By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 27, 2019
Luke 4:14–21 (NRSV):
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The past couple of weeks I have been trying to make room for us to grasp the revelation or the Epiphany of Jesus. Often, we find ourselves trapped in our own cultural perspective and are unable to grasp the truly full humanity of Christ. We look at his age and we regard Jesus as being young. And it is not as if he was old but, in his day, and culture he would have been perceived as an elder in the community. When the average life expectancy is around forty anyone that achieves the age of thirty should have respect. We also cannot grasp that Jesus worked a common and full career. For seventeen years Jesus worked within the family business. He worked with wood and stone, he built and repaired the various dwelling places around his community, some traditions even say that the family were among those that helped construct the temple. Jesus would most likely be considered a master craftsman, trained by some of the greatest craftsmen of the nation. It is sometimes difficult to consider this young adult era of Jesus’s life. But he lived and worked, ate and worshiped among friends and family within a community. He laughed and sang working songs. He measured and cut. He used tools and heard his coworkers cuss as they hit their thumbs. (Jesus was without sin, so I am certain he never missed the mark)
I want us to think about this as we consider today’s passage. Jesus went to his home. He went to worship at his hometown synagogue. Just a few weeks before he was one of them. They lived next door. They worked on the same projects. They were cousins and brothers. They were uncles and in-laws. One of them might have even had a crush on the carpenter, or a father might have been hoping to entice Jesus to consider their daughter in marriage.
There is something about a hometown. If you have ever moved away from your hometown those trips home for a weekend are lifegiving. But there is also something stressful because there is an expectation and a role you are supposed to fill and if you leave town that role is one that you have no desire to fill or are incapable to fill. I remember some of the first conversations I had with family members when I began pastoral ministry. I was asked once if we could tell the same jokes. This made me laugh because the jokes among my friends and family were not profane so I saw no problem, yet they knew that at times words even in humor can be offensive and they were concerned that I would be judgmental or offended.
Jesus went home. Imagine the smells and the feelings he might have had. The aromas of the foods that once comforted him were lofting through the air. The creaking in the house that once lulled him to sleep were once again present, and just as comforting. The same people were sitting or standing in their designated spot during worship on the sabbath. Sometimes we forget how those simple and seemingly annoying things of life ground and center us. They provide a stability and security that tells us that even when times are tough things will work out.
Jesus was home. He was with his friends and family. He was worshiping in the place he joined his family for the past thirty years. He was home yet something was different. Jesus’s baptism revealed that the old life was no longer., a new era of history was emerging.
Everyone in Israel was waiting in expectation for this day to emerge. They had discussed and imagined it for centuries. They studied the signs, they thought they knew what it was they anticipated. Yet the very one they were looking for sat right there in their synagogue for the past thirty years. For seventeen years he led worship with them. He knew them and they knew him, yet the reality was veiled in the familiarity. Everything They were waiting right there, standing before them, yet was an enigma.
How often are we just like those in the synagogue of Nazareth? We are waiting for something spectacular happen. We are anticipating God to move within our Meetings and within our communities, yet we are blinded by the familiar. We want God to work so much within our communities that we try to find spectacular speakers, we try to mimic the styles and programs of others who experienced something great. Yet the results do not seem to transpire as we anticipated. This leads us to become more frustrated, and we make attempts to explain why. Maybe we are allowing sin in our meeting and angering God, so we become more legalistic Maybe we are being too judgmental, so we loosen the reigns and become more lenient. Maybe we need to have more energy, maybe we need to be more spiritual. Maybe.
We search and we seek. We wait and we make attempts and they feel as if it is all in vain. Life becomes familiar and we become comfortable with those around us and eventually we stop and wonder why. Why are we not seeing God move? Why are people leaving or not even coming to faith? Why does it seem as if our community is drifting into darkness?
Do you think people in the first century asked similar questions? We know that John the Baptist questioned the direction of the current religious establishment. He left the path and lifestyle allotted to him by tradition, the lifestyle of a priest and instead went out into the wilderness to live and proclaim the message of repentance. He screamed out to the religious of his time to repent, to turn, to go a different direction and the people eagerly listened. Yet in the message he presented he said there is one coming who is even greater than him. One whose sandals he is not worthy to untie.
