5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 6 who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:5-11
Have you ever visited a stately home? It could be here in Australia. One that comes to mind immediately is Martindale Hall, in Mintaro. Tasmania also has a large number of grand homes built in the early nineteenth century. And such homes are a dime a dozen in the United Kingdom.
You may also be a fan of period dramas set in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Downton Abbey was a popular series of this genre, as was Upstairs Downstairs in the 1970’s, which I remember from my childhood. This was a world so vastly different from today. The class system placed people on different levels. People knew their place, and there was very little opportunity to move up the social ladder.
You could see this in the way that grand houses were designed. Upstairs was where the upper class lived. The engine room of the country estate was downstairs-the scullery, laundry, store and workshop. Downstairs was where the work took place, and where the many servants who kept the house running lived.
Each member of the household would have their own personal steward, who would choose their clothes, help them to dress, washes and iron their attire. The kitchen staff would prepare all their meals and wait on tables, to ensure that every last request was promptly met. Upstairs life was easy. Downstairs it was hard, dirty, physically demanding work, from sun-up to late in the evening, and not well paid at that.
Upstairs, downstairs. There’s a world of difference between the two, all the world that money can buy. We don’t think of ourselves as living in that kind of society. True, there may not be an aristocracy in this country, but there are clear divisions based on our level of income. Just compare suburb in the east of Adelaide to some in the north. Social commentators use the word ‘aspirational’ to describe our desire to keep moving upward through the income brackets. We aspire to a better job, income, suburb, and as we do so, we have the capacity to do more and buy more.
God sees this aspirational impulse for what it is: a part of our flawed humanity wanting a lot of things that we don’t already have, even if what we have is more than enough by any reasonable assessment. And this causes great problems for all of us. It means that we’re more inclined to look out for our own interests than the interests of others. It makes for competition rather than cooperation. Our planet is in trouble too, as we churn through finite resources and tip the scales against those who don’t have enough food, water, shelter.
Many people think, of course, that all this escapes God’s attention. God is upstairs, in his heaven, while all is not well in the world. And we’re downstairs, left to our own devices. However, what Holy Week tells us that this is most definitely not the case. God doesn’t want to live in splendid isolation, while downstairs things are unbearable. God decided to do something that many would think was beneath him. God decided it was time to live downstairs, with those he created, in the world he made.
Paul’s words in Philippians 2 are based on a hymn that the early Christians would have sung in their worship. It gives us such a clear sense of what was important to these first followers of Jesus. They knew first-hand what it was like to be powerless. They were mostly either Jewish or poor, indeed slaves, so they knew what it was like to be marginalised. But because of this, they were captivated by the words and actions of Jesus. Especially in this most decisive of weeks, which confirmed Jesus’ status as the king who came to serve his people.
You could say that Jesus moved from upstairs to downstairs. “He was in the form of God, [but] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” To the manor born, so the saying goes. God’s Son could have eternally luxuriated in the splendour of his Father’s presence. But that was never God’s intention.
“[He] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” Despite his status as God’s beloved Son, Jesus did not trade on his reputation. He was fully God, fully human, and immersed himself fully in our human condition, in the real world of conflict, grief, violence, disappointment, anger, class. The writer of the book of Hebrews tells us that since we, God’s children, “have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity…”
The life of Jesus is characterised by love, in both words and actions. A prostitute rescued from being stoned, a tax collector welcomed in the fold of Jesus’ followers, a blind man’s sight restored. It’s also characterised by courage. Jesus breaks convention by questioning the authority of the religious leaders of the day. He exposes their hypocrisy. He doesn’t allow his humble position as a wandering teacher to silence him against the rich and powerful.
Today Jesus enters Jerusalem. He makes a scene as he sits on a donkey, surrounded by cheering disciples, waving leaves they had cut in the fields, and using their coats as a makeshift red carpet. They had high hopes, that’s for sure. They were hoping for nothing less than revolution. With the words of Psalm 118 on their lips, they were hoping that thus would be the beginning of Jesus’ rise to power and glory, to rule as the new king. “Hosanna!” they cry out. “Lord, save us. Help us now.” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Jesus’ name in Hebrew, Joshua, means exactly what they’re asking for: God saves.
Jesus was a King. He made the move from upstairs to downstairs. But he wasn’t going to fight the Romans at their own violent game. He rides not a war horse but a donkey. He was pointing to the words of prophet Zechariah: “Your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey…he will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea.” A king, yes, but not as people, even his disciples were hoping for.
Jesus was on a peace mission, not a power trip. And that came with a high price indeed. Paul writes, “Being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to death-even death on a cross.” Obedience to the will of his Father meant suffering indignity upon indignity, abuse piled on abuse, not because Jesus was weak, but because he was strong. Finally, it meant the cross. Remember Jesus’ words last week: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Behold the King, reigning from his cross.
Paul writes in Second Corinthians: “You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Jesus’ life was a journey from upstairs to downstair. In his innocent death he died the death of each one of us. He took to the cross all our selfishness, greed, all our sin, everything that we do that grieves God. He experiences the most abject of depths, the hell of our making. This was his servant-love for all people and all creation. God his Father raised him from the dead, giving his mission the biggest tick of approval. Jesus’ life was the riches to rags to riches story. From upstairs to downstairs, and then back upstairs again. He is forever our humble King. He lives at the Father’s right hand, upstairs, but he continues to dwell in us who live downstairs. Jesus will never forget either where he came from, or where he has been.
And nor should we. Despite all our economic advantages, we stand on the same rung of the ladder as every other human being. From downstairs in the dust, we have been lifted upstairs, out of our spiritual poverty by Jesus’ act of love alone. Grace is the primary gift we have received, but then, so are all the other things that we enjoy on this land of plenty, and in this pocket of Adelaide. And yet, we are called to continue to live downstairs, to love and serve as Jesus did, and in his strength. What a different this will make in an aspirational, fractured, tense society like ours right now. How do we live as people of peace, gentle but determined to do what is right, not what is easy or expedient?
Perhaps this word from Henri Nouwen is a good place to start. It comes from my desk calendar: “The glory of God stands in contrast to the glory of people. People seek glory by moving upward. God reveals his glory by moving downward. If we truly want to see the glory of God, we must move downward with Jesus.” Follow the one who moved downward to bring you God’s love. That’s how you bring his love to others. Amen.
20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we would like to see Jesus.’ 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus. 23 Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honour the one who serves me. 27 ‘Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. 30 Jesus said, ‘This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die. John 12:20-33
I wonder if you have seen this logo before, or if you know what the letters stand for? CBM stands for Christian Blind Mission. It’s an international Christian development organisation, whose Australian headquarters is in Box Hill, Melbourne, where my previous parish was located. Their focus is on working to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities in the poorest communities of the world. Those living with disabilities are even more marginalised than other poor. The story of how this charity was birthed is a fascinating one and brings to life Jesus’ words today about how following Jesus means serving him in the power of his own sacrifice.
Christian Blind Mission was founded by a Lutheran pastor from Germany. His name was Ernst Christoffel. After studying theology, he went to work as a missionary in Turkey in 1904. What he saw amongst those who were living with blindness shocked him. He wrote back to his sister in Germany: “The material, moral and religious situation of the blind is terrible. A great percentage of them beg. Blind girls and women are forced into prostitution.” From that point on, he and his sister Hedwig decided to make their life work serving these people.
