Author: Chuck Griffin

Pastor of Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn., along beautiful Watts Bar Lake.

One of Us


Mark 1:9-15 (NRSV)

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And 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. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”


It is the season of Lent, and this story of Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness tells us much about how to put sin behind us and grow spiritually, seeking holy alignment with God.

Not that Jesus, who was in a mysterious way fully divine and fully human, had sin in his life. He did have the potential to sin; he simply did not succumb to temptation, as we so often do as frail humans.

We often think of baptism as an act of repentance and a cleansing of sin, and these are accurate notions. We have to go a little deeper into baptism’s meaning, however, to comprehend what the sinless Christ accomplished at the Jordan River, and how it ties to our lives today.

When Jesus was baptized, a new alliance between humanity and God was affirmed. When we accept baptism as the key identifying event in our lives, we make ourselves part of that alliance, with ties that run as deep as the purest bonds of family.

The Father in Heaven affirmed Jesus’ sonship; in baptism, we too become children of Father God, siblings of the Savior Son. As the author of Hebrews notes, “The one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.”

Think of baptism as God lifting up his children, gazing upon them and claiming them as his own. God also kneels down with his children. Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness was God, through Jesus’ eyes, seeing life from our level. And what a painful place the wilderness can be.

In the other synoptic gospels (Matthew and Luke), the effort to tempt Jesus is described in greater detail. We hear specifically the lures old Satan dangled to try to convince Jesus to sin: You know you’re hungry; make bread from stones. Throw yourself from the highest point of the temple; angels will save you. Bow down to me and I’ll let you rule the world!

I also like the less-detailed account in Mark, however. It creates the possibility that Jesus faced the temptations most dangerous to me. I feel I can see him walking about in the chalky, sun-baked wilderness, hungrily praying about everything that draws humans away from God.

I’m also reminded of the need to find time apart for meditation and prayer. Folks, we’re really not very good at this in our culture. It is as if our goal is to fill every moment with something to tingle the ears or penetrate the eyes, as if time spent in unstimulated silence is somehow wasted.

We fail to do what Jesus did. We fail to go without so we can remember our fragility and dependence. That’s the real purpose of fasting. The act helps us become more conscious of the voids within us, deep depressions in the soul we too often try to fill with excesses in eating, sex, recreation or other diversions.

Having consumed the wrong kind of sustenance and thinking we are satisfied, we then fail to gather our strength through direct communion with God. That’s the great result of intense communal worship and private prayer: Those voids can be permanently filled with God’s Holy Spirit.

I don’t talk about our failures to make us despair, however. No, I point them out so we can, with God’s help, overcome them and be amazed at all that God wants to do for us!

Never forget that in the midst of what seemed like vacant, dry wasteland, a place of constant danger, there were angels ready to tend to our sibling Savior. Do you not think they will do the same for us, his little brothers and sisters in the family of God?

All around us there is a God-aligned spirit world ready to come to our aid. Its members stand between us and what tries to afflict us. They go to war for us against the forces of evil, if only we let them.

When the brokenness of this world overcomes us, the angels comfort us. They want to help, particularly as we, like them, work on God’s behalf more each day.

Yes, the Bible stories in the Lenten season remind us of sin. But more importantly, they remind us of the joy and power in a life redeemed from sin, a life connected to eternity by Jesus Christ.

 

Advertisements

Overwhelmed by Reality

Mark 9:1-9 (NRSV)

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.


If we’re going to understand this story called the “transfiguration,” we first have to acknowledge that we do not see reality in full.

We like to trust our eyes, but you don’t have to be a religious person at all to understand there is more to the universe than meets the eye. Just ask any amateur astronomer. Many of our best discoveries have come because we built instruments capable of seeing wavelengths beyond the visible light our eyes can process.

We also see differently from other animals in creation. For example, biologists say birds and bees can see ultraviolet light, while we cannot.

Our inability to see in full is a common theme of the Bible, too. For example, in 2 Kings, chapter 6, the prophet Elisha appeared to be surrounded by an enemy king trying to capture him. His servant, alarmed, pointed out the approaching enemy.

Elisha prayed his servant’s eyes be opened, and voilà, the servant suddenly could see God’s horses and chariots of fire ringing the mountains around them. The enemy king’s soldiers proved to be no problem for them.

