February 26, 2012

Jesus Came From Nazareth

Passage: Mark 1:9-11

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

In Psalm 25 (4) the Psalmist cries out to God, “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths”!  Would it make you nervous to pray that prayer; do we really want God to make us to know his ways?  Does praying a prayer like this feel a little like the experience of asking your parents for fashion advice?  We are happy that our parents are clothed but would really prefer to figure this out for ourselves.  Does “God’s ways” sound a little bit like “old fashioned”?  (I have a two year old granddaughter who has a very distinctive wardrobe sense and stubbornly refuses advice from anyone.)

As a believer in Jesus I would like to think that I can truthfully cry, along with the Psalmist, “make me to know your ways”; that with sincerity of heart I desire nothing greater than to be “lead by the Lord into his truth.”  But I can still feel those traces of rebellion in my heart: I hesitate, having to wrestle aside those elements of distrust in the goodness of God.  I read the prayer—that is, I can say it—but it is not full-throated.  Perhaps you find yourself, as I, that though you know that Christ is restoring his image in you there remains much restoration work to be done.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent; Lenten practises of Christians have typically been to take up something or set some things aside in order to focus on our walk with Christ.  I think this Psalm contains a prayer appropriate to Lent: “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.  Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.”

1. On Thursday, September 22, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI, one of Germany's native sons, gave an extraordinary address to the "Bundestag", the Lower House of the Nation's Parliament. Pope Benedict XVI is not only a brilliant theologian; he is a man of courage. Some of the lawmakers left the hall before he spoke. Some were simply being rude, others were afraid of the truth. The pope is a man of honor in an age of dishonor.

I admire Pope Benedict’s conviction that what God has to say to us is good for the world; that knowing God’s ways has something helpful to say even for the governance of society.  In his speech he underlined the importance of ecology; “We must listen to the language of nature and we must answer accordingly.”  He went on brilliantly to say: “There is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he listens to his nature, respects it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.”

So often we think of our spiritual practises as merely of personal and private impact or benefit; our cooperation with the Spirit of God to ever reach for the restoration of God’s own image in us is too often thought to be only of individual importance.  The witness of the scripture is that the Christian who lives life with regard to our true human nature—namely that we did not create ourselves—effects the restoration of the world that have been corrupted by sin.  We often fail to reflect on the magnitude of the project God is at work effecting through his people.

The ascension of our Lord witnesses—as John’s revelation declares—that “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord. and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.”  One day the final coming together of heaven and earth, God’s supreme act of new creation—for which the prototype is the resurrection of Jesus—will take place.  In the meantime, the gospel assures us that following Jesus is to build for the kingdom.  What we do in Christ in the present is not wasted; building for the kingdom in this world is not like restoring a great painting that is shortly to be thrown into the fire. You are accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.  As Paul wrote (1 Cor. 15:58): “in the Lord your labour is not in vain.”

Bishop and theologian N.T. Wright put it this way (Surprised By Hope, p. 208):  “Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honoured in the world—all of this will find its way, through the resurrection power of God, into the new creation God will one day make.”

I do not know what all this will look like; but God knows what it will become.  I cannot tell you how your labour in the Lord with find its place in God’s new world but Jesus, in his resurrection power, assures us it will.  Perhaps a way to think of this can be illustrated in the building of a cathedral.  Our call to do what Christ has called us to do is akin to the stone mason assigned the work of carving certain stones; they are for this great cathedral whose plans she has not seen and who dies before the construction is complete.  Our faith is in the builder so we do our work.  It is why I am never ashamed to ask people to offer service for the church; you participate in something so grand you will need eternity to begin to explore.

The prayer, “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths”, can only mean abundant blessing for the supplicant.

2.  Sometimes we pray this prayer as if God has somehow kept his ways, his paths, and his truth hidden.  We read the scripture and want God to have said something else or something more.  Someone once remarked that it wasn’t the passages in the Bible that he didn’t understand that gave him trouble; it was the passages he did understand that gave him problems.  Not only that, we also live in an era where people are highly suspicious of capital “T” truth.  Trust is thought to be personal and individualized—small ‘t” truth is all that we can have.

