Sunday’s sermon: The Worst-Kept Secret in Galilee


Texts used – Deuteronomy 18:15-22; Mark 1:21-28

  • There’s a phrase that has snuck its way into our common lexicon, seeming to grow exponentially in popularity and usage with the explosion of social media over the past decade.
    • Phrase = “spoiler alert”: a warning that an important detail of the plot development of a movie, book, TV show, etc. is about to be revealed
    • Phrase that apparently originated back in Apr. 1971 with an article by Doug Kenney in a publication called National Lampoon[1]
      • Article entitled “Spoiled”
      • Purpose of the tongue-in-cheek article was to give away the endings for an entire lifetime’s worth of reading and movie watching → included critical plot points for thing like Citizen Kane, Psycho, all the Agatha Christie novels (among many others)
      • Presented (sarcastically) by author as a public service to “save time and money”
    • Phrase that has grown in popularity ever since but has exploded with the insertion of social media into our everyday lives → frequently see posts on Facebook from someone who’s just been to a popular new movie (for e.g., the newest Star Wars movie that came out about 5 weeks ago) who wants to talk about some crazy plot twist but doesn’t want to ruin it for others
      • “SPOILER ALERT” → big giant space underneath (gives people a chance to avoid reading if they so desire) → begin discussion
    • Shows up in lots and lots of media now as well, especially online articles, blog posts, etc.
      • Maelstrom of articles and blog posts that began with this phrase when the last book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was finally released in July 2007
  • Now, for the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about Jesus as a Man of Mystery in the gospel of Mark – about how Jesus continues to reveal more and more about himself while insisting that those around him remain silent about his true identity as the Son of God. And up until now, with the exception of the localized pronouncements of John the Baptist, maintaining that secrecy has been a fairly easy task for Jesus. But today is different. Today is Spoiler Alert Sunday. Today is the first big step in Jesus’ identity becoming the worst-kept secret in Galilee.
    • Gospel text this morning begins innocently enough: Jesus and his followers went into Capernaum. Immediately on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and started teaching.[2]  → While it wasn’t necessarily common for random people to enter the synagogue on the Sabbath and start teaching, it wasn’t unheard of either.
      • Travelers
      • Visiting rabbis and other experts in the law (Pharisees, etc.)
      • Scripture does give us slight inkling that there is already something different about Jesus’ teaching: The people were amazed by his teaching, for he was teaching them with authority, not like the legal experts.[3]
        • Gr. “authority” = an interesting word – wrapped up in layers of meaning: freedom of choice/right to act or decide, capability, official power (that exercised by political rulers by virtue of their office) → This is the way that Jesus taught that day – with command and knowledge but also with a freedom and an ease that the people hadn’t seen before. So already, Jesus is starting to get noticed.
    • But then, there’s a disturbance, a commotion. – text: Suddenly, there in the synagogue, a person with an evil spirit screamed, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You are the holy one from God.”[4]
      • Spoiler alert! Jesus’ secret identity has been screamed out in the middle of the synagogue
      • Sort of like all those times in all those superhero movies when someone has that momentary flash of recognition
        • Clark Kent is Superman?!
        • Peter Parker is Spiderman?!
        • Bruce Wayne is Batman?!
        • This Jesus guy is “the holy one from God”?!
    • Now, in all fairness, Jesus could have sidestepped this incident. He could have laughed it off as some guy spouting off – not any kind of situation to be taken seriously. But instead, Jesus reacts: “Silence!” Jesus said, speaking harshly to the demon. “Come out of him!” The unclean spirit shook him and screamed, then it came out. Everyone was shaken and questioned among themselves. “What’s this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands unclean spirits and they obey him!” Right away (immediately!) the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.[5]  → And there it is – the crucial tipping point.
      • The action – the possessed man calling Jesus out in front of the crowd
      • The reaction – Jesus casts the demon out → This is one of those places that we lose a little bit in the English translation, all. Our text describes Jesus as “speaking harshly to the demon.” But Jesus is doing more than just shouting at the man.
        • Gr. “harsh” carries the promise of action behind the words = rebuke, censure, warn → Because of the word that is used, all those who heard Jesus’ admonition would have understand that this was not an empty declaration.
      • “And immediately the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.”
        • Belief of the people rested not just on Jesus’ words but on his actions as well → surely would have triggered the warning from our OT text this morning for them: The Lord your God will raise up a prophet like me from your community, from your fellow Israelites. He’s the one you must listen to. … Now, you might be wondering, How will we know which word God hasn’t spoken? Here’s the answer: The prophet who speaks in the Lord’s name and the thing doesn’t happen or come about – that’s the word the Lord hasn’t spoken. That prophet spoke arrogantly. Don’t be afraid of him.[6]  → And on the flip side, any prophet that speaks in the Lord’s name and the thing does happen in acting and speaking on behalf of God. This is a Scripture that the people in the synagogue that morning surely would have heard before – something that would have stuck in their minds. And there it was playing out before them. Jesus spoke. The demon was cast out. He must truly be “the holy one of God.”
        • Scholar: [Jesus’] teaching and healing both cause the people around him to react in astonishment and respond with the same type of urgency and authority to spread the news of who Jesus is. His actions reveal a key element of Jesus’ identity: he is one with authority.[7]
        • Sort of like an anti-bullying activity that’s popular with schools and youth groups today – [EXPLAIN TOOTHPASTE ACTIVITY] → Once those words were out of Jesus’ mouth, they couldn’t be unspoken. Things had been set into motion.
          • Maybe it was intentional – this was the right time and the right place to begin to unveil Jesus’ true identity and purpose
          • Maybe it was Jesus being so wrapped up in the work of the Kingdom that his actions spoke before his brain could stop him
  • Either way, Jesus was acting with urgency and authority for the work of God’s Kingdom on earth, and that, friends, is where we find our inspiration – our call – for today. Jesus acts, not thinking about his own self-preservation or how to make things easiest for himself, but as one who immediately wants to do the most amount of good in the lives of the people around him. And he does this, not to garner that honor and attention for himself, but strictly for God’s glory.
    • Sounds like our OT text this morning – text is all about one who would come speaking and acting on behalf of God: I’ll raise up a prophet for them from among their fellow Israelites – one just like you. I’ll put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him.[8]
      • The command is God’s command
      • The words are God’s words
      • The message is God’s message
      • It’s not about making life easier. It’s not about making life safer or cushier or more luxurious. It’s not a message about getting a higher return on what you give or about lifting up those who are already in power. It’s a message of hope in unexpected places. It’s a message of strength in the most weakening circumstances. It’s a message of sight for the blind and healing for those who are suffering – in body, mind, or spirit. It’s a message that spoke to people the minute Jesus said it 2000 years ago, and it’s message that continues to speak to us today – to spur us on in God’s mission the way it spurred Jesus on, despite whatever challenges may arise because of that sacred word. It truly is a message meant to change lives, the lives of those who speak it and the lives of all those with ears to hear. It is a message to change the world.
        • Scholar: Jesus spends much of his ministry teaching, healing, loving, and speaking truth in a way that creates space for people to wonder alternative possibilities for their life than what is dictated to them with rules, laws, and commandments. People are compelled to follow to see if they can figure out for themselves who Jesus is. People are open to believing the impossible because they see the impossible happen before their eyes.[9]
  • But what about when we’re not good with words? What if we’re less like the verbally acrobatic Paul and more like Moses at the burning bush, saying to God, “I’ve never been able to speak well, not yesterday, not the day before, and certainly not now since you’ve been talking to your servant. I have a slow mouth and a thick tongue.”[10]  → story from the gospel this morning is less about words and more about immediate action
    • Yes, Jesus’ actions are precipitated by the words he speaks, but it is the action itself – the driving out of the demon, the healing of the man – that causes those around him to marvel and begin to spread word about this “holy one of God” like wildfire.
      • Not about being able to explain the event
      • Not about being able to explain the intricacies of exactly who Jesus is
      • Not about finding the right words or the right turn of phrase
      • All of these are reactions that we tend to prize in our society today. If you can’t explain it … if you can’t put it into the exact right words … if you can’t defend your point eloquently and effectively … if you don’t have “proof” to back up your point … if you can’t convince me in 60 seconds or less, then when you have to say must not be valid. But in Mark’s gospel of immediacy, in this story in which Jesus reveals more than he may have wanted to about himself for the sake of healing a man in need, it’s not about words. It’s about actions. Not as a way to earn God’s favor or grace. Not as a way to somehow secure our salvation.
        • Paul in Eph: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.[11]
        • Actions for the sake of embodying that message of grace in a way that can truly affect and change people’s lives
        • “How do our actions reveal who Christ is to the world, not by shouting explanations of Christ’s identity, but instead by acting in a ways that creates space, compels, and opens others to believe the impossible?”[12]  How do our actions reveal that Christ? Amen.