From birth, sin obscures our ability to see reality in full. Paul, writing in 2 Corinthians 4, said Satan, acting as ruler of this world, “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

Even for believers, a full grasp of reality is difficult. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul also wrote: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

As believers, however, we also are being drawn into deeper understandings of reality. In our transfiguration story from Mark, we are invited into a moment where the veil is briefly lifted and three broken human beings who also happen to be disciples are allowed to see Jesus Christ in full.

Not that they know how to process what they’re seeing. Jesus’ clothes are whiter than white, whiter than anything in those Tide commercials that ran during the Super Bowl. Peter, not knowing what to do, starts talking, seeming to babble through the greatest vision he has ever witnessed.

Funny thing is, Peter is partially grasping the situation. His desire to build what sounds like a camp is rooted in the Jewish belief of the day, the idea that when God comes to dwell with his people, they return to a nomadic existence, God’s presence being all they really need for survival.

Peter’s response was essentially right; you’ll note there were no stinging words from Jesus to put Peter in his place. It simply was too early to sit down and dwell in God’s glory. There was work to be done. There is work to be done.

Let me teach you a word you may not have heard before. Peter believed he was experiencing the parousia, the full and complete presence of God among us, what we sometimes call the Second Coming of Christ. In the parousia, everything will be as it was meant to be. God’s reality and glory will no longer be filtered and dimmed for us.

There were and are steps to get there, though. This is why Jesus told his three key disciples to say nothing about what they had seen until after the resurrection. Jesus had not even gone to the cross yet, and certainly his death was necessary to pay for our sins.

Christ’s resurrection would serve as proof the cross had worked, that death is defeated. That first Easter morning brought us a step closer to glorious parousia—we are but one step away now, even though it has seemed like a very long step to take.

Just before the transfiguration, Jesus had been laying out all the steps. He warned the disciples he must die and rise from the dead, a concept they could not grasp at the time. They wanted the glorious presence without the necessary work of salvation Jesus was willing to undertake. They had forgotten the price of sin.

He also mentioned his followers would have to take up their own crosses as they came to believe in the work he would do on the cross. Some of his disciples, Peter included, would do so literally, crucified as leaders of the early church. According to church tradition, Peter asked to be crucified upside down, saying he was unworthy to die in exactly the same manner as his Lord and Savior.

As Jesus’ followers, we are all called to follow our own particular Via Dolorosa, the sometimes difficult, painful path that joins us to Christ. Some of you already know what it means to surrender certain aspects of your life to the greater glory of God, seeking the growth of the kingdom in the hearts of people around you.

As you have these cross-bearing experiences, never forget that we move toward a glorious presence we cannot even begin to understand in full. I say this from time to time, and it’s worth saying again: Imagine the greatest experience your mind can concoct, and then understand your imagination has fallen far, far short of what you, as a follower of Christ, will actually enjoy when fully in the presence of God.

Years after the transfiguration experience, Peter wrote about it in a letter, what we now call 2 Peter. He focused not on what he saw, but what he heard, the voice from heaven declaring once again that Jesus is the Son of God, the same declaration we imitate as we tell others about living a life in Christ.

“So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed,” Peter wrote. “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

Amen; may we work with our hearts attuned to God’s glory.

Disregarding the Rules

Mark 1:29-39 (NRSV)

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And 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.

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.


This story begins on Saturday, the Jewish sabbath.* This much is made clear in the preceding story in Mark. If we are to understand anything, we must first understand what the sabbath day means.

The fourth of the Ten Commandments given to Moses in the desert on Mt. Sinai says this:

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” The reason for this commandment then is given in detail: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” (Exodus 20:8-11.)

By Jesus’ day, this commandment had been defined even more narrowly, to the point where nothing that looked like real action was permitted. My favorite example is a rule promulgated by the Pharisees. It said you had to be careful on the sabbath not to drag your chair on a dirt floor. The tiny furrow looked too much like plowing to these very restrictive Jewish leaders.

In this story, everyone is, from a strict Jewish perspective, breaking the sabbath rules. Healing is not allowed, but Jesus heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. She then gets up and begins to “serve” him. Implicit here is that she does what women of her day normally do six days of the week, acting as a host, cooking and performing other kinds of work. She does it all without a hint of reprimand from the teacher who is present.

