Pentecost is Pentecost. There are tongues of fire. The Holy Spirit is no longer a transient visitor. Jesus’ promise appears to be finally fulfilled. As with our yearly Christmas texts and Easter texts, Acts 2:1-21 comes right on schedule. Unlike the disciples, no matter how often we proclaim ourselves to be a Pentecost people; we are never taken by surprise. We know what we’re getting on Pentecost morning. Peter and the eleven are mistaken for a group of bumbling, drunken Galilean fishermen, who play a little fast and loose with a Joel quote from the Septuagint, and end up speaking something that sounds like Latin to the Romans, Greek to the Cretans, and Arabic to the Arabians. That’s Pentecost for Methodists. No surprises. No windows are broken, no tongues of fire are seen, and none of us will be confused for drunken fishermen. Pentecost, like every other Sunday, will be an orderly affair with red paraments, red flowers on the altar, and who knows, I might even wear a red stole. Our Pentecost will be nothing like the first Pentecost, and that, my friends, will be our loss. If we need anything, we need some of the unstructured spirit-driven informality.
Paul also writes at length about the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in his first letter to the church at Corinth. Unlike the day of Pentecost, where the crowd only assumed Peter was high on hooch, people showed up to the Eucharist drunk in Corinth (1 Corinthians 11: 20-22). Paul wanted to refocus the Corinthians’ attention on the Holy Spirit, not the consumable, alcoholic spirits. He segues from talking about people being carried out of church because they’re too drunk to walk to make this statement: “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” He’s about to launch into an extended discussion as to how the spirit equips people with different gifts for ministry. Paul wants everyone to know we’re all not gifted to play quarterback. Somebody has to be the water boy, someone is the coach, while others are on the sidelines drawing up plays or cheering on the team. Everyone has a unique role to play as defined by the spirit. We get that part. That may be the easiest part of any of Paul’s letters to grasp. We’ve known this idea since we were kids in little league. I’m more interested in that first sentence; we cannot proclaim Jesus as Lord except by the Holy Spirit. What does he mean?
We can say, “Jesus is Lord” as easily as we make any offhand comment about anything or anyone. We can say it three times fast, repeat it like a mantra or prayer, shout it out loud, or whisper it under our breath. Paul seems to indicate this confession of faith means little unless it’s done in the right spirit, with the right focus, and directed toward the right priority. That’s where the gift of the Holy Spirit comes in. Unlike the flash-bang Hollywood special effects we read about in Acts 2, Paul paints a more subdued but equally important image of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12. The Spirit is that which gives our confession meaning, direction, and priority. Without the Spirit, “Jesus is Lord” are three words. On Pentecost the Holy Spirit does more than enliven our worship. The Spirit points us where, when, how, and with whom to serve. With the Spirit, we are directed outward from our safe spaces toward sometimes uncomfortable places of service, helped to prioritize how, when, and where to build the kingdom of God on Earth and create meaning in a world that thrives on meaninglessness. Our sermon need not be long. We only need three words but we must have the Holy Spirit to connect God’s vision with God’s people.
There are two types of doubts. First, you can doubt an idea or concept. You can also doubt a person. Sometimes it can seem like you’re doing both, but if you think about it, it’s one or the other or most of one than the other. This is story is more the latter.
You know the drill. Every year after Easter, we preach about doubting Thomas, or so he has been labeled. We pick up later on Easter day, and Jesus appears to the 10. Thomas is out. For whatever reason, he’s not there. I’ll suggest a few in a moment but hold that thought. When Thomas returns, the 10 tell him the good news, Jesus appeared to them. Thomas doesn’t believe them. He’s grieving; he’s hurt; he’s angry he missed Jesus. You can imagine his emotions. He wants to see Jesus for himself. He says he won’t believe Jesus is alive until he touches his wounds personally. The next day, Thomas is in the house; Jesus drops in, Thomas feels the hands, and Jesus asks the famous question, “Why did you doubt?” Next thing you know, this guy who’s been by Jesus’ side busting his butt for three years as a disciple is labeled with the handle “Doubting Thomas.” I don’t like it. It stinks to high heaven. You ask one question, and you’re marked for all human history. Really, what gives?
I’m tired of people picking on Thomas. I don’t like bullies and think most churches have bullied Thomas throughout time. It’s easy for all of us to gather here once a year, all high and mighty, and call a man we’ve never met, who died two thousand years ago, a doubter based on one sentence in the Bible. How would you like it if someone was calling you by an adjective you didn’t earn or deserve two thousand years from now, and you weren’t here to defend yourself? It wouldn’t be fair, now would it? What kind of courage or theology does it take to attack a man we’ve never met who’s been dead two thousand years and can’t defend himself? I’ll answer that: hollow courage and bad theology.
Let’s get this straight. Thomas is not a doubter. He is a person who shares his expectations. Earlier in John’s gospel, we’re told he was the first to volunteer to go to Jerusalem after the resurrection with Lazarus, even if that meant certain death. That means he was courageous. He was a guy you wanted on your team. He was the first guy to respond to the active shooter situation. That’s the kind of guy Thomas was. If you needed backup, he had Jesus’ back. Does that sound like a doubter? Maybe, just maybe, we’re confusing grief with doubt. God help us if we’re doing that.
Thomas is a person who asks good, hard questions. Unfortunately, we forget it’s okay for religious people to ask good, hard questions about themselves and their faith. You’re not going to hell for asking questions. On the contrary, you’ll become better able to defend your faith; the more questions you ask, the better informed and knowledgeable you become. In fact, why aren’t we more like Thomas? Why don’t we ask more questions instead of accepting everything a Sunday School teacher or preacher tells us at face value? Let’s dialogue!
We’ve created a stigma around asking questions in church. If you ask a religious question, you must be weak in your faith, have moral problems, or are uncertain about God, Jesus, the Bible, or basic religious concepts. Something must be wrong with you. Nothing could be farther from the truth! So why don’t we ask more questions? I can think of three primary reasons.
First, we need to remember to. We forget that we can ask questions or neglect to ask outright. As I said earlier, we’re conditioned by the church not to ask questions. Asking questions is seen as a sign of weakness. Sure, we’ll ask what time a service starts or if we can volunteer for a clean-up day, but when it comes to, “Will you explain the Trinity to me?” We get too busy. We become distracted. Or we’ll forget and go on to planning our grocery list while we’re reciting the Apostles’ Creed.
