Change Your Mind
Change Your Mind
February 4, 2018
Do you remember the movie, “Castaway?” We meet Tom Hanks at the beginning of the movie. He’s a FedEx executive whose life is all about delivering things on time…until after a plane crash…he is “delivered” onto a deserted island in the middle of the ocean. He’s got to figure everything out, including the triumphal moment when he builds fire. Eventually, he has a terrible toothache. (He had cancelled a dentist appointment just days before the crash.) He takes an ice skate that he had found in a box that washed up on shore and knocks that tooth out and the screen goes black.
When the screen comes back up, three years have passed. Tom Hanks has lost tons of weight. His hair and his beard are crazy wild. He is lean and tough. He is also expert now at fishing with a spear. Like a blue heron, he perches with deadly grace until his spear explodes into an unknowing crab—which he tears open with his bare hands and eats raw. The wilderness and time have changed this man… He is no longer someone out of his element. He has adapted.
Two weeks ago, before our “State of the Church” Sunday and our annual meeting, we heard the story of Jesus at twelve years old, going to Jerusalem with his parents and friends for the Passover festival, getting lost along the way, and being found, eventually in the temple. The authorities and everyone in the crowd are struck by Jesus questions and answers. Joseph and Mary are angry that Jesus wandered from them. Jesus is astounded that his parents didn’t know exactly where he would be the whole time. And then…everyone heads back to Nazareth, where, we are told, Jesus, “grew in wisdom and in years and in human and divine favor.”
When the screen comes back up on Jesus, we have to assume he has spent a lot of time adapting, too. He probably worked in his father’s profession as a carpenter. He certainly would have had friends and family and a place in the community. All indications are that his family were good faithful Jews. They took him to the temple as a baby, to Jerusalem for Passover as a child. When he appears, early in his ministry at his home synagogue, people know him. At thirty, I think his life was probably pretty normal. At thirty, I have to think that those who knew him who had heard the stories about the prophecies that surrounded his birth and childhood must have shrugged and thought, “Hmmm….turns out he’s one of us after all.”
The person who is really more like the Tom Hanks character from “Castaway,” is John the Baptist. If you read the Gospel of Luke, you learn that John was the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, an elderly couple who had never been able to have a child. One day, Zechariah, a priest, gets the honor of going into the holiest place in the temple to offer an incense sacrifice to God. While he is doing this, an angel speaks to him, telling him that he and Elizabeth are going to have a son and that son is going to help prepare people for the one who would come after him. Zechariah’s response is to point out how old he is and that Elizabeth is no spring chicken either. This doesn’t settle well with the angel! As a result, Zechariah loses the power to speak until the day that his son, John, is born.
Elizabeth is a relative of Mary, the mother of Jesus. When Mary finds out that she is pregnant she is told that Elizabeth is pregnant, as well. Mary goes to Elizabeth and as soon as Elizabeth’s baby hears Mary’s voice, it jumps in her womb. These two women support each other. These two boys seem linked from before they are ever born. There is a shared destiny here.
From birth, they go very different directions. Jesus, like his father, becomes a carpenter. John, like his father, becomes a religious man but on a very different path. Zechariah was a priest. John becomes an itinerant preacher. Zechariah was honored with the chance to go into the most holy of places. John rejected the temple and the priesthood and all the religious practices. The temple was the place where people learned how to become “clean” and righteous. In John’s view, the only way to be clean and righteous was to leave that whole world behind and head into the wilderness. If Jesus immersed himself in the normal life of his world, John rejects that life completely: he dresses differently (in a hair shirt); he eats differently (locusts and honey); he refuses to cut his hair or beard. And, unlike his father who kept his mouth shut for the 9 months before John entered this world, John, seemingly entered the world screaming: “Repent!”
John was not cast away from civilization by some accident. Rather, he left the world behind because there was work to be done. He had to prepare the way for the one who was to come after him. He had to tell people to get ready to change. In Greek, the word that is translated, “Repent,” is the word “metanoia.” You know the world “paranoia.” That literally would mean to have a false mind or false thoughts. “Meta” means “to change.” Literally, what John is calling people to do is change their minds. He is calling them to leave behind everything that they think they know, everything they have been told about how things work, everything that they believe and practice, and get ready to think and feel and act differently. He’s that incredibly strange guy who grabs us by the front of our shirt and screams at us, “Are you ready?” And the super uncomfortable thing that he wants us to do if we are ready is to put our life in his hands and let him ritually drown us in the river.
Now, almost no one would have been comfortable with John. The Roman authorities would have seen him for what he was—in their eyes—a distraction, a religious nut, but also a nut who could draw a crowd. Crowds had potential to become problems. This man must be watched. If John prepared the Romans in any way for what was to come, he gave them a chance to become more vigilant about the minor disturbances that can arise when you are occupying an otherwise meaningless nation.
The religious authorities would have had their antenna raised even before the Romans. After all, their job was to take care of anything or anyone who might be an annoyance to the Romans before it ever made it onto the Roman’s radar screens. For this, they got to run the country. In addition, though, John would have caught their attention because he was exactly the kind of “upstart” who could cost them revenue and the devotion of the people. Anyone who teaches people that you don’t need the temple or the rituals and the sacrifices that the temple offered was a threat. Instead of going to the temple, people were going to John. If John prepared the religious authorities in any way for what was to come, he got them ready to take serious action to protect their “turf.” Sometimes good people had to take action—deadly action—to protect what was worth protecting. These are the authorities would kill John first and then hunt for Jesus.
The crowds would have had any number of reasons to come to see John. You know…if you go out on a busy street and stand there and look up, sooner or later a crowd will gather and try to figure out what you are looking at. A certain number of people are just curious. A hairy guy with honey in his beard and with a locust wing or two stuck in that honey, who screams non-stop about vipers and repentance and change—he’s going to draw a crowd. Add in the people who weren’t all that happy with the temple and the priests and all the expenses. Add in the people who longed for something other than a Roman occupation. Suddenly, you’re assembling quite a crowd. Maybe John prepared these crowds for what was coming: a man who looked and acted a lot more normal but who’s message was even more strange—love your enemy; the kingdom is among you; take up your cross and follow me. If they could learn to listen to someone as strange and even frightening as John, perhaps they could even allow their minds and their hearts and their actions to be changed by the message that Jesus would preach, a message like none they had ever heard before.
John the Baptizer appears in the wild on the banks of the Jordan River. Mark tells us that this is the place where the Good News of Jesus Christ began, just like the prophet Isaiah had predicted centuries before: “Watch closely, I’m sending the preacher ahead of you; He’ll make the road smooth for you. Thunder in the desert! Prepare for God’s arrival! Make the road smooth and straight!” He baptizes people. He changes their lives. He promises the people a God who forgives. In the words of the translation of our text this morning, he cries out, “The real action comes next: the star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life…will change you from the inside out.”
The two men—Jesus and John—who had apparently not crossed paths for some time and who were walking very different paths were about to run, head long, into one another. That encounter would change everything…