True Leadership

41rL8RjBOxLI’ve been reading a really helpful little book by Matt Garvin called ‘6 Radical Decisions: How followers of Christ change the world through Kingdom Cells‘ (available as a paper book from Fusion Canada here, and as an ebook from Amazon here). It’s one of those books that needs to be read and pondered over and over again, because it’s full of little nuggets that need unpacking and thinking through in the context of daily life. I’m not finished my first read yet, but I’m about 80% of the way through, and I know I’ll be coming back to it in a few weeks.

This afternoon I was reading a chapter about leadership. Leadership is a buzz word in the contemporary world, especially in the evangelical church. There are those who will say that if you’re a pastor you can’t be a leader, and if you’re a leader you can’t be a pastor. Pastors, we’re told, spend their time building relationships and responding to the needs of people; leaders, in contrast, tend to be less sensitive individuals who don’t mind being disliked, and that’s important because their role is to be the visionaries who discern where God wants a group of people to go, and then to lead them in that direction, ignoring the complaints and criticisms of those who don’t agree with them (I exaggerate, of course, but you get the point!).

I’m refreshed and relieved beyond words to discover that Matt Garvin doesn’t believe that. I love this little section:

The Bible does indicate that leadership is a spiritual gift, and there has been a lot written and taught about the importance of leadership. The truth is, though, that leadership is quite simple. There are two things necessary: knowing where you are going, and loving people. One of the dangers in the intense focus on leadership in our modern culture is that we raise a whole lot of people who want to be leaders but don’t know where they are going and don’t love people (emphasis mine).

I think that is exactly right. Most of the time when I have consciously tried to be a leader, I have not succeeded. The times when I have been most effective as a leader have been the times when I have not been trying to lead. I have, however, had a very clear idea in my head of what my ideal is: a community of people who love Jesus and are committed to follow him, who meet together regularly to learn and encourage each other and pray together, who put Jesus first rather than their own ambitions and comfort and wealth, who make a difference in the world around them and who are not afraid to share their faith with others and join in the work of making new disciples for Jesus.

That’s my ideal, and it hasn’t really changed very much over the years I’ve been in pastoral ministry. Just having the ideal, however, isn’t going to do very much if all I do is sit in front of a laptop and struggle to find new ways to express it. I have to embody the ideal by actually loving people. As I make time to build relationships, listen to people, walk beside them in their struggles, and do what I can to be a blessing to them, then they will see that my ideal makes sense, that it works in practice, and they may be motivated to join me in working towards this vision of what Christ could do among us.

In other words, as someone once said, ‘People don’t care what you know until they know that you care’!

And, of course, this means that being a good pastor and a good leader go hand in hand. It may be possible to be a good pastor without being a good leader, but it is very, very difficult to be a good leader without being a good pastor, because love is the centre of the Christian life.

What do you think?

Preliminary sermon thoughts on Mark 1:21-28

This is not a sermon; this is simply my study notes as I have been engaging with the Biblical text today. Hopefully they might be useful to other preachers as we meditate on scripture in preparation for next Sunday.

Text (NRSV)

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

 

Exegesis

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.

Setting up the context here, Mark has begun his gospel by announcing that he is proclaiming to us ‘the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (v.1). ‘Good news’ to Jewish people recalls the prophecies of Isaiah 40-55 about God coming to rescue his people from exile, and to Romans it would be reminiscent of birth announcements of sons and heirs to the emperor. So Mark is telling a story of how God’s Son is coming to rescue God’s people from the power of evil and bring them home from their spiritual exile.

Mark then sets up the story of John the Baptist with a composite quote from Isaiah and Malachi (vv.2-3), and a brief account of his ministry (vv.4-8), culminating in the story of the baptism of Jesus (vv.9-11). His account of the temptation in the wilderness (vv.12-13) is brief and doesn’t go into the detail about the three temptations that we find in Matthew and Luke. Finally, in last week’s gospel we have the story of Jesus coming into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom, and calling people to repent and believe. He then calls fishermen to become his disciples – to ‘follow’ him – and promises to make them into the kind of people who can fish for people, and Andrew and Simon, James and John respond to this invitation.

Jesus now leads his disciples on their first ‘fishing expedition’ (or at least the first one that Mark has recorded) to the Galilean fishing village of Capernaum, and on the Sabbath day he goes to the synagogue. Jesus is a loyal worshipper of the God of Israel, not someone starting a new religion. Luke underlines that going to synagogue on the Sabbath was Jesus’ habit: ‘he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom’ (Luke 4:16). Jesus’ teaching may be ‘new…with authority’ (v.27), but he does not intend it to be a rebellion against his ancestral faith.

So he observes the Sabbath and he goes to worship with God’s people in the synagogue. The synagogue would have been ruled by a council of elders, whose job it would be to ensure that each week there would be someone to expound the scriptures and teach the people. We see an example of how this might work in the book of Acts during Paul and Barnabas’ visit to Antioch in Pisidia:

‘And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading of the law and the prophets, the officials of the synagogue sent them a message, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it”’ (Acts 13:14-15).

Presumably something similar has happened here in the Capernaum synagogue; perhaps Jesus has been called on to read the appointed scripture passages of the day (as is definitely the case in Nazareth in Luke 4), and then after the reading is finished he begins to teach from the text he has read.

 

22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

‘ “Authority” can mean either the right or the power to do something, or both. Although Jesus’ teaching was undoubtedly powerful, his right to speak is underscored by the contrast between his teaching and that of the scribes. They taught with erudition, but Jesus taught with authority. Jesus interprets the Scripture as one who has the right to say what it means. Furthermore, his teaching has no need of external support, whether from Scripture or elsewhere; his word is self-authenticating, not like that of the scribes’. (Lamar Williamson)

‘Scribes quoted other rabbinic authorities and weighed traditional arguments but did not err on the side of originality. But Jesus is different, bold, dynamic, demanding, and exhilarating’ (R.T. France).

It was apparently the custom for rabbis and teachers to back up their teachings by citing numerous references (as I have just done [!], and as indeed is still the case in orthodox Judaism with discussions of the Talmud – ‘Rabbi so-and-so says such-and-such about this text; rabbi so-and-so disagrees’ and so on). Mark doesn’t describe exactly what he means when he says that Jesus taught them as one having authority, but we can perhaps safely assume that it means Jesus didn’t follow this custom. If he follows the pattern of the Sermon on the Mount, he is perhaps more likely to say, ‘You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…’ To some people this would be offensive; they would ask, ‘Who does he think he is?’ There’s no indication that Jesus went to any rabbinical schools, so there would have been some professional resentment on the part of the religious establishment as well.

