1 Samuel 16:1-13
1 Samuel 16:1-13
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
2 Timothy 2:8-15
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
One of the most remarkable ministry moments I’ve had the privilege of witnessing happened last July when seven of us traveled to Detroit for the ELCA Youth Gathering. Over the course of our journey, we were a part of a number of long-scheduled and meticulously planned events, but the moment that sticks out in my mind came out of the blue when our group was walking down East Jefferson Avenue, along the Detroit River and we were approached by a gentleman who looked like he was down on his luck. He was carrying a heavy load, likely because he didn’t have anywhere to store his worldly possessions. As he got closer, he asked for some money, something he was obviously lacking. I think one of two of us handed him a few dollars and got ready to keep going on our way. Before we could step away, the man had one more request: a hug. Most of us don’t make a habit of embracing strangers, but something told us that this was a good time to make an exception. After a few hugs from our group, he continued down the street with a smile on his face, jumping and shouting with joy. It was an image that I’ll never forget, and one that came back to the fore as I pondered the text before us this morning.
As Peter and John went to the temple that afternoon at “the hour of prayer”, I doubt they were expecting to have the kind of experience that would be recorded for posterity. They were going about their business, joining other devout Jews in observing the daily prayers, perhaps spending their trip up the temple mount in preparation, when they encountered someone in need: a man with a physical impairment that made walking impossible. There’s no telling how many times they had walked by this man, who our text tells us was placed there daily so that he could make enough money from begging to support himself. Whatever that answer might have been, on this day something was different, and by the time the prayers began, this man who for years had been consigned to the dusty doorway of the temple was now entering with joy on his own two feet, praising God for the healing that had taken place at Peter’s word.
What makes this story so remarkable? It’s the little things. First, notice what Peter and John do when they get close enough to engage the man lying at the gate: they ‘look intently at him’ (or, put in a slightly different way, they ‘fixed their eyes on him.’ This might seem obvious enough, but think again about how many times Peter and John and countless other people walked by him on a daily basis without noticing him, without seeing him as an individual in need of assistance, without acknowledging that he was a person worthy of all the dignity and respect that is due to someone who was created in the image of God. The ministry of healing that Peter and John carried out wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t somehow been inspired to see this man in his need.
After looking intently on the man, Peter and John do something else that is both astounding and profound: they name their limitations!* As they approach this opportunity to serve in Christ’s name, they acknowledge that they don’t have exactly what the man is looking for – namely, silver and gold – but they are also confident in sharing what they do have to offer – namely, healing in the name of Jesus Christ.
Last – at least in our look at this story – Peter and John accompany the man after his healing, bringing him into the community and helping people to recognize him the same way they did. Put another way, they brought things full circle by making it possible for others to see and affirm the dignity and worth of a man who had likely been part of the background for many of the people who crossed through the Beautiful Gate on a regular basis.
Does the story of a miraculous healing in the Holy City really have parallels with the story of random hugs shared on the streets of the Motor City? Well, yes, it does, and I think that those parallels can help us to see how ministry is possible in the smallest and seemingly most insignificant moments. Think about the man who approached our group that day. He was part of a group of people – the homeless population – who are frequently stereotyped and often ridiculed (when they aren’t outright ignored). Even for people who care to think about the problem of homelessness, that particular man was likely not much more than a statistic or a problem to be solved. Giving that man a hug was a holy thing, because it affirmed him as a brother, a fellow human being, a person with hopes and dreams and feelings and a need for connection with other people. I’m not trying to make our group seem extraordinary; after all, the guy had to ask us for the hugs before we gave them. At the same time, though, something – or someone – led us to push past our normal reactions to that kind of situation and bring a note of grace to a man in a dire situation.
Just like the apostles, we also brought what we had to bear on a situation of need. We certainly weren’t swimming in money at that point in our trip, but we were able to use some of what we had to make a difference in this man’s life, even if only for a few hours or days. More importantly, though, we brought ourselves, and in that simple offering of attention and physical touch, made it possible for that man to experience joy and connection.
These seem like small things, don’t they? Yet they are among the hardest things for us to do. We living in a society that loves making people fit into easily digestible categories so that we can simplify our relationships. These labels are part of how we make sense of a complex world. But when labels become the basis for our life together, you can be sure that the life we share will be shallow and starved for meaning. Where many saw a lame man, Peter and John saw a person; where many saw a homeless man, God led us to see a person in need of both physical and emotional sustenance. In the same way, all of us have opportunities every day to break through the labels and encounter people as individuals with dignity and worth.