Christoffel went back to Germany, trying to get support for his plan, but was unsuccessful. But undeterred, he decided to set up an institution himself, in a place called Malatia. He named this care centre Bethesda, after the pool in Jerusalem where the Gospel writer John tells us “a great number of disabled people used to lie-the blind, the lame, the paralysed,” as it was believed that when the water is stirred healing would result. You may remember that Jesus healed a man there who was unable to walk and got himself into hot water because the healing took place on the Sabbath.
Christoffel had a tough path ahead of him. He was drafted into the Swiss Army during the First World War and had to fight for an exemption to return to Bethesda. Then the mission he built was seized by the Turkish government during the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and turned into a military hospital. Kristoffel fought to get it back but was then expelled from Turkey because of his German background. He returned in 1924, but the government would not let him open another refuge, so he went to Persia, now Iran. There he established two further institutions to care for people who were blind, deaf, and mute.
This work continued until 1943, when the Allies captured Persia. Rather than escape, he stayed with those in his care, and was arrested, spending three years in detention. He returned to Germany for a time, to establish a similar refuge there, but returned to the country now known as Iran in 1951, establishing a school, and all this at the age of 70. He died in Iran in 1955, having spent himself fully in the care of those living with disability.
This is written on his gravestone, in the Armenian cemetery in Ishafan, Iran: “Here lies in the peace of God Pastor Ernst J Christoffel, the father of the blind, the children of nobody (literally: the children of no one), the crippled and the deaf.”
He once wrote: “I have always rejected one principle and still do so today, that is, to find out whether the person receiving help is worthy of doing so or not. As soon as I come across this principle, whether at home or elsewhere, I become angry. What does it mean to be worthy or unworthy of support? Where would we be if God were to deal with us in this way...The deed of love is the sermon that everyone understands.”
From the example of this one man’s life, CBM now reaches over 30 million people a year, and supports more than 700 partner-projects in 70 countries. What Jesus says to us today has come to life in Pastor Christoffel. “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” But first of all, Jesus brought these words to harvest in giving his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.
the beginning of the decisive week in Jesus’ life. Jesus announces: “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.” This is the same word Jesus uses when he casts out demons. The game is up, and the evil one is being called to account.
I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” No longer will the world be held captive to Satan’s destructive intent. The cross that Jesus will carry, and on which he will be lifted up, is God’s verdict of guilty on the sin and disobedience of a broken world. Jesus represents us before God. Jesus submits himself to the sentence that we should have served. The cross is the place where we can most clearly see the suffering love of God in action. This deed of love is the sermon that everyone understands, more than that, that frees everyone and changes our life destiny.
“Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Jesus was lifted up on the cross. Jesus died and was buried. Jesus endured the hell of God’s judgement, in order to secure our future as God’s forgiven children. On the third day, the seed broke through the ground, rising to new life. This seed will produce countless seeds, people whose lives have been transformed by Jesus’ sacrificial love.
You and I are among those who have been seeded with this new life. Jesus’ cross changes the direction and focus of our lives. No longer do we view this life, this material world, as the sum total of all that there is. We have eternal life now and we live in the power of Jesus’ risen life and his Holy Spirit here and now. This reality drives everything that we do in this life. That’s why Jesus says, “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
The world is truly a different place in Christ. Hating our life in this world doesn’t mean despising ourselves or the world in which we live. It is, after all, a world we are called to love. Rather, Jesus is saying, “If you hate the way life is lived in this world…. If you are ground down by the lack of love, respect, integrity, honour, virtue,” then resolve to send down your roots deeper into Jesus, your source of life, and follow Jesus.
Paul sums this up in Galatians 2: “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Pastor Christoffel wrote an account of his life work. Translated into English, the title is “Between Sowing and Harvest.” He saw the work God had called him to as flowing from the seed of faith that God had planted in his life, through the life work of the Lord and Saviour he followed, Jesus Christ. He planted many seeds across the course of his life: some grew to greatness, others died, but each one was a response to the grace of God.
Your life and mine look very different to Pastor Christoffel’s. I feel more ordinary than extraordinary. I won’t be writing an autobiography, that’s for sure. Yet the arena of your service and mine is just as critical to God’s ongoing mission of love to the world. Some of us are part of the Lenten Study this year. We are looking at the book, ‘Liturgy of the Ordinary.’ These words from this week’s chapter jumped out at me: “We are fed in worship, blessed and sent out to be “hints of hope” …we are part of God’s big vision and mission, the redemption of all things-through the earthly craft of living out our vocation, hour by hour, task by task. I want to do the big work of the kingdom, but I have to learn to live it out in the small tasks before me-the missio Dei in the daily grind.”
What seeds has God called you to sow, day by day? What acts of service and love is God calling you to do in the name of Jesus? Pastor Christoffel worked among the disabled and the poor, and spent his life in their service? What God is calling you to do may very different, but there is no doubt that he calls you to bring glory to him through the seed of your service. Don’t forget Pastor Christoffel’s words: “The deed of love is the sermon that everyone understands.” Amen.
14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’ 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. John 3:14-21
It’s quite a long time since my children were born, but I will never forget their births, and especially the overwhelming rush of love that came upon me, three times over as I saw them for the very first time. My heart felt like breaking, but at the same time it was expanding with love for this child, this product of human love and this beautiful creation of God. And I think the feeling must be even deeper for the one who has given birth, and not just stood by helplessly as I did.
Whether we are parents or not, we all know the joy of seeing a newborn. We all wonder about how this child’s life will unfold. We wonder what they will grow up to be, and what mark they will make on the world. The miracle of life isn’t just the beginning, but each and every day.
In today’s gospel from John 3, we listen in on the tail end of a conversation that Jesus has with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was curious about Jesus, but also cautious. He knew that Jesus was “a teacher who has come from God.” The things that Jesus is doing are evidence that God is at work through him. But he wants to know more. And he gets far more than he bargains for.
“Very truly, I tell you, “Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” Nicodemus tries to get his head around what Jesus is saying. What he knows about human birth is that it’s not reversible. But more than that, why does he, one of God’s chosen people, need new birth to qualify for God’s kingdom?
Jesus goes on: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.” This statement is even more perplexing for Nicodemus. He may have heard about John’s water baptism for repentance. But what’s this talk of being born of the Spirit.
Physical birth is the beginning of our earthly life. But this birth, as amazing as it is, places us in a world in which there is pain as well as pleasure, sadness as well as joy, evil as well as good. Paul puts it starkly today: “We were by nature deserving of wrath…” We know this to be true at every level. Each day there’s bad news-about the horrible way that human beings treat one another, about war, disorder, violence, abuse. We all worry about the world into which we are bringing our children. We don’t just feel that way when our children are small, but when they grow up. Parents don’t stop caring once their child has flown out of the nest.
Every parent wants to protect their child from harm. We would do whatever we could. But we’re not always present where our children are. And not always able to stop trouble and hurt. The love of a parent is strong, and sacrificial, but it will come to an end. I know that only too well as I reflected on my mother’s love, a year this week since her funeral.
How, then, it is possible to live hopefully in this kind of a world? This isn’t just a question for parents, but for God too. Let’s go back to what Jesus says to Nicodemus. What’s behind all this talk about new birth? Well, our human condition is not the kind of thing that can just be tweaked to make it better. It’s needs radical action. From God. Not from us. We need rebirth of a spiritual kind. And this is how God makes it happen.
Paul writes: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ…it is by grace you have been saved.” And John describes the same thing in the singularly best-known verse in all of Scripture: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
Remember a time when you nursed a baby. It may have been your child. Or a nephew or niece? What did you feel as you gazed into the child’s eyes? If you were the parents, you may have been amazed at the love that flowed from you to your child, a love deeper than you thought possible. Now multiply that love countless times, and you have the kind of love that flows from the heart of God the Father toward you.