‘Who does he think he is?’ is of course exactly the question that Mark wants us to ask; indeed, this seems to be the major question of the first half of his gospel, leading up to 8:27-30 when he asks his disciples who they think ‘the son of man’ is, and Peter responds ‘You are the Messiah’. If Jesus is not speaking and acting with the authority of God, he is an imposter and a charlatan; what mere human being, acting on his own authority, has the right to say ‘You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…’? In episode after episode Mark is going to show Jesus speaking and acting in ways that would have been considered outrageously provocative for a mere mortal, and each time the question is underlined in our minds: who is this?

23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.

All of Jesus’ contemporaries would have accepted without question the existence of the devil and of lesser evil (‘unclean’) spirits. Indeed, the whole New Testament assumes this belief – that behind the evil in the world there is a powerful malevolent force, which is in rebellion against God and is determined to dominate human beings and use them for its evil purposes. Modern people (not so much post-modern people, I’m guessing) have rebelled against this idea, seeing it as a holdover from a pre-scientific, superstitious age. Modern interpreters are more likely to see the man as suffering from some sort of mental illness, and Jesus as somehow being able to reach into his tortured psyche and bring healing.

This is not my view; I think that if Jesus and his apostles accepted the existence and power of the unclean spirits, then I have no reason to disbelieve. Furthermore, I’ve seen enough in my own pastoral experience to know that, as Hamlet puts it, ‘There is more to this world, Horatio, than is dreamt in your philosophy’. Interestingly enough, at least one modern psychiatrist agrees. Dr. Scott Peck, in his book The People of the Lie, fully accepts the traditional belief in evil forces and even in exorcism, and defends this belief from the point of view of a clinical psychiatrist.

However, even if we follow the path of modern interpretation, what happens here is truly amazing. Most psychiatrists, dealing with mental illnesses such as MPD or schizophrenia, have to spend long hours in counselling sessions over periods of months and years, often with the help of the appropriate drugs, to even begin to heal these troubled souls. Jesus simply speaks a word of power, the man goes into convulsions, and then is at peace. Significantly, Mark does not use the learned term for a seizure in verse 26. Hippocrates or Aristotle might have used the Greek word epilepsia (whose literal meaning is simply ‘a seizure’), but Mark attributes the man’s convulsion to the work of the unclean spirit, and so uses a different word, sparaxan, which is variously translated as ‘convulsed’ (RSV/NRSV, and NEB/REB/NJB similar), ‘shook the man violently’ (NIV 2011), ‘shook the man hard’ (TEV), and ‘thrown into convulsions’ (Strong’s).

‘In this story we notice how the spirit immediately recognizes Jesus as someone special, “The Holy One of God”, and assumes that his arrival spells disaster for the powers of evil (notice the ‘us’), and how Jesus needs no elaborate ritual or magical formulae (as other exorcists usually did), but dismisses the spirit with an almost contemptuous “Shut up and get out!” No wonder people were astonished, and Jesus’ fame began to spread’. (R.T. France)

Understandably, the people are amazed and wonder who this can possibly be. The unclean spirit, however, is not in doubt: “I know who you are – the Holy One of God”.

‘ “Holy One of God” is what the unclean spirit, speaking through the man, calls Jesus. The term can be understood in a weak sense as describing God’s representative (see Psalm 106:16, 2 Kings 4:9 and ‘God’s Holy Messenger at Mark 1:24 TEV) or in a strong sense as affirming Jesus’ unique relationship to God (see John 6:69, Acts 3:14, 4:27,30, Revelation 3:7). This is one of many examples of two-level communication in Mark. Without defining his nature of precise relationship to God, the demons recognize Jesus and tremble (James 2:19). Readers, however, are expected to remember the title of the Gospel and to understand that this Holy One of God is Christ, the Son of God (1:1)’. (Lamar Williamson)

The question of the unclean spirit, ‘Have you come to destroy us?’ (v.24), is a telling one. The healings and exorcisms of Jesus are not just arbitrary acts, nor are they simply acts of compassion done for the sick and suffering. If Jesus had been motivated solely by compassion, then surely he would have healed every sick and suffering person in Galilee. Jesus is proclaiming the kingdom of God by his words and his actions. When God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as in heaven, there will be no more sickness, no more suffering, no more people troubled by forces of evil and unclean spirits. The kingdom has come in Jesus, but it has not yet arrived in all its fullness. His healings and exorcisms are signs of the kingdom, assurances that when it arrives in all its fullness the power of evil will indeed be destroyed forever.

 

27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Modern readers of this passage tend to fixate on the question of the existence of evil spirits and the so-called ‘magical’ elements of the text. Ancient readers would not have done so – to them, there was no doubt that these spirits existed. To them, the emphasis would have been on the authority of Jesus, and Mark emphasizes this by using the word exousia twice in the text. Jesus’ teaching is authoritative, and so is his encounter with the forces of evil. Indeed, in both cases it is the authority of his word – the word of teaching, and the word of command he speaks against the unclean spirit. I’m reminded of the Genesis story where God simply speaks a word and all things come into being, and of Isaiah 55 where God says,

10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

God’s word makes things happen, and Mark wants to show us that Jesus’ word has the same effect. I’m also reminded of the prologue to John’s Gospel where Jesus is seen as the Word of God incarnate.

R.T. France has a telling comment: 

‘For most Christians in the Western world today the idea of possession by a personal force of evil, and of the expulsion of a demon, leaving the “host” changed and restored to normality, sounds at best exotic and at worst decidedly suspect. They would much rather not know about it. But there are times even in glossy western society when the reality of spiritual evil cannot be ignored, and in some other parts of the world witchcraft, voodoo, and the occult are part of daily experience. In Jesus’ world, and for Mark, the demonic dimension was as real as the divine, and a Messiah who left the forces of evil unchallenged would be of little interest. There is no sphere of life that falls outside his extraordinary authority; there is no predicament into which people may fall from which he cannot rescue them’.

People are tired of religious chatter, but in Jesus they see something different – words of power and authority. The message spreads, and people want to hear and see more from this amazing man. 