Likewise, we live in a society that is driven by our need to hide or deny our weaknesses, our imperfections, our shortcomings. Vulnerability is too often a four-letter word, and the shame associated with admitting that we aren’t perfect can be more damaging than we care to admit. Instead of allowing their lack of money to keep them from bringing healing and wholeness, Peter and John owned their shortcomings and offered their gifts anyway, and by doing so they changed that man’s life forever.
Brothers and sisters, today’s text gives us a glimpse of what makes ministry possible in the ordinary moments of our lives. Sometimes, ministry happens simply by acknowledging other people and making the time and effort to show them that they are worthy of our attention. Sometimes, ministry happens when we stop worrying about what we don’t have and start focusing on what we do have. Sometimes, ministry is nothing more than a process of helping other people to see people and things that are often invisible. At all times, ministry is matter of being present to others and bringing the power and peace of Jesus into places that are starving for meaning, purpose, and connection with others and with God. That might look a little different for each of us, but it is essential to the work that God has called all of us to do in baptism. As we prepare to witness that holy sacrament once more, and to see Violet welcomed into this grace-filled and graceful life of service, let us pray that we might be inspired by the example of Peter and John to see moments for ministry all around us each day, and that we might be strengthened by the Holy Spirit to make the most of those moments, so that all people might know the powerful presence of Jesus in their lives. May it be so among us. Amen.
* Eugene Peterson, Commentary on Acts 3:1-10
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
When I was growing up, I remember being in awe of the disciples, particularly the ones Mark refers to as “the Twelve”. I doubt I could have told you why I felt that way at the time, but I recall thinking that there was something remarkable about them. Their images adorned the stained-glass windows around the worship space in my home congregation. Their standards hung around the walls of that same sanctuary. I’ll admit that I always felt a small swell of pride when I walked by the shield that bore the mark of St. Andrew, a silver x-shaped cross on a blue field. As I got older, I came to realize that I was most impressed with their dedication to Jesus, their ability to drop everything at his word and follow behind him into a life of deprivation and uncertainty. I imagined that they were sort of super-disciples, and that I could never hope to be as good as they were.
As we’ve read through Mark over these last couple of months, I’ve found myself at times chuckling at the young me, the one who saw in the disciples an example for following Jesus that lay beyond our ability to emulate. That’s because I’m fairly certain that if I’d ever taken the time to pay attention to the full portrait of the disciples in the gospels in general (and Mark in particular), I’d have quickly realized that they were just as flawed as I was and still am. Today’s reading serves as a great illustration of this fact. As our reading begins, we find Jesus and those disciples again “on the way”, journeying toward Jerusalem for Jesus’ final confrontation with the religious and political authorities who have opposed him and his mission to proclaim the good news. Here, for the third time in the gospel, Jesus pulls the Twelve aside to remind them what awaits them when they arrive in the holy city: betrayal and arrest, condemnation, mocking, insults, scourging, cross, and death. And here, for the third time, the disciples respond to that message by making it abundantly clear that they didn’t understand what he was saying as they proceed to do or say something that directly challenges what he told them about his destiny. Think back with me. At the first prediction, Peter dares to tell Jesus that he’s wrong, and that God would never allow him to suffer or die. After the second prediction, the disciples decide to engage in an argument about which one of them was the greatest in God’s reign. Now, James and John come to Jesus with an outrageous request that sets the other disciples off again and reveals their utter lack of comprehension about “the way” that they were walking with their teacher and Lord. In the span of three chapters, the disciples show themselves to be almost completely incapable of understanding Jesus!
Now, don’t get me wrong, I have no intention of smugly condemning the disciples because I think I’m any great disciple in my own right; God only knows how often I walk off the path that Jesus has set before me in pursuit of some goal that I think is more important or more faithful. But the awe with which I regarded the Twelve as a young man was clearly misplaced. In truth, I would have done much better to spend more time reflecting on the story of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar who calls out to Jesus for mercy and healing.
Let’s take a look at his story with a focus on some of the details that can easily be overlooked. Jesus and the disciples arrive in the city of Jericho, where they encounter Bartimaeus sitting by the roadside – or, in keeping with our theme over the last couple of weeks, “sitting beside ‘the way’”. When Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is near, he calls out to him repeatedly, addressing him as “Son of David” and asking him to be merciful. He remains persistent in the face of stern rebuke, calling out more loudly until Jesus calls him over in return. Immediately, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, jumps to his feet, and approaches Jesus. Bartimaeus repeats his request, Jesus declares that his trust has made him well, and Bartimaeus regains his sight. Then, without hesitation, he began to follow Jesus “on the way”.
