Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Whimper and the Roar of Christmas Day

Luke 2:1-20

2In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14"Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" 15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

- - -

Some of you with small children had an exciting night last night. Christmas Eve at my childhood home on 7th Avenue in Morton, Mississippi was an exciting time. There were already many presents under the brightly colored tree. We had a live cypress(?) tree with those large colored light bulbs with red, green, blue, orange and yellow lights. My body literally shook with excitement when I thought about my presents under that tree. I had closely examined my gifts under the tree. I gently shook each gift to see if it made a sound. One gift sounded like a board game when I shook it. Hopefully, it was the Risk game or maybe Monopoly. Another gift made no sound when I shook it. It was probably a book, a pretty heavy book, most likely a new Living Bible. Mama had made a cake for Santa Claus and it was time to put it on the table along with a glass of milk. Why, that big, hefty, lovable ole Saint Nick would certainly be hungry when he got to my house, considering all the heavy lifting he would have to do bringing in my gifts, hopefully he would be bringing me a new bicycle, one with the twisted handlebars like a ram's horns. That would be so cool!! And now we were watching Santa Claus on our TV. There he was, right there, making his way across the state of Mississippi. You could see the outline of Santa and his reindeer on the radar right there on the screen. Oh my goodness, there had been another Santa spotting two counties over from where I lived. It was be time to get to bed about now. If we were awake when Santa came with our stuff, we may scare him away. Best to get to sleep and awaken early in the morning to see what he brought us. So off to bed we went. My older brother and me slept in the same bedroom. It was night, night and sleep tight and don't let the bedbugs night. No, no, no. Not on Christmas Eve.

We live in fear with good reason. Death is ever near. There is no guarantee that any of us will make it home alive today or any day. Life is contingent. I was never afraid to die but always afraid to live. Why? Here are three of my fears that are common among many people: I fear will make a mistake. I fear rejection. I fear I will not achieve God's purpose for my life.

Some variation of "Be not afraid" or "Do not fear" occurs 40 times in the New Testament. This theme of do not fear carries over from the Old Testament in texts such as Psalm 23: "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil." So in our text today an angel says to a group of shepherds, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)

Banishment of fear is a common thread throughout the synoptic gospel birth narratives. Mary was afraid the first time the angel of the Lord appeared to her to announce she was carrying the Christ child within her. The angel's message to Mary was "Be not afraid." The shepherds were afraid when the angel appeared to them to announce the birth of Jesus. The angels told the shepherds: "Be not afraid."

We are afraid when we become aware of the potential to bear the Christ child within us. The angel says to us: "Be not afraid."

The shepherds and angels bear witness to what God is doing in your life. Think of the shepherds as the human mentors who have guided you through your life. These include parents, teachers, coaches, pastors and friends. The angels are the spiritual entities who accompany your spiritual journey. They have been called guardian angels. The shepherds and the angels in your life bear joyful witness to the birth of Christ within you.

A lost lion was adopted and raised by a herd of sheep. When he was three years old, the lion was bleating in the field with his brother and sister sheep when an older lion found him. The older lion was shocked to find this young lion acting like a sheep. So the older lion said: "Hey, what are you doing?! You are bleating like a sheep. You are not a sheep. You are a lion. Wake up. Get yourself together. Be a lion." The young lion was amazed to hear this and even more amazed to see this older lion since he had never before seen a lion. The young lion did not respond to the older lion but it made him start questioning his identity. A few days later the young lion who thought he was a sheep was standing by a stream when suddenly he saw another lion. It was his own reflection in the stream! And when he saw his reflection in that stream, he suddenly realized that he really was a lion and for the first time in his life, he roared! In a similar way, we have lost sight of our true identity. We have forgotten that we are made in God's image. We are God's children. We are not mere descendants of apes. We now stop acting like apes. We stop living out our animal nature. As we stare in wonder into the eyes of the baby in the manger, we see our own reflection staring back at us. We get in touch with the wonder and innocence of life. We bring that back to the world. Boxes and bows are good. But Christmas is about the gift that's inside the package. Christmas is about the birth of Christ within us.

