This Changes Everything
This Changes Everything
January 13, 2019
So, last week, we talked about Epiphany, a specific day in the church’s liturgical year when we remember the wise men. We found surprises: how many wise men were there; what did they do for a living; when did they actually find the Christ-child? The big surprise for the original audience for Matthew’s Gospel would simply have been that a group of foreigners were the original visitors. (No one liked or trusted foreigners, after all!)
The second big surprise—the kind of surprise that audiences always love because they “get it” even when the individuals involved don’t—would have been the gifts. Anyone who has heard about Jesus of Nazareth knows that he could have cared less about wealth but he, as a child, was given gold. Anyone who has heard about Jesus of Nazareth also knows that he died a terrible death. No matter what else you might believe, everyone knew that crucifixion was awful. So, I expect that the audience would have gasped when they saw the burial spices— frankincense and myrrh.
Of course, the epiphany for us may be different. I suggested several things to learn last week. First, God’s calling is more like following a star than being asked to do what we’ve always wanted to do or go where we’ve always wanted to go. God calls us to go where God needs us. We either go or we don’t. And part of what is hard about going is that we are often going to feel like we are veering wildly off course. Second, it is possible, if not likely, that when we follow God’s calling, we will end up looking foolish. People don’t do what we are doing. This is not the way the world works. Our friends and family and total strangers will have no problem pointing this out to us. Finally, what we find when we “arrive” may not be what we expected to find at all and what we have to give may seem like the wrong thing entirely. Again, the wise men weren’t looking forward to arriving at that bungalow in Bethlehem. Could they have fooled themselves into thinking, “Boy, these are some great baby gifts!”
That’s the thing about following God’s calling. It’s all about trust. It’s all about faith. It’s all about letting go of the need to be in control or to have a complete understanding. In the end, we do our part to the best of our ability as servants of God without any expectation that this will somehow make us God.
So we watch and wait and listen. We do the hard work of trusting each day that God is present. Somehow, as we practice the discipline of opening ourselves to that presence, we begin to see “something more” in all sorts of things. Because we are paying attention, we notice the hawk flying on a cloudy winter day and we feel awe. Because we are paying attention, we notice the child who is skipping home from school and we smile, instead of sitting and cursing the stoplight for being out to get us by being red. Because we are paying attention, we actually listen to the person who speaks to us at the store and something powerful and ordinary and human and divine happens, all at the same time. The seeds get planted for the notion that life can be much deeper than we think we we just skip across the surface of our days.
To a certain degree, if we are ever going to discern God’s calling we have to open ourselves to God’s presence on a daily basis. If we have decided that life is too boring or too meaningless or just plain, too awful, then all we will do is look for evidence to confirm our biases. If we are open to awe and wonder and mystery and grace in life, then we may just notice those things more. Looking for the sacred may be what helps tune us to God’s presence.
In our first connection to this morning’s text, I want to point out that the experience of the sacred is not confined to church. Sure, worship, at its best, can help “tune” us to God, too. Here’s a hymn I love. Here’s a sermon that really spoke to me. Here’s the prayer time that reopened me to the needs of others. Here’s a church family that cares. All of that is great! However, there is a whole world of mystery and grace and awe and wonder to discover beyond church walls.
In our text, Jesus is likely to have been about thirty, which was, in that world, relatively old. I assume and trust that in all those growing up years, Jesus experienced the mystery and grace and awe and wonder of this life in all sorts of places: in the bugs that he played with as a child; in sunset after sunset, in love given and love returned with family and friends. In short, I not only believe that God so loved the world that God became part of it. I also believe that almost as soon as God became a part of it, Jesus of Nazareth fell in love with the world, one person and one experience at a time.
