It has been a crummy week ecologically and politically. Will we go to war with Iran? Will forest fires tip us over the edge of survival? Whatever the answers prove to be, the old stories of Jesus provide a deep well of hope.
Let the hope begin!
Today’s stories, and those of the weeks to come, offer so much hope. so much hope for the infirm of spirit, infirm of body, and infirm of community.
Jesus heals a man with paralysis, firmly claiming his authority to do so. Jesus also begins his life of feasting with any who are compelled by his teachings, no matter who they were or where they were on their life’s journey.
Jesus does go a little negative when he contrasts himself to other prophets of the day, namely John the Baptist. Jesus explains that to continue the practice of fasting, as John and his people do, is to try to fill a ragged and patched old wine skin, which will only burst.
But with Jesus, there is a new way. We can become new wine skins, fresh and strong and ready to receive God. And in doing so, overcome our ailments once and for all. Yes! Show us the new way, we ask Jesus.
Unfortunately, history may undermine that claim of uniqueness. History, both secular and Biblical, suggests that Jesus was not so new or different, as he claims. Which may undermine not only our hope, but our choice to disciple ourselves to him, in particular.
Let’s see how Jesus compares, starting with the extra-Biblical, historical writing of Josephus.
Josephus lived in the first century in both the Levant and in Rome. He reported on, to use his words, “charlatans,” “enchanters,” and rebellious villains, in his work The Antiquities of the Jews. Contemporary scholars say that Josephus records a messianic movement that stretched from a century before the common era to two centuries after.
Those messiahs, anointed ones, in Josephus’ account include Theudas, who tried to part the Jordan River a la Moses, but there was a massacre, instead; an Egyptian who promised the collapse of city walls a la Jericho, but there was a massacre instead; a man who took people into the wilderness for salvation and rest but got killed (just the man, not the people); a man who called people to go to the temple to await a sign from God only to be killed—all 6,000 of them that time; Jonathan, who also took people into the wilderness, where they were killed; and a Samaritan who lead an armed crowd to find sacred vessels of Moses, only to be killed.
Do you sense a trend? References to the Hebrew Bible at rivers and city walls. Going to wildernesses as Hagar and Ishmael were once forced to do, as were the fleeing slaves of the Exodus. And murder.
John the Baptist gets killed, too, as we will see in a couple of weeks. As will Jesus, which we mark during Holy Week.
JOHN V JESUS
Of course, the two are not linked or similar only in their death.
In the Lukan account of Jesus’ birth, John is named Jesus’ cousin. But in these adult accounts of their interactions, there seems to be no familial recognition. It would be reasonable to assume that the birth narrative was added in later to link Jesus, through John’s mother Elizabeth, not only to the tradition of Hebrew prophets but to the tradition of barren women birthing miracles.
Before John’s death, he offers people baptism, a ritual of forgiveness and protection. This must have been unique to John as no other person is recorded with the title “the Baptist.” John also takes followers to the wilderness.
Before his own death, Jesus is baptized and goes to the wilderness himself, where he quotes the Hebrew Bible to resist all temptations.
The trend continues in Jesus: referencing the Hebrew Bible, fleeing to wilderness, murder.
Where is the new wine skin, exactly?
How is Jesus not simply preaching what is old and familiar? How different is Jesus, really, and why might we choose him over all others? Part of the answer is in the mystery of Easter, though Jesus is not unique in claims of resurrection, either.
So why him? Because of them.
THEM & US
Because of the masses, named and unnamed, who sought Jesus out—as well as John and Theudas, the Samaritan, and the Egyptian. Because of all those who saw that the tools of their societies were not working to make society whole so they were willing to go into the wild. Because of all those who were sick enough of body and sick enough of spirit to risk the backlash of those who profited from sickness.
Because we know how they feel.
In this room today are people living with cancer and degenerative brain diseases. People living with depression and with addiction. People living with both social alienation and social stigma.
These are painful conditions, nauseating, exhausting, angering. So are this day’s wars and rumor of wars. As is the collapse of that haven of wisdom: wilderness itself.
In Australia, over 12 million acres of land, the equivalent of the state of Maryland, has burned. With that flame has gone an estimated one billion animals. Whole species, like the dunnart and the southern brown bandicoot, both marsupials, may become extinct as a result.
The Amazon, the lungs of our planet, is also burning. The number of individual fires, from development, was up 31% in 2019.
Puerto Rico this weekend was hit by another devastating quake.
If these are not yet sickening of body to us here, they assuredly are sickening of spirit and society, especially since we know that we are the vector of this particular disease, we are the demonic.
And we are the hope.
We are the hope because, surrounded by the strength and witness of our faith ancestors, we still seek out wisdom to change, power to transform. Whatever Jesus’ similarities to the anointed who came before him, it is our similarity to all of their disciples, our shared insistence that the world as it is, is not the world as it should be, that gives us reason, good reason, for hope.
It is also our difference, because unlike the followers of the Baptizer and the Egyptian, we are still here. We are still here setting that open table and sewing a wine skin that can hold us all, together.
In these sickening times, we could easily become paralyzed. But like the person in this story, like so many in the stories of the gospels, our limbs stay loose and our minds stay clear when we attend to the Christ.
Let the hope begin? No, let it continue, let it grow.
Let us root ourselves in Jesus’ movement—ancient and holy, familiar and fresh—that the wilderness might flourish, that the sick might receive care, and that no one need risk their lives in order to live it in peace.
For this sermon I relied on on David B. Levenson’s “Messianic Movements” essay in The Jewish Annotated New Testament (NRSV), edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford University Press, 2011) for the information about Josephus and some additional information about John the Baptist.
at Ames UCC
on January 12, 2020
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.