In the jungle, a middle aged man hears the roar and footsteps of a tiger behind him. He takes off running as fast as he can. Up ahead he sees a precipice that leads to a his sure death if he jumps over it. Yet in his fear of the tiger behind him the man decides to jump over the cliff. As he falls down over the cliff he hits the side of the mountain and grabs hold a blueberry bush. Hanging there between heaven and earth, he notices that the blueberries are ripe on that bush. He reaches out and takes a handful of those blueberries and puts them in his mouth. They are the best thing he has ever tasted! (The stories about the lion and the tiger are adapted from some stories told by Anthony de Mello, a list of whose books are available for sale here.)

In our daily lives, we find ourselves between a rock a hard place. We realize the wonder and joy of life without fear. The man being chased by the tiger finally reached a point of not fear. He didn't cae whether he was eaten by a tiger or whether he was crushed on the rocks below the cliff when he juped. Every day of your life we have a similar choice. Every day we can choose to be not afraid. Thus, every day can be sublime. I have heard more than one story of a person who has been diagnosed with a terminal disease and then, only then, were they able to really live without fear.

Back when Jesus lived 1 out of 4 infants or mothers died in childbirth. Yet, Mary gives birth to Jesus without fear. Your job and mine is to give birth to the Christ within us. Let us do that today, on this Christmas Day, without fear. Do not be afraid of the good news that Christ is ready to be birthed in your heart today.

Early on Christmas morning, really really early, while it was still dark, someone awakened me.

It was my older brother, Tim. "Jon, Jon, get up! It's Christmas morning. Let's go look at our gifts. Let's go see what Santa Claus brought us."

"No. I'm still asleep. You go see what he brought and come tell me," I mumbled, half awake.

"No!" said my older brother. "He might be still in there!! I'm not going alone. You come with me."

"Okay. Okay. Let's go!"

So we fearfully and expectantly crept from our bedroom through the hallway into the living room, hoping that Jolly Ole Saint Nick would not be still in the house or we would scream in fright.

When we got to the living room, hey, no one was in there. We could see from the glowing lights on the Christmas tree a brand new bicycle! A blue one! With ram's horn handlebars!! Wow. Unbelievable! Santa Claus really came through this year! We were thrilled with the mystery and wonder and joy of life on that Christmas morning.

It's hard to put in words what it feels like Christ is born in your heart. Let's just say it feels something like the combination of joy and wonder and dread I felt when my brother and I were creeping down the hallway to peek into our living room to see what Santa had brought us. What is the present you were hoping for today? What is the bicycle you want for yourself? Imagine yourself getting that for Christmas. May such joy come into your life as Christ is born in your heart today.

Your role, like Mary, is to treasure all these words and ponder them in your heart. May this Christmas day be a day of treasuring what God has done in your life. Ponder what God is doing in your life now. The mystery of how Christ gets born in your heart is the greatest mystery in the world. May you, like the young lion who thought he was a sheep, see your own reflection in the eyes of the baby in the manger and may the Christ within you roar!

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon on Christmas Day, 2011, at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035, Phone 713-723-6262 |

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

God's Christmas Wish for You: Experience Miracles Like Mother Mary

You are a walking miracle and you don't even know it. You are blessing people right here in this church and all over the world by being who you are and doing what you do. The difference between a life filled with wonder and a boring so-called life comes down to one word: Perception. Let us see what we find as we look and listen for God's word to us today from Luke 1:26-38.

Text: Luke 1:26-38

1:26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,

1:27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary.

1:28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."

1:29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

1:30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

1:31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.

1:32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.

1:33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

1:34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"

1:35 The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

1:36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.

1:37 For nothing will be impossible with God."

1:38 Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.

Ramp: Last week I ate some delicious home baked gluten free bread. I put some raspberry jam on it after toasting the bread. It tasted fantastic. My wife had cooked the bread in a little bread oven. She had bought it the day before at the Kroger grocery store. It tasted great.

