Mark 1:21-28

What difference does following Jesus make? Or, to put it another way, what would life be like if you weren’t a Christian? What would you miss? What hope would be absent?

 

Jesus makes a difference to people’s lives. He transforms us, changing us in many ways. Our reading from Mark 1:21-28 tells us that Jesus makes a difference in our lives today because he is the Son of God, because he has authority.

 

That authority comes up several times in the gospel reading. We first see it in verse 21 ‘They went to Capernaum.’ Who is ‘they’? Simon, Andrew, Peter and John. The fishermen who left their nets in response to Jesus’ call and followed him.

 

Do we imagine this as a completely spur of the moment decision? The reading we had from John’s gospel a couple of weeks ago suggests that Jesus had met at least some of these men before. Some of them had been disciples of John the Baptist, who pointed Jesus out to them. So it wasn’t a completely random leap into the unknown. They knew Jesus, had seen and heard him, had a chance to be convinced. When he called, they put down their nets and followed him.

 

Maybe you’ve known the call of Jesus as voice beckoning you on? As an irresistible draw, a deep longing, a knowledge that he has what you’re searching for, an understanding that life without him will never fulfil. Some people he commands clearly and suddenly, others grow towards him like a plant seeking the light.

 

And Jesus keeps on calling us. When we decide to follow him, our journey is only begun. In each different circumstance of life Jesus calls us to be faithful, to discern his will and grow the Kingdom of God in the best way we can. Sometimes he calls us to other places, to something new. Sometimes he calls us to an adventure in the place where we already are. Don’t imagine you have to become someone else to respond to Christ’s call. Ask him what he wants you to be, here, now.

When we respond to his call, we begin to change. I wonder if you have seen this happen with someone else? A new light in their eyes, a new demeanour, the sharp edges being rubbed off as the Holy Spirit gets to work, a more compassionate more servant hearted personality.

 

The disciples in the reading are only beginning their journey with Jesus, and they still have a lot to learn. If you ever take a trip to the Holy Land, one of the highlights is the tour round the ruins of Capernaum. You can still see a synagogue, built later on top of the one in which Jesus taught that very day.

 

It’s interesting that Jesus did teach. For he wasn’t a priest. He hadn’t been to the university or scribal school. And yet, as v.23 tells us ‘They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.’

 

What does that mean? If you look at records of teaching from those times, it often follows a particular pattern. There will be a Bible verse –and someone will ask a question about it. So there’s a verse in the Old Testament which talks about lying. Somebody asks, are white lies ok? Here’s a real example: they ask: should you say a bride is beautiful, even if she’s not? Rabbi Shammai says no, you should never lie. Another Rabbi, Hillel, says all brides are beautiful on their wedding day. And then the teachers would discuss the relative merits of each viewpoint.

 

It reads like case law. It cites verdicts and appeals to precedent. It’s practical, wants to do the right thing, but is backward looking and often patriarchal. Seldom in this approach does God’s Word come to life, it feels like a dusty text, the object of study in a museum case.

 

Jesus is completely different. He goes straight to the heart of the question. When they asked him ‘Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ he asked for a coin. ‘Whose inscription and image is this?’ ‘Caesar’s’, they replied. ‘Well then, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’ He always had a new angle.

 

Jesus recognised this himself. Often in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches: ‘You have heard that it was said’ – referring to the arguments of the Rabbis – ‘but I say to you…’ I say to you? Who is this who can sweep aside centuries of tradition? Who has the audacity to ignore the opinions of the elders, and set forth his own as a replacement? Who can speak as if he alone knows the true meaning of God’s law? Who does Jesus think he is?

 

God’s own Son. Only the Son of God could reinterpret God’s Word with such authority and clarity. Only He could distinguish so clearly between the true intention of Scripture and the layers of encrusting tradition. The way Jesus teaches shows us his authority as Son of God. When we read Jesus’ teaching, let’s not turn it into a dry study. Let’s not make it a project of acquiring knowledge. Let’s ask him to show us the living beating heart of his word. His glorious will for us.

 

The implications of the way Jesus teaches may not be clear to everyone in the reading, but one man grasps it. With supernatural insight, in verse 24 he cries out ‘You are the Holy One of God!’ He is correct in that, but Jesus tells him to be quiet. For this revelation has not come through the Holy Spirit, but though spiritual forces opposed to God. ‘Have you come to destroy us?’ they cry in fear. No, Jesus has not come to destroy people but to set them free.

