Mark

“You Are the One: Mission Possible”

“Mission Possible” Mark 6: 1-13  

It’s the middle of summer and I thought we might have a little fun today…. 

Do you remember Mission Impossible from the 60’s? There was always a situation that needed to be solved.  And so Mr. Phelps was given a task to complete and … told that if he refused the mission,  

The tape would be destroyed in 5 seconds….. 

Our pastor is in a series this summer: 

 Entitled You are the one:  Remembering stories from the Characters of the Old Testament…..but  for today…..we are going to take our story not from an Old testament character but rather from the New Testament in the Gospel of Mark 6.  It is one of our lectionary readings and I was drawn to this story primarily because YOU are the main character today. 

You know, our pastor these past few weeks has always ended his story by asking, “Now where do YOU see yourself in this story?” 

I am very likely going to ask you the same question today. 

Several years ago I preached a message  and began with this statement: 

“What if you knew that somewhere in front of you was a moment that would change your life forever?. A moment rich with potential, a moment filled with endless possibilities? 

What if you knew that the choice you made in that moment would determine the course and momentum for your future from today forward? 

How would you handle that moment? 

How would you recognize it? 

This is where we find the disciples today in the story of Jesus in Mark 6. 

The Bible is full of stories about Jesus: how he calmed the storm, fed the crowd on the hill, healed the sick and raised the dead. 

Our Story begins with Jesus and His disciples returning to his home town of Nazareth….the first time he had returned since starting his Ministry 3 years earlier. 

You might have heard the townspeople say: 

“We had no idea he was this good!” they said. How did he get so wise all of a sudden, get such ability?” 

But then…they turned on him. 

In the next breath they were cutting him down: “He’s just a carpenter—Mary’s boy. We’ve known him since he was a kid. Who does he think he is?”  

….people began to question him, but Jesus did not change….he stayed who he was in their presence. 

“Jesus said to his disciples: 

“Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown and among their own kin and in their own house.” 

5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6 And he was amazed at their unbelief.” 

So He and his disciples moved on to other villages and then the 12 came to Him. 

NOW…THIS was the MOMENT  for His Disciples! 

It is when Jesus shares with them their Divine Mission…..It represents the past 3 years of their lives with him……Learning from Him, watching him, following him….  

BUT  FOR THESE 12: Do your remember what they did to follow Jesus? They ALL began with Jesus… 

  • In the middle of doing their ordinary jobs….they left it ALL to follow Him. 
  • Jesus for the last three years had been their Rabbi….their Shepherd.  
  • They watched him heal the blind, raise the dead, cast out demons….they had seen Him do things they could not do…. 
  • They listened as he taught… 
  • Watched him as he modeled how to relate to others. 
  • They were trained by Him so they too might be servants. 

They were challenged by Jesus every day

  • They were with him from the very beginning…….through the trials and Cross…. 
  • They were Eye witnesses to  the resurrection all the way through the Ascension where Jesus gives the Great Commission in Matthew 28: 19…”Go into all the world…and make disciples….baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

So Get this!! 

So Jesus…….took these 12 to a hillside and TRANSFERRED HIS ministry to them

Many people followed Jesus, but on THIS day…..These 12 disciples that Jesus had called….. became Apostles…they were not just following Jesus…..they were BEING  “SENT OUT”….by Jesus!  

There is a difference in following Jesus and being sent.  A disciple is a Learner…a follower…An apostle is one who is “SENT” They were called not only to make disciples…but to TRANSFORM the world through the Gospel of Jesus! 

Do you remember the Story of Peter on the shore with Jesus and Jesus had asked peter 3 times, “Peter, do you love me?  Peter replied as many of us would,  “Lord you know that I love you!”,,,But Jesus asks 2 more times…then 

Then FEED MY SHEEP

In our passage today I began asking myself several questions: 

1.Why did Jesus send them out 2 by 2? Couldn’t they have covered more territory alone? And why did Jesus give THEM authority to do miracles? The Holy Spirit had not come yet at Pentecost. 

Why 2×2? 

  • They travelled in pairs for protection on the road and to be witnesses for each other for what might happen on the road. 
  • Maybe because Jesus know they needed one another. There is power in a shared ministry.   
  • One could be strong when the other was weak.  
  • When one doubted the mission, the other could remind him of what Jesus had said and what they had seen him do. 

Jesus knew they would need each other.  

  • This meant that they would have to learn to depend on God for everything that they needed. Have you had to do that lately? 

His Instructions: 

  • Take nothing with you except a staff….for protection..no bread, No money ..depend on the hospitality of others. 
  • Wear sandals and do not take extra garments. 
  • Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the area 
  • If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them and move on. 

So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent and follow Jesus.  

They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. 

Is this the mission for which they were called?..No Jesus said go to ALL the world… 

We certainly live in a different world than the time Mark was written….  

Are you and I called to speak the truth of the Gospel to a world who so desperately needs to hear that Jesus is the the hope they are looking for! 

And how do we do that? 

Illustration: 

We have all heard of the Sequoia tree or the Redwood tree. Redwood trees are referred to as the largest living things on earth. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the opportunity to go and see the Redwood trees in California, but they reach to almost 250 feet in the air and live for 1500 years. 

Probably these trees have been living from the collapse of the Roman Empire 476 AD. If one could ask how you could stand through the storms of life and how you have not toppled? 

The response might be amazing. We all will think that the tree this big and old is standing because it has roots way deep into the ground.  

That is not the case. Do you know that each tree’s root grow down only about 4 feet below the ground?  

While growing deeper helps many trees remain upright, the Redwood tree does not have deep roots.  

But if you look around the tree, you will notice that the Redwood trees grow only in groves or bunches. While the roots of these trees are only 4 feet below the ground, the roots are intermingled with the other Redwood trees next to them.  

One tree has other tree surrounding it, supporting it and keeping it strong. No one Redwood grows alone. 

Which led me to my other question:  Jesus was the only one with the authority to heal….how did he transfer HIS authority to His disciples?Because when they went out to towns and villages…..they were still doing miracles IN JESUS’s NAME…..continuing to use the authority  of Jesus NAME to cast out demons and heal the sick. 

Folks….There is POWER in the name of Jesus…… 

Henri Nowen in his book _________ reminds us that we cannot do this mission alone. We are called to claim this mission in community….together… For where two or three are gathered in MY NAME….Jesus says, I am there. Do you really believe that? 

We all need the encouragement that comes from bothers and sisters to challenge us….to keep us staying pure in heart, mind, and body. 

But far more important….it is Jesus who heals, not me, Jesus who speaks words of truth, not me, Jesus who is Lord, not me.  

This becomes so clear as we proclaim the redeeming power of the Lord together.  

Whenever we come to proclaim the name of the Lord…..we do it in Jesus’s name 

Often this is done in community, but sometimes this can be the call from God to you alone. 

And I believe with all my heart this only comes from a heart this is turned toward God every day. 

What is your measure of compassion and mercy? It is a gospel question…it is a heart question….When we love God…when we receive His great gift of love for us through Christ….we become “new creatures”…we get new hearts…. 

 Some of you may have heard of speaker and teacher,  Beth Moore,  

Beth Moore tells the story of  hearing from God  in an airport. 

She was waiting for her flight to board.  As she was sitting, she noticed an older man in a wheelchair sitting alone, close to the boarding gate.  Beth said though, that the thing that stood out most about this man was his hair.  Everyone was noticing and whispering about it.  It was very long, and very tangled and matted.  It looked like it hadn’t been brushed in ages.   

As she was sitting there and waiting, Beth felt God say to her spirit, “Go and brush that man’s hair.”  Was God telling her to go and brush a stranger’s hair?   Sure, she had little girls and was used to taking a brush and gently working out the tangles in their hair, but this was different. 

However the longer she sat, the stronger God spoke.   

Finally, she very nervously got up and walked over to where the man was sitting.  She went up to him and asked quietly,’ Sir, May I please have the honor of brushing your hair?” 

“Speak up please,” he said. 

She asked the question again a little louder.  He still couldn’t hear.   “she said, God didn’t tell me that he was hard of hearing.”   

So, she practically had to shout, “Sir may I please have the honor of brushing your hair?”  So much for doing this inconspicuously.  At this point everyone sitting in the boarding area was staring and whispering. 

The old gentleman looked at Beth with wide eyes and said, “Yes, there’s a brush in my bag.” 

As she brushed, tears began to flow down the man’s face.   

He began to explain that he had been very sick and away from his wife for a very long time.  He was flying to see her for the first time in several years.   

He had wanted to brush his hair, but had no one to help him and he couldn’t do it by himself.  He had prayed earlier that day that God would somehow let him not look so ugly and unkempt when he got off the plane and saw his beloved wife.   

 You see…Because Beth had been open to hearing a word from God that day, he used her to be the hand of Christ that day to this man. 

There are people all around us that need to hear that Jesus Loves them, died on a cross for them, and wants to bring them some hope today. 

So I and to ask you this morning…. 

Where are YOU in this story this morning? 

Are you willing to join the mission God has set before us? 

What might that look for you today? 

Maybe you have been a Christian for a long time….but for whatever reason you have stopped thinking about your responsibility in  the mission of Christ? 

Maybe you are sitting here today and saying….you know…I’ve never thought about teaming up with others to carry out this mission.  I’d like to find out more about that…. 

Maybe you have personally felt the Lord calling you to find a place in ministry, to go somewhere in this incredible world of ours and share the Love of Jesus.   

Or maybe you are sitting here today and you under the leadership of the Holy Spirit are saying…..You know Lynn…that’s me!!…..I don’t know if I have ever committed my life to Jesus…I need Jesus in my life and I want to commit my life to Him today. 

I can think of no better day to make a fresh commitment of your life today to this mission God is calling us on than Communion Sunday. 

This is a day to remember what Jesus has done for you and for me.   

Remember this table is not First Baptist Church’s table….it is the table of the Lord. 

Words of Institution

On the night Jesus was with his disciples  

He took bread and broke it.. 

He took the cup and my blood shed for you 

Closing Remarks and Closing Hymn: 

Do you Remember How I started this sermon out today? 

“What if you knew that somewhere in front of you was a moment that would change your life forever?.  

What if that moment was today? 

Could it be that God is inviting all of us to join Him in this Divine Mission of transforming this world through Jesus?  

“A Conversation About Covenant: The New Covenant?”

The New Covenant?

First Baptist Richmond, March 24, 2024

Mark 11:1-11

Those who went ahead [of Jesus] and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

For several weeks now we’ve been having a conversation about the word covenant, and if you are just joining us you may need to know that a covenant is a promise, and not just any kind of promise: it’s a sacred promise, the kind you might make at a wedding. In Old Testament times people would often “cut” a covenant, that is, they would slaughter an animal, cut the carcass in half, and then say to the other party, “May the Lord do so to me—and more!—if I should ever break my covenant with you.”i In the first sermon in this series I suggested that the marriage covenant might be strengthened if the father of the bride would heave a chicken up onto the chopping block, lop off its head, and say to the groom, “May the Lord do so to you, and more, if you should ever break my little girl’s heart!”

We’ve talked about the covenant God made with Noah when he put that rainbow in the sky and promised that he would never again destroy the earth with a flood; about the covenant he made with Abraham, when he promised to give him a land of his own and descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky; and the covenant he made at Mount Sinai, where he promised a ragged band of former slaves: “If you will be my people, I will be your God.” We’ve talked about how the people strayed from that covenant, how they eventually broke it beyond

repair, and how, while they were in exile in Babylon, God came to them with the promise of a new covenant that would be written not on tablets of stone, but on the tablets of the human heart.