The entire culture was blinded by familiarity, they were comfortable in the highly effective system they had orchestrated. Yet there was this nagging unrest deep within, an expectation they were looking for but unable to define.
It was into this environment Jesus spoke these words, words that were spoken during a similar time.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
What is Jesus saying? What era Jesus heralding into existence? He is calling us to a life, a lifestyle, an existence with God. One where every individual can know God not because someone performed some ceremony for us, but because God had come to us. God came to us to show how to live, how to interact, how to be human. God needed to come, to become human because we had become blind to truth, we had become consumed by self-rationalization and justification. And in our comfort, we missed something important, grace.
Jesus came living a complete human life to open our eyes, and to provide the way for us to become the people we were meant to be. He taught us a holy rhythm of life, a discipline. He made it his custom to worship in the synagogue, he withdrew often to the isolated places to pray, and he ministered to the needs of those around him. We ourselves have claimed that same rhythm as our mission, as the testimony we at Willow Creek exist. “Loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with Others.”
Paul wrote about this lifestyle in his letters to the churches. He expressed it as being clothed in Christ, putting on the full armor, he said “it is no longer I who lives but Christ who live through me.”
That day in his hometown Jesus told us what our ministry and purpose is to be. Ministering to the needs of the poor, helping to free those in bondage of many kinds, providing care to victims of injury and those living in lives of illness, to bring relief for those being exploited, and to proclaim to all the love God has for them.
We live this life with others. We grow in this life as we turn toward Christ and join him in his lifestyle. We worship, we pray the best we can, and when we see a place, we can minister we joyful join and encourage those around us.
Why then do we not see what we hope? This is something that I have struggled with most of my life. I have watched as people my age have seemingly left the faith. I have watched as Meeting have been closed. I have even been on the very board that took on the rule of managing the closures. In every case, it is because those that were in those meetings were unable to live the life of Christ with those around them. They were unable to allow people to mature in their faith, but they wanted to dictate the way and manner they should grow. They were attempting to make copies of someone else’s faith instead of allowing God to form them into the person they should be.
This is difficult to say because so often I have participated in that type of ministry. It is easy to recognize growth in that manner, you have a formula you can follow. First you read the gospel maybe Mark because it’s the shortest, second you pray the sinner’s prayer, you are welcomed into the Meeting in whatever manner your tradition dictates. Third you begin to have a daily quiet time with God. If you have any questions you offer some wonderful books that tell you just how to do it. If you struggle then maybe you do not have authentic faith and you must start over, but you can skip step two.
These methods can produce authentic faith, but often it does not speak to everyone’s condition. Some people respond well to different forms of discipleship while others respond to something totally different. When we try to perfect someone else’s personal discipleship program we can become like the pharisees of ancient days. We become whitewashed tombs of dried out bones. We look nice on the outside but can often be dead on the inside. This is why friendship and encouragement are important. A friend would be able to tell you that you are faking it and encourage you to express yourself in a different way.
Personally, I am a quiet person. I am reserved emotionally. I can go to a football or hockey game and be ecstatic about what is going on around me yet sit there calmly with only a smile on my face. Very rarely do I make vocal utterances. When it comes to worship, I am also reserved, I am not a hand raiser, instead I am a foot tapper and I sway. The more music or a message moves me the quieter I become to the point I am nearly prostrate in prayer. Does this mean I am inauthentic in my worship, because I do not clap or say “Amen” when the speaker makes a good point. No. It means my personality is different than someone else. Yet, I enjoy worship among people who clap and dance. I enjoy worship among others who can just sit in silence. But most of all I enjoy worship while hiking on a trail or watching a sunset. (Not so much a sunrise because that requires waking up early but when I do, I am in awe) I find the most joy when I listen to birds sing, or see deer grazing in a clearing. I am drawn to the Friends Church because it encourages me in my personal expression of faith.
But are we being authentic? Are we encouraging people in their faith or are we encouraging them in our own? We can worship in our own manner, and still encourage people to worship in theirs. It is difficult because to do so we must become vulnerable to one another. We must open our lives and share ourselves with them in so that we can encourage them, and they too must open to us. It requires us to listen and encourage instead of providing the answers.