“God loved the world.” God’s love reaches far beyond individual family, beyond town or city, beyond the people of the old covenant, which was such a shock to Nicodemus and his fellow Jewish leaders, to all people, that is, to the whole world. What seems obvious to is in the hindsight of the gospel was astonishing to Jesus’ first hearers.
God loved the world so much that he gave his One and Only Son. God’s love came encapsulated in his Son, Jesus, born in Bethlehem, born of Mary. A child whose birth was celebrated by both his human and divine parents, into whom they poured their love and care. Remember the Father’s words to Jesus at his baptism: “This is my Son, whom I love. With him I am well pleased.”
Parents raise a child with love, and invest in their future, preparing them to be launched into the world as an independent adult. God the Father’s plan was to “show [us] the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed to us in Christ Jesus.” But this kindness to us would cause the greatest grief for our heavenly Father, as he watched his Son walk the slow and painful road to his death on the cross. This was no accident, but God’s plan from the beginning.
Jesus knows what is ahead of him: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.” In our first reading today, we heard of how God commanded Moses to set up a bronze snake on a pole, and those who turned to the snake were healed. So too God calls us to look up to the one lifted up on the cross, in order to live through him. Just as in this incident, healing came in the same shape as that which brought death, a snake, so for us, healing comes in the form of a human being, God become flesh, God who bears our sin and dies our death. Jesus’ saves us, as one of us, our brother but also our Lord.
God gave his Son, “that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life”. This life is deep, lasting, not just life the other side of heaven, but right here, right now. This is how Paul puts it in Ephesians 2: “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” This new life of Jesus has become ours through the new birth of baptism. We are now children of God, “children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” We received human life as gift, through the act of conception, through our mothers carrying us to birth. We are born into the gift of relationship with our human parents, which we did nothing to deserve.
This is true, far more so, for us spiritually. Eternal life, life in all its fullness, the new birth through which we can be the people that God created us in his image to be, comes through the safety and security that comes from being born in God our Father, by water and the Spirit. As a result of the grace in which we have been saved, the sheer gift of God that none of us deserved, this is who we now are, “God’s handiwork, God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” There’s a world of possibility, of love and service in front of us now, as we bear the cross of Jesus each and every day.
In the earliest days, the images of our parents’ faces are imprinted into our brains. We can only grow to maturity because of this sense of security and deep love. In the cross of Jesus, we know that we are secure in the love of our heavenly Father. Through his death and resurrection, God gives us new birth in our baptism, the gift of his love, and a relationship that promises fullness of life, now and forever. God, help us to believe this, treasure this, live this. Amen.
13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’ 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ 18 The Jews then responded to him, ‘What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’ 19 Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ 20 They replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken. John 2:13-22
I wonder how many of you are familiar with this painting? It’s by the American artist, Walter Sallmann. By one estimate this image has been reproduced over 500 million times. What kind of impression of Jesus does this picture give? One person wrote: “This is the Jesus of flowing blond hair and saccharine blue eyes. He is clean, passive, and effeminate, which is perhaps why Christians have plastered this image into many a child’s Sunday School room.”
Certainly, there’s a gentleness, a sense of security and warmth in this picture of Jesus. It’s much like the words of the children’s hymn, “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild:
“Lamb of God I look to You Be with me in all I do You are gentle meek and mild You were once a little child.”
Of course, Jesus is gentle, and his meekness is exemplified in his servant heart. He does promise comfort and support when we are going through hard times: “Come to you, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” And there are many times where we, in our brokenness and hurt, need exactly this. But this picture only tells part of the story, and in isolation this can lead to a false understanding of what Jesus is like and how he reveals the passionate love of God to us.
In their challenging book Untamed, Alan and Debra Hirsch write: “In much of our image making, we have sought to domesticate Jesus and make him a much more manageable lowercase- “l” lord that comfortably legitimates our lifestyle. Let’s be honest: for many Christians, Jesus has come to look and behave like a regular, high-conformity, somewhat-morally uptight/upright churchgoer? Is this really the wild Messiah we encounter in the Gospels?”
Have we been guilty of making Jesus in our own image, to fit our thinking, to justify our take on God? Is our picture of Jesus like Sallmann’s picture, Jesus gentle, meek and mild, or is he like the wild Messiah we encounter today? Is he full of deep and disturbing passion for his Father, or is he happy with the status quo, barely disturbing the comfortable?
Today we find Jesus where would expect, in his Father’s house. After all, what did Jesus say to his parents when they found him in the temple, after searching for him for three days: “Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house.” This is where God promised to be present in glory for his people. Here, and only here, could God’s people could offer ritual sacrifices for their sins, and so receive God’s forgiveness.
The Passover was the most important celebration in the Jewish religious calendar. Here God’s people celebrated their rescue from Egypt. Many pilgrims made the trip up to Jerusalem for this high festival. The scene that greeted Jesus would have been one of barely controlled chaos. The temple courts were full of people selling animals, cattle, sheep and pigeons, and people changing money for the payment of the temple tax. And there was money to be made.
Without any explanation, and with no warning, Jesus “made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle, he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” This was a provocative and dangerous act. It could have got Jesus arrested, or worse, resulted in the stall holders attacking him. No gentle Jesus, meek and mild to be seen here. “Stop turning my Father’s house into a market,” he yells out, as people disperse left and right.
Was this frustration boiling over into anger? Was it shock at the commercial chaos in God’s house? I think it’s something deeper than that. This is Jesus’ Father’s house, but the meaning of the temple has been trashed. Where is the respect for God? But there’s something even deeper. Jesus’ heart boils over with what he is here to do: to be the living sacrifice that brings people back to God. To be the bringer of grace that animal sacrifices can no longer bring.
Reflecting on this incident, the disciples remember a snippet of Psalm 69: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The word zeal can also mean ‘jealousy’ in the sense of a love that wants God alone and wants God to be honoured above all. This is why Jesus taught his disciples to pray:
“Hallowed be your name.” Jesus wants God’s people to keep his name holy through words and actions that reflect their identity as his covenant people. That they don’t grieves him, but he dedicates his life to changing the hearts of God’s people. That’s because his Father is also jealous for his people. In giving the Ten Commandments to Israel, God says, “I am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Jesus’ passion for his Father would lead to his passion, that is, his suffering at the hands of others. Zeal for his Father would consume Jesus completely. That’s what Jesus was pointing to when the religious authorities asked him to justify his extreme actions. “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” It had taken 46 years to construct the second temple, and still it wasn’t finished. But standing in front of them was the “new temple.” John writes in his first chapter: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us...” No longer would people have to travel to Jerusalem to come into God’s presence. God is fully present in Jesus.
But this would cost Jesus his life. People would react badly to the pure love of God. It challenged everything they lived for: power, control, money. They would throw every weapon they had against Jesus: they would argue against him, trying to tear down his reputation, and when that failed, they would turn to the power of the state to kill him. But even then, passionate love would win out. God would let his Son suffer and die in silence. “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. He was like a lamb led to the slaughter...” Was this gentle Jesus, meek and mild, or the strongest, deepest, toughest, most passionate love we will ever see?
Only after Jesus rose from the dead would the penny drop for the disciples. Only now could they make sense of the horror of the cross. Here the love of God, so jealous for all people to share in his divine life, took matters into his own hands and made a way for this to happen. In his body Jesus endured the holy anger of God against our rebellion. Zeal for God and his honour did consume Jesus, even to death, but God then announced that Jesus was indeed his Son, and that now God’s presence was available to us who trusted in Jesus’ words and his sacrificial death and resurrection.
