Get Ready, Get Set, and GO! (Jesus launches his ministry)

October 30, 2016

a sermon based upon Mark 1:9-15 (page 867 in the pew Bible)

by Rev. Dr. Paul A. Lance, Minister

First Congregational United Church of Christ 201 South Second Ave., Alpena, Michigan 49707

At the firing range in the Army, the drill sergeant would shout: “Clear down range. Lock and load. Fire!” I think civilians say it more simply: “Ready, aim, fire!”  At a track meet, the runners line up with one foot against a little block that helps launch them as they push off.

The coach hollers: “On your marks!” to get them ready. If the school doesn’t have a starting pistol, you’ll hear: “On your mark, get set, go!” and they’d be off and running.                                 I draw your attention to that three- stage preparation: Get ready, get set, and go!

 

When Jesus launched his movement two thousand years ago, I see a similar pattern.

 

First, John the Baptist came on the scene to get Jesus ready. The Baptist churned up the people with his raucous preaching and dipped them in the Jordan River to wash away their sins. He had made a name for himself and had a following… a movement marked by repentance, a change of direction. John the Baptist got into trouble with the authorities, who eventually put him in prison. Jesus, by associating himself publicly with the Baptist’s movement, was preparing himself to be the Messiah/Christ.

 

As Jesus was coming up out of the water, Mark tells us that he saw heaven open up and the Spirit of God (like a dove) descending to him. And then we overheard the word of God to Jesus: “You are my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” To me, that’s like God saying: “On your mark. Get ready!”

 

Immediately, says Mark, the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness with the wild beasts for 40 days, tempted by Satan (the accuser). Mark gives us no indication of what kind of trials and temptations Jesus wrestled with during that miserable month-&-a-half, but I suspect it was Jesus coming to terms with his new identity as God’s Beloved Son, newly-commissioned to be the Christ, and uncertain how to do it.

 

Get ready… Get set! The Holy Spirit in Jesus, along with whatever the ministering angels provided there in the wilderness, anchored his identity as God’s Messiah so that Jesus was ready for the task ahead. He was set. Set to begin. Set on a course. Settled and secure within himself, ready to launch his mission.

 

Then John the Baptist was arrested. (!) Jesus returned from the wilderness and came into Galilee preaching the Gospel of God. He was ready.  He was set.  Now was the time for Jesus to run the race.

 

The first words we hear from Jesus in the Gospel of Mark describes his mission: “The time is fulfilled,” he said. “The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent, and believe the Good News.”

 

The Gospel of God is just that: Good News… eu-angelion. It’s a message that is news!  Ripped from the headlines news.

 

I don’t understand how the Gospel of God, the presence of the Kingdom of God at hand, seems to have lost its edge as “news” in our day. (?) How can Jesus’ message come across as “same-old same-old” (jah-da, jah-da, jah-da), “been there, done that” bo-ring?!

 

Have you heard the news? (No, what?) God is here, right now!

We’re in the very presence of God, our Creator. We’re in the Kingdom of God, right here, right now.  (Holy cow!)                  Yes, the time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe the good news! (That’s incredible! Unbelievable.)

 

With those words, Jesus launched his ministry. (Get ready, get set, and GO!) With those words, Jesus outlined his message and the response he hoped to elicit from us, his hearers. Once we get it that the time is now, and the place is here, for God’s Will and God’s Ways to get going on earth – the Kingdom of God is at hand, the time is fulfilled – our response should be to repent, and to believe it. Believe that this is GOOD news, not anything fearful. Good news, not frightful. Good news, not guilt-inducing. The word “gospel” means, literally, Good News!

 

It seems to me that not only has Jesus’ gospel lost its edge as “news” in our day, for many people it has lost its essential character as GOOD news. They’ve been fed a fearful, frightful, judgmental gospel in which God appears as quick to punish as to save, as apt to curse as to bless, and prone to divisiveness instead of inclusion.  I don’t hear any of that in the Gospel of God as presented by Jesus Christ, God’s Beloved Son, when he launched his movement 2,000 years ago. So, can’t we get over that stuff finally?

