These last two sermons of Christmastide share the story of my church’s Christmas Eve service and how God disrupts the elegant logic of Mark’s gospel. Discipleship will always come with difficulties, but any fear we have will be matched by the Christ light.
Begging the Question: Mark 1.1-20
Delivered at Ames UCC on December 29, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
BEGGING THE QUESTION
Do you know the phrase “begging the question”?
Begging the question is a logical fallacy, meaning it is a false mode of making an argument, because it assumes what a conclusion will be and then finds the proof of that conclusion. Another term might be a circular argument.
The gospel we are now studying until Easter, Mark, is an exquisite example of begging the question. Specifically, Mark’s gospel, through gorgeous means, assumes from the very start that Jesus is the one and the only Christ, or Anointed, or Messiah, and that his life, death, and resurrection signal a coming, and final, collision between history and God.
Rather a collection of Jesus tales from which we might draw our own conclusions, Mark lays out its evidence of Christic signs, right from the start, right where we read today.
On its surface, this passage is about someone named John, a rather peculiar sounding man, quoting one of the ancient Isaiahs. He says one is coming who will baptize the people with a Holy Spirit. Then Jesus appears and the Holy Spirit does. Jesus then tells people to change their hearts. It must work because Simon, Andrew, James, and John all bail on their work and families to follow Jesus.
On its surface, the evidence of Jesus’ role and person is in the herald of John, the presence of spirit, and the reaction of the disciples.
It’s a pretty great story. But Mark’s case is far deeper than the surface narrative.
John, for example, is more than a man of significant words.
While his ensemble and choice of cuisine may be off-putting, the hairy leather-belted John is dressed as the prophet Elijah once was (2 Kings 1.8). Elijah, who in the book of Kings proved that his God is the god, through the resurrection of the dead and slaughter of thousands. Elijah who himself often resided in the wilderness and survived on the leftovers of carrion birds. Elijah, who never dies but is, the story goes, but is transported away on a chariot.
In Mark’s gospel Elijah has returned, in part, in the person of John. So not only does John quote important prophetic scripture that seems to come true, he embodies one of the most important prophets while doing so, too.
Then there is a funny bridging. While the Baptizer is an echo of Elijah he is also a foreshadow of Jesus: John was handed over to the regional authority and was killed, as Jesus will be himself.
Before that happens, though, Jesus continues the executed Baptizer’s prophetic work. He will also take on the mantle of Elijah, too.
In the Hebrew Bible, in 1 Kings, we read that Elijah was passing through a field and he came upon Elisha, the son of Shaphat, at his work with his oxen in the field. Elijah puts his cloak on Elisha and walks away. Elisha takes this as a sign that Elijah wants Elisha to be his disciple but first, he asks, may he kiss his parents goodbye? Sure, Elijah says, and Elisha does, he does bid farewell to his people but only after slaughtering his oxen, his means of production (19.19-21).
Jesus’ call to the disciples, which we heard today, is similar: Jesus is walking by people at work and tells them to come with him. They do, abandoning their own means of production, their nets, as well as their own parents, like Zebedee.
Jesus is first vouched for by John-as-Elijah. Jesus then seems, in his actions, to be vouched for by Elijah in himself.
Do you see what I mean about Mark being gorgeous?
In Mark’s account the seeker received surety that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah, quoted by John. Surety that everything in the Hebrew Bible, and all of God’s work described therein, points toward this, this gospel of Mark, and the Jesus in it.
Unless the seeker knows about the gospels of Matthew and Luke and John. And those of Judas and Mary and Thomas. None of which agree in their entirety and often disagree on substantial details and theological claims. As does the Hebrew Bible itself.
Scholars suggest, then, that Mark’s gospel is not intended for the un-believing, the newly-seeking, but to teach the already-faithful, the already-Easter-touched. It is to guide the initiated in “the” “correct” understanding of how Jesus is the anointed of all anointed, thereby providing “the” “correct” guide for how to be a disciple. Mark’s gospel is not a text for conversion, it is not an evangelical pamphlet, but fully formed doctrine. Mark is a proof-text for the already-convicted. Mark’s gospel is begging the question of Christ for those who already have the answer.