[1] Ben Zimmer. “Spoiler Alert! Revealing the Origins of the ‘Spoiler.’” Written Oct. 14, 2014, accessed Jan. 28, 2018.

[2] Mk 1:21.

[3] Mk 1:22.

[4] Mk 1:23-24.

[5] Mk 1:25-28 (extra translation added).

[6] Deut 18:15, 21-22.

[7] Theresa Cho. “Epiphany Series: Jesus, Man of Mystery – Fourth Sunday after Epiphany: Extra! Extra! Read All about it!” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 97.

[8] Deut 18:18.

[9] Cho, 98.

[10] Ex 4:10.

[11] Eph 2:8-9 (NRSV).

[12] Cho, 98.

Reflection: The End of an Era

LeSueur church

Yesterday, on Sunday, January 28, 2018, the church that I was raised in held it’s very last service. For years, the attendance has been declining, so the session (church board, for you non-Presbyterians) and the congregation decided it was time to close the doors. And yesterday afternoon was the very last service.

It was an incredibly difficult day. I was baptized, confirmed, and ordained in this church. So many memories of my childhood are wrapped up in this congregation – the building and the people. During the service yesterday, there were a number of former pastors participating as well as 3 women raised up by the church (myself included) who are now ordained and serving the church in various capacities. Each of us was asked to speak for 5 minutes on our memories of The Presbyterian Church of Le Sueur. I basically cried my way through my reflection, but I wanted to share the words. Because even though it’s now closed, this congregation deserves it. So here’s my reflection:

“Our lives begin before our lives.”

A friend recently posted this on Facebook as she reminisced about a beloved grandmother who had just passed away. It was her way of honoring how the life that came before her – her grandmother’s life – molded and shaped and blessed her own life.

Our lives begin before our lives.

