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7th January 2018 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
5 January 2018

Readings

Genesis1:1-5

A century ago the main concern in interpreting this passage was to reconcile it with the scientific discoveries of the time but more recently scholars have interpreted Genesis in terms of liberation theology, ecology and feminist theology.  Aotearoa New Zealand is not too small or too far away to belong to ‘the heavens and the earth’ so what we think and do is important.

Most people assume that only Chapters 1-2 deal with creation of the world and humanity but that is only the beginning and chapters 1 through to 11 portray creation, ‘not as an isolated act but as something continuing.’

It is the universal God that creates the heavens and earth, not the particular Hebrew God Yahweh and creation begins with the introduction of light, that allows choice and is repeated with the beginning of each new day and each new year.

Mark 1: 4-11

Mark begins his gospel three verses away from where this morning’s reading begins:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way;

the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. (Mark 1:1-3)

Preparing the way first appears in Exodus 23:20 where God will send an angel to prepare the way into the Promised Land.  This is echoed in Malachi 3:1 which is quoted by Mark and then the remainder of the quotation comes, as Mark says, from Isaiah 40:3.

Mark has told us that this is the beginning of the Good News or Gospel of Jesus.  He has told us that Jesus is the Christ, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Messiah and that he is the Son of God.  He then follows the Hebrew tradition of understanding the workings of God by retelling their salvation history.  God led the people of God into nationhood by sending a messenger ahead of them and the prophets, Isaiah and Malachi, predicted that the recreation of the nation would follow the same pattern.

Now as Jesus begins to build a new people of God so we would expect a messenger to go ahead and therefore the Elijah figure of John the Baptist arrives on stage where Elijah was swept upwards by the whirlwind.

Sermon

January 7th 2018 Genesis 1:1-5 Mark 1:4-11 We have recently worked through the Christmas story which is based on the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke.  However Mark is the Gospel for this year and Mark sees the beginning of the Jesus story, not at his birth but at his baptism by John the Baptist. 

Mark traces Jesus’ beginnings, not through his genealogy, but through his cultural and religious history.  Apart from demonstrating that there is nothing new about the debate of nature verses nurture this approach makes the point that the God revealed in Jesus is the God of creation from our Genesis reading.  More importantly for Mark’s time it stresses that he has not dreamed up a new god with a small ‘g’.  Jesus is the Christ or Messiah expected and predicted by the Hebrew tradition and his followers are an expansion of the people of God to include all people. Not just Jews. 

The pairing of the two readings this morning confirm our belief that the God of creation is indeed the God revealed in Jesus who is the promised Christ.  Mark has in fact packed today’s passage with allusions from Hebrew Scripture that reinforce the expectation of a messiah.

Probably all cultures have times when their expectations are not being met and they hope for some super-talented or spiritually-gifted someone to sort it out.  However when the religious culture of a particular ethnic group sees themselves as God’s chosen people, yet they get conquered and oppressed by more powerful nations, it is quite logical for their prophets to point to a future saviour.  Not just a combination of Captain America and Donald Trump but a divinely appointed descendant of all that was good in the mythic image of King David and the embodiment of their highly developed ethical code.

The Hebrew prophets contributed to this expectation as did the oppression they felt under Roman rule.  Certainly history has shown it would take a superhero and a band of heavenly warriors to defeat Rome.  But that was not what God sent. What Mark was explaining was that God had an entirely different plan and Jesus was part of that plan.

By the time of Jesus one of the features of the expected messiah was that Elijah would come to announce the arrival of the Messiah or Christ.  So Mark introduces John by making allusions to Elijah.

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. (Mark 1:6)   

If we go back to the second book of Kings we find that when the king sent messengers out to find a prophet who could tell if he would die from his wounds they returned with the news that he would die.  So the king demanded what sort of man told them this and they replied:

‘A hairy man with a leather belt around his waist’ and he (the king) replied ‘it is Elijah the Tishbite’. (2 Kings 1:8)

We perhaps should also remember from the story of Jacob and Esau that hairy clothing, a cloak or a mantel can make someone look like someone else.  Furthermore when Elijah was carried up to heaven in a whirlwind he passed his mantel on to Elisha. 