Yesterday during the area leadership summit, we discussed the life of prayer. During our lessons, we were encouraged to pray how we can, and not to pray in a way we can’t. We were encouraged to use scripture to direct our prayer, and to allow space for God to speak to us and not only dictate to God what we want him to do for us. I love the ways that Fil Anderson taught prayer, because it speaks to my condition, but the way we did it may not speak to everyone. Some may need to move when they pray, and others can sit. Some may need a fidget spinner, while others might need a paint brush. It is not about how we do things, it is that we do them and encourage one another to turn to God. It is not about us, but it is about taking on Jesus’s lifestyle and reflecting the light he brings to our lives to those around us. To be honest it is not about being right or wrong, it is not about living a life without sin, or being righteous or holy, it is about being who we are in Jesus.
We are each broken in some way, we all struggle. We all know others who are hurting and struggling as well. Our mission is to live faith with them. Our ministry is to show them that being broken is ok, and to point them to our hope. Our lives should be like Jesus’s, lived within a community, yet lived out for the glory of God and our community. The people at that synagogue were amazed at what Jesus had read to them, and when he sat down every eye was looking at him. And he said to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Consider that. Jesus was in his hometown, among those that knew him from childhood, who had worked with him and had known his family. Later if we continue to read it angered them, as faith often angers those around us, because light reveals something to us. It reveals that we are not always who we think we are. They thought they were being faithful, yet those words that Jesus shared said that they were not. And when he spoke, he was saying like John the Baptist, turn. Turn around because we are going the wrong way, we are trying to live a fraudulent faith and all we really need to do is be ourselves, be our true selves, the person God created us to be. Joyful musicians who can encourage someone with a song. Passionate artists who can reveal truth and encourage change through paint or clay. Contemplative souls who quietly listen and provide space for you to see a different path. Mechanics of various types who help us get through life by fixing the things that distract us while encouraging us with a smile. Our passions and our faith work together and when we live with Christ in that way, we will see the seeds that God spreads sprout all around us. Because when we live our lives in Christ, we are no longer focused on ourselves, but we are focused on the one who loves us, and we begin to love the ones he loves.
As we enter our time of holy expectancy and communion in the manner of Friends, let us consider the words of Isaiah that Jesus read, and consider how God is calling us in our own way to fulfill that in our lives today. And let us also celebrate the fact that we were once poor who received the news, we were once the captive and the broken, we were once the oppressed that was freed by the grace provided through the love that brought Jesus down from his throne in Heaven to live a complete human life with and for us. The grace that was shown by his sacrifice on the cross and the hope that was ensured by his resurrection. Let us celebrate and embrace life with him and continue to turn from a life devoted to human pursuits and return to a life devoted to the love of God.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 20, 2019
John 2:1–11 (NRSV)
The Wedding at Cana
2 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
At times when I study scripture, I get stuck. I am sure many of you have similar issues. You read something over and over, you get to a point you believe that you understand what is going on, and then you read it again and you just sit there knowing that God is telling you something but you just cannot get out of the way to let Him speak.
That is where I was this week. I have read this passage many times. When people who are exploring faith or are new to the faith ask me where they should begin to read scripture, I almost always tell them to read John. It is my favorite Gospel. I like it because there is action, adventure, excitement and drama, triumph over evil, you know everything that makes a story good, John has it and more it speaks about Jesus. And when there is Jesus there is hope.
I sat there this week, I read this passage over and over. I considered everything I had known about it and I studied everything I could. And yet I sat praying, “what could you possibly want me to say.” The main reason for this is because I grew up in a temperance-oriented community, so this first sign of Jesus has always been a struggle for me. I grew up being taught that wine in the story was not really wine. Throughout most of my life I was questioning this story, I knew Jesus did something remarkable but to be honest I questioned why.
Before we go deeper, I want you all to know that the wine in the passage is, in fact, real wine. No matter how you look at the passage the wording used refers to wine. And people have been making wine for thousands of years so wine is a word they know how to use. I also know that this is really wine because, wine was a sign of blessing in ancient Jewish cultures. They would not celebrate without actual wine, and even to this day in religious observances they are required to use actual wine. The last thing to mention is the fact that there is references in this passage to the effects of the consumption of wine, so why would they mention that if these people were simply drinking juice.