 

And so Jesus heals the man and liberates from the spiritual power which oppresses him. This is really important, because it is a sign of the Kingdom of God. When evil is defeated, when people are set free from spiritual darkness, then the Kingdom of God really is among us.

 

I knew of a woman who had got involved in the occult. At first it seemed fun, fascinating even. Then it was an opportunity to make money, as friends turned to her for readings and mediumship. But after a while, the darkness began to grow and take over. She started experiencing weird things, hearing voices, she was no longer in control, running scared.

Desperate, she turned to the church and was prayed for. She repented of what she’d done, turned to Christ and was delivered from the oppression. It was an amazing liberation for someone very troubled.

 

We might not think that kind of thing happens very much, but you’d be surprised. The name of Jesus has power – to bring peace to disturbed homes, calm into troubled lives. The Kingdom of God defeats evil.

 

In many ways, Jesus’ authority can set us free, from all sorts of things. I know a man who was dependent on alcohol. Not strictly an alcoholic, but relying on a drink or two to get through the day. The power of Jesus has set him free.

 

Now, that man has to watch himself in future. He knows that a single drink might make him fall off the wagon. The legacy of his past will probably stay with him for the rest of his life. There is healing, but not to make the problem vanish. He must still depend on God. I know several faithful Christians who are just about managing to keep their heads above the water. People who are using all the grace God can give to deal with depression, ME or other illness. It’s a real struggle for them to get by.

 

Why does God not simply take it away? If Jesus has authority over the chains that bind us, why does he not set us completely free? Why this day to day struggle? Why a kind of partial healing, depending on God until the day comes when we are fully free? It feels like that with physical healing too. In the verses after this reading, Jesus heals Peter’s mother in law. She has a fever, and Jesus helps her up and she recovers completely. Jesus has power over sickness, so why is that not always experienced?

 

I live with that question all the time. I live with a child who in many ways has received healing. People have prayed earnestly, and he has done much better than expected, miraculously he keeps on going. His capabilities have exceeded anything anyone dared to predict. A week on Monday he will be the subject of a documentary about his political campaigning and poetry – yet he still inhabits a broken body.

 

To Jonathan the power of Jesus to change lives is real. He knows the difference God has made – and is the most content person I have ever known. He looks forward to the day when he shall be made complete, healed in eternity. That overarching perspective reminds us that the Kingdom of God is not yet complete, that our final liberation is yet to come.

 

For in this reading, the King, the Chosen One, the Son of God begins to bring in his Kingdom. The signs of the Kingdom of God are everywhere. All around us. We see the Kingdom of God when people find new life in Jesus. When lives are transformed by Christ’s authoritative teaching. We experience the power of the Kingdom of God in victory over evil. When lives are set free, broken creation is healed and restored. We respond as Jesus calls us to journey with him and play our part in growing the Kingdom of God.

 

The Kingdom of God begins, and it continues to grow, until eventually it will be fulfilled in God’s presence. Jesus changes lives. He did so then, and he does so now. This is the message, and the power, that he invites us to share. Let us seek to live by Christ’s authority in every area of life. Let us submit everything to him. And may we see his power to bring change impact positively on those around us.

 

Advertisements

Come and See

When was the last time that you just had to tell the world? When you got so enthusiastic about something – a new car that you couldn’t wait to demonstrate to a friend? A grandchild’s winning sprint posted on Facebook? Or even just boasting about the Jamie Oliver puddings you picked up for £2.50 in the post-Christmas sales?

 

In this reading from John’s gospel, Chapter 1 verses 43 to 51 the first disciples get so enthusiastic about meeting Jesus that they just have to tell someone. It invites us to think about how we meet Jesus today, what he means to us personally, and how we might invite others to him.

 

This church season of Epiphany focusses on Jesus being revealed, people discovering who he is. So several of the gospel accounts we read come from the beginning of his ministry. Here Jesus returns from the desert regions to Galilee and chooses his disciples. He’s already called Andrew and Peter, and in verse 43 he says to Philip ‘Follow me’.

 

And then something important happens. Philip finds Nathanael and says to him ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote: Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Philip has found Jesus. He searches out his friend Nathanael and full of enthusiasm, he shares his discovery, in his own words. Philip is the first ordinary person to tell someone else about Jesus. He does something so important – for if people everywhere will become part of the Kingdom of God, then one must tell another. We too can share our faith – it is a duty and a joy to do so.