What makes this story more worthy of awe than the stories of the Twelve? Well, it’s clear that Bartimaeus faced significant barriers to discipleship, most notably his vision – which had caused him to end up “beside the way” – and the many attempts to silence his cries by the people who knew him best. But beyond the obstacles, notice how Bartimaeus responded to Jesus’ call: even before he received his sight, he threw off his cloak, the garment that likely served as his only source of shelter and his only way of storing the meager income he received from begging – in short, his cloak was his security, a symbol of the life he had lived and which he was prepared to leave behind in an instant. Last, but certainly not least, like the rest of the disciples he immediately follows Jesus, though with a twist: Bartimaeus follows Jesus “on the way”, signaling that in a real sense he understands what he’s getting into in a manner that the other disciples don’t yet.
Perhaps because he regains his sight relatively late in the game, when his newfound vision isn’t obscured by everything else that has surrounded Jesus and caused people to perceive him wrongly, Bartimaeus is able to follow his new teacher “on the way”, even though he hasn’t received the insider information that the disciples have. Again, none of this is intended to cast the disciples in an unfair light. If anything, this fact reveals something about me – and, I suspect, about many of us: that sometimes those of us who should see Jesus most clearly have trouble looking past our own baggage to glimpse the truth about him and about what the life we spend following him is supposed to look like.
British journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge was a popular commentator on religious and moral matters in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, and his commentary was informed by his Christian beliefs. He wrote much about the problems that he saw were besetting society and decried a growing trend toward “Godlessness” in Britain. He claimed a robust faith, and his writing seemed to bear that out, and yet he had an experience late in his life when visiting Mother Theresa’s mission in Kolkata, India, that revealed how much he was missing of God’s presence in the world around him:
Suddenly, almost with a click, like a film coming into sync, everything has meaning, everything is real: and the meaning, the reality, shines out in every shape and sound and movement, in each and every manifestation of life…. How, I ask myself, could I have missed it before? How could I not have understood that the grey-silver light across the water, the cry of the sea gulls and the sweep of their wings, everything on which my eyes rest and my ears hear, is telling me about God?*
Brothers and sisters, God is moving all around us, and if we have eyes to see that movement, we will be truly amazed at what is possible because of God’s power and presence in the world. As we continue through this season of Lent, we may find that our vision is impaired by any number of things: our pre-conceived notions about how God is working in the world (or among whom God’s presence can be found); our own spiritual or emotional baggage that seems impossible to throw aside; the competing images of discipleship that play across our television screens or within our community; or simply the unwillingness to open our eyes to the Spirit’s movement in this and every place. If any of this describes you – the way that, if I’m honest with myself, it describes me – then perhaps we would do well to look to Bartimaeus, to call to Jesus for mercy, to throw aside the things that define us and hold us back, and to follow Jesus on the way with clear eyes and open hearts, trusting in his goodness and grace to bring us through death into abundant life. Let it be so among us. Amen.
*Malcolm Muggeridge, Seeing through the Eye: Malcolm Muggeridge on Faith, ed. Cecil Kuhne (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 10-11; quoted in Karen Chakoian, “Mark 10:46-52: Homiletical Perspective”, Feasting on the Word: Mark, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson (Lousiville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 336-7.
Note: Pastor Andrew broke his glasses before Sunday’s service, and with no back-up available, was unable to deliver the sermon as written below. The audio captures the sermon as delivered, but if you’re interested in reading the sermon as it was originally composed, the text is included.
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
How many of you can remember a time when you’ve made it home in the evening and realized that the stuff that’s still on your to-do list looks eerily similar to the stuff that was on it when you left the house that morning? I’ll confess that raising three children aged four and under has made this phenomenon much more familiar than I could have ever thought possible before Evelyn, Isabelle, and Abigail became part of my world. Many evenings, Katie and I compare the list of things that we started out the day intending to do with the list of things that actually got done, and more often than not we discover that one of those lists is much longer than the other. I’m fairly certain you can guess which one is which. I’m also pretty confident in thinking that everyone understands how frustrating it can be when distractions and interruptions cause our carefully crafted “to-do” lists to go up in smoke.
In our gospel reading for today, Jesus appears to be having one of those days. We don’t know, of course, what was on his agenda when he and the disciples landed on the shore after crossing the lake again. All we know is that he was almost immediately surrounded by a crowd of people who, presumably, wanted to hear a few words from the new rabbi whose teaching and preaching had taken Galilee by storm. Personally, I imagine that Jesus was just getting ready to open his mouth and begin teaching when Jairus, the local synagogue leader, suddenly emerged from the crowd, fell at his feet, and cried out: “My daughter is dying! Please! Come lay your hands upon her, so that she might be healed and live!”