Application
Sometimes preachers jump immediately from this text to the modern church and say ‘We should be like Jesus – we should speak with authority and we should be able to cast out the forces of evil with a word as he did’. There usually follows an invitation to the modern church to feel guilty and inadequate, and the preacher’s idea about how we can recover the authority of true apostolic ministry.

However, this is somewhat arrogant and betrays a misunderstanding of our proper relationship to Jesus. He is the one who can speak and act on his own authority as Son of God; we are not! We are in a similar position to the scribes; we are ‘dependant on a prior authority and responsible to a scriptural tradition’ (Williamson), and we deceive our hearers (not to mention ourselves!) if we try to pretend this is not the case. 

It’s true, of course, that later in the gospel Jesus gives his apostles the same authority to cast out unclean spirits (i.e. it’s not in them inherently; it comes from him). But that’s not the point at this stage in the gospel story. The point at this stage is precisely that Jesus is doing in this passage what no other man could do. Whether or not he has the right (and of course this would be a matter of opinion for his hearers) he is speaking directly with the authority of God rather than appealing to human authorities to back up his views. But just as people are asking themselves who he thinks he is, he shows by his confrontation and victory over evil that this is not just impotent talk – he has real power, power of the sort his hearers have never seen before. 

Mark is painting us a picture of the strong Son of God, God’s anointed king, who is boldly walking into a world full of lies and evil, speaking the truth and setting people free. He can do things no one else can do, because he isn’t just like anyone else. The unclean spirit speaks the truth: this is the Holy One of God, God’s anointed servant, the Son of God himself. This isn’t just another religious philosopher giving us timeless religious wisdom on the same level as the others who came before and after him. What is happening in Jesus is unique, and the further Mark gets on with his story, the more we’re going to realise that we are called on to give some sort of response to this man. Who do we think he is? And what are we going to do about it?

 

Commentaries:
R.T. France: ‘Mark’ (‘Doubleday Bible Commentary’/’The People’s Bible Commentary’ [1998])

Pheme Perkins, ‘Mark’ (‘New Interpreter’s Bible’ [1995])
Lamar Williamson, ‘Mark’ (‘Interpretation’ series, [1983]).
Tom Wright: ‘Mark for Everyone’ (2001)

It’s Time to Make a Decision (a sermon for January 25th on Mark 1.14-20)

I see from my notes that the last time I preached on this gospel passage was nine years ago, the day before the 2006 federal election in which Stephen Harper first became the prime minister of Canada. I remember that during that campaign he told Canadians that they had ‘a choice between two visions of Canada’. If we chose his party, he said, we’d be embracing their vision and working towards it with them. If we chose his opponents, we’d be endorsing a different vision. The decision, he said, was ours to make.

When you and I participate in a general election, we understand that the decision we make is not just a private thing that affects only our own personal lives. The moment in the ballot box may be private, but the choice we’re making is a public choice. To cast my vote for a political party has the effect of strengthening that party and ultimately helping to decide who will lead our country.

With that in mind, I want to think with you for a few minutes this morning about the decision Jesus asked people to make: the decision to become his followers. What kind of decision is it? Is it a purely private thing? A lot of people seem to think it is. They think it means turning away from personal sins like dishonesty and lust and lying; it means believing in Jesus as my ‘personal Saviour’, and trying to live my private life according to his teachings.

I think there’s more to it than that. I think that the decision to follow Jesus actually has a lot in common with the kind of decision we make on an election day. I think that when the people of Galilee heard Jesus announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God, and calling them to repent and believe in the good news, they would have heard him calling them to a public decision – even a political decision – after all, ‘kingdom’ is a political word! They would have heard Jesus challenging them like this: ‘Choose which vision for God’s world and God’s people you want’. And there were lots of alternatives for them to pick from. Did they want to collaborate with the Roman invaders, or did they want to participate in an armed rebellion against them? Did they want to transform society according to God’s law, or was society just too far gone, so that the only option was to withdraw from it altogether?

Jesus announced the coming of God’s Kingdom and invited people to choose to be a part of it. It was a personal choice, but it had huge social and political implications for them. Let’s look a little more closely at the text and try to find out more about this together. Let’s start by examining the proclamation Jesus made: ‘The kingdom of God has come near’.

In an election campaign, political parties set out their party platforms. Hopefully, in the midst of all the noise, thoughtful voters will actually examine the party platforms and asked themselves ‘How does this compare with my vision for the future of our country? Which manifesto can I most readily commit myself to?’

Mark tells us that Jesus ‘came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near’ (vv.14-15). This was Jesus’ manifesto, drawn straight from the pages of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament scriptures there are a number of words and phrases that cluster around the same theme – words and phrases like ‘the day of the Lord’, ‘shalom’, ‘the year of Jubilee’ and so on. All these words and phrases spell out the idea that the world as we see it is not the world as God intended it, but that the time is coming when God is going to act to restore his original plan.

This is spelled out poetically in Isaiah 2:2-4:

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths. For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

In this vision, Isaiah sees the nations and races of the earth coming to God for instruction, and committing themselves to living by God’s ways, the ways of peace and justice. Other Old Testament passages add other aspects of this. The poor, the widow, the orphan will be cared for. Land and wealth will be shared fairly so that everyone has enough and no one has too much. Life will be characterized by wholeness, harmony, and peace.

This is what the people in Jesus’ day meant by the phrase ‘the Kingdom of God’. They certainly didn’t see God’s Kingdom as some sort of ethereal afterlife in which we all stroll through fields of green forever. They expected to see it fulfilled as an earthly reality, in real time and space. And now Jesus arrives and makes this startling announcement: ‘The Kingdom of God has come near’. The Gospels make it clear that the reason the Kingdom of God is near is because Jesus is near, and he is God’s anointed King. His arrival is a challenge to people to make their choice: are they for or against God’s manifesto for the future, which Jesus represents?

It’s in this context that the call to follow Jesus is given. It’s a personal decision, but it has huge social and political implications. The Kingdom of God is about fairness, equity, and justice – what does that mean for the way we Christians live, in a world where over a billion people live on less than a dollar a day, a world where those in the top 1% income bracket will soon own 50% of the wealth? The kingdom of God is about peace and reconciliation – what does that mean for the way we Christians live, in a world torn apart by hatred and violence? The Kingdom of God is about accepting God’s instruction for living – what does that mean for the way we Christians live, in a culture where everyone claims the right to decide for themselves what’s right and wrong? These are only a few of the social and political implications of choosing to be a part of the Kingdom of God.