If you know anything about what happened next you know that those exiles were set free by Cyrus, king of Persia. They were allowed to return to their home in Jerusalem. But when they got there they found the walls broken down and the temple in ruins. They worked for years to rebuild, often with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other to protect them from their enemies round about. But eventually they dedicated the new temple, which was not nearly so grand as the old one, and settled into their new life, which was not nearly so good as the one before. For the next few centuries they waited for the promise of that new covenant to be fulfilled, but it didn’t happen. If anything, their circumstances got worse.

Israel was oppressed by Syria, its neighbor to the north. In 167 BC a few faithful Jews revolted and war broke out. That’s when the people remembered their old dream of a Messiah, a strong military leader who would deliver them from their enemies and take his rightful place on the throne of his ancestor David. And it’s when they began to dream about resurrection, thinking that a just and merciful God would surely raise up those who had died while fighting for the freedom of Israel.ii At the end of that war they were able to rededicate the temple—an event our Jewish friends celebrate as Hanukah—but it was nothing like the new covenant that God had promised his people. The Old Testament ends almost wistfully, as Malachi looks toward the future and speaks for the God who says, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” And then nothing but silence, for nearly two centuries, until John the

Baptist steps onto the stage.

In my Bible there is a blank page between the Old Testament and the New, but if you turn that page you come to the next page, on which these words are printed: “The New Covenant, commonly called the New Testament of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” You won’t find those words in every Bible. You certainly won’t find them in the Hebrew Bible. Those words are explicitly Christian, and they comprise a statement of faith: whoever put them there believes that the promise God made to his people while they were exiles in Babylon was fulfilled in the person of Jesus. My Bible dictionary puts it this way: “New Testament authors, influenced by the idea of a new covenant, saw in the death of Jesus of Nazareth the beginning of it, and saw his followers as members of that covenant [community], although that did not annul the first covenant given to Israel.”iii

That’s an important point. Although we Christians are eager to believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of the new covenant, we need to be careful not to imagine that the new covenant has somehow replaced or superseded the original covenant. It has only expanded it, thrown the doors wide open so that “whosoever believeth” can be welcomed into God’s family. In the same way we need to be sure that when we use the words Old Testament we use them as if we were talking about wine, which gets better over time, and not as if we were talking about fish, which does not.

Now, back to Jesus.

Whatever his fellow Israelites may have believed about him, Jesus seems to believe that he is God’s anointed one—his Messiah—and that he has been sent not only to fulfill the new covenant but also to usher in God’s kingdom. How does he do it?

1. In Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus comes up out of the waters of baptism the sky is ripped open and a dove flutters down and a voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And then, after he has spent forty days in the wilderness learning what it means to be the Beloved Son of God, Jesus comes into Galilee preaching his version of the Good News: “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near,” he says; “repent, and believe the gospel!” (Mark 1:15).

2. He calls disciples to help him fulfill his mission, eventually calling twelve men. Have you ever wondered why, as in why did he call twelve disciples and why were they all men? Looking back it seems obvious: Jesus was constituting the New Israel, and just as the Old Israel started with twelve men—the twelve sons of Jacob—so the New Israel would start with twelve men, with Peter, James, and John, and all the others. It’s a symbolic action on Jesus’ part, and it seems very deliberate. Yes, there were women who followed him as well as men, and yes they were part of his inner circle,iv but the Twelve Disciples represented the Twelve Tribes of the New Israel, and Jesus wanted everyone to know it.

3. He preaches the good news of the coming kingdom, in fact, this is his gospel: not that we are saved by grace through faith (as Paul likes to say), or that those who believe in him will have eternal life (as John reminds us), but that God’s kingdom is getting ready to come into the world “like a rock through a plate glass window,” as Fred Craddock once put it. Jesus wants his hearers to be ready for that, he wants them to embrace the idea, he wants them to help him bring it in. Throughout the Gospel of Mark he tells his hearers what the world is going to be like when God finally has his way, but

he also shows them.

4. He heals the sick, cleanses the lepers, raises the dead, and casts out demons. He makes it clear that when God’s kingdom finally comes and God’s will is finally done on earth as it is in heaven there won’t be any more sickness, any more suffering, any more death or any more demons. All of that is going to be gone. So, as he makes his way from one small village to another in Galilee, preaching the Good News of the coming Kingdom, he also demonstrates what it will be like by healing everyone who comes to him. And there are lots of them.

5. Near the end of the first chapter in Mark’s Gospel Jesus is at Peter’s house on the Sabbath day. He has preached in the synagogue, cast out an unclean spirit, and healed Peter’s mother-in-law. The kingdom is coming. But when the sun goes down and the sabbath ends the citizens of Capernaum bring to him all who are sick or possessed by demons until “the whole city was gathered around the door.” And what did Jesus do? He cured “many who were sick with various diseases,” Mark says, “and cast out many demons.” And can you guess what happened next?

Jesus became famous.

I hadn’t thought to look before last week, but when I searched for the word crowd in the Gospel of Mark it showed up 36 times, beginning as early as chapter 2. Remember this? “When they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him” (2:4). In that same chapter, “Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them” (2:13). And then in chapter 3, “He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him” (3:9). So,

instead of picturing only Jesus and his twelve male disciples making their way from one little village to the next in Galilee, you need to picture Jesus, and the Twelve, and then those women who accompanied him and provided for him out of their means, and all those people who had been healed by him, and couldn’t seem to stop following him, and all those others who wanted to be healed by him, and hoped to be next in line. By chapter 10 of this Gospel, it’s not only a crowd that gathers around Jesus, it’s crowds—plural.v

His strategy is working.

I went to an event last Tuesday night because someone invited me. I didn’t really want to go. It would mean giving up my regular Tuesday evening workout. But my friend Amy Redwine, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, said she really hoped I would be there and so, grudgingly, I went. I went to St. Paul’s Baptist Church out on Creighton Road, which is a big church! I got there late and had to park practically in the next county. I walked through the wind and the cold for about five minutes before I got to the front door but when I got inside I was amazed.

Because the place was full of people. I mean packed! And the people who were there were of every race, country, color, and clime. It was something called a “Nehemiah Action,” sponsored by a group called R.I.S.C., which stands for, “Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Communities,” and the purpose of the gathering was to actually get something done about gun violence and the lack of affordable housing in our city. There were some solutions offered that had had good results in other cities. There were some questions asked about why those same solutions hadn’t been applied in our city. And then the candidates for mayor were brought up on the stage—seven of them. “Do you hear what we are saying?”

they were asked. They nodded. “Do you see how many people are here?” They nodded again. And I realized that any serious mayoral candidate would have understood that when this many voters ask for something you need to pay attention.

It might get you elected.

It makes me wonder if this is what Jesus was up to as he made his way around Galilee, preaching the good news of God’s coming Kingdom, healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, raising the dead, and casting out demons. Was he working to gather a crowd so that when he rode into the city of Jerusalem the religious and political authorities would have to pay attention to him? He rode in on a donkey, which may seem to us like an act of humility, but you may remember the words of Zechariah 9:9, where the prophet says, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Call it what you will but Jesus appears to be presenting himself to the people of Jerusalem as their long-awaited Messiah. He’s asking for a response; he’s looking for their answer. You have to wonder: was he trying to start a populist movement that would overpower the old regime and replace it with something fresh and new,

A new covenant, perhaps?

I think about Blind Bartimaeus, sitting by the road outside of Jericho. When he heard that Jesus was passing by he began to shout at the top of his lungs, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” It’s the first time in this Gospel that anyone has called Jesus the Son of David, and it suggests that some people have come to think of him not only as a gifted preacher and a powerful healer, but also

as a potential ruler—as one who might sit on the throne of his ancestor and usher in a whole new era of peace and prosperity. The people around Bartimaeus told him to keep quiet. Maybe they knew you could get in trouble for making claims like that. But Bartimaeus shouted out even louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus heard him, called for him, and when Bartimaeus was standing in front of him he asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus said, “Teacher, I want to see again!” Jesus said, “Go, your faith has made you well.” In that moment Bartimaeus regained his sight, but he did not go; instead he followed Jesus on the way to Jerusalem.

Which means that he would have been in that crowd that came with Jesus over the Mount of Olives and into the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. I don’t know if he was in the group that went ahead of him, laying their cloaks on the road, or in the group that came along behind him, picking them up again, but I have a feeling it was the former: that Bartimaeus was the one leading the parade, waving a palm branch and shouting at the top of his lungs, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Jerusalem, but if you have and if you’ve been lucky enough to visit the Temple Mount you know you can stand there and look out over the Kidron Valley and see the Mount of Olives on the other side. It’s only about a half a mile away. If you had been there on that Palm Sunday so long ago you might have looked across that valley and seen a crowd of people coming down the road toward the city—a big crowd. You might have heard them shouting and seen them waving palm branches. If you strained your eyes you might have been able to see the focus of their attention—some stranger riding a donkey’s

colt, his feet dragging the ground. And if you strained your ears you might be able to hear one voice lifted above all the other voices shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” If you were just another pilgrim in Jerusalem, there for the Passover Festival, you might get excited, thinking that you had arrived just in time for a coronation, but if you were Caiaphas, the high priest, you might mutter under your breath, “You want to cut a covenant with us? We’ll show you how we cut a covenant.”

And by the end of the week, they had.

Lord Jesus, as you ride into our city today may we receive you in the spirit of Bartimaeus, and not in the spirit of Caiaphas. And may we open our hearts to you, so that you can write the words of the new covenant on every one. We ask it in your name. Amen.

—Jim Somerville © 2024

“Come and See”

“Come and See”

Mark 9:2-9

Kathy Allen, MDiv

Transfiguration Sunday

February 11, 2024

Richmond’s First Baptist Church

The conversation started around the dinner table when our two daughters were about middle-school age.

· “Why don’t we ever travel anywhere?”

· “Remember that big 10-day cross-country trip? Horseback riding in Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park, Tom Sawyer’s caves in Hannibal, Missouri?”

· “No, that doesn’t count. We were moving.”

· “What about those trips to Seattle and Niagara Falls when you were competing in YMCA Nationals for gymnastics?”

· “No, that doesn’t count, either.”

· “What then did you have in mind?”

· “Some place like: a beach in Mexico, or skiing in Europe.”

Oh, I was beginning to understand. This was more about international trips their friends were taking. And I knew that nothing I could say about family budgets and priorities—like tithing for church or saving for college – would dissuade them from this line of thinking. So, I remember trying this approach:

“You’re right. Those sound like great trips. You know that Dad and I travelled a lot before you were born. Here’s how we did it. Dad started in high school. As a Boy Scout, he went to New Mexico – twice – to Philmont Scout Ranch. Another summer, he went to Europe with a high school band. When we were in our 20s, work took us to Germany for 4 years, and we travelled a LOT for throughout Europe, Africa, and the Near East. So, girls: here’s the thing: Don’t expect family vacations to be your ticket to the world. If you want to see beyond your own back yard, look for opportunities through school, work, and even church. Like we did.”

So, they did. In middle or high school, both were in a Spanish-language exchange program with a sister school in Chile, South America, where they studied and lived with families. One daughter made several trips, beginning her passion for fluency in multiple languages.

The other daughter preferred church-sponsored mission trips. Middle school students went on local and regional work trips. In high school, she went to Montreal, Russia, and Trinidad; and in college, the Dominican Republic and Peru.

I am convinced that hands-on mission trips like these have enormous impact on young people in better understanding & shaping their faith & their world view. It gets them out of classrooms and buildings and into streets and fields and construction sites. It can help them increase their faith in God and in themselves – and in their peers – and in strangers. I’ve seen students come

back from trips like these—forever changed by these new experiences and cultures. I’m sure you’ve seen this, too.