There’s also another huge reason we don’t ask questions in church. We don’t want to look weird or awkward. We think our questions will make us look stupid at worst or heretical at best. Face it; we know that church people can occasionally come off as judgmental and gossipy. If someone were to hear you ask me, “How is that it if it was in the plan all along that Jesus die for our sins? How can we be mad at Judas for doing what God intended done all along? Do I sound crazy for even asking that question, preacher?” Some people would flip out if they heard anyone ask that question. I know because I asked it to my pastor when I was in the eighth grade after a Maundy Thursday service. Just because you ask a hard question doesn’t mean you doubt that Jesus Christ is your savior. It simply means you want to know if the church has sincerely considered an answer to your question. I promise you, if you’ve asked the question, others have done the same thing. They might not have spoken up because they felt awkward or were browbeaten into silence. No more. We shouldn’t be discouraged by questions. We shouldn’t be making people feel awkward or weird in any way. If you’ve got questions, fire away. Nothing is too strange to be taken off the table. If you’ve thought of a question, I guarantee someone else has also thought of it.
Here’s another critical point, if we can’t answer our tough questions, how will we answer the world’s hard questions? If we shut down dialogue and debate within the church, we sure aren’t going to convert anyone to our cause because we won’t know how to talk to the people beyond our walls like regular people. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we use a lot of inside baseball language in the church, terms, and phrases that only make sense because we go here and have been going here for a long time. How might we talk to questioners with dignity, grace, and class in ways that assume no background in faith and still make Jesus Christ understandable to all?
A third reason we don’t ask questions is that we don’t know how to ask or frame our questions. We don’t know quite what to say or put our thoughts into words. They’re up there in our heads. It’s just putting them in a coherent framework. But, again, it’s helpful to remember that other people have the same questions. Good questions lead to thoughtful answers that aren’t smarmy or snarky. We must ask good questions so our answers aren’t pat, cliché, and “that’s just the way it is” answers. The world deserves our best.
The church has a history of beating up on doubters, but we live in a world that grows ambiguity and uncertainty like tomatoes in a summer garden. We demand certainty, but in the face of such violence (particularly of the kind we’ve witnessed in Nashville and Louisville), how can we not doubt that something has gone a little wrong in our quest for security, safety, mental health, and peace in early 21st century America. If there’s ever been a time to create a safe space for asking questions, it is now before any more lives are lost.
Asking questions (what some call inaccurately refer to as doubt) is ultimately about extending a measure of grace to the person posing the question. Do we have it within us to extend a portion of God’s grace (grace we’ve already received) so we can listen to someone else’s heartfelt query about scripture, faith, grief, and prayer and walk with them on their journey, wherever that may be? I hope so. If not, we’re the one who needs to ask some long, hard questions of ourselves.
I’m fond of William Shakespeare. I quote him often. I think he’s the greatest master of the English language. So, if we think he’s boring, I don’t think we hear him correctly. He took an unwieldy English language and turned it into art. He made it funny, multi-dimensional, and come alive. He made it rhyme in ways that are incredibly difficult to do. Have you ever tried to write in iambic pentameter? It is challenging. Moreover, he invented new ways of communicating. He took the “play,” something the Greeks perfected, trimmed it down, and made them exciting and watchable. In this process he created the soliloquy. Do you remember the soliloquy from English class?
It’s a speech, a talk that a single character gives to let you know what’s on their mind. It’s kind of an inner monologue combined with a speech. The audience and a character hiding off stage secretly listen to the character giving the soliloquy. I’ll give you two quick examples, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet.
Juliet and Romeo are starting to fall in love. They met at a masked ball. Romeo wants to express his love. So he goes and hides under her balcony. She gives her soliloquy. He pops up and says, “I’m right here.”
Hamlet is a much darker play. Neither, however, have a happy ending. His daddy (the king is dead) and his uncle has married his mother. He’s an unhappy kid anyway but this makes things worse. In Act 3, scene 1, he’s walking around holding a skull asking, “To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings of outrageous fortune.”
The first time you see it, it’s incredibly moving. Then, whether they are in period clothes or a more modern production, you pick up on Hamlet’s angst and anger. But after the third or fourth time, it starts to get old. You want him to get on with the story. The redneck in me starts to come out. I want to shout at the stage, “Get on with it. Now what?” Stop moping about with the skull and make a decision. You know your uncle did it.
That’s how I feel when I read Psalm 23. It is a soliloquy of sorts. We know it as well as we know these tiny pieces of Shakespeare. We want it sung, read, and printed at our funeral. It’s published and hung on our walls. It’s on Bible bookmarks. We quote this scripture. But what do we do about it? Is our knowledge only superficial and ephemeral? After the 1000th time saying it, repeating it, and looking at it, what will we do about it? Now what? The Lord is your shepherd. Now what? What are you going to do about it? So what? How is that going to change how you live your life? How will these comforting words push you out of your comfort zone?
It is one thing to say the Lord is your shepherd. But how do you live as if the Lord is your shepherd? We say the Lord is our shepherd. Often, we lead ourselves around the pasture because we think we know better than the man with the staff. We want to go here. We want to go there. Is the theme of your life being shepherded by God? I’m not saying being a sheep. Are you willing to be shepherded?
He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. Now what? Are you willing to be led by God? Are you ready to be led anywhere and everywhere by God? Humans are inclined to lead themselves into conflict, violence, arguments, and trouble. Are we willing to be led by God into places of restoration, stillness, and healing? Are we willing to admit that we have problems that need to be healed? Are we willing to accept that we are broken, and without times of restoration, we will fall apart? Without consenting to be led, we will die in the pasture? Are we willing to be led or die of thirst? Or do we think we know better?
He leads me through the right paths for his name’s sake. Now what? Are we willing to be led by his name and not our name? Are we willing to be identified by the name of Christ and not our family name and have our identities subsumed entirely and totally by that of the shepherd, Jesus of Nazareth? The right path is a path that is a path that centered on the identity, purpose, and passion of Jesus Christ-not us. We are at our best selves when our names and paths are aligned with the path and name of Jesus. Where do we find this? We go back to the Beatitudes.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil. Now what? Are we going to let fear control us or let faith guide us? Are we going to talk faith or walk faith? It’s easy to fear evil when we’re trying to lead the shepherd when we’re trying to go first. When we think we’re in charge. However, if the shepherd leads, fear diminishes exponentially. It’s not that our worries are non-existent or life is perfect, but we can function, despite our fears.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. Now what? Your force me to recognize the humanity in my adversaries. You force me to face my fears and my foes. You move me to a place where I can consider making peace. A shared meal is the best place to find reconciliation, forgiveness, love, justice, grace, and mercy. If you want to reconcile with an enemy, share a meal. Now what? God provides. God provides for everyone. God provides opportunities for healing between you and your enemies. Notice they aren’t God’s enemies. They are my (your enemies). That’s now, what. That’s putting it into practice. That’s an unimaginable blessing. You might even say your cup is running over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. Now what? Does that mean everything is going to work out fine? No, far from it. It means if we let God go first if we consent to be led, there will be an order, a purpose to our lives that would not be there otherwise. What kind of person do you want to be? What is your purpose in life? Are goodness and life central answers to both of those questions? Are you able to say: I want to BE a good person? I want to BE a person of mercy. How does that happen? We stop giving orders to the shepherd. We stop giving lip service to the Psalm and give life service to the actions behind the words of the Psalm. We take the next step, the now what step.