The picture that encapsulates all that Jesus said and did comes in the shape of a cross. The cross that stands at the front of our church, on the altar, the paraments. This is what the church is on about, as Paul reminds us today: “We preach Christ crucified...the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
This is a big, powerful, audacious claim. But then, Jesus’ love is more powerful, more raw, more passionate than anything we can muster. God’s love will never, ever, settle on the compromise position. God’s love is tough, sacrificial, and ultimately victorious. That’s the robust love God has shared with us through our baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection. That’s the love that drives the church’s mission in the world.
Some seventeen years ago, when I was working in child, youth, tertiary and family ministry for the Victorian District, I read the most challenging book I had come across in quite some time. This was its title: Practising Passion: Youth and the Quest for the Passionate Church. Its thesis was that for too long that church has been practising passionless Christianity and that it was no wonder that young people were leaving the church in droves. The author wrote, “Passionless Christianity has nothing to die for: it practices assimilation, not oddity. Passionless Christians lead sensible lives; we are benignly nice instead of dangerously loving...” This kind of church offers nothing to people who want to believe in something worth dying for, and who want to make a difference in the world.
What shapes the church? What passion shapes St John’s? It is comfort, security, reputation, good management? Or is it sacrifice, servanthood, zeal for God, and love for his world? This may not be common-sense. It may not even be sensible. It will certainly not be playing it safe. The cross of Jesus certainly wasn’t any of these things. The world may call us foolish. But this is the way Jesus lived. And it’s his passionate life and powerful love that lives in us, his people, today. This Lent, take another look at Jesus and see what drove him. Read through or listen to the Gospel of Mark. See who Jesus is, and how he lived for you. And then remember who you are: a child of God, recreated in the image of Jesus, called to live by the power and the passion of his cross and resurrection. Amen.
15 Jesus was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. 16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:15-21
In recent years I’ve come to see that one of the most confronting words for an LCA congregation is the word “mission”. Mere mention of it has the power to lower people’s gaze and have them stare at their shoelaces with the kind of intensity you’d expect when viewing a piece of prized artwork. It conjures up all sorts of apprehension and fear, as well as guilt and shame. And before we allow this word to take hold and lead us in any way, many of us scramble back to the central teaching of the Lutheran faith – that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone and not by works – and we breathe a sigh of relief as we recall that everything is ok, we don’t HAVE to do anything.
Of course, I am being deliberately provocative here. I hope you know as well as I do that mission is so much a part of the DNA of the LCA that you cannot tell our history without bumping into wonderful mission endeavours again and again. And yet, there is some truth in the notion that this word – mission – fills a goodly number of us with apprehension and fear, and more troubling, with a sense of guilt and shame.
The apprehension and fear usually arise out of concern over how we might be perceived if we personally engage in mission. It used to be that we’d just be worried about what people might think of us if we tried to talk with them about Jesus. But these days there are well founded fears about the implications such conversations might have on your career prospects, your social standing and even the viability of your business. As the world becomes more hostile to the message of the cross, this will only get worse. But the message is one of such glorious beauty and hope that I pray the Holy Spirit would grant you such boldness and joy in God’s saving love, that you don’t give these repercussions a second thought.
The guilt and shame that the word mission can evoke is another matter entirely. Perhaps you know what I’m talking about firsthand. Over the years I’ve met parents of children who have rejected the forgiveness and life Jesus’ offers. So many of these parents carry an almost unbearable sense of guilt, and in some cases, shame, over how they have failed to pass on the faith. I’ve spoken with others who feel guilty for every opportunity to bear witness to God’s love for all in Christ that they’ve neglected – sometimes unintentionally, and other times quite deliberately. Even stories about what others have done to share the gospel that are meant to inspire, can drive us to despair as we sit at home and feel nothing but guilt about what we haven’t done.
My job is not to analyse whether or not you have a reason for such guilt and shame. Rather my job is to proclaim Good News to you who are poor in spirit due to the burden this brings upon you. To declare that Jesus has released you from captivity to this sin, along with its guilt. That He has covered your shame as He endured the world’s scorn on the cross. And He has freed you as His own through the forgiveness that is yours in Christ. My job is to send you who have been broken by the burden of mission away from here today, released from all sin and shame in the name of Jesus and to live your life in the Lord’s favour. However you have failed in the Lord’s call to mission – you are forgiven. Whenever you have neglected the opportunities he has placed in front of you– His blood covers your sins. And wherever you feel you are responsible for another failing to believe, the Lord offers you freedom from your sins in the name of Christ.
As Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah in the hearing of his hometown family and friends, he declares that God’s mission to bring just this kind of release and freedom and recovery has been fulfilled in him. Nothing more is to be done. No more waiting and worrying. No more anticipation and doubt. Right there in the person of Christ, God has sent salvation to the world and finally brought freedom from sin, death and the devil. Such is the essence of the church’s mission. To continue to proclaim this same freedom to the world day in and day out.
To point believers and unbelievers alike to Jesus’ cross and declare that right there we are released from bondage to sin, granted freedom from the grave and given the gift of eternal life that we may live every day in the Lord’s favour.
The picture Jesus uses is one of release from captivity and affliction and freedom from all work and toil. A picture that harks back to the 50-year Jubilee commanded in the Old Testament. A time when all slaves were set free, debts were forgiven, people returned to their homes and the paddocks lay fallow as they too rested for the year. The Jubilee was a prophetic sign of what was to come with the long-awaited Saviour and a foretaste of the freedom that would be for all people as He ushered in the eternal year of the Lord’s favour.
One of the reasons, I suspect, that this message of release from bondage is shunned by so many in a place like Australia, is that we don’t readily recognise that we are captive to sin and death. Like the Israelites of old, we tend to think of ourselves as having never been slaves of anyone and so we don’t need freeing.
When I travel on your behalf to visit the missions the LCA supports among our partner churches, the response is quite different. For people who live under the shadow of other religions such as Buddhism, Islam, animism and Hinduism, the sense of being held captive is very real and produces a longing for release. Far from turning their nose up at the suggestion we might have a message that will bring freedom and hope, they are so desperate for these things we tend to take for granted.
One of the most striking examples of this is captured in the story of a Lutheran evangelist who is now serving among his people in the mountains of northern Thailand. Min was born into a large family who continued the tradition of their ancestors and worshipped all kinds of spirits that surrounded them. Each home had their own spirit, and the family was dependent on that spirit for all they needed – when things went well they offered sacrifices of thanksgiving, when things went badly, they had to offer more and more sacrifices to appease the spirit to get their lives back on track.
As a teenager Min noticed that something was not right with his siblings. They seemed disturbed and troubled. Following the accidental death of his father, Min’s brother appeared deranged and committed suicide. Shortly after the family noticed one of his sisters was possessed by some evil spirit and ultimately hung herself as well. Another of Min’s brothers became violent and with super-human strength tore houses to pieces with his bare hands, swearing that he was assisted by 7 other men when witnesses saw him acting along. The village spirit doctor told the family their house spirit was bad and needed to be replaced. They sacrificed animal after animal to appease the spirits and placed a new idol in their home, but even that didn’t work. Min became convinced he was at risk and ran away, spending days living in a tree and only coming down when he became convinced it was full of snakes that were trying to kill him. Witnesses could not see the snakes that were bothering him, but Min was tormented by these ‘invisible’ snakes for weeks to come.
