Monday, January 12, 2009

With you I am well pleased

Mark 1: 4-11, page 707

And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordon River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordon. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “you are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
There are a whole lot of ways to feel inadequate, but if you are looking for one I invite you to read some baby books of mine.
Most recently I have felt most inadequate when confronted with what all Sara and I should be doing to properly care for the little girl who will be born sometime in April.
Based on my experience of inadequacy I have decided that if I were going to write a book for moms and dads expecting their first child I think it would start with some basic things right at the beginning – don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t do drugs, eat healthy. Then, instead of continuing on with what the experts think the new mother should or should not be doing, I would just write, “you are doing great and the baby is fine” over and over again, week after week, page after page.
That’s not the way these baby books work though – they fill you up with so much information you can’t help but feel inadequate – and I thought that wouldn’t start until the baby is born at least. Over the past few months I have read chapters on water quality, paint, air, fabric, vegetables, exercise, on and on and on. The teacher of our birthing class told us last Wednesday, that if you ate everything those books say you are supposed to eat you would never get your head out of the refrigerator. When requirements are set so high the feeling you get from those tiny little kicks can be replaced by the feeling that fills us up everyday – there is more I should be doing and I haven’t done enough.
I know that you are supposed to want to know everything you can, but in our world of seemingly limitless knowledge and ever rising standards, I want a book that will say the thing that I really need to hear and nothing more.
So it has been nice to be reading in the gospel of Mark, as in this book there’s not a whole lot, so what is there takes on a new meaning when you consider what isn’t.
So notice what isn’t there. We started in chapter 1, and before this there is no Christmas story – Mary isn’t even mentioned much less Joseph, traveling kings, or shepherds. We don’t know what Jesus has been doing up until this point. There’s not that cute story about him slipping away from his parents as a young child to be found at the Temple sitting with all the great teachers, “listening to them and asking them questions.”
But what there is, is John. From Mark we know what John looked like, that he was wearing clothing made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. We know what he ate even, that depending only on what the wilderness could provide he kept alive eating locusts and wild honey. And we know that he could preach and that people wanted to know what he had to say.
Mark doesn’t take the time to hold our hand through this story, doesn’t fill space with adjectives, adverbs, or side plots, but from these first sentences we know why John was such a compelling and controversial figure, we know why John the Baptist is beheaded in chapter 6 by King Herod, as some thing else that is missing from Mark’s gospel are the crowds at the Temple. “The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.”
It’s easy to believe these days that what people are looking to get out of church is a great show. That without screens, lights or even a sanctuary John would have only been preaching to trees and birds our there in the wilderness, but the Gospel of Mark cuts that misunderstanding off early, claiming that “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.”
I have heard plenty of preachers preach outside of church, and on the surface their message was like John’s, a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, but as they threatened crowds with the fires of hell on their piece of sidewalk downtown, everyone kept walking. And these preachers didn’t expect the city to come to them, they came to the city to preach their message but no one wanted to hear it. John on the other hand preached a message so compelling that the city of Jerusalem was rendered empty. Schools must have closed, marketplaces vacant, and pews went unfilled – everyone had gone out to hear what this John had to say.
But the synagogue – it easy to think that John couldn’t have been preaching something so different from what was heard in the synagogue, after all, John practically is living out the same book the priests and scribes were reading out of – he’s not someone so different, maybe not different at all from Elijah and Isaiah who he dresses just like. But if what John had to say was the same as what the priests at the Temple or the local synagogue had to say, if what John had to say was the same as what teachers in schools, storeowners on the street or managers in the work place had to say then why would the people travel so far into a desert wasteland to hear him if they could stay home and hear the same thing?
We know that John preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins – and I bet that everyone who went out there went to hear the same thing that we want to hear – something different from the voices we hear in the school telling us we could study harder and do better – something different from the voices we hear in the marketplace telling us that we should look better or dress better – something different from the voices we hear in the church – telling us that we aren’t quite good enough, that we are sinners, or we are inadequate and that we have fallen short.
So like Jesus, we go out to hear what John has to say.
In this passage from Mark, there’s nothing that makes us really different from him. Remember, the author of Mark doesn’t include Mary or Joseph, there’s no virgin birth here, there’s nothing here to tell us that Jesus is any different from you or me, and in fact, if he has gone out to the desert like everyone else he must be just as hungry to hear the same thing that we are – that you can repent – you can start again – God has not given up on you – your sins can be washed away.
Hearing these words Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. And as he was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
I think it’s easy to believe that these words are only for Jesus, only meant for his ears, but Mark, by virtue of what he leaves out, doesn’t give us any reason to make that conclusion.
It’s almost as though Mark knows there are already a million ways to feel inadequate. That there’s no reason to replicate that feeling of knowing that a baby is coming and that I will never be as ready as those books say I should be; that there’s no reason to replicate that feeling of watching bills piling up and not having a job to pay for them – or of seeing all the groups at school and not feeling like your cool enough or smart enough – or of looking through magazines and not feeling beautiful – or of having a Mom who is never satisfied or a Dad who isn’t verbal enough to say he loves you – or of hearing from the church that you are all wrong and soon the wrath of a vengeful God will rip open the sky to crush you like a tin can because you aren’t good enough.
So Mark doesn’t spend time with the Virgin Birth, doesn’t tell the story about Jesus running off to the Temple at an early age entertaining the wise teachers there, we weren’t visited by kings or shepherds during our stay in the hospital – so Mark doesn’t dwell on such things.
What makes Jesus special in Mark is the same thing that makes you and I special today.
So when God rips open the heavens you can put yourself in Jesus’ shoes and hear the words that he heard.
The standards that Jesus sets in Mark’s gospel are standards we are living up to right now – we wanted to hear some good news, so like Jesus we have come to a place where we might hear it. From Mark, that’s all that Jesus has done to deserve what he gets, so Mark won’t let us explain it away when we get the same thing.
You were baptized, and God has called you by name, saying, “You are mine, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
I think there are plenty of us who have been waiting our whole lives to hear words like these, and not hearing them makes just as much a difference as hearing them does.
So hear these words from God now – don’t wait until you feel like you’ve earned them because you never will, and don’t wait until you feel like your good enough because you already are. Words from God to you: “You are mine, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