 

I know it’s not a problem here at First Congregational, nor in the United Church of Christ in general, but I am burdened by the public perception of us “church-going Christians” as either old-fashioned, culturally irrelevant, and hopelessly confused old-timers – or, far more predominant in the media, as politically conservative, narrow-minded, biblical fundamentalist, proselytizing modern evangelicals. I wish the church would get back to simply following Jesus as he is portrayed in Mark’s Gospel launching a ministry of Good News about the active presence of God in the Realm of God he called God’s Kingdom.

 

In her book “Christianity for the Rest of Us”, Diana Butler Bass writes about her own church experience, which I think is mirrored here, in which she has found “a meaningful way of life through ancient traditions, social justice, spiritual practices, and emotive worship.”

 

But she goes on to say: “The religious right seems to have hijacked American Christianity, and I can barely stand reading the

 

news about religion and politics. … During the time that I have been tracking mainline vitality,” she writes, “evangelical voices have grown louder and more insistent that they – and they alone – are the true Christians, the ones with true doctrine, true morals, and true politics.

… Their leaders seem ever more aggressive in their attempts to create a ‘one-party’ Christianity in this country.”1

 

It’s in the face of that kind of arrogant attitude disguising itself as being “true Christians” that I habitually go back to the basics of Jesus’ own articulation of his movement in the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and Matthew. Jesus got ready for his ministry through his association with John the Baptist and his deep spiritual connection with God, as portrayed by the descending dove and the voice of God at his baptism.

 

If you and I want our church and our lives to come in line with Jesus, we need to get ready by having deep faith and spirituality like his. We need to feel God’s Spirit bathing us, opening heaven to us, descending upon us, entering us personally, and then hear God’s assurance that we are beloved, God’s own beloved child, in whom God is well-pleased. That’s not just about Jesus!  It’s how we get ready, too. It is by having that kind of deep faith and spirituality in our relationship with God — the reassurance that we are lovable and capable in God’s eyes as well as our own — that gives us the ability to grow deeper.

 

That open and healthy relationship with God gets us ready for the next step: to get set.  In Jesus’ life, it was forty-days of trial and testing

— wrestling with the accuser, which in Hebrew is called “satan”.

 

As I said, Mark’s Gospel does not indicate anything about what kinds of accusations and propositions came into Jesus’ mind there in the wilderness as he sorted out his core values & identity before embarking on his mission. You probably know that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke describe three temptations in dialog-fashion-

1 Bass, Diana Butler Christianity for the Rest of Us NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006, page 3)

namely, (1) turning stones into bread, (2) taking political leadership of earth’s kingdoms, and (3) doing a Messiah-like miracle by descending into the Temple with a retinue of angels supporting him. Any one of those three paths – economic success with bread for all, political power, and religious spectacle – would have guaranteed Jesus quick acceptance by the people as God’s Messiah.         But Jesus refused all three options. He took the much harder route of modeling personal relationships (with God & with one another) which would demonstrate the presence of God’s Kingdom in their midst. Those are Matthew’s & Luke’s telling of the tests Jesus underwent as Satan tried to sideline the Messiah.

I prefer Mark’s original version because it leaves the question

open for us to consider personally.

What are the things that are keeping us from following Jesus’ lead into the Kingdom of God? Of what wrong attitudes, wrong direction, or wrong assumptions do you (or I) need to repent in order to get on board with Jesus’ God? We get ready by feeling our spiritual connection to God, trusting in God’s care for us and for the world God created. We get ready for our ministry by believing what we sang a moment ago: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Now that we’re ready, we need to “get set.”