 

But Philip’s efforts don’t meet with a warm response. ‘Nazareth? Can anything good from there?’ The place was totally unremarkable. About ten acres in size, with a population of 200 to 400 peasant farmers. They lived in houses which were half building, half cave burrowed into the soft rock. Can anything good come from there? But isn’t that the point? Precisely the place where God enters humanity at its humblest, identifies most closely with us by sharing human hardships. That’s what the incarnation is about – the dump is where God is most likely to be.

Rather wisely, Philip just replies ‘Come and see’. Give Jesus a chance, try him out and make up your own mind. Philip says ‘Come and find out for yourself. Experience and find out if it’s true.’

 

At Christmas we got given a board game – it was one of those that has complex symbols printed on a board, hundreds of little plastic shapes, piles of cards that all mean different things, and tiny tokens to punch out and lose. The instructions ran to a small booklet – two whole pages on just setting the game up!

 

Did we sit down and read the manual aloud to the assembled players? Did we work it through in our minds before we began to play? Of course not! We just started playing and found out the rules as we went. ‘Now it’s your turn. Move your token. Roll the dice. 7. What’s that mean? The plague – what are the rules for the plague?’ And so on.

 

Now there were some complaints that Daddy was finding new rules at times which suited him. Yet overall, it worked really well, and it was a fun, well designed game. Ok, for the first time we were a bit confused. But when we played it again, and again, we really got the hang of it.

 

It can often be the same when people encounter Jesus today. There is a proverb that people belong before they believe. In other words people appreciate the friendship of a Christian community, they are drawn to the joy and mystery of worship, they take part, even get stuck in – and then something of faith stirs and grows into understanding. People come and see, experience the living Christ, and then believe.

 

Even before someone comes through those doors, they will have seen the Kingdom of God at work in the world. Maybe the church’s work in a food bank or a Romanian orphanage, or a kind friend, will lead someone to take faith seriously, will help them realise that those words mean something. The Christian faith is experienced, desired, caught, which generates the willingness to learn and understand.

So for Christians, when we seek to share our faith, let’s remember that explanation is important – and it is made real by genuine experience of God’s love. It is fine to issue an invitation – which will be effective when it is backed up by a faith that making a difference in the world. Neither words nor actions are enough on their own. We must have both.

 

And then Jesus will do his own thing. I have learnt not to try and control people’s path to faith. For Jesus has his own way of dealing with each person. He knows them far more intimately than I do. So it is my place to watch and listen for what he is doing – speak the word in season, invite when the Holy Spirit prompts, challenge when appropriate, all the while trying to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit.

 

Jesus works his own particular way. The conversation in 47 onwards is rather odd. Jesus greets Philip with the words ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.’ In effect ‘Here’s a genuine bloke, there’s no messing about with this man. He’s an honest seeker.’

 

Nathanael seems to recognise this is fair, but he is surprised: ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus replies ‘I saw you under the fig tree, before Philip called you.’ Apparently this is enough to convince Nathanael who immediately jumps to the astonishing conclusion ‘Rabbi you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel!’

 

What’s going on here? V.50 suggests that Jesus had seen Nathanael by some kind of prophetic insight. A supernatural ability which combines with Philip’s words and the presence of Christ to convince Nathanael.

 

Probably also Nathanael is meant to be an example. He’s the open minded, fair, faith-filled and hopeful Jewish person waiting for the Messiah. Perhaps there were such people among the first recipients of the gospel. Perhaps they themselves were puzzled as to why so many of their fellow-Jews did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. Indeed the Christians had been expelled from the synagogues. Perhaps Nathanael is an example to them of what ought, what could be.

 

 

For us too, Nathanael reminds us that some people will get it. Jesus meets them and wham! Perhaps we may know people whose initial scepticism has been replaced by faith. Suddenly the Holy Spirit surprises us by what he can do in someone’s life. Meeting Jesus in worship, acts of service, prayer, stillness is incredibly powerful.

 

We have to face up to the fact that many Christians today, myself included, often have a negative assumption about how people will react when we speak about faith. We assume they won’t be interested. Or we give up at the first sign of reluctance, when maybe the invitation to come and see might be effective. Perhaps we are conditioned by the secular society around us not to share our faith or to be shy in doing so. In reality, folks are curious to find out about other people’s lives – if we share humbly and don’t lecture we often get an interested hearing.