This story of a family being held captive by spirits and driven to death and despair, sounds far-fetched to our ears and yet is a story that is repeated again and again among the people you serve through LCA International Mission. Thanks be to God that a Christian evangelist came to Min and his family and proclaimed the very freedom, liberty, release and healing that Jesus spoke of as having been fulfilled in him all those years ago in the synagogue at Nazareth. As they were brought to faith in Jesus and received the gift of forgiveness of sins and release from demonic oppression, the family were finally at peace and the torment ceased. It was a battle that the spirits did not surrender to easily, but ultimately Min’s family entered into that Jubilee year of the Lord’s favour, being forgiven all debt and freed from all slavery, they now live in peace.
Min now proclaims the same gift of forgiveness and freedom in Jesus’ name to those who are still held captive by darkness and fear. Not all believe. Some are threatened by the message and so fearful of the old spirits that they dare not listen to the message of the gospel. But Minh’s life is living testimony to Jesus having fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah as he declared, and in the remote mountains of Thailand continues to bear witness to the freedom we have in Christ.
I haven’t heard of too many people in the LCA who experienced Jesus’ mission in quite the same way as Min, but the impact of his mission on our lives is no less spectacular. In the west the devil lulls us into a false sense of security as he seeks to possess us with a whole range of spirits who look anything but spiritual. We bow down at the altar of prosperity, good health, family relationships, a good name, a comfortable instead of faithful life in the church and so on, and act as though these things will bring us ultimate freedom and happiness in life. It’s the same lie as Min fell for in the mountains – that something other than Jesus can make us free – but it is just clothed a little differently.
In the face of all these spirits and our willing participation in their lies, Jesus proclaims victory through His death and resurrection, and declares with all authority in heaven and earth, that we are now free from such deathly captivity as he forgives our sins and covers our shame. This is what mission is all about. Bringing freedom, life, salvation and God’s favour into the lives of those who are just as much prisoners of the devil as Minh and his family surely were.
The next time you feel fearful or apprehensive about telling friends and family about Jesus, stop for a moment and think of Jesus’ declaration of release in the words of our text. These are words that are not just for those in remote Thailand. They are words for you and me and all who surround us, and who are far more burdened and imprisoned than they dare admit. In these words, the mission of the church is fulfilled as God releases sinners from shame and death, and brings them into his everlasting favour. And yes, it’s true, some won’t believe. Some may ridicule you. But then again, some will grasp this gift as Min did, desperate for the freedom and hope that Jesus’ offers and that you have. May God grant you such joy in his gift of freedom and life in Jesus’ name, that you embrace every opportunity to declare God’s favour to those in need. Amen.
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ 12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness for forty days, being temptednby Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. Jesus announces the good news. 14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’ Mark 1:9-15
If you’ve ever been to my office, you might have seen this little cartoon on my door. It shows an inoffensive man of the cloth tootling along in his sensible little clergy vehicle. That’s what it’s like most of the time for me, as I drive around Adelaide in my mild Mazda 3.
But deep within me there lurks a desire to drive much faster in something much more powerful. And, some seven years ago, that wish was fulfilled. A member of the St Paul’s Box Hill congregation had a son was a V-8 Supercar driver. His racing team was having a drive day, at Sandown Racecourse, and someone had pulled out. Would I be interested? Would I what. It was a day that I will never forget. First, I spent two laps as a passenger in the V-8 Supercar. I thought I was going to black out after the initial burst of acceleration out of the pits, but that was only the start. It is difficult to describe how quickly these cars accelerate, how they carve up corners, and how savagely they brake.
But that wasn’t the most fun I had that day. I also got to drive the track. I only knew the track from watching races on TV. How would I know how fast to go, when to brake and turn, when to accelerate? What if I messed it up, overcooked it in a corner, and spun off the track?
That’s where my driving instructor came in. He had driven hundreds of laps around Sandown, and his task was to teach me how to do it. He didn’t drive the car for me, but drove ahead of me, all the while giving me instructions via a 2- way radio. All I had to do was follow him, brake when he braked and mimic the line he took through each corner. Choose my own lines and there would be trouble. Another driver decided he was the expert. He didn’t listen and ended up ploughing backwards into the concrete barrier at Term 4. He was OK physically, but he destroyed the car.
The whole experience taught me a few things. One, I didn’t have the talent to be a racing driver. And two, how critical it was to follow the leader, especially as an adult. And this is a lesson that I need to learn over and over again in the life of faith.
Today we make a detour back to the beginning of Mark’s gospel today. Jesus has come to be baptised by John the Baptist. That’s certainly a surprise to John, and perhaps to us. Why is the holy one coming to receive “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?” Yet as we follow Jesus throughout his ministry, we understand that his baptism is totally in character with his whole life. He walks our path: beginning with his birth as a human being, his dependence on his earthly parents, his growing into maturity. He is baptised as the signal that he understands our need for repentance and grace.
As Jesus is baptised, he is also commissioned to serve. He sees the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove, and he hears his Father’s affirming voice” You are my Son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.”
When we were baptised, we were enveloped by the grace of God. God said. “You are my son...you are my daughter, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” The Holy Spirit made his dwelling place in us, and we were made part of the body of Christ-the eyes, ears, arms and legs of our Lord and Saviour Jesus in the world.
So what does Jesus do now that he has received God’s imprimatur on his mission? It’s not so much what he does, but where he goes, and why. The Holy Spirit thrusts Jesus into a time of testing in the desert. We all like the idea of getting away for a time of rest and replenishment, but that’s not what happens here. Jesus faces testing- Is he up to the task of being God’s faithful Son? Is he so intimately connected to his Father, through the Holy Spirit, that the evil one cannot drive a wedge between them? Can he trust in his Father’s love when he faces hunger, silence, even fear? Will he be diverted from the ministry of proclaiming God’s new deal with humanity?
As the leader, so the people, as the saying goes. In Baptism we are signed up for a life of following in Jesus’ footsteps. Our baptism was our commissioning to be God’s light in the world, a kingdom and priests to serve our God and Father. Our lives intertwined with Jesus, drafted in by God to follow Jesus’ lead. This will mean times of great joy, seasons of the most wonderful peace, delight in the closest of relationship that we have with Jesus and his Father, and a deep consciousness of the uplifting presence of the Holy Spirit.
But not all the time. The shadow of the cross falls across our lives. We all know times of suffering, when we wonder if God is with us or not. Many of us have experienced a personal loss so deep that we wonder if there is a way back. We’ve had failures personally or professionally that have been very hard to stomach. Other times we are conscious of Satan, the tempter, trying his best to tear down our trust in God.
Mark doesn’t spend any more time that is needed telling us what took place. He doesn’t dwell on what the temptations consisted of. He does note that “angels ministered to Jesus.” Jesus doesn’t face this challenge alone. God’s messengers bring words of comfort and strength to him. The Holy Spirit, our comforter, comforted him. Recollecting and praying the word of God strengthened him We are never alone in our suffering. Jesus, the one “who suffered when he was tempted, who is able to help those who are being tempted,” watches over us. And while we may be unaware of angels coming to serve us, we know that our brothers and sisters in Christ have our back.
40 days later, Jesus ministry begins, as John the Baptist’s comes to an end when he is arrested. Jesus goes back to Galilee, where he came from. His message is good news. “The kingdom of God has come near.” God is not an absent father, he is up close and personal in his Son, Jesus. And this is the core of the good news: “Repent, and believe the good news,” he says.