That’s a powerful sentiment for me today as I stand in this sanctuary for the last time – a place in which my life began before my life in so many ways. My family helped build this church. The Pinneys were some of the founding members of this church way back in the 1800s. And there are pictures of my grandpa standing just out there with a shovel and his trademark hat as they broke ground on this building more than 60 years ago.

But it goes so far beyond that for me. My life quite literally began before my life because my parents met here, shared the news of their engagement here, married here, raised their family here. Were it not for this congregation – for this church that had been my dad’s home since he was born and became my mom’s home-away-from-home when she moved here – I probably would not exist today.

And of course, the life of my faith began before my life in this congregation. I was baptized, confirmed, and ordained within this beloved sanctuary. As a child, I toddled down these hallways, sang Sunday school songs (off-key) at the top of my voice, participated in all the Christmas and Easter pageants right up there, read liturgy as a layreader and counted heads as an usher. I taught Sunday school in those rooms back there and was enriched by the adult Sunday school class in ways that still influence and inform my life and my faith today. The first sermon I ever preached was in that pulpit right behind me.

As I spent 18 mos. seeking my first call, this congregation gave me a safe space – to preach, to teach, to try out all manner of crazy worship ideas! Y’all were so patient and so forgiving! In all its openness and compassion, this congregation helped me find and develop my voice – as a Christian, as a strong woman of faith, and eventually as a pastor. This congregation taught me the value of relationships in ministry, the power of the bond that is created when we work and worship and pray and praise together in true, loving, engaging community.

Our lives begin before our lives.

All of that faith formation – all of that grounding in the sacred and the sustaining love of God – began before my life in the people who were pillars of faith here: the people who shared their faith through teaching, the people who shared their faith through service, the people who shared their faith through music and worship, the people who shared their faith through love and compassion. I could stand here all day naming names, but I probably wouldn’t be able to get through that list. Many of those people are gone now, but the impact of their faith remains. The impact of their faith – their legacy – has touched each and every one of us in some way or another, informing and inspiring and shaping our faith into what it is today in so many different and meaningful ways.

And that goes in the other direction as well. Even though we are preparing to go our separate ways and the rolls of this congregation will soon cease to exist, our lives and the life of faith that we have developed here will live on in many forms – in the ways that we stay connected with one another, in the ways that we connect with new congregations and church homes, in the ways that we continue to learn about and enact our faith, and in the ways that we share that faith with others. No matter what happens, the life of this congregation will live on in us long after the last key has been turned in and the doors have been locked one final time. The life of faith that began here 152 years ago will nurture and form and bless countless other lives, some of whom haven’t even been born yet, because God is a God who does not walk away, does not close doors, does not forget. God is a God of presence and purpose, in this life and the next … whatever that “next” may be.

Our lives begin before our lives, and I will be forever grateful that this congregation has played such a significant part of my life.