People who don’t follow Christ often criticize Christianity as being rule-bound, but in many ways we worship a rule breaker. At the same time, Jesus, being God in flesh, is holy; that is, his thoughts and actions in these stories are perfectly aligned with the Father’s will.

So, why does Jesus break rules that seem rooted in God-given law? There can be only one explanation. Human understanding of what God intended through the law has become corrupted, and must be corrected.

Look back to the words in Exodus about the sabbath. It is a blessed day; it is a holy time. When does a blessing ever weigh us down? A sabbath day is not a burden, it is an opportunity to rest in the presence of God, to commune with him without the distractions of day-to-day survival.

In other words, the sabbath is a time to experience the God who is love, the one who lovingly created and who paused to gaze lovingly upon what he had made. And never forget, that aspect of God that took on flesh, the logos, the Word, was fully involved in the creative act.

As Jesus gazed upon that woman bedridden with illness, he saw a part of his creation that was broken. He saw someone incapable of enjoying the true meaning of the sabbath. So he lovingly fixed her.

Her response, by the way, was very appropriate, despite what the Pharisees and others might say. The word we translate as “serve” is a Greek word associated with the work of disciples, the people who pledge their lives to follow Jesus.

She may have been going through the same motions that had always defined her work, but she now performed her tasks with a new purpose. Clearly, the man who had healed her was tied to God somehow and was going to change everything, and she would serve him not as an affront to sabbath, but in the true spirit of sabbath.

As the story continues, Jesus goes on healing on sabbath days and regular days. He drives out demons. But most importantly, he preaches his message: The kingdom of God has arrived.

The kingdom continues to dawn in our lives now, and once it is here in full, we will see the kingdom of God is an eternal sabbath, a continuing, joyous rest in the love of God. How much you allow the kingdom to shine into your lives is up to you.


*I do not have time today to explore how Christians came to see Sunday as the Sabbath, or for that matter, how American Christians have come to treat the concept of Sabbath so poorly. If you are looking for a focus for your small group or Sunday school, those are certainly topics worthy of study.

 

The Low Places

John 1:43-51 (NRSV)

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”


“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Well, yeah, good things can come from Nazareth, and places like it. Nazareth is an excellent example of how grace can pour forth from society’s lowest places. God’s grace—the love we don’t deserve but receive anyway—has a funny habit of flowing uphill.

In some ways, we covered this with the Christmas story, when we talked about how Jesus came from poor members of a downtrodden people, living in what seemed like nowhere. The idea seems worth revisiting this week. Arrogant Roman leaders would have considered Nazareth one of the outhouses of the empire.

We can tell from Nathanael’s words that even Jews didn’t have a very high opinion of Nazareth. It was no metropolis; modern archaeologists estimate less than 500 people lived there in Jesus’ day. And yet, in the story, here comes Jesus, straight out of Nazareth, bearing down on his next disciple with revealing perception.

The Eternal Gift

As Jesus walked from Nazareth into full-fledged ministry, he carried with him all sorts of gifts we still barely comprehend today. As the story plays out, there is the greatest gift of all, eternal life.

Jesus’ ministry, rooted in the truth of who he is and the love he wants to share with the world, got him nailed to a cross. We now understand it had to be that way, that the death of a holy, sinless, perfect savior was necessary for us to escape the shackles of our own sins. We know the resurrection of this same savior, fully God and fully human, proves that death has been defeated. We believe, and we are saved.

What a gift to come out of Nazareth! There is more, though. The grace poured out upon us is not just something for the next life. It is for this life now.

Wow!

This story of Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus reminds us of what I call the gift of astonishment. What? You had a vision of me under a fig tree, before we ever met? We can tell Nathanael was astonished because he jumped straight from cynicism to declaring Jesus the Son of God.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I like to be astonished from time to time, so long as God is the one doing the astonishing. I discover that life is about more than mundane, day-to-day events.

My big astonishment in life is that God would give me the same experience twice, once as a child and again as a young adult, so I would get back on track with him. And there are little astonishments that keep coming, too.

I like it when I see a vision for how something might be, and then discover someone else, perhaps one of you, has seen the same possibility or dreamed the same idea. I sense the Holy Spirit is at work in those moments, and I know we’re really a church.