Which makes me wonder about Mark’s audience before they became his audience.
If Mark is doctrine for the indoctrinated, how did they get to that point? How did Mark’s intended audience become so taken by God in Jesus Christ that they would then want and need this eloquent, comprehensive case for his Messiah-ship?
For I suspect that is a place many of us have found ourselves and may be in now. A place where we have felt a touch of Spirit holy somehow connected to what we call Jesus Christ. The space where God acts when we are not preparing a way.
That is the space I am most compelled by because it is outside of the human will to convince and even control. It is the space Jesus went to before beginning his ministry.
I skipped over part of today’s story because Mark nearly does, too. Mark briefly mentions that the Holy Spirit sent Jesus to a wilderness for 40 days, where he was tempted by an accuser, cared for by beasts and angels.
That is an awfully big moment to gloss over.
In Matthew’s gospel we have a conversation between Jesus and Accuser “recorded,” but here we just have the idea of it. Mark offers only the idea that someone who is God had to face a test of all convictions protected only by creatures impossible.
An idea that makes no sense.
It is completely illogical that someone anointed, someone messianic, someone pre-ordained and prophesied, has to be tested, isn’t just born ready.
But there it is.
Even in the midst of an effort to make an airtight argument, someone or generations of someones left that line in, God messing with the catechist’s case. As eloquent as Mark’s credentialing of Jesus is, as fun as it is to learn of his allusions to prophets past, faith in God, Christ, holiness, the sacred, the divine, is not a matter of logic. It is not a matter of proof. Faith is a wilderness walk with protected uncertainty. It lasts more than a phase of the moon and has no witnesses to speak.
From the mother to the fields to the manger to the magi, this the lasting gift of Christmastide: As Mark and the church beg the question of Christ, God begs us to question everything, to be questioned by everything. For there we will find the care of beasts and angels, there we will find the Christ to teach us how to be the disciples not to Mark or to the church, but the disciples God needs us to be.
Did You Come to Destroy Us?: Mark 1.21-44
Delivered at Ames UCC on January 5, 2020
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Our opening prayers clearly want me to preach on the need to find a place to be quiet and listen to God.:
One: Come away to a quiet place,
Many: To worship the Lord.
One: Come away to a quiet place,
Many: To pray to the Lord.
One: Come away to a quiet place,
Many: To be with the Lord.
There is a great deal that happens in today’s scripture selection, but our prayer authors, a Lutheran group in Minnesota, narrowed in on Jesus’ regular practice of prayer. Which is not only good, but vital.
But what happens when one of our prayer spaces no longer feels safe, what if it no longer is safe?
The part of the passage that gutted me on my own first reading this time around was this line: “Did you come to destroy us?” It is spoken by the negativity, the depravity, however you want to characterize Biblical demons, to Jesus. It wants to know if Jesus has come to put them down.
What it brought to mind for me, though, are the hundreds of people who have contacted our church—contacted you—or blogged or wrote letters about our church—about you.
I really wrestled with whether to talk about this today as, frankly, I am pretty sick of it all. I am sick of people not understanding the judicial system and sick of reading and listening to all of the crude, nasty, and false descriptions of our church, of you, and sick of the Bible being used as a weapon. So I want nothing more than to move on, to put this chapter behind us. I suspect a whole lot of you do, too. Leave us alone, Christians, for we are busy following Christ.
However, in the midst of taking down our church’s online media to reduce targets for hatemongers, of researching safety procedures and equipment for worship and daily church life along with your Executive Board, there was another church shooting a day after a machete attack on a rabbi’s home and the people therein.
The gunman in the church shooting does not, as of yet, appear to have been ideologically or theologically motivated, but the machete man was. So, as last weekend and so many weeks before have shown, any house of worship could become a target of someone’s will to death but maybe those that are already considered suspect, like those that are Jewish or Muslim or Sikh or queer-affirming and woman-led, maybe those houses of God are more likely to become a target.