An American businessman was in a small town in Israel when he came across a Jewish bakery. He first smelled it from a block away. His mouth was already watering by the time he came to the bakery door. He loved fresh baked bread. Put some butter on top of it. Watch the butter spread like sunshine on the bread. So he could hardly wait to get his hands on some of that fresh baked bread he smelled. He could tell it was his favorite kind: Irish sourdough bread. But when the pushed on the door to enter the door did not move. With and a tinge of anger, he noticed the "Closed" sign on the door. He had just missed the deadline and with a sense of great disappointment he kept on walking down the street. A few blocks he later he heard a loud whistle. It was a policeman, standing with one hand behind his back, motioning him to come hither. The surprised man walked to the policeman who took his hand from behind his back and presented him with a loaf of fresh baked bread. The policeman had seen the man standing at the bakery door and could tell he was disappointed it was closed so the policeman talked to the baker and brought a free loaf of bread as a sign of good will for the American tourist. The American businessman sure did enjoy that bread.

Which of those two stories tells about a miracle? In both stories a man gets to eat some delicious bread. But the second story seems more miraculous because of the dramatic delivery mechanism. What makes that story seem miraculous is not the outcome but the process by which that outcome appeared. In the story of the American businessman there is wonderment involved, a sense of something happening that transcends the boundaries of the normal world most of us live in. In short, there is a feeling of the miraculous. What differentiates what we perceive as miraculous from other forms of acquisition, then, is not the results but the process by which the results are achieved. (Spangler, David (2008-10-01). Everyday Miracles: the inner art of manifestation (Kindle Locations 247-250). Lorian Press. Kindle Edition. )

Your birth was full of mystery. If you have given birth or witnessed the birth of a baby you may have felt like this birth was somehow a miracle. A birth gets us in touch with the sacred. Yet there is something about the birth of Jesus that goes beyond even the natural feeling of miraculous that we experience at the the birth of any child.

The miraculous nature of Jesus' birth goes back to the very announcement of her pregnancy. The Angel Gabriel announces that Mary will give birth to a Messiah who will sit upon the Throne of David. Mary wonders how she will give birth when she has never slept with a man. Gabriel tells Mary even her cousin Elizabeth in her old age has conceived a son, "For nothing will be impossible with God." (Luke 1:37)

According to our text today, the Angel Gabriel appeared to a virgin named Mary. She was a young Jewish girl whose fiancee was from the royal lineage of the House of David. Mary allowed God to work a miracle in and through her even though she had 3 strikes against her in the eyes of her culture as a poor, pregnant, unmarried woman. Mary had some things going for her. She was engaged to a man from the royal House of David. She was looking to God. She was open to miracles in her own life. She was open to the "revelation of the mystery." Mary responded to God in faith.

What are the strikes against you? Do people say you are too young or too old? To pretty or too ugly? Too rich or too poor? You can hinder miracles in your life by focusing on the wrong things. You can facilitate miracles in your life by focusing on God.

Members of this congregation are good at looking to God. You are among the most generous people I have ever known. Remember the church with an end of the year if you are able. Rest assured whatever you give to this congregation will be multiplied many times over in vital ministry. If you spent as much time as I do in the church office building, you too would be astounded at all the ministry and outreach that goes on here. The loving energy that passes through this building and out into the world is palpable. And this is but one hub for the ministries that each of you carries out in the fullness of your life at home - listening to a child, caring for a parent, praying for a friend; and at work - dealing with difficult situations, meeting deadlines, being a peaceful presence for your colleagues.

Your life is a gift to God that is expressed in many ways, one of which is in and through a faith community called St. John's. Let me take this opportunity to THANK YOU for your generosity to me, the church staff, this community, this city and the world. You are inspiring people. You are gifted for ministry. You are committed. And you are generous. Do not hesitate to express your generosity with an additional gift to St. John's at this time of year. You may think of it as your Christmas gift to Jesus. No doubt you will a Christmas gift to every other important person in your life. Consider also giving a special gift to St. John's above and beyond your pledge.