Sunday’s sermon: An Urgent Mission


Texts used – Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20

  • The idea and importance of “following” is engrained in us as children, isn’t it?
    • Elementary school: following in a nice, quiet, straight line from classroom to lunch … art … music … gym … everywhere you’re going
      • “Top Banana” from 2nd grade
    • Games that we play
      • Simon Says
      • Follow the Leader
      • New video games like Dance Dance Revolution and Rock Band (the better you follow what’s going on on the screen, the more points you get)
      • Progressive movement/name games: first person either says their name or does an action → 2nd person has to repeat the 1st person, then add their own name/action → 3rd person repeats what both the 1st and 2nd person said/did → And so on.
    • Also a powerful method of teaching young children things
      • “Can you use your spoon like Daddy?”
      • “Can you brush your teeth like Mommy?”
      • Imitations/following = critical tool in play therapy for things like speech correction, occupational therapy (both gross and fine motor skills), physical therapy, music therapy (think about teaching a new song or “call and response” songs)
    • From a very early age, we are taught the power of following – of modeling behavior after someone else’s example. → no different in the church
      • Called to follow Scripture – read, interpret, embody
      • Called to follow some basic tenets
        • Scriptural e.g.s – 10 commandments, Jesus’ commandments
        • Church e.g. – confessions (Apostle’s Creed, Heidelberg Catechism, Brief Statement of Faith, Confession of Belhar) → As Presbyterians, we are a confessional church. We place value in the interpretations and statements of faith of those who have come before us.
      • And, of course, we are called to follow Christ, not just in name but in thought, word, and deed. But when it comes to following Christ, how do we follow? Do we follow blindly? Do we follow half-heartedly? Do we follow enthusiastically? Do we even follow at all?
    • Today’s Scripture readings = three very different examples of ways in which to follow the call of God
  • First e.g. = Jonah → I think if we were to boil Jonah’s form of following down into one word, it would be: reluctantly.
    • Today’s reading comes from ch. 3 → literally halfway through Jonah’s story (only 4 short chapters in the OT)
    • Reminder of Jonah’s backstory
      • Jonah = rock star prophet enjoying a cushy life of notoriety and praise → abnormal because most prophets were scorned, reviled, and mistreated, even threatened
      • Out of this life, God calls Jonah to Nineveh the first time: The LORD’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”[1]
      • Jonah’s response: So Jonah got up—to flee to Tarshish from the LORD! He went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to go with them to Tarshish, away from the LORD.[2]  → Now, let’s put this journey in perspective a little bit. If you picture a map of Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East …
        • Joppa – city from which Jonah departed = located just 40 miles west of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean Sea.
        • Nineveh = located in what is northern Iraq today (just across the river from Mosul)
        • Tarshish – city to which Jonah was trying to flee from God’s call = all the way across the Mediterranean Sea in the southern tip of Spain.
        • So from Iraq all the way to Spain – 2641 miles. That is how far Jonah was trying to run. That is how far Jonah was willing to go to avoid following God.
      • While Jonah’s on the ship headed for Tarshish, God causes a great storm → sailors on the ship draw lots to see whose bad luck is causing the danger → lo and behold, Jonah draws the short straw! → admits that he is trying to run away from his God → sailors throw Jonah overboard → Jonah is swallowed by the giant fish → in the belly of the fish, Jonah has a change of heart → fish spits Jonah out on the shore
    • Come to today’s text: The Lord’s word came to Jonah a second time: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you.” And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, according to the Lord’s word.[3]  → So Jonah does indeed end up eventually following God, but he does so reluctantly. Jonah has to basically be dragged into following by God.
      • Sometimes like the way we follow God → We feel God’s pull down one path or another, but it looks hard … it looks scary … it looks intimidating. In all honesty, we want to go any way but that way!
  • Second e.g. of following = Ninevites → I think we can categorize the way that the Ninevites follow as “reminder following.”
    • Jonah’s only being called there because the Ninevites have forgotten God’s call and commandments → Remember God’s words to Jonah the first time he is called to Nineveh? “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”
      • The Ninevites know about God and all God’s commandments, but they have fallen away – distracted and corrupted by other things → So Jonah goes with the message that God sent him to deliver – text: Jonah started into the city, walking one day, and he cried out, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”[4]
    • Ninevites response: And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes, from the greatest of them to the least significant. … God saw what they were doing – that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it.[5]  → So once they’ve been reminded of the way they should go – the way they should follow – the Ninevites are once again “back on track.” They acknowledge their mistake, ask for forgiveness, and turn their eyes, hearts, and lives back toward God.
      • Not so different from the Israelites wandering in the wilderness after being freed from Egypt
      • Not so different from the disciples – especially Peter – returning to Jesus after they scattered following his arrest and crucifixion
      • Not so different from the way we follow sometimes, is it? → We get distracted. We lose our way. We stumble and fall. We need to be reminded of the way that God is calling us to go.
  • Final e.g. of following today = disciples in our Gospel story → I definitely think we can categorize the disciples’ following as urgent.
    • Story comes on the heels of what we read a couple of weeks ago – Jesus’ baptism in Mk → talked a few weeks ago about the secrecy of that – how, at least according to Mk’s telling – Jesus was the only one to witness the Holy Spirit coming down like a dove and hear God’s pronouncement: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”[6]
    • Today’s scene = Jesus sort of wandering around proclaiming, “Now is he time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”[7]  → Jesus may remain secretive about the part that he will play in the coming of this Kingdom, but he is definitely not subtle in his approach!
      • Interesting scene because at this point, no one really knows who Jesus is yet! → just some random guy walking around and hollering about God and the Kingdom and repentance
    • But then Jesus comes to the seashore. And things start to happen – text: As Jesus passed along the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” Right away (immediately!), they left their nets and followed him. After going a little farther, he saw James and John, Zebedee’s songs, in their boat repairing the fishing nets. At that very moment (immediately!) he called them. They followed him, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers.[8]  → There is so much urgency in this text. Maybe not in the way Jesus in traveling – simply strolling along the beach – but Jesus is undeniably urgent in the way he calls the disciples, and they are undeniably urgent in their response to follow.
      • Andrew and Simon (who will become Peter) drop their nets – their very livelihood – the only life they’ve ever known → Remember, these men are simple fishermen. They’d never had any schooling. They probably couldn’t even read or write. They’d probably never been more than 10 miles from the home in which they were born. But they dropped all of that and started following.
        • Apprehensive? Probably.
        • Afraid? Sure.
        • Uncertain? No doubt.
        • But still, they immediately left their nets and followed.
      • James and John literally walked away from their family → father in the boat with them and hired hands mending nets, but when Jesus called (urgency being on Jesus’ part this time: “Immediately he called them”), they followed him, leaving their father behind
        • Leaving the familiar
        • Leaving the comfortable
        • Leaving the strongest tie they could possibly have – that familial, tradesman, pass-down-my-knowledge-and-my-business-to-you-when-I’m-gone kind of tie
          • Bond can be strong today but was absolutely crucial to survival back in Jesus’ time → Remember, there were no colleges or trade schools for these disciples to go to if this “Jesus thing” didn’t work out. The only way they could learn a trade was either from family or to apprentice under someone else. So abandoning their father and that business so abruptly pretty much obliterated whatever livelihood, whatever life they thought they were going to have up until that very moment.
          • Were there others they were leaving behind? Siblings? Fiancé? Wife? Children? We don’t know, but it’s certainly possible. That is how strong God’s call was for them. That is how urgent God’s call was for them. Without question, without hesitation, they followed.
    • I think this is the hardest example of following for us to relate to this morning. We are so used to weighing options, analyzing decisions, taking everything into consideration – every possible scenario and outcome, every possible pitfall and downside – before we make a decision, that’s it’s hard for us to imagine just dropping our lives and following.
      • Important point: Not about blind following but about following with a purpose
        • Scholar: From their ordinary work on the seashore, Jesus awakened the disciples to a new sense of meaning and life-changing purpose that compelled them to drop what they were doing right away and follow him. This deep sense of urgency overrode any need for full understanding of what was at stake or even a complete grasp of whom they were following. It was enough to take a step of faith.[9]
  • This intense, life-altering purpose behind the disciples following made me thing of a new therapy method for children with autism that I heard about just last week: Son-Rise Program. [10]
    • Instead of trying to correct various repetitive behaviors, Son-Rise therapy sessions based on the counselor joining the child in whatever safe, non-destructive motions/actions he or she is engaging in – spinning, pounding on something (e.g. – a table), etc.
      • Provides moments of powerful connection
      • Allows these children to be seen, and more importantly, to feel seen in a way they never have before
    • From the program website: “The Son-Rise Program is an alternative autism treatment based upon the idea that the children show us the way in, and then we show them the way out. This means that, rather than trying for force our children to conform to a world that they don’t yet understand, we join them in their world first.” → Friends, this is what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. God came down to first join us in our world – a world that can be full of challenges and pain, wrong turns and frustrations, misunderstandings and dark corners – to show us the way out: a path of love, a path of forgiveness, a path of grace, a path of light and hope and life after death. God joins us in our world but asks us to follow. Will we? Amen.