Whatever plans Jesus may have had that day quickly faded into the background. He set out toward Jairus’ house, and the great crowd that had gathered on the lakeshore pressed all around him in their eagerness to see what would happen next.
Then, just as suddenly as before, Jesus’ day took another turn, as his plans are again interrupted by an unnamed woman who had been struggling with a terrible illness for twelve years. I’m not sure that she intended to derail Jesus on his journey to Jairus’ house; on the contrary, it seems that she was looking for a quick healing that would go unnoticed and allow her to go on with her life. She didn’t throw herself at his feet and beg him for healing. She didn’t do anything to try to stop him from going about his business. She just hoped that getting her fingers on the very fringes of his garment would be enough to free her from the physical and emotional suffering that had been her constant companion for twelve years. So she pushed through the crowd, approached Jesus from behind, and made a desperate reach for one of the tassels on his prayer shawl.
As soon as she made contact she received the healing that she longed for, but she also became the recipient of some unwanted attention. Jesus sensed that his power had touched someone in the crowd, and he couldn’t keep going toward Jairus’ house until he figured out who that someone was. The disciples balked at his question – Who touched me? – but Jesus was undeterred. Despite the urgency of Jairus’ request, he continued asking for the person who had touched him to step forward. Finally, after what must have seemed like an eternity, the woman stepped forward, fell at his feet, and told him the whole story. His response is striking: “Daughter, your trust has healed you. Go in peace and be whole, freed from your affliction!”
Jesus turned to continue his journey to the bedside of Jairus’ daughter when he was interrupted again, this time by messengers from the synagogue leader’s house: “Your daughter is dead! Why are you still troubling the teacher?” Jesus knew right away that this interruption was not worth his time, so he ignored the messengers, reassured Jairus, and went forward to finish what he had started back on the lake shore. When Jesus arrived at the house, he threw the mourners out of the house, took Jairus, his wife, and three of his disciples to the bedside, and, as if it was perfectly normal, addressed the girl and raised her to new life: “Talitha, koum!” Just like that, the girl was up, walking around, and eating with her family, and Jesus and his disciples were on the road again to continue their mission of mercy.
I love this story, because I think it demonstrates something important about Jesus and his attitude toward life and ministry. As I said earlier, it’s not unusual for us to become angry or frustrated when our carefully planned agendas are interrupted. Part of that is just the anxiety of having to switch gears on the fly, but on a deeper level I think it’s because we often imagine that the things that we have planned are much more important than anything else that could possibly come along. That’s why this reading from Mark is so important: where we see interruptions as problems that derail and distract us from our objectives, Jesus saw interruptions as opportunities to extend his mission to those in need.
This is a lesson that we can all too often forget in the midst of our busy lives. Sometimes, the very people and things that we regard as distractions are – despite the imagined importance of our daily plans – the people and things that God is calling us to attend to. That’s not to say, of course, that our plans are never important, or that we need to entertain everything and everyone who comes across our path. It is to say, however, that maybe – just maybe – the interruption that strikes you or me as a distraction is really an opportunity for us to bring the gospel of life and light into a situation in which it is desperately needed.
That’s a particularly important idea for us to ponder as we prepare for our annual congregational meeting. We all have ideas about where God is calling us to go as the people of St. Paul’s, and your council and other leaders have worked diligently to help carry out the work of our congregation and set the course for the next year of mission and ministry in the Falls City area. We intend to continue daily, weekly, and monthly to follow the Spirit’s leading. As we do that, we should be especially careful that we don’t dismiss the opportunities for ministry that come out of the blue, the chances to extend God’s grace and love in unexpected ways and to unexpected people.
As we reflect on 2015, look ahead to 2016, and then go out from this place in service to God and neighbor this week, let us reflect on this gospel reading and the way that Jesus handles the “distractions” that get thrown his way. Let us pray that God will help us to figure out which “distractions” are actually occasions for ministry and mission in Christ’s name. Above all, let us remember that we worship a God who is always with us, who never views us or our needs as mere distractions, and who responds to us with love and grace beyond measure. Thanks be to God! Amen.
I mentioned at the beginning of the service that today, the first Sunday after the Epiphany, marks for many “liturgical” churches the observance of the “Baptism of Our Lord”, a significant festival on which we spend time pondering the importance of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan. You may have noticed that the story of Jesus’ baptism is nowhere to be found today, and that, of course, is because Mark’s rapid-fire story covered that ground two full weeks ago. Where most other congregations who are observing this occasion are reading that story this morning, we are well-past it, instead hearing more about the healing and teaching ministry of Jesus in the Galilean town of Capernaum. What does Jesus’ mission of mercy in Galilee have to do with his baptism in the Judean wilderness? Hopefully that will be made clear in the next several minutes; for now, let’s take a closer look at what Jesus is up to in this morning’s reading.