I like it when God shows me how people are not what I expected them to be. I’ll give you a simple example. Where I was raised, I did not know a lot of black people, and the few I did know seemed to be trying to blend in and not be noticed. What I thought I knew about black culture came from one black karate instructor who grew up in Jonesborough, Tenn., and too much 1970s television.

Then I moved to the Atlanta area, where I lived for 13 years, working downtown most of the time.

I’ll not claim to be any expert on what was going on before my eyes; I often didn’t understand actions or attitudes unfamiliar to me. But I was regularly astonished by how tightly knit inner-city black communities could be, and how the culture could be quite matriarchal, with older women commanding a kind of respect that in many ways held their sometimes difficult world together. Many of those authoritative women, by the way, were not shy about speaking openly of their love for Jesus.

Beyond the dominant black culture, I also think of a Vietnamese friend I made in Atlanta, a former refugee who barely made it alive to Hong Kong on a rickety boat, and then eventually made his way to the United States. I learned a lot about perseverance just being near him.

The World Is Our Parish

I  continue to expect to see God’s astonishing grace at work in people very different from me. One of the nice things about being United Methodist is that we are from everywhere, from Africa, from Asia, from Central America, from Haiti* and other Caribbean islands. As we have struggled with the issue of biblical authority in the UMC in recent years, words of encouragement from our African brothers and sisters have particularly inspired me.

What unites us globally, regardless of whether worldly people consider our particular home “high” or “low,” is the larger vision Jesus described as he recruited Nathanael to his little team that would change everything. For there is astounding grace, jaw-dropping, weeping-with-joy grace still to come.

Heaven and earth will be remade and reunited through Christ’s work. The walls that divide us will be torn down. Racism, poverty and political ideologies will give way to the uniting truth that Jesus Christ is Lord.

With God working in such powerful, unpredictable ways, a man would have to be a fool to show disdain for people from low places.


*On a personal note, I am particularly conscious of a very good thing to come out of Haiti, a nephew, adopted from an orphanage there by my brother and his wife. My nephew’s name is Nathaniel, by the way.

Creation Stories


Genesis 1:1-5 (NLT)


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.

Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. Then he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day” and the darkness “night.”

And evening passed and morning came, marking the first day.

Genesis 2:4-9 (NLT)

This is the account of the creation of the heavens and the earth.

When the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, neither wild plants nor grains were growing on the earth. For the Lord God had not yet sent rain to water the earth, and there were no people to cultivate the soil. Instead, springs came up from the ground and watered all the land. Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.

Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east, and there he placed the man he had made. The Lord God made all sorts of trees grow up from the ground—trees that were beautiful and that produced delicious fruit. In the middle of the garden he placed the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.


“In the beginning.” These are, of course, the opening words of the Great Story we celebrate in our lives, the story in which we participate whenever we gather for worship.

It is the Great Story, the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, that explains who God is, why God matters, and how God relates to his creation, particularly people. We discover that people are central to the Great Story, too—in fact, we matter so much, we are loved so much, that God does some very strange things to maintain the relationship.

Ultimately in the Great Story, there is God in flesh, and a cross, and resurrection. But today, we’re going to re-introduce ourselves to the creation stories, those first two chapters of the Holy Bible that set the tone for everything to come.

Being Biblical

I am going to be as biblical as I can be today; by that, I mean I am going to let the story as it is told shape what I say as much as possible. (God help me, and God forgive me where I fail in this area.) Traditionally, one of the great things about being Methodist is that we let the Bible guide us, trusting that it is God’s inspired word, communicating truths that transcend cultural biases.

That does not mean you will hear what some call a fundamentalist or literalist presentation of the creation stories’ highlights from me. As I understand those explanations of the creation stories, they at times can contradict the purposes of Genesis 1 and 2. Fundamentalists and literalists have been known to take lyrical tellings of who God is and how God relates to humans and reduce them to strange science, missing their larger points.

Ultimately, I want to get to the deeper truths being communicated at the opening of this sacred, wonderful Great Story. For there are great truths, the kind of truths around which we should build our lives. When I say I believe Scripture is true, I’m talking about a mystical kind of truth that underpins and holds together the very cosmos.