With that out of the way, there is much more going on in this passage. During the season of Epiphany, the season of revelation, we should see something about God revealing Himself, or the Gospel, to us in some way. What is God revealing to us through this story?
If we are to look at the life of Jesus and try to construct a timeline, we would find that it is difficult. Most of the time Jesus and his disciples are running from one end of Israel to the other, they are getting into verbal confrontations in the temple and the next scene they are on a boat going across the sea. Some might be troubled by this because when we read a biography today, we are accustomed to the authors beginning at the figure’s birth or maybe even giving a brief history of the parents, and then proceeding through their life in chronological order. This was not that important to the gospel writers for many reasons, the main being that world at that time was largely illiterate so most people listened to the message orally. And if you are giving an oral account it is interactive, meaning there is a person speaking and a group listening. There are situations occurring all around and the speaker is asked to speak into their situation. How does faith speak to our current situation? Why should I believe that God cares about me? If I am having an interactive conversation with someone, I rarely begin with history. We usually begin in the present and go backwards then forwards, usually there is a circling back to the present, and a side trip down somewhere that may or may not have any real value but was interesting at the time. Unfortunately, because paper was scares in the first century the side trip discussions of the disciples and apostles were not always recorded.
The gospel accounts are not exactly in complete chronological order, and that is ok. John for example has Jesus clearing the temple near the beginning and the other writers place that right before the trial. Does that mean John is wrong, no it just means when John was speaking to the people, he taught that event needed to be spoken of earlier. Why is up for debate, but John’s gospel is believed to be the last written so maybe the people needed to hear about Jesus getting upset at the exploitation early because they were facing similar situations in their own lives. The gospels might not be in complete chronological order but there is chronology within. The baptism of Jesus occurs early, and the crucifixion is near the end. What happens in-between is like every conversation we have ever had about life, filled with switchbacks and roundabouts.
Today’s passage is one that scholars agree to be early in the ministry of Jesus. It occurs after the baptism and after the initial calling of the disciples, but before Jesus really enters ministry. Directly before they go to the wedding, we hear about the calling of the first disciples, Andrew, Peter, Phillip, and Nathanael. When Jesus spoke to Nathanael, he told him that he would soon see greater things. Right after this they go together to a wedding and we observe what is regarded as Jesus’s first sign.
Weddings are an important event in anyone’s life. It is the joining of two people, that unites two families together. It is a union, a partnership, but so much more. It is the melding of two ancestries, two beautiful family histories together, what were separate are now united and everything after that the greatness and the tragedy will be united. Today we enjoy a good wedding celebration, to be honest if there is cake, I really do not mind a celebration that is minimalistic. I will be honest I like weddings, but the celebration is the part I enjoy the most, the party, and at times the dancing. Jesus’s first sign was at a wedding celebration. Think about that for a moment. Last week I mentioned that the baptism of Jesus was a point in life where Jesus was leaving behind everything, he did for the thirty years prior and entering a new life. A wedding celebration is very similar. We celebrate this united future, what was once separate is not together, its something new. God is revealing something here.
I like a good wedding celebration, but our best celebrations today are nothing compared to the celebrations they had in the ancient world. Their parties would go on for days sometimes it would last an entire week. The ancient Jewish people knew how to celebrate. And rightly so, people would travel by foot to attend, and they would be hungry, and thirsty. They might not have seen these friends or family members for an extended time and they needed to catch up. And in an era without social media that could take time. The social standing of the new couple was often galvanized by the wedding celebration. The longer it was the better the union would be seen.
They are all celebrating this wedding on the third day. On a Tuesday, I do not know if that matters, but who has a wedding on Tuesday? They are celebrating, and Jesus’s mom has found a problem, a scandal. “They have no more wine.” She hurries over to Jesus and informs her son of the issue. Have any of you ever thought why at this point? Why did she go tell Jesus? Why did it even matter to them? Was this a close family member’s wedding or was Mary just sticking her nose in another people’s business? No matter what the reason was she told Jesus.
