Monday, January 13, 2020

“The Beginning” - January 5, 2020

Text: Mark 1:1-20
An attorney who specializes in personal injury law was at the grocery store with her 6-year old daughter when a person walked by wearing one of those foam-rubber-collar-brace things. “Look, Mommy,” said the little girl, “There’s a plaintiff.” 

Not many 6-year-olds would look at someone with a neck injury and see a “plaintiff.” But that 6-year-old’s mother specialized in the legal aspects of injuries, and from hearing her mother talk, she had learned to see through that filter. 

A movie begins. A car is traveling at a high rate of speed, driving on the wrong side of the road. There is a curve and the car is approaching a hill. You worry that there will be a violent collision – I mean, you have watched these kind of shows before. Sure enough, just over the hill, there is an oncoming vehicle. But the oncoming car is also driving on the wrong side of the road. The cars pass without incident. You realize the movie is set in England. You had been watching through the filter of American driving. 

We all see through filters of one sort or another. And we rarely see the whole picture. Now, filters can be very useful – we would have a hard time getting by without them. We wear sunglasses so that by filtering out glare and UV light, we can see clearly what we want to see. 

When it is late in a basketball game and it’s a close game, the home crowd behind the basket is waving and screaming and holding up signs and doing all they can to distract the free throw shooter from the visiting team. A really good player will be able to filter out those distractions – for them it’s just like shooting hoops in the driveway. Filters can be very helpful and even necessary. 

But not always. There are filters we don’t even realize we are using, and they can lead us astray. Look at our political conversations – there are such huge filters that people can view the same events, the same issues, and see completely different things. Sometimes what gets filtered out is what is most important for us to see. This morning, with a new year, we are beginning a journey through the gospel of Mark. Mark’s gospel was the very first gospel written. Mark wrote so that people could see clearly who Jesus was. 

The very beginning of Mark is not the story of Jesus’ birth, which we have just celebrated and which we read about in Luke and in Matthew. For Mark, the first thing to know about Jesus is that he was the One who John the Baptist had pointed to. John had set the stage for Jesus. John drew all kinds of people out to the wilderness for baptism – people from the countryside and people from Jerusalem, all coming to confess sins and to repent – to begin a new life. Jesus identifies with all of these people and with John’s movement as he himself comes to John for baptism. 

Who is Jesus? At his baptism, there is a voice from heaven: “You are my son, the beloved: with you I am well pleased.” Mark wants us to see Jesus clearly. 

It is interesting that while this is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, it is not the end of John’s ministry. John continued to preach in the wilderness and gather crowds. He continued his work as a prophet, and it is some time later, during Jesus’ ministry, that John is executed by Herod. 

Why didn’t John immediately become a disciple of Jesus? We don’t know. Maybe he wasn’t asked. Maybe John had his calling, his work to do, and Jesus had his. But John saw himself as a forerunner to Jesus. He said, “One more powerful than me is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and tie his sandals.”

While John understood himself as Jesus’ warm-up act, some of John’s disciples, even after John’s death, had a hard time transferring their allegiance to Jesus. Compared to John, Jesus seemed to them just a pale imitation. Jesus certainly was not as tough on sinners as John was. John kept separate from the evils of society, but Jesus was much too worldly. John was an ascetic – he ate locusts and honey and stayed away from wine, but it seemed like every time you turned around, Jesus was at a party. 

Some of John’s followers continued as a separate community long after he was gone. In fact, there is yet today a small group called the Mandeans who see themselves as the continuing community of followers of John the Baptist. It obviously wasn’t easy for all of John’s followers to become followers of Jesus. 

And even when many of John’s disciples did follow Jesus, even after John was long gone, they were not all necessarily following Jesus so much as they were following that part of Jesus that reminded them of John. “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples. “Some say you are John the Baptist,” they answered. “They say that John’s spirit is in you – when they look at you, they see John.” 

Others looked at Jesus and saw other things. Some saw in him Elijah, a great prophet. Others looked at Jesus and saw a charismatic leader who would overthrow the Romans and bring glory to Jerusalem. It wasn’t just John the Baptist; people saw Jesus through a lot of different filters, a lot of different lenses. 

Now this may all seem a bit remote for us, a mildly interesting Bible lesson perhaps. But this is not just history. This is where we are today. We still see Jesus through various filters. 

Consider Christian survivalists who stockpile food and weapons, so that when disaster comes, they’ll have all they need for themselves -- and all the weapons they need to keep others from getting any of it. How can these folks think that this is what following Jesus is all about? It’s simple. Jesus’ actions and teachings that may run counter to their positions get filtered out. They only hear what they agree with. 

The Ku Klux Klan sees itself as a Christian organization, “bringing a message of hope and deliverance to white Christian America.” Other white Christian nationalists would have similar views. How could they possibly identify themselves as following the way of Jesus? They have a very big filter. 