Speaking of pledges, if you have not pledged for 2012, cards are in the pew racks and in the church office. If you've never pledged, it is a wonderful spiritual discipline that will help you grow in your faith. If you've never done it, perhaps you may start by pledging a dime a day to support Christ's ministry through this congregation next year. The attitude of commitment to Christ and the desire to be a part of this successful enterprise matters more than the amount of money pledged for those who are new to this spiritual discipline.

Christ's birth may not be acknowledged in the secular world but it will most certainly be acknowledged in our hearts, in our lives, and in the worship and ongoing ministry of St. John's Presbyterian Church. If God has blessed you in such a way that you are able to do so, write an additional check to St. John's today in honor of the baby who was born in a manger long ago and who is reborn in our hearts during this holy season. Think of this additional check as a way of acknowledging the true reason for the season, the birth of Christ our Lord.

Closing: The biggest miracle you may experience is the miracle of learning to view life in a different way: As a gift from God to you. Just because you purchase your daily bread from a local grocery store does not mean it not a miracle. God gave you the money to buy the bread. Use of some of God's bread money to you to feed the world. Get excited by the possibility that God wants to work miracles in and through you. Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her. God's Christmas wish for you is that you will believe that nothing is impossible with God and allow the Holy Spirit to work miracles in and through you.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on December 18, 2011 - Advent 4B, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035, Phone 713-723-6262 |

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Among You Stands One Whom You Do Not Know

It's easy for us to get distracted this time of year. We have coaching changes in college football. There are the important questions of which is better: The iPad2 or the Samsung Galaxy Tab? We have family arrangements to consider. Who will be home for Christmas? What presents will we give them? In the midst of such considerations comes a strange man in weird clothes with one of those off-beat Southern California kind of diets. His name is John the Baptist. His message sounds like it is straight out of a science fiction movie about aliens in our midst. He claims there is one among us whom we do no know.

John 1:6-8, 19-28

1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

1:7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.

1:8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

1:19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?"

1:20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah."

1:21 And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No."

1:22 Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?"

1:23 He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,'" as the prophet Isaiah said.

1:24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.

1:25 They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?"

1:26 John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know,

1:27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal."

1:28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

= = =

One of my favorite sci fi movies is called "They Live." A drifter discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to wake up to the fact that aliens have taken over the Earth. The turning point in the movie comes when the drifter wears those special sunglasses for the first time. As he walks along a busy sidewalk in the city, words on signs and magazine covers morph from advertisements into blunt propaganda such as "OBEY." "STAY ASLEEP." "DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY." Money now changes from regular bills to papers that read "THIS IS YOUR GOD." And what's even spookier is that certain people's faces now look like scary reptiles. Clearly, all is not as it seems on the surface. Some of the most successful people are revealed to be reptilian aliens who are in control of the media and politics. The drifter forces a friend to wear the sunglasses and together they seek other humans aware of the situation. They organize a resistance against the powerful aliens from Andromeda and their associates.

Like the drifter in the movie "They Live," so John the Baptist is hard to classify. He's not an Old Testament prophet and he's not one of Jesus' twelve disciples. He is a first cousin of Jesus to whom he was introduced while still in the womb. His mother and Jesus' mother were very close family members. John baptized his followers in the Jordan River preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In the early days after Jesus lived there was a competition between the followers of John the Baptist and the followers of Jesus. Some of the original disciples, such as Andrew, were first disciples of John the Baptist. His followers today, the Mandeans, of whom there are about 70,000 members, still baptize themselves today as a sign of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

John the Baptist shares much in common with Jesus. They are related by blood and faith. They are cousins whose mothers are close. They share a Jewish heritage and the Jewish Bible. John the Baptist dies beheaded by King Herod. Jesus dies crucified by Pontius Pilate. John the Baptist's head is said to be entombed in the Umayyad (meaning "Great") Mosque of Damascus in Syria. It is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world and it is considered the fourth-holiest place in Islam. After the Arab conquest of Damascus in 634, the mosque was built on the site of a Christian basilica dedicated to John the Baptist which heralds from the time of Roman emperor Constantine I. Back in my seminary days, I had the pleasure of visiting this mosque and seeing the Christian basilica within it that is said to entomb the head of John the Baptist.

