Sunday, February 1, 2015

Astounding Authority

Astounding Authority from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.



Deuteronomy 18:15-20 (218)
15The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. 16This is what you requested of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the LORD my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” 17Then the LORD replied to me: “they are right in what they have said. 18I will raise you up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. 19anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 20But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak - that prophet shall die.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Mark 1:21-28 (43)
21They 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.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him 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.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

For Mark, evil is a historical reality, and it's personified in demons and unclean spirits. Now that's a little outside most of our experience, few if any of us have encountered someone with an unclean spirit. It's an exotic part of the Gospel of Mark, and our God-given curiosity draws us to it. We want to know more details about this "unclean spirit:" where did it come from? was it really something supernatural or was it just a mental illness?

I don’t know how helpful those questions really are. I think they only help us to diagnose this man in the synagogue. Understanding what the unclean spirit “really” was gives us an excuse to push him farther away from ourselves. It gives us an out to not be changed by the teaching of Christ, because we’re too busy trying to translate this unclean spirit concept into what we want it to be.

A couple of weeks ago, the youth got together to learn about Christology - that is, theology about Jesus. I posted various pictures of Jesus around the room and had them each choose their favorite. Naturally they didn't have camera phones or Polaroids in the New Testament, so each image was an artist's rending of what they though Jesus may have looked like.

One of the images was an image of Jesus wearing boxing gloves and squaring off against an obvious devil figure. Presumably they were fighting over our souls or something. It's easy, I think, to get caught up in watching the cosmic struggle between God and the powers of evil. That's partly because that image makes us spectators, with nothing required of us but to cheer when our guy is winning.

But the kingdom of God is much more than just stadium seating. Christ's authority cannot be contained in a ring. Christ's humanity means that all of human life is claimed by God, and humanity is expected to respond in faith, to live as ones who are saved by God. When the forces of evil do show up, it's important to recognize that "the New Testament does not show direct interest in these forces in themselves. Its interest is in the clash between Jesus and these powers, and the victory of Jesus when the confrontations take place." The forces of evil are not the focus of the Gospel, Jesus's actions in our world, in our lives, are the center. So as we tell how Christ is active in our history and in our lives right now, it’s up to us to keep the focus on Christ, and on how we respond to Christ’s teachings, both in word and action.

Right now, Mark is telling the story. He tells it from his perspective, focusing on how, through Jesus, the kingdom of God breaks into the world around him. What he sees in the world around him is evil, personified in demons and unclean spirits. God’s good news is both words and action, and the actions oppose the evil mark sees in the world around him.

By the time the unclean spirit speaks through this man, Jesus has already amazed people in the synagogue with his teaching. He’s arrived on the scene, as we read in last Sunday’s gospel lesson, with a compelling message that the Kingdom of God is at hand. He steps into the synagogue and begins to teach, and the people were “were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Jesus is obviously teaching on a different level than the scribes. 

Just look at the way this possessed man challenges Jesus: “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.”

It’s into this setting that the man with an unclean spirit steps, corrupting individuals and destabilizing the same communities Jesus is redeeming. The unclean spirit invades Jesus’s teaching with his cries of “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.” At first read-through, I thought the “us” to which the unclean spirit refers was the host of evil forces against which Jesus is confronted during his ministry. But the more I read, the more convinced I became that this unclean spirit was referring to the congregation.

The man with the unclean spirit is trying to sabotage Jesus’s ministry. He’s trying to destabilize this community of faith by undermining Jesus’s astounding new teaching. “What have you to do with [these people], Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy [this synagogue]? I know who you are, the Holy One of God!”

For the disciplined among us, it would be tempting to just point to the man and tell him to get out. That his actions were inappropriