What exactly do we mean when we say our purpose is to “advance the kingdom”? I think we are reaching for a way to say we want to participate in God’s kingdom but often I hear what is synonymous with advancing our own interest or organization which, of course, naturally, we believe to be completely in line with and consistent with what God is doing in the world. But it is precisely this presumption that needs tempering.
In the New Testament, one does not “advance” the kingdom of God. As the parable of the sower illustrates.
This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come. (Mark 4:26–29 NIV)
True, the farmer does his part, but as the parable makes clear growth is a rather mysterious affair. And that is the way it always is with the growth or expansion of the God’s kingdom.
The Apostle knew this. In 1 Corinthians Paul explains clearly his role in advancing the kingdom of God:
What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:5–9 NIV)
Thus, the language of participation is more suitable to our role in the Kingdom of God—which after all is God’s domain. In the language of our text, we are God’s fellow workers, God’s partners—not a bad position, mind you. Together we might be said to advance the kingdom of God but truly it is God’s power that has always advanced his kingdom. In a sense, we are along for the ride though with a significant role, but we are not the advancers—the Spirit of God is— and we are more like the rear guard, or to mix metaphors, the harvesters. (Paul liked to mix his metaphors, too).
Ironically—given the way we sometimes speak about advancing the kingdom—the only time that the notion of “advancing” the kingdom appears in Scripture is when Jesus critiques those who seek to lay hold of that kingdom.
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it (βιάζεται καὶ βιασταὶ ἁρπάζουσιν αὐτήν) (Matthew 11:12 NIV)
Here it is the kingdom itself that is advancing forcefully, even violently, and it is violent people seeking to control it.
So if “advancing the kingdom” is a bit of an overshot, is there better language for talking about our relationship to the kingdom of God?
In scripture, the normative way of speaking of our relationship to the kingdom of God is through “entering” and “receiving.” This receiving and entering is to be done in the spirit and disposition of a little child—not a lot of “advancing the kingdom here, just the humble acceptance of God’s gracious move. For entering, see Matt 5:20; 7:21; 18:3; 19:23–24; 21:31; 23:13; Mark 9:47; 10:15, 23–25; Luke 18:17, 24–25; John 3:5; Acts 14:22; 19:8; for receiving, see Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17; Heb 12:28; 2 Pet 1:11.
So the next time you are tempted to say “advance the kingdom of God,” slow down a bit and ask “really?” Is this really what God is up to, or am I co-opting the kingdom to advance my ministry, organization, or mission?
I still hear it, though, by this time we should know better. The word “church” means “the called out,” therefore, based on the root meaning of the word, the church are the called out ones. Actually, no. While I certainly don’t want to take issue with the notion that the church should be those “called out” of the world to live God’s life for the sake of the world, the word church in the NT (ἐκκλησία) does not mean “the called out.”
This a bit like saying our English word “church” means “those belonging to the Lord,” since, after all, the English word church derives from the Greek “kurikos” (κυριακός) which meant “belonging to the Lord.” But few would even make that connection today.
D. A. Carson, years ago in Exegetical Fallacies, called this way of thinking about words, the root fallacy–that is that you can find what a word means by looking at its constituent parts (in this case, ἐκ [out of] + κλῆσις [calling]).
By the time of the first century, the word was the common word for a political or other assembly. The word, in that sense, is not a religious word. Furthermore, the import of the word is not the people had been called out but rather that they have assembled to conduct some business or activity. In one case in the NT, the word refers to a gathered mob (Acts 19:32).
Unfortunately, the often overlooked background of the NT use of the word ἐκκλησία is that the earliest Christians conversant in Greek knew the word from the Greek translation of the OT, the Septuagint (LXX). The word was not a new word for the early Christians but one they heard often with the OT was being read.
The Greek translators of the OT used the word ἐκκλησία as a translation of קָהָל (qahal) and other synonyms, generally translated as congregation or assembly. Consequently, the NT word we translate “church,” is all over the OT, as in Deut 4:10; 9:10; 18:16; 23:2-4, 9; 31:30; Josh 8:35; Judg 20:2; 21:5, 8; 1 Sam 17:47; 19:20; 1 Kings 8:14, 22, 55, 65; 1 Chr 13:2, 4; 28:2, 8; 29:1, 10, 20; 2 Chr 1:3, 5; 6:3, 12-13; 7:8; 10:3; 20:5, 14; 23:3; 28:14; 29:23, 28, 31-32; 30:2, 4, 13, 17, 23-25; Ezra 2:64; 10:1, 8, 12, 14; Neh 5:7, 13; 7:66; 8:2, 17; 13:1; Judith 6:16, 21; 7:29; 14:6; 1 Mac 2:56; 3:13; 4:59; 5:16; 14:19; Psa 21:23, 26; 25:5, 12; 34:18; 39:10; 67:27; 88:6; 106:32; 149:1; Prov 5:14; Job 30:28; Sir 15:5; 21:17; 23:24; 24:2; 26:5; 31:11; 33:19; 38:33; 39:10; 44:15; 46:7; 50:13, 20; Sol 10:6; Mic 2:5; Joel 2:16; Lam 1:10.
So better than thinking of the church as the “called out ones,” a more biblical approach would be seeing the church as the continuation of the story of God from the OT. When the early Christians heard the word ἐκκλησία, they were more likely to hear a reference to God’s gathered people.
Reflections on the Gospel Lectionary Reading for March 15, 2015: John 3:14-21
The United States became “officially” biblically illiterate on January 9, 2009. The day before, Tim Tebow had “John” written in white on his eye-black under his right eye and 3:16 under his left eye in the OU vs. FL football game. Tebow made a name for himself by his outward religious expressions at sporting events.
However, the amazing thing that happened the next day was that “John 3:16” was the top search on Google search. The top five searches on January 9, 2009 were
1. John 3 16
2. Mary Lynn Rajskub
3. Windows 7 beta download
4. All inclusive vacations
5. Ana Ortiz
In other words, people no longer knew the once most-memorized text of the Bible. If people knew nothing else about the Bible, they would often know “For God so loved the world . . .”
Equally disturbing, to me at least, is that guy who held up the John 3:16 banner at all those NFL games over the years had been utterly unsuccessful.
The Gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday includes this once well-known text. Beginning in John 3:14, our text reads,
… And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
When we read John 3:16 in its larger context we see that God is not the only one who “loves” in our text. People are said to love, too. Embedded in this text is a call to respond to God’s love.
“Who said what?” is a bit of a problem in this text. Since ancient manuscripts of the NT had no real equivalent to quotation marks, scholars have argued over where Jesus ends his conversation with Nicodemus and where John begins his commentary. I’m among those who think Jesus finishes at v. 15 and that v. 16 begins John’s comments. This probably does not change how we read the text much, but in the spirit of full disclosure that is how I’m reading it. If you are interested in this issues, you can consult the commentaries on it or let me know, and I will send you the information.
However one resolves who said what, the content of v. 15 sets the context for hearing the whole text and it is important for hearing that text.
In a rather strange analogy, Jesus compares the “Son of Man,” referring to himself, to the serpent that Moses placed on a pole and lifted up (ὑψόω) in the wilderness. Of course, the story about Moses and the snake is also rather strange, and unexpected, given the association of the serpent with temptation in the creation narrative. The story is told in a few verses in the book of Numbers:
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. (Numbers 21:4–9 NRSV)
Discounting the idolatrous nature of the bronze serpent (and that it violates the second commandment), Jesus analogy rests on one point: just as the serpent was lifted up, so the Son of Man will be lifted up. A second point might be that those who looked at the serpent would live and those who believe in the Son of Man will have eternal life.
But back to the first thought, the notion of “being lifted” has something a double meaning in John’s writing. For Jesus to be “lifted up” could as easily mean to be exalted or to be crucified. John may want his readers to linger a bit on both and perhaps feel the interplay between the two.
So as we turn the corner into John 3:16, the “exalted” Son of Man is still echoing in our heads. We are now prepared to hear that God’s love for the world will cost God dearly: God gave, God sent. Vv. 16, 17, and 18 all move in the same direction. God gave his Son so that those who believe may have eternal life; God sent his Son so that the world might be save through him; those who believe are not condemn. God’s intent is that his creatures will live!
However, there is another side to the equation: “those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” What caught my attention here is that John announces that those who do not believe are “condemned already” (κέκριται; perfect/completed tense in Greek of κρίνω, I judge). Clearly, John has certain people or group of people in mind. He has already mentioned those who believe so he does not believe all people are under consideration here. Rather these who do not believe are those who have encountered Jesus but chose not believe, or in John’s language, closed their eyes to the light of God. This only makes sense if you believe that Jesus is God’s representative, or as the text says, God’s Son. If that is true, then ignoring Jesus is rejecting the God of creation.
In fact, as God so loved the world, such people loved darkness rather than the light. And that, it seems to me, is the fulcrum of this text. God loved the world so much that he sent his Son as “light,” but those who love darkness will not see the Light.
The question of the text becomes, “Do you want to see? Well, do you?
Reflections on the Lectionary Gospel Reading for Feb 8, 2015: Mark 1:29-39
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Unlike what scholars once thought about Mark’s arrangement of materials, Mark is actually highly organized as the following outline illustrates for Mark 1:16–2:14.
1.16-20 Jesus Calls the Four Fishermen
1.21-28 Jesus Heals a Demon-Possessed Man
1.29-32 Jesus Heals Peter’s Mother-in-Law
1.32-34 Summary of Jesus’s Healings
1.35-39 JESUS PRAYS, IDENTIFIES HIS MISSION: TO PREACH
1.40-45 Jesus Heals a Leper
2.1-12 Jesus Heals the Paralytic
2.13, 14 Jesus Calls Levi
Verses 35–39 is what I call a centerpiece text. Notice that at each extreme we have the calling of disciples, the calling of the four fishers and the calling of Levi. Between these calling stories, we have a series of healing stories, balanced with two on each side of the centerpiece. The centerpiece texts serve to orient the texts around them. One could get the impression without the centerpiece that Jesus was primary a healer, a miracle worker. However, with the centerpiece, we are pushed to see that Jesus was up to something more, something deeper.
In the text selected above, the first paragraph tells the story of Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law. Once healed, she “ministers to” or “serves” them. In Mark’s use of minister/serve words (διακονέω and related words) more may be implied than just she went about her domestic duties. This notion first occurs earlier when throughout the temptation of Jesus, angels “were serving” him. The comment about serving occurs as the final thought in each story. That angels and Peter’s mother-in-law both participate in the act of service suggesting that service is highly valued in the Kingdom of God. This becomes clearer in Mark 10:43–45, where Jesus makes “service” a prominent trait of what it means to be his disciple.
… but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
A summary statement of Jesus’ ministry follows this story. Another will occur in Mark 3:7–12. These summaries allow Mark to compress the story, yet fill it out. This compression allows him to keep the story moving at breakneck speed.
At the end of this paragraph Mark notes that Jesus “would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.” Rather than being some kind of Messianic Secret motif, as earlier scholars theorized, Mark is cleverly showing that those from the “other world” clearly know who Jesus is. On the other hand, throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ own disciples seem not to know him at all. In his literary strategy, then, Mark is asking his readers if they know who Jesus is.
In the centerpiece text (vv.35–39), Mark carefully paints the scene: very early, still dark, deserted place, Jesus prays. This all sounds a bit like the ending of the story. Very early in the morning the women came to the tomb. And it is very dark when Jesus prayed in the Garden alone.
When Simon and the others find Jesus, they say,
Everyone is searching for you.
To which Jesus gives the unexpected reply,
Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do
Simon and the others supposed their need should set the agenda for Jesus’ ministry. However, Jesus’ kingdom vision was much bigger than their desires. This is not unlike what we find in churches today. Too easily churches become organizations that consume energy, talent, and finance for their own self-preservation. Jesus, rather, has an outward focus. Who else might benefit from the presence of the kingdom of God?
More central to this text, though, is that Jesus makes a purpose statement: I have come to proclaim the message! Though this centerpiece text is surround by miraculous healing stories, this text focuses Jesus’ central ministry task: preaching. More important than the healings is the Message. Jesus states clearly that he came to preach! It is in the message that the power of God is released. Said another way, the story of Jesus has the power to change lives. The story of Jesus is what invites us to participate in the kingdom of God.
Our text closes with a comment on how Jesus moved forward. He continued to do powerful works showing that the kingdom was here, but Mark notes that Jesus did what he said he came to do: proclaim the message.
As we seek to do good in the name of Jesus, let us to remember the centrality of proclaiming the message and not be afraid to do it somewhere else.
Lectionary Gospel Text for Jan 25, 2015: Mark 1:14-20
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
The hand-off is made: with John’s arrest the ministry of Jesus begins in earnest.
In his Gospel, Mark often gives very short summaries of the ministry of Jesus and here he summarizes the preaching of Jesus in short snippets:
The time is fulfilled!
The kingdom of God is near!
Believe in the Good News!
By this point in the story, Mark has made it clear that the story of Jesus belongs to a much older story. He has cited a few OT passages to root Jesus in that much older story. In the final two verses of Mark’s introduction (vv. 14 and 15 above), Jesus announces an climax in that old story. The Time is Now! The old story has come a turning point, something new, yet old, is at hand. The long awaited arrival of God’s kingdom is here in the presence of Jesus of Nazareth. Yet, as Mark shows us later, only those with ears to hear and eyes to see will perceive the coming kingdom.
Most who heard this talk of the Kingdom of God would hear Jesus calling for revolt against the Romans and new period of prosperity for the Jewish nation, like under the Maccabees or, better yet, like under Solomon. In short, for contemporary ears, announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God was nothing short of announcing the rise of a renewed independent and sovereign nation of Israel. However…
As the Gospel of Mark will play out, Jesus is up to a very different kind of revolution. This kind begins with the stinging call to “repent!” Normally we think of “believing” as coming before repenting, but I think Mark has his order right. One must repent before one can deeply believe the Gospel. When we remember that “believe” in the the NT is better translated “trust” sometimes, this order, repent first, and trust second, makes great sense. One must turn, or at least want to turn, before one can see or hear the Good News.
Mark next tells us the story about how Jesus called his first disciples. In a way, the story illustrates the type of response Jesus sought in announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God with its attendant call to repent and believe.
Whatever prior history Jesus had with these fishermen, Mark decided not to tell us that information. The impression made is that Jesus walks by, calls them to follow him, and they do … immediately! And this seems to be the perception Mark is evoking. The call to discipleship is decisive, immediate, and costly.
The answer to the call requires a full body type of response to Jesus. One is either for him or against him, as Jesus will say in another place. But the call is not for the sake of self-improvement, self-aggrandizement, or self-promotion. Instead the call is to be of service to others. In the story of the call of the fishermen, fishers of fish become fishers of people. Disciples become conduits through which others become disciples.
But to become a disciple of Jesus is costly. It means leaving things behind–always–or it is not following Jesus. Simon and Andrew were casting a net into the sea when Jesus came upon them. They leave the net!
The other brothers, James and John, were mending their nets when Jesus came upon them. They leave their net-mending where they are. Yet they leave much more, they leave their father and his fishing business. In leaving, the disciples embody what Jesus will explain later:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? (Mark 8:34–37 NRSV)
So for us who resist leaving things behind for the sake of the Kingdom of God, hear again the call of the Gospel
The time is fulfilled!
The kingdom of God is near!
Believe in the Good News!
Gospel Text for Jan 11, 2015 (The Baptism of Our Lord): Mark 1:9–11
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
This reflection follows closely on the last one, “Then Came John,” where the text above was placed in the larger context of Mark’s introduction (1:1–15). Here I showed that the larger context has a loose chiastic (descending and ascending) rhythm or flow. This rhythm might be framed :
Gospel > Desert > Baptism > Holy Spirit > Baptism > Desert > Gospel
On one side of Holy Spirit is John’s story and on the other Jesus’. The last post treated John. This post will focus on the baptism of Jesus. Mark used John to introduce Jesus and I doubt that John would have disagreed.
Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus is short and sweet, but heavily packed. Certainly more than meets the eye is going on in this text so I would like to point out of few of these items.
One might miss the echo from the Old Testament (OT) in modern translations with “in those days,” which the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible captured in it’s more literal and fuller sense, “And it came to pass in those days…” The KJV uses this phrase 396 times to communicate that something’s about to happen! Additionally, by using this way of speaking, Mark continued the much larger story that started in the OT. Mark pick up this story earlier with “as it is written in Isaiah the prophet.”
And so it came to pass…
While John appeared in the desert (Mark 1:4), Jesus came from Nazareth. Mark seems to make nothing of Jesus coming from Nazareth here. Perhaps he expected his earliest hearer to get the import. Jesus came from a no-place. Percy Walker once called Covington, Louisiana where he spent his last years as a no-place, that is, when compared to nearby New Orleans. New Orleans was, for Walker, a real place. In the same way, in Jesus’ world, Nazareth was a no-place. Jerusalem was a real place. Yet, the careful listener will note that up to this point in Mark’s story, Jerusalem is only mentioned in reference to people come from there to be baptized by John. The real action takes place in the desert, a non-place, a desert-ed place. In contrast, Jesus will be baptized in a named place, the Jordan river, a very significant place in the story of ancient Israel who cross the Jordan when they entered the Promise Land. One might say, “where it all began.” As if Mark envisions Jesus as marking a new exodus.
I believe that Mark’s passive construction, “and he was baptized by John,” intentionally echos the earlier text where all the people (also) came to John and “and they were baptized by him.” It’s subtle, but in a way, Mark is saying Jesus is one of the people, he’s one of us. Again, Mark’s way of telling the story does not spell things out but rather he leaves these connections for the listener to make.
After baptizing Jesus, John must have thought, “What just happened?” The other gospels find the lack of an explanation unbearable and so Matthew and Luke provide more story, but not Mark. Mark allows the narrative to explain what happened.
As Jesus arose out of the water, he saw the heavens ripped open (σχίζω). That Mark seeks to suggest contact with or access to God become clear at the end of his story when Jesus died on the cross, the veil of the temple was also ripped open (Mark 15:38). It’s the only times he uses the word “ripped open,” and both contexts implies open access to God. More pointedly, God showed up.
Mark is not overly concerned as later Christians would be about Trinitarian nuances. He is more than willing to speak of Jesus as if he is God (see v. 3 where the text refers to YHWH in the original OT context), but here Jesus stands with humanity. Now that access to heaven is open, the Spirit of God as a dove descends on him. Nice word play here. As Jesus arose (ἀναβαίνω), the spirit descended (καταβαίνω). In this way, Jesus himself is baptized in the Spirit or Presence of God, though John earlier in the text had predicted that he would be the one that would baptize the people in the Holy Spirit. But first things first.
Out of thin air came the voice, the Word of God: “You are my son, the beloved, in whom I delight.” However, these words are not original with this event. Again, our clues for understanding the deeper significance of these words is the OT. In same way that the earlier citation of the OT was a composite of Exodus, Isaiah, and Malachi, God’s commendation of Jesus is a blending of Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1.
“I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you” (Psalms 2:7 NRSV).
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him…” (Isaiah 42:1 NRSV).
The Psalms text is a coronation psalm celebrating the enthronement of a new king. On that day the new king was declared to be God’s son. In a similar way, baptism marks a new relationship with God. Additionally baptism is often presented in the bible as a new beginning, even, new birth. Here at the start of Jesus’ ministry, the two are brought together: new birth, new beginning. From another angle, it marks that God is doing something new in the baptized.
In the text from Isaiah, the messiah is portrayed as a suffering servant. This one is chosen (beloved?) and upheld or sustained by God. God is pleased with his servant and has put his Spirit on him. This text fits well the story Mark is telling.
However, tension remains between these two visions of God’s messiah. In the Psalms text, the messiah is a conquering warlord who will make the world right by force, but in Isaiah, the suffering servant wouldn’t hurt a flea, wouldn’t even bend a reed in the wind.
So what just happened? Through baptism, Jesus has been invited to struggle through two competing images of what it means to be the Messiah. Is the Messiah a conquering king or a suffering servant? Which one would ultimately be the way of God for him?
Mark’s gospel invites use to struggle with the same dynamic. Which one will ultimately be the way of God for us?
Lectionary Gospel Text for Jan 11, 2015: Mark 1:4-11
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Mark 1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The rhythm of the larger context (Mark 1:1–15) of this text on John the Baptist is
Gospel > Desert > Baptism > Holy Spirit > Baptism > Desert > Gospel
The centerpiece of the text is the Holy Spirit and though Mark rarely says another thing about the Holy Spirit in his Gospel, he begins he Gospel with the confirmation that Jesus is not only baptized (immersed) in the Holy Spirit but, more so, Jesus is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Later in this context, Jesus is the one who is “cast out” by the Holy Spirit into the second desert of our text.
On one side of Holy Spirit is John and on the other Jesus. And though Jesus is certainly more important, John gets some attention in the text. Later in chapter five of the Gospel, Mark gives an extended account of John’s martyrdom but that story belongs to another time.
Back to our text. The NRSV quoted above states that John “appeared.” Not a bad way to translate the Greek “came” or “became” (ἐγένετο). In literary terms, Johns arrival is not unanticipated. Mark had previously quoted a blended text from Isaiah, Exodus, and Malachi to prepare the reader/listener for the one who would herald the way of the Lord as the voice in the wilderness (desert). Then John came in the wilderness . . . to prepare the way of the Lord.
John’s clothing and life style mark him out to be a prophet, or at least, someone claiming to be a prophet. He wore the same clothing that the ancient prophet Elijah had (2 Kings 1:8) and like prophets of old, he depended on what God provided for his food, locust and wild honey. But more exceptional than this clothing was his message.
From the beginning John preached that what God was doing was not about him. It was instead about the one that would come later. That one would be more powerful and so prestigious that John saw himself as unworthy even to be the slave that would remove his master’s sandals.
Yet the central contrast between John and the one to come was that John came baptizing people for the forgiveness of the sins in water–not an unimportant job, to be sure. His job description was clear: prepare the way of the Lord. His task was to get the people ready for the one to come. And this he did. However, he notes, that the one to come would do more than baptize the people in water as John had done, the one to come would baptize them in/with/by (the Greek can do all these, so pick one) the Holy Spirit. Through this one to come the people would experience the very presence of God in deep ways. They would be plunged into the Holy Spirit
Just before John leaves our text he has one more job to do. He baptizes Jesus. Even after that, I’m sure John would still say he was unworthy of such an honor.
John then is a model for our ministry today. Our job remains pointing to the one who was to come and the one who came.
John did his work, then came Jesus.
We do our work in the hope that Jesus will come again, now and for the last time.
Lectionary Gospel Text for Jan 18, 2015: John 1:43-51
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
John in his Gospel tells some stories we don’t get from the other Gospels. In this unique story, we hear of Jesus calling Nathanael. It’s a great story about how Jesus first called Philip and Philip could not keep Jesus to himself. The story moves like this: Jesus found Philip > Philip found Nathanael > We have found him! (The word “find” occurs five times in John 1:41, 43, and 45).
In addition to this movement of finding, the dynamic dialogue moves the story along. The first words are Jesus’.
Jesus (to Philip): Follow me.
Philip: We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.
Nathanael: Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
Philip: Come and see.
Jesus: Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!
Nathanael: Where did you get to know me?
Jesus: I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.
Nathanael: Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!
Earlier in the first chapter of his good news, the author has sought to clarify for his hearers the identity of Jesus. John’s view of Jesus is very high: He was God (1:1); he became Human (1:14). He is the Lamb of God (1:36) and the Son of God (1:43). John is clear from the beginning that he is a believer. Throughout his story, consequently, John seeks to help us experience our own self-discovery of Jesus; in short, he seeks to help us find Jesus.
However, the flip side of us finding Jesus is that Jesus is also seeking us. In the story prior to this one, Jesus found Philip, who in our story, now finds Nathanael. Philip exclaims, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Philip is certain that Jesus is the one that Moses promised. Almost certainly Philip has in mind Deuteronomy 18:15
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.
But not just Moses, according to Philip, but also the prophets spoke of this Jesus, this son of Joseph, this one from Nazareth. Philip does not tell us which prophetic texts he is recalling, but they may have well included this text:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (Isaiah 42:1–4 NRSV)
Many other texts could have informed Philip’s view of the coming Messiah—yet there is no doubt that he believed that all of these texts pointed to the very man that he had found.