The response of Jesus might set some of us on edge. He says, “Woman, why do you involve me? My hour has not yet come.” To our ears this almost sounds rude, but it is a traditional conversational structure. We do not go around saying Woman today, but this is our culture, this was not rude in their culture, it could be translated as dear woman. But the interesting thing is that there is something going on in this response, even though it is a common conversation, it is uncommon that a son would use this with his own mother. John is trying to show us the new life Jesus has before him, this division of the old and new. A son would have said, mother, not woman, yet Jesus says woman. Without missing a beat, Mary takes the response and immediately goes to the servants and informs them to listen to whatever Jesus has to say. There is a revelation here, Mary know that Jesus was moving away from the family business and entering the lifestyle revealed to her by the angels.
The servants listen to Mary, and they turn expectantly to Jesus. They look expectantly at Jesus because they are aware of the situation, they are the ones carrying the food and drinks out to the guests, and they know that when the wine is gone the celebration is over. We do not know how long this celebration had been going on, but we are given the impression that it is not a traditional length of time. The servants are nervous because if the family cannot continue the celebration it might be omen to economic hardship, which might translate to a loss of their livelihood as well. The party must go on, and they have one hope, Jesus.
He looks around and sees stone jars nearby. These stone jars are used for purification. They are the equivalent to the sink today. These stone jars were used by the guests to wash their hands before they began to eat a meal. The interesting thing is the amount of these jars. To require six jars holding thirty gallons of water informs us that this is a large party, with many guests how many parties have you attended that required one hundred and eighty gallons of water just, so the guests could wash their hands? It must be an important family.
Six jars are there so he says fill them up with water. They do it because Mary said to do whatever he said, so the jars are filled to the brim. They quickly hauled one hundred and eighty gallons of water to the celebration. This is not a small endeavor, today we have electric pumps and running water, and to get that amount of water takes time, just filling our gas tanks takes longer than we have patience for, yet these servants are doing this by hand.
At this point we have an additional revelation. The jars are used for religious observance, the purification of the hands so that they can participate in the feast. Jesus has them fill these jars with water, he then tells them to take a cup from the jar and give it to the head steward. As they do this the water has turned to wine. Good wine, the best wine at the party. The wine that most would have served at the beginning of the celebration not at the end. If you were to have purchased this wine it would be the top shelf bottle, not the bottom shelf box. Jesus turned the water in the purification vessels in to wine. Many see this as a sign or a prophecy of the new covenant, grace overcoming the law.
The steward drinks the wine and loudly boasts to the crowd, this bridegroom is amazing, this has gone on for a while, and we have all enjoyed a fair amount. But this guy he is now serving the good wine. The wine most of us would have served at the beginning he is serving when we are all drunk. Imagine the surprise of the bridegroom. He knew what was purchased, and he knew what was served. He knew that he served the best stuff that he purchased at the beginning of the celebration just like everyone would have expected yet now they are drinking something better. Another revelation? Could this be telling us that there is something better in our future if we listen to Christ?
One sign, the first sign, a sign that many of us might consider pointless. Yet it is filled with so much. Only a few knew what happened for sure. The disciples knew because they were there hanging out with their new friend. The servants knew because they had carried in all the water. The bridegroom knew that there was one hundred and eighty gallons of wine at his party that he had not purchased. And Mary, Jesus’s mother knew. One sign, the symbolism is full. It reveals that God is opening the heavens with flowing wine, which was a prophecy from Amos and Joel which is saying that when the messiah comes there will be an abundance of blessings in the land. And the wine filled the jars used for purification. What was once used as a symbol of washing away what was unclean was now the vessel of celebration.
There is more to this. The first sign of Jesus happened during a celebration. This should tell us a great deal. Our faith should be enjoyable. So often we focus on the sacrifice of Jesus, and we focus on the things we sacrifice to follow him. Is life always about sacrifice? No, we are told to weep with those that weep and to share in the joy of others. Celebration, like fasting, is a spiritual discipline. But do we take time to celebrate? Do we take time to enjoy the friendship of those around us? Are our schedules so filled with things that we forget to enjoy life occasionally? Jesus’s first sign was to keep the party going, imagine that. The first miracle Jesus performed many of us would consider to be frivolous, without value, unspiritual. Yet Jesus used a party to reveal to those around him that he had power over nature and could turn something as simple as water into something as valuable as wine. And he did this for one reason, they were out of wine and when the refreshments are gone people start to leave.
