inclusive communities.
In our gospel, Nathanael carries with him a notion that Nazareth is bad, and that everyone from Nazareth is too. But his encounter with Jesus challenges this notion. He asks how Jesus “knows” him, and it seems that being known is a pivotal part of this story. Despite the prejudice, Jesus affirms his dignity as a child of God, “a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” as Scripture puts it. Jesus’ work is not only for a select few, those that buy into his message whole-heartedly. Jesus works to make life better for everyone, even folks that carry deep seeded prejudice. People like Nathanael also need liberation, healing, and peace.
We probably learn something about our faith from the way Jesus speaks with Nathanael and how we are called to know and be known.
Like many of you, I was shocked at the Capitol Riots on January 6th. I don’t know if I was surprise though. It was awful to hear more hateful and deceitful rhetoric from Donald Trump and his allies, as they incited an armed crowd to storm the Capitol building. It was heartbreaking to see symbols of Christianity in the crowds interwoven with symbols of white supremacy, neo-Nazism, misogyny, and violence. Evangelical leaders this week are beginning to voice calls for self-examination and repentance for supporting Trump all this time. It will take time for Christians, all of us, to wash off those symbols and reclaim them as symbols of healing and inclusivity.
I have often associated this particular brand of extremism with certain parts of the country, and a certain kind of person, even if those parts of the country were where I grew up and those kinds of people were friends and relatives. I have people close to me that have had Facebook posts taken down and been banned from other social media platforms because they use the same dishonest and violent rhetoric as Trump. Likely, some of us listening today have folks in our lives like this also.
What do we do? How do we engage with folks in our lives that are so hate-filled, our relatives, college roommates, spouses, that have been poisoned by this latest evil?
Jesus names the Nathanael’s God-given dignity and reminds Nathanael that he knows him. This is the same God-given dignity that everyone in Jesus’ life shared, one that everyone we know today shares. It acknowledges that God loves what God creates, and God does not stop loving even when that creation is broken, poisoned, or harmful. We also do not know the outcome of this gathering. Nathanael is only invited to come and see. It doesn’t say that he joined the cause. In fact, Nathanael isn’t present on any of the disciples lists in the New Testament. Likewise, we might hope for a time of unity as we move on this this divisive time. Our faith often uses a different word though, reconciliation. Unity can lack some of our best virtues like truth telling, accountability and justice. Reconciliation on the other hand, requires truth telling, accountability, justice, and grace. We must be careful when we hear calls for unity that do not include our higher virtues.
Right now, I’m probably a little too sore to reach out to my loved ones who supported Donald Trump and his failed rebellion. But I work to remember that they too have a God-given dignity that these sins cannot destroy. They too, are loved by God and called to be holy. They too are my brothers and sisters of faith, of our common humanity, creatures of this wonderful cosmos. And if the truth can be told, then perhaps reconciliation can, one day, take place.
May we continue to work and pray for justice and peace, especially this week. May we remind people of their God-given dignity too. And ay we love those around us, those closest to us and those that feel far away, for the grace of God. Amen.
“Plaque with the Baptism of Jesus” South Netherlandish, ca. 1150-1175. Currently on display at the Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 304. Public Domain.
Mark 1:4-11 4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And 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. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Mark 1:4-11 As your custom and faith dictated, you traveled from your little town in the rural countryside of Galilee to the big city, Jerusalem, three times a year. These pilgrimages celebrated important holy festivals for your people and took place after a regional harvest, where farmers and landowners could bring offerings to the temple and food to the market.
You’ve made these trips for as long as you could remember. The journey was long, taking as much as a week by foot. Usually, you traveled with your family and people from your town, sleeping out along the road by night. Once, when you were twelve, your parents even began the journey back to Nazareth without you, figuring you were with another family. They were pretty upset with you when they had to return to Jerusalem because you had snuck away to the temple to argue with the priests. There was a lot of silence on that trip back. But most of the time, these trips brought you joy. You caught up with neighbors and extended family, learned about current events, and laughed and sang together.
