That God is here

Jesus is all grown up.  And he’s about to be introduced to the world for who he really is.  John has been paving the way, but God does the introducing.  And I think about how God wanted all this to start, and while there is a lot that varies in the different gospel accounts, Matthew Mark and Luke, and even John weighs in here a little bit, tell this part of the story the same way:

John is out there doing his prophet thing – just as his parents Zechariah and Elizabeth were told in Luke that he would be.  He’s out there telling the world – he’s coming. God with us is coming!

And then Jesus comes incognito among those gathering outside the city to listen to this wild man; in the midst of those longing for the redemption John passionately describes, to wade into the waters of repentance and renewal and say Yes to God.  Here among them, sandals dusty, palms sweaty and heart pounding hard, walks God with us.  With and alongside you and me.

The time has come, to begin what God came to earth in human form to do, and it begins here, first anonymous in the crowd, submitting to the ritual, then coming out of the waters of life to this striking moment, when God the Father, busting with joy, shouts out from the heavens, in light and dove and voice, Hey! This is my kid! My beloved! I am so delighted in him!

And then immediately the Spirit drives Jesus into the barren and lonely wilderness, with its disorienting desolation and fearsome beasts, and there, in his weakness, angels minister to Jesus.
And with the breathless urgency of Mark’s telling, immediately after that, Jesus’ ministry begins, and his first words are, “The time is now.
God’s reign is here among us! Change your mind, and trust in this good news!”
And then he calls out from the beach to ordinary people like you and me, doing their ordinary thing, “Follow me!” and something deep inside them feels seen and summoned, and without hesitation they walk away from all they’ve ever known to follow him.

And there is a movement to this whole thing, this mixture of vital ingredients, one after the other, God’s recipe for launching Jesus’ earthly ministry, and it can be shown like this, as a parent, here is what I would want my children to know about life as they head into the world:
First, you are just like everyone else, alongside them, no better, no worse. All humanity is in this together, drawn to hope and redemption, longing to say Yes to God.
Second, you are mine, absolutely beloved, and I am so delighted in you.
Third, life is really hard, and you will feel lonely, and overwhelmed.
But even when things within and around you feel chaotic and scary, God will always take care of you.
And lastly, you are not to go about this all alone – you need community, friends, people who have got your back and who will tell you the truth and will be in this with you, come what may.

And, so, this is the beginning of how God came to be with us. Immediately, these four elements are woven into Jesus’ life before he goes on in ministry, solidarity, belovedness, wilderness and community. They set him up for what is coming. The beginning of God with us.

Today we hear how Mark begins the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God, and for the next several weeks we’re going to fly through Mark – we will come back in the summer for some of the teachings and miracles- but Mark is going to take us through the season of Lent and Easter.

And so it’s important for you to know, right at the outset, that Mark has his own particular perspective, his own take on what is most important to know about who God with us and how God is with us, and it might be encapsulated by noticing this: 0% of this gospel is focused on Jesus’ birth or childhood.  And a full 40% of this gospel is focused on Jesus’ death and the passion narrative. 

Commentator C Clifton Black says, “This is of vital importance. No other religion, ancient or postmodern, professes its most patent contradiction as its most fundamental belief…. Only Christianity professes a crucified Messiah as the agent by whom this tortured world is being set to rights. Far from transporting its adherents out of this world’s vapor or viciousness, only Christian faith continuously drives them back to its most despicable mockery -- the shame of the cross -- and dares to proclaim that there, and nowhere else, has the God of the living acted incognito to restore all of creation.”

God goes into the darkest places with and for us. Our need to have a god who is strong and invincible, set apart and untarnished, with followers who are highly respectable, and worthy of admiration? Mark will blow all that away, and the disciples hardly know what is going on most of the time. 

Mark doesn’t spend a whole lot of energy on doctrinal claims or atonement theories – the good news of the gospel is declared in Jesus’ first words of ministry: God is here. God is with us in this life. And God goes all the way to and through death with and for us.

When my son Owen was born, they handed him to Andy while they tended to me, and I was aware of a conversation, a brand new Daddy and his tiny, swaddled, red-faced son, gazing into his face with alert attention, while Andy gently talked to him in an intimate whisper.  Later on, I asked him what he said in those first words, expecting some tender, sweet baby talk, but being the warped theologian that he is, he answered, “I welcomed him to this life and told him that he will one day die- that is what it means to be alive. But even so, he belongs to God, and God’s life never ends. And then I told him that he would be scared, and he would be sad, but he would never be alone. I am his Daddy, and I will be there with him.”

What if we said it that bluntly at baptism? You will die.  But my child, feel the truth poured over you in water, traced over you in oil, and prayed around you by the breath of the brethren gathered here to witness: no matter what, you belong to God, you belong to life eternal, which has conquered death, and you will never ever be alone.

