Epiphany 1 – Year B
Here is a draft of a sermon by Mike Johnson, as found on Midrash Discussion Group. You can join that discussion here.
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Sermon Title: "The Galilean Candidate" (or "John the Baptist and the Queen of Diamonds" or "God's Sleepers")
Prime metaphor: Jesus as a "sleeper" planted by God in Galilee and activated 30 years later by the preaching of John the Baptist (à la Raymond Shaw in "The Manchurian Candidate" -- a sleeper planted in the US by China, in the original movies, and by a man who doesn't know he's a sleeper)
Entry-into-scripture question: How did Jesus know it was time for him to emerge from his Galilean obscurity? And did he know what it was time for him to do? And did he know all along -- or, as Jim asked in opening comments, "Was everything revealed to him in a great flash of understanding? Or did he figure it out as he went along?"
Existential belly-button question: Who am I that I may not know that I am? A swan and not the ugly duckling I see in the mirror. A prince and not a pauper? A child of God? Raymond Shaw was activated by the Queen of Diamonds. Jesus was activated by John the Baptist's preaching. Jesus is God's instrument for activating us -- letting us know who we really are.
"Where did this guy come from?" That question was asked by more than one person (especially among Hillary Clinton's campaign crew) as Barack Obama rose from being a 47-year old extremely junior senator to first the winner of the Iowa primary and then the Democratic nomination. Nothing in his background marked him as a possible, let alone successful, presidential candidate. He was not the son of a former president or senator. Born of a basically absentee father from Kenya, for a while the stepson of an Indonesian, raised in Hawaii by a single white mother and grandparents -- not exactly a fast-track to the presidency.
And even after his big splash at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when people began thinking of him as a future presidential possibility, no one assumed that he was a shoo-in for the 2008 nomination. Who knew that this charismatic speaker would also have such finely honed political skills as to understand the importance of caucus primaries and the savvy to know how to go about getting them a few at a time, in a way that would make the final difference. Even today, marveling at how far he came in so short a time, without the pedigree of so many others, I find myself wondering, "Where did this guy come from?"
Bystanders may have said that about Jesus, too. He was not the son of any famous religious figure - like a Robert Schuller. He may have been spiritually precocious, if there's anything to Luke's story about talking with the elders in the temple at age 12, but he was hardly a well-known child prodigy -- a spiritual Tiger Woods -- on whom the whole world's fascinated attention was turned as he neared the age of 21. Moreover, he was a Galilean -- a boundary figure from the northern fringe of Judaism. If somebody had said, "The Messiah stands among us," nobody would have picked Jesus. And when he started to make a splash -- maybe beginning with his baptismal splash -- don't you know people said, "Who is this guy?" "What's a Galilean doing in these parts?"
You can never tell, based on background alone, what people have in them. Sometimes we don't know ourselves what we have in us. People differ in their beliefs about how much Jesus knew when about what he was to do and be, and I wouldn't argue about it. But I favor the view that he learned as he went along, because otherwise it doesn't seem to be he was really human -- and because the scriptures say that he was tempted in every way we are, and you can't be tempted in every way as we are if you know totally ahead of time the exact outcome of every situation, and exactly what to say and do, no sweat.
As I say, other Christians think that if Jesus were in any legitimate sense, the Son of God, then he must have known all along. And that may be your view. And that's fine. We can still commune together. But one thing is for sure. Whatever Jesus did or didn't know all along about what he had in him, and what he was to do with it, we don't always.
[Tell the story of the "ugly duckling" -- maybe also the story an eagle raised in a chicken lot.]
And Paul the apostle didn't know he was Paul the apostle. He thought he was Saul, the righteous defender of the faith and godly destroyer of the liberal "Christian" heresy -- that was absolutely his identity right up to the point where he was activated by a blinding light and a voice on the road to Damascus. And Moses may have thought he was a son of the Pharaoh -- with all the finest clothes, the whole east wing of the palace to himself, six sports cars -- everything -- right up to the point where he was activated by seeing an Egyptian overseer strike a Hebrew slaves -- suddenly he was activated and knew himself to be, not the son of the Pharaoh, but a brother to the slave. And Rosa Parks had no idea who she was, or what she would mean to this nation, that day when she understood herself to be a human being
People don't always know who they are, who they are supposed to be, what they have it in themselves to be, or what sort of a difference they can make -- until God activates them in one way or another. That's why I think that was true of Jesus too. That he was activated by the preaching of John. That all he had learned about God, from his rabbi, from his parents, from the people they sat next to at the synagogue (who knows who all played a role in his coming to understand the radical nature of faith in the radically sovereign God of Israel -- an understanding that led him to see how far from actually following God's lead the people of God often were?) -- all he had learned about God and what it meant to love and trust God was engaged and taken a step farther by the preaching of John the Baptist, who was saying exactly what Jesus knew to be true.
John's radical call to radical repentance and faith and disciplined living triggered something in Jesus. And John's sense of urgency triggered something. Now is the time. God is on the move now. Now. Get ready. Prepare yourself. Open yourself to God. Leave off your fooling around with religion, let alone your cavalier sinfulness, and start taking God seriously and actually living in faith. And Jesus knew he could never go back to the carpenter shop. He was a part of what was going on.
Maybe he knew he was destined to lead at that point. Maybe he just knew that whatever was happening he was a part of it and the rest was revealed to him later. But whenever and however much he knew, it was the preaching of John that moved him to offer himself for baptism -- to take a flying cannonball leap into the waters of baptism, body and soul, absolutely unreservedly offering himself as an instrument of God to be and do whatever and wherever God lead him to do no matter what.
And as he was coming up out of the water, the heavens were torn apart and he saw forever and the spirit descended on him and a voice from heaven affirmed him.
But the main question here, finally, is not what did Jesus know when. And the question that comes to me out of all this is, "Who am I that I don't know that I am?"
[Haven't fully developed this yet. But want to emphasize especially that God's estimate of us is almost always different -- and always, ultimately grander and nobler and more beautiful and more life-affirming that our estimates of ourselves. Shouldn't be hard to come up with illustrations here.]
Whether Jesus always knew, or didn't know till that point, John the Baptist's preaching was the trigger that activated him. And Jesus is the trigger that activates us. Jesus may not have known until he came up out of the waters of baptism that he was God's son. But thanks to Christ, we know going in that we are children of God. It is God embracing us in Christ who transforms us, who affirms us, who calls us his children, who gives us a new identity.
"Where did this guy come from? Who is this guy, anyway?" We may, and do, often say the same thing of ourselves. "Who am I? I'm a nobody. I do not matter. I have no worth." Indeed, many of our attempts to be somebody come out of our feelings that we are nobodies. Our attempts to impress come out of our feelings that we are not very impressive. Our desire for praise comes from our never having been blessed. Our desire for power comes from our feelings of weakness and vulnerability. On an individual level we may do many foolish and counterproductive things because in an effort to escape the nobody-ness we feel. And on a national level, a people may engage in all kinds of massive destruction, working out their fears and flaws on a global scale.
And that remains our identity -- unless and until we experience ourselves embraced by God, declared to be his children, loved. That's when we find out who we really are -- and begin to live out of that identity. Until then religion remains just a matter of doctrines we ought to believe, commands we ought to obey, but which we can never really get into -- because we do not yet know who we are.
Whether Jesus always knew, or didn't know till that point, John the Baptist's preaching was the trigger that activated him. And Jesus is the trigger that activates us.
That's why Mark tells this story. That's why we keep on telling this story.
So: who are you that you don't know you are?