No one knows. I’ve spoke with police, I’ve spoken with FBI, and no one knows. Which just adds to the potential for anxiety, for fear.
Not just potential, but reality. I know of two people in our congregation who have told me, and there could be more who have not, that they do not feel safe coming to worship right now specifically because of fear of a more physical attack. And I know that at least some of you here, when you are here, are on heightened alert.
Like on Christmas Eve.
If you weren’t here that night, our Christmas Eve service was so special, so dear. It was identical in liturgy to every other Christmas Eve, but this year our kids unexpectedly brought that liturgy to life, to light.
After the light of the Christ candle had spread in the pews, after you had passed that tangible representation of God’s persistent presence between you, after Barbara had turned out all of the lights, we started to sing “Silent Night,” just like we always do.
But this year, during the first verse, I saw young N., dressed as a dinosaur, come into the center aisle, quickly followed by his dad. N. was looking at the front, his face marked by wonder. I went down and invited N. to come to the front with me so he could look out at the beauty of all of you with your candles. He came right up. Then I caught young E.’s eye in the second or third pew and waved her forward. Then I invited any kid who wanted to see the beauty of God incarnated in you, in your choice to be here, your choice to cherish that light, to come forward.
Loads did. And you kept singing and we kept singing and that night was a holy night.
But moments before that wave of wonder, my body flooded with fear, as I’ve since learned many of yours did, too.
For a man came into the church through our side door off of the parlor there, a man I didn’t recognize, a man carrying something long and dark and straight in his hand.
Here the service was almost over, the sanctuary packed, and a stranger came into our midst with metal. He came to the front pew, pulpit side. I could see that though the object wasn’t a traditional cane it didn’t have the traditional shape of a gun, either. Relieved, Pat, in the choir loft, waved me over because she had an extra candle I could take him for sharing the light. I did and he gave me greetings from another Iowa UCC pastor who is trans. I thought that either he was sincere or he said that in order to get me to let down my guard. So I looked again at his object and saw that it was a walking stick like the kind my wife and I use when out in the woods.
It was shortly after that I saw N.
“Have you come to destroy us,” the demon asks the Christ. “Will you come to destroy us,” we ask those who think we are demonic to Christ.
What do we do when our space to encounter God, this space, that is, feels or actually becomes dangerous?
Recognize that is a risk of faith.
One of the questions we have to ask the gospels is why the disciples stayed by Jesus’ side. Obviously not all of them did, as at the very end it is only the women who remain at the cross. But the betrayal and condemnation of Holy Week are not the first danger they would have experienced.
In today’s story the people who witness Jesus’ rejection of the demonic question his authority to do so. There is something subversive about Jesus, something audacious and threatening.
Even if the disciples were excited and inspired by all they learned and witnessed, surely they also questioned whether it was worth the potential for backlash. Why did they stay by his side rather than melt back into the adoring, and unimplicated, crowd?
Why do you? Will you?
The choice made nearly 20 years ago in this room to be open and affirming makes us audacious and even threatening to some. Hopefully their response will remain in writing, in voice mail. And though I am loathe to incite fear, it would be irresponsible of me not to name the fear I know some of us already have that it will not.
So the authors of our opening prayer were right to focus in on Jesus’ own prayer practice: Because that is where we will find the answer to that question for ourselves. Corporate worship is not enough to discern our risk tolerance, the kind of disciple each of us wants to be. Our worship is assuredly a space holy but it is neither solitary, nor quiet. Thank God.
On your own, if you do not already, talk with God, listen with the heart of your heart. If you don’t know how, maybe it is time for us to start a prayer working group.
When you do, I have faith that you will find, as the magi and so many before us, that light we shared by candle on Christmas Eve.
A light that denies the demonic.
A light that casts out fear.
A light that draws us fearlessly into the world, eagerly saying yes to the wonder of God.