I preached this past Sunday and a number of people asked for the sermon, so promised to post it here. Enjoy.
God’s Good News Platform and Our Place in it
Mark 1:1, 9-15
Our texts for today focus on three of the most memorable figures in scripture. The prophet Jeremiah who wept, prayed, preached, and proclaimed the Word of the Lord before, during and in the second exile of God’s people. And then there is John the Baptizer who caused a stink preaching about God’s judgment of Herod and those who were A-OK with the way things are. Lastly we have Jesus, the rabbi from Nazareth who went around Galilee stirring up a ruckus about the Kingdom of God while the Roman Kingdom was in charge. All three of these figures were spokesmen for God, people who gave contemporary commentary on the world, giving calls, challenges, and criticisms from God. When you heard one of these rambunctious fellows speak you heard God’s platform and were left to decide how to respond.
Why platform you might be asking, isn’t that a political word? Yes it is and any good biblical scholar will tell you that that is exactly what the words of these three men would have been heard as, religious and political rhetoric. Back in the day there wasn’t any separation of church and state, so the idea of them being separate would have been weird, but today many faithful Christians read the scriptures with glasses that eliminate God’s Platform-ing from their eyes.
For example, look briefly at the Jeremiah text. He shows up in the Temple near the beginning of his ministry and says WATCH OUT, GOD CAN’T HANDLE WHAT YOU ARE DOING and IS LEAVING THE TEMPLE UNLESS, “you truely amend your ways and your doing.” Now listen to what God’s prophet asks the people to do while speaking in the Temple:
act justly with on another
do not oppress the alien
do not oppress the orphan
do not oppress the widow
do not shed innocent blood
AND if you do these things you are practicing idolatry because to truly know Yahweh is to know God’s preferential option for the marginalized in every society and situation.
Now that is a platform, God’s platform. They didn’t listen, they ignored and imprisoned Jeremiah for bringing politics into religion and found new prophets. Surprisingly those new prophets didn’t make it in the bible.
We are going to talk some more about John the Baptist and Jesus, but first I want to emphasize two things. You can be political without being partisan, so relax and don’t worry about there being any endorsement coming. In scripture when prophets and saviors make it to capitol hill they are usually on trial and end up dead, not elected. God is neither a republican nor a democrat.
Second, and more importantly, to understand statements that were relevant in a particular time and place, with a particular political and social system, with a people who used particular vocabulary for particular entities, and had situation specific options available to them in their historically bound situation you need to know that CONTEXT MATTERS.
I am going to say a line and I bet that you will know the who, what, when, where and be able to finish it for me. Let’s try it out:
“Four score and seven years ago”
“Do not ask what your country can do for you.”
“There is nothing to fear”
“I have a dream, that one day”
“We the people in order to form a more perfect union.”
Imagine hearing these lines and not knowing the context. Imagine trying to explain Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address without any reference to the Civil War. That would be what we often do with Jesus’ words – we try to understand and apply them without understanding the overriding historical context of first century Judaism, in Israel, and under the rule of the Roman empire.
We are going to be looking at the first sermon of Jesus in the oldest gospel we have and while as Christians we know that scripture is always relevant it is important to see how each part of scripture comes from a particular context yet has a universal horizon. We are going to spend some time looking at the particular context of Jesus to better see the universal horizon, the Good News Platform of God.
For Christians it may not make sense why Rome was such a big deal religiously. Remember Israel was the one true God’s chosen people. They were given the vocation as a people to take their blessing from God and bless the whole world. There are beautiful passages in the Hebrew scriptures where all the world comes to worship on God’s holy mountain, knowing that Yahweh is the one true God because of the way Israel lived in the world. Now imagine that instead of being the most blessed country in the world who is known globally for giving, sharing, and blessing others you are occupied by a ruthless Empire that keeps the people in poverty through taxation and the threat and implementation of military violence, your Temple is being controlled by Jewish leaders who bought into the Roman system in order to save their own skin, and your King Herod is a half-Jew who is not in the line of David, but got his power by eliminating competition (including his own son) and offering Caesar more money than anyone else. The Jewish people may have been living in Israel, but when it comes to their vocation of global blessing they were still in exile. Just like Eygpt and Babylon, the political domination system of the day had Israel at its beck and call.
In this situation a few prominent religious-political groups arose and they show up throughout the Gospels, so I thought I would give you some history to help you contextualize whenever they come up again.