I invite you to listen again to a sentence from Mark’s gospel; “in those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”  I invite you to now underline the name “Jesus” as you hear this sentence: “in those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee.”  According to the New Testament Jesus is the gospel; Jesus is both the message and messenger.  You can’t have the message without having him as if you could extract some essential core message for spiritual life apart from Jesus himself.  Bibles today come in a variety of translations with aids for reading aimed for various purposes—like the “Student Bible”.  I would suggest that a Bible that underscored the name of Jesus three times in red, with the name in large, bold, italicized font of a colour that used only for his name would be a good way of reminding us that he, Jesus, is the story.

It is important to note that Mark’s gospel—consistent with the other three gospels—does not purport to tell us good news about spirituality.  Mark does not seek to advise people principally on the subject of how to make a difference in the world.  He makes no mention of our human desire to be of significance, to matter, to leave a memorable legacy.  He is not primarily concerned with making us morally better citizens of society.  This in not to disparage these things but it is to say that none of them are the focus of the gospel: Jesus crucified and raised to life is its singular message.  I find that many of our age try to push Jesus into one of these boxes—spirituality, significance, religiosity, making a difference—and in the process we lose him.

Some in our religiously plural world ask us to keep quiet about him; to rather find some common essence that transcends all—religion and those with no religion alike—an essence such as “love” so we can get along with others.  But the gospel understanding of love is lost if we remove it from its greatest display in the cross of Christ.  The Bible witnesses that the answer to the Psalmist prayer to “make me know your ways” and “lead me in your truth” is Jesus Christ who said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

Some people want to say that we have advanced beyond Jesus Christ; that in the course of history Jesus has certainly made an important contribution but that our knowledge of God has moved beyond that or that this Jesus story is but one piece of the puzzle.

Since there can be no advance beyond God (by definition; to suggest anything else is absurd), and since God has incarnated himself in the Nazarene, then the so-called advance of “on-going revelation” or of “adding puzzle pieces” is impossible. When the hymn-writer cries, “What more can he say than to you he has said?”, the only answer possible is “Nothing”.  God can’t ‘say’ anything more than he has said and done in that Nazarene whose life is identical with God’s life. There’s no advance on the conclusive, definitive act of God.

3.  Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John; as he was coming up out of the water the voice from heaven said “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  In the Bible this sentence is only uttered of Jesus.  There is only one who ever fell into this category; it speaks of that mystery of Jesus as fully God and fully human.

God created humans to be his covenant partner in developing his creation into all that it can be.  But humanity has rebelled and in sin has corrupted and destroyed this very creation; both in how we treat one another—humans are God’s creatures—and in how we treat the earth.  God’s remedy to this situation in not to utterly destroy  humanity and begin again; not let humanity in our self-destructive ways utterly put an end to things—as the flood story bears witness.  God’s remedy was Jesus who lived a life of the faithful covenant partner and did so on our behalf; this same Jesus who calls us to follow him in his way.

The point I lift up to you is this; when God calls Jesus “the Beloved” his voice is full of the excitement and delight that at last there is one faithful covenant partner; one human who is living the true fulfillment of humanity; a truly human, human.  It is instructive to note that this is spoken at the beginning of his ministry—before the ministry of preaching and healing; before the cross and resurrection.

God’s delight in him also includes the days of Jesus life prior to this moment.  The days of his work as a carpenter doing the things that care for family life.  In this respect God has blessed all such endeavour—that as we endeavour to care for our lives this is the work of the Lord; it is to be engaged in aspects of what it means to be God’s covenant partner.  Sometimes our work may seem drudgery or there are aspects that feel tedious; according to the gospel in these endeavours of living life we are engaged in something that is way beyond the particulars of the work.  In Jesus Christ God in weaving/constructing a whole new reality through lives lived for him.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’