Back to Basics – Hearing Jesus

Sermon for the fourth Sunday after The Epiphany

Year B, 2021

Mark 1:21-28

‘Let those with ears to hear, hear!’ Matthew 13:9

Well, it’s still January. Just. Did the turn of a the year fill you with a resolution to change something about your life? New Year, New start?

For me, it was a decision to learn how to play the guitar. This may surprise some of you. For the discerning amongst you, it may well be met with the reply, ‘and not before time’.

I remember years ago taking a baptism service back in England. It was in the afternoon and my organist wasn’t available, so we sang songs accompanied by yours truly.

Following the service a fairly elderly man as he came to shake my hand said, ‘you clearly don’t know how to play a guitar’. He was of course right. I’d been found out.

I am in truth an occasionally enthusiastic self taught strummer of a guitar, and any judge would find me guilty of a duty of lack of care and abuse of a fine instrument.

Self taught, making it up as I went along, I had picked up all sorts of bad habits, and my guitar playing looked little like the real thing. So this year I took the decision to go back to basics. I’ve enrolled on a course starting from the beginning, stripping our some bad habits and hopefully make a little progress . . . To date, all I seem to have for my efforts are sore fingertips!

Stripping back to the basics.

It’s when we strip back to the essentials that we discover the true nature of our existence. Buried deep under the accretions and the years of bad habits and wrong turnings we touch on something we’d lost touch with, Life itself.

Often this stripping back happens against any will. We thought life was fine, then something terrible happens. As folk have said to me so many times, it really showed me what was important . . . We are found out. We realise we don’t know what we thought we knew. The life we’d been living was not life at all.

We realise that despite everything we thought we knew, in so many ways we are powerless. We don’t have what it takes. We are found out. Exposed before God – we are naked and ashamed . . . and all too often we pile up all those things that keep us from that life encounter. The place is too painful, too boring, too awkward, and way too uncomfortable. Too stripped back, too basic . . . well, this is year B. The Gospel for this year is Mark and Mark has no time for comfort.

His is the Back to basics gospel. There’s no fancy accretions. It is utterly unpretentious, and its strange kindness is as blunt as that man who pointed out the truth about my guitar playing all those years ago. (This was the way amongst those with whom I grew up . . .)

Mark’s Good News of Jesus Christ is angular – it has sharp corners and edges. We keep getting jolted by it. It’s repeated word is ‘suddenly’. If we are hearing the words well then they jar. You think you know where it’s going, then ‘suddenly . . .’. ‘Suddenly’ is Mark’s version of Behold! Wake up! Something is going on. Mark won’t even smooth things out for us with a post resurrection sighting of Jesus. The disciples are told that he’s gone ahead of them, we have to follow, to Galilee . . . which is where we begin. Jesus has returned.

Jesus is passing by the sea of Galilee and seeing Peter and Andrew commands them, “Follow me!” And Suddenly, Immediately, they dropped their nets and followed him . . . our gaze follows them. Further along the lake He sees James and Andrew, the sons of Zebedee, hard at work fishing. Immediately on seeing them he calls them and they too drop everything and follow him . . .

Where does our gaze go? Are we left asking about Zebedee and the hired men? Has Mark’s gospel left our pretentions to be followers of Jesus on the rocky shore of Galilee? Hey Jesus, we shout after his back, what about them . . . and he continues to move onwards . . . what about me? Where are you going? Come back! . . .

Jesus seems unconcerned. He’s on the move. We can stay put or we can follow him, but there’s not even the time to choose, for he’s not hanging around . . .

We respond or we allow the accretions to gather once more . . . “But where is he going?” Questions, questions . . . hesitations, waiting, and slowly like the bad habits on my guitar playing, our faith settles down comfortably . . . We come up with lots of answers which secure us in our existence. Like the John Bell hymn, having asked ‘will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?’, we follow up with lots of answers not to where Jesus is going – but where he has gone, answers that leave us where we are . . .

Jesus is not hanging around and as he goes on his way everything he does wakens people in astonishment. What Jesus does is calls people from the sleep of death, to Life, but as the parable of the sower teaches, we can awake and then go back to the sleep of death. Reality breaks in, and we pull the covers back over our heads for we have no root. The desire for Life doesn’t go deep enough.