In the gospel stories, John the Baptist points the reader to "one who stands among you whom you do not know." That one is Jesus. Jesus is the one we do not know. He is the one who comes to us from God. "He came from God but God's own people did not know him." The unique quality of Jesus is that he is God come down to us in human form.

John's gospel goes to great lengths to show us that John the Baptist is inferior to Jesus. We read in John 1:20 where John the Baptist says: "I am not the Messiah." John the Baptist says of Jesus: "I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal."

John the Baptist refers to Jesus, saying, "Among you stands one whom you do not know." The one he refers to is Jesus. You do not know him, says John. John the Baptist says, "Follow Jesus not me."

The one we do not know is the Christ within us. We are not well acquainted with the Christ within. We either ignore the Christ within or try to subdue it out of fear. We are afraid of letting Christ loose in our hearts. Changes may come. We may become more vulnerable. Getting to know the Christ within can be scary and uncomfortable. It sometimes feels as if the Spirit is shining a light around in the basement of our unconsciousness. Hidden sins are brought to light. This is what John the Baptist was all about, revealing the darkness within us.

A BOY was hunting for locusts. He had caught a goodly number, when he saw a Scorpion, and mistaking him for a locust, reached out his hand to take him. The Scorpion, showing his sting, said: "If you had but touched me, my friend, you would have lost me, and all your locusts too!" [Translated by George Fyler Townsend. Aesop'sFables (p. 16). Amazon Digital Services, Inc.] We fear if we get in touch with our inner John the Baptist we will lose ourself and everything we have worked for but the exact opposite is the truth. As we get in touch with our inner John the Baptist, we discover our true self. As we see our inner sinfulness mirrored back to us in the waters of our baptism we come to know our true nature as sinful human beings. Yet is is precisely sinful human beings whom Christ comes to redeem.

A DOG, crossing a bridge over a stream with a piece of flesh in his mouth, saw his own shadow in the water and took it for that of another Dog, with a piece of meat double his own in size. He immediately let go of his own, and fiercely attacked the other Dog to get his larger piece from him. He thus lost both: that which he grasped at in the water, because it was a shadow; and his own, because the stream swept it away. [Translated by George Fyler Townsend. Aesop's Fables (p. 18). Amazon Digital Services, Inc.] When we fight our inner John the Baptist we fight against ourselves. We waste our energy attacking shadows. We do not realize we are seeing another aspect of ourselves.

A GOATHERD had sought to bring back a stray goat to his flock. He whistled and sounded his horn in vain; the straggler paid no attention to the summons. At last the Goatherd threw a stone, and breaking its horn, begged the Goat not to tell his master. The Goat replied, "Why, you silly fellow, the horn will speak though I be silent." Do not attempt to hide things which cannot be hid. [Translated by George Fyler Townsend. Aesop's Fables (p. 22). Amazon Digital Services, Inc..] Do you think you can hide your inner nature from others? Well, you can't. It's impossible. Some people know you better than you know yourself. Certainly, God knows us better than we know ourselves. And yet, here is the amazing part, God loves us just as we are. Self acceptance is the foundation of charity.

John the Baptist reminds us, "Among you stands one whom you do not know." The one you do not know may be Christ. Or the one you do not know may be yourself. Or the one among you whom you do not know may be the Christ within you, the hope of glory. Get in touch with your inner John the Baptist. The part of us that we try to avoid. The part of us we think is secret but it is there for everyone else to see. The connection to the Isaiah text would be that we are the spiritually oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives who need to released from prisons of our own making. (See Isa 61:1) The one among us whom we do not know is neither John the Baptist nor Jesus: It is we ourselves. We are strangers to ourselves.

A German city was recently evacuated after unexploded bombs from World War II were found in a nearby river. The dramatic story of the defusing of these weapons inspires reflection on the "unexploded bombs" that lurk beneath the surface of so many of our relationships with family members and friends.