[1] Jonah 1:2.

[2] Jonah 1:3.

[3] Jonah 3:1-3a.

[4] Jonah 3:4.

[5] Jonah 3:5, 10.

[6] Mk 1:11.

[7] Mk 1:15.

[8] Mk 1:16-20 (alternate translations added).

[9] Theresa Cho. “Epiphany Series: Jesus, Man of Mystery – Third Sunday after Epiphany: An Urgent Mission” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 96.


Sunday’s sermon: Now You See It, Now You Don’t

illusion 2

Texts used – 1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51

  • One of the most enthralling, awe-inspiring forms of magic acts performed today is illusion. Headlining names like David Copperfield and Penn and Teller make their living on elaborately and convincingly tricking your eye – and, more importantly, your brain – into believing one thing is happening while there is something else happening entirely. This technique is called the “misdirect.” The magician gets your attention focused on one specific thing – an object, an action, a sequined and smiling assistant or a cute, fuzzy rabbit in a hat, perhaps – and while your attention is focused there, the magician performs a different quick and often simple action. Voila! Magic!
    • Often part of Penn and Teller’s schtick = actually explaining the simpler parts of the trick and misdirection itself as their misdirection à keep us focused on their explanation while they perform the trick
    • Works incredibly effectively – even when we know this is what’s happening! – because our eyes and minds are initially presented with one solution which we readily accept → that “false solution” distracts us from what is really going on
      • On psychology of magic: People look for confirmation that their own theory is correct. … The false solution is, therefore, used as a distraction from the real solution. Research in problem solving shows that once we have one solution in mind, it is very difficult to consider alternatives.[1]  → In a way, it’s all about assumptions and expectations. The magician plays on our assumptions that whatever is going on with the misdirect is more important than anything else that might be going on and on our expectation that something amazing will happen … as if by magic.
  • This week, we’re going to explore a little deeper into this idea of Jesus as a Man of Mystery – the ways in which, throughout his ministry, Jesus continues to reveal more and more about himself and his mission while at the same time insisting that his identity remain a secret.
    • Spent a lot of time last week talking about the gospel of Mk because this idea of Messianic secrecy is especially prevalent in Mk → And we will re-immerse ourselves in the Gospel of Mark next week … However, this week, we’re jumping to the gospel of John – to this interesting story about expectations and assumptions about who Jesus is and what he could possibly be doing.
  • Set-up for gospel passage
    • Today’s story follows 3 other short but important stories in Jn’s gospel
      • STORY 1: John’s testimony to the Jewish leaders[2]  → John the Baptist had been stirring up all sorts of crowds and disciples with his message of baptism and repentance and a coming Messiah, so much so that the Jewish leaders were starting to get a little worried. So they sent a few of their own to question John – basically a “who do you think you are?” mission.
        • John’s response = I am NOT … the Christ, Elijah, a prophet
        • Testifies to the coming of Christ: Those sent by the Pharisees asked, “Why do you baptize if you aren’t the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered, “I baptize with water. Someone greater stands among you, whom you don’t recognize. He comes after me, but I’m not worthy to untie his sandal straps.”[3]
        • Important story because John the Baptist is basically acting as Jesus’ misdirect at this point → John’s the one creating the spectacle and all the drama. John’s the one with the huge group of disciples. John’s the one publicly (and loudly!) speaking out about God and God’s Kingdom. John is the one garnering all the attention. John is the distraction. And while he’s doing that, Jesus slips onto the scene almost completely unnoticed.
      • STORY 2: baptism of Jesus[4] (talked about this last week) → important because in this encounter as recorded in Jn’s gospel, John the Baptist verbally witnesses to Jesus’ encounter with God: John testified, “I saw the Spirit coming down from heaven like a dove, and it rested on him. Even I didn’t recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit coming down and resting is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and testified that this one is God’s Son.”[5]
        • Important because of the expectations that this lays out for the people → The Messiah was supposed to be the one to come and free them from Roman oppression, not in any sort of quiet, spiritual, grace-filled way like God and Jesus had in mind but in a mighty, warrior, overthrow-the-oppressors sort of way. The people expected a gladiator on a white horse with a sword in one hand and a scepter in the other – someone to give the Romans what for and banish them from Israel’s holy home. Instead, what they eventually got was a rabbi on a donkey with bread in one hand, a cup in the other, and nail scars to boot – someone who gave death what for and banished the power of sin and death. Not what they expected.
      • STORY 3: calling the 1st disciples[6]  → John the Baptist is standing around with a couple of his disciples and points Jesus out to them (not super subtle about it either: “Look! The Lamb of God!”), and the disciples – Andrew and Simon – decide to follow Jesus
        • Encounter in which Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter
        • Important because this is the encounter that gets the snowball rolling → First two join Jesus. Then, in today’s passage, two more. Then, later on, a few more. And a few more. And a few more. This is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In a way, already here in John 1, this is the beginning of the end for Jesus.
          • Again, upending people’s expectations and assumptions about who the Messiah would be – turning those expectations on their heads with a whole new message and whole new reality
  • Idea of blown-away expectations = part of our OT text this morning, too
    • Poor little Samuel asleep in the temple à Now, remember that Samuel is sleeping in the temple and living with the priests because his mother, Hannah, has given him to God’s work.[7]
      • Hannah prayed and prayed for a child → God finally gives her Samuel → to show gratitude to God, she gives Samuel to God’s service when he is only 3 yrs. old