So here in the first chapter of Mark is John the Baptist in a hairy coat and leather belt wearing the mantel of Elijah by the Jordan where Elijah was whisked up to heaven. 

God is obviously at work in this scene.  Furthermore when John baptises Jesus the Holy Spirit comes down from heaven and rests on Jesus.  That was the wind from God that brought all things into being in our Genesis reading and the Spirit breath that brought life into the first human in the second creation story in Genesis two.  Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7) 

So out of the tradition we find in Hebrew scripture we see the life giving Spirit descending on Jesus at his baptism.  Luke will have that Spirit passed on to Jesus’ followers after the resurrection but Mark is content that we know that the Spirit descended upon Jesus and empowered him for mission.  Mark’s message is briefer and more direct than the other Gospels that built on his narrative.  Mark’s message is that the Spirit of the God of Hebrew tradition, the only true God who created the universe and all living things including humanity, sent that creative Spirit into Jesus to empower a new people of God.  More precisely Jesus’ mission was to re-empower all humanity, to fulfil their potential as the people of God they were created to be.  The God of Genesis created all humanity and Jesus’ ministry opened the possibility for all humanity to be God’s people, to live as the family of all humanity. 

The two readings focus on new beginnings which are pertinent for a new year and especially pertinent for this parish in a year which will see a change in ministry.  It is a scary time for me and people keep asking me what I am planning to do.  The unnerving truth is that I don’t know. 

However I remember the ministers in the Waikato Presbytery laying hands on me and praying that the Holy Spirit would empower me for ministry.  I reflected on that event at the time and concluded that my ordination, and indeed anybodies’ ordination, simply reaffirmed the presence of the Sprit for the ordinand and confirmed the presence of the Spirit for the particular Christian community concerned.  It is the Spirit that calls us into the church and the Spirit then calls us and empowers us in the different rolls we take in the church as well as the way we take our calling into the wider world.  Some of those changes are acknowledged by the Christian community through baptism, confirmation and for some, ordination.  But the Spirit has already inspired the changes and the various ceremonies confirm it for the individual and acknowledges it for the community. 

As a seeker of spiritual insight, I was called into the exploration of the Christian Faith by the Spirit and the action of others who were also Spirit lead.  By the Spirit and through prayer and genetics I was called out of Horowhenua College and into the photographic profession.  After several midlife cresses, prayer and the encouragement of others I was called into ordained ministry and then had to expend excessive energy on convincing my church that was so. 

Beginning with today’s reading that was what Mark was telling us about Jesus.  Jesus was part of a particular religious tradition that drew him to John the Baptist and there publically acknowledged and accepted the Spirit’s action in his life.  As a result the Spirit drove him into the wilderness to reflect on the temptations of his calling. 

I imagine that after the 29th of April I will find myself in a bit of a wilderness but a lifetime of guidance from the Holy Spirit reassures me that I will be called to something else.  As a liberal Christian I know that is unlikely to be a flash of light moment.  The way forward will be encouraged and cajoled through people that I know and events that happen around me.  Some have even given hints and made it clear what I am not to give up in retirement. 

Whatever happens I will recognise the Spirit’s guidance after it has happened. 

That is how I feel about the ministry in this parish and the journey we have made together.  It is with hindsight that we see the Spirit in what we have achieved together.   

When I came here I was told by the settlement board that the priority of the parish was to bring three churches together on one site.  I knew that would cause pain but we worked through it.  I also stuck with my faith that the church must regain its credibility in the community and that its values are essential for civilisation.  Those values cannot be passed to future generations by maintaining the status quo when the quo has lost its status.  In this time in the history of our church, growth is about staying where we are and we can’t do that without renewing our membership.  However I was called for five years with a possibility of another two, which we changed to five because of the new building.  But now I am a quo that is losing its status and the parish needs the Spirits leading and a new minister called by the Spirit, someone inspired with a new vision and new energy.  That need is not just to move forward in mission but to avoid losing what we have gained together. 

The journey of St. Albans Uniting over the past ten years has been a journey we have made together but it has also been part of a journey that began, according to Mark, at the baptism of Jesus.  But scripture tells us that it is also a much longer journey that began with the divine breath that breathed into emptiness and brought all things into being.

Faith has set us on a journey and this year faith and the Spirit’s leading will set us on new and continuing journeys.

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