 

Perhaps also we think that the people around us know about Christianity. We’ve all been brought up with it, we heard it all at school. What can I tell them that’s new? For starters, you’d be surprised what people don’t know! And for those who feel they’ve been there and done that, a radical servant Christianity brings them up short and makes them realise that the Kingdom of God changes lives.

 

Perhaps faith seems too big a thing to convey – after all it’s easy enough to enthuse about a bottle of wine – but faith is so life changing and so big it’s hard to sum up adequately. So maybe the answer is to try and convey a bit at a time. To respond to ‘how do you cope?’ with a personal explanation of the real difference faith makes in that situation. To be ready to explain the particular life choices we make due to faith. And to be ready to say ‘Come and see’ – not try and fix it with our explanations but invite people onto their own journey of discovery.

 

Bringing people to encounter Jesus, giving birth to faith is ultimately the Spirit’s work. Our role is to pray, listen, serve, speak, invite and accompany. For when we make space for the Spirit to work, he can do amazing things through us. Very soon the person we have taught will be teaching us things!

If there hadn’t been Nathanael, there wouldn’t have been v.51. Maybe it is a bit obscure: ‘you will see heaven opened and the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’

 

But for those who were brought up with the Hebrew Bible, they would have instantly thought of Jacob. This Old Testament patriarch was running away from home. While sleeping rough, with a stone as a pillow, he dreamt he saw heaven open and a ladder connecting heaven and earth. Angels were ascending and descending on the ladder. Jacob took it as a sign that God was with him. In the morning he set up his stone pillow as a pillar to remember that God is here.

 

Jesus says that the angels ascend and descend on the Son of Man. On himself. He takes the place of the ladder linking heaven and earth. This one is the fully human, fully divine, son of man. In him God’s eternity and creation come together. In his body – perhaps hinting at the cross – he bridges the gap.

 

We do not climb a stairway to heaven by being good or keeping all the rules. It is Jesus himself who brings heaven to earth and earth to heaven. This is what is unique about him. Jesus does not point to a code to follow, nor a culture. The centre of Christianity is Jesus himself. That is why we say ‘Come and See’. Come and experience the life of the community in which Christ lives. Come and join the worship, come and receive the word and sacrament in which Christ is known. Come and serve, build the Kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. Come and see.

 

Epiphany

Epiphany is about Kings – but which ones? This story from Matthew seems to focus on kings– but not the ones we might think of. ‘We three Kings of orient are’ goes the carol – yet the Bible doesn’t call them kings, rather Magi, often translated wise men. Perhaps if they had been had been wiser, their gifts for a new mother might have been nappies, enough casserole to last a week, and a plentiful supply of chocolate…

 

So the Magi aren’t kings. What about Herod? Yes, he’s just a puppet of the Romans, yet Herod has real power over life and death. However v.1, in that little double edged phrase ‘in the time of King Herod’ hints that Herod’s time is passing away. The first readers of Matthew’s gospel would have known that Herod died soon after these events.  His earthly kingdom will not last.

 

Really, the king here is King Jesus. Herod in his splendour, the wise men with their gifts, these are not the true kings. The baby lying in the manger will grow up to be God’s king. In Jesus, God’s promised Saviour comes to reign. He offers us the way into God’s Kingdom. How then we will we respond?

 

It’s worth thinking about what we mean by the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom does not just mean that God reigns in heaven and one day we shall go to join him there. If that was all it meant, then why did Herod feel so threatened? Why bother to kill Jesus if his purpose in life was just to sort out what happens after we die? If Jesus came preaching a privatised spirituality or a personal morality then why was he crucified?

 

The Christian church has often misunderstood the Kingdom of God; narrowed it down, turned it into something purely spiritual. Often we’ve focussed so much on the truth that Jesus offers us eternal life, that we’ve forgotten that this world matters to God too. Both are important. We’ve emphasised that Jesus died on the cross so our sins could be forgiven – without realising that also means that all of God’s glorious creation will be healed. He plans a total restoration.

Jesus did not just tell us how to live as we wait for heaven – he told us how God’s Kingdom begins, grows and changes this world.

 

The Kingdom of God breaks in whenever God’s reign is recognised. We join it when we accept Jesus as Lord – and we grow the work of the Kingdom as we live God’s way. The Kingdom of God brings justice, joy, peace, forgiveness, a new community following Jesus. It has implications for all of life: political, economic and environmental.