    • So in the middle of the night, Samuel hears his name being called. And as per his expectations and assumptions – because who else would be calling him?? – Samuel runs to the bedside of Eli, the priest, and says, “I’m here! You called me?” Eli, patient but puzzled says, “No. I didn’t call. Go back to bed.”
      • Happens a 2nd time: Samuel hears God calling → thinks it’s Eli → runs to Eli’s side → Eli says, “Nope. Wasn’t me. Go back to bed.”
      • Happens a 3rd time → And this time, Eli tumbles to what is happening. He realizes that Samuel is hearing the voice of God calling him, so he instructs Samuel to once again go back and lie down and, when he hears the voice calling yet again, to say, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”[8]
    • This is such a clear story about expectations and about how God can and often does function completely outside of what we could even begin to expect or fathom. According to our text, Samuel “didn’t yet know the LORD, and the LORD’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him,”[9] and yet, that lack of knowledge, that lack of understanding did not stop God from calling him – from calling this little boy who, though he lived in the temple and served the priests, didn’t even know God yet.
      • Often expect our OT prophets and servants to be giants among people – heavy hitters like Abraham and Jacob and Elijah → people who had strong relationships with God
      • And yet in this story, God also turns our own expectations and assumptions about those Old Testament roles on their heads and calls a child. → just another illustration that God can do whatever God wants to do, call whomever God wants to call, work through whatever crazy situation God wants to work through … no matter what we may think about it.
  • Brings us back around to today’s NT story from Jn
    • Day after Jesus calls Andrew and Simon Peter, he decides to go to Galilee → finds Philip along the way → Jesus: “Follow me!” … and Philip does! But before he joins the crowd, Philip runs to get Nathanael, excitedly proclaiming to him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.”[10] You can almost feel Philip’s enthusiasm and passion jump off the page!
    • But let’s talk about Nathanael’s response for a minute. It’s less-than-excited to say the least. Skeptical … even rude and condescending. “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”[11]  → all kinds of layers of assumptions and expectations wrapped up in that statement
      • Assumption that Nazareth isn’t significant enough – isn’t a big enough player on the local stage
      • Assumption that Nazareth isn’t powerful enough
      • Assumption that Nazareth isn’t prestigious enough
      • Assumption that the little, paltry, inconsequential blip that is Nazareth simply isn’t good enough to produce something as worthy as the Messiah
        • Scholar: Nazareth was a village of 200-400 people. … The Hebrew Scriptures never mention Nazareth, much less associate it with messianic expectations. … In Nathanael’s view, Jesus could be nothing more than a simple new from an insignificant village in Galilee. The Messiah would certainly be of more prominent parentage and come from a more significant town.[12]
    • Friends, as someone who stands up here Sunday after Sunday preaching and praying about the love of God for all people and how grace is a gift given freely with no strings attached – including geographical strings, including racial ethnic strings – I cannot read this passage today and not address this week’s headlines. I cannot speak with you about God’s justice and mercy … I cannot claim a Savior born into the desolation and filth of a stable … I cannot honestly proclaim a Word and a table and a community for all and not denounce the words spoken and condoned by the people in power in this country this week calling Haiti and African nations a name that I won’t say in church.[13] Let’s just say “latrine countries.” First, we need to call out in no uncertain terms how truly racist and prejudiced those statements are. It is no coincidence that those “latrine countries” are all populated mostly by people with darker skin. And we need to name the assumptions being made about those countries and their contributions to the world: that they are not significant enough – not big enough players on the world stage, that they are not powerful enough, that they are not prestigious enough, that these nations and the people in them are paltry, inconsequential blips incapable of producing anything worthwhile. And in the face of those horribly unfair assumptions, we also need to recognize that everyone that Jesus chose to minister to – everyone that Jesus chose to go to in their time of need – found themselves in less-than-perfect circumstances … in “latrine” places in life: lepers cast out of their communities because of their disease, sinners shunned by their communities for their actions, women devalued by society for their gender, Gentiles reviled by Jesus’ own people for their “wrongness” – wrong thinking, wrong worship practices, wrong belief. All of these people were deemed worthless just like the people from these nations were deemed worthless by those in power this week. How often do we make assumptions walking down the street about the person who’s dressed differently than us – the man in the kaftan or the woman in the hijab? How often do we make assumptions when we hear another language being spoken in line at the grocery store or at Target? How often do we make split-second assumptions based on nothing more significant than skin color?
      • NT story today shows just how prevalent those assumptions can be when Nathanael turns them on none other than the Christ himself: “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”
      • Scholar: It seems natural that people were disillusioned with who Jesus is. Jesus was unlike anything they had encountered before. Yet, like any good illusionist, Jesus is not forthcoming with evidence or clues that give away all fo who he is. All he does is invite us to come and see. … I wonder if it is Jesus’ way of shaking us up so that we are open to the possibilities instead of distracted by our own conclusions and assumptions.[14]  → Y’all, we cannot deny that assumptions are part of our world, and that very often, just like the assumptions Nathanael made of Jesus, those assumptions are completely unfounded and wholly unfair. But Jesus came, not to reinforce those assumptions, but to obliterate them by revealing the truly grace-filled, all-encompassing nature of God’s love for all people, no matter where you’re from.
        • Find promise of hope and redemption even in the midst of our mistakes – Jesus to Nathanael: Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these!”[15]