So this is what the Kingdom of God is all about. Now let’s look at the issue of how to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God.

The Gospels make it clear that everyone has to make their mind up about this: do I want to be in the Kingdom, or out of it? Jesus was preaching this message to Jewish people; many of them would have assumed that because they were Jewish, no decision was required. “I’m one of God’s chosen people; therefore I’m in”. But Jesus still challenges them to make a decision. Likewise, being born in what has sometimes been called ‘a Christian country’ has no significance at all; the New Testament knows nothing of Christian countries, but only Christian people, people who have made a decision to willingly participate in the Kingdom of God. What does that decision involve? This scripture passage outlines four things. In verse 15 Jesus says, “Repent, and believe in the good news”, and in verse 17 “Follow me and I will make you fish for people”.

We’ll look at the first two together: repent, and believe in the good news. This is, of course, the same good news that Jesus has already talked about, the good news that the kingdom of God is at hand. This is good news because it tells us that this world belongs to God, not to tyrants or terrorists or greedy billionaires or even ordinary members of the 1%. God created this world out of love; evil has corrupted it, but God is not sitting back quietly and accepting that situation. God has acted by coming to live among us as one of us in Jesus; he has lived and died and risen again to defeat the power of evil and reconcile us to himself. And he is calling people everywhere to participate in a revolution of love that will transform the world and restore it to his original intention for it. This revolution will succeed, because it doesn’t depend on human ingenuity, but on the power and patience of God.

Let me ask you today if you believe that. Do you believe that the future God has in store for this world is better than what we see around us today? Do you believe that the book of Revelation is telling the truth when it says that the day is coming when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, when death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things will have passed away, and God will have made all things new (Revelation 21:4-5)? Do you believe that one day the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea? Do you believe that the day will come when we will see an answer to the prayer we pray every day: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’?

If you do believe those things – if you ‘believe in the good news’ – you will see life differently from those who think that their one chance for happiness is this brief interval between birth and death – those who believe that ‘it’s a dog-eat-dog world’, that ‘the one who dies with the most toys wins’, and so the only way to live your life is to ‘look out for number one’ – yourself. We Christians believe that these are all seriously defective ways of seeing the world. And the way you see the world matters, because it changes the way you live your life.

That’s what repentance is all about. The word ‘repent’ translates a Greek word that means ‘to change your thinking’ or ‘change your mind’. And of course, it means a change of life too, as we turn away from personal and social sins and commit ourselves to doing God’s will as Jesus has revealed it to us. So it always translates into concrete actions. In Luke’s gospel John the Baptist explains this in concrete ways:

And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ (Luke 3:10-14).

And this leads us to the third thing; we’re called to follow Jesus. What sort of people can spread the kingdom of God? The answer is obvious: people like Jesus! And so Jesus called people to become his disciples – his apprentices, if you like. Apprentices of Jesus listen to his teaching, they watch his way of living, they learn from him, and they imitate the good things they see.

Jesus’ call still goes out to people today – the call to follow him and become his apprentices. Jesus is busy changing the world, one life at a time. The curriculum is the gospels, the Sermon on the Mount, the commandments to love God and love our neighbour, and so on. Each day, we apprentices pray for guidance and strength to apply the teaching and example of Jesus to our daily lives.

This isn’t just a sweet romantic ideal; it leads to concrete actions. Many years ago when I was a student, a friend and I were walking down Bloor Street in Toronto comparing notes about our summers. I mentioned in passing that my watch had cratered over the summer; without hesitation he took his own watch off and gave it to me. “I’ve got two”, he said, “and after all, the Bible says that if we have two coats and our brother has none, we’re to share what we have”. Now I ask you, what would that principle mean for those of us who have two houses in a world where many are homeless? Or two cars? Or two guitars? (there are four or five in my house!) Often the answers are difficult, but as Christians, we absolutely must struggle with these questions.

So we’re called to repent, believe in the good news, and follow Jesus. Finally, we’re called to fish for people. All of us are here today because someone ‘fished’ for us. In my case, it was my parents, and especially my Dad who challenged me to give my life to Jesus when I was thirteen. As a result of other people’s fishing, you and I became apprentices of Jesus. Now we apprentices are called to do our own bit of fishing – that is, to invite others to become Jesus’ apprentices too.

I actually like the King James Version here. Our NRSV makes it sound as if Jesus is compelling us to do something we don’t want to do: ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people’! Now that may be true – we may really not want to fish for people and bring them into the kingdom of God! But that’s not what Jesus said. The King James has ‘Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men’. In other words, if we follow Jesus, he will make us into the kind of people who can fish for others. He’s not just compelling us to do it; he’s equipping us as well.

Note that fishing for people isn’t an optional extra for those who like that sort of thing, or for those who happen to be bubbly extroverts. The one thing leads inevitably to the other: Jesus says, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people’. To make new disciples for Jesus is an integral part of the package of being a follower of Jesus. If you take this element out of the package, you’ve made Christian discipleship into something completely different.

Members of Alcoholics Anonymous understand this principle. The Twelve Steps of AA are a comprehensive program for personal transformation. But step twelve, the final step in the process, says ‘having experienced a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we then tried to take this message to others’. This isn’t optional – it’s an integral part of the program. Wise members of AA know that if they don’t do this, they become inward looking and self-absorbed – which is the first step to going back to drinking. And Christians who refuse to follow Jesus in his work of making new apprentices also short-circuit their own growth as his disciples.

Let’s go round this one last time. Jesus comes to us with the tremendous news that the Kingdom of God is at hand – that God’s power and love are at work in the world to defeat the reign of evil and to bring about a revolution of love. The future of this program is not in doubt: God’s kingdom will come, God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. We can count on that.

Do we believe that? Do we believe that the promise of the kingdom is worth more than all the lies of power and wealth? If we do, we’re called to respond. We’re called to put our trust in Jesus, God’s anointed king – to turn from our old way of life, to follow Jesus, and to learn to do God’s will. And part of God’s will is that what’s been given to us needs to be passed on to others, so we will do all we can to spread this message and fish for people, because that’s how the kingdom of God grows – one heart at a time.

This is our decision, today and every day. Jesus comes to us and says ‘Follow me’, and we respond, ‘Yes’, or ‘No’. It’s a private decision, but it can’t possibly stop there. The world is changed by disciples of Jesus who follow him and then live to do God’s will. We can choose to work with God and further his vision for his world. May God give us strength, today and every day, to make the right decision.