This is what, I believe, the second half of the sixth verse means, if we take the next step, we will dwell (live) with God for the duration of our lives. We find purpose and meaning. God will be at the center, and we can align our “who we want to be” and our “now what’s” outward from there. Being led by the shepherd becomes who we are; being shepherded is our way of life.
So how do you make the 23rd Psalm you can live today, not just something they’ll read at your funeral? Give this a try. Embrace this 23rd Psalm as a way of life, not a comfort blanket. You are not a sheep. Sheep are dumb. You are made in the image of God. Remember these points:
I am willing to be shepherded
I will be open to life’s abundance. I will reject scarcity.
I will acknowledge my need to be restored, that I am broken and need healing.
I realize fear is a choice, I am not abandoned, and God precedes me.
I accept that God wants me to restore relationships with my enemies. Therefore, eat with your friends, and share table fellowship with your enemies. Break bread together.
I will order my life with a God-centered purpose, a central meaning, and a life theme, which will be God. This will help us determine who we want to be and should be, inspire others, create a legacy, and deal with adversity. Life will not be perfect, but it will have meaning.
Every year, the first Sunday of Lent centers on one story: the temptation of Jesus, by the devil, over forty days in the desert immediately following his baptism. Matthew and Luke are the only two gospels that retell this head-to-head story. Mark and John don’t include it at all. For some reason, they left it on the cutting room floor. Of the two versions, my favorite is Matthew’s. Matthew gives us greater detail, dialogue, and imagery. I have always had an affinity for the Matthew passage. When I was in seminary, I was assigned this text. But instead of preaching it from the traditional perspective, the way most churches and preachers do it every year, I was given the more challenging task of retelling the story from the devil’s perspective. How would this story look and sound if you told it from the other character’s eyes? That exercise made me a better preacher and is one reason I look forward to the first Sunday of Lent every year.
The main thing I learned about the devil (specifically Matthew’s perspective on the devil) in preparing that original sermon was this: if the devil was going to tempt Jesus or us, he wasn’t going to be anything like the caricatures of evil or Satan we’ve become accustomed to seeing; images that were invented in the Middle Ages and became popular in renaissance art. You know the ones I’m talking about, the pointed horns, the red leathery skin, the pitchfork, the wispy tail. Whoever heard of a red devil anyway? This was back in the dark ages, before Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton, the greatest minds in history, discovered all devils were blue.
To be genuinely tempting, the devil would need to be quite ordinary, a little charming, unassuming, friendly, a little witty, someone you’d like to go to dinner with, maybe that neighbor with the big TV who’ll invite you over to watch the NCAA tournament, someone with whom you can relax. That’s who the devil is. The devil is cool, calm, and collected. You never see the devil coming, and when the devil asks you to make a moral choice or by the time temptation is placed before you, it doesn’t seem like temptation. It will seem like the right, normal, even natural thing to do. After all, this is your friend, that guy, your buddy; why would your regular next-door neighbor friend with all the same interests, kids in the same school, and a nice two-car garage lead you astray? The devil couldn’t look like one of us, could he? Could the devil be a mirror image of us? The devil is a narcissist whose greatest desire is to be loved and adored, but ultimately, he wants to fit in: seem typical, like us, and even ordinary. The devil seeks to seem normal; blending in and appearing average is his grand goal. Who is afraid of the average? Average flies under the radar. The average is undetected. This is what makes the devil so diabolical. The devil is in the details.
What are the details of Jesus’ temptations? You just heard them: turn stones into bread, throw yourself off the temple and let the angels catch you, and worship me to gain all the power in the world. The specifics may be different, but the temptations are essentially the same: when it comes down to it, the only person you can depend on is yourself. You can’t rely on God, others, your faith, or anything other than yourself.
Remember what I said about the devil fitting in and looking like us, even being the mirror image of ourselves? We are our own worst enemies. Ladies and gentlemen, we have met the enemy, which is us. Each of these three temptations is the same. You don’t need God. You only need you. When you get to the heart of the matter, is that not the essence of every temptation we face as human beings? We can do it ourselves. Why trust God? Why listen to God? Why have faith in anything beyond ourselves? Why not take matters into our hands? After all, we have no idea what the future may hold, and we’re hungry now! The scriptures say the angels will catch us now, put God to the test now! We want to control our destiny now! Give into the devil’s offers of power and control now! Jesus can fill his stomach.
Jesus knows the scriptures say what they say. He knows he can rule the world. But here’s the dirty little secret about Christianity: self-reliance may be the American way, but it’s not the Christian way. The secret to passing these temptations, Jesus teaches us, is that even though we can, and doesn’t mean that we should. Even though we can turn stone into bread, test God’s promises in scripture, or take the devil up on his offer to run our affairs, it doesn’t mean we should. Even though we can do many things, it doesn’t mean we should.
That’s the greatest trick the devil is always trying to pull; he makes what you think you ought to do sound reasonable, regular, logical, and the right thing to do. But, of course, you’re hungry, so why not feed yourself? He even cherry-picks scripture to make his point. Of course, the Bible says God will send his angels; it’s right there in the Bible, so why not put God to the test and show the world that the Bible is the true word of God. Throw yourself from the temple, and his angels will lift you; it will testify to the veracity of God’s word. Of course, you have the right to rule the world; you’re Jesus Christ; what could be wrong with that, worship me, and you’d still be in charge and calling the shots. He makes it all sound normal, natural, logical, and even scripturally sound. That’s how you know you’re being tempted when the wrong thing feels like the righteous, holy, Biblical, and normal thing to do.
The real temptations aren’t drinking, gambling, or looking at porn online. No, the essence of temptation has always been buying into the devil’s big lie that we can do everything ourselves; we don’t need God (or each other) in our lives. Have we bought into that lie? Do we believe the devil is telling the truth? Do we believe his lies that we can depend on our self-sufficiency? I can’t answer that question for us (or you). Only you know whom you’re listening to and whom you believe. Do you trust the man from Nazareth or this person asking you to make what sounds like a perfectly reasonable choice but compromises your morality on every possible level?