When Jesus encountered Nathanael, he declared Nathanael to be a good man. Nathanael wanted to know how Jesus knew him. To this, Jesus responded that he had as seen Nathanael when Philip called him, that is, while Nathanael was sitting under a fig tree. While John does not spell out how this “knowing” took place—was it a miracle, insight on the part of Jesus, etc.?—One aspect is clear before Nathanael found Jesus, Jesus had already found Nathanael. That Nathanael understood that Jesus had actually found him first is implicit in his response,
Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!
For those of us who believe, it is deeply humbling to remember that God found us first.
Working among the Disciples of Christ now for past two years has given me a greater appreciation for the liturgical calendar. Having grown up among those who “judge all days to be alike,” it has been enlightening to work with those who “judge one day to be better than another.”
Yesterday was one of those “better days.” It was Pentecost and so I found myself thinking more about the meaning of that special day. And preaching on it only made me think even more about its meaning.
Several things “coincided” to open my ears and eyes to a deeper reading of the Pentecost story. First, on Saturday, I led our monthly Re-Reading Scripture study which “happened” to be on Joel. Second, of course, was that the following day, Pentecost. Thirdly, Pentecost as a theological reference point has always been important regardless of which side of the holy day divide you find yourself. It is the church’s birthday, so it should be important to every Christian. Finally, the egalitarian ring of Joel’s prophecy was louder for me this time than it had been before. Thus, I was drawn to Peter’s use of Joel 2.28 and following:
28 Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit…
32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved…
Even though “all flesh” should be clear enough that Joel intends to include all humanity, this prophecy from Joel seems intent on clarifying how inclusive it seeks to be.
All flesh includes both men and women. The notion that the Spirit of God would come to both men and women in the OT was a novel concept. I can’t think of a single time in the OT where God’s spirit is said to come to a woman, though there are clearly several notable “Spirit-led” women in the Old Testament. Moreover, it was even a rare man who had God’s Spirit come upon him and then often for a limited time to get a certain job done. Once the Spirit came upon seventy elders at one time, but generally it was on this man or that man. So what Joel is predicting is quite unprecedented in the Old Testament and remained so to the time of Jesus. Luke, who wrote Acts, saw this being fulfilled in the early church and will often point out to readers where women are participants, patrons, or even prophets. Unfortunately some in the church still denies the full meaning of Pentecost.
All flesh includes the young and the old. In our culture, it is a good thing to be young; in ancient culture and non-western cultures, it is a good thing to be old. However, in light of the ancient culture where age was valued, the young could be devalued. Regardless of which culture one is in, this text suggest that God has a use for both the young and the old. One of the tragedies of our time is the disintegration of generational connectedness. This brokenness is often brought into the life of the church and we find churches offering contemporary vs. traditional services. We all know what this means. Young people this way; old people that way. I find this part of Joel’s prophecy challenging to the way we sometimes go about ministry to the old and the young. The “need” for multiple services may underlie a deeper fissure: that we have missed the meaning of Pentecost. I once heard Marva Dawn say something like this: “When we can’t sing each others songs, what does it say about us?”
All flesh includes both the free and the oppressed. One might think that gender is the hot-button issue raised by Joel’s prophecy and for some it is the only Gospel. However, this one should perhaps convict us more than the others. Back in 1929 Richard Niebuhr wrote an insightful study called “The Social Sources of Denominationalism.” When I first read it, I was floored. Niebuhr argued successfully that denominations represented the social class system of the lively experiment called America. Could it be then that our churches today still separate those who are free (read: rich) from those who are poor (read: oppressed). It is not hard to document that this is the case and I have been in way too many if-we-could-just-get-so-and-so-as-a-member and we-need-to-get-the-right-kind-of-members conversations than I care to admit. All this talk misses the grand vision that God gave Joel and then Peter: I will pour out my spirit on ALL flesh.
May we always accept those on whom God has poured out his spirit, regardless of gender, age, or social status. May we all get the Spirit of Pentecost!