The Stories

There are two creation stories before us in Genesis. Most scholars agree the first one runs from Genesis 1:1 through the first statement in Genesis 2:4, where we hear the concluding statement, “This is the account of the creation of the heavens and the earth.” The second story then begins, “When the Lord God made the earth and the heavens …”.

There are, of course, similarities between the two stories. In both cases, we detect the presence of the Holy Spirit, one of three biblical manifestations or persons of God. In the first creation story, God’s Spirit hovers over a dark, watery, formless earth. In the second story, the Spirit is present as God’s breath, entering the human formed from the ground to create life.

There also are significant textual differences between the two stories, including the name used for the Creator. In the first account, God is, in Hebrew, simply ʼElohim, while in the second account we see “Lord God,” YHWH ʼElohim, the addition being the “I Am Who I Am” secret name of God revealed to Moses in the story found in Exodus 3.

The basic purpose of the first creation story seems pretty clear. We see God standing outside all things. God is complete. God is not dependent in any way on creation. Why does God create? It would appear that creativity simply is a key part of God’s character. As God sees things are “good,” he experiences the satisfaction a human writer, painter or sculptor might feel.

We also see how creation is made to be responsive to God. Pay careful attention to the shift in language at Genesis 1:11-12. With God’s power, the land begins to participate in the process of creation, sprouting and producing seed-bearing plants which then beget more life.

The pattern is repeated as animals are created. God gets everything rolling and creation joyfully imitates. Ultimately, humans are made in God’s image, ruling in miniature on behalf of the one who made all things.

I carry this truth away: I am just one of billions of humans who have existed, but I am important. You are important. As responsive bearers of God-given life, made in his image, we have so much potential! Treasure the life you’ve been given.

Yes, the story goes on in chapter 3, and sin introduces horrible encumbrances to weigh us down. But remember that potential, and remember the powerful truth that Christ came to redeem us from sin. Through Christ, we are re-created, restored to that potential.

Deep Love

The second creation story accomplishes another important task. It is, in a way, God’s valentine to us, as he says, “See how much I love you?”

Here, the Lord God is much more personal and relatable, shaping the first human from sod and blowing life into his nostrils. He then carves out a special place in creation, a holy garden where the man can learn pleasurable, fulfilling work alongside his creator. He also is called to learn joyous obedience by following one simple rule: Don’t eat from that tree.

There is to be no sadness or sense of isolation in this place called Eden. We see this as the Lord God fashions animals, and then finally a woman, for the man. We are left with a picture of perfection, man and woman together, relating to one another and God in idyllic peace.

Again, sin mars the picture as the Great Story progresses. But thanks to the work of Christ, we can look at one another, and look to God, and say, “We are loved!” And never forget that the Great Story, the whole story of the Bible, returns us to this Paradise, this perfection of relationships.

It is all true. These stories are not science or history as modern people understand these two fields of study, but these stories are true.

Let these creation stories lead you into the eternal story lived with God.

Good to Great


Matthew 1:18-25 (NRSV)

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel,”


which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.


Over the next two weeks, we’re going to take a close look at Jesus’ earthly parents. Matthew focuses on the good Jew Joseph; Luke spends more time examining Jesus’ conception and birth from Mary’s perspective. Let’s start with Dad.

Joseph was a righteous man. We know this because the fact is stated flatly in the story we have heard today. By “righteous,” the author of Matthew is implying Joseph is more than a simple keeper of the law; he has what we might call a good heart.

Most Christians know the basics of the story. Mary, who was engaged to Joseph, found herself to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit, carrying the promised Messiah in her womb. This meant very real trouble for Mary. In her day, an engagement carried with it all the legal and moral requirements of a full marriage, even though the couple had not yet consummated the relationship.

Upon discovering Mary was pregnant by another, Joseph under the law had every right to have her publicly shamed and even stoned to death. Instead, he resolved to let her escape what he believed to be her sin, “planning to dismiss her quietly.”

It was very much the right thing to do, a gracious, loving and noble act, abundant in mercy toward someone Joseph believed had wronged him terribly. He was truly a good-hearted man.

Our righteousness can never match God’s holiness, however, and sometimes we are called to go beyond good behavior to follow God’s will. When an angel later came to Joseph in a dream, he learned the truly spectacular facts surrounding the child in Mary’s womb.

