Monday, February 13, 2017

Beginning the Journey

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Today we begin a new journey together, a journey through the Gospel of Mark. I am entitling this series “Following Jesus” because forms of the word “follow” appear some 22 times in the New Revised Standard Version of the Gospel of Mark.

I have often had people who want to follow Jesus ask me, “Where do I begin?” As with most endeavors in life, it is good to begin at the beginning. That is how Mark opens his Gospel, by telling us it is: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Let us read the first eight verses together and see how Mark begins the story of Jesus….

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And 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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He 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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
I believe that in these opening verses of Mark’s Gospel we are told how to prepare to follow Jesus. Those steps of preparation are summarized in three key words, and the first word is repentance.

But before we get to that word, let’s take a closer look at how Mark leads into this. Mark says that this is the beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The word for “good news” in Greek often referred to some significant event that made a change in world history, like the birth of the Roman Emperor Augustus. The good news Mark is about to tell us is also world-changing because it is about Jesus whose name means “Yahweh is salvation” or “Yahweh is victorious”. The word “Christ” is a title and is a translation into Greek of the Hebrew word “Messiah, which means “anointed one”. The Messiah was the long expected king of the Jews who they hoped would deliver them from foreign domination. Mark also lets us know from the get-go that Jesus is the Son of God—another Messianic title among the Jewish people of that time.

Mark goes on to tell us that God sent a messenger ahead of Jesus to prepare the way for him and that messenger was John the Baptist. The focus of John’s message was repentance. He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

What is repentance? The word literally means a change of mind. Repentance is a change of mind that results in a change in direction.

Behind this word lies the whole story of the Exodus which was very familiar to the Jewish people in John’s day—the story of how the Israelites were rescued from slavery in Egypt and passed through the Red Sea on their way to the Promised Land. However, instead of just telling about the Exodus as a story, John turned it into a sort of drama. He was telling his listeners that they were the cast. They needed to leave behind Egypt, come through the water and be free. John was telling his people that they were looking in the wrong direction and that it was time for them to turn around, to repent, and start following God.

What does repentance look like? It looks sort of like John’s lifestyle. John was a man who truly embodied his own message. His life was a protest against the lifestyles he saw all around him.

How so? Well, first, John lived out in the wilderness.

William Barclay informs us,

Between the centre of Judaea and the Dead Sea lies one of the most terrible deserts in the world. It is a limestone desert; it looks warped and twisted; it shimmers in the haze of the heat; the rock is hot and blistering and sounds hollow to the feet as if there was some vast furnace underneath; it moves out to the Dead Sea and then descends in dreadful and unscalable precipices down to the shore…. John was no city-dweller. He was a man from the desert and from its solitudes and its desolations. He was a man who had given himself a chance to hear the voice of God.

Writer, theologian, and one-time Harvard professor Henri Nouwen once broke away from his busy schedule to live for six months in a monastery. Here is what he says about why he did that:

I realized that I was caught in a web of strange paradoxes. While complaining about too many demands, I felt uneasy when none were made. While speaking about the burden of letter writing, an empty mailbox made me sad. While speaking nostalgically about an empty desk, I feared the day in which that would come true.

In short, while desiring to be alone, I was frightened of being left alone. The more I became aware of these paradoxes, the more I started to see how much I had fallen in love with my own compulsions and illusions, and how much I needed to step back and wonder, ‘Is there a quiet stream underneath the fluctuating affirmations and rejections of my little world?’

I believe, along with Henri Nouwen and many others, that the quiet stream of contentment is found in Jesus. Periods of solitude are crucial to discovering it. I wonder: do we give ourselves a chance to hear the voice of God? Do we have enough quiet space in our lives to hear God whisper to us? Part of the problem with our contemporary lifestyle is that it is too fast-paced. It is too busy. We don’t have time for each other, let alone for God. I believe that part of living a life of repentance involves saying no to the hectic pace of the world and carving out time for God, time for quiet, time for silence. We may not be able to live in the desert like John, or go to a monastery for six months like Henri Nouwen, but by God’s grace we can carve out a few minutes every day to spend time alone with God, to read Scripture, to pray.

Secondly, John lived out a protest against the world of his day in what he wore. He wore a garment woven of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. These clothes were reminiscent of the clothing of the prophets of old, like Elijah. John did not dress like the fashionable orators of Rome or Greece. He dressed like one who was close to the great simplicities of life, like one who avoided the softness of luxury.

John also lived out a protest in terms of what he ate. He followed the simplest of diets. He ate what he could find that was edible out in the desert—locusts and wild honey. I wonder: do we live simple lives, or are we constantly trying to fill our lives with luxuries that never satisfy?

John also lived out a lifestyle of repentance in that he was humble. He said that he was not fit to be the slave of the one coming after him, that is Jesus. It was the job of a slave to stoop down and untie a guest’s sandals when that guest entered a house after a dusty journey on the dirt roads of Palestine. John said that he was not fit to do even that for the one coming after him. And he was not exaggerating; he truly believed it.

Chuck Colson described the turning point in his life in a book entitled, Born Again. Colson was a lawyer who served as special counsel to Richard Nixon. After the Watergate story broke, Colson went to meet with a friend of his, Tom Phillips, president of Raytheon, at his home in the Boston area. Phillips shared with Colson how he had decided to follow Christ at a Billy Graham Crusade in New York City where my father had introduced him to Graham. Then Phillips confronted Colson about how wrong the whole Watergate thing was. He said, “Chuck, I don’t think you will understand what I’m saying about God until you are willing to face yourself honestly and squarely. This is the first step.” Then Phillips reached for a book—Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis—and he read Colson the chapter on The Great Sin. Lewis wrote,

In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that—and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison—you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.