[1] Dr. Jeremy Dean. “Psychology of Magic: 3 Critical Techniques” on PsyBlog, Published Aug. 28, 2008, accessed Jan. 14, 2018.

[2] Jn 1:19-28.

[3] Jn 1:24-27.

[4] Jn 1:29-34.

[5] Jn 1:32-34.

[6] Jn 1:35-42.

[7] 1 Sam 1.

[8] 1 Sam 1:9.

[9] 1 Sam 1:7.

[10] Jn 1:45.

[11] Jn 1:46a.

[12] Leslie J. Hoppe. “Second Sunday after the Epiphany: John 1:43-52 – Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 261, 263.


[14] Theresa Cho. “Epiphany Series: Jesus, Man of Mystery – Second Sunday after Epiphany: Now You See It, Now You Don’t” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 95.

[15] Jn 1:50.

Sunday’s sermon: The Reveal

baptism of Jesus Bonnell
The Baptism of the Christ by Daniel Bonnell (oil on canvas)

Texts used – Mark 1:4-11; Acts 19:1-7

  • It all started with a simple book in 1953 – a book that became so wildly popular that the release of another book following every year through 1966. The storyline was later taken up by three other authors who produced 27 more novels. The first movie debuted in 1962, and the franchise exploded, eventually producing 23 other movies, the most recent of which was released in 2015, making it one of the longest-running film series of all time. Something tells me Ian Fleming had no idea what he was starting when he first introduced the world to none other than 007: James Bond.
    • Bond = popular for a lot of reasons, but MYSTERY plays a huge part in the popularity
      • What’s he going to do?
      • Where’s he going to go?
      • Who’s he going to be with?
      • How’s he going to get out of this tight spot when it looks like death is the only option?
      • One of the most popular, longest-running, most well-recognized storylines in the whole world has been built on perpetuating these questions. Every plot line, every movie script, every element of who James Bond is is built on keeping the answers to these questions a mystery for as long as possible – to keep us turning page after page, to keep us on the edge of our seats, to keep us coming back for more … to keep us following.
  • And when you think about it that way, James Bond shares a little bit in common with Jesus. Bear with me here. Advent is over. Christmas is over. Lent is around the corner but still about 6 weeks away. And so we find ourselves in this in-between time in the church calendar. So as we wander through the gospel lessons – as we start out on our journey from the rough wood of the manger to the rough wood of the cross – we’re going to take a more in-depth look at this Jesus guy. → original Man of Mystery, especially since our lectionary readings come mostly from the gospel of Mark
    • In Mark, Jesus is mysterious.
      • Gospel of Mark = probably the oddest of the gospels
        • Shortest by far (Mt = 28, Lk = 24, Jn = 21, Mk = 16)
        • Also the earliest gospel – probably written around 70 C.E., less than 30 yrs. after the death of Christ → important because a lot of the theology that appears in the other gospels (especially Jn) hasn’t been developed yet, so Mark’s gospel is more of a moment-by-moment account without much of the theological explanation that came later as people began to process who Jesus really was.
          • Reads a less like a developed storyline and more like a news briefing
          • In fact, the authors of both Matthew and Luke probably used the gospel of Mark as a reference for their own writings.
        • Mk = gospel of immediacy
          • Written for Gentiles – likely heard about Jesus but may not have understood his significance
          • Probably written in Rome during a time of great persecution and upheaval for Christians under emperor Nero
          • Mark is always telling us things happen “immediately.”
            • Used 11 times in the 1st alone, 27 times throughout the whole gospel
            • And let me tell you, this is not one of those Greek words thick with all sorts of different meanings. “Immediately” means immediately. Period. Mark is not mincing words.
        • Mk = gospel of secrecy → Time and time again throughout Mark, Jesus insists that those who discover and declare him to be the Messiah must not tell anyone about what they’ve seen or heard.
          • E.g. from later in Mk: A man with a skin disease approached Jesus, fell to his knees, and begged, “If you want, you can make me clean.” Incensed, Jesus reached out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do want to. Be clean.” Instantly, the skin disease left him, and he was clean. Sternly, Jesus sent him away, saying, “Don’t say anything to anyone. Instead, go and show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifice for your cleansing that Moses commanded. This will be a testimony to them.”[1]
      • So you see, throughout Mark, Jesus’ identity is built on similar questions to those we asked of James Bond:
        • What’s he going to do?
        • Where’s he going to go?
        • Who’s he going to be with?
        • How’s he going to get out of this tight spot when it looks like death is the only option?
        • And like Bond, these questions about Jesus keep us coming back for more. Jesus reveals just enough in Mark to keep people wondering, to keep us guessing, to keep us following.
  • Today’s gospel reading = perfect e.g.
    • The passage begins with a description of a crowd, but at this point, the crowd isn’t there for Jesus. Frankly, at least according to Mark, no one knows who Jesus is yet. Instead, the crowd has gathered for Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. – text: John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins.[2]
    • And in the midst of all this baptizing, John makes a powerful prediction: He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”[3]  → In the literary world, this would be called foreshadowing. John realizes that the people are devoted to him and his teachings – that they look to him as a spiritual leader. But he wants to be sure that they are prepared for something different, something new, something extraordinary.