Joseph proved to be the kind of man God sought. Apparently without hesitation, he took on the tasks given him as soon as he awoke. He also would receive other instructions from God (head to Egypt, now go home) in a similar manner, and again act without hesitation, despite how odd they might have seemed.

I’m certainly not God, but I’m going to ask Joseph to do something else today. I’m going to ask him to serve as an example of what is possible when we move from good to great. By that, I mean when we move in our lives from laudable righteousness to radical obedience, regardless of what obedience may cost us in this world.

Note that Joseph’s righteousness is described as an ongoing state; certainly he was considered righteous by those around him before he learned Mary was pregnant, and before God began to speak to him through angels and dreams.

We can assume saving Mary cost Joseph a great deal in terms of how he appeared to others, who watched the situation without angelic guidance. To call already pregnant Mary his wife, he had to risk his honor, exposing himself to the whispers that almost certainly would begin in a small village: “Joseph could not control himself,” or another possible rumor, “Joseph is foolish enough to raise another man’s child.”

If Joseph had been about being righteous before human beings, he actually would have chosen to ignore God. Instead, he followed the difficult path, acting as if God’s will is all that matters.

Most of us gathered here today have achieved some appearance of righteousness in the eyes of other people. Success in worldly matters can make us seem righteous. We are perceived by others as “blessed.”

Even without financial success, we can take on roles in life that carry with them the veneer of righteousness. People in what we might call the “helping” professions certainly have it: Doctors, nurses, law enforcement officers, firefighters, military personnel and maybe even clergy seem to have some  sort of special status akin to righteousness, at least until doing something to lose it.

Dedicated churchgoers certainly can have an air of righteousness about them, particularly if they are known for giving and service to others.

Don’t get me wrong. That’s all good, quite worthy of notice.

But what about that next level? What about that radical obedience Joseph demonstrated? What does it take to work on God’s behalf as God alters the world for the better?

Well, first of all, we have to be careful not to get too comfortable in our situations. Biblically, we know contentment is a good thing, but we don’t want to settle into a righteous-looking life as if it were a big, comfy couch.

We miss so many opportunities when we are content to the point of being complacent. I would note the danger of such complacency increases as we get older, when we should have more time and freedom to explore radical responses to God’s call on us.

Beyond getting up off the big, comfy couch, we also have to be alert, listening to what God says to us. Joseph heard from God and recognized God’s truth for what it was. Our righteous praying and use of Scripture should have a result: We should hear from God from time to time, in ways that challenge us.

And of course, we need courage. We often simply need to regain that old-fashioned idea that this life, while precious, may even be shortened or put at risk when we really go to work for God—and that even losing our lives while working for God is not that big a deal, if we really have faith in what comes next.

Buck up, little Christians!

I do not know what each of you might be called to do. I do not know what I might be called to do, or what we as a church might be called to do. I just know there is much more to do as we await Christ’s return.

I pray I have just afflicted the comfortable so we, with Christ as our message and the Holy Spirit as our guide, will do the work of God in radical ways. That’s where the story of Joseph takes me, anyway.

What’s Missing


Mark 1:1-8 (NRSV)

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And 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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He 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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”


Followers of Jesus sometimes struggle with how the Old Testament relates to the New Testament. The behaviors of the God of the Old seem different than the God of the New, and this perception can cause people to treat the ancient Jewish Bible as a colorful aside to the real story.

The beginning of Mark should help us put aside any notion the two can be separated. First of all, there is a clear connection of ideas, a flow from the promises of the Old Testament into Mark, generally considered to be the earliest gospel written.

Let me make this important assertion about the Old Testament: Grace abounds. Yes, in some of the really ancient stories, God can seem harsh, with entire cities vanishing in sulfurous flames or overrun by holy, spear-chucking armies. We have to remember how far back in time we are going with these stories, and we have to remember God is communicating who he is in the only way ancient people could understand.

What’s remarkable is in the midst of all that primitive communication, grace still abounds. God’s love for his creation and his desire to be in deep relationship with his creation shines through. There is a simple call throughout the Old Testament: “Put aside sin, be holy, and I will be with you.”