The opening episode in today’s text is a little bit curious, particularly if we pay attention to an easily-missed detail from last week’s reading. Toward the end of chapter one, Mark recalls that Jesus is stationed at his disciple’s mother-in-law’s house, and people who have heard about his ability to heal and cast out demons are coming from all over town, bringing their loved ones who are afflicted by disease or demons to be restored to wholeness. Here’s Mark’s summary of what happened that night:
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And 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. (Mark 1:32-34, NRSV)
Though it may not seem clear, Mark intends us to understand this as an all-encompassing healing. ALL who are sick and suffering from possession are brought to Jesus, and he heals them all – many, many people are brought to new and abundant life because of what Jesus does that night.
Fast forward to today’s reading, and suddenly Jesus is confronted with another situation that requires healing. We don’t know whether this paralyzed man came from out of town or whether his paralysis was caused by a recent injury, but in any case, Jesus’ ministry of healing was required once again. (As an aside, I’m almost as impressed by Jesus’ ability to keep teaching while a group of guys was digging through the ceiling directly above him, but that’s a topic for another sermon). What makes this story different is that Jesus ups the ante, so to speak. He doesn’t stop with the physical need of the man lying before him; he also reckons with the spiritual need that he – and, indeed, all people – have: forgiveness, reconciliation – in short, restoration to relationship with God. It’s this new dimension of his ministry, this pronouncement of sin, that raises the ire of the “experts in the law” gathered there in that cramped house. As their statement suggests, they – and, if we’re clear about our own theology, we – believe that only God can forgive sins. There’s a reason, it turns out, that the order of confession and forgiveness at the beginning of each of our services specifies that forgiveness comes from God by the authority of Jesus, not from me. As a called and ordained minister of Christ, and by his authority, I declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins. In other words, I declare the reality that your sins have already been forgiven by God for the sake of (and by the authority of) Jesus. So these scribes aren’t saying anything unusual. They’re acknowledging that God is the source of forgiveness, and that the idea that just any human being can claim this ability is contrary to Scripture.
The rub, of course, is that Jesus isn’t just any human being, and that’s where the whole story of Jesus’ baptism comes in. Let’s recall the scene as Mark tells it:
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And 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. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He 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. 8I have baptized you with1 water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And 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. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:4-11 NRSV)
The baptism that Jesus receive was an affirmation of his unique identity and a confirmation of his unique ministry. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, went out preaching and teaching and healing and casting out demons because that was what he was sent out to do (Mark 1:38, NRSV). That he did those things in a way that no one had ever done them before was a consequence of the fact that he was unlike anyone else who had ever lived. We celebrate Jesus’ baptism because it was the visible sign of his evident authority, and because that sign has in a different sense been repeated in the one baptism that is shared by Christians throughout the world and throughout time and space. Yes, there was something unique about the baptism of Jesus, but there is also something in that baptism which is shared by all who have received this sign of God’s love and grace in our own lives – “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Through that baptism, God’s divine breath rushes into our bodies, and we are forever changed. The old garment that clings so closely to us is torn asunder by the new thing that God does in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. The new wine of God’s grace bursts forth from the old wineskins of sin and death that surround us and our broken world.
This word about the old and the new is not a polemic against Judaism. It is a recognition that human existence is caught inescapably between settled patterns and new thinking, between “the way we’ve always done things” and “the way that things are changing”. Every religion deals with this tension – Christianity just as much as any other – and Jesus comes to challenge “business as usual” so that new life, new possibility, new horizons might be seen and explored. As people who bear Christ’s name and who are filled with God’s Holy Spirit, we are called always to be looking out for the new thing that God is doing so that we might be partners with God in pointing toward the new creation is even now springing out among us. Where Christ is present, healing and restoration are possible. Where Christ is present, those who are lonely find dignity and love and relationship. Where Christ is present, new things are always possible.
On this feast day, may you be reminded of the new thing that God offers to you and me and all people through this sacrament, this mystery of grace and new life. May we be inspired to look at our world anew, with eyes opened to the possibility of abundant life poured out like water in a world parched by the withering heat of hatred and judgment and conflict and distrust. May the grace of God burst forth anew into our hearts, so that others might know that grace in all that we say and do. Thanks be to God! 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.