The devil wants us to sing a variation of his favorite song: “My Way/Your Way.”
What does it mean to be transfigured? That’s part of being human. We want to describe the indescribable. It is the word Matthew chooses for double duty: to describe an indescribable experience and to capture the importance of this theological moment on the mountain. Transfiguration is a two-way process, especially in this text. Jesus is transformed, and the disciples are transformed by what they witness. Everyone is changed by what happens on the mountain in one way or another. No one will ever be the same. Jesus is different; his purpose is set wholly toward the events that will lead to his death. The three disciples now see Jesus, no pun intended, in a different light. It’s more than they comprehend. They can’t grasp the whole picture but realize there is so much more to Jesus than they ever thought possible. They can’t put it into words. As the passage says, Jesus doesn’t even want them to try. Keep this quiet, he says. It’s more than most people can bear on a good day. Jesus indicates that the meaning of the transfiguration (what occurred on that mountain) won’t be fully understood until after the events of Easter.
So where do we plug in? Are we playing a semantics game? If we return to my first question, what’s the difference between transfiguration and transformation? Why does the Bible use the word transfiguration? How do we, on one end of the transfiguration process, understand what happens when we come to terms with who Jesus is, what he’s all about, and what’s expected of us when we’re let in on the big plan? How does that change us and our level of commitment to the team?
First of all, transformation is transfiguration light. Transformation is more of a surface-level change. You can transform by simply getting a haircut and changing clothes. Transformation is ephemeral. Transformation might involve learning a new language. Finally, transformations are more temporary or can be undone. Transformations, in short, are not permanent.
Transfigurations, on the other hand, indicate systemic change. When you alter something at a root level, you are transfigured. If you’ve been transfigured, it is not easily undone, redone, or able to return to whatever status quo you inhabited before the transfiguration. Transfiguration is not surface-level change. Instead of a haircut and a shoe shine, you are working on your heart and soul. Fundamentally, your perspective and identity are altered, and you come away looking at the world in a different light. So this is not an exercise in semantic hair-splitting. Transfiguration is a big deal for all involved. Jesus wants us with him to see what he sees, to be on the same page that he’s on, as up to speed as he is, and understand as much as we can know about God’s plan for humanity. In short, Jesus wants us to be transfigured by his actions.
Jesus places us in the most critical place and time of our lives. We’re not aware of it, but this is it. This is the most important moment in our lives. Up to this point in our lives (what happens in Holy Week will be more important, but up until now, this is it), nothing we’ve done matches this moment. This is the highlight of our lives. Jesus has placed us in a position and place to have our lives transfigured by God in a way we’ve never thought possible. Short of being resurrected from the dead like Lazarus (or Jesus), we’re about to be a part of the next best thing. We don’t know this, of course. We’re blindly following Jesus up the mountain and doing what he says. Here’s where the rubber meets the road:
Do we trust Jesus enough to follow him up the mountain? (Jesus, you want me to go up a mountain? I’m out of shape. Can’t you get transfigured somewhere accessible, where it’s flat and requires less physical exertion and spiritual commitment from me?)
Do we want to be transfigured? As I said a moment ago, that’s a serious, systemic, profound change. We probably like how we are and are comfortable with our lifestyles and expectations for the world around us. We are set in our ways and like things the way they are. Being transfigured sounds frightening. We heard one of the passages throw around the words “fear and trembling” a moment ago. Isn’t it our instinct to say, “No, thank you, Jesus, I’m cool just as I am? I’ll reserve the right to be transformed on my time and schedule. But I’ll treat being transfigured like I treat a colonoscopy. Something I would rather not do, and I’ll schedule later.”
Jesus is in no mood to negotiate. We didn’t even realize this was a negotiation. Jesus says, “You want to be transfigured. You need to be transfigured. You’re going up the mountain. Grab your climbing sandals; this isn’t optional.”
“But I need to go by the outdoor store and pick up hiking boots, a new Columbia jacket, a backpack, and a fancy sleeping bag,” we say. Jesus says, “Nope.” “We go as we are with our sandals and robes. Trust me.”
This is one of the reasons I remain optimistic about the future of the United Methodist Church. Transfiguration, change, hope, and everything being worked out, in the end, do not depend on us. So Jesus tells these three disciples. If Jesus makes a promise, Jesus keeps his word. Jesus will ensure you get home if he takes you on a trip. If Jesus takes you up the mountain, you will come back alive. We may be climbing up the mountain now, and I trust Jesus is changing us in ways I may not understand now, but he will bring us back down in one piece. Jesus has never let me down yet.
Everyone wants to take their mountain-top experience home. The three disciples wished to hold onto the experience. They knew it was special. If you’ve ever been that close to God, one of those thin moments where heaven and earth come so close you can feel the presence of God, you know how they felt.
What could they do? These were practical, hard-working men. Let’s build these guys a shelter. We’re up on a mountain, it’s the middle of the night, and we’re all going to need something to sleep in. It makes sense, right? You can see the logic of their thinking. However, God is not a noun (a person, place, or thing in the conventional sense.) You can’t hold onto God the way you grab your Bible. It works the other way around. God holds on to you. Our greatest spiritual frustrations come from trying to hold on to God, tame God, and make God fit into boxes (shelters) of our creations. Sometimes we do this out of the best intentions, and sometimes because we’re control freaks. But this is not how God works. God holds on to us. We can’t grab the intangible cosmic reality and the reality at the heart of the cosmos and start giving God orders. We are the ones who fall on our knees and pray, “Here I am, Lord, send me.”
When we understand this, we realize what it means to be transfigured by Jesus Christ.
You are the light of the world. That is a beautiful compliment. It’s the kind of thing you might expect to read when you open a get-well card. If someone had bought a card for me with that printed inside, I would have felt happy, moved emotionally, and encouraged.
Now imagine someone told you those words, face to face. That changes the entire dynamic. It’s one thing to read a sentiment; it’s another thing to hear the terms for the thought (or idea) to go from a dimensional idea to a three-dimensional reality. In short, it’s nice to hear a compliment, for someone to make a little gesture of thanks, or say a few words of appreciation. A person going the extra mile and showing that bit of grace is sometimes all it takes to change the course of your day. Who knows, if your day changes, your life might as well.