God has a plan and purpose for you in this community. You may not fully know what that is, it might require sacrifice, you might endure hardship for it. People might ridicule you for your faith and people might say that your faith is a joke. But there is hope and there is joy also. Jesus wept, and Jesus laughed, Jesus was angry, and Jesus enjoyed playing with the children. Jesus taught deep spiritual lessons and Jesus celebrated at a wedding. God wants us to enjoy our lives in a way that brings glory to Him. God wants us to be bearers of light in the darkness, and that requires us to lighten up at times. When was the last time you let yourself have fun for the glory of God? When was the last time you celebrated your life with God?
Let us now enter this time of holy expectancy and communion in the manner of Friends considering the joy of the lord. The joy of the lord. And let us celebrate.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 13, 2019
Luke 3:15–17 (NRSV)
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The season of Epiphany is one of revelation. Last week we saw how God revealed the gospel in the stars to the magi, what that star was remains a mystery even after 2000 years although some have some convincing research. That revelation to the magi, showed us that God revealed the gospel to the gentiles, that God’s ultimate includes all people. It does not matter who you are, where you were born, what your social standing, or personal wealth is God loves you to such a degree that Jesus left heaven to be born. He grew up in a common family in a community of friends and family. He worked within his family business and was known in his home town as the carpenter’s son. And after thirty years he actively begins the mission he was born to fulfill.
I want each of us to consider this timeline before we proceed. Thirty years to us does not seem like much time. In our culture, people are not even considered actual adults until about that time. The age of thirty in our culture is often the beginning of many things. It’s when we start families, it is when we become set in a career that we hope to remain. It is when we start families. It is when we finally begin to feel as if we know who we are. Thirty for many of us is not that old, and when we consider the age of Jesus, we often think of him through the lens of our culture. Jesus was a young man when he entered his ministry.
This is not exactly the case. In the first century thirty was different. The boys would begin in their family business at around the age of thirteen, and they would work with the family their entire lives. If your father worked with ceramics, you would work in ceramics or most likely marry a man who worked with ceramics. If your father was a priest, you became a priest or married a priest. If you father was a laborer the same career path was set before you. The only way out was if you happened to be very intelligent and you parents were able to afford extended education with the rabbis or you entered the service of the government.
Jesus worked from the age of thirteen to thirty with the family, as a carpenter. He worked alongside Joseph, and the other members of the family for seventeen years, cutting stone and timber to build and repair houses and other buildings in and around Nazareth. Seventeen years, in today’s culture if you work twenty-five years with in one company your pension is matured, and you can retire, so if Jesus was in our culture today, he would be less than ten years away from this.
In many ways Jesus would not be what we would consider a young man, but an established man, if not an elder. There were very few careers where he would not be a master of his trade at this time. In his culture there would be only one area he would have been particularly young and that would be the priesthood, because a priest would begin their service in the temple at the age of twenty-five and continue to serve until, they were fifty.
Jesus would have been at an age that he would be considered established, he had made it over one very huge milestone, he lived to the age of thirty. Life expectancy in the first century was not what it is today. The average life expectancy during the first century and really till the 20th century was around thirty-five to forty years old. Today because of the advancements in medical sciences we live much longer, about twice as long. We often think of Jesus being young, but the event we read about today in scripture, Jesus would be like many of us here today, middle-aged at best. After already living a full life, Jesus then began something different.
Today we meet again on the banks of the Jordan river, we meet this enigmatic man John. We spoke about John a few weeks ago, so I will not go much deeper into who he is. He is Jesus’s cousin, and is a son of a priest. Yet John did not follow his father into this career instead he went out into the wilderness and began a different sort of ministry. He challenged the established religious industry, and from the testimony of his teaching we might be led to believe that he was disgusted with what religion had become. He would yell at the religious leaders and called them a brood of vipers. Personally, I do not know of many insults that would be worse.