Yet, here is the kicker: Jesus fell in love with his town and his people and his life and then he left it all behind. One day, everything changed. He felt God’s calling and left Nazareth and everything familiar behind. I trust that Jesus felt exactly the same mixed bag of feelings that we would feel if we were to do such a thing: sick to our stomachs and excited and afraid and energized, all at the same time. He went anyway. Would we? Here is the truth: if you open yourself to mystery and awe and grace and love then be very careful because you may hear God’s calling to change and grow. God may call you to go, too…
Long before Jesus gets there, John the Baptist is waiting at the River Jordan. You would think with a name like that he must have been some sort of priest, performing some sort of official ritual, right? Religious things in those days were only done in a temple or a synagogue. Those religious things were only done by people whom the authorities had declared could do them. There was a place in this world for God and all things connected to God and that was universally understood to be in the temple in Jerusalem, the holiest of holy places. And yet, none of that is true here which is a completely radical turn of events.
Jesus doesn’t go find a priest. He goes to John, some weird looking, kind of vegan, wild haired, screaming guy. Jesus doesn’t go to the temple. He goes into the wilderness, to a river which would have been considered entirely unclean. In fact, Jesus, if anything, is kind of late to make it to the river. Folks had been showing up at that river to visit John for quite some time.
Again, up to this point, if you wanted to get right with God you went to the temple. In fact, the temple’s main fundraising tool was to sell God’s forgiveness. “If you feel unclean, we can make you clean again. Just pay for this sacrifice!” Forgiveness, and righteousness and salvation and God’s love are always things that it is tempting for the church to feel are their’s to sell. “Just come to the temple! Just make this small donation! Just do what we tell you to do!”
John’s ministry is a fundamental challenge to such fundraising and marketing strategies. If you don’t need the temple and you don’t need a priest to get right with God then the whole religious hierarchy is in trouble. John goes a step further than that, though. He compares the people who come to him to snakes, slithering to get a little water on their skins. (So much for thinking this whole John the Baptist thing was because he was another smooth-talking, flatterer, eh?) John screams at the people that what matters is not the water but their changed lives. (Again, another big marketing problem. Everyone knows you can ask people to do something but then you soothe them and say, “Now…go back to do what you were doing!”) John is not offering a cost-free discipleship.
Instead, John fundamentally challenges not only the temple and the priests but also the fundamental way that people live their lives. The people’s shared assumption has always been that they will be ok because their ancestors were chosen as the chosen ones centuries before by God. John completely discards that notion. The crowd asks, “Then, what are we supposed to do?” In super-specific ways, John tells them that they will have to fundamentally change their choices in life. If you have two coats (which would make you a little wealthy) then give one away. Of course, your free to hoard your two coats but you are not free to do that and pretend that you are on God’s path. If you have more than enough food and you are interested in being on God’s path, then you will share with those who have less You won’t have to. You will want to. If you happen to be a tax collector then you could extort people out of all the money you can, but you won’t—because that’s not how God’s people choose to live. And if you are a soldier? You have all the power you need to shake people down for whatever you want but the weird thing is, you won’t choose to act that way. In short, the mark of a faithful person isn’t how much time you spend at the temple or how much you talk about God. Rather, your faith will be measured by how you treat other people and by how you wield power.
So, the whole authority of the temple and the religious leaders has been challenged. The whole notion that the reason you try to get ahead is so that you can have more than others or so that you can wield your power over others has been undermined, as well. Here is the real mind-blower, though. Jesus shows up. He waits until everyone else has been baptized. (What’s that? What great leader goes last?) Then, when John baptizes him, something powerful and beyond words happens. The Spirit descends upon him like a dove and then a voice speaks: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” Jesus is loved…just for showing up.
It’s not enough to challenge the temple and the authorities. It’s not enough to challenge people to find an entirely different way to live. No…the biggest challenge of all is to imagine this: a God who loves unconditionally, who is with us and for us and calling to us rather than just waiting to judge us and mow us down. In the most radical question of all, Matthew seems to ask us, “Wouldn’t you love to be loved unconditionally by that God, too?”