But here’s the thing. So often, when we would ask our girls about their trips, they usually had little to say. They would often shrug their shoulders saying, “Oh, it was fine.” You know what that’s like. Maybe it’s part of being a teenager. But maybe something else is going on here. Maybe it just takes time to process what has happened – and to know WHAT to say – if anything at all.

Our Scripture text today is from Mark 9 – a passage at the very center of Mark’s Gospel – halfway between Jesus’ baptism and his resurrection. To this point, we’ve heard accounts of Jesus’ teaching, healing, driving out demons, and other miracles. Peter has just acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah; and Jesus has spoken plainly to his disciples about his forthcoming suffering, rejection, death, and rising again after 3 days.

Now, here we are: Today’s Scripture describes what we call “The Transfiguration”—an event familiar to many of us. But this time, I began to consider it from John’s point of view – rather than Peter’s – the disciple so often the center of attention and the most vocal of the “inner three.”

Let’s think about John for a moment. He’s generally believed to be the youngest of the 12 disciples. As a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee, I wonder just how often he travelled from his own back yard because of duty to work and family. When Jesus called the two sons of Zebedee to follow him, what might have compelled young John to respond? Was it a true “calling,” based on earlier encounters with Jesus? Was it to stick with his older brother for some perceived grand adventure – beyond the family fishing business? Did he have any regrets about leaving his father “holding the nets,” so to speak, along with the other hired men? We just don’t know, do we?

What we do know is that as they travelled together, John got to know Jesus better and better, especially aspects of his prayer life. Jesus often seemed to prefer solitary prayer, on a mountain, or before dawn. Often coinciding with major decisions or events: like before appointing his 12 disciples, or after feeding the 5,000.

On this occasion, John might have wondered: why did Jesus ask the three of them – Peter, James, and himself – to come along, when he usually preferred solitary prayer?

As they arrived at their destination, what did John see? He saw Jesus “transfigured” before them, dazzling and bright, more brilliant than anything he might have ever seen before. And not just this: but also, two men talking with Jesus. Who were they? And where did they come from?

Imagine with me, for a moment, what this scene may have resurrected for John, from his childhood. Maybe he recalled being in Synagogue School, along with other boys, sitting at the foot of another Rabbi who droned on and on, it seemed. John found it so hard to sit still. He would twist and turn and squirm, often scratching in the sand. The Rabbi might have scolded, “John, sit up and listen!” “I am, I am,” he might have muttered to himself. He was in fact very attentive, while drawing in the dirt: especially the fire and clouds that came up in so many of the stories as the Rabbi talked about the Shekinah: the radiant, divine presence and Glory of God. John remembered drawing:

· A burning bush that didn’t burn up.

· A cloud by day & fire by night that led their ancestors out of Egypt.

· The man who went up on a mountain, covered by clouds and fire, and whose face was “all lit up” when he came back down clutching those stone tablets.

· The chariot of fire when that prophet was carried up to heaven in a whirlwind.

Drawing—“doodling” in the dirt, while listening—had helped etch these childhood stories deep within his memory.

And now, as he looked again and saw Jesus talking with these two men, other memories bubbled up. He remembered as Jesus taught the crowds—on a mountainside or on a plain, saying, among many other things: “I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them.”

Maybe now—in this moment—it all began to come together for John. These two men with Jesus were Moses, the great law-giver of the people of Israel; and Elijah, the great prophet and acknowledged precursor of the Messiah. Both forerunners of all that God had promised, and that Jesus was now bringing to fruition. These two men had earlier met God face-to-face on mountaintops and heard his voice among clouds and fire—and in whispers. In this very moment, as a cloud appeared and covered them, John could now see for himself: the Shekinah, the Glory of God. John could now hear for himself the voice of God saying, “This is my Beloved Son. Listen to him.”

John was surely listening. Even if he didn’t understand it all.

As they descended the mountain, “Jesus ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mark 9:9). But why? Young John might have wondered. Why did he bring us along today, to come and see this, and then ask us to keep quiet?

Imagining John’s response to his transcendental moment has reminded me of one of my own. Not exactly a mountaintop experience, but an island epiphany, so to speak.

The year was 2008. Our former church in Northern Virginia was planning a summer mission trip to a sister church in Trinidad. The theme for this trip was “Family of God,” based on 1 John 3:1: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” Church families were encouraged to make the trip together, as a bonding experience. Our oldest daughter, then in her third year in college, had been to Trinidad the summer before, and she encouraged us to go as a family. “Come and see what it’s all about. You’ll love the island, the people, and what we’re doing together there.” So, we quickly decided to go: as a family of four.

Are you familiar with Trinidad? We were not. It’s a tiny island off the northeast coast of South America, near Venezuela. It has about 1.5 million residents with great ethnic diversity due to a history of European conquest and immigration from India and Africa. About 40 percent are of Indian ethnicity, about 40 percent African, with the remainder of mixed race. Cultural Hinduism is a strong influence throughout the island, regardless of religious expression.

Our mission team consisted of 15 people ranging in age from 14 to 58. Our daily service projects included health clinics, formal family portraits, and music lessons. Each evening, our team led an open-air “Crusade” with exuberant praise music, worship, preaching, and hands-on activities for neighborhood children.

It was an incredible week of new sights, sounds, sensations, and relationships. My journal entry for our last day probably best captures the highlights of my experience. Here are some excerpts:

“Sunday morning, July 6: Church services began at 8:00 am … For the first hour, we sang praise songs, had scripture, prayer, a solo, the children’s Sunday School report, and more worship songs, … Then Pastor Benny announced that Terry [our photographer] would take a final family portrait, of the entire congregation. … While she did this, I was snapping away with my own camera, capturing the light and dark faces, which in their cultural tradition would have represented different castes and levels of acceptance, including outcasts. But here they were all

together, smiling and laughing, in close proximity, gathered together in this church, in this family, as brothers and sisters in Christ. …

“Our 3-hour service concluded with Pastor Benny’s sermon and a time of healing prayer…. Never had I experienced such joy in worship, adoration of God, and the movement of the Holy Spirit until that Sunday morning … in Power & Signs Ministries Church in Las Lomas, Trinidad. This reached a peak for me as we sang an old, favorite hymn. I was stunned. How did they know this hymn? And just as quickly, it came to me: why wouldn’t they? I realized that here I was, immersed in another culture, in another part of the world, … all together in the presence of the one true living God.… Truly we are the Family of God.… all precious in his sight. … Truly this is the kingdom of heaven that is prophesized in Revelation, where all peoples from all corners of the world “know the words” and sing together in harmony in one joyful, glorifying voice in praise to the one true living God. On earth as it is in heaven.”

Monday morning, I returned to work from my transformative island epiphany. What a harsh return to reality it was. I recall a colleague stopping by to say, “So, how was your trip? Did you have fun?” I remember being at such a loss for words. How could I possibly convey all that I had just experienced? All I could say was: “I’ll never be the same.” Now I began to better understand why my daughters – and so many others — often have so little so say about their trips after they returned.

Have you ever felt this way, whether in Trinidad, or Thailand, or Brownsville, Texas; or in the Toddler Room on any given Sunday morning? How can you even begin to describe the indescribable to someone who hasn’t been there for themselves?

What young JOHN saw—that day—on that mountain in the presence of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah—there’s no evidence that he EVER specifically spoke about it or wrote about it. Not in his Gospel, or in his 3 letters (I, II, III John), or in Revelation. Maybe he understood that – better than telling about certain experiences – it may be better for others to see for themselves, firsthand. Or better yet – to invite someone to come along to see it—together. That was John’s way. Hear what he wrote, over and over, in his own Gospel, the Gospel of John:

· When he and Andrew first encounter Jesus and ask where he is staying, Jesus answers, “Come and you will see.” (John 1:39)

· The next day, Jesus calls Philip to follow him. Philip, in turn, beckons Nathanael, who questions whether anything good can come out of Nazareth. What does Philip say? “Come and see” (John 1:46)

· After the Samaritan woman encounters Jesus, she returns to her hometown. What does she tell the people? “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.” (John 4:29); and

· Upon the death of their brother Lazarus in Bethany, Mary and Martha invite Jesus into their grief, saying, “Come and see, Lord” (John 11:34).

John captures this invitation yet one more time in the Book of Revelation. Now an old man, having lived longer than any of the other disciples, he’s had a long time to reflect upon his time with Jesus, and what it all meant. Jesus speaks to John in a vision, which may have been as vivid—and mysterious—as that day Jesus took John with him onto the mountain:

In Revelation 4:1, John writes: After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”

Come and see, Jesus invites us.

Come and See, John writes…over and over.

Come and see, shall we?

And trust the Spirit to take it from there.

May it be so.

“The Kingdom is at Hand”

The Kingdom is at Hand

Mark 1: 29-39

February 4, 2024

Since the beginning of this sermon series on celebrity sightings, I’ve asked myself…have I had any celebrity sightings? Like most people, I’ve been to some concerts and I’ve gotten signatures from some of my Duke Basketball favorites like Grant Hill and Christian Leitner, and I’ve seen Doc Watson play the guitar at Merle Fest, but have I ever really met a celebrity “up close and personal?” Then, this week it finally hit me. In 2007, I took a group of students and adults on a mission trip to Highland, California – just south of Los Angelas. We stayed at Highland Baptist Church and worked painting and roofing houses all week long in 100 degrees so on our days off, we did everything you are supposed to do when you travel to the other coast…from going to Disneyland, to the Hollywood sign, driving down Santa Monica blvd, Gramin’s Chinese Theatre, going to muscle beach, eating at California pizza kitchen, and even taking time to stop at the famous Hollywood stars where I could could put my hands in the handprints of Shirley Temple and Julie Andrews. With all of that, I imagined we would have run into someone…but no. The celebrity sighting would come in the most unexepected place – back at church.

On Sunday morning, we walked into the Youth Sunday School department at Highland Baptist, Jared grabbed my hand, told me I needed to meet someone and nodded towards an older African American man standing near the door named Tony Burton. I immediately asked who Tony Burton was, and why I needed my picture with him…only to find several people who couldn’t believe I didn’t know Tony played “Duke”, Apollo Creed’s father-figure and trainer in the first 3 Rocky movies, and then he became Rocky’s trainer in the 4th and 5th movies.

We walked over and Tony immediately put his arms around us, pulled us in close, grinned from ear to ear, and we snapped a quick picture. We stood there and chatted for a bit and what impressed me most wasn’t the fact that Tony was in the Rocky movies…because to be honest, I still haven’t seen them all… but I saw Tony Burton differently. What I saw was a man dressed like any other adult in the room in his Sunday Suit, joked with all the kids and adults, he taught one of the boys SS classes each week and was genuinely very nice and down to earth. I didn’t see Tony Burton, the moviestar…I saw Tony Burton, the SS teacher and follower of Christ.

So why am I telling you about a celebrity sighting, when I didn’t even realize I had met a celebrity until after the fact? Because when I began reading the Gospel lesson for this week, I wondered if that’s how Peter’s mother-in-law felt. I wonder if she saw Jesus differently after she experienced his power first-hand. Mark says, when Jesus left the synagogue in Capernaum, he went to the home of Simon Peter and Andrew, along with James and John. Here are four men who show up after church, unannounced, and simply saunter into the home. When they enter, then they tell Jesus about Peter’s mother-in-law who was sick with a bad fever and unable to get out of bed. Without hesitation, Jesus goes to see this woman and scripture says, he “took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” Many had just witnessed a miracle in the temple and now here was another miracle!