All God's Critters Have a Place in the Choir

Psalm 148, page 448
Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights above.
Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his heavenly hosts.
Praise him sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars.
Praise him you highest heavens and you waters above the skies.
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created.
He set them in place forever and ever; he gave a decree that will never pass away.
Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths, lightening and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding, you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds, kings of the earth and all nations, you princes and all rulers on earth, young men and maidens, old men and children.
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his splendor is above the earth and the heavens.
He has raised up for his people a horn, the praise of all his saints of Israel, the people close to his heart.
Praise the Lord.
Jay Bookman, opinion writer for the AJC began his Christmas day column with, “Tis the day we call Christmas, yet gloom fills the land, things haven’t been going exactly as planned. The news pages are full of jobs disappearing, CEO profiteering Illinois racketeering. Detroit is collapsing, the Earth overheating, and our 401(k)s are taking a beating.”[1]
In a way, it was refreshing to hear such an honest assessment, better than some commercials I saw in the days leading up to Christmas that had been pulling out all the stops to make a go of a weak economy.
The worst one starts with a flashback to Christmas morning: a sweet little girl in her nightgown has gotten a pony. She looks at the camera explaining how excited she is, how that excitement multiplies because the cute little girl from next door is exceedingly jealous to the point that she drops her toy pony in disgust. Then the little girl, as she pats her real pony on the head, exclaims: “The best present ever.” The commercial then flashes forward to that same little girl, now all grown up. It’s Christmas morning again and she walks outside to see the brand new Lexus her husband has bought her. Then the words that she never thought she would repeat again cross her lips, “The best present ever.”
This commercial seems so out of place, almost mean, considering how hard some people have been hit this Christmas season. All kinds of people – from the waitress at the IHOP, worried over her grandchildren, as their father is on disability, to the guy who put a new battery in my car at the Advanced Auto parts, worried about disappointed kids looking under the tree to see a whole lot less than last year. Certainly, given the current economic situation, those who could afford a Lexus last year can’t this year, so who could this commercial even be addressing? Bookman writes to those of us, who I think are in the majority these days, those of us, who, according to the standards set by the Lexus commercial will not be having the best Christmas ever. He writes “to those who are threatened with pending foreclosure, to those having trouble just keeping composure.”
And it’s not just Bookman of the AJC who writes to and for the economically hard pressed. Jack Haberer of The Presbyterian Outlook writes about signs of the season. “Tis a sign of the season: Brunswick, Ohio, cancelled its holiday lights display due to a lack of money. Snowflakes normally hung from the downtown light poles stayed in storage for possible use next year. Other signs: more people standing in unemployment lines than in cash register lines; a news headline: “Anxiety: the New Normal…”[2]
I think what would have seemed normal last year would have been the Lexus commercial. A big girl or boy gets just that super expensive toy that they wanted for Christmas. But today this commercial seems strikingly out of place.
This has been a hard year for many people, and hard years tend to inspire hard questions and dismal outlooks. I read an article recently about a New Yorker, observing the aftermath of a plummeting Dow. He was ridding the subway and saw a man in a suit with a rolled-up issue of the Economist in his fist saying to the woman next to him, “Look at me. I’m the definition of dispensable.”[3]
He wrote about what it means to have your whole identity wrapped up in making money; that when making money is a part of who you are, losing money affects your entire being. One day you have it all, a great job, great stocks, a great office, but then, because of the moving of the market, because of changes nearly completely out of your control, you feel the ground underneath you shake as you begin to question everything. This Christmas, the wealthy and poor faced a common uncertainty, as a market we were used to seeing rise and rise is falling lower and lower.