Nuggets from Phillips Brooks

brooksPhillips Brooks, who died on this day in 1893, was a great American clergyman; he was ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1859 and served as a parish priest until two years before his death, when he was elected as Bishop of Massachusetts. He is perhaps best known today as the author of the Christmas carol ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’.

I have on my book shelf a long out-of-print book called ‘Lectures on Preaching‘, which were delivered by Brooks at Yale Divinity School in 1877. I consider it to be one of the best books on preaching I have ever read (the only book I would put higher than it is Donald Coggan’s Stewards of Grace [1958], also long out of print!). Here, in no particular order, are a few nuggets from the book; if you can get your hands on a second-hand copy, it is well worth reading for a preacher. (Note that when Brooks wrote this book, no one was thinking about the ordination of women, hence his exclusive use of male terms for preachers).

Whatever else you may count yourself in the ministry, never lose this fundamental idea of yourself as a messenger.  As to the way in which one shall best keep the idea, it would not be hard to state; but it would involve the whole story of the Christian life. Here is the primary necessity that the Christian preacher should be a Christian first, that he should be deeply cognizant of God’s authority, and of the absoluteness of Christ’s truth…

Definers and defenders of the faith are always needed, but it is bad for a church when its ministers count it their true work to define and defend the faith rather than to preach the Gospel. Beware of the tendency to preach about Christianity, and try to preach Christ…

I must not dwell upon the first of all the necessary qualities, and yet there is not a moment’s doubt that it does stand first of all. It is personal piety, and deep possession in one’s own soul of the faith and hope and resolution which he is to offer to his fellow-men for their new life. Nothing but fire kindles fire. To know in one’s whole nature what it is to live by Christ; to be His, not our own; to be so occupied with gratitude for what He did for us and for what He continually is to us that His will and His glory shall be the sole desires of our life…

I think that there does rise up before a clear picture of the man who ought to be a preacher. Full of the love of Christ, taking all truth and blessing as a trust, in the best sense didactic, hopeful, healthy, and counting health, as far as it is in his power, a part of his self-consecration; wiling not simply as so many men are, to bear sickness for God’s work, but willing to preserve health for God’s work; and going to his preaching with the enthusiasm that shows it is what God made him for. The nearer you can come to him, my friends, the better preachers you will be, the surer you will be that you have a right to be preachers at all…

These are only from the first two chapters, which are more general in nature; there are some excellent specific suggestions about preaching as well.

O everlasting God, who didst call thy servant Phillips Brooks to the ministry of preaching, and didst give him wisdom, charity, and eloquence that he might speak the truth with grace and power: Grant, we pray, that all whom thou dost call to preach the Gospel may steep themselves in thy word, and conform their lives to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Preliminary sermon reflections on Mark 1.14-20

Note that this is not a sermon; this is just my preliminary thought son the gospel passage for this coming Sunday. I still have to check the commentaries and then actually prepare a sermon.

What does it say? (NRSV)

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

What does it mean?
This passage comes in the middle of the first chapter of Mark, and the first phrase links it to what has come before, as almost everything up until now has been related to the story of John the Baptist.

Mark began with explaining to the readers what he was up to: ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. He then described the ministry of John, setting it up first with quotes from Malachi and Isaiah (vv.2-3), and then talking about his baptizing ministry and a sample of his proclamation (vv.4-8). The story continues with Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan (vv.9-11) and then his temptations in the wilderness which followed immediately afterwards (vv.12-13).

The chronological gap between verses 13 and 14 is uncertain, but it almost sounds as if the arrest of John was the signal for Jesus to begin his own unique ministry.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

The natural sense of the verses is that after Jesus’ baptism and his forty days in the wilderness, he remained in the south, in the area of Judea, until he heard that John had been arrested. He then travelled north to Galilee and began his preaching ministry.

Mark gives us a summary of his preaching. First, it is ‘the good news of God’. Jewish people hearing Mark’s words would think of Isaiah:

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings;
Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
Lift it up, do not fear;
Say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” (Isaiah 40:9)

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your Gods reigns”.
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy,
for in plain sight they see the return of Yahweh to Zion.
Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem.
Yahweh has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations;
And all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. (Isaiah 52:7-10)

These passages are set in the context of Yahweh rescuing his people from Babylonian exile and bringing them home to their own land again. The good news concerns salvation, which in the Old Testament is almost always a military concept: Yahweh saves his people from their enemies. So Jewish people hearing Mark’s announcement of ‘good news’ would immediately think of God acting in a dramatic way to rescue his people from evil and restore them to ‘shalom’.

Romans, on the other hand, were used to hearing this word ‘good news’ used in the context of royal birth announcements. ‘Good news! A son has been born to the divine Augustus’! This was an announcement that ushered in a new future for the empire (and, of course, not everyone would hear it as good news!!!!).

So, putting these two senses together, we could say that Mark is proclaiming to us the good news that in Jesus God has acted to bring about a new future for the world, in which he has rescued his people from the kingdom of evil and sin and restored us to ‘shalom’, through the life and ministry of his Son.

Mark summarizes Jesus’ proclamation in a very Jewish fashion: ‘The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near’ (v.15). This refers back to the Old Testament understanding of the day of the Lord, and promises such as Isaiah 2:1-5, 11:1-9 and the many other Old Testament references to God intervening to save his people, bring the reign of evil to an end, and establish peace and justice for his people (in most passages) and for other peoples also (in some passages). ‘The Kingdom of God’ of course is not a territorial kingdom; ‘basilea’ actually refers to the ‘reign’ or ‘rule’ of God; God is about to establish his saving rule all over the world. Jesus explains later on in his ministry how he understands the kingdom when he teaches us to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. The second half of the phrase explains the first: when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, then God’s kingdom has come.

Has the kingdom come, or is it still coming? The RSV has ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand’. The NRSV changes that slightly to ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near’. NIV 2011 is similar: ‘The time has come…the kingdom of God has come near’. The REB is more dramatic and immediate: ‘The time has arrived; the kingdom of God is upon you’. The New Jerusalem Bible has ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is close at hand’. The two halves of the sentence seem to be in tension with each other: the time has come, but it has not quite come yet. The kingdom of God is near, but not quite here – although the REB/NEB tradition could be understood to mean that it has arrived (‘is upon you’). The general consensus, however, seems to be that the arrival of the kingdom is very, very near.