I may or may not improve at the guitar, it depends if the root goes deep enough, if I am thirsty enough, if I want it enough . . . I may or may not improve at the guitar if I don’t allow many other things to get in the way . . . Far more important though , I might find out where Jesus is going if I go with him to where I don’t know . . . Seek, Jesus says, and you will find . . . but am I thirsty for what he offers . . . Must I know where he is going?

In Jesus do I see or hear something which . . . which wakens me to something worth giving up everything else for, abandoning all distractions for  . . .

The Good Shepherd comes looking for His lost sheep. The sheep follow Him because they know his voice. Knowing his voice entails following Him

Follow me, Jesus commands Peter and Andrew, James and John. Look! They go with him, where?

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

Jesus speaks and things happen . . . this has never been seen since the creation of the world. God said ‘let there be light!’ And it was so! Jesus said ‘Follow me!’ and Immediately they went. Jesus words go deep. He casts his net into the depths of human hearts, to a place we didn’t even suspect existed. There we were, in charge of our own lives. Knowing what was right and what the day held before us, and where we were going . . . and then a voice. A voice from both beyond us and within us . . . We wake up! He gets his hook into us, and we go . . .

“The Scribes – well we hear them a lot, We sit around and discuss their teachings . . . What they say seems to make sense when we think about it. We can take it or leave it. It does not take hold of us.” I sometimes wonder if house groups are a bit like this . . .

We live in a world where we think it is all about us taking hold of things, grasping them, Figuring things out . . .  for ourselves. But this is not the Kingdom of God.. The KoG is about our being taken hold of. The formlessness and void of our lives apart from God are taken hold of by this Word – and leaps upwards in response. ‘he taught them as one having authority’.

Authority! Authority demands a response. We know this at one level. When you see those flashing lights in your rear view mirror, you know this is Authority demanding a response. And you pull over! You don’t drive on thinking, well I need to figure this one out for myself . . .

That is the nature of authority. As the Centurion sad to Jesus, I say come, and they come: I say go and they go! He recognizes Jesus’ authority for he knows the nature of authority. Authority makes things happen

Authority is not about sitting around and deciding for ourselves . . . Authority is about letting go of that. We can endlessly ponder the plight of Zebedee and the hired men, we can wonder if there is another way . . . and sat by the shore we will come up with lots of reasons. The moment will have passed. We have failed to recognize Authority. We have ears, but we haven’t heard. That place within us that flickered momentarily goes back to sleep, and so do we . . .

Suddenly! Immediately! Look! there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’

Stripped back to basics – hidden away, terrifying things, and in the presence of Jesus the secrets of hearts are revealed – from the heart of this man comes uncleanness . . . He is exposed before God . . .

This is what Jesus does, reveal the secrets of our hearts, things hidden even from ourselves in the depths of our being. He casts down into the depths . . .

The hidden thing is brought into the light, the man is healed . . .

When we follow, we follow from death to Life, from darkness to Light. But for some the Light is too bright, the Life is too real. We return to the world of darkness and dreams. Of comfortable illusions about ourselves, about Jesus and about God. Stories that leave us where we are. We don’t want to be found out . . .

The Guitar Judge found me out. I had to return to the beginning . . .

Jesus comes to us. God is walking in the garden in the cool of the day – We are found out . . . do we hide? Or do we respond to his voice, and his invitation to us to let go of our ideas, and to go where we don’t know . . . to trust him that whatever is revealed in us he will heal us of . . . to go where we don’t know, and never be the same

Let those with ears to hear, hear

‘Don’t just stand there, Follow Me!’ – Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany

So I awake early one day this week and, unable to go back to sleep, switch on a podcast regarding the question of the body of God, as I am sure we all would  After all, Scripture speaks of the face of God, the arm of God, and when God first shows himself in Scripture he’s out for a stroll . . .

Which set me thinking. About how despite all our attempts to keep him in His place, to nail him down – or up – God is always on the move in Scripture.

God is a God who is on the move. If you’ve ever read the bewildering account of Ezekiel’s vision of the Glory of God by the Kebar river, it is if nothing else a vision of God in Motion. Creatures, Eyes, wheels, wings, moving NSEW as the Spirit commands.

Right at the beginning, when God appears in Creation He is ‘walking in the garden in the cool of the day’ – the sound of which causes the Man and the Woman to hide. They’ve just sought to secure their own existence, but God is on the move. They hide after all a moving God might disrupt their incipient ‘life on their own terms’. God is not Safe.

When God rescues Israel from Egypt, to go with Him they must go on a journey, and always ready to move. The God of the Exodus asks only for a Tabernacle, a tent. For Israel must be ready at a moment’s notice to dismantle it as the people follow the pillar of cloud and fire.