Mark’s gospel repeats 5 steps as a general pattern for all miracle stories including:

1. the setting…Capernaum

2. the illness or problem…fever

3. Jesus words or action…took her hand

4. The miraculous act…raised her up

5. The response of the witnesses that confirm the miracle…she began to serve them.

We know she was very ill, because the word used in Greek is egeiró and it is used to mean awaken, or arise, but it is also the same word that is used when speaking about resurrection, just as when Jesus raised Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter, and when Jesus himself was resurrected. Plus, fever or illness would have been linked to some kind of evil in the first century, so when Jesus healed her (or in Luke’s version when he rebuked the fever as if it was a demon), this woman was physically healed from her illness and was also metaphorically freed from her sin. Perhaps one could say she was raised in newness of life.

I wonder if Peter’s mother-in-law saw Jesus differently after that encounter. She wasn’t at the temple to see Jesus call the unclean spirits out a man and then silence them. Her house was only a few hundred feet away from the synagogue, had she heard the rumors as people walked back to their homes or had she been too out of it to care? This is early on in Jesus ministry and he had just called these first disciples to follow him. Had she heard of this man whom her son-in-law and all his friends were following around and calling Rabbi? Had she cooked for them before? Maybe this was the moment that she recognized and saw the difference between knowing Jesus the Nazarene vs. believing Jesus the Messiah. I wonder if that’s the moment when she saw Jesus differently. This is one that spoke and acted with authority. When he took her by the hand, the Kingdom of God was at hand. Jesus was living out the message that he came to share with others – in

public spheres like the synagogue – but also in private homes, crowded rooms, and intimate gatherings. He came to proclaim the Kingdom of God and by healing and caring for others, he not only got their attention and healed their bodies, but he was ultimately pointing to the power and the dominion of God over evil when he freed their spiritual bodies as well.

Verse 31 ends by saying that the woman began to serve them. Now some commentators have suggested that this is really the first example of a deacon! She jumped into service, kicking up the dust because she was on the move. If she had simply felt a bit better, she may have said thank you, taken it easy, got back on her feet slowly. But the immediacy of Mark’s gospel makes this read as Jesus took her hand, healed her, and she jumped into action – her first response to healing wasn’t praise, or worship, or pay him, or evangelism. Her first response to this miraculous moment was a deep desire to serve, and so she served the one that came not to be served but to be a servant! She began to provide food and wait on them, which would have been against the Sabbath Law as you couldn’t do any work and all the cooking and cleaning would have needed to be done the day before. But the rigors of the law didn’t stop her from honoring Jesus just as the Sabbath hours didn’t stop Jesus from raising her up.

Jesus didn’t just stop at the unclean spirit in the synagogue or raising up Peter’s mother-in-law, both which would have caused a stir because He was healing on the Sabbath. When the Sun when down and the sabbath was over, many from the town found courage to come and seek out Jesus at this house. They began to crowd into the doorway and Jesus healed many different diseases and cast out demons – never allowing the demons to speak and continuing to

show his dominion over the evil of the world. Allen Culpepper explains “The casting out of demons was a sign that Satan’s dominion had been broken and God’s kingdom was breaking into history with it’s expected suddenness.” The people in Capernaum went from amazed and astounded bystanders that morning, to active participants, eager and ready to accept their own miracle by sunset. I imagine some crowding the doorway were desperate to be healed as nothing else seemed to work. Some were likely skeptical but willing to give this man a chance. And I imagine some came out just to see what was really going on…he taught with authority but whose authority? They wanted to know and see more!

I don’t know how many of you have ever had an experience with demons or someone that claimed to be demon possessed but I have and it is something I will remember for the rest of my life. In 2016, Jared and I served on a mission trip to the small town of Jalapa, Guatemala. Jalapa is an extremely poor area and we were partnering with a local church that was expanding it’s mission to a region outside of town near the city dump. A couple times a week, trash trucks would pull up behind the dump to the top of the u-shaped hill, and pour all of their garbage over the brink and it would pile up below in the valley. Below in the midst of the trash, roamed cattle, pigs, chickens, and dogs plagued with mange. The mix of the trash, the animals, and the waste was enough to make your stomach turn.

On one side of the trash dump was the cemetery with brightly colored tombs sitting atop the ground…more decay. On the other side was a small village with the church plant and a new medical clinic the church was trying to staff with mission teams. Children were everywhere as they would help their families earn

money by dropping out of elementary school and rummaging through the trash at the dump to pick out recyclables which might add up to $50 a month. What was worse, some families began living in the trash piles, using old tires and tarps to build their shelters.

One afternoon when the medical team needed some additional hands, Jared and volunteered to go to the dump with a team of doctors and nurses as they assessed the needs and we could help by carrying bags of medicine and supplies. We laced up our boots, tied back our hair, put on some medical gloves and into the trash we trekked. Everyone got vitamins and some needed to be bandaged or have Neosporin cream, cough syrup, amoxicillin, de-worming medicine, or Tylenol. For some, we were able to give out diabetic or blood pressure medications and doctors and nurses were able to hear their physical complaints and assess their needs. For each, we stopped and asked their name, the kids names, and we prayed with them or blessed them as we moved to the next makeshift home…places I wouldn’t have recognized as a home if they hadn’t pointed it out. After a long time, the sun began to set and we made our way back towards the path we entered and began walking towards the clinic. At the edge of dump, I saw a man sitting in front of a tent in a clearing with a chair pillow pulled up next to him. We had passed by on the way in but hadn’t stopped, so I was sure we would stop now. The group held back while the doctor and one of the pharmacy techs made their way over to the tent. The man was foaming at the mouth and swaying just a bit, and he asked someone to come and sit down with him. I watched as time slowly passed and after awhile, they came back to the group without so much as listening to his heart or giving him vitamins. I was perplexed as they said, “Okay, let’s go.” Now, those of you who know me well,

know that I’m pretty willing to speak my mind so I asked why we weren’t going over there. Did they need something out of one of our other bags? The doctor said no, let’s go and began to walk away. I couldn’t understand why and it was as if my heart was burning inside me, I was mad we weren’t helping, my hairs were standing on end, and when I get really upset tears begin to well up. Something wasn’t right and then finally, they told us the locals believed the man was demon-possessed. We had the right setup for a miracle: 1. the setting…the dump, 2. the illness or problem…demon-possessed, 3. words or action…invitation to sit, but we walked away at step 4. The miraculous act.

The doctors explained that they were afraid in that moment that he was actually trying to lure someone in and could potentially harm them as he was likely schizophrenic and they didn’t have the medication to treat him without other assessments. It didn’t matter…I didn’t understand why we didn’t try. I didn’t understand why we didn’t lay hands on him and pray for him. Just a few verses later in Mark chapter 3, Jesus would send out aspostles and preach and cast out demons. The disciples would try and sometimes cast out demons and sometimes fail…but at least they tried…and here we were, disciples following Christ, encountering what many claimed to be a man possessed, and we turned our back and walked away, not even glancing over our shoulder.

I’ll be honest, it was the hardest, most cowardice walk, and biggest regret I have about that trip. It was as if I could hear Jesus say, “Oh ye of little faith.” What if one of us could have been Jesus to that man? The only thing that brought relief to my soul that night was the assurance that the church would be checking on the man again, and now with a potential diagnosis, they could begin to seek

more advanced medical care. I was assured it was the right thing to do in that moment, but man did my heart hurt and I still was left to wrestle with my actions and how they intersected with the scriptures that I proclaimed.

Maybe the doctors were right and we did the “safe” thing, but I still wonder what if we had done the “faith” thing? We didn’t have to worry about Sabbath laws being broken or ridicule if it didn’t work. We didn’t have crowds of people pushing down a door, or 10 lepers waiting to be healed. We had one man, asking for someone to sit with him, and we walked away. What if our “faith” was bigger than our fear?

And it’s not just there in Jalapa, Guatemala. We know that there are demons in this world today that are just as powerful as any bodily possession. Many in our world battle demons of alcoholism, drug abuse, mental illness, self-deprecation, PTSD, depression, and so much more. Many people struggle with things that feel outside their control and like they are fighting each day to survive… as if some demons have a grip on reality, even though they aren’t seen. There are so many things that dehumanize and divide our world. Things that tear us apart and tear us down. They affect the person, the family, the friends, and the community. There is so much evil, and yet, the Kingdom of God has broken into the world to redeem and bring hope to hopeless and offer mercy and healing for the broken spirit. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for anyone to stop medication or treatments or therapy, in fact I believe God has gifted us counselors and tools and medications that will help us treat and combat many of the demons we face in society, but I also know that it takes someone believing there is hope for that help to make a difference…believing that there is someone

that is on your side and willing to stand with you and for you. The healing doesn’t always immediately vanish like a magic trick, but there is power in knowing that Jesus is walking you through each step of your trial. When Jim asks us to imagine what the world would look like if Heaven came down to earth…I think of world where you can feel the power of the Risen Christ and his dominion over evil in this world, where love wins and the Kingdom of God truly is at hand. But I think it’s going to begin when we can become a world where people believe each other, believe in the good and the better, and thank God for beauty in each person and every place, even the demon-possessed sitting in a heap of garbage.

Our passage this morning finishes up after a full night of healing when Jesus awakes early and finds his way out to the wilderness to pray. It’s in those still, solitary moments that he is most at one with the father’s will. He’s so far removed from the house that scriptures say the disciples, these fishers of men, have to hunt for Jesus. How do you lose the man who is healing the entire town? He as there all along, but they had to find him… perhaps also a good lesson for us! It was in that wilderness place that Jesus knows his ministry is more than just exorcisms and public displays, so against their plea for him to come and see everyone in Capernaum, to be the celebrity doctor of the day, he invites the disciples to join him in a Kingdom way of life as he continues to travel to nearby towns in Galilee, ushering in the Kingdom of God…he has come to spread good news…and so they go. The crazy part is, before he can even make it to the next village someone else needs to be healed! Ultimately, Jesus’ ministry is one that is both spoken and demonstrated. It is good news and hope…and it is healing the sick and setting the captive free. I like to think these two acts – preaching and healing –go hand in hand. These two are the very things that would lead so many

to become the first believers and we know they would also lead many to question and condemn this son of God.

So, how do we concatenate these 10 simple verses? How do we reconcile a God in flesh that raises the sick, casts out the demons, and preaches good news with a world that is self absorbed, too easily turns their back, and is riddled with modern day demons that go un-named? The only answer friends, is Jesus. Jesus is the one that would make the sick well enough to serve. Jesus was the one who made the possessed proclaim. Jesus was the one who would heal lepers, call out unfair tax collectors, eat at tables with the sinners and prostitutes, and turn the world upside down even though he was a simple carpenters son from Nazareth.

You can call me crazy, or naive, but I still believe in Miracles today. I still believe that God’s word is being preached and miracles are being witnessed. I still believe in the power of prayer and healing. And even crazier…I still believe that you and I can be agents of change for the better in this world. The ancient Greek Palestinean historian, Eusebius, wrote that Jesus “thought good to use the most unsophisticated and common people as ministers of his own design. Maybe God just wanted to work in the most unlikely way…When he had thus called them as his followers, he breathed into them his divine power, and filled them with strength and courage.”

You may not be an A list celebrity, who doles out autographs and gives big hugs to adoring fans, but you may just be the only Jesus that somebody needs. You may be the only one to notice someone who needs to be healed, touched, lifted up, or seen. You may be Jesus to the one on the street who needs a hot meal. You may be Jesus to the one who thinks everyone has forgotten their name.

meal. You may be Jesus to the one who thinks everyone has forgotten their name.

You may be Jesus when you take time to sit by the bedside of a widow at the hospital. You may be Jesus to the one with Alzheimer’s whose memory has long since faded. You may be Jesus when you offer to babysit for a tired mom or stop to ask a teenager about their day. You may be Jesus when you choose to be kind instead of snarky to the cashier whose had a rough day. You may be Jesus to a world that is actively hunting for him, and it may be through your eyes, your feet, your heart, that the Kingdom of God is at hand.