In our text today, we hear a quote from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, a call to repent and prepare for the full, visible presence of God. If we back up a little in the 40th chapter of Isaiah, we hear the context for this call to repentance:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God,
speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

Throughout the Old Testament, God seems to long for the full relationship to begin. You see this desire in the Psalms, and you certainly see it in the writings of the prophets.

When the Gospel of Mark begins, we remain in the theme and mood of the Old Testament. A man clearly dressed and living like an ancient prophet, John the baptizer stood in the wilderness crying the words of the prophets of old.

Just like the ancient prophets, he told the people to straighten out their lives. He was saying, The centuries-old promise is bearing fruit! Something is about to happen—get ready! Someone is coming, and in him you will meet God.

It was an exciting message, so exciting that word spread, and people went into the wilderness to hear more. They were even given a chance to respond. They partook of an activity rare for Jews, water baptism, symbolically putting their sins behind them and pledging to live under God’s law.

Repentance is not the end of it, though, John made clear. Even with their contrite hearts, something was missing. Again, John was very much the Old Testament prophet, repeating messages that had been floating around for centuries.

God had already described just how intimate he wants to be with his creation. Look at the words of another prophet, Ezekiel. He was speaking to suffering people, the people of Israel living in exile because of their sins. A day is coming, though, he told them:

“I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them.” (Ezekiel 11:19-20)

The encounter with God was to be so deep that it would become a matter of the heart, God working from within. And like the prophets before him, John saw that day coming. In his case, it was coming soon, very soon.

It was to be a baptism much greater than the water-based one they were receiving in the wilderness. Instead of water, God’s Spirit will wash over you, into you, John told the people, and God will fulfill the promise of old.

As people looking back on the events through the lens of the New Testament, we know how this actually happened. Jesus came into the world, and was declared the Christ as the Holy Spirit descended on him at his baptism.

This baptism of the Spirit began to spill out on the world in Jesus’ ministry. His touch healed and the truth he declared marked the arrival of God’s kingdom on earth. After his death and resurrection, he breathed new life into his followers.

And then, just as he promised, the Holy Spirit descended on his followers at Pentecost and began to spread as word of the Savior spread.

The Spirit is God’s palpable presence, and where God’s presence is acknowledged and accepted, there is great power.

In a story of the early church in Acts 19, there is a fascinating account of the Spirit becoming known and going to work. Paul traveled to Ephesus, and there found a group of people who are described as “disciples,” followers of Jesus Christ. They had experienced what they described as “John’s baptism.” That is, they had repented of their sins with a sense of expectation, but they did not know they could experience the Holy Spirit immediately.

Paul let them know there was so much more available to them in terms of experiencing God’s power. He laid his hands on them, and Acts tells us they began to speak in tongues and prophesy.

They encountered the truth of God’s love and a sense of God’s presence. Think how that changes a life—to know, without doubt or fear, that God is real, that God speaks to you and through you.

I want for all of us what Paul wanted for the Ephesians. I want for all of us to have a deep sense of our connection to God, to know the Holy Spirit is at work. I want for all of us to sense that power, and then to see great works happen, not to our glory, but to the glory of God.

All I know to do is what John did as he baptized and Paul did as he guided the church at Ephesus. I declare to you today, the Spirit is present. I declare it to be true, in your lives and in mine.

Whether the Spirit truly changes us has a lot to do with how we have readied ourselves for this powerful manifestation of God. One of the authors in the recent book “A Firm Foundation,” Georgia Pastor Carolyn Moore compares this process to wood catching fire.

For the wood to be ready, time and patience often are needed. The wood has to be dry, free from the outside influences that hinder combustion. It has to heat up enough to reach the combustion point.

“Try to light a wet log and you’ll end up frustrated,” Moore writes. “Try to start a spiritual fire before the heat is there to sustain it, and you’ll end up frustrated at best, burned at worst.”

Our spiritual practices are the kindling, drying the wood and heating it so it will burst into flames. Traditionally, Methodists have called these “means of grace”: worship, Bible study, prayer, fellowship, communion, and caring for the “Matthew 25” people of the world.

The Holy Spirit is the match. But the wood cannot be lit until it is ready. What are you doing to prepare yourselves to catch fire?

Through our lives and through this church called Luminary, may the Spirit bring glorious changes in this world God so desperately loves.