|Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem|
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Last summer when Lori and I were on our pilgrimage to the Holy Land, we began to notice a common theme everywhere we went, and it was not just about the Bible.
It was about the decorations.
Everywhere we went, from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, from Nazareth to Galilee – every holy site was embellished with icons, statues, shrines, candles, and brass bric-a-brac of all sorts.
And on top of every holy place was a massive church, and layer upon layer of ruins of other churches that had been on the same site over the centuries. Every time one was destroyed, another was built in its place.
|Shrine on the exact spot where it is said |
Jesus' was born.
Church of the Navity, Bethlehem
All of these shrines were built, layer upon layer, century upon century, to worship God and glorify Jesus as a majestic king like that described in the Old Testament lesson today from 1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20.
There is nothing wrong with that, but we had to mentally peel back the layers to imagine what each place might have looked like when Jesus walked the earth.
It struck me that the same people who built all of these glorious edifices also knit together the collection of letters and documents that became the Christian New Testament.
And rather than sift facts for accuracy as modern people might, the writers of the New Testament did just as they had done with the holy shrines – they added layers and layers of textual adornment to worship God and glorify Jesus as a majestic king.
The layers are sometimes so thick that the first century Jew we know as Jesus almost fades into oblivion.
Almost, but not quite.
Today we get a remarkable window underneath the layers of text to see the reality of Jesus.
This window comes in the Gospel of Mark, which scholars almost unanimously agree was the first written account of the life of Jesus.
At the very end of this passage today, we hear a story you might overlook – a story about how his family is very, very worried about him.
It is important to note that in the Gospel Mark there is no Christmas story, no Virgin Mary, no Wise Men, no manger or shepherds in the field – no ornaments hanging from the chandeliers.
|The Temptations of Christ in the desert, |
12th-century mosaic at St Mark's Basilica, Venice
We know this man as Jesus, which is a mangling of his real name thanks to bad biblical translations over the centuries.
His mother knew him by the name she had given him, the common Jewish name Joshua, or Ye-sou, and so that is what I will call him this morning: Joshua.
We also get a glimpse today of his mother. She also had a common Jewish name: Miriam, and that is what I will call her this morning. There is no mention of her husband in this account, so we can safely assume that by the time we meet her, she is a widow.
Another gospel writer, Luke, tells us he had run away from home as young boy; and then, as all of the gospels tell us, as a young man he disappeared into the desert on a religious quest. Joshua was not much older than an adolescent when he disappeared.
Joshua was not an easy child.
Chances are he disappeared not just for the 40 days of Hebrew symbolism, but probably for many months – even years.
Now he is back in his home territory as a faith healer and teaching people with riddles called “parables.”
He is different, and everyone notices. There is a spark in him. He dazzles people, and when people touched him, they feel connected to the Holy in a way they had never felt before, and many feel miraculously healed of all that hurts and harms them.
Yet there are rumors that Joshua has lost his mind, that he is crazy, unhinged. The local religious authorities are nervous, and spreading rumors that he is possessed by a demon – and so Miriam and her family grow alarmed, very alarmed.
Even worse, Joshua attracts crowds, and crowds attract Romans, and that terrifies Miriam. The Romans are of the opinion that any large gathering can turn insurrectionary at any moment, and the Romans do not take kindly to that sort of thing.
So Miriam takes her other sons and daughters to find Joshua and plead with him to come home – and yes, as the gospel tell us, she had more children than just this one.
But Joshua won’t go home. He tells the crowds that he is already home, and that they are his mother and brother and sisters.
He now belongs entirely to them.
In that moment, he casts off all the family and social conventions that had previously defined him.
“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” he declares.
We do not know how Miriam and her sons took this rebuke – and it was a rebuke – but probably not well. We know that as the story unfolds, they will be there with him at the end, at his death on the Cross. In time, they will come to understand this wayward prodigal son.
But we are not at the end of the story; we are only still at the beginning, at this crucial moment when the story becomes about us.
Joshua, the One we know as Jesus, is willing to proclaim that tribal loyalties, family ties, nationality, and politics as usual, are as nothing compared with the divine bond that connects him to every human being. He now belongs to all of humanity, and all humanity to him.
What did these first followers sense in him? He was someone who stood on the “border of the holy,” as author Bill Countryman would put it, standing in that space between the divine and the earthly.
The Celts talk about “thin places” between this world and the next. Jesus was the embodiment – the enfleshment if you will – of that thin place.
This experience of him so seared the souls of those who followed him that they began feel the fullness of God in themselves. They began to understand who God had created them to be – servants of this hurting world, servants of each other.
They would talk of what they experienced with him so often, and with so many others, that multiple versions of these events would gain currency before they were written down.
These first followers discovered that after his death he was still with them, changed, different, new, but still the One they recognized as Jesus.
And he still claimed them as his brothers and sisters.
To stand with him took courage. Not everyone got it, and, truthfully, none of us fully gets it.
In all candor, following Jesus is not always easy. Following will take us to moments that challenge our view of things, our actions in the world, our tribal loyalties, our comfortable ways.
The path of Jesus is not the conventional or convenient social path.
But when we walk this path together, when we risk opening ourselves to the unexpected, to the surprising – the Holy – we will find ourselves standing at the very gates of eternity.
And we will discover the fullness of God in ourselves, and who God created us to be – servants of this hurting world, servants of each other – brothers and sisters with the Risen Christ who is not just in the heavens, but here on earth, and with us always. AMEN.
By James Richardson, Fiat Lux