Sermon for the fourth Sunday after The Epiphany
Year B, 2021
‘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