It’s extra nice when Jesus pays you a compliment. Sure, it would be great to go to the mailbox and get a thank you note from Jesus but imagine Jesus telling you in person, “You are the light of the world.” What if that someone giving you a face-to-face compliment is Jesus? What would that do to your day? How would that alter the rest of your life?
Given the state of the world and how dark things feel at the moment, being told you’re the light of anything by anyone is good to hear. These people, like us, aren’t used to getting compliments or encouragement. We feel lucky if no one rear-ends us on the way to Food Lion, or we don’t get into shouting matches with our family and friends over dumb little arguments. Compliments seem out of date and quaint, reserved for birthdays and other holidays, not something we’d do regularly or daily. We take each other and our families for granted, usually operating on the assumption that the people we live with and love know we love them and appreciate them; why do we need to tell them? Jesus is asking us to reconsider that mindset. People need to hear good things, especially when the world feels like it’s going to hell in a handbasket.
I’m sure this took Jesus’ audience by surprise. “I didn’t know I was a light!” I can hear them saying to Jesus. “I’m the light of the world!” Can you imagine hearing that affirmation for the first time? These crowds gathered on the hillside for the sermon of the mount didn’t come from a culture where they encountered a great deal of positive news about themselves or others. They lived in dark times; as occupied people, most couldn’t read the inspiring words of prophets like Isaiah, and if they could, they didn’t think they applied to them. Here Jesus says, you are the light, as an individual, are something good, light!
What does light do? What am I called to do as light? Light makes the world a safer, brighter, happier, warmer place. That’s what light does. You are called to do and be those things. Light changes everything. Nothing can hide from the light. Light makes the intangible tangible, the unsafe safe, the cold warm, the sad happy. It is there, everywhere, and all around. Light cannot be contained.
That’s you! You are more than you ever knew or thought you could be. You are the light. Part of being the light is giving your light away. Light is always available for sharing with people in darkness. Once you have the light, you are always available to share it without losing any of the original light that makes you, you!
You’d be surprised (well, maybe not) how many people are living in darkness. We forget how many people need, want, and are seeking the light of Christ, the light of the world, and to know that they also are the light of the world.
Light is much like empathy. The world needs it to survive. The church needs it. We can’t function without it. If you’ve ever lived in a world without electricity, you know that your entire rhythm of life is more challenging and brutal. Our world has a light deficit as much as an empathy shortage. We’ve grown comfortable living with this shortage, rationing of light, joy, and empathy in a world of darkness. We don’t have to live this way. You are the light of the world. Darkness is not the default setting for our lives and relationships. Light and all it brings, compassion and empathy are part and parcel of our souls whether we realize it or not. Jesus identifies this within us. Are we going to take the compliment from Jesus, pass it on to someone who needs to hear it, and share the blessing Jesus has given us with someone else?
I never get tired of talking about the Andy Griffith Show. It was one of the most important shows in the history of American television. Think about all the issues Andy addressed in Mayberry in the early 1960s. Andy dealt with alcoholism, addiction, greed, fair housing, poverty, women’s rights, single parenting, fair play, and how to handle small-town gossip. He didn’t judge people no matter how uncultured or far back up in the woods they came from. And he did it all without a gun. And that’s when the show first aired when Eisenhower was in the White House. Andy was cutting-edge! That was, Andy might say, a fair piece of years ago!
There’s an episode where Opie and his friends sell something called “Miracle Salve.” One of Opie’s buddies, Trey, has been threatened with being “blacklisted” for not selling enough of this worthless salve. The boys don’t know what it means to be blacklisted. Opie guesses his dad will know, so they run off to the sheriff’s office to ask Andy. Andy is out on a call, but they find Barney asleep at his desk.
After waking Barney from a dead slumber, they ask him, “What’s a blacklist?” As he always does, Barney tries to sound more intelligent than he is: “It’s when the party of the first part does something to keep the party of the second part from being able to get a job.” Now the boys are confused. Trey needs this job. Who’s the party of the first part? Some fly-by-night salesmen are taking advantage of the kids, who need summer jobs, to get them to sell their salve.
Barney comes up with this bright idea. He’ll write a letter to the salespeople in Mount Pilot, pretending to be a lawyer, telling them to cease and desist from threatening his clients Opie and Trey. Why is Barney going to do this? He’ll meet one official letter with another. Barney poses his strategy in the form of a question: How do you fight fire? The boys answer with a hose! No! Barney exclaims, “with fire!” Andy eventually returns, and they run the whole plan by him. Barney asks him the same question. How do you fight fire? Andy, too says,” with a hose!” Barney, even more frustrated, says, “with fire.”
That’s where we are this morning. Are we like Andy and Barney having a debate? How do you fish for people? Do we do it with a hose or with fire? Those are not exactly our options, but you get the point. There is the practical answer, which is time-tested, genuine, and makes sense. There’s also the idiomatic, colloquial expression that sounds good when you’re sitting on a bench whittling with your buddies. We want to find those two answers, specifically those regarding being a follower of Jesus.
Last week we talked about being and becoming excited about Jesus. How long has it been since you were eager to tell someone else about Jesus? What would it take for you to invite someone to church to say, “Come and see Jesus with me.” Have you ever been as excited about Jesus as you’ve ever been about the things that most excite you in your life? That was last week.
This week we’re taking that one step further. What does it mean to be called to be a disciple? And what are the best ways to reach more disciples? Do we fish for people the same way we fish for fish (i.e., fight fire with fire or with a hose)? Those are the two big questions raised by Matthew’s retelling of Jesus’ calling of his first four disciples along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Embedded in those questions, others ought to come to mind as we look for more profound answers. What does Matthew mean when he says, “immediately?” I know what I mean when I think of “immediate” or “Immediately.” Does Matthew mean the same thing? Did these guys literally drop their tools, abandon their families, and walk away like zombies to follow Jesus without so much of a goodbye to their families and friends?
Popular movies about the Bible like to leave people with that impression. However, suppose you read a little further in the text. In that case, you see Matthew’s definition of immediacy means something closer to this: Peter, Andrew, James, and John started a lifelong conversation on that day, at that time and that place, with their families and friends, that led to their becoming full-time followers (who asked others to come and see) of Jesus Christ. Read four more chapters and you see that Jesus’ definition of immediate doesn’t mean what you think it means.
The essential words Jesus utters in this passage involve Peter’s (and the other’s) transition from fishermen to disciples. We have to understand the nature of that transition to understand Matthew’s definition of immediacy and how Jesus will immediately (pun intended) show them his fishing methods can yield large catches of people.