John is preaching on the banks of the Jordan, and the people of Israel are going out to meet him. They go out because they have this expectancy, a holy anxiety that something is going on. Something deep within their spirit is telling them that they are missing something profound in faith. And they cannot find. They listen to the teachers and they are telling them the messiah is coming and that is what you are sensing. And as they teach them about this messiah, they are telling them what to expect. A king, a military leader, a man that will lead them from the heel of Rome into independence and prosperity. Could John be this man, clearly, he is charismatic enough to challenge the establishment but is he the one?
If we were to read all of John the Baptist’s message, we would find that most of what he taught was based on turning from the ways of the world and living a different lifestyle. This lifestyle he explained as, “bearing fruit worthy of repentance.” Which leads us to a significant question, what is repentance? When I look this word up it speaks of a changing of one’s mind, a change of heart, or direction. John is on the Jordan shouting at people telling them that they are going the wrong direction and need to turn around. But I want us to keep in mind, these people are not grave sinners they are the child of Abraham, God’s chosen people. These are the people who eat, drink, breath, and sleep religion. These are the most righteous of all people, their temple is the greatest temple ever built to facilitate worship. He is yelling at the righteous to turn around.
These people filled with expectation are going out to listen, they hear the message and they realize that there are areas in their life that they do need to turn. Then they wonder is John the one they have been looking for? Is he the messiah? He is out there screaming and dunking people under the water as a sign that they have been cleansed from their unrighteous past and can stand clean before God, yet when they consider him John rejects their thoughts. Saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
This great charismatic teacher that has all of Israel leaving the towns and villages, to be immersed in the Jordan tells them, “You think I’m great. You just wait, there is someone else coming and I am not even worthy of being his slave.” John is not even worthy to perform the lowest task of the lowest slave within a house. He is not worthy to untie and wash the feet of the one who will come.
Think of all the people you respect and why. Consider all the value you place on their character or their accomplishments. John was the greatest preacher of his day, crowds were coming out to meet him, to listen to his message, enduring the ridicule he might bring them. Not just simple common people, but even the scribes, the teachers of the law. Each listening and many moved to the point that they walked out into the water to plunge beneath the waters. Yet John says, “Nope, I’m not the one you are looking for. I’m not even worthy to be his lowest slave.” John uses water to draw attention to a changed life, but the one that John is looking for will use the Holy Spirit and fire.
Jesus at this point is there among those people. He this established carpenter is standing with the rest of Israel listening to this crazy preacher, rant on religion and telling the righteous that they need to turn around because they are going the wrong way. Jesus was there and entered the water. According to the other gospel accounts John knew who Jesus was, and even told Jesus that he should not baptize Jesus, but Jesus should baptize him. John knew Jesus, yet there is a reason Jesus was baptized. Up to this point his life was established, he was the carpenter, everyone else knew him as a carpenter. For seventeen years that had been his life, now in the twilight years his life will turn and go a different direction.
Jesus was baptized to show the people of Judea that the carpenter they knew is no longer the man before them. The course they expected him to follow is now turning a different direction. And according to Luke, the first thing Jesus does after this baptism is that he prays. It is in his prayers at that moment that heaven opens, and the Spirit descends on him in the form of a dove and a voice speaks. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
For seventeen years, Jesus has lived the obedient life. He had lived the life expected of him. The life that his culture dictated to him. He was according to them, the son of a carpenter and that is what he would remain. But after the baptism Jesus turned from the ways of the world and pursued the life and lifestyle he was meant to live. The life of the Beloved son of God. The lamb who takes away the sin of the world. From that moment on Jesus turned from the life of a carpenter and pursued the mighty life John and all of Israel anticipated.
Often, we get caught up in the baptism of Jesus. We as Christians often mimic the activities because Jesus did them. But what was it that Jesus did? He was baptized because it was a sign, a religious and symbolic way of telling the people of Israel that Jesus’s life from that moment on would take a turn. The reality of it is that Jesus did not need to be baptized, nor does anyone else, because that is all it is a sign a symbol of the reality of what is and has already occurred. When John speaks of the one to come who will baptize not with water but the Holy Spirit and fire, he is speaking of something far greater than anything else, because water does not change anyone. Water may clean the outside of a body but something more must occur.
