New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Proclamation of John the Baptist
3 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
We’ve been stuck in the ice since Thursday night, victims of “Icemageddon 2013” in North Texas. We have come together to laugh and watch movies, gone to our separate corners to have time alone and have skated across the driveway to use a hairdryer in an effort to free the teenager’s car encased in an ice tomb. Our part of the world can get ice without snow and there is really no way to save the trees that have snapped and the cars that have collided when everything is covered in ice. So we are pretty much just hunkered down, waiting until we can peek above the freezing mark which will hopefully come soon so life can get back to normal.
I generally prefer NOT to have a day off from school – a day that will have to made up on a beautiful spring Friday where the weather is perfect, I’m sure! But I can’t even tell you how much this gift of time has been appreciated. All the hectic holiday schedules were cancelled and the tempo of time has slowed down considerably. As I have reflected and studied this week’s Gospel reading from Mark, I am struck by the image created in my mind of John the Baptist.
I picture this really crazy looking guy showing up when least expected. The Pharisees and Sadduccees are up to speed on the prophets’ stories and John seems pretty darn far fetched as the one who prepares the people for the coming of the Lord! Dressed as an outsider and maybe even smelling a little ripe, John comes on the scene shouting of repentance and that the Lord is coming, taking people to the Jordan river to experience baptism, a completely new concept in the traditions of the faith at the time.
As John is calling out the religious leaders for their hypocrisy, I can only imagine their confusion. That same confusion still exists today in those who proclaim their faith with television ratings and prosperity gospels, with our own hypocrisy in what we say we believe and the story our actions and words tell that conflict with those beliefs – the self-righteous were hustling to get baptized by John for sure. But John throws cold water on this party as he tells about Jesus who will separate the wheat from the chaff (or the righteous from the lowly) and bring those who need mercy into the fold while banishing the rest of them (or us!) from the Kingdom of God.
So here are a few observations about this story and what we can learn from it in today’s world:
- God doesn’t seem to select the high and mighty to tell of his kingdom. He chooses the lowly, the ones who look and sound different from the usual leaders. So listen to everyone with a discerning ear and a loving heart.
- Get ready y’all! Advent gives us the time to prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ birth and the future coming of Christ into the world. Don’t squander the time we need to get ready for all God has prepared for us.
- Don’t be the chaff. Don’t be a wasted part of the world. Add value to all you meet, love with reckless abandon, even when it is uncomfortable and don’t be afraid to listen to God’s message in your life.
- If you aren’t living the life you know that God is intending for you, take a step toward that today. One step forward brings you closer to God. Don’t assume that just showing up at church will ever be enough to meet God in his desired relationship with you. He wants to be known to us and makes himself available whenever we take the time to notice.
So, prepare the way of the Lord. Make it easy to find you on the threshing room floor when the time comes, or the ice thaws once and for all.
Giver of life, you have given us all we need to love you and follow you. Thank you for your goodness and mercy. Draw us nearer to you so that we may do the work you have called us to do in your kingdom. Give us strength and courage to love and serve you, preparing ourselves for your coming into the world. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Jesus and Zacchaeus
19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
A different perspective:
“I don’t really know what all the fuss is, but I heard Jesus was coming to Jericho. I’ve heard stories from travelers passing through that he has healed some really sick people, forgiven and accepted some people that don’t normally have any stature in the community and welcomed with love tax collectors like me. I don’t really like taking money from the people in my community, but Rome wants the taxes and I need to feed my family so that is the job I have to do and most of the jobs out there require a physique I just don’t have. I had heard that tons of people would be coming to see him as he passed through town just like other places he has been and I thoughtthe only shot I would have to get a glimpse of this guy Jesus would be to run ahead and find somewhere on high ground. So I headed up in front of the crowd, but I was still having a hard time seeing with so many folks standing in front of me. I spotted the sycamore tree and thought that climbing up a bit would help me get a better view, and that’s where I was perched as Jesus came down the road. I waited with great anticipation and out of the way of the crowd.
Just as Jesus reached the spot in the road under my tree, he looked up directly into my eyes. He called me by name. By MY name. I was shocked; how did he know who I was? Then, again, just talking to me, he told me to come down because he was going to stay at my house. Well, when Jesus says he needs you, you better “hop to!” I couldn’t believe my ears! Why me? A Tax Collector even! But I scrambled down and started walking with Jesus to my home. As we turned to walk away together, I could hear the not so quiet grumblings of the religious leaders and others in the crowd – I’ve become used to the way folks look at me and talk badly about me and my family. That’s the risk you take when you are the Chief Tax Collector. But it still stings to have people speak about you like you aren’t as good as they are.
So I stopped with Jesus right there. I felt like I needed to justify myself to Jesus and those who were watching, so I pledged to give away half of everything I owned to the members of our community who lived in deep poverty. I’ve always prided myself on being honest – I collected taxes to send to the Roman government and only kept enough for myself to take care of my family, but I assured Jesus that I would make amends to any who felt like I had taken more than necessary; I promised that and so much more if needed. But Jesus said the most unexpected thing: He welcomed me into the Body of Christ with open arms and no strings attached. As his eyes burned into mine, he told me he was there for me. My life had been just lived for me until that day, when he gave me and my family the gift of salvation. I will forever be changed by this intimate encounter with Jesus and commit to sharing the Good News of Christ to all I meet.”