So the words of Simeon from the Gospel of Luke take on new meaning – “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
These fearsome words from a righteous old man who finally got the present he had been hoping for, signal a great and mighty change. But because we know the end of the story, these changes, the falling and rising of many, and even the sword that will pierce your own soul, are good news. Many will fall and many will rise, but not so we may be condemned, so that the world will be rectified and redeemed.
In sure hope that rectifying and redeeming creation is exactly Christ’s work these days, Jack Haberer ends his article in The Presbyterian Outlook with the words, “Tis time for the church to herald some different signs of the season.”
This Christmas those old modes for achieving happiness, those old traditions of celebrating Christ’s birth through buying extravagant gifts, were not nearly so possible. We are faced with a choice then: shall we lament our inability to buy and buy, despair over how this Christmas there was not a Lexus to surprise us in our driveway, or should we take a long look at how we celebrate the birth of what is truly the best Christmas present ever?
“Praise the Lord!” directs the Psalmist. “Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights above. “Praise him, all his angels, praise him all his heavenly hosts.”
Then, as though the psalmist were our own Emily Moon, she calls directions to the sky above, saying, “Praise him sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars. Praise him, you highest heavens and you waters above the skies. Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created. He set them in place for ever and ever; he gave a decree that will never pass away.”
Far from consumerism or lamenting what you can’t afford, this psalm calls you to direct the heavens, the earth, and the creatures of the land and sea as all God’s critters truly have a place in this choir of praise to the Lord our creator.
The businessman who fears unemployment with worry and fear says to the woman next to him on the subway train, “Look at me. I’m the definition of dispensable,” but Psalm 148 calls this man to a most important task: to direct choirs of angels, to call on the sun and the moon to sing praises, calls on lightening and hail, snow and clouds, mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars to lift their voices in praise to the King.
This psalm shows us exactly what we were created to do. We are called to take up our music, to lift our hands, and to keep time as we lead all of creation in singing praise to the Lord.
The great danger of our culture, and the great travesty of our culture’s celebration of Christmas, is that it takes us away from what would really give us pleasure, would really bring us joy, would really fulfill us as we were meant to be fulfilled – by being joyful, by singing praises to God who created, who redeemed, and who sustains us now – by giving thanks for these great gifts that we have.
So the psalmist calls us to direct creation in singing, not like a mother forcefully suggesting to her children that they write a thank-you note to aunts and uncles who sent presents[4], but like a director, who knows the words, who feels the words, who believes these words of thanksgiving to God in a way that makes this spirit of praise contagious.
If only it were Emily Moon in the commercial and not that Lexus – then we would know that with “mind, soul, spirit, and voice, it takes the whole body to sing and rejoice.”
This is the thing that we were created to do – not to count our losses, but to count our blessings – to lead all of creation in thanking God for the glorious gifts that have been given – especially the gift of a savior, born, not to provide us all with a Lexus, but born in a manger, to show us the error of our ways. He is our example – the one who lived to show us how we are meant to live.
We were not created to concentrate on what gifts we wish we would have gotten. We were not redeemed to dwell on what money we wish we would have made. We were born for thanking God for the gift that has come, the gift that matters more than anything else.
Therefore, let us stand and sing; that with joy in our hearts we might conduct the heavenly choirs in praise of our God.
[1] Jay Bookman, “Tis the day we call Christmas” (Atlanta Journal Constitution, December 25, 2008).
[2] Jack Haberer, “Editor’s Outlook: Signs of the Season” (The Presbyterian Outlook, December 22, 2008) 5.
[3] Joel Lovell, “Men + Money; Your Loss is Your Gain” (GQ, 12/2008) 183.
[4] Stephen Farris, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) 155.