Why does Jesus begin with word ‘repent?’ Repentance means a change of heart, a change of direction, the right line. Ask anyone if they are above average driver, and they will say yes. We are afflicted with the same over-inflated sense of our spiritual capacities. We all like the idea that we are in charge, alone in the driver’s seat. Yet we have so much trouble steering ourselves around the track which is our lives. Corners come upon us one after another. We often arrive at them far too fast. We haven’t given enough thought to the choices in front of us. Other times we know the direction that we should steer if we want to continue on course with God, but we lose traction. We start to slide, and before we know we’re on the grass, bogged in the sand-trap, or worse, we’ve clouted the wall. There’s plenty of damage: to us, our pride, our relationships.
God is not blind to our situation. He comes in, not with a word of recrimination but of rescue. “Repent and believe the good news,” The good news is that I forgive you, for the sake of my Son, Jesus Christ. You may have messed up over and over again. You may be close to broken by your continued failures. You may feel unworthy of God’s love. But there is a way back, the only way back, and it means returning to your baptism, remembering the covenant of love that God made with you, a covenant written in the blood of his Son, Jesus. Everything that Jesus has accomplished in his life, death and resurrection is yours: new life, new direction, new oversight, new purpose, new creation.
Living as a disciple has its twists and turns. The road of life can be slippery and dangerous. It can push us to, or beyond our limits. But remember that you are never alone in the driver’s seat. In Jesus you have a Lord and Saviour who knows the course and who knows you intimately. It’s not your skill that matters; it’s his love and grace that finds a way around each and every corner to the finish line.
We didn’t receive ashes at our service on Ash Wednesday. Instead, we handed out these cards: “Remember that you dust, and it dust you shall return.” This is the bad news which we wrestle with all lifelong. But then we hear Jesus’ word, “Repent and believe the good news.” This is not a truth we need to hear only once, but time and again, lap after lap in life. I encouraged those who attended to carry these words with them this Lent. I encourage you to do the same. This Lent listen to Jesus’ word of love and forgiveness. Follow him as he walks to the cross. Learn from his love. Live in his grace. Amen.
17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. 4 Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 3:17-4:6)
I’ve got a good memory for faces, but I’m not so good with names. When I’m greeting people after a service is finished, I often have to say to new people at St John’s: “I know your face, but I can’t remember your name.” People are mostly gracious, thankfully.
When I meet someone for the first time, their name seems to evaporate from my memory the moment it has come from their lips. I have a visual memory, so the best thing I could do is write their name down, but’s not always possible. What I have to do is consciously link their name with something else in order to remember it. It’s only as I meet the person a number of times that their name lodges in my memory. But their face will always stay with me, from the very start.
Names are important, and often have an interesting history to them, but it’s people’s faces that tell the most fascinating story: their age, their mood, a glimpse into their history. Eyes, and faces too, are windows into a person’s soul. Not many of us are inscrutable. Our faces can be read like a book. They speak of the deep things within.
Today the church celebrates the festival of the Transfiguration. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him, up to a high mountain, where his true reality became apparent as Jesus was transfigured, transformed before them. Mark tells us that “Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” And Luke notes that “the appearance of Jesus’ face changed.”
Staring into the face of Jesus, the disciples were shocked. It was the same Jesus, yet he wasn’t the same. The glory of God radiated from his face, his clothes. God’s voice confirmed their suspicions, and their fears too: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” They were stunned, but then, as soon as it began, it was all over. “Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.”
It took the disciples a long time to work out what had happened on that day. If, as they suspected, they had been face to face with God on that mountain top, why then did Jesus take the dead-end journey to Jerusalem, and then to the cross? The glory came and went so quickly, so fleetingly. The hard slog never ended, and in fact, it only got worse. That dark day at Golgotha put paid to any hopes that they might have had about Jesus.
But they were wrong. The face of Jesus, on which was etched the pain of the world, was also the face of God. It was this face, on this dark day, which shone in the darkness with the suffering love of God, even more brightly than it did on the day of Transfiguration. In the light of the resurrection, Jesus disciples saw behind the agony spread across Jesus’ face and understood that this was the fullness of the good news that Jesus had come to proclaim. What looked like meaningless suffering, and abject failure, was the greatest comfort and hope for all people. God wasn’t just to be found on mountaintops, resplendent in glorious white, or in beautiful sunsets, glorious mountain ranges, happy, smiling people enjoying the good things of life. God was also present with those who suffered, who struggled, who ached for the touch of another, who longed for a kind voice or a gesture of love.
In the face of Jesus, the disciples saw that God’s face wasn’t turned away from us in disgust at the mess that we human beings have got ourselves into. Rather, the face of Jesus shows us that God has embraced the totality of our humanity, sin and all, and in doing so, he injected our lives with renewed meaning and hope.
This, Paul says, is the core message that Christians like him have been charged with telling others about. The gospel is the “light that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Paul never talks about God in generic terms. God is the “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is a challenge in a world that doesn’t mind “god” talk but gets distinctly uncomfortable when people get specific about the fact that Jesus is God with a face, God with skin on, God in human form.
I understand why this is confronting. It’s easier to keep God at arms’ length when you picture God as someone remote and disconnected from our lives. That’s how many people in our world today think about God, if they think about God at all. Paul reminds us that “the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of God.” This was true also of God’s covenant people in the Old Testament. “Even to this day when Moses is read,” that is, when they hear God’s law and its demands, “a veil covers their hearts.”
The good news is that we’re not forever groping around in the murky darkness. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” The Holy Spirit is the Great Revealer. What does Martin Luther say in his Small Catechism? “I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and kept me in true faith” The true faith means seeing God’s heart clearly. The Holy Spirit takes the veil away from God’s face. When we expected to see a face set in anger against us for the way we disappoint God, instead we see the face of the Son who God loves, and to whom God calls us to listen.
And this is the grace-filled outcome: “We, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with every increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
We’re no longer in the dark. We know exactly what God is like because we know Jesus: his words and actions, his cross and resurrection, his life within us because we’ve baptised and made part of his body, his constant prayer for us. We know, as Robin Mann wrote in his Christmas blessing that “the eye of God rests on [us], and his ear hears [our] cry.”
Our lives are not only full of God’s presence, but day by day, week by week, God is working on us. It is true, as Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians, that now “we see only a reflection as in a mirror, then we shall see face to face.” People don’t always see the face of Christ through us. Sometimes they see our own self-will, our anger, our dark desires. What can we do then but to look again at the face of Jesus, and see in it the mercy of God?
Maturing Christians look more and more like Jesus, act more and more like him, reflect his face of love, of suffering pain for the sake of the world. Like long-married couples who have come to resemble one another, so too are we being transformed into the image of Christ. We look in the spiritual mirror, and we see Jesus, not our sin and our shame. life purpose was recast. God called him to preach Jesus Christ as Lord. His particular calling continues to shine down through the centuries, as we dwell on Paul’s message about Jesus even today. And his words today confirm God’s call on our lives today. Paul says, “For God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”
Think of a regular day in your life. How many faces do you see? What do you observe in the faces of friend and stranger, spouse, child, and workmate? You may see joy, pain, confusion, hurt, questioning, relief, suffering? Each one of those faces are treasured by the God of heaven of earth, loved by Jesus, God’s transfigured, crucified and risen Son. The call God has placed on us, his people is to reflect his love through faces the care, through eyes that really look and see where others pass by, hands that serve and hearts that are filled with compassion.
The English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, captures what it means to live as the face of Christ:
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
Almost every week as God sends us out from worship, we hear these words: “The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord look upon you with favour and give you peace.” God’s face shines on you. When he looks at your face, he sees the reflection of the face of his Son your Saviour, Jesus Christ. Christ lovely in your limbs, eyes, your face, your words and actions. Amen.