Ok, I fudged a little to make a point. Imagine how Zacchaeus must have felt on that once in a lifetime day. Forget about the special event that Jesus provided by calling him by name and stating his intention to stay in his home – unthinkable based on his stature in society. Then, when Zacchaeus realizes everyone is looking at him as if he could never deserve such an honor, he tries to prove himself to Jesus. But Jesus never even acknowledges the offer to give away his possessions and pay back anyone wronged by him four times over. He just welcomes him to accept the greatest gift of salvation. No questions asked and no task required.
I’ll bet that shut up the crowd for a second…once they headed down the road the family home though, I’m sure the talk started right back up again. “Unbelievable!” “No way!” “Zacchaeus…are you kidding me?” Surely that is just a snippet of the nasty things said about him when he came down from the tree to Jesus and again when they were out of earshot.
Why do we sometimes hate it when others are blessed? Why do we look down on others based on their lot in life? Why do we always think we are better than anyone else? Why don’t we read stories like this and realize that each of us is worthy of redemption and forgiveness, as Jesus proves time and time again in our Gospel readings? All we have to do is turn to him. So ignore the negative talk (both from others and from yourself), stop judging others like we are better than them and turn to Christ. Simple, huh? Simple but not easy…that’s why we keep having to do it over and over again, every single day of our lives. And spread the Good News in the world. That is all God wants from us is to serve his Kingdom with love.
Lord of all mercies, we give you thanks for your incredible generosity and your forgiveness of all we do to drive a wedge between ourselves and our Savior. Keep us looking ahead to salvation and give us strength and courage to speak of your children with love. Thank you for the perspective of Zacchaeas and for welcoming us into eternal life. We ask all things through Jesus Christ who loves us. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Resurrection of Jesus
24 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body.[a] 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women[b] were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men[c] said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.[d] 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
You know those days – we all have them. We have the best of intentions and set out to do our part to make the world a better place through our small niche of interactions, actions and reactions. Then it all goes horribly wrong. We make mistake after mistake and even begin to marvel at how absolutely screwed up things have gotten over a relatively short period of time. Those days it may seem even hard to put words together to fully state the crazy events of the day, because it is just THAT BAD. Then we go to bed, glad to have the day behind us, only to awaken with a fresh start and a renewed spirit (hopefully we were able to put the bad day behind us!).
Let’s face it – Thursday and Friday before Easter were some really bad days for Jesus’ friend and follower, Peter. Up until that point, things had really been rocking along with the disciples. They were witness to powerful miracles and developing an intensely personal relationship with Jesus. He was dropping hints about leaving them but I’m sure those subtle statements just rolled away like water off a duck’s back. There was simply no way for mere humans to understand the power of Jesus’ words about leaving – things were just too great to stop it all now. Peter was one of those closest to Jesus, so it must have been quite a surprise to hear – right from Jesus’ mouth – that Peter would deny knowing him not once, but three times. But deny him is exactly what we read that Peter did following Jesus’ arrest. Did he set out to do that – of course not. In fact, I am sure he couldn’t believe he had done it either when he heard that rooster crow the last time. But none of us knows what we will do in a scary conflict until we are there. Peter must have felt incredibly disappointed in himself. Then the events of the crucifixion unfolded and Peter had to have known he played a key role in the process. My bad days haven’t ever really been THAT bad, but Peter’s feelings of devastation must have been so very overwhelming as he watched his friend die that Friday afternoon.
But the opportunity for redemption came much sooner than any of them expected! Peter was the first to hop up and take off running for the tomb when he heard the news that his friend was risen again, just as he said he would. Peter felt “amazed at what had happened.” The word amazed is probably the best English word choice based on translation, but seems to be very much an understatement. When Jesus rose from the dead after the dark and confusing weekend following his death, thinking of it today as amazing seems also to fall short of how mysterious this would have been for Jesus’ friends and followers, especially for Peter.
In our Christian faith, Easter is the big one! It’s the day in the church that represents our foundational belief that Jesus Christ came to save us from ourselves. I’ve made some sacrifices in my life for those I love, but none can even scratch the surface of the sacrifice that God made to share this gift of his son with us, even when we obviously weren’t deserving of it. Jesus Christ is risen today, as we celebrate every Easter morning, with the promise of new life in him. I’m sure his friends were all grateful once they realized who he was (another blog post about how confusing that must have been to not even recognize him when they saw him!), but I’m sure that Peter’s feelings were just indescribable.
Our lives intersect with Peter’s in so many ways. We have denied our Lord many more than three times. We have turned away as things are going badly and we make sure to protect ourselves when confronted with challenges to our beliefs. But Peter and all the rest of us children of God get both grace and mercy on this beautiful Easter morning. Peter spent the rest of his life doing what God called him to do, spreading the word of God to all who would listen and dedicating his work to fulfilling the promise of the Holy Spirit. It seems to me to be the very least we can do as we are renewed and redeemed through the death and resurrection of Christ.
Gracious God, lover of all souls, bring us closer to you through the gift of your Son to the world. We are redeemed through the resurrection and we know what you ask of us as we walk with you in our daily lives. We commit to you that we will love one another and spread the Good News. Jesus Christ is Risen Today – Alleluia! Thanks be to God. AMEN.