As the holidays approach, what bombs will we encounter as we gather around tables for meals and conversation? Alcohol abuse, infidelity, drug abuse, mental illness, sexual addiction?

What bombs will we bring with us? Anger, resentment, jealousy, bitterness? And perhaps the most important question of all: How can we defuse these bombs?

During the Christmas season, we are bombarded by cards, gifts, music, ads and parties. All promise happiness. But many people enter the season feeling hurts, losses, disappointments and grief. How can this pain be acknowledged?

The early disciples interaction with Jesus was experiential. Jesus invited them to "come and see" and they came and saw. They gained insight found only at the level of profound trust. Jesus invites us to experience transcendence for the mystery of our lives is in our midst. Superseding John the Baptist, Jesus invites us to explore the Christ within us. There we may find the "God of peace" that passes all understanding. This Advent may the lyrics of that anthem become our inner battle cry: "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me."

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon on December 11, 2011 at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035.
Phone 713-723-6262 |

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Bad News (The System Is Broken) & The Good News (Jesus Offers a Superior System): Here's How We Get It

The Tea Party yelled it two years ago. Occupy Wallstreet hollered it this fall. The Congressional Super Committee who couldn't agree on budget cuts whispered it once again last month. Polls of public opinion tell it time and again. The system is broken. According to Mark, the birth of Christ is going to bring about some big changes in human society. Yet Jesus claims his kingdom is not of this world. Welcome to Jesus' politics of the spirit. Jesus offers a superior system and Mark suggests how we can get it. It all starts with our text today from the beginning of the Gospel According to Mark.

Mark 1:1-8

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

2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
 who will prepare your way; 
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
"Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight" '

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And 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. 6Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He 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. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.'

The beginning of Mark's Gospel may be read as a political document. Here is a literal translation of the Greek text of Mark 1:1, "Beginning the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son fo God." While that sentence sounds familiar and tame to us it would have sounded like a dynamite explosion to the original audience. The statement sounds like a direct frontal assualt on the Priene inscription that celebrated the birth of Augustus and it was written 9 years before Jesus' birth. The last sentence of the Priene inscription celebrating the birth of Augustus, written 9 years before Jesus' birth, reads as follows. "The birth date of our God, August Ceasar, has signaled the beginning of good news for the world." So the first sentence of Mark's Gospel turns the world on its head by subverting the language of a political/religious document of the Roman world.

This is more than just an interesting historical fact. This is a direct line into the purpose of Mark's Gospel at the time when it was written and a vision of its proper interpretation for us today. Mark is saying that the Realm of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, stands in direct opposition to the Realm of Caesar Augustus, son of Julius Caesar, son of God. That is a bold and risky statement. The rest of Marks' Gospel will attempt to prove that point and bring its readers into an alternative realm - the Realm of God. For according to the testimony to King Pilate by Jesus himself, "My realm is not of this world."

The Kingdom of God is a kingdom outside and other than the current power structure of the world.

  • Our current political system is built on monopolistic greed supported by the rule of law and the power of the military that supports the government.

  • Jesus' Realm is based on going the extra mile in human relations, turning the other cheek, and giving ourselves away while asking nothing in return.

Mark raises the question of citizenship. Whose system are you supporting more: The American Empire or the Kingdom of Heaven? The American Empire is funded by taxation. The Kingdom of Heaven as expressed in our faith tradition is funded by pledges and gifts. Here is an exercise that will help you know where you stand. Sit down and figure out how much money you pay for all your taxes including income taxes, property taxes, and sales taxes. Then figure out how money you pay for all charities including what you pledge to St. John's and other non-profits. Subtract the second figure from the first figure. That number will tell you how much more you are supporting the kingdom of this world than you are supporting the kingdom that is not of this world. Do you feel good about that? What can you do to change it? These are excellent ways to think about our personal stewardship our stewardship season comes to a close.