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them. 32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all who were ill and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered at the door, 34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was. 35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: ‘Everyone is looking for you!’ 38 Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’ 39 So he travelled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons. Mark 1:29-39
I can hardly believe its February already. January sped past in a blur. Many of us are well and truly into our year at work. Or if you’ve retired, you may be extremely busy supporting your children and your grandchildren in their busy lives. One day follows another, in an endless cycle, or so it seems.
The American writer Annie Dillard observed: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” So often we find ourselves thinking, hoping to do something other than what we are doing, but the truth is, this day, this work, is what God has given us to do. It may not be the ideal life we had hoped to live, not the sea change or tree change we might want to make when we retire, but today, each day is exactly where God is, beside us, before us, walking into our next moment, our new day.
Today Mark invites us to spend 24 hours with Jesus. It is a day as full as each of our days, without a doubt. And yet, as we travel with Jesus through this day, we will see how Jesus lives it fully in the service both of his Father and of those the Father loves, human beings likeyou and I. Jesus never loses himself and his core identity in this midst of all his activity. We will see how Jesus was true to God’s calling on his life in three different contexts, in the synagogue, in the home, and in the neighbourhood.
Jesus’ day actually began a week ago, that is, in last Sunday’s gospel reading. Jesus and his four newly called disciples, Andrew and Peter, and James and John, have come to the village of Capernaum, on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It’s the Sabbath Day, and Jesus goes to the synagogue to teach.
There he shares God’s will with the gathered community by bringing God’s word in the Old Testament to life. Jesus shocks the congregation with his insight. He doesn’t quote other people’s opinions. What he has to say seems to come from a hotline to God. But his preaching is interrupted by the presence of evil: “Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, ‘‘What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are- the Holy One of God.’ This is only the beginning of the opposition that will confront Jesus through his working life for God. And it’s these manifestations of evil who know exactly who Jesus is, and what’s at stake for them. Jesus is out to snuff out the destructive power of evil.
Jesus knows what to do. He acts with supreme authority, the authority which has been given to him by his Father. He speaks plainly but firmly: “Be quiet…come out of him.” The evil spirit does as Jesus commanded. Jesus doesn’t dwell on the triumph of this moment, or the adulation of the crowd. He moves on, immediately, as Mark is constantly fond of reminding us. There’s more to do in this 24 hours. There’s a world to save.
Next thing we know, Jesus finds himself in the home of Peter’s parents-in-law. There are no crowds, just his closest disciples. Yet even here Jesus must deal with a challenge. Peter’s mother-in-law is sick, burning up with a fever. Jesus, perhaps tired after the morning in the synagogue, could be excused from taking this situation seriously. Yet he doesn’t, and his gentle response is highly significant on two counts.
Firstly, remember that this is the Sabbath Day. The law given to Moses didn’t allow anyone to work on the Sabbath. You may recall Jesus and the Pharisees clashing about whether it was right to heal on the Sabbath. Does healing constitute work? No matter, Jesus says, healing is as much God’s creative work as the original creation, and it brings about the wholeness of God’s presence into the situation.
But even more significant is the fact that Jesus goes to Peter’s mother-in-law and takes her by the hand to help her up. It was a great offence to have physical contact with a woman to whom you were not related, and more so if she was also sick. But without fuss Jesus heals her, and Mark observes that she is “able to serve them.” It’s the same word that Mark uses to describe how the angels came and supported Jesus during his time of temptation. Jesus healing means that she can return the favour, as it were, and show hospitality to her guests.
This happened in private, but the news of both this and the events in the synagogue some hours earlier spread like wildfire. People wait until the time of rest, the Sabbath, is over, and crowds mass around the door of the house. Jesus doesn’t hide inside after his big day. He knows that these people see him as the real deal. He offers them hope. So he steps out the door and goes about his Father’s business again. This working day sets the scene for all the days that follow. Jesus has come to liberate people from the things that bid them, from the way that sickness causes such distress. And casting out demons. This is so much out of the mainstream for us. But the truth is that evil is real, and the evil one seeks to wield his perverse, destructive power, which destroys life and hope. And at times this reality bubbles up to the surface personally, and shockingly. But Jesus shoes that there is good news: Jesus is stronger than any and all evil. This is what he demonstrates late into the night.
Jesus must have grabbed some sleep. But very early, way before the first light of dawn, Jesus has slipped away to pray. He’s gone out into the wild country, thought to be the place where demons dwell, but he has nothing to fear. Instead, in the quiet, he recharges by being with his Father. We know from other gospel writers that this was Jesus’ regular pattern. Battling the evil one is hard work, and Jesus needed the assurance that he was walking in his Father’s will. So he prayed. He listened. He petitioned.
And so another day begins. The disciples tell Jesus what he already knows. “Everyone is looking for you!” They want what you can give. And so it’s time to spread the good news into other needy villages. Time to move on in God’s mission to the world.
So what can we take from a day in the life of Jesus? Perhaps we are astonished at his work ethic. Or amazed that he prayed for hours before the sun rose, after a late night of healing and casting out evil? Both of these are appropriate reactions, but to leave the story there is to risk turning Jesus’ ministry into a pep talk about working harder for God.
Let me suggest that this story is an invitation. Imagine that you are one of the disciples who has walked alongside Jesus these 24 hours. You have seen the power of his words, and the authority with which he confronts evil, and the compassion with which he treats the sick. You’ve seen Jesus in the synagogue, in a home, and in the neighbourhood. The context may be different, but the content is the same. You see this pattern repeated week in and week out, through three arduous yet miraculous years. And finally, you see the supreme example of obedience and compassion, as you see Jesus hanging there. You stand at a distance, because you can’t bear the sight, even more so because you know that you have failed your Lord.
Jesus lived the life we could not. He shared the Father’s love far and wide during his three ministry years, and then deep, in his cross. This day in his life was the one that set our days on a new path. When we were baptised, we received the infusion of Jesus’ holy life. We’ve been transformed so that each new day we wake up to is the time where we serve God.
Jesus’ day began in the synagogue. Our day today begins in this church. We hear again the preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ. We reflect on the undeserved grace of God, in forgiveness of our sins, in the holy meal that Jesus shares. We hear, we receive, we pray. We are emboldened, empowered for our mission. We know that this won’t necessarily be easy. Preaching and living Jesus is to do battle against the evil one. But we do so with the end in mind: Jesus’ cross and his and his victory over sin, death and Satan. From here we go, daily being strengthened through word and prayer…
Into our homes. It’s here that faith first finds traction. In loving interactions between spouses, parents and children. This is the primary laboratory of faith. Here faith is tested by all sorts of adversity: sickness, financial stress, relationship breakdown, grief. Where faith is refined through real lives, in real time. A faith with which we go…
Into our neighbourhoods, our world and all it entails. Our friends and neighbours, colleagues and acquaintances, strangers and enemies. As I read this week: “The fact is, people still get sick. The fact is that our lives are still thwarted by powers over which we seem to have no control.” How much more real this statement seems in the world of COVID-19. And so we go in the name of Jesus, as people who know his healing, as people who experience and understand the pain of the world, as people who know the Lord Jesus Christ, and know that they carry his presence in their very being.
Go…In the name of Christ, as people who know his healing, as people who bring his healing to confront the pain of the world, as people in whom Jesus dwells as be bring him to others. Amen.