And God seems less than impressed with attempts to build a Temple for his presence in Jerusalem, to ‘domesticate’ him. To give God a place to settle down in, so we can pay attention to our own lives without wondering where he’s going. We build a place in our lives, a quiet half hour in the morning, a visit or two to church each week to visit the domesticated God. The Rest Home God . . . But God is not having anything to do with our programmes of domestication

So significant is this aspect of the Life of God, that when Paul preaches the gospel to those wise Athenians, he begins with this very point The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands . . . You and I can’t do anything for God. We can’t be busy on God’s behalf and turn up once a week to give him a progress report on everything we’ve done for him. As God rebukes King David, ‘will you build Me a house?’

And then Paul finishes off, While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent. You got God wrong. He’s not your domestic household God, or even your State God with his fine buildings, he is the dynamic Living God!

The Living God is looking for a house, but not one made of stone, but a living house, one that moves, indeed that walks. It is instructive how in Greek the verb to Live is the same as that to walk, which makes one wonder if in our sedentary age – and sitting kills you – then we are less in the image of the Living God who walks, who is always and everywhere on the move, as the wind blows wheresoever it will, not according to our whims and desires . . .

So when the tabernacle, the dwelling pace of God reappears – The Word became flesh and tabernacled amongst us – he is moving. ‘after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee . . .’ ‘As he passed along the Sea of Galilee . . .’

As he passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘follow me’. – literally ‘Come along after me’, walk behind me . . .

The announcement of the Kingdom of God at hand and the call for repentance is followed up by a call to move, to Follow . . . of course for God is not a stationary God.

But what does that mean? What does it mean to Go after Jesus, to Follow him?

In the early years of the Church, before the faith became domesticated it was far from respectable. And so when ‘they were first called Christians’ it was a term of abuse. In these days, it must be said, for various reasons it is again becoming less than socially acceptable to be a Christian. So some folk look for alternatives, like ‘Jesus Follower’. Cool, eh?

But what does it mean? What does that phrase summon up for you? Hearing the words ‘Follow me’?

If we are at all alert, then that question begs another question, a question asked by Thomas Lord, we do not know where you are going! How can we know the way? Follow Jesus! Yes! But where?

We’ve just sung ‘Will you come and follow me, if I but call your name’ Of course in this case Jesus doesn’t even call them by name . . . But will you? . . . Are we up for being Jesus followers?

Yet the next line . . . ‘will you go where you don’t know, and never be the same’

(Much as I appreciate the ministry of John Bell, I think that if he’d left it at that, rather than supply lots of suggestions as to where this might lead it would have been a more truthful if less popular hymn . . . after all it’s a lot easier to come up with our own definitions of what it means to follow Jesus than to follow him . . .)

Jesus said to them ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men’. Jesus has fished for men, and they have followed him, they in their own part will fish for followers who will go with them . . . but where?

Come with me, where you don’t know, and I will change who you are . . .

To follow Jesus means changing location, it means moving from where we are to somewhere else . . . but where?

To move is to change. If we go somewhere else in any meaningful sense we change. Tourists never really go to the places they visit – they think that other countries exist for their benefit, and as we know all too well here in Aotearoa, we get by by existing to fulfil the fantasies of the tourists.

But when you go somewhere to live there, to live in and become residents of another country, you change.

Our story is that of Abram who is called to leave his country for a land the Lord will show him, to Live there.

Which perhaps is why we like to keep this God fixed, in a Temple, or in some convenient idea which is pretty much the same thing, so we don’t have to go anywhere. Certainly not go somewhere we don’t know.

If we know one thing about Jesus’ disciples they don’t see where he’s going, until it’s too late . . . but they go anyway.

Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately [Behold!] they left their nets and followed him. Mark’s ‘behold!’ word is ‘immediately. After all there are these fishermen doing what they’ve always done, and What?! Without a word, they just go after him? Their action would have jarred their family and friends, woken them with a jerk. The Living God is at work. Look! They left their nets and followed him . . .

To follow Jesus entails a journey of change – to become different people. Perhaps that’s why we prefer to worship a god who is happy to be in a Temple, rather than the one who moves?

On the other hand, perhaps we too like the fishermen might go with him? And allow him to make us to become different people?

Lent is soon upon us – our study material is on precisely this movement and change – we are all invited to the journey