 

In today’s world, some of the wrestling I had to do was theological. When others insist upon believing certain doctrines, I emphasize trusting God whole-heartedly. Faith, to me, is not a set of beliefs, but an expression of being in relationship with God, as demonstrated through Jesus’ own relationship to God. To get set in my own mind, I emphasize acceptance instead of divisiveness, and prefer diversity to uniformity.  I think the inclusive message of Jesus’ Gospel is grounded in the Bible, even though people looking for literalism and fundamentalism won’t get that. I’ve settled in my own mind that Jesus’ church should be God-centered, prayerful and relational, rather than belief-centered.  If that causes confusion, OK.

 

To “get set” means to be passionately committed and ready to act, but not be exclusive about it; to take things deeply personally, but not individualistic.  In other words, it’s not about me!  It’s not about you!

But it is deeply, passionately, personally meaningful to all of us, for it is God’s Kingdom we’re talking about. And if we are really going to walk the walk that Jesus and his disciples talked about, it’s going to challenge the popular & public & political powers that be, who run the status quo for their own advantage.

 

Jesus came out of those 40-days having been set in some pretty radical ways, counter-cultural, unorthodox.                Saving the world – which to me means repairing our world & its society which has been damaged by hate & arrogance — beaten down by anger & fear, by greed and violence — is no easy task, but we are up to it, through Jesus Christ who gives us strength. He is the one who calls us to this task, after all.  It is not Our Church, it is God’s Church.

 

Ready? Set? Then, let’s go! Here at First Congregational, we offer an open, inclusive, non-judgmental relationship with God and with one another in order to form a community much like Jesus did, relying on Christian practices (like prayer, and care, and sharing scriptures, and singing together) not doctrinal agreement.

 

There are people in the world who want to be told what’s right and what’s wrong, what they should do and what should not be allowed. For them things are “black & white”.  Well, our church tends to attract more grey… (That’s not a comment about our age!)                                            We tend to attract people who are more interested in the questions and mysteries of life than in “pat answers” to them. Knowing in our heart and thinking with our head should be joined, for every scientific investigation or bit of historical data can open another way to understanding God. Learning together in a spiritual community requires some humility, because no matter how much we read or study, we’ll never fully know God, but we enjoy the search for meaning and growth — looking at things from a variety of perspectives, without having to say everything is one way or the other.                                                                                      (I mean, we don’t

 

even fully agree on whether or not our pews should have cushions, let alone our politics.)

Well, that’s how I wrestled with some of my core values in order to get set to do ministry in Jesus’ church. I had to reach the point where I am at peace with what I understand about the Gospel of God that Jesus proclaimed, even though I understand that there is more I have yet to discover and more to do. I appreciate being part of a community where we can ask some of life’s harder questions, get a variety of opinions, and live comfortably with the ambiguity of not knowing everything. For people who say they “don’t like organized religion,” you can tell them that here our religious views are quite disorganized… and so they might feel at home here in the UCC.

Jesus said that since “the Kingdom of God is at hand” we should “repent and believe the Good News.”                  I’ve been talking about the Good News and what we in the UCC believe it to be, how it represents God’s Kingdom coming alive on earth in our midst, here and now. But what’s this about “repenting” ?

The word simply means to “change” – change direction, change attitude, change your thinking, change your behavior. The Greek “meta-noia” actually means “beyond knowledge” (often translated “turn around”) re-think, look differently at it; change the way one sees, or the way one acts, or the way one thinks … to change our behavior because we’ve seen the error of our ways. Repentance need not be tearful, but it might be painful. We may suddenly feel ashamed of our former situation, or guilty because of what we did. Repentance says you’ve learned a lesson, and you can change the situation, or be forgiven what you did. When Jesus calls upon us to “repent” it means we have the ability to reconsider earlier conclusions and make new decisions. We are not stuck with attitudes and opinions which keep us from God’s Realm.

Get ready… by trusting God, who made you & knows you & loves you without conditions. Get set … by knowing what you do & do not believe, sorting out your core values. And then GO! Do it.

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