The response people are called to is ‘repent and believe in the good news’. ‘The good news’ is of course the good news of the kingdom which Jesus has just proclaimed. ‘Repent’ in Greek comes from ‘metanoia’ which means ‘to think again’ or ‘to change your mind’ – in other words, to see the world differently, with the change of life that this involves. To see the world in the light of the Kingdom of God will lead to a different worldview and a different way of life. No doubt Jesus’ hearers would have heard echoes of John the Baptist’s preaching here; John came ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’, says Mark (1:4), and Matthew expands this into a form which is very close to the words of Jesus: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matthew 3:2).

Having summarized Jesus’ proclamation, Mark then goes on to tell the story of the call of the first disciples:

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

The way Mark tells this story gives the impression that this is the first time Jesus has met these people. Luke and John both have different chronologies; Luke has the synagogue story (Mark 1:21-39) before the call of Peter (see Luke 4:31 – 5:11), and of course the call of Peter is set in the context of the miraculous catch of fish. John, of course, has a completely different story, with Andrew and Philip (?) being pointed to Jesus by John the Baptist, and Andrew then bringing Simon Peter his brother to Jesus. It is not always easy to see how these stories can be reconciled, but perhaps we can say, first, that we should not set much store by the chronologies of any of the gospels, as the writers have more important priorities than telling the stories in chronological order, and second, in the light of the other gospels it is reasonable to suppose that there has been previous contact between Jesus and the four disciples mentioned in Mark’s account here.

All the gospels agree that the first disciples of Jesus were commercial fishermen. They made their living by going out at night onto the Lake (or ‘Sea’) of Galilee (or Tiberias), fishing with casting nets. In the morning they would come to shore, clean their nets, and then rest in preparation for the next night’s work. The detail about Simon and Andrew casting the net into the sea during the daytime would be unusual, I think, as this usually happened at night.

Jesus’ call to them is illustrated by their livelihood: ‘Come after me, and I will make you to become fishermen of men’ (literal translation); KJV ‘Follow me and I will make you fishers of men’ (RSV ‘I will make you become fishers of men’) is very close to the Greek; NIV 2011 ‘Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people’ has missed the idea that Jesus will transform them into those who will fish for people – in other words, he won’t only send them out to do it, he will also make them into the kind of people who can do it. So discipleship and evangelism are intimately connected with each other (although euangellion ‘announcing good news’ is not used here, the idea is obviously present, as the whole passage is set in the context of Jesus’ proclamation of the good news).

So the early disciples are called to ‘Come after me’ or ‘follow me’, which to them is a very literal thing: ‘And immediately they left their nets and followed him’. Jesus was not calling them to carry on with their old way of life but just become a little more religious; he was calling them to leave the old life behind and commit themselves to travelling with him. In this context he would teach them the new life of the kingdom, but also, as an integral part of this, he would teach them to bring others into the kingdom as well. The two parts of this call are intimately connected with each other, and evangelism is obviously not an optional extra.

What does it mean for us?
The call to become followers of Jesus always takes place in the context of a gospel proclamation: in other words, good news comes before good advice. The good news of the kingdom of God is about the power of God and the love of God working together in the world to change things, and to do for humanity what we could not do for ourselves. Nowadays we talk about working to spread the kingdom of God, but the gospels never use this sort of language. To the gospel writers, the kingdom of God is something that God does; we can choose to align ourselves with it, or to reject it, but we cannot make it happen. It is a gift of God: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

Jesus’ words in the Lord’s Prayer are a helpful reminder to us of what the Kingdom is about: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. That is what God is about: restoring the world to his just and loving intention for it. Jesus believed that God was doing this primarily through his own ministry; his life, death and resurrection are the means by which God has established his Kingdom. A primary feature of that kingdom, according to the gospels, is its upside down nature – the first are last and the last first, the poor are exalted and the rich are sent empty away, sinners are welcomed and forgiven and the self-righteous disqualify themselves. Grace, in other words, is at the centre of the kingdom of God, because the gospel tells us of a God who loves his enemies, and Jesus lives this out.

We’re called to ‘repent’ – to think again, to see the world in the light of God’s loving rule. The last word is not the word spoken by presidents and tyrants and CEOs, but the word of God coming to us in Jesus, telling us that love (for God and others) is the central issue of our lives. So our prayer as disciples is that Jesus would teach us to see life as God sees it, and to live life according to God’s will. And because he is the Son of God, Jesus will be our supreme interpreter of what the will of God looks like.

Finally, this new life in God’s kingdom will always issue in mission, and this mission is not just loving actions (although this is important) but also what an earlier generation would have called ‘soul-winning’. The drawback of this sort of language is that the ‘soul’ was understood as some interior, non-material part of us, but if ‘soul’ is understood at the OT understands it, as the whole person (‘then Yahweh God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living nephesh [soul]’ – Genesis 2:7), then this is entirely right. Discipleship is not an exercise in self-absorption; it includes participation in God’s mission to make new disciples for the Kingdom. All disciples of Jesus are called to participate in this mission.

That’s it for now; time to hit the commentaries for more insights.

From ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar’, by John Clare

NOW Summer is in flower, and Nature’s hum 
Is never silent round her bounteous bloom; 
Insects, as small as dust, have never done 
With glitt’ring dance, and reeling in the sun; 
And green wood-fly, and blossom-haunting bee, 
Are never weary of their melody. 
Round field and hedge, flowers in full glory twine, 
Large bind-weed bells, wild hop, and streak’d woodbine, 
That lift athirst their slender throated flowers, 
Agape for dew-falls, and for honey showers;
These o’er each bush in sweet disorder run, 
And spread their wild hues to the sultry sun. 
The mottled spider, at eve’s leisure, weaves
His webs of silken lace on twigs and leaves, 

  …………………………………………………………………………….……..