These may be extreme examples, but before we get too smug, we need to acknowledge that we all see Jesus through filters. The way we see Jesus is colored by our experience and our cultural situation and by what we expect to see. Think of all the paintings of Jesus as a blue-eyed Scandinavian. Historian Stephen Prothero wrote a book called American Jesus, tracing various ways Jesus has been remade in our image in our culture. A cold, severe Puritan Jesus; a kind of effeminate Sweet Savior Jesus seen in a lot of 19th century hymns, a more manly, masculine Jesus of the early 20th century, a countercultural hippie type Jesus, and so forth. 

We see most everything through a certain lens. Paul understood this when he wrote that we “see through a glass dimly.” We don’t see everything. We don’t see clearly. At the very least, we need to have some measure of humility, understanding that we don’t have all the truth or all the answers. 

To varying degrees, Jesus’ life and message gets filtered for all of us. This is one reason we need to continue go back to the scriptures. We need to hear Jesus’ words and see Jesus’ actions again and again, because it is so easy to filter out what we don’t want to hear or don’t expect to see. Simply reading the scriptures is no guarantee that we will see Jesus clearly, but it surely improves our odds. 

Dan Kimball wrote a book a few years back called They Like Jesus But Not The Church. He was writing about millennials. His experience was that millennials are generally very positive about Jesus but by and large negative about the church. In focus groups and interviews, individuals in this age group were asked about their attitudes. Now Kimball himself is fairly conservative, but he is very open about the problems facing the church and the way emerging generations view the church. Common perceptions he found included:
  • The church is mainly concerned about power
  • The church is judgmental, negative, and political
  • The church oppresses women
  • The church is homophobic
  • The church arrogantly thinks all other religions are wrong
  • The church is made up of fundamentalists who take the Bible literally
As it relates to our conversation this morning - about the way Jesus gets filtered - Kimball essentially is saying that a lot of people think the church is presenting Jesus through filters – filters of judgmental attitudes and politics and privilege and power. 

Are all churches like this? Of course not. Is there truth in what Kimball is saying? Of course. And whether any of this is accurate or not, these are perceptions that a lot of people have, and that is something that we have to face up to. But it is interesting that people who would not necessarily self-identify as Christian say that the church is presenting a Jesus that is heavily filtered. 

On the other hand, Kimball found that almost everyone interviewed really liked Jesus. Of course, they were largely viewing Jesus through a mostly popular culture kind of filter, but many of those interviewed had read the Bible and given this a lot of thought. We all have filters, and sometimes these are necessary. But when it comes to Jesus, it is important to see Jesus as, as much as we can, as he really is.

On this first Sunday of the year, we have read the very first words of Mark - the very first gospel written. And right off the bat, those who may have been seeing Jesus through the filter of John the Baptist have their eyes opened. Jesus is the one who is greater than John, yet he identifies with John’s movement and ministry. And then as he comes out of the water the heavens are opened and the Spirit descends like a dove and the voice comes from heaven, “You are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.”
And as Jesus is baptized in the waters of the Jordan, we too have our eyes opened, and we begin to see Jesus more clearly. 

That’s what baptism can do. It tells us who we are. It helps to remove some of the filters we may have about Jesus – and about ourselves. In our own baptism, we are reminded that each of us is a beloved child of God. And we continue down a path of seeing and following Jesus – who is not only greater than John, but greater than our limited vision. As we read through Mark, or at least a good portion of Mark between now and Easter, the goal is to see again, and maybe see anew, who Jesus is.

We can see Jesus through the filter of what we believe is possible and practical and reasonable. But John says, Jesus is far greater, far more powerful than you can imagine.
In the old Wild West, a stranger arriving in town went to the saloon, which he immediately noticed was full of the toughest and meanest looking cowboys he’d ever seen. Tough and fearless himself, he strode in among them, hoisted himself up onto a barstool, and ordered a drink. 

He had hardly had time to take his first sip, however, when a man burst through the saloon doors, obviously in a panic. “Big Red is coming to town!!” he yelled. “Big Red is coming to town!!” On hearing this, the hard-bitten cowboys in the saloon were instantly terrified and ran screaming out the door. 

The stranger thought that was odd, but being genuinely fearless, he remained to finish his drink. About that time, he heard the saloon door swing open again, and turned to see a huge man, 7 feet tall, massively muscled, with long fiery red hair -- on his head, on his face, on his chest, on his arms -- and the meanest most evil face and eyes he had ever seen. And the stranger, who had never known fear, suddenly was very afraid. The floor of the saloon shook as this massive incarnation of evil walked up to the bar ordered a drink and threw it down his throat. 

Still shaking with fear, the formerly fearless stranger could think of only one thing: get on the good side of this monster. So he said to him, “Please allow me to buy you another drink.”

“Another drink??!!” the fellow said. “I ain’t got time for another drink. Ain’t you heard? -- Big Red’s coming to town!!!” 

“After me comes one who is greater,” said John the Baptist. “You think I’m great? Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.” Amen.

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