I spent some time looking up the significance of the words John used in his proclamation, and to be honest there is not any single understanding as to what he fully means. There are various perspectives that each work in some way. When we look at fire, it could mean judgement and punishment, or it can mean the purification of metals. I might also be referring to the disposal of unwanted chaff. From the statement about the winnowing fork being in hand to clear the threshing floor I tend to think John probably means getting rid of the unwanted chaff. But all these perspectives are good.
The fire is getting rid of the things that lack value. When a farmer is gathering grain, the kernels are encased in m material that has little or no use. When the plant was growing there was membranes that surrounded the seed protecting it from harm, but this membrane is inedible. Even if it is fed to animals it has the potential to cause harm. The beards of wheat have a Velcro like quality that can become lodged in the gums of livestock and cause infection. And as humans our bodies cannot digest the cellulose, so it provides no nutritional value for us. When the heads of the wheat are taken to the threshing floor the kernels are knocked out of these membranes and when they are scooped up and thrown into the air the wind will carry the chaff, the unwanted and worthless plant material, away and the kernels will fall back down. Eventually, the chaff will form piles on the edges of the floor and this would be removed and burned, leaving the kernel or the fruit.
The picture created by John’s words resemble his message, “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” The fruit is what is wanted not the chaff. The fruit has value, the chaff is simply residue, a byproduct, worthless. But what if we look at the words as refiner’s fire? Most metals are not found in a pure state in nature, but in an ore. The ore is the elemental metal crystalized with other elements forming a rock. When the ore is placed into fire the various elements melt at different temperatures. As the temperatures rise and cool these elements can be separated and you are left with a desirable and pure metal which can then be used to form various things like the vehicles we drove to get here or a ring to a marriage. Again, the fire removes the things that have little value so that the things with value can be obtained.
Now what about the Spirit? This also can mean a couple of different things. Some would say that it is God initiated, which means we repent or turn, because God does it within us. While others believe that maybe John is speaking of the wind which will blow the chaff away from the kernel and which intensifies the heat of the fire. No matter how we look at it, either God or wind, what is happening is outside ourselves. Our repentance or turning, the fruit we bear is a cooperation between ourselves and something that only Christ can provide. We cannot do it on our own.
John’s baptism is man initiated. Where the baptism of the one that comes after John is divinely initiated. When we work in our own strength, we do not always have the desired results but when we allow God to work within us it intensifies. When we repent, when we turn from the ways of our worldly systems and walk toward God in Jesus, the things lacking value blow away to be burned, and what is left is pure fruit.
All of Israel came to John to listen. They came because they were filled with expectation. The Spirit of God was working within them, but they did not know it. John spoke words of truth and they began to wonder even more. John then said I am not the one you seek but there is another and what I symbolize with water, he will actualize and intensify. But will we listen?
Jesus spent seventeen years of his adult life, living the life of a carpenter and one day he turned and went a different direction. He spent nearly his entire life, which was not necessarily a short or young life, being obedient to his culture and then he turned to follow the paths set before him even before time began. Time is not an obstacle to God, age is not a complication to God, our resources, our careers or lack thereof are not problems for God. Our genders, our education, our heritage, or nationality do not matter to God. All of that is mere chaff, it is worthless material encasing something much more important, the essence of your life.
The fact that each person is here today, means that like Israel before us we have some deep yearning and expectation we hope to meet. This is God urging us to that life. What will we do from here? The most charismatic man of that day, John said you are looking for the messiah, but I’m not it. I am not even worthy of untying his shoes. Yet he still said turn, repent. Turn from a life focused on the values of men, and pursue the pathways of God, now today. God has a life that he created you to fill in this community, a life where you will find hope, peace and joy. A life where you can be yourself and others will accept you. A life that is available to you and you can have when you turn.
As we enter this time of open worship, and holy expectancy I pray that each of us in this moment will consider the life of Jesus, as well as the life and testimony of John. I pray that we will consider the community around us and the community we hope to see. And I pray that we will repent, that we will turn and walk not according to the ways of the world, but in the ways of Christ, so our hope will become sight.