May it be so. Amen.

“Celebrity Sightings: He Entered the Synagogue”

Celebrity Sightings: “He Entered the Synagogue”

First Baptist Richmond, January 28, 2024

Mark 1:21-28

When the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

I was having coffee with my friend Phillip Martin last week. Phillip is the Pastor of Epiphany Lutheran Church at the end of Monument Avenue, and he is one of a handful of local pastors who join me for coffee on Tuesday mornings. Last week, for lots of reasons, it was just the two of us, and so I had time to tell him about this sermon series I’ve been preaching. “What about you?” I asked. “Have you had any celebrity sightings?”

His eyes lit up.

He said, “Actually I did a wedding not too long ago for someone in my church who had graduated from the Collegiate School here in Richmond. It was a big wedding. Ten bridesmaids and ten groomsmen. But one of the groomsmen…was Russell Wilson.”

And I did the absolute worst thing you can do in a situation like that: I said, “Who’s Russell Wilson?” He said, “You don’t know who Russell Wilson is? He’s like, one of the top ten football players in the nation! He played quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks for ten years. Now he plays for the Denver Broncos. You don’t know who Russell Wilson is?” And then he had to explain to me how Russell went to Collegiate for a while, and was a friend of the groom, and that’s how he ended up in the wedding that my friend Phillip Martin did. But then I had to

explain to my friend Phillip Martin that the story of a celebrity sighting usually works better if the person you’re talking to has actually heard of the celebrity.

Compare that story with the one Shirley Seibert told me. She said the details were fuzzy, she was a little girl at the time, only four or five years old, but she remembered that one day her mother took her and her four siblings to watch a train roll through their little town of Pulaski, Virginia. A big crowd had gathered in a grassy area next to the train station. Her mother’s sister-in-law was there with her four kids, and the cousins had a wonderful time playing together. But eventually they heard the sound of a train whistle in the distance, and those young mothers got very excited, because as that train rolled through their little town Elvis Presley waved from the window.

After that first story it feels like I might need to explain to you that Elvis Presley was an American singer and actor known as the “King of Rock and Roll,” and regarded as one of the most important cultural figures of the 20th Century. But maybe not. Maybe everyone really does know who Elvis was. He was in that elite group of celebrities known by only one name, people like Prince, Madonna, Beyoncé, or the subject of today’s Gospel lesson:

Jesus.

If you joined us last week you may remember that Jesus had come into Galilee preaching the good news that the time was fulfilled and the kingdom of God was at hand. The people who heard it began to hunger and thirst for that coming kingdom, so that when Jesus walked along the seashore and called Peter and Andrew, James and John, to follow him, they dropped their nets and did exactly that. Today’s reading opens with the words: “They (meaning Jesus and those first disciples) went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered

the synagogue and taught.”

I’ve been to that synagogue, or at least, what’s left of it. It’s impressive by 21st Century standards, but by First Century standards it must have been magnificent. You may remember that moment in Luke, chapter 7, when some Jewish elders from Capernaum come to Jesus begging him to heal a Roman centurion’s son. They say, “This man is worthy to have you grant this, for he loves our nation and has built our synagogue” (vs. 4). It must have been nice!

At any rate, it was that synagogue that Jesus and his disciples entered on the Sabbath. In those days any adult Jewish male might be called upon to preach, and it was the custom to invite visitors to do it. Local congregations were often glad to hear some fresh insights on the Scriptures, just as they are today. So, when the leader of the synagogue heard that there was a young man in the congregation who was quickly gaining a reputation as a preacher, he may have invited him to come up and say a few words. Jesus did, and when he did (Mark tells us), “the people were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

There are two words I’d like to point out in that verse: the first is the word astounded. It’s the English translation of a Greek word that means, literally, “to strike out, to expel by a blow, to drive out or away.” One possible translation is “to knock out.” These people were knocked out by Jesus’ teaching; they were astounded. The second word I’d like to point out is the word authority. These people were astounded because Jesus taught “as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”

In my understanding the scribes would often read a passage of scripture and then tell the people what some famous rabbi had said about it: Rabbi Hillel or

Rabbi Gamaliel, for example. Jesus apparently read a passage of scripture and then told the people what he thought about it, just as he did in Luke 4, remember? When he read that passage from Isaiah that says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me for he has anointed me,” and then said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”? Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus read or what Jesus said, but it was that kind of thing, apparently, and the people were astounded by his authority.

In Greek the word is exousia, which means, literally, “out of the substance.” The scribes in Jesus’ day didn’t have any authority of their own. They got it out of the substance of what the great rabbis had said. Jesus, on the other hand, got it out of his own substance, and that word is important. One of the earliest Christian creeds—the Nicene Creed—in an attempt to clarify the relationship between the Father and the Son, insisted that the Son was “of the same substance as the Father.” The word they used was homoousia. So, when Jesus spoke out of his substance—his ousia—it was the same ousia as the Father. That’s where his authority came from, and that’s why his teaching was unlike anything those people in Capernaum had ever heard before.

It knocked them out.

It was just then, in that moment when they were turning to each other, whispering to each other, “This man teaches with authority!” That another man leapt to his feet, a man with an unclean spirit that cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God!” Fred Craddock points out that in our lectionary readings for this season Jesus has been identified as the King of the Jews, the Son of God, the Lamb of God, and the Messiah, but in today’s text he is given a new title: “the

Holy One of God.” Craddock says, “It is pronounced by a demon who is commanded to be silent.” And then reminds us: “A demon speaking the truth is still a demon.”i

Which is why Jesus rebukes it. He tells it to “Be silent and come out of him!” And the Greek word for “come out,” reminds me of the Greek word for “knock out,” as if Jesus had come into the synagogue swinging a baseball bat, knocking out his audience and casting out unclean spirits. However he did it, he did it. Mark says the unclean spirit, “convulsing [the man] and crying with a loud voice came out of him.” And when it was all over the people were amazed. They kept on asking each other, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At the beginning of this passage the people are astounded, at the end of the passage they are amazed. No wonder Jesus’ fame began to spread through the surrounding region of Galilee. But while we’re on the subject, let me ask you: when is the last time you were truly amazed or astounded by anything?

Last Tuesday I shared with the staff a story about my niece, Rebecca. When she was five years old Christy and I took her to the circus. We didn’t have children of our own in those days. Rebecca was our beloved niece. We thought she would enjoy it.

This was the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, mind you: “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Christy and I settled into our seats with enough popcorn for a dozen five-year-olds and put Rebecca between us, so we could hear every gasp, every giggle, every sigh. But when the show started, and one of the performers rode a unicycle on a tight wire high over our heads, Rebecca seemed bored. She popped a piece of popcorn into her mouth and said,

“They’re trained.”

That’s how it went for the rest of the show. A man sticks his head into a lion’s mouth? “He’s trained.” A woman does three somersaults on the trapeze? “She’s trained.” The Human Cannonball comes flying out of a cannon? “He’s trained.” No matter how hard they tried, those circus performers couldn’t get more than an eye roll out of our niece.

But if you think it was bad then, forty years ago, what do you think it’s like now, when young people can see fantastic things on every device available to them, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week?

No wonder the circus went out of business.

I didn’t elaborate in staff meeting but I’ve been thinking about it since: just how many fantastic things you can see on screens and how hard it is, sometimes, to distinguish between what is real and what is not. You can see a movie where dinosaurs are chasing people across the landscape, another where a man is trying to survive by himself on the planet Mars, another (and this is an old one) where the movie poster promised that “You will believe a man can fly.” And yes, you will—you will believe everything you see on the screen, because seeing is believing, right? You will believe everything until you begin to realize that everything you are seeing has been manipulated, digitally, and then suddenly you don’t believe anything anymore. You’re like my niece Rebecca saying, “They’re trained,” only in your case you might say, “It’s all done with computers,” or these days, “with artificial intelligence.”

It was only last week that I began to wonder if there is any correspondence between that kind of cynicism and the fact that it’s so hard to get young people to come to church these days. Here we are telling them that we have to offer is true,

and real, but they’ve seen so many things that look real and aren’t, and heard so many things that sound true, but aren’t, that they might be a little jaded. I’m not talking about those of you who are here. My guess is that somewhere along the way you had an experience of Jesus that left you both astounded and amazed. You know this is real. But those who have never been here don’t know what you know. They haven’t had the same experiences you’ve had. And they might have seen and heard so many unbelievable things in their lives that they don’t know what to believe anymore. Some of them may have decided that it’s safer not to believe anything at all.

It makes this week’s Gospel reading all the more remarkable. Jesus enters the synagogue in Capernaum and begins to teach, and surely those people had heard it all before. They had heard everything Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Gamaliel had to say about every passage in the Bible. But they had never heard this: they had never heard Jesus. Mark tells us that the people were “knocked out” by his teaching, and when that demon was “cast out” they were amazed. They said, “What is this? A new teaching, with authority!” meaning that this stranger from Nazareth was teaching out of his own substance, but it took an unclean spirit to inform them that the substance out of which Jesus was teaching was the substance of God himself. “We know who you are!” it shouted, meaning all of them, every good and evil entity in the spiritual realm: “We know you are the Holy One of God!”

When it was over the people were amazed and astounded. Maybe that’s what we need, more than we know, and maybe that’s what those young people out there need, more than they can imagine: an encounter with Jesus, the Holy One of God. But when, and where, and how will that happen? Not many of them

are wandering into church on Sunday morning to see what’s going on. If Jesus can only be encountered here it might never happen for them. But just last week my wife, Christy, stood in this pulpit and said that she sees Jesus in you. She quoted Teresa of Avila who said, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassionately on this world, yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes. You are his body.”

The good news of that quote is that other people may be able to encounter Christ in you, and they can do that anywhere you are, not only in church. But if they do—can I say this?—it’s got to be real. It’s got to be authentic. Young people these days can sniff out hypocrisy a mile away; they have been taught not to believe everything they see or everything they hear. So, if you are going to be for them the Body of Christ, it’s got to be real; it’s got to come out of your own life-giving, life-changing experience. But if you do this right—if you can show them the Jesus you know and love—it is possible that they will be both astounded and amazed, and that their lives will never be the same.

—Jim Somerville © 2024

“Celebrity Sightings: Jesus Came to Galilee”

Celebrity Sightings: “Jesus Came to Galilee”

First Baptist Richmond, January 21, 2024

Mark 1:14-20

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

As part of my research for this sermon series I’ve been asking people about their celebrity sightings. Last week someone told me that he once spent five hours with Gene Kelly, the famous dancer and actor. Kathy Rock told me that her first babysitter was Willie Shoemaker, the jockey. But last week’s winner was my friend Randy Ashcraft who told me that when he was a pastor in Seneca, South Carolina, he had to drive to Atlanta to visit a church member who was in the hospital. On the way back he had a little time to kill and stopped by a race track called Road Atlanta. Randy’s always been a bit of a car fanatic, but he’d never been to this particular track. He stopped by the office and asked if he could take a look and they said, “Help yourself. The Bob Sharp racing team is out there doing a few laps.” So Randy walked out to the track, watched a car going around and around (because that’s what they do), but eventually this car pulled over, the driver got out, took off his helmet, and there stood Paul Newman.

Yes. That Paul Newman: the actor. I wonder how many of you in this room who would be willing to raise your hand and admit that you once had a crush on Paul Newman because a lot of people did. He had those gorgeous blue eyes and that easy, infectious grin. I remember him from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. You may remember him from Cool Hand Luke or the Color of Money, or

Winning (where he learned to drive race cars), but almost anyone of a certain age will remember Paul Newman. Randy did. He could hardly believe his eyes. He said Paul walked over and asked, “Who are you?” and Randy said, “I’m nobody. I’m a Baptist preacher from Seneca, South Carolina.” Paul said, “I’ve heard of Seneca.” They made small talk for a few minutes and then Paul moved on but Randy has never forgotten it. When I asked him if he had ever seen a celebrity that story leaped into his mouth even though it took place more than thirty years ago.