Times have changed, though. Maybe everything was getting worse, or perhaps you notice more now that you’re older. You see that the first fruits of the harvest are smaller, a sign of poverty in the region. Fewer people are making the pilgrimage too, and folks say it’s become the roads have become more dangerous. People talk less openly, worried about Roman interlopers. And as you enter the city, the roads are lined with crosses: so many crosses, so many people, your people, condemned to death by the empire.
You reflect on the journey to Jerusalem during the festivities. You perform your sacrifices in the temple and join your friends and family in singing and conversing around luscious meals. But you notice more this week. You notice poverty in the streets. You notice ill and injured people calling out for help. You see the way everyone walks by them as if they aren’t there. And you notice Rome. It’s standard in the temple; an eagle, a bird of war, stands over the house of worship. Its soldiers are everywhere, scuffling with the locals. Its leaders share a table with city leaders. You feel the joy of this harvest festival, but that joy is damped by the feeling that all is not right.
As the festival ends, you leave the city but take a detour into the wilderness, down to the Jordan River. In the last few years, after each festival, you visit your cousin John and stay with him and his followers for a few days. John lived in the middle of nowhere and was, by far, your strangest relative. He dressed like a wild man or an ancient prophet, and you always made sure to bring your own food because his food was pretty gross. But you looked up to your cousin. He had committed himself to help people and made no distinction between city dwellers and poor rural folks like yourself. He preached the same message to everyone, calling on folks to return to God. He contended that God’s people did not need to live lives of political, economic, and spiritual oppression. He called out the corruption of local leaders. He stated that Rome’s occupation of this God-given land was illegitimate. He talked about how people can repent and not go along with the awful things in this world. They could resist, peacefully even, by returning to devotion to God and the virtues of a loving and just life. He gave people hope, and direction, a little light in a bleak world.
This year, as you made your way down to John, you traveled with an enormous crowd. John’s message was being heard by people in the city and folks from all over the region, but clearly, his popularity had grown since you saw him last.
As you entered the clearing, you saw a familiar sight, John, wearing his characteristic camel’s hair attire and thick leather belt, preaching on the banks of the River. Some of his followers sang ancient hymns from the Psalms and the Prophets, songs of lament, joy, and trust in God. And people responded to his message by entering the water, confessing their sins, and being dipped under the water and raised back up, a symbol of forgiveness, renewal, and a new start.
You had responded in this way too in previous trips. Like the others, you felt compelled to confess those terrible thoughts, feelings of despair, and social injustices you’ve witnessed recently. You felt that each time you were dipped in the water, you have a chance to begin again, to do something meaningful moving forward, something that could help your people who struggled to survive.
And so, this time, you entered the River again. One of John’s attendants came to you and heard your confession, and saw your tears, and held your hand as you plunged underneath the waters. But, when you came back up, something was different. It was like the sky was on fire, ripping with a bolt of lightning. And it felt like the lightning struck you, entering into you, and you imagined a dove, a symbol of God’s spirit of peace. And you heard a voice saying, “You are my child, and I love you, and I am pleased with you, and I choose you.”
You turn to the attendant and ask if they saw or heard anything. They answered only with a blessing.
You stick around on the bank of the River into the evening, considering what just happened. As the crowds disperse, your cousin comes over, greets you warmly, and invites you to stay with him and his followers for a few days.
At dinner, you catch up. John mentions that he’s been approached by local authorities recently and that he fears arrest. His followers are uneasy, too, wondering what will happen if their leader is taken into custody.
Then share your starling experience in the water. John is thoughtful, listening quietly, and intently. After a prolonged silence, John begins to tell you stories about other people who were anointed to do God’s work in the world, how they had similar experiences. He talks about Moses and Elijah about the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. He laughs and jokes about your carpentry skills and wonders if a new line of work would suit you better. More seriously, he talks about the harvest that everyone just celebrated. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. And then he offers advice: “Go deep into the wilderness and fast and pray. Stay there as long as necessary and discover what God will have you do.”
You set out that very night into the wilderness, leaving everything behind to find answers.
This Sunday commemorates the Baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. Mark’s telling of the story is sparse and based on action. Jesus comes to John, is baptized, receives a vision, and is led into the wilderness. Immediately after, John is arrested. Only then does Jesus begin his public ministry.