Let’s talk about fishing methods on the Sea of Galilee for just a moment. I know a little about this because the fishermen on Ocracoke also used net fishing methods like Peter, James, and John. The fisherman who lived directly across from our church on the island would string his nets across his front yard and mend them, just as Matthew described Peter mending his nets in this passage. I’d walk out my office door and see the Bible happening right before my eyes. I’ve been to the Sea of Galilee, and these methods came alive when we lived on the Outer Banks. Nets require constant mending and upkeep. It takes skill and stamina to stay up all night, throw them out, and bring them back into rickety boats.
I’m going to do an Andy/Barney thing for a moment. What’s the goal of the fishing net? It’s to capture and ensnare as many dumb and unsuspecting fish as possible in your net and hoist them onto the deck of your boat, so deprived of oxygen that they quickly die. Once dead, they can be sold to fish merchants, and people can buy the fish and eat them. This is what net fishermen do. They aren’t like Bill Dance in a bass boat with a depth finder. 1st century fishing methods are still in use in many places around the world today. Throw out the net and hope to God it lands over a school of fish or shrimp dumb enough to swim into your net. Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen. Being a good fishermen is not something that happens to you because of good luck, weather, and years of experience. Fishing is arbitrary. Use your common sense here: When Jesus said to them, from now on, you will stop being fishers of fish and be fishers of people do you think Jesus wanted them to substitute what they usually did in their quest for fish except literally do that now for people?
Was Jesus asking them (and by extension us) to use nets to capture unsuspecting people, lure them into our communities, suck the life from them, throw them onto our decks, gut them of their hearts and souls, and tell them not to be whom God created to be? Once in our net, you’re not a fish; you’re money, a number, and anything other than whom God created you to be. Do you honestly think that’s what Jesus meant when he said you’ll be fishing for people, as it was when you were fishing for fish? Because if you do that, you are going to run everybody off. That’s like saying you fight fire with more fire, not a hose!
You fish for people by bringing people together and not by cutting people off from their families but by bringing their families in. Here’s how I know Peter, Andrew, James, and John, didn’t drop their tools and walk off like zombies. The Bible tells me so. I keep reading—just four chapters over in Matthew 8. Peter had a Jewish mother-in-law. You don’t just leave your wife to follow a charismatic even if his Jesus of Nazareth. He’s got a mother-in-law. That means he’s got a wife and a reasonable guess that a married Jewish man in the first century will probably have a couple of kids. Is Jesus of Nazareth, the most remarkable man in the world, going to ask a married man to abandon his wife, kids, and sick mother-in-law? Is that the kind of thing Jesus would do? Or, as in Matthew 8, he would heal Peter’s mother-in-law and invite the whole family to the Jesus movement.
Suddenly, now stay with me, he’s caught Peter, Peter’s wife, Peter’s Mother-in-Law, and Peter’s children. If the same pattern is repeated for Andrew, James, and John, Jesus has caught approximately 20 people. Talk about fishing for people. He’s gone from one person (himself) to, most likely, 20 or more, by healing and being gracious to Peter’s mother-in-law. He wanted to meet Peter’s entire family. It wasn’t a one and done operation. When Jesus opens up a space for conversation, the idea of immediacy takes on a whole new dimension. It’s more like, “Let’s immediately go home for dinner.”
No one is captured in a net and forcibly brought into the fishermen’s boat. We don’t have any nets. I didn’t see any when we were putting out or putting away the Christmas decorations. We have a few fishermen in the church, and they use poles. There aren’t any net fishermen, as on Ocracoke, regularly mending nets, going out each night to catch shrimp to sell to local restaurants.
Though shame, guilt, and the church can cast modern-day nets, we must be careful. We can quickly revert to fishing for fish instead of people. We want to grow through warmth, charm, love, and invitation. So often, though, churches find it easier to get people on the boat through shame and guilt. You know what I mean: you better get here, get in the net, or you’re going to hell. Change your ways or else. You’re a dirty rotten, low-down sinner; God hates you, you don’t come to church, and you’re bound for damnation. Do you know why you got COVID, cancer, or other diseases? It’s because you don’t come to church or didn’t pray hard enough. The list could go on and on. People say those things. Let’s try not to. That’s not how you fish for people. People aren’t fish. People deserve our best. Jesus gave us his best. He gave us his life. Let us expand by reaching out to anyone and everyone who wants to be in our boat. We don’t have to capture people. Evangelism isn’t warfare. As the Love Boat theme song says, “Come Aboard, we’ve been expecting you.”
Have you ever been so excited that you can’t wait to tell someone else about a new thing you’ve discovered? Maybe it is a new restaurant, a dish at this restaurant, hearing a new band, a song by this band, a particular vineyard, and a unique grape they use to make a new pinot noir. It could be any of those things or something else. Whatever it is, you’ve been turned on. Now everyone you meet, from family to friends, has to hear about your trip to this restaurant, how good this one particular dish was, how the chef combined flavors in a unique way that created a virtual nuclear explosion of taste on your pallet unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before, the dish was plated like a Salvador Dali painting, and before this person does anything else, they have to make a reservation and go with you to this restaurant at their next available moment. You want to be there with them to see the look on their face when they are served an appetizer of lemon caviar on raw oysters with mignonettes followed by pressure-cooked vegetables, roasted fillet, potato confit, beef just, and bone marrow. Then you want to say, “See, I told you, wasn’t this the best thing you’ve ever eaten!”
That’s what this passage is about, that kind of encounter. Instead of some innovative gastronomy, the one thing you’ve become so incredibly excited to share with the world is a person whose name is Jesus of Nazareth. We’ve all been that excited about something in our lives. It may have been the last time you bought a new truck or car. Perhaps it was the place you stayed on your previous fishing trip. You’ve felt the energy and enthusiasm of an event or an encounter. You know what it is like to be unable to keep good news bottled up and to yourself. So here’s my first question this morning. Have you ever felt that way about Jesus? In your entire life, have you ever been so excited about your relationship with Jesus that you couldn’t shut up about Jesus and had to say, “I’ve got to tell someone else about Jesus?” We tell people about the new bigger engine in our trucks or how we got a new roof on our church. We tell people about where we went on vacation, how we had a great time, and how they ought to go there and enjoy it in the same way we did. Think of all the heartfelt and exciting recommendations you give day after day. When was the last time you said to someone, “Oh my God, you have got to meet this guy Jesus; he changed my life! Let’s go now or at your first free moment; I’ve got to see your face when you talk to him.”