But let’s go back even further. Let’s go back 2,000 years to this morning’s Gospel lesson, which begins with the news that “after John was arrested Jesus came to Galilee.” If you’re just tuning in to this series you might need to know that I’m talking about John the Baptist, who was a celebrity in his own right. Jesus once said that among those born of women no one was greater than John. He had his own following and it was considerable. Some people thought that he might be the Messiah. But after Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, and after he was tempted in the wilderness, and after John was arrested by Herod, Jesus came to Galilee, and as I’ve said before, Jesus is, arguably, the most famous person who has ever lived.

Although at that point no one knew it.

Jesus came from humble origins. If you know anything about him at all you know that he grew up in the little town of Nazareth, in Galilee—the son of a carpenter. We don’t know for sure, but some have suggested that when his father died Jesus took over the family business and worked in relative obscurity until he was about thirty years old. That’s when he went to be baptized by John in the Jordan. After that he came back to Galilee, but not to Nazareth. It doesn’t say so in this morning’s reading but Jesus went to Capernaum to begin his ministry and there’s a reason: Capernaum was strategic. In one sense it was just a little fishing

village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, but in another sense it was the crossroads of the ancient world. A road called the Via Maris (“the way of the sea”) ran right through Capernaum, and if you were traveling from Asia to Africa, or from Africa to Asia, that’s the way you would go. The Via Maris was the primary route between one continent and another, and if you had a message that you were trying to get out there, this would be one of the best places in the world to do it. As they say in the real estate business: “Location, location, location!”

I’ve often pictured Jesus setting up a soapbox by the side of the road, climbing up on it, and beginning to preach: “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news!” But this time around I’m picturing something a little more dramatic: Jesus, going to the courthouse in the center of town; bringing down the flag of the Roman Empire and running up the flag of God’s Kingdom. And then, once a crowd had gathered, announcing that “the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news!” Because his message is not only theological; it is also political.

On Tuesday morning of last week I was getting ready to write the email I send out to the people who use my website. Did you know I have a website? It’s called A Sermon for Every Sunday and it’s a collection of video sermons by America’s best preachers for every Sunday of the Christian year. I started it nearly ten years ago to help churches that didn’t have or couldn’t afford a regular preacher. I thought the fifteen people who gathered for worship in one of those churches could sing some hymns, say some prayers, read some Scripture and then, when it was time for the sermon, just push a button and there would be one of America’s best preachers up there on the screen. But through the years I’ve

developed a kind of rapport with the people who use these sermons. I send them a weekly email to tell them what’s coming up. Last Tuesday I told them this:

———-

It’s the day after the Iowa Caucus.

I’ve been reading the news (which I don’t always do), and found myself disheartened by a headline that read: “A Raw Contest of Two Aged Men.”

Is that what we’re in for this year? A deeply divided electorate and a bitter, bloody boxing match between a couple of octogenarians? And those of us who preach, when we stand in the pulpit will we once again face a politically polarized congregation that wants to know which side we’re on, one that listens for coded language in every sentence, looking for an excuse to storm out of the room?

Reading the news makes my heart heavy. Reading the Gospel, on the other hand, gives me hope.

In this Sunday’s lesson Jesus speaks (for the first time in the Gospel of Mark), and what he says is this: “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

In stark contrast to our battle-weary, deeply divided, Disunited States of America, is Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom: of what the world will look like when God finally has God’s way. I asked my colleagues to picture it in last week’s staff meeting. I said, “Imagine that tomorrow morning you wake up and find that God’s kingdom has come, like a blanket of fresh snow on our beleaguered nation. What would be different?” They closed their eyes and thought about it for a minute, but then they began to say, “No child would go to bed hungry.” “The hospitals would be empty.” “Strangers would greet one another as friends.” “There wouldn’t be any trash on the streets.” Once they got started they couldn’t stop dreaming

about how things will be when God’s kingdom comes.

That’s why Jesus calls this good news, and although I have to remind myself sometimes, that’s what I get to preach. This Sunday I will stand in the pulpit knowing that a “raw contest between two aged men” is not our only option. There is this other thing—this glorious Kingdom—just waiting to be ushered in. And maybe, if we spend our time on that instead of politics, it will come before November.i

————

I think that’s the way Jesus announced the Good News of God’s coming kingdom: not so much as a rival to the Kingdom of Rome, but as an entirely different reality. When he had time to flesh out his vision later he said: “The Kingdom is like a sower who went out to sow some seed. It’s like the shepherd who went out to look for his lost sheep. It’s like the treasure you stumble upon in the field, or the precious pearl you find at the flea market. It’s like the king who throws a party for outcasts, or the dad who kills the fatted calf for his no-good son. It’s that place where Samaritans pay your hospital bills and sinners go home from the temple justified. It’s where those who worked an hour get the same as those who worked all day and where the beggar at the rich man’s gate ends up in the bosom of Abraham. It is, finally, that place where the last are first, the least are great, and the lost are found forever.”ii

Suppose that Jesus didn’t preach only one sermon in Capernaum, but that day after day he brought down the flag of Rome and hoisted the flag of the Kingdom, that day after day he told the gathered crowds what the world would be like when God finally had God’s way. Don’t you think Peter and Andrew, James and John, might have had the opportunity to hear him preach? Don’t you think the

seeds of the Kingdom might have already begun to take root in them when Jesus walked along the seashore that day and called them to follow? It’s hard to make sense of this story otherwise. It’s hard to believe that a complete stranger would walk along the seashore, call you, and you would immediately follow. I suppose it’s possible. There may be someone you’ve heard of or seen on television for whom you would drop everything. But it makes more sense to me that these first disciples had had a chance to hear Jesus, and that they liked what they heard, and when he called them to follow they were willing to drop everything for his sake, and for the sake of the coming Kingdom.

Because that’s how it happens still.

I got to visit with Brent Walker a couple of weeks ago. For years Brent served as the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in Washington, DC. The Baptist Joint Committee is a kind of a watchdog organization that does it’s best to maintain the separation between church and state. That’s important work, and it’s an important committee, and for all those years he was the Executive Director I thought of Brent as a kind of celebrity.

But I got to know him when we were in graduate school together at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. We ran together from time to time. Brent was known on that campus for several reasons: 1) he had given up a partnership at the most prestigious law firm in Tampa, Florida, in order to come to seminary, 2) he drove a brand-new black Volvo sedan, with tan leather interior—nobody else at seminary had a car that nice, and 3) most of the women on campus simply referred to him as “the gorgeous lawyer” (move over, Paul Newman). Brent came down from DC for Elmer West’s memorial service a couple of weeks ago and we got to talk at the reception. I don’t know what kind of car he

drove but the women in the room assured me that he is still gorgeous.

We talked about his life before seminary, and there was someone there who knew about Tampa and knew about Brent’s previous law firm. “You were a partner there?!” they said. “Oh, my gosh! You had it made. Why would you ever leave that?” And that seemed like an interesting question. I said to Brent, “You know, I’d love to hear that whole story someday, of what moved you to leave that glamorous life behind and come to Southern” (because I promise you that when Brent left Southern he wasn’t driving the latest model sedan. Christy used to say that seminary was “the great equalizer”). We didn’t talk so much about his actual call, but we did talk about whether or not it had been worth it. “Do you ever regret leaving that life behind?” I asked. “Are you sorry that you did it?” And Brent said, “Not for a minute.”

My guess is that while he was sitting in the pews at Bayshore Baptist Church in Tampa all those years ago he kept hearing about Jesus, and about this incredible kingdom where the least will be great and the last will be first. That at some point he became convinced that a life of striving for more and more material gain would leave him empty, and that what he wanted was a life full of meaning and purpose. My guess is that when he told his wife he was thinking about leaving the law firm and going to seminary she told him he was crazy, but eventually realized that the only way Brent could be Brent was to follow his heart. And so she followed him, and recently they celebrated 52 years of marriage.

“If you could do it all over again,” I asked, “would you do it differently?” and Brent said, “Not at all.” At some point he had been willing to drop everything to follow Jesus, and Jesus had not disappointed him. What about you? Some of you have been sitting on the pew of a Baptist church for a long time. You’ve heard the

preacher talk about the Kingdom of God. You’ve heard Jesus call you to drop whatever else you may be doing and follow him. Are you ready? Is it time? In just a moment we’re going to sing our closing hymn, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” For some of you it will be testimony—the story of your life. For others it will be an invitation—a chance to leave behind anything that would keep you from it,

And follow him.

—Jim Somerville © 2024

“Celebrity Sightings: In Those Days”

Celebrity Sightings: “In Those Days”

First Baptist Richmond, January 14, 2024

Mark 1:4-11

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

As I’ve been thinking about this series called “Celebrity Sightings” I’ve been asking people if they have ever seen any actual celebrities. I asked my daughter Catherine about it at breakfast one morning and she said yes. She said she had once seen David Beckham, the famous soccer player. “Where was that?” I asked, and she said, “At a DC United Game in Washington.” And then we had to talk about whether it really counts as a celebrity sighting if you have to pay to see the celebrity. Like, can you drop into casual conversation that you once saw Taylor Swift if it was at a concert and you had to pay $500 for the tickets? Catherine thought some more and then she said, “Oh, yeah. That actress, what’s-her-name, handed me my award at the Kennedy Center.” “Which actress?” “Um, she was in Forrest Gump.” “Sally Field?” “Yes. Sally Field.”

And maybe it’s just because Catherine was always being honored in those days, but I hadn’t remembered that she was once handed an award at the Kennedy Center by two-time Oscar winner Sally Field, which means that their hands may have actually touched, and that takes celebrity sighting to a whole new level. I’m thinking about today’s Gospel lesson from Mark, chapter 1, where John the Baptist (who was a celebrity in his own right) baptizes Jesus (who is, arguably, the most famous person who has ever lived).

As someone who has done a few baptisms I can tell you that it is one of the most intimate acts of ministry, because you’re not just talking to people at the comfortable distance between pulpit and pew, and you’re not just pronouncing them husband and wife from three feet away. When you baptize you put your hands on people. We often rehearse in my study before the baptism itself (I like to have two or three people present because, as I said, it’s intimate, and I want to make sure that everything we do is above reproach). I ask the candidate to stand with me so I can demonstrate the special grip I learned in seminary, where I reach out with my left hand and take hold of the candidate’s right wrist, so they can pinch their nose before going under the water. And then I take the candidate’s other hand and lock it onto my left wrist. I almost always joke with them by saying, “That’s the safety in case I forget to bring you back up again.” But then I hold my right hand over their heads and repeat the words I learned in seminary: “In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, and upon your profession of faith in him, I baptize you into the family of God in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” And then I put my right hand on their back to support them in the water, and lift my left hand so they can pinch their nose, and sometimes I whisper, “Bend your knees,” which makes their baptism so much easier for me.

We rehearse all that in the study but in the baptistery we actually do it. I dip them down under the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit and as soon as they are completely submerged I lift them up again. I get to see the expression on their faces when they go down into the water and when they come back up. I get to hear them draw their first breath afterward and watch them wipe the water from their eyes. John the Baptist got that close to Jesus, close enough to touch, and as I said last week, encounters with Jesus can change people. I believe that

one changed John, but I don’t have a lot of evidence.