      • Trying to get them to ask questions
      • Trying to keep them on the edge of their seats
      • Trying to point them in a wholly unexpected direction
    • And into that scene comes Jesus, followed closely by the unexplainable: About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”[4]  → This is Jesus’ very first appearance in Mark – no birth narrative here. In Mark’s storyline, this is his big reveal, and it does not disappoint.
      • DRAMATIC MOMENT – sort of like that moment everyone waits for in James Bond … that first time that 007 introduces himself (say it with me): “Bond, James Bond.” → This is Jesus’ BIG REVEAL! Or is it?
      • Encounter of mystery → When we read the other gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism, I think we often assume that the Spirit coming down like a dove and the voice from heaven were witnessed by all present – heard and seen by John, by the crowd, and, of course, by Jesus himself. In fact, John’s gospel explicitly says that at least John the Baptist witnessed these things. But Mark’s account is a little different.
        • Explicit = “Jesus saw heaven split open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him.” → Jesus … not necessarily anyone else in the crowd.
        • Mystery = Who heard the pronouncement? → Are we supposed to infer that because only Jesus saw that Spirit that Jesus was also the only one to hear the voice from heaven? Or did others hear it, too?
          • Hard to glean any answers from the text – just following today’s reading: [Immediately] the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.[5]
  • But it’s clear, both from our 2nd Scripture reading this morning and from the fact that we’re all sitting here 2000 years later, that there is something miraculous, something powerful, something active and compelling about baptism. Something happened that day that Jesus was baptized that has kept believers coming intrigued for centuries.
    • NT text: While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul took a route through the interior and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you came to believe?” They replied, “We’ve not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Then he said, “What baptism did you receive, then?” They answered, “John’s baptism.” Paul explained, “John baptized with a baptism by which people showed they were changing their hearts and lives. It was a baptism that told people about the one who was coming after him. This is the one in whom they were to believe. This one is Jesus.” After they listened to Paul, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in other languages and prophesying. Altogether, there were about twelve people.[6]
    • Here’s the thing about baptism. It’s a mysterious event. It looks simple from the outside – just a little bit of water – but the act itself is shrouded in layers of meaning and questions. If it were truly as simple as it looks, it wouldn’t be one of the most prominent theological sticking points as far as differences between denominations and branches of Christianity are concerned, right? Infant or adult … baptize once or more than once … sprinkle, dip, or full-on immersion … in a public service of worship or in private … necessary for salvation or not … The debates have raged throughout the millennia, and they will continue to go on.
      • PC(USA): God’s faithfulness signified in Baptism is constant and sure, even when human faithfulness to God is not. Baptism is received only once. The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to the moment when it is administered, for Baptism signifies the beginning of life in Christ, not its completion. God’s grace works steadily, calling to repentance and newness of life. God’s faithfulness needs no renewal. Human faithfulness to God needs repeated renewal. Baptism calls for decision at every subsequent stage of life’s way, both for those whose Baptism attends their profession of faith and for those who are nurtured from childhood within the family of faith.[7]
  • Friends, our baptism – modeled after Christ’s own actions in the Jordan River 2000 years ago – continually draws us into the mystery of faith. It is the continuous claim that God lays on us. It is the continuous call that beckons us to walk with God. When we ourselves were baptized, and whenever we baptize someone in our midst – no matter the age – we know nothing about the life that lies before the one being baptized: the decisions he or she will make, the trials and tribulations or joys and celebrations that lay in his or her path. But instead of fearing that mysterious future, we welcome it in faith, knowing that whatever is to come, through the waters of baptism, God is there.
    • Scholar: Baptism is not the final reveal, but simply a stop on this human-transformation trail we are on. For Jesus, it was one significant moment that revealed just enough of his identity to compel others to start the journey to know him more. Baptism is a reminder that where we are going is more important than where we have been.[8]
    • The one being baptized is welcomed into a family of faith that will hold him up and shelter him, teach her and walk with her. So let us continue onward in this mystery together. Amen.

[1] Mk 1:40-44.

[2] Mk 1:4-5 (emphasis added).

[3] Mk 1:7-8.

[4] Mk 1:8-11.

[5] Mk 1:12-13.

[6] Acts 19:1-7.

[7] “Sign and Seal of God’s Faithfulness,” Book of Order 2015-2017: The Constitution to the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part II. (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly, 2015), W-2.3007.

[8] Theresa Cho. “Epiphany Series: Jesus, Man of Mystery – Baptism of the Lord: The Reveal” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 94.