Which ev’ry morning meet the poet’s eye,                     
Like fairies’ dew-wet dresses hung to dry. 
The wheat swells into ear, and hides below 
The May-month wild flowers and their gaudy show, 
Leaving, a school-boy’s height, in snugger rest,
The leveret’s seat, and lark, and partridge nest.
The mowers now bend o’er the beaded grass,
Where oft the gipsy’s hungry journeying ass 
Will turn his wishes from the meadow paths, 
List’ning the rustle of the falling swaths. 
The ploughman sweats along the fallow vales, 
And down the sun-crack’d furrow slowly trails; 
Oft seeking, when athirst, the brook’s supply, 
Where, brushing eagerly the bushes by
For coolest water, he disturbs the rest 
Of ring-dove, brooding o’er its idle nest.
The shepherd’s leisure hours are over now; 
No more he loiters ’neath the hedge-row bough,                                                     
On shadow-pillowed banks and lolling stile;
The wilds must lose their summer friend awhile.

This is a very small excerpt from John Clare’s third volume of poetry, ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar’, which was published in April 1827.  Clare’s original manuscripts were severely edited in order to cut down the size and cost of the volume.  The book consists of three sections: The Shepherd’s CalendarVillage Stories and Poems.

Read more about John Clare here.

John_Clare

A Ladder Between Earth and Heaven (sermon on John 1:43-51)

I wonder if you know the famous Old Testament story of Jacob’s ladder? Let me tell you the story as it appears in the Book of Genesis.

Isaac was the son of Abraham and was married to Rebekah, and they had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau was a few minutes older than Jacob, and there had been a rivalry between them since the day that they were born. The Genesis story suggests that this rivalry even existed at the moment of their birth; Jacob was grasping his older brother’s heel as he came out, as if there had been a kind of competition between them as to who should be born first. And so they called him ‘Jacob’ which means ‘he grasps’ or ‘he supplants’.

Esau grew up to be an outdoorsman and there was nothing he liked better than to go out hunting; his father loved him best because he loved to eat the wild game Esau cooked for him. Jacob preferred staying close to home, and he and his mother were very close. Rebekah comes across in the story as a classic manipulator, and she taught her son well. His whole life long he was trying to manipulate people to get what he wanted out of them: first his brother Esau, then his father-in-law Laban.

Esau and Jacob had a couple of scrapes when they were young men. We’re told that one day Esau came in really hungry from a day’s hunting, and he smelled a red stew that Jacob was cooking. “Give me some of that to eat!” he demanded. Jacob said, “I’ll give it to you – if you sell me your birthright”. “What good is a birthright if I’m starving?” Esau replied, and so he agreed to sell his rights as firstborn son just so he could eat what the King James Version calls ‘a mess of pottage’ – hence the old saying, ‘selling his birthright for a mess of pottage’.

But the news that Jacob now had the rights of an oldest son didn’t seem to have made it to old Isaac, his father. In those days it was a very big deal to receive your father’s blessing as the oldest son, and the time came when Isaac thought he ought to give Esau his blessing. So he told him to go out into the field and hunt some game, bring it home and cook it for him, and then he would give him the blessing of the firstborn. Rebekah was listening in, and she heard what her husband said.

So Esau got his bow and arrows and off he went. But Rebekah went and found Jacob and told him what was going on. “Now listen”, she said, “let’s go and kill a goat from the flock and cook it for your father; he’s old and blind and he won’t know it’s you. That way you can receive the blessing of the firstborn”. But Jacob wasn’t so sure. “He may be blind, but he’ll be able to feel the difference – my brother’s all hairy, but my skin is smooth!” “Leave it to me”, his mother replied.

Jacob did as his mother suggested. When they had killed the animal and cooked it, Rebekah spread the skins on his arms and shoulders, and Jacob took the stew to his father. So they were able to deceive old Isaac, and Jacob received the blessing of the firstborn in place of his older brother, Esau. Esau of course was very angry when he heard about this, so angry that he threatened to kill his brother. And so Rebekah told Jacob to run away across the desert to Haran, where their family had come from, where he could find refuge with her brother Laban. So he ran away.

Now we might ask ourselves the question, “Where is God in this story?” These people seem like the typical dysfunctional family, and there isn’t much of a sense that obeying God and living by God’s laws is very important to them. Isaac and Rebekah each have favourites among their children, and the boys know about this, and of course it causes trouble. Outwardly they are a religious family; Isaac is the son of Abraham, who had heard God calling him to leave Haran and find a new place to live in Canaan where his family would be God’s chosen people. But God seems pretty distant to them and they don’t seem to spend a lot of time seeking God’s will for their lives. And so it might well be said of Jacob, as it was said of Samuel in our Old Testament reading for today, that he ‘did not yet know the Lord’ (1 Samuel 3:7).

Let’s stop here for a moment and ask ourselves how many people and families we have known in our lives where something like this is going on? Children have been brought up in a family that is at least outwardly religious and goes to church on a regular basis. It’s possible that the parents have had a real experience of God at some point in their lives, but, like all of us, they are flawed and imperfect people, and they don’t always give the best example to their kids of what it means to be godly people. The children participate in the religious rituals of the family because ‘that’s what we do’, but for them it hasn’t yet become a personal reality; they do not yet ‘know the Lord’. In years to come, after they leave home, they will probably fall away from institutional religion altogether – unless they have some sort of a conversion experience in which their institutional faith becomes more of a personal and experiential reality for them.

That’s the situation for Jacob at this point in the story. However, things begin to change for him on his way to Haran. He is in a desolate place, but he finds a patch of ground to sleep for the night, although all he can find for a pillow is a stone. He falls asleep, but he has a strange dream – possibly because of the stone pillow, you might think! In his dream he sees what seems like a ladder, suspended between earth and heaven. He sees the angels of God going up and down on the ladder, between earth and heaven. And in his dream God comes and stands beside him, assuring him that he is the God of Abraham and Isaac and that he will be Jacob’s God too, and all the promises he had made to Abraham and Isaac are good for Jacob as well.

Obviously this dream has a big impact on Jacob; when he wakes up in the morning he names the place ‘Bethel’ which means ‘house of God’, and he sets the stone up as a memorial to remind him of the spot where he had first met with God. And from that day onward God begins to be more of a reality in Jacob’s life, although it will take many years for him to be cured of his trickster ways! If you want to find out more about his story, you’ll find it in Genesis chapters 25-36.

Now why am I telling you this story? Well, perhaps you’ve often wished you could find a ladder to heaven. Perhaps you’ve had a hard time connecting with God or feeling that God is a reality in your life. Perhaps you’ve only felt the distance of God, rather than his presence. Perhaps you too grew up in a religious family but had a hard time making the faith of your parents your own. This is especially common in religious traditions like ours, where we have a lot of formality and structure to our worship and practice. Children can grow up participating in the formality and structure, but without making the experiential connection with God in their hearts.