People used to put bumper stickers or license plates on cars saying, “Follow me to church,” but those are not the same. I can’t tell you the last time a bumper sticker changed my life. I’ve never voted for anyone or changed my opinion about anything because of a bumper sticker. With my bifocals, I can’t read bumper stickers or vanity plates. I can, however, respond to conversations. Come and see; we hear the disciples saying. Come and see; I know what it means. When was the last time we spoke to someone, “Come and see?” When was the last time you wanted to see Jesus? Do you want to have a face-to-face encounter with Jesus? Are we afraid of how the conversation might go? Some of us might be worried about what he wants to talk about. We’re comfortable talking to him in prayer. Come and see opens the door to the possibility of him talking back. Yes! Amen! That’s where our Christianity and our faith start to get exciting.
When the disciple found Jesus, what did they see? What did they see in him? That’s the question that has fascinated me most about this passage. They heed the call to “come and see” Jesus. I wonder about their first impressions of the man who was destined to save the world, this humble rabbi, identified by John as a “teacher” in their eyes; what did Jesus look like (physically), and who did he seem to be (spiritually)? These are meaningful questions because whatever they saw was necessary (and substantial) enough to cause them to drop everything, become his students, follow him, and start telling more people to come and see the carpenter-turned-teacher from Nazareth. So how did he appear? I picture him exuding kindness, approachability, and love. You know those people. Whether by genetics or life experience, some people carry a countenance that disarms critics, invites conversation, and welcomes questions. Regardless of whatever charisma their words or spirit may convey, their body language and gestures include others in their world. I believe the gospels offer this image of Jesus.
A man who readily held children and brought lepers into his life was open to everyone who was all too willing to reject anyone who defied religious norms and traditions. Here was God in the world, something these people had yet to fully comprehend, not existing above or beyond creation but entirely within the world. This wasn’t magic, smoke, and mirrors. Jesus was flesh and blood. Simon, Andrew, and John weren’t following a ghost, a spirit, or the appearance of a man. Something about this man was different, they might not have been able to put their finger on it at that moment, but they knew it when they saw it, so they went. They came, they saw, and they believed. It’s worked the same way ever since. He spurs something in us that makes us want to be better than we are at the current moment and tell others about this experience of kindles, love, and acceptance. We’ve never known something that could only come from God because God knows people don’t treat each other this way.
The other question this passage raises is this: “What does Jesus see in us?” I hope he sees potential. We’re a motley crew, we modern-day Galilean fishermen. Just look at us. Despite our differences in age, genetics, skills, diversity of opinions, and taste in basketball teams and music Jesus looks at us and still sees possibilities. Jesus looks at us unlike anyone else, except maybe your Mama and Daddy look (or looked) at you. You are worth being loved no matter what. Nothing you can do or say would drive me away, separate me from you, or make me turn my back on you. He looks so hard at you that he almost says, “I’d die for you.” Paul put it this way; there’s nothing that can separate us from the love of God. In Romans, Paul writes, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I believe Jesus sees love in us.
As I’ve said on many occasions, the gospel writers make a big deal of Jesus knowing people’s names. Jesus is not a “hey you, worship me” kind of God. We’re not just numbers on a divine spreadsheet of followers. When we use the phrase “personal relationship,” we mean a personal relationship and all it entails. He walks with me, talks with me, and chucks me on the chin while the car defrosts in the morning. Yet so often, that person is one-sided; we know him. We phrase it this way: we know Jesus. We’ve met him. We’ve let him into our lives. That’s how we talk. Our language places us as the ones choosing to allow us entrance or access to the most vital areas of our existence, our souls. We accept salvation. Not to make too fine of a theological point, but Methodists believe that Jesus saved us all on the cross, and what happens down the road is that we realize that Jesus is already in here, and we didn’t know it. We don’t need to let him in; he’s been here the whole time. There was never a time Jesus wasn’t in our lives; we just weren’t aware that he was there. So when Jesus sees us, he sees people already on his team; we don’t know we’re on the bench and about to be put into the game.
You may pick up a nickname when someone gets to know you. Sometimes we get nicknames during childhood that stick our entire lives. I’m sure you all know a Bubba in their 50s or 60’s that’s been Bubba since they were in the third grade. Here I’m talking about real nicknames that friends give each other because they reflect a person’s personality. People who don’t know each other well don’t give each other nicknames. Generic nicknames like hoss, chief, sport and big guy don’t count. I’m talking about real nicknames. This is what Jesus does to the disciples, specifically Peter, in this passage. Jesus says, “I’m going to call you Cephas.” Jesus says, “I’m going to call you Rocky, Rocky Johnson. Cephas/Peter means Rock, and he was the son of John. That’s Peter’s name, Rock Johnson. Not only did Jesus know his name, but he felt so comfortable and familiar with him to give him a nickname immediately. What do you think your Jesus nickname might be? Think about it this week; email me and let me know.
Get excited about Jesus! Someone brought you here to come and see. Could you tell someone else to come and see? Jesus is already at work in people’s lives, waiting to hear about this next big thing that we can’t keep to ourselves any longer, this Jesus, this carpenter, the teacher from Nazareth. He sees us and knows in ways no one else ever will. Whom will you tell?
The road to Graceland goes through Tupelo, Mississippi.
The road to Bethlehem goes through John the Baptizer.
It must have been hard to be John the Baptizer. I don’t mean the odd diet and living in the harsh desert environment. John chose to be an ascetic. He willingly embraced the Hebrew prophetic lifestyle. I am saying that it was hard to be related to Jesus of Nazareth. Can you imagine living in the shadow of the person who defined how civilization came to define history? Before him, time was measured in one manner. After his birth, we changed how years were counted. How easy was it to relate to Jesus in your family, especially if you had even the faintest understanding of his role?
Mark’s gospel tells readers that Jesus had brothers and sisters. Imagine the unique qualities of those relationships. What did you know or not know of your brother’s humanity or his divinity? These questions fascinated the early church. The infancy gospels, noncanonical works telling stories of Jesus’ childhood and family, tried to fill in the gaps surrounding Jesus’ missing childhood years. They are weird and read more like science fiction than the accepted miracle stories of Jesus walking on water or feeding multitudes.
What’s notable about Mark’s account (3:31-35) is that his mother, brothers, sisters, and broader family are worried about Jesus. They know he’s coming off as crazy. Some of those in Nazareth didn’t take kindly to the son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter making grand theological arguments. To claim to be able to heal and even hint at a messianic identity put his life (and their family’s) in danger. Besides, wasn’t his cousin John the real religious one in the family? Didn’t he leave home, live alone in the wilderness, and pursue God with a small group of devoted followers? John was the guy, the prophet in the family, right? Jesus worked in the shop and made speeches in the synagogue. John, the man they hadn’t seen in years, the distant cousin, the black sheep, he’s the one with real religious potential.