All we really know about John the Baptist comes from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and from the works of Josephus, the Jewish historian. Let’s begin with Luke, who tells us how John got his start in life. Luke says it happened when his father, Zechariah, was offering incense in the temple. An angel of the Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth [even though she’s way too old for it] will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”i

There was, already, among God’s people an expectation that someone would prepare the way of the Messiah. It was written in the Book of the Prophet Malachi: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.”ii In the very next chapter the Lord says: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” So, when Elizabeth got the news that she was going to have a baby, and when she heard that it would be his calling to make ready for the Lord a people prepared, she must have gotten very excited. And when her cousin Mary came to see her, and Elizabeth’s baby leapt inside the womb, it must have been Elizabeth’s pleasure to tell Mary, “He’s jumping for joy!

He knows he’s just met the Messiah, the one whose way he is destined to prepare!”

But did they ever meet outside the womb before his baptism? Did Jesus and John get to know each other at family reunions through the years? Did they stand side by side in the buffet line and fill their plates? If you ask John, the author of the Fourth Gospel, he will tell you that they didn’t. In chapter 1, verse 31, John the Baptist claims, “I myself did not know [the Son of God]; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”iii

Josephus wouldn’t go that far, but speaking as a historian he described John as, “A good man, who…commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God.” And he confirmed the testimony of the Gospels by saying, “Now many people came in crowds to him, for they were greatly moved by his words.” Josephus goes on from there to talk about John’s execution by King Herod, but he doesn’t say anything about his association with Jesus, or how he might have been changed by his encounter at the river.iv

Matthew’s Gospel implies that Jesus and John did know each other. When Jesus comes to be baptized John says, “I should be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” It sounds as if he recognizes him, doesn’t it? And Jesus’ response suggests that he does, that they may have known each other for years. He says, “Let it be so now, for it is necessary in this way for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

But in Mark’s Gospel there is no indication that Jesus and John were previously acquainted. Mark only says, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” We don’t know how they greeted each other. We don’t know what John may have said to Jesus before he was baptized. But we do know that afterward the sky was ripped open and the Spirit came fluttering down and a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Did John hear it? I believe that he did. He was standing right there! And even before he heard it I believe that he knew it. A few verses before the baptism he says, “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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” And then this—this baptism when the Holy Spirit itself descends upon Jesus, filling him up and empowering him to do all those things that would come after. It would have been unforgettable. I can almost hear John talking about it in the days that followed, telling the others who came for baptism, “He was right here. The Messiah! The one I’ve been telling you about. He came to me asking for baptism and I took hold of him with these two hands. I dipped him down under the water and brought him back up again and when I did the sky opened up and the Spirit came down and the voice of God said, “You are my Son.”

Apart from all the other things we might say about that moment I want us to pause and imagine what it would be like to actually touch Jesus. There’s that woman in chapter 5 of this Gospel who didn’t dare do that, who thought to herself, “If only I touch the hem of his garment I will be healed.”v That’s what she did, and she was, and Jesus turned around and asked, “Who touched me?” He felt

the healing power going out of him to this woman who had merely touched the hem of his garment. What would she have felt if she had taken his hand? What did John feel when he took hold of Jesus to baptize him? What would you or I feel, if we not only saw him from a distance, but looked into his eyes, felt his breath on our faces, his hands on our shoulders?

I think about that leper at the end of Mark 1 who says to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” And Mark says, “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ And immediately the leprosy left him.”vi Apparently Jesus didn’t have to touch him. There are other places in the Gospels where he simply says the word and people are healed.vii But in this case he did. He chose to. He chose to touch an untouchable who probably hadn’t been touched by anyone in years. Do you think that former leper ever forgot that moment? Do you think he was ever the same? Do you think the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment was ever the same? Do you think John the Baptist was ever the same?

At the beginning of this series I said, “We’re going to focus on the Gospel lessons for Epiphany and zoom in on those moments where people have an actual encounter with Jesus, because here’s what I believe: 1) I believe that the people who had such encounters were changed forever by the experience; 2) I believe that it is still possible to have encounters with the living Lord; And 3) I believe that if we do, we will be changed forever.” But how do we do that, and in light of today’s sermon, how do we get close enough to Jesus to touch him?

As I was writing this sermon I was reminded of a story about Saint Francis of Assisi, which I was able to find on the Internet, retold by a woman named Erin Vinacco who said that when Francis was first awakening to the spiritual life and

trying to separate himself from his former life of luxury, he started going to the caves near Assisi to meditate and pray. One day, while he was on his horse, he saw a leper in the distance. “At that time leprosy was just terrifying,” Vinacco said. “Everybody was afraid of it, even Francis. He was on his horse, and he saw this leper in the distance, and he was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to get out of here.’ So, you know, he kicks his horse but suddenly the horse starts going towards the leper. So, his mind is saying one thing, ‘I’m afraid. I need to get out of here.’ But his heart is drawing him forward, and his body, right? It’s drawing him forward towards this leper. And when he gets there he jumps off [his horse] but even as he’s approaching I mean, the sight, the smell, everything is just…I won’t go into the details. It’s quite graphic. But you can imagine it was not a pleasant experience. It’s not something you want to ride towards, particularly. But something compelled him and as he gets there he jumps off the horse and he offers this person all the money that he had and he’s ready to take off again and something in him compels him to take the person’s hand and kiss—kiss their hand—and he’s just flooded with such bliss, with a happiness that he’s never known. It’s beyond all reason, beyond all explanation.”viii

Jesus once said, “Whatever you do to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you to me.” He might say that when Francis kissed that leper’s hand, he was kissing his hand. And Francis might say that whoever’s hand it was,

He was never the same.

—Jim Somerville © 2024

“Do You See What I See? Look for the Prophets”

Do You See What I See?

Look for the Prophets

First Baptist Richmond, December 10, 2023 The Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.

The year was 1996.

It was my second trip to the Holy Land and I was there with a few dozen members of my church and my friend Jim Eastin, the Methodist minister in town, who had brought a dozen or so of his. We were in the Church of St. Anne in Jerusalem, a twelfth-century edifice with incredible acoustics. Every note that was sung in that place reverberated off the stone walls and vaulted ceilings, building in volume, growing stronger and sweeter until you could hardly believe it was the same note that had been sung only a moment earlier. Our little group was told that the softer we sang, the better it would sound, and so we sang “Amazing Grace” as quietly as we could and marveled at the way the music seemed to swell and the notes began to blend in a harmony we could have never produced on our own.

We waited until the last note died away, but then finally, reluctantly, began to move toward the door, because there is always somewhere else to go and something else to see in the Holy Land. I was getting ready to step outside when I heard a clear tenor voice lift up the first few notes of “Comfort ye, My People,” from Handel’s Messiah. Do you know that song? Christy and I used to listen to the Messiah on a cassette tape, in our car, all through the Season of Advent. When I

was by myself and that song came on I would sing along. I didn’t sound anything like that tenor from the London Symphony Orchestra, but this guy, whoever he was, sounded just like him. And then I turned and saw that it was my friend Jim Eastin, with whom I had shared many a slap-happy lunch at the local Hardee’s. He was standing there in the choir loft, singing like an angel. It transformed the moment. It transformed him. There I was, in the Holy City, and there he was singing, “Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, and her iniquity pardoned.”

I got goose bumps.

But can you imagine how those words would have sounded to God’s people in exile, those who had been languishing in Babylon for more than two generations? Can you imagine how they would have rejoiced over the idea that their warfare was accomplished and their iniquity pardoned, so that after all those years of suffering they could finally go home? Friends, there are times when the Word of the Lord is the sweetest word you could ever hope to hear, but there are other times when it is not, when it is, in fact, just the opposite. In today’s readings from Isaiah 40 and Mark 1 we have a little bit of each, and yet both of these readings are found between the covers of a book we call the Bible, a book the church values so highly we have placed a copy in every pew. Take it out of the rack if you can. Hold it in your hands. Pass it to a neighbor. Feel its weight. Appreciate it for what it is.

I love the way Tim Mackie describes it in a video called “What is the Bible?”i He says, “The Bible is a small library of books that all emerged out of the history of the people of ancient Israel. And in one sense, they were just like any other ancient civilization (you can see them there in the video: an animated cartoon of

ancient people going about their everyday business). But among them were a long line of individuals called prophets,” Mackie continues, “and they viewed Israel’s story as anything but ordinary (and that’s when a wise-looking man with a long beard steps into the frame). They saw it as a central part of what God was doing for all humanity,” Mackie says (the man turns toward the temple and closes his eyes as a bright light begins to shine). “And these prophets were literary geniuses (and that’s when the man turns back toward the camera and triumphantly raises a quill pen over his head to trumpet fanfare).

Tim Mackie’s friend, Jon, seems skeptical that the prophets were really literary geniuses but Tim insists. He says, “They expertly crafted the Hebrew language to write epic narratives, and very sophisticated poetry. They were masters of metaphor and storytelling. And they leveraged all this to explore life’s most complicated questions about death and life and the human struggle.” His friend says, “So there’s a lot of different authors writing this book.” Tim agrees and says, “These texts were produced over a thousand-year period, starting with Israel’s origins in Egypt, then leading up to their kingdom with their first temple. But eventually, they were conquered by the Babylonians, who took them away into exile.”

I’ll leave Tim’s description there so we can get back to our readings for today, but I want you to know how much I appreciate what he says about the prophets, and the fact that he calls them “literary geniuses.” It reminds me of something I wrote years ago, long before I saw Tim’s video, in a poem that I dedicated to my atheist friends as a way of helping them appreciate the Bible. It’s called, “While Looking at Pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope,” and it goes like this:

Look at these:

Aren’t they amazing?

These are pictures of deep space,

the far reaches of the universe

and what can be seen in every dark corner

is light.

Towering nebulae,

whirling galaxies,

clusters of stars so dense

they dazzle the eyes.

There is an ancient text that claims:

“God is light.”ii

Work with me for a minute:

Imagine that it’s true,

that all the brilliant beauty in those images—

is God.

That He, or She, or It, is a luminous, swirling, benevolent

Presence

That fills the universe,

and touches every dark corner

with light.

And then imagine that here—

on this tiny blue-green planet—

among humans who have evolved slowly

over millions of years

some humans

have been especially sensitive to that

Presence,

in love with the light,

listening for its low vibrations,

and that they have tried to put into words

what they have heard and seen,

tasted and touched.

Imagine that other humans—

not so sensitive—

have found meaning in those words,

some sense of connection

to something they cannot name,

so that they have gathered up those words

and written them down

on tablets, scrolls, and in books.

Suppose that’s what the Bible is,

the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita:

books full of words that bear witness

to some greater presence

by those who have heard the low hum

of the heavens, singing,

by those who have seen the light

and called it by name?

It doesn’t mean that they got it all right—

this is testimony, not Truth—

but suppose there is a kind of truth there

for those who can hear it

and Good News (if you want to call it that):

The news that we are not alone:

That there is a luminous, swirling, benevolent

Presence

Watching over us,

Nurturing our slow growth

and stuttering evolution

over eons,

Believing in us

Even when we cannot

Believe in ourselves,

And touching every dark corner

with light.

Remember that this was written for my atheist friends, a kind of gentle nudge in God’s direction, but to my Christian friends I might say that there have been people through the years who were especially sensitive to God’s presence, people who listened carefully for God’s voice, people who then wrote down what they heard, and they were called prophets. And whether or not they were literary geniuses I might say that we should thank God for people who take the time to listen for a word from the Lord, because not all of us can. You can’t do that if you’re a neurosurgeon, or a school teacher, or a factory worker. So, thank God that there are some people whose calling it is to listen for a word from the Lord and then share that word with people who need to hear it.