Sadducees, Tax Collectors, and Herodians were “Your Best Life Now” Jews. They compromised their faith and religious convictions in order to accommodate to Rome’s desires. They were pragmatic, powerful, and successful at the expense of the other 99% of Israel. The Sadducees in particular were the group who ran the Temple for Rome and supported Rome in the crucifixion of Jesus. Not so surprisingly, these groups were associated by most Jews as part of the problem.
Pharisees were your “Holy Rollers” of the first century. Generally speaking they thought Israel as a whole needed to become a pure people and this attention to purity would initiate the coming of the Messiah who would settle the Rome and Temple problem. Like the holy rollers of today, the purity issues they obsessed over where rarely their own.
Zealots knew Israel was occupied, that God didn’t want it this way, so they took up a motto, “The only Good Roman is a Dead Roman.” Depending on which side you were on they were either terrorists or freedom fighters, but either way they believed that if Israel acted violently against Rome then God would join in this holy war of insurrection and clean house.
Essences were the end-of-the-world, chart-chasing, holy huddle from the first century. They too thought the situation was bad, so bad they wanted everyone to leave the evil of the world behind and join a real holy community that kept itself separated from all that is secular, sinful, and wrong out there. An Essence sermon was of the turn or burn variety, because they imagined that soon, very soon, in the twinkling of an eye, God was going to set things right by opening up a can of apocalyptic whoopin on everyone who isn’t a part of the holy huddle.
These four groupings of people were all contemporary religious and political platforms that first century Jews knew. All of them were centered on answering the fundamental problem: how are we to be God’s people in a world that is dominated by an unjust, exploitive, and violent regime that rules the world while claiming a divine mandate.
Into this situation come John the Baptizer and Jesus. With the context in our minds I am going to walk through this brief passage and try to illuminate the continuity and discontinuity between John and Jesus in hopes that we can end by hearing the single sentence zinger of a sermon by Jesus again and hear it for all it is worth.
There is debate about placing John among the four competing visions of Judaism mentioned above, but there is a strong consensus that he is most near the Essences. I am going to summarize what we know from the historical record about John briefly.
John was an apocalyptic prophet, meaning he preached a turn or burn message about how the end was near and that you needed to get right with God or God is gonna get right with you through the use of fire. In order to avoid this violent divine invasion of history John called people out into the desert and required people to fast until their skin sagged from lack of nourishment. This act of prolonged fasting meant you knew how awful of a sinner you were, that you deserved what God was about to do to the world, and were repentant. At this point you could be baptized in the Jordan for the forgiveness of sin. While baptism was already a jewish ritual, its original function was to be purified so one could participate in worship at the Temple where the rites for the forgiveness of sin were performed. Because John thought the Temple was corrupt and part of the problem he transforms a purity ritual into a Temple replacement. This did not make those running the Temple nor Herod who collected money through the Temple happy. On top of that John started preaching about Herod and ended up losing his head. All in all, the platform of John was that God is on the move and about to get active in the world to correct the sinful and corrupt present. You should be scared and fearful of God, because God is a wrathful Judge and one angry King.
Before we go on to look at Jesus let me ask you a question, how similar is your vision of God to that of John’s? I know many people who are in the church because of fear and even more that won’t get near a steeple door because it represents a John style platform. Judgement, Fear, and Fire. Jesus clearly identified with John or he wouldn’t have sought him out, but it is important for us to see where they cohere and where they don’t
First, Jesus shares John’s criticism about the world as it is. Jesus is about to start talking about the kingdom of God being present while Rome imagines itself to be the ruling kingdom and in power because of the gods and he won’t stop talking about it until he is crucified on a Roman cross as a political revolutionary. He was also critical of Herod (who tried to kill him as a baby) and the Temple system (where he put on a very rowdy demonstration).
Second, Jesus shared John’s affirmation of God’s in-breaking presence. Jesus thought that God was active in history and in the process of making the kingdom of God an earthly reality. And so Jesus says in our text, “The Time is Fulfilled…the kingdom of God is near” and he teaches us to pray that God’s kingdom come and will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The kingdom of God and its coming into a historical reality on earth is the central part of Jesus platform and part he shared with John. Now let us look closely at the text and see how Jesus’ vision of God’s platform differed from John.
Listen to the text again: In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.