People sometimes say that the church is irrelevant – but look at the places where the church is making a difference today: debt cancellation; campaigning and practical steps to end modern slavery; providing food banks so families in a poverty trap can get a decent meal; inquiries like that for Hillsborough which bring truth and justice.

 

So when we look at our New Year’s resolutions, how does faith make a difference? Are the things we hope to do all about ourselves: lose weight, eat better, drink less, get healthier – or can we include hopes, steps towards a better world? Where can we see the Kingdom of God growing around us? Can we listen to what God is doing and join in?

 

For the Kingdom of God affects this world. It’s obvious in the passage we’ve just read: the Magi are Gentiles which tells us that this Jewish Messiah has come for all people. Even the natural world is affected as a star points the way to his birth. It is a Kingdom for this earth, in all its messiness, making a real change because it comes in a different way.

 

There was a remarkable example of the way earthly kingdoms work just this past week. Kim from North Korea had boasted about his nuclear button. Donald from the States went onto Twitter to say that his nuclear button is much bigger than Kim’s, and what’s more it works.

 

That’s all about power and force. But the Kingdom of God doesn’t work this way. The Kingdom of God doesn’t even move forward by the good guys being stronger, in a traditional way, than the bad guys.

The Kingdom of God is not about doing what the world does. Nor is it about doing something a little bit different, more moral, but in a bigger and better way. Its ethos is radically different.

 

I wonder who’s seen the new Star Wars film? I really enjoyed it – it’s a break with tradition, refreshing. And to get the best from the action, it’s really worth seeing in the cinema.  I’ll try not to give too many details away – hopefully this doesn’t need a spoiler alert! There’s a bit where one character saves another – and she says: ‘that’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.’

 

It reminded me of the cross. Those gifts that the wise men bring are a kind of prophecy. Gold speaks of royalty; frankincense symbolises an offering; while myrrh is used at the time of death. This is a king who will bring in his kingdom in a totally new way.

 

The gospels point towards the cross as the place where Jesus wins his victory. They allude to it as being like a throne. Which seems a bit odd – given that to all intents and purposes death by crucifixion looks like an abject failure. Yet this is God’s way of victory. For Jesus does not defeat evil by having a larger army. He doesn’t squish empires by force of arms. What happens on the cross is that God’s Son Jesus, as a representative of humanity, allows evil to do its worst to him. He offers himself, makes himself vulnerable, and evil pours itself out in hatred upon him until it has nothing left. Jesus wins the victory by draining sin of its power, by dying our death, saving us whom he loves.

 

Which may help us to face the obvious objection: If you say God is the King of our world, have you looked out the window recently? Since 2018 began we’ve had stabbings, riots and threats of nuclear war. So if God’s supposed to be reigning what’s he up to?

 

 

Our reading from St Matthew is well aware that evil can still wreak horror. Immediately after this reading, Matthew tells of how Herod in his jealous rage ordered the death of every boy under the age of two in Bethlehem. Herod planned to wipe out the infant Messiah.

 

 

Yet for all his anger, Herod was unsuccessful. God’s plan was not thwarted. Today evil still rages in our world, but its ultimate defeat is guaranteed. Jesus has won the victory on the cross – and the Kingdom is growing. Small at first, like a mustard seed or a handful of yeast it will nonetheless spread through all the dough. And eventually the time will come when Jesus returns and the whole creation will be judged and renewed.

 

When William Wilberforce and his friends won the key vote to ban slavery in the British Empire, there were still struggles. The law had to be implemented, patches of resistance cleared up. Even in our own day, people are had up for forced labour and domestic servitude. But the passing of that law was the decisive victory.

 

In a similar kind of way, Christ’s victory has been won on the cross, but God’s people may still be called to follow in that way of the cross. Working for the Kingdom of God may involve sacrifice – the wise men travelled many miles, endured danger, and gave generously. Staying in God’s plan may involve us setting off into the unknown, like Mary and Joseph who fled to Egypt.

 

As we begin a New Year, we do not know what the future holds. We may be called to trust God in the midst of darkness. We may be asked to make sacrifices. If we do, let us remember that we do so knowing that Christ is King and that the world is his. If we face challenges, let us remember that Christ has won the victory. And may we, like the wise men, know the presence of the King and be filled with his joy.