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Worship this Week
This Sunday’s worship will focus on another story of Jesus calling his disciples to follow him. What might Jesus mean when he says “the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”? How are we called to share that good news now? Join us to find out. You can find this week’s service here at 10:00: https://youtu.be/cULgrnQuSKU
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Raise your hand if you haven’t slept very well this week. Raise your hand if you’ve watched more hours of news than you know is healthy. Raise your hand if you eventually managed to turn off your devices and sleep but still felt – still feel – a constant hum of anxiety moving through your body.
I’m right there with you. I don’t have a magic pastor blanket that I can wrap around me to keep away those fears and worries. I’ve had more than one night this week when I woke up in the middle of the night and tossed and turned. I tried praying, though the prayers mostly came out like fragments of questions that we hear in the psalms: Why, God? Why? How long, O Lord, how long will this go on? I know God hears what I’m trying to say in those jumbled prayers, but it can still take a while to fall asleep again.
Sometimes I’ll get up in those restless hours for a drink of water. Something so basic and necessary – water. Water that cleanses, water that nourishes, water that keeps us alive. It’s why we use water for baptism – because it is at once so ordinary and so vital.
The story of Jesus’ baptism is the very first story we hear about him in the gospel of Mark. There’s nothing here about Mary and Joseph. No angels. No shepherds. No wise men. Not in these opening verses. Instead, right out of the gate we meet this strange character of John the Baptist, who has tons of people flocking out to the wilderness. And for what? To confess their sins. To be baptized. To hear John talk about this more powerful person who is coming soon. It doesn’t exactly sound like Disney World, but people are coming to the wilderness from throughout the Judean countryside, including from the city of Jerusalem. What would make people leave the relative safety of the city and head out to the desert?
We learn both in scripture and in our own lives that we can’t always predict what places are safe and what places are dangerous. You think the solid structures of Jerusalem will be safe, until you realize that by the time the gospel of Mark is written down, the Romans have destroyed the Jewish temple. You think the Capital building in Washington, D.C. will be safe, well-guarded. Until an armed mob finds its ways inside and wreaks havoc in places you thought were sacred. You assume the wilderness is wild and dangerous. And it can be. But it can also be a place where something new happens. The wilderness can offer a pathway to redemption, an encounter with the living God in the waters of the river.
As promised by John, Jesus shows up out there in the wilderness. He is baptized by John in the river Jordan, and what happens next is important. Just as Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are torn apart, and the Spirit descends like a dove on Jesus.
The word that the author of Mark’s gospel chooses here is important. Torn apart. The gospels of Matthew and Luke say simply that the heavens opened. But the gospel of Mark describes the heavens being torn apart. Mark uses the Greek word schizo – from which we get words like schizophrenic or schism. It suggests something more unsettling, more disruptive to the way things have been before that moment. It’s not like opening a door and then closing it, which doesn’t really change things all that much. This is a rending open that says things will not return to their usual state.
What’s happening in this moment is that God does not intend to maintain some kind of careful distance between God and us. God is about crossing boundaries and borders, saying, “I have come to love you up close. And I refuse to let you stay mired in a life of sin. I’m offering you a new way to be, a new way to live, a new way to love.”
I needed that reminder this week. I needed to remember that there is a profound difference between human disruptions and God’s holy disruptions. We saw this week that human disruptions often lead to destruction – not just of property, but of lives. People killed, people traumatized, people huddled behind locked doors and calling family members to say “I love you” because they are convinced that they’re about to die. The very fabric of our democratic process threatened. I will leave it to the historians and the political scientists to provide certain kinds of analysis of what happened on Wednesday. What I can speak to is what happened theologically.
This week we saw idolatry up close. Many of the people in that mob call themselves Christian, only they’ve decided to regard politicians as their savior instead of Jesus. Make no mistake: Putting Jesus’ name on a sign does not make a person a follower of Jesus, especially if that person demeans and endangers Jewish people, black and brown people, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and anyone else who doesn’t fit their self-proclaimed ideal.
We don’t have time this morning to untangle all the ways that what happened Wednesday is rooted in those hatreds, but the name for it is Christian nationalism. In simplistic terms it merges a worship of God with a worship of country, and that’s where the trouble begins. Because God never tells us to worship a country. You might recall that the very first commandment is “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.”
It’s easy to look at the participants in Wednesday’s mob and say, “I would never do something so terrible.” And you probably wouldn’t. It’s also easy to look at what happened and feel helpless. What can I do about it?
We have seen so clearly this week that human disruptions are destructive and dangerous. So where, then, do God’s holy disruptions lead us? What happens when the heavens are torn open and God meets us in this mess of our own making? Where does God lead us? Not to safety, necessarily.
After his own baptism, Jesus is sent into the wilderness to be tempted and tormented by Satan for 40 days. Baptism leads to a direct confrontation with evil.
In baptism God gives us the gift of forgiveness and the promise of eternal life. Which in turn gives us freedom…
The freedom to confront the sin that we find, both within ourselves and in the world around us.
The freedom to reject some cheap version of unity and to pursue instead the hard work of addressing what divides us and why.
The freedom to stand with and for all of the people that Wednesday’s mob would rather harm or kill.
The freedom to follow Jesus over those boundaries that he is always crossing, trusting that he alone is our source of life and hope.
You may recall that in our Lutheran baptism service, right before we say the Creed together, we go through three questions one after the other that are often called the renunciations. This week seems like a good time to repeat them. We ask the person about to be baptized – or the parents, if it’s a baby:
Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?
Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?
Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?
The person responds: I renounce them.
People of God, I’m going to ask you to make those renunciations again this morning. After each question I invite you to say “I renounce them” and, in doing so, to renew your commitment to living your baptismal promises in a world that wants you to worship many other things besides God.
Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God? I renounce them.
Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God? I renounce them.
Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God? I renounce them.
Children of God, may you know God’s presence every day, our God who tears open the heavens to be with us. May you be emboldened by the courage that comes with trusting that Christ sets us free from sin and death. May you be sent out by the Spirit to speak and act in the name of all that is holy. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
I recently took a walk in my neighborhood, and I noticed that a lot of the decorations were looking a little rough at this point in the season. There was the snowman whose head was flopped sideways as if its neck were broken. Two shiny reindeer had fallen over on the grass like they had passed out. There was a tree growing beside someone’s front door, and it was decorated with red bows and shiny silver garland, but the tree itself was half dead. There were more brown patches than green. I’m not sure it’s going to make it.
The most striking example was the large nativity set on someone’s porch. It looked like it had been quite beautiful at one time, featuring large plaster figures of each character in the scene, each one brightly painted. But today it’s in pretty bad shape, with much of the paint chipped off of each figure. Even the camel had so many bare spots that he looked mangy.
And while it somehow seemed appropriate to the story of Jesus’ birth that Mary and Joseph and the shepherds would look a little shabby, it was a bit jarring to see the wise men looking so beaten up. They’re supposed to be the fancy people in the story, the ones with a certain amount of wealth and status. But in this version, they looked as beaten up as the rest.
At first I found all these sights a bit depressing. At the very least they seemed like a metaphor for how we might be feeling as a new year begins without so far seeming much different than the old year. But I stopped and took a breath and remembered that Jesus is not born because things are perfect and shiny. He’s born because we, like the lopsided snowman and the passed-out-reindeer and the half-dead tree and the beaten-up nativity set, are in need of new life. And new life is precisely what Jesus brings.
To visit Jesus the wise men travel through a world that is far from perfect. At that time travel of any kind was perilous, with thieves waiting to assault you at any point along the road. As the wise men follow the star to find this new king, they make a pit stop with a king who is both insecure and tyrannical – a dangerous combination. King Herod pretends that he, too, wants to pay homage to the child, but of course he only wants to find Jesus in order to kill him.
I was reminded by Pastor James Howell this week that it’s easy to mix up all the Herods in the Bible. It’s King Herod the Great who ruled when Jesus was born. His son, Herod Antipas, reigned when Jesus was crucified. In other places there’s a Herod Archaelaus, Herod Philip, and a couple of Herod Agrippas. But, as Pastor Howell points out, all these Herods are really different versions of the same guy. In his words, “all were egotistical, petty potentates, in bed with the Romans, and clueless about God.”[i]
In spite of the dangers, the wise men show up, and they bring what they have to offer. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Extravagant gifts that could easily have been stolen on the journey. They’re funny gifts for a baby, though appropriate for a king.
The wise men go home by another road, we hear. They’re trying to avoid the unhinged Herod, and they certainly don’t want to be responsible for endangering Jesus. So they go home by another road. I don’t know if they had starlight for this part of the journey, but I hope so. We all need some extra guidance when we follow a new pathway.
A little after midnight as the new year began, I stepped outside and looked up at the sky and saw a gorgeous moon, bright and round. I saw not just one star but a sky full of them. I breathed in the cold air, and I thought about all that had happened in 2020 that none of us imagined when it was just beginning.
And then I thought: What if we all try a different road this year?
There’s a lot over which we have no control. The wise men couldn’t change the distance or the danger of the journey. They couldn’t change Herod’s instability or vengeance. We can’t wave a magic wand and make everything better at once.
But in many ways we can choose a different road.
We can do more listening than yelling.
We can stay curious. We can be open to learning something we may not have understood before.
We can commit to making the road safe for everybody who travels it, especially those for whom the road has been dangerous for far too long.
We can trust that God is always with us on the road, however lonely it can feel sometimes.
We can trust that God’s promise of new life meets us in our battered brokenness and says, “You don’t have to be polished and perfect. Just be faithful.”
I don’t know if those count as resolutions, but I do know this. If we are able to follow this new road, it is only because God is leading the way, bathing us in light and love for the journey ahead, willing to die for us.
I’ve mentioned Sarah Bessey before, a Christian writer I enjoy following online. She has this to say about the new year, and I offer it to you as part prayer, part blessing[ii]:
May the God of compassion and open doors be with us this coming year.
Everything sad won’t come untrue this year and this year will hold its own tragedies and sorrows. We’ll relearn lament and fight for joy. May we show up with courage and faithfulness for our lives and our callings and our people. May we be restored and renewed even in exile. May the wilderness become our cathedral and our altar.
May we say good-bye to the things that do not serve us – the selfishness, the fear, the illusions of control, the bitterness, the doomscrolling, the self-pity, the martyr complex, the us-and-them fire stokers – and say hello to wisdom, to kindness, to justice, curiosity, wonder, goodness, generosity, possibility, peace making.
May we throw open the doors of our lives to the disruptive, wild, healing Holy Spirit. May this be a year of unclenched hands and new songs, of vaccines and reunions, of good food and some laughter, of kind endings and new beginnings. May we be given a mustard seed of faith; it will be enough to notice and name what you love in particular about your life as it stands.
May 2021 bring you goodness and courage, hope and love, resilience and a hand to hold even on the nights with no stars.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