What is shocking from the perspective of John is not that God tears apart the sky, that John was expecting. But when the heavens are torn apart and God comes near we do not see flaming chariots, an angelic special ops team, or some Yahweh style Shock and Awe, but a dove, a symbol of peace. And we do not hear the march of God’s apocalyptic army or a deep dark voice that roared like a fire, but the voice of one who identifies Jesus as the beloved, the voice of Abba. From this moment to the cross Jesus no longer expected God to come with apocalyptic divine fury as John, but instead knew God in a more intimate and relational way, he knew God as Abba. The dramatic contrasts in the ministry of Jesus and John are based here, in this moment where God breaks open the heavens to draw near to Jesus. The imminent one whose kingdom he will announce is first the loving Abba who knows the names of all God’s children and it is the God who is the loving Abba whose reign is present, not wrathful judge. The level of intimacy between God and Jesus causes a dramatic shift in the conceptual vision of God between John and Jesus. Jesus did not keep this a secret; instead God being Abba forever shaped the ministry of Jesus and the life of Jesus. To be a disciple of Jesus was to be committed in life and in prayer to God, sharing in the abba-intimacy of the Son. For John God was first Judge and King, but for Jesus God is best known as abba, an intimate, loving, and caring parent. The kind of person you want as King and Judge because you do not need to fear. If we take the Jesus vision over the John vision then we too should see ourselves as the beloved of God and not only ourselves but everyone God has created. This one change in the vision of God makes a huge difference when it comes the news being good or not. If God is Abba then the in-breaking of God’s kingdom is good news and fear-free.
Out of this experience and vision of God Jesus does two things differently. These two things are not only markers of Jesus and his kingdom platform, but as Disciples of Christ they too should be markers of our faith and life together.
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.’
John was arrested and eventually killed by Herod, but Jesus did not stay on the margins of society pointing the finger of judgement at everyone while calling them out of the sinful world to get right with God, but instead Jesus went into Galilee. Jesus traveled the country side preaching, teaching, healing, and feeding with a group nobodies. John’s vision of God’s platform kept him on the margins of society, but Jesus’ vision sent him to the marginalized people.
If the Jesus platform leads him to go out, then we should to. As a church we must make a shift from having an internal focus to an external focus. The ministry of Jesus was always driven by those who were not a part of his inner-circle. When he was with the hungry he fed them, the sick he healed them, the possessed he kicked some demons out, and in situation after situation Jesus the externally focused Jesus looked at the world out there and said, “what would Good News be to these people?” and then acted. I know it can be surprising to us but Jesus’ method of church development was missional involvement. By missional I mean, active and intentional participation in God’s mission, namely the coming of the kingdom of God and the doing of God’s will. Jesus religion is externally focused, or as James the brother of Jesus put it, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Abba, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.”
So the first shift which as the church we need to make is that from an internally focused ministry to an external one. The second is just as important, namely the shift from a program driven ministry to a people focused community. In his decision not to take up John’s post or start his own stationary healing ministry in Capernum (a Mark text Mike preached on a few weeks ago) Jesus is intentionally avoiding the establishment of a program driven ministry, either the come out and get baptized or the come here and get healed ministry. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t baptize or create places of healing, it just means that the setting up of a program is not the point, the people are. Jesus was not going to set up a program and wait for God to send people his way. Jesus went to the people and called them to come and join God’s platform, God’s kingdom, God’s mission, and be a part of what God is doing in the world.
All around the country side Jesus went proclaiming “The Time is NOW, the Kingdom of God is here, Repent (or change if you translate it literally) and believe in the Good News!” Does this audaciously hopeful message sound similar to anything? A platform that is critical of those in power and the way the people in charge have been running things. A strong affirmation that indeed things need to change and hope that they can. I am not surprised that putting hope and change on repeat in political rhetoric is effective, but church it is a hijacked platform.
In a world with all kinds of things to be worried about, be it the ecological crisis, religious violence, terrorism, globalization, the growing gap between the rich and poor, the AIDs crisis in Africa, and the growing power of multi-national companies, the thing that worries me and I bet God the most is out-sourcing. I am not talking about the out-sourcing of jobs, but the church. The more the church is internally focused, not looking beyond itself, and continues spending the majority of its time and energy on itself and its own survival , the more people will turn elsewhere in search of agents of change. And the more the church keeps working it programs while asking God to get the people, the more our institutions and our steeples will become a symbols of stagnation, the problematic normal AND NOT missional communities who bring God’s good news full of God size hope to the people.
Simply put, God’s good news platform is this: Our God, the creator of every living person, sees each of us as God’s own beloved, created for reconciled communion with God. This God, whom Jesus knew as Abba, wants to embrace you, change you, and give you an eternal hope….so that you can join Jesus in proclaiming and participating in the coming of God’s kingdom here on earth. AMEN