Yes, it was never easy being John the Baptizer. You knew you were destined for big things. God had given you a message on par with the most critical and socially challenging prophets in the Hebrew Bible. People heard your words and responded accordingly. The rich were uncomfortable. The poor listened to you, and it was unmistakable; God was on their side and would not let them down. You preached a need for a fresh start when everyone else was comfortable with a miserable, dirty, rotten status quo. You lived with such integrity and ferocity that some people came to believe that you, John, a poor boy from Galilee, might be the one to free Israel in the manner of Moses or Joshua. John knew he was a prophet and prophet alone. Someone else from Galilee would come and, like Elijah and Elisha, take his mantle and continue his work after his death. Because prophets do not live long, especially those who make rich people angry, hold a mirror up to reality, and ask the world to practice what they preach.
John was human, like all of us. John has no claim to divinity. He was an eccentric yet effective preacher. He said all the right things, did everything he was supposed to do, and would never see how Jesus would take his vision to a place he never imagined. John’s life was no rose garden and should not be idealized. Yes, it was never easy for John the Baptizer. Like a country music singer (think Jimmie Rogers or the Carter Family) from the mid-1950s who led to people like Elvis and Johnny Cash (whom only a few die-hard fans remember), he lived hard, died harder, and wrote songs that people would sing forever. Without John the Baptizer, we might not know Jesus. We need him because I believe you can’t have one without the other. We need John to see Jesus and Jesus to hear John.
At the beginning of Mark’s gospel, a medical crisis in Galilee overwhelms Jesus. Everything seemed to happen at once. It was the beginning of his ministry. Imagine launching a company and all the new things that go along with opening a business. First, you have to hire staff. It can be challenging to develop job descriptions, ideas for how big the company needs to function, and then look at resumes, all before interviewing people. That’s before setting out to speak to a single person about the kingdom of God. Until this part of the plan takes hold, success depends on one person doing all the work. Every aspect of the ministry depends on Jesus and the driving force of his personality. Before he’s called the first disciple, he’s already exhausted. (We know this because he tells us.)
John baptized Jesus, and the pace of Jesus’ life and ministry went from 1st to fourth gear overnight. He saw the need for help and he called disciples to join his ministry team. Whatever thought, planning, and ideas Jesus put into calling the disciples (people like Peter, James, and John), it came down to one question: Will you follow me? Jesus can make the distinction between fishing for people and actual fishing. Still, it’s a question of following Jesus, as a rabbi (or teacher), to build a movement around the idea we now understand as the kingdom of God. That’s the question: will you follow me? The question is not: “will you discuss following me, will you consider supporting me, will you follow me for a couple of hours a week on Sunday morning, or will you follow me when you like the way the church is going? No, Jesus asks a simple question: will you follow me? Are we able to give Jesus an honest answer?
If not, why not? What’s stopping us from being honest with Jesus? Will you follow me? And that’s Jesus of the Gospel, not the Jesus of our filters. Are we ready to follow Jesus?
Once Jesus gathers followers, people who said “yes” without context and explanation, they begin the work of the kingdom of God. What’s the first thing they do? Does Jesus start preaching a message of fire and brimstone? Do these first disciples warn others of the dangers of hell? No, they do none of these things. Remember, the pace hasn’t stopped.
First, the group goes to see and observe Jesus heal a man with an unclean spirit. The man is possessed. Or, as we would say in our day in time, he’s mentally ill. Wouldn’t we say that an evil spirit possesses an addict? We all would! Jesus’ exorcism, his first action in Mark’s gospel, is an exercise in mental health treatment. Jesus is caring for the man’s soul. The sad thing about this story is we are never encouraged to see this story about health care, mental health care, and human compassion. We hear “exorcism” and think scary movies. How about we believe in Jesus making a man’s life better and whole, which is what the Bible says occurs. Jesus, the healer, is a practical healer. Jesus begins his ministry by doing two things: preaching and health care. We see it here in Mark 1. Yes, this is still jam-packed Mark 1.
The pace has not let up. All these things are occurring one right after another. It is as if Jesus is working at a pace to meet the needs of a spiritual and public health crisis. Jesus keeps going, and the action is about to pick up to an even higher intensity.
After the story of the healing of the possessed man, Mark tells us, “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” Did you catch that? As soon as he’d healed the man, everybody wanted to come to seek medical care and be treated by Jesus. Jesus knew this would happen but it also goes the needs people had the sheer volume of people who would be coming to find Jesus in the coming hours.
How would he prepare to see them?
Where would Jesus encounter them? Would there be enough beds and disciples to listen to their needs? The one thing he wouldn’t do is ignore them or minimize their concern. They were why he was here.
After quick consideration, it seemed the best place to go was Simon Peter’s mother-in-law’s house. I can only imagine what that phone call was like. “I’m coming home with my new Rabbi Jesus and a few other friends, and there might be crowds of sick strangers gathering at the door looking for medical care.” Her house in Capernaum isn’t huge, so I’m guessing this must have been the most significant thing happening in town.
Mark, as I’ve always said, has a sense of immediacy that is lacking in the other gospels. After the man’s healing, it was, “At once.” Now, as they are on the way to Peter’s mothers-in-law, it is “as soon as.” This sense of urgency is essential. There is a near exhausting pace for all the participants involved. Mark is doing his best to convey this.
Once they arrive at the house, it is like they are in the worse Corona ward. Mark says, “Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her.” Fevers and respiratory illnesses were all around him. Mark continues, “That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases.”
All-day and night, Jesus worked to heal sick people in the most conventional way we understand medicine to this day. Given the pace, you that you realize things have been going in this chapter, how exhausted must you think he feels? Given what he’s seen and heard from his patients and neighbors, where must his mind be? I ask these questions because Mark gives us an answer. We don’t have to guess how Jesus might feel or burden ourselves with a faulty Christology.
Jesus needs a break. We might even say he’s opting for some social distancing, to recharge his body and mind. He can’t care for others if he can’t care for himself. After it all seems to be over (and we are still in Mark 1) look at what Jesus does, “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Jesus, in the midst of carrying for the sick, isolated himself. This bothered his disciple friends. Verse 36, “And Simon and his companions hunted for him (they wanted to keep Jesus on a leash). Everyone is searching for you.” Here’s the thing: Jesus knows where he is. But even Jesus needs some space to pray. Jesus’ friends get so wrapped up in the chaos and anger. Jesus sees the need. Let’s look for the human need at the heart of the kingdom of God.
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