Jesus’ Ministry Begun (Second Sunday of Christmas) – January 3, 2016 (NL Week 17)

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

The calendar has turned from 2015 to 2016, and with the beginning of this year comes the beginning, in earnest, of our nation’s quadrennial presidential campaign season. Given our proximity to the Hawkeye State, I’m sure that you know that we are now less than one month away from the “first-in-the-nation” Iowa Caucuses. If you didn’t just have that date already in your mind, then perhaps you’ve had the sneaking suspicion that they are coming up soon because of the proliferation of TV ads that has accelerated over the past month or so. More and more frequently, the airwaves are filling up with advertisements from candidates and PACs and “Super PACs”, all of them touting the achievements of this or that presidential hopeful, making the case for why so-and-so is the right man or woman to lead the country for the next four years. I was struck this week by the contrast between that phenomenon – the jousting match for the spotlight – and Jesus’ attitudes about public recognition. The difference, as they say, is night and day.

It’s sort of curious, right? I mean, we’ve already heard the incredible message that Jesus has come to proclaim. Earlier in chapter one of Mark’s Gospel, we read the encapsulation of Jesus’ proclamation: “The time has been fulfilled, and the reign of God has drawn near. Turn your lives around, and trust in the good news!” That message, when it is accompanied by the command to follow, has thus far been irresistible: Peter, Andrew, James, and John all left behind their families and their livelihoods to become disciples of Jesus. Even more, this week’s reading presents the proof of that message in real, flesh-and-blood terms. As chapter one continues, God’s reign is breaking out in Capernaum, as unclean spirits are driven out of tormented people, those who have been afflicted by disease and illness are restored to wholeness, and the powerful preaching of Jesus causes the whole town to marvel at the evident authority of this new arrival. By their own admission, they have never seen anything (or anyone) like Jesus before. If any of this year’s presidential candidates had the kind of chops that Jesus displays throughout this reading, you can bet that they would be shouting about them from the rooftops. So why is Jesus so intent on making sure that his identity, his work, and his power are concealed from the masses? What possible reason could there be for keeping the good news of healing and restoration and liberation and salvation from being broadcast far and wide?

There have been a lot of guesses about this over the centuries, and most of them don’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. Some commentators have claimed that Jesus was trying to keep Jewish people from comprehending his mission and message so that it would be shared with the Gentiles; the fact that all of Jesus’ earliest disciples were Jewish, and that he appears to explicitly limit his work to Jewish towns and villages is a pretty big strike against that theory. Some – including myself – have claimed that there was an overwhelming consensus among first-century Jews that the Messiah would be a military figure, and that Jesus was afraid that his power would lead people to enlist themselves in some divinely established army who would march against the Roman occupiers and destroy them; the reality on the ground is far more complicated than that, and many (perhaps most) of those people who longed for a Messiah had no expectation that such a figure would be a military leader. What makes the most sense, then, is a much less specific and yet much more profound answer, and that is this: that Jesus didn’t want people thinking that they understood his mission before it was complete.

The so-called “Messianic secret” was born out of both humility and compassion. Jesus’ complicated and mysterious mission was incomprehensible without its final act. Those who witnessed the miraculous healings and spectacular exorcisms and prophetic teaching thought they had the measure of the man, but they still had no idea what his life would ultimately look like, or what significance it would have for them or for our world. We, of course, have the benefit of living on this side of the resurrection. We know that the child who was born at Christmas would not only work miracles, but transformation in the hearts of those who encountered him. We know that the near-universal acclaim with which he was met in the beginning would soon fade, eventually giving way to opposition and scheming and arrest and betrayal and death. We know that this Christ the King, whom shepherds guarded and angels sang, would soon be pierced by nail and spear, bearing the cross for me and you. We know that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in all their fullness must be held in tension, lest we forget something important about what he came to be and do for us and for creation.

Brothers and sisters, today’s reading reveals something about Jesus, but it also reveals something about us as human beings. Where we seek to tout our successes and increase our standing in the eyes of others, Jesus seeks to limit his exposure for the sake of the truth and out of care for others. Which of these alternatives will we choose? Will we be focused on reaping the rewards of our good works so that we will be well-regarded by our peers, or will we bring the gospel in word and deed for the benefit of others? Will we put forth only what is good and honorable and desirable about ourselves for the sake of our reputations, or will we present ourselves in all our messiness so that others will know who is working within and through us to bring healing and hope to our world? Are we insistent on making sure that what we say and do reveals something about us, or are we willing to join Jesus in his “secretive” mission of mercy that points beyond ourselves to God’s power and presence in our lives? As this Christmas season draws to a close, let us pray that might we have the courage to heed the call of Jesus to proclaim the good news of God so that God will be praised, and so that the world might know of God’s healing, saving, and restoring love and grace. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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