Some people here today were baptized as babies and don’t remember it at all. The community who baptized you held that story for you, reminded you of that moment, as they reminded you of your place in the life of God.  And as you grew and struggled and ran from God and returned to God, what remained over you is this blessing and claiming of God. God’s Yes to you that drew you back to grace, to forgiveness, to new beginnings and lasting hope. God’s forever words over you, This is My beloved. No matter what and always.

Some people here today – myself included-  were baptized when they were older, when they gave their life to Jesus.  It was for us an outward sign of an inward reality-  that I belong to life instead of death, and I long to follow with my whole heart, and so I receive the grace that God bestows in the presence of this community that bears witness to my belonging to God.

Some people here today have not yet been baptized. And you belong to God no less than the rest of us.  But I want to invite you to consider being baptized, “tattooed with the resurrection,” as we’ve sometimes called it.  Because it is a sacrament, a marked moment in time, with water, words and witnesses, where the Holy Spirit seals what is true about you, and gives you something to look back on in the dark times, and the sad times, and the times when death feels big and scary, and say, Yes, I belong to God, no matter what. This is who I am: Beloved.

And one day, the truth this water and witness symbolizes and samples will be complete in all its fullness, when we stand in the very presence of God, whole, and healed, and part of the community of love that never, ever ends. 

We are grounded in the truth that death is real, and it’s scary, and we might be afraid, but we are never, ever alone. And we live that out alongside each other because when you belong to the Beloved, you see others through that same lens, and are able to recognize the claim of God on their life too – this one is my beloved! And this one! Beloved of God! Precious and irreplaceable!

The followers of Jesus in John’s gospel are witnesses, those called to notice and point out and recognize and share about Jesus. 
Matthew’s gospel seeks disciples, those who learn the teachings and absorb the meaning and see the big picture and shape their lives accordingly.
But in Mark, all they need to do is follow.
And they do a mostly lousy job of that.  They are generally selfish and hardheaded, slow to pick up on what Jesus is doing, and they fall asleep on him when he needs them most, but that doesn’t stop Jesus.  Jesus stays committed to them. Because Jesus is the good news: God is here with us, no matter what. 

So that day, on the beach, calling out to the first of them, stirring them from interested spectators into followers, Jesus invites them, as they are, I will make you fish for people – I know you, I know who you are. And it’s you, specifically, that I am calling. Show up.  Stay with me. Let go of what anchors you here and follow where I go.
And dear, eager disciples, you will not be able to, at least not very well, but Jesus will not give up on you, you beloved ones. Answer the call.

And here and now, we are the followers, called to go where he goes, to watch the truth lived out in the flesh: that we, and this whole earth, belong to God, that Belovedness is our source and our calling.
So come, follow Jesus into the waters, alongside everyone else. And hear the blessing spoken over you, BELOVED.  Face your wilderness, your wild beasts, your fear and hunger – you will not be abandoned, you will be cared for, fed, blessed, even within the chaos of this place.  And seek and find the community that follows with you, well and poorly; find those who help you show up.

Here’s where I say: This is that community.  And I am so blessed to be your pastor. There are not words for what a gift it is to be in this with you, and how astounding it feels to watch you be alongside each other in solidarity, belovedness, wilderness and community.  It is true what we say: When we are with and for each other we meet Jesus Christ, who is with and for us.

Oh, friends, this is a sacred and holy thing! It’s messy and we flail around a lot, but in all its awkwardness and joy, in all the ways we get it tragically wrong and beautifully right, it is the most holy thing I know. 

You should know, if you don’t already, that I have no tolerance for pretending when it comes to these things. If this ever were about acting a certain way, thinking or believing certain things, being part of some kind of set apart club, or being comforted by platitudes that insulate us from the pain and suffering of real life, then so help me God, I’d be out of here. I want nothing to do with those things.

For me, this can only be about the good news, which is, God is here, God has come, God is with us in THIS life, and every moment is infused with grace.  And we get to live in that reality together and help each other be real, and present to that mystery in our lives. To that miracle in the world.

Today we have our annual meeting, where we’ll look back at the last year and share together where we’ve seen God, where we’ve missed God, how we’ve joined in what the Spirit was doing, and what we hope and long for as we look forward.  
And we’ll use some business language and spreadsheets, and talk about paying bills and meeting a budget, but that is all stirred together with, and for the purpose of, seeking to be witnesses like John, and disciples like Matthew, and followers like Mark, to, above all, live in trust, ready to go where the Spirit leads us. 

And underneath it all is that holy heartbeat that claims us, beloved, that brings these people together mainly to keep on saying, in word and deed, God is right here, God is with us, the whole world is God’s, and we belong to the one who calls us Beloved.

For this, O Lord, I give you my deepest thanks.


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