God's Word challenges us to count the cost and pay the price. Mark presents Jesus as an alternative champion instead of Augustus Ceasar. Yet Jesus as victor is complimented by Jesus as victim. For the birth of baby Jesus is not even mentioned in Mark. It is the political, cosmic implications that are of primary importance. Throughout the gospel Mark will show us how Victor Jesus becomes Victim Jesus. The irony is profound and has implications for our own discipleship.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is concerned with the finer things in life such as joy, peace and love. Isaiah shows us a vision of a peaceable kingdom where the lion will dwell with the lamb without trying to eat the lamb for dinner. This is a world in which the extremely wealthy do not take advantage of the extremely poor. In this world a person's worth is not judged by her bank account by the quality of her sense of purpose in life.

Our political system is broken. The polls say that. The Tea Party says that. Occupy Wallstreet says that. The failure of the Super Committee to agree on how to cut the budget says that. Our political system is broken. What will arise in its place? That is a question for the next decade. According to Marks' gospel, we need a better system, a system that is out of this world. We need a system such as the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed. This is not a kingdom not of greed, corruption and waste like the current system. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of peace, love and joy. It is a kingdom based on different principles and goals. That is the kind of alternative system proclaimed in the Gospel According to Mark.

The Good News of Jesus proclaimed by Mark is cosmic in scope. Mark's concept of "good news" was not limited to military and political victories. It is deeper than that. In the prophet Isaiah "good news" is transferred to the inbreaking of God's final saving act when peace, good news, and release from oppression will be showered on God's people (Isa 52:7; 61:1-3). For Mark, the advent of Jesus is the beginning of the fulfillment of the "good news" heralded by Isaiah."

Imagine a different political system: One that actually works. This system represents the people. It enables ordinary people to make contact with their elected officials. The elected officials live in the same neighbohood as the people who elected them. Yet they serve on the national level. Imagine instead of the couple of hundred people who serve in congress we instead had 20,000 people serving in congress. Instead of meeting in DC to conduct business they meet online in a virtual hall of congress from the convenience of their own home. Imagine each neighborhood, Meyerland, Westbury, and Bellaire, had their own congressman who lived in that neighborhood year round. They had no need to travel to Washington DC because all their meeting are held in a virtual reality. No longer would our political system be vulnerable to a terrorist attack on one place such as the Hall of Congress in DC. What good would it for a terrorist to take out one congressman if there 20,000 of them? How would rich corporations have such influence over 20,000 people as they have over the 200 we have now? That kind of change will become more possible and more likely as technology and public opinion are refashioned over the decade ahead. Such a large scale change is what Mark has in mind when he talks about the "Good News of Jesus Christ" but Mark's vision is much greater than this. Mark's gospel is like a joke in this sense: It is designed to seduce us into a new way of seeing and experiecing life. The difference is that a joke seeks to seduce us temporarily while Mark's gospel attempts to seduce us permanently. Mark's gospel seeks to seduce us to live our new lives in God's realm, not in the realm of our current, broken political system.

Where do we start to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth? We don't start in Washington, DC or London. We don't start in Tokyo, Moscow, or even Houston. The first place we start is right here, inside of ourselves. We need to change the way we think about success. We need to change the way we live our lives. We need to prepare the way of the Lord in our lives.

Get in touch with the John the Baptist within yourself. Get in touch with the part of you that does not care what the world thinks about the way you dress or what you eat. Get in touch with the part of yourself that hungers more for God than for public opinion. Get in touch with the part of you that says of Jesus Christ, "He must increase but I must decrease." Get in touch with your inner John the Baptist. He will lead you to the renewing waters of baptism in the River Jordan. He will lead you to Jesus Christ who will baptize you with Holy Spirit. The way to prepare for the birth of Christ within you is to let your inner John the Baptist come out. We are talking about more than alternative Christmas gifts here. We are talking about an alternative way of life. We are talking about bearing in your soul the fruit of the spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control. Those are the gifts you can bring to the newborn king: Christ the Lord. Those are gifts fit for a king whose kingdom is not of this world.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon on December 4, 2011, 2nd Sunday of Advent, at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035.
Phone 713-723-6262 |