Colson said, “Suddenly I felt naked and unclean, my bravado defenses gone. I was exposed, unprotected, for Lewis’s words were describing me. As he continued, one passage in particular seemed to sum up what had happened to all of us at the White House:

For pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.

Do we live lives of humility, simplicity and solitude? That is the life of repentance in a nutshell, and repentance is the first step we must take as we begin to follow Jesus.

The second step we must take is described in this passage with the key word: confession. In Mark 1:5 we read, “And 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.”

What does it mean to confess? The word “confession” means “to say the same thing”. In other words, to confess is to agree with God in his estimate of us when he says that we are sinners.

I love what Rick Warren says about this in his book, The Purpose-Driven Life: “The first building block of a deeper friendship with God is complete honesty—about your faults and your feelings. God doesn’t expect you to be perfect, but he does insist on complete honesty.”

Silent confession to God is often easier than confessing our sins out loud to one another. But sometimes confession of sin to one another is essential for healing. Often it is very helpful to confess your sins to another brother or sister in Christ who is more mature than you. Sometimes we just need to unburden ourselves before another human being who can give us perspective on our situation. So often we feel alone in our sin, like no one else has faced the temptations we have faced. But when we confess our sins to a more mature brother or sister in Christ they can help us to see that our temptations and sins are not uncommon. That mature brother or sister can also pray for us and assure us of God’s forgiveness. I know this from first-hand experience. I met with a priest every month for four years for confession and spiritual direction. Furthermore, as a pastor I often have people confess to me, and it is a joy to assure them of God’s forgiveness through Christ.

That is why we have a time for confession of sin in our worship service every Sunday. We need it. And we need the assurance of God’s forgiveness.

The third key word when it comes to preparing to follow Jesus is baptism. John preached a baptism of repentance. He baptized people in the Jordan River. He said, “I have baptized you with water; but he [the one coming after me] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Baptism was a common rite for a non-Jew to undergo when he or she wanted to become a Jew in the first century. What was radical about John’s baptism was that he was asking Jews to be baptized. William Barclay explains, “John had made the tremendous discovery that to be a Jew in the racial sense was not to be a member of God’s chosen people; a Jew might be in exactly the same position as a Gentile; not the Jewish life, but the cleansed life belonged to God.”

In John’s ministry, baptism was a visible sign that a person had decided to change his or her life, give up a selfish way of living and turn to God. However, John contrasts his baptism with the baptism performed by the one coming after him.

What is the baptism of the Holy Spirit? Baptism simply means washing. So to be baptized with the Holy Spirit means to be spiritually washed with the Holy Spirit of God just like being physically washed with water.

In our study of Acts, we saw how Jesus said, in Acts 1:5, “For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” The Church initially received the baptism of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. We read about this in Acts 2. However, today, every believer in Jesus already has the baptism of the Holy Spirit. In fact, we cannot believe in Jesus, we cannot confess and repent of sin without the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:5) And Paul says, “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” (Romans 8:9) Paul also says, “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.” (Titus 3:4-6)

So, the baptism of the Holy Spirit is something we receive when the Holy Spirit first comes into us and makes us followers of Jesus. It is not a second work of God’s grace that we must wait for or work for. It is the gift of God’s grace. Without this baptism, we cannot confess, we cannot repent, we cannot follow Jesus.

However, the Bible also talks about the filling of the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 5:18, Paul commands Christians to be filled with the Spirit. We all need fresh doses of the Holy Spirit every day. Furthermore, we need to repent and confess throughout our lives as Christians. These are not just descriptions of how we begin to follow Jesus, they are descriptions of how we continue to follow him as well.

More than 37,000 runners competed in the 2012 London Marathon. Wilson Kipsang, from Kenya, won the race in an impressive two hours. Simone Clarke took more than three times as long, but her finish was, I think, more impressive.

Simone was a 39-year-old epileptic. Simone suffers about four seizures per day, and so in 2012 she needed someone willing to train and run with her. Her friend Tally Hall agreed to run the marathon with her, and help her if she had a seizure while running. However, none of their training runs prepared them for what was to come.

On the beautiful spring morning of the London Marathon, Simone and Tally joined the tens of thousands at the starting point, and took off as the gun sounded. For the first seven miles, everything went well. It was at mile eight that pain from an ongoing stomach problem triggered Simone’s first seizure. Tally caught Simone and got her safely to the ground. Simone was unconscious for thirty seconds before Tally could rouse her. Then, remarkably, Simone woke, got up, and started running again.

Over the next 18 miles, Simone had 19 more seizures, each time collapsing and losing consciousness for 30 seconds or more. Each time, Tally caught her, eased her to the ground, and protected her until she regained consciousness. Each time, Tally helped Simone up, and they continued.

“By the time we got to 15 miles,” Simone said afterward, “I was in tears because I was so annoyed we had lost the pace. But by that stage I had already had lots of (seizures), and I was still standing, so I thought, stuff it, I’m just going to finish it.”

Simone and Tally crossed the finish line in 6 ½ hours.[1]

I think that story provides a beautiful picture of what following Jesus looks like. We may fall down countless times in our journey, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is whether we get back up each time we fall and continue the journey with the help of our constant companion who comes alongside to help us: the Holy Spirit.

[1] Dave Bolin, Gadsden, Alabama; source: Aidan Radnedge, “Epileptic runner Simone Clarke: I had 20 fits but I still finished the marathon,” Metro UK (4/25/12)

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