10 God saw what the Ninevites did. He saw that they stopped doing what was evil. So he took pity on them. He didn’t destroy them as he had said he would. 4 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong. He became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord. Here is what Jonah said to him. “Lord, isn’t this exactly what I thought would happen when I was still at home? That is what I tried to prevent by running away to Tarshish. I knew that you are gracious. You are tender and kind. You are slow to get angry. You are full of love. You are a God who takes pity on people. You don’t want to destroy them. 3 Lord, take away my life. I’d rather die than live.” 4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5 Jonah had left the city. He had sat down at a place east of it. There he put some branches over his head. He sat in their shade. He waited to see what would happen to the city. 6 Then the Lord God sent a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah. It gave him more shade for his head. It made him more comfortable. Jonah was very happy he had the leafy plant. 7 But before sunrise the next day, God sent a worm. It chewed the plant so much that it dried up. 8 When the sun rose, God sent a burning east wind. The sun beat down on Jonah’s head. It made him very weak. He wanted to die. So he said, “I’d rather die than live.” 9 But God spoke to Jonah. God said, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” “It is,” Jonah said. “In fact, I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” 10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant. But you did not take care of it. You did not make it grow. It grew up in one night and died the next. 11 And shouldn’t I show concern for the great city of Nineveh? It has more than 120,000 people. They can’t tell right from wrong. Nineveh also has a lot of animals.” Jonah 3:10-4:11
Jonah is living every prophet’s dream, but he is experiencing his success as a nightmare. He has delivered God’s message of judgement, and it has worked the wonders of repentance in a people who are as guilty as hell. The destruction of Nineveh has been averted, and the city stands to live another day, in a new and merciful way.
Jesus himself was impressed by what Jonah’s preaching achieved in Nineveh. “The people of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.” Sadly, Jesus was drawing a comparison between what happened in Nineveh, but sadly wasn’t happening in Jerusalem, among God’s chosen people. Instead, their behaviour drove Jesus to tears, as we heard in today’s gospel: “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace-but now it is hidden from your eyes.” And it wasn’t for Jesus’ lack of trying, and John the Baptist before him, and the whole company of prophets before that.
So, what had Jonah been doing while the word of God was doing its saving work? Was he enjoying his moment in the sun, receiving the accolades of a grateful population for saving Nineveh from destruction? Not at all. Jonah was boiling with anger. The situation has turned out exactly as he has feared. God had turned from his fury, but Jonah’s mood had turned to fury. The Hebrew text reads that “It was evil to Jonah, great evil” that God had changed his mind. What a perverse anger this is, precipitated as it was by the love and mercy of God. And what a dangerous anger too, calling something from the hand of God evil. Jonah feels that he has nothing left to lose, and so for the first time he initiates a conversation with God: “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, while I was still at home. This is what I was trying to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
Jonah’s anger has stripped away the thin veneer of his piety, and now he lets God have it. Jonah’s incandescent rage is fueled by his sense of injustice. How could God possibly throw the Ninevites a life line? Jonah’s moral universe demanded punishment for their disobedience. It was more than outrageous that God would show compassion to a nation that had thumbed its collective nose at him.
It’s not that Jonah didn’t know what God is like. He knew the psalms, after all. The words that he threw back in God’s face are found in Psalm 103. God’s people are called to praise him because he forgives all their sins and heals all their diseases, who redeems their life from the pit. God is gracious- God’s compassion is always for those who in need. God is merciful- a word that’s related to the word for ‘womb.’ God exhibits a tender, motherly love. God is slow to anger- unlike Jonah, he doesn’t have a quick temper. God is known for his steadfast love; a love that although sorely tested, shines through. Jonah knows all this. But he simply can’t accept that this love has been shared with the people of Nineveh.
Luther gets to the heart of Jonah's problem. “This is, I think, an odd saint who is angry because of God's mercy for sinners, begrudging them all benefits and wishing them all evil. This militates against the nature of love, which does everything good and wishes everything good even to enemies.”
Or, as Eugene Peterson says: “Jonah's wrong was not in his head but in his heart. It was not a theological error that ignited his heart but a spiritual poverty. There was nothing wrong with Jonah's knowledge of God. But he was unpractical in God's ways…He was inexperienced in God, a stranger in grace. Jonah's sulking disappointment came from a failure of imagination, a failure of heart. He had no idea what God was doing, the largeness of his love and mercy and salvation.”
Jonah sees no future for him in a world that is ruled by a gracious and compassionate God. A God, incidentally, who continues to show these attributes to Jonah no matter how often he is spurned and rebuffed. But Jonah has had enough: “Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” According to Jonah’s logic, death is exactly what he deserves. Playing by his own rules, disobedience and hard heartedness equals death. The final indignity has been having to witness the sparing of Nineveh. Now he can die and be rid of this torment.
But God will not be provoked by Jonah’s ‘pity party’. He butters up yet again. His long-suffering patience is again on display. God challenges Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?” But Jonah refuses to answer this and slinks off to a vantage point overlooking the city. Perhaps he still hopes that this has all been a bad dream, and the whole thing will still go up in smoke. It was hot work, waiting for the city to fry. Remarkably, God thinks of Jonah’s wellbeing. “God appointed a bush and made it come up over Jonah, to save him from his discomfort.” God reaches out, but Jonah utters not a word of thanks. He accepts this gift, not as grace, but as right.
But there’s a method in God’s apparent madness. While his mission to Nineveh has been successful, his mission to Jonah is proving to be much more of a challenge. Jonah’s heart is proving highly resistant to grace, but God gives it yet another crack. “God appointed a worm that attacked the bush” and “prepared a sultry east wind, so that the sun beat down on the head of Jonah.” It didn’t take long for Jonah to rediscover his voice, when his personal discomfort was attacked. Again, he says to God, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” How much more of this self-pity can God take? But what’s certain is that self-concern is priority number one for Jonah.
Yet, once again, God pokes and prods, hoping that Jonah might finally gain some insight into his own blind spots, and become open to God’s mercy. “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”’ Jonah doesn’t evade the question this time. He lets God have it again. “It is,’ he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” In his red mist, Jonah can’t see beyond the end of his nose.
God knows exactly what Jonah is thinking and proceeds to address his complaints. “‘You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left – and also many animals?’”
And that’s it. The end of the book. But it clearly isn’t the end of the story. Will Jonah avoid the question, or will he avoid God and run away from God’s searching gaze? Will he give up another chance to get with God’s program? We will never know. The book leaves us hanging, but in doing so it places us in the frame. How do we respond to God’s question? How do we grapple with the loving concern that God shows for everyone, and everything that he has created?
I have found getting to grips with Jonah hard work. The difficulty lies within me, and not in the book itself. Jonah is each one of us writ large. Jonah is what happens when we allow self-pity and self-interest to shape the way we view the world. Jonah is what happens when a congregation decides to shut the metaphorical doors and concentrate on those within its four walls. Jonah is what happens when a denomination is more interested in guarding and protecting its theology, that it is in releasing the good news on the world.
Jonah is all those things, but thankfully, Jonah is not the hero of his own book. God is, the God who is gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love. The God who didn’t shut his eyes to the people of Nineveh, the God who loves the people of my street, my suburb, my city, who is deeply distressed for those who cannot tell their left from their right, who calls you and I to enlighten them through the good news of his Son, Jesus Christ.
But when you and I act like Jonah did, the good news is that God is still God. God continues to counter our sin with a grace that melts hard hearts, that motivates reluctant wills, and opens closed minds. He chases us back to his purposes through his Holy Spirit, who leads us to repentance, and brings us the undeserved blessing of his Son’s reconciling death conforms us to his Son.
God says to Jonah: ‘Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” We know God’s answer, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” But what’s your answer? Amen.