If you will indulge me, that’s my calling. And if you will let me, I’d like to say thank you. I am deeply grateful for people who make it possible for me to spend hours each week reading the Bible, and listening for the Word of the Lord, asking God: “What do you need to say to your people in this place at this point in history?” Most of us don’t have time to do that, but all of us need to come to worship, and sit for a while in God’s presence, and open ourselves to a word from outside ourselves: a word from the Lord. And if we are fortunate enough to have someone who has been listening for that word all week and thinking about how to communicate it to us so that we can hear it, then good for us.

We should feel lucky.

God’s people in exile were lucky. They didn’t feel that way. They felt like they were being punished for something they didn’t even do, something their ancestors before them had done. But while they were licking their wounds the prophet Isaiah was listening for a word from the Lord. His predecessor had been

the one to tell the people that if they didn’t change their ways God was going to punish them. And then God did punish them. He punished them for a long, long time. But now, as Isaiah strained his ears for God’s voice, he heard something new. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” And then the music swells and the tempo quickens as the soloist sings about every valley being exalted and every mountain and hill being made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain, so that a highway can be paved through the desert and God can come to his people, bringing not punishment, but redemption and release. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd,” says the prophet; “He will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom.”

That’s good news! And sometimes that’s what we hear in church: the good news that God has looked upon our wretched circumstances and taken pity on us and come to deliver us. But then there are those times when the news doesn’t sound good at all. Hundreds of years after the exile the word of the Lord came to John the Baptist. He was out there in the wilderness, looking very much like the Prophet Elijah, with clothing made of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey, and if the truth be told he wasn’t much of a literary genius; as far as we know he never wrote a word. But he had a message from God and the message was this:

“Repent!”

It doesn’t sound much like good news, but years later another prophet named Mark (who was a literary genius) introduced his Gospel with the words, “This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And it

wasn’t so much about repenting; it was about the reason for repenting. God was getting ready to do a new thing in the world: God was getting ready to come to his people in the flesh. Quoting the Prophet Malachi Mark writes, “See, I am sending my messenger before you who will prepare your way.” And then quoting Isaiah he writes about a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight.” You can almost hear the prophet singing “Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low. The crooked straight and the rough places plain.”

It’s exciting to think about God coming to us, but just like when you get the news that your rich uncle is coming to see you, you need to get ready. In that case you might race around the house, picking up the mess, putting a pot roast in the oven and setting the table with your finest linen, crystal, silver, and china. But in John’s case it was a matter of getting people’s hearts ready, getting their lives ready for the One who was coming. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. Why did they do it? Because of what John was preaching. This prophet, who had spent years in the wilderness, listening for the voice of God, was now preaching the Good News, saying, “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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

How do you get ready for that? You confess your sins. You repent. And if you need to, you get baptized. It sounds almost like bad news, this demand for repentance. But if you can see the reason behind it, if you can see that it is simply

the way you get ready for the One who is coming, then it begins to sound like the good news it is. “Repent!” says John, and the whole Judean countryside, and all the people of Jerusalem, come down to the river to get ready, to wash away their sins, to change their clothes to change their lives before the One who is to come, comes.

So, how about you, you who are sitting in the pews, opening your lives and your selves to a word from the Lord? Can you hear the call to repentance as a call to get ready? Can you think of anything in your life that would keep Christ from coming? Last week I talked about looking for the signs, and how, when you look for them, you begin to see them. This week I’m asking you to look for the prophets, and not only to look, but to listen, because when you really listen to what they have to say you begin to hear what God is saying, and what God is saying to us in this season is, “I’m coming.

“Get ready!”

—Jim Somerville © 2023

“Do You See What I See? Look for the Signs”

Do You See What I See?

Look for the Signs

First Baptist Richmond, December 3, 2023 The First Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

It’s the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a season of waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ. It’s also the beginning of an Advent sermon series called “Do You See What I See?” that takes its name from a line in a song by Noel Regney and his wife, Gloria Shayne, written in 1962 as a plea for peace at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis.i But that’s not what most people remember about the song. They remember Bing Crosby singing it in that wonderful, intimate way he had, where it sounded as if he were singing just for you. The song became a Christmas classic, with the night wind asking the little lamb, “Do you see what I see? A star, a star, dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite.” The star served as a sign that would lead people everywhere to a child, a child, sleeping in the night, who would bring them “goodness and light.” But don’t forget that other part: the part about the Cuban Missile Crisis. In those days Regney and Shayne found that they couldn’t perform their song without being overwhelmed by emotion, especially when they got to the line about people everywhere praying for peace. “Our little song broke us up,” they said. “You must realize there was a threat of war at the time.”ii With the United States and the Soviet Union aiming nuclear weapons at each other, the Cuban Missile Crisis may be as close as we

have ever come to the end of the world, and in times like those we look for signs.

Today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 64 was written in a time like that. God’s people were in exile, praying for their redemption. They were “alienated from their homeland, living among foreigners, suffering for their sins, and estranged from God.”iii And yet the prophet seems to believe that God deserves at least some of the blame. In the second half of verse 5 he says, “[Because] you were angry with us, we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.” And then the prophet describes their present, pitiable condition: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”

And then the prophet remembers the special relationship God has always enjoyed with his people. He stands up a little straighter and says, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.” And that’s when he becomes bold enough to ask God to intervene. Looking back up to the first verses in this passage Isaiah says, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” And I can almost see him, standing out there in the desert under the night sky, looking up in the hope that he will see the first little rip in the fabric of heaven, and the light of God’s glory pouring through.

At Tuesday’s staff meeting I tried to sum up the good news of Advent—or at least the good news of this First Sunday—in three lines. I said: 1) the world is broken, 2) we can’t fix it, and 3) help is on the way. I don’t think I have to convince you that the world is broken. If you read the news or watch it on TV you know what a colossal mess we humans have made of things. As the prophet says, “All our righteousness is like a filthy cloth.” And although we talk a lot about bringing heaven to earth here at Richmond’s First Baptist Church we know that we can’t do it on our own. Sometimes heaven seems so far away that we’re ready to give up, shrug our shoulders, and walk away. But in those times we often remember, as the prophet did, that God is our Father; that we are the clay and he is the potter. And that’s when we become bold enough to say—as the prophet did—“O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” O, that you would take everything that is wrong in this world and make it right. That’s the hope of this First Sunday of Advent. That’s what we are waiting for and praying for in times like these.

And that brings us to our Gospel lesson from Mark 13, a passage that has been called “the Little Apocalypse” because it sounds so much like the Book of Revelation. It, too, was written at a time when people were looking for signs. The late Fred Craddock, who was not only a great preacher but a renowned New Testament scholar, said, “At the time Mark wrote his Gospel, Jerusalem and the temple lay in ruins. Civil strife had outlived Roman patience, and the threats begun by Emperor Caligula thirty years earlier had now been carried out. What did this disaster mean for the purposes and promises of God? Jewish prophets had fed the war effort with messianic ideology, but how were the followers of Jesus to understand the end of the Holy City and the temple? Added to the

persecution at the hands of religious and political authorities and the anguish of families torn apart by differing loyalties was the unbearable confusion created by false messiahs and false prophets. False messiahs were claiming, ‘This is the second Advent; I am Christ returned,’ and false prophets were turning religion into an almanac: ‘The signs are right; this is the end.’ Experiencing most heavily now the absence of Jesus, the faithful are torn between giving themselves up to despair or reaching for any flicker of hope.”iv And that’s when Mark digs down deep into the story of Jesus, remembering a moment shortly before his death when he shared with his disciples these famous last words.

They were in the temple in Jerusalem, and the disciples were asking Jesus to notice how big it was, and how large its stones. But Jesus was not impressed. He said, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” And of course they wanted to know when this was going to happen, and what the signs would be. So, Jesus took them to the other side of the Kidron Valley, sat down with them on the Mount of Olives, looked back toward the temple, and began to tell them what was about to take place. He said, “Beware that no one leads you astray, for many will come in my name saying, ‘I am he.’ And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. All this is only the beginning of the birth pangs.” And then he told them that they, themselves, would endure great tribulation, and not only them, but everyone: “For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

There are some people who get excited about those kinds of apocalyptic predictions, and in my experience they are often people who are on the fringes of society. I remember one in particular, a member of a former church, who dressed as if he had three big cardboard boxes in his closet: one that said “Shirts,” one that said “Pants,” and one that said “Socks.” It looked as if he got dressed each morning by reaching into those boxes in the dark and pulling one item from each. He loved the Book of Revelation, which seems to be all about the world coming to an end. He didn’t love it when I tried to explain that it was written near the end of the first century, AD; at a time when Christians were being persecuted for claiming that Jesus, and not Caesar, was Lord; and that it was written to encourage them in their faith, and help them hold on no matter what, even if it resulted in their death. Over and over again in that book it says that the one who endures to the end will be saved. But he read it as if it were written for Christians living in the twenty-first century, as if it contained the secret codes that would help them know when everything was about to come undone. People like that keep an eye on the skies, and when they witness a solar eclipse or see a blood-red moon hanging low over the horizon they say, “There! You see? The end is near.”

They want it to be near. The world, as it is, is not working for them. And so they hope, they pray, for an end to the way things are and a beginning to what can be. They are ready for God to turn this world upside down, to usher in his glorious kingdom. But the people who are not on the fringes of society don’t feel that way. The world is working pretty well for them. They don’t want things to be turned upside down; they want them to stay just the way they are. Which raises an interesting question: if you are not eagerly awaiting the return of Christ and the radical upheaval that will precede the coming of his kingdom, why not? Is it

because things are going well for you and you don’t want them to change? If that’s true, then put yourself in the sandals of those people addressed by today’s Gospel lesson, looking out over the smoldering ruins of Jerusalem. That’s when the next words out of Jesus’ mouth might come as a comfort.

He says, “In those days, after that suffering, they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” And if you were among the elect, if you were a member of one of those first-century churches hearing someone read this chapter from the recently released Gospel of Mark, you might be comforted. You might think that it wouldn’t be long before Jesus would come for you, and you might find that his next words were not troubling, but instead hopeful. He says, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

And then, just like those original disciples, you might want to know when. “When will all these things take place?” And you might be as disappointed as they were to learn that, “About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” So, what do you do in the meantime? In a word, you keep on doing the work of the kingdom. “Beware, keep alert,” Jesus says; “for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for

you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Jesus says it to those who are eagerly awaiting his return, like that former church member who loved the Book of Revelation. But he also says it to those for whom things are going well, whose lives are working out just fine, and if that’s you then remember this: 1) there may come a time when things are not going well, when your life is not working out, and 2) remember that it is not some vengeful judge who is coming back, but rather Christ himself.

I know I’ve told you this before, but sometimes I talk to people whose circumstances have changed overnight. They were doing fine, life was going well, and then, suddenly, they felt a pain where they had never felt one before. They tried to ignore it for as long as they could but when it only got worse they went to the doctor, and after undergoing a number of diagnostic tests they were told that they had cancer, the bad kind, the kind that probably wasn’t going to get better. And so they came to me and asked me to pray. What they wanted was to be cured of cancer. They thought that maybe I would know the secret word that would make them well. But I don’t; I don’t know any secret words; my prayers are just as ordinary as everyone else’s. But I do have a secret, and this is it: I say, “You probably know what kind of answer you would like to get from God, but maybe instead of asking for that you could ask for this: maybe you could say, ‘God, show me all the ways you are already at work in this situation.’” And that’s when they begin to see signs—signs of God’s love, signs of God’s care—sometimes signs of God’s healing activity in their lives, but not always. And yet, the next time I talk to them their faces light up with joy. They say, “God is at work everywhere, all the

time! And because I’ve been looking I’ve been able to see it!” What about you? Can you see the signs of God’s goodness and grace? Can you see the signs of God’s love and care? Can you believe that when your world is broken, and there’s nothing you can do to fix it, help is on the way?

—Jim Somerville © 2023