In our gospel reading for today Jesus alludes to this story of Jacob’s ladder. In our reading Philip, one of Jesus’ new disciples, finds his friend Nathanael and says “Come and meet this man we’ve found – we think he’s the one the scriptures prophesied – you know, the Messiah! He’s Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth!” “From Nazareth?” Nathanael scoffs; “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” “Come and see!” Philip replies.

So Philip takes Nathanael to meet Jesus. When Jesus sees him, he says, “Ah – this one’s a true Israelite; there’s no deceit in him”. Nathanael is skeptical: “How do you come to know all about me when this is the first time we’ve ever met?” Jesus replies, “I saw you sitting under the fig tree before Philip called you”. At this Nathanael’s jaw drops in astonishment, because he had indeed been sitting under a fig tree, but there is no way Jesus could have known that. “Rabbi”, he exclaims, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” And then Jesus seems to smile. “Are you so impressed that I saw you under the fig tree? Let me tell you, that’s just the beginning! You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man”.

Did you catch the allusion to Jacob’s ladder? In Jacob’s dream the angels were ascending and descending on a ladder, but what Jesus is saying is, “I am the ladder”. Jesus is the one who has joined earth and heaven; he has come down to us to bring heaven to us, and he will lead us to his Father, because he is the Son of God.

What exactly does it mean to be the ‘Son of God’? In Old Testament times God calls the nation of Israel his firstborn son, and later on in Israel’s history the king was thought of in those terms as well. In the earlier New Testament writings, when Jesus is called ‘the Son of God’, that seems to be the main thing on people’s minds: he’s the Messiah, God’s anointed King. We see this in Nathanael’s words: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” To Nathanael those two phrases were two different ways of saying the same thing.

But John in his gospel uses the phrase ‘Son of God’ in a much more significant way. At the end of his prologue, in John 1:18, he says, ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (John 1:18). Here we get the Christian idea that Jesus is not just an extra-special human being; he is in some sense God, although not the whole of God. The Father is God and the Son is God, but there are not two gods, but one. The Son is close to the Father’s heart, and the Father sends the Son into the world to save the world. The Son has ‘inside knowledge’ about the Father, if you like, and so he can tell us what the Father is like, and he can take us and introduce us to the Father. In this sense, he is the one who has ‘made the Father known’ to us.

So God is no longer distant from us, because Jesus has come and lived among us. When we read the story of Jesus we are reading the story of God. When we hear the words of Jesus, it is God speaking to us. When we hear of Jesus loving his enemies and forgiving them, it shows us that God loves and forgives people too. Jesus is God with a human face.

This means that if we want to know God, the best thing to do is to follow Jesus. All through the first chapter of John people are being invited to follow Jesus. John the Baptist told the crowds that Jesus was ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’. He told them that he had baptized them with water, and that was all he could do, but Jesus was able to baptize them – to immerse them, to plunge them in and fill them up – with the Holy Spirit of God, so that their lives would be suffused with the presence of God.

And so two of John the Baptist’s disciples followed after Jesus and asked him where he was staying: “Come and see”, he said, and they went and spent the day with him. One of them was Andrew; he went and got his brother Simon Peter and took him to meet Jesus, and the two of them became Jesus’ followers. Later on Jesus called Philip to follow him, and Philip went and found Nathanael and invited him to come and follow Jesus too. “Come and see”, Jesus said to Andrew and his friend. “Come and see”, Philip said to Nathanael. And now Jesus is inviting you and me as well: “Come and see. Come and experience the presence of God in your life. Put your trust in me and follow me, and I will lead you to your heavenly Father”.

Jesus is the ladder between earth and heaven; Jesus is the Son of God who can reveal the Father to us and lead us into the Father’s presence. But how does this become a reality for us? I’m sure that for some of you, this is the sixty-four million dollar question in your minds. Let me very briefly address it before I finish.

First, let it be said that the Holy Spirit will not be pinned down. He works as he sees fit, and if I describe for you one infallible way to get to know God through Jesus Christ, for sure the Holy Spirit will take a perverse delight in leading you by some other way! That’s the caveat I need to get out of the way before I go any further.

Second, in John’s Gospel the issue over and over is faith or belief – not an intellectual belief so much as trust and commitment. ‘But to all who received (Jesus), who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God’ (John 1:12). ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’ (John 3:16). This faith is often expressed in a concrete decision to put your trust in Jesus and follow him as his disciple.

You and I are invited to make that decision today, this morning. Perhaps we’ve never thought of ourselves as being asked to make a decision. Perhaps we’ve assumed that it’s just about going to church and doing our best to avoid obvious vices in our lives. But in the gospels Jesus always challenges people to make a decision about him. “Come and follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people”. Some people refuse the invitation, some people accept, but it’s not possible to politely ignore Jesus. He’s a catalyst for change; he gets in people’s faces and asks for a decision. Will you follow, or won’t you?

How might we make that decision on a daily basis? Here’s something many people have found helpful.

First, get off by yourself somewhere and pray. Tell God that you really want to get to know him and that you heard this morning that Jesus is the key to knowing God, because Jesus is the ladder from earth to heaven. So you want to get serious about following Jesus, since it seems he can lead you to God.

Second, begin to read one of the first three gospels, Matthew, Mark, or Luke. As you read, pray that God would reveal himself to you and that Jesus would become real to you. Don’t read quickly; read slowly and prayerfully, trying to figure out who Jesus is and what God is like.

Sooner or later you will find that some command of Jesus will just jump out at you from the page. It will seem particularly relevant and you will easily be able to make an application to your life. In fact, the application may scare you because it’s so challenging! No matter: Jesus is speaking to you through the text, so ask God to help you and then do what he tells you to do. Begin to try to put it into practice in your life, and meanwhile, read on for the next direction.

I will be very surprised if you are able to continue this spiritual practice for very long before God has begun to be a present reality to you in your daily life. Jesus will indeed be for you a ladder fixed between earth and heaven, a ladder you can climb into the presence of God.

Like Jacob the trickster, we will probably still have some rough edges that need to be knocked off our lives! But God is full of grace and mercy, and he is very patient with us; he’s willing to work with us over a lifetime to make us into the people he wants us to be. So let’s thank God for sending his Son to be a ladder between earth and heaven, and let’s follow Jesus day by day as he shows us the way to the Father.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.