We can fill in the story a bit by the baptism stories in our other gospels and other literature from the first century CE. John and Jesus were cousins. John preached and baptized in the wilderness for a while before Jesus came on the scene. John’s popularity grew over the years, and people visited him regularly for messages of hope and ritual purification. Jesus knew John well and also knew his followers. When John was arrested, some of John’s followers began to follow Jesus around the Galilean countryside as he embarked on his own work.
This is how everything gets started in Mark. This gospel is not concerned with annunciations, genealogies, and nativity scenes. There are no shepherds, wise men, and angelic choirs. Everything begins at this particular instance of Jesus’ baptism, a ritual he likely experienced many times before.
The difference lies in what Jesus experienced this time. The skies open up, and the spirit of God descends on him, like a dove. And a voice speaks directly to Jesus here, saying, “You are my son, my beloved. In you, I am well pleased.” A better translation of the phrase, “In you, I am well pleased,” is “I have chosen or selected you.” At this moment, God selects Jesus to carry out God’s purposes.
I wonder if telling the context of this familiar passage and telling it as a story helps us to enter into it. Otherwise, I find the baptism of Jesus by John at the Jordan River to be a little too abstract. Theologians have debated for centuries over the purpose of Jesus’ baptism, whether or not it was necessary, and whether it changed Jesus in any substantial way. The debates weren’t terribly helpful, led to a great deal of division, and left almost everyone else disinterested or confused.
But I think something more accessible is happening here.
Have you ever been stuck? I mean, really stuck? Stuck in an awful job, a toxic relationship, a compiled and collected set of harmful habits and practices? Have you looked closely at big issues like poverty, racism, political corruption, fake news, or climate change, and instead of feeling inspired to act, you mostly feel horrible inside and don’t even know where to start? That’s being stuck.
I wonder how long Jesus had been stuck before that day at the Jordan River. I wonder how he processed his faith’s reminder to be thankful to God for all good things while interacting with a world that seemed utterly broken. God’s will for this world and the world as it is stand so far apart. Where do you even start?
But you know how our best ideas and inspirations come to us in our modern-day rituals? That new insight that seems to come from nowhere over morning coffee or in the shower; the unique perspective we gain while our hands are busy knitting or sewing; that inspiration we gathered chopping wood in the spring or during the yearly trip to the beach in the summer. Likely, our minds have been hard at work on these complex issues for a long time, but our rituals allow us to think and feel differently. They provide space in us to hear what we really need to hear.
During the ritual of confession and being dipped in water, Jesus heard what he needed to hear. “You are my child, and I love you. I am pleased with you, and I’ve chosen you.”
I wish our insights were so clear. Maybe that’s what made Jesus so unique: That he felt such a close bond with God; That he felt so loved by God; That he felt truly affirmed by God as is; And that he felt so chosen by God to go out and work in loving and just ways.
I wonder what we might do if we ever heard these words. “You are my child, and I love you. I am pleased with you, and I’ve chosen you.” I wonder how we might shape our lives differently if we heard these words and used them to make our decisions. Would we feel less stuck? Would the most significant problems of the world feel more conquerable? Would we feel secure enough to reach out and take risks?
I pray that we hear these words this week. Or that we consider them. I pray that we are comforted by them during this difficult time. And I pray that these words heard by Jesus, but also meant for us, challenge us to take on some new task for God’s good work in the world. Amen.
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
John 1:1-18 We are still in the season of Christmastide, the 12-days in the Christian Year that celebrates the Birth of Jesus. This season is pretty short, running from December 25th to January 5th every year. But by today, the Second Sunday in the Christmas season, most of us have already moved on from Christmas reflections. We’ve begun taking down Christmas decorations. We’re no longer listening to Christmas Carols. With New Year Day taking place just a few days ago, we’re ready to move into a new year, set some resolutions, make changes, get moving.
It seems like today’s confounding gospel lesson from the book of John has moved on as well. Gone are the mangers, shepherds, and angels. They are replaced by the complicated prologue to John’s gospel. Divine, pre-existing Word, the means of all creation, Wisdom, rejection, incarnation, divine grace, and the concept of mediation are just a few of the theological concepts that are densely packed into these verses. This passage is really thick, and it seems to be better suited for the ivory towers of abstract theological debate in far off seminaries than the stuff of Sunday morning worship and reflection.
But that’s not what the writer of this gospel intended. In fact, these verses are an early Church hymn whose form and content come from even older sources. It is styled as a hymn, so everyone could learn its message, even those who could not read. Its purpose was to convey a worldview that sets the foundation of the gospel and the story that follows.
Within the gospel’s community and other parts of the ancient Near East, there was a myth regarding Wisdom. Wisdom, Sophia in Greek, existed at the beginning with God and was the means by which God created all things. Three hundred years before our gospel’s writing, the Books of Sirach and Enoch tell a melancholy story about Wisdom. The German theologian Ernst Haenchen summarizes this story well:
The world in which we live was created by divine Wisdom. Wisdom was at the side of God from the beginning, and when he began to create, Wisdom served him as supervising architect. For that reason, everything could and would be truly good. [However] humanity shuts itself up against divine Wisdom. No one anywhere wants to know anything of Wisdom. So, Wisdom has to wander always further since no one wants to accept her. The outcome of all this was that Wisdom returns to heaven.
It’s a sad story that was told over and over long ago. Likely, Mary told Jesus this story growing up or sang it to him as a hushed lullaby when he slept. Like all folk songs, it conveyed a strong message:
The world was made to be virtuous and loving, filled with wise people making wise decisions for the good of all creation. But humanity either rejected wisdom’s tenets or forgot about them. Violence, and war, oppression, and corruption reign because people have forgotten to look for the wisdom that’s woven into the cosmos. Sure, Wisdom shows up and prompts thoughtful action and loving-kindness every once in a while, but those places are fewer and farther between these days. Continued rejection has caused Wisdom to retreat to heaven. And that’s why the world is so hard these days.
This story is always on our gospel author's mind as he writes his account of the story of Jesus Christ. Generally, he’s less interested in the who’s and what’s and when’s of Jesus’ life and more interested in exploring what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection reveal to people about God. He wants to think through why all of these stories of a Galilean holy man matter and what good they might do if told once more. So, he takes this sad story about Wisdom, swaps out Sophia for logos, or “wisdom” for “word,” and makes the ending a little happier.
When humanity failed to follow the virtuous principles revealed to all people throughout the centuries, the virtues took human form in Jesus Christ, and witnesses experienced God’s grace and truth by experiencing this person.
In its way, then, John chapter 1 is a nativity story, a story about something new taking place in a hostile world. God loves this world and wishes to impart on it grace and truth, wisdom and love. Thus far, God’s been a little too abstract with these lessons, so God restructures the curriculum, appearing to humanity in another form, one more recognizable, more personable, one more tangible.
There is a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin, though, like John’s prologue, it likely comes from more ancient sources. It’s found in Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack”:
Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.
I’ll repeat it:
Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.
If I could take today’s gospel passage and all of its language traps and theological prepositions and boil it down to something short, it would be this:
Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.
John’s gospel adds something valuable to the story of Christmas. It reminds us that we are involved in it. All of us. We are involved in an incredible and still unfolding story, one that’s authored by a God that loves us and is willing to meet us where we are as we are in tangible ways. Our faith is not some abstract set of dogmas or a list of seventeen virtues that we either follow or rebel against. We can read about faith without having it, and watch Youtube videos about Christian charity without practicing this virtue. But when we are involved in our faith, when we are invited into the work, and when our teacher is gentle and wise, guiding us as we try our best, then, maybe, we learn. When God, our teacher, is present with us as we try to better ourselves, as we try to recover from 2020, and plan for a better world in 2021, we become involved in this great story.
May you feel the presence of God dwelling among you and those around you in 2021. May you hear in this year's Christmas story God’s invitation to get involved in this developing story of redemption. And may we seek wisdom, and virtue, grace, and truth this year as we place awfully high expectations and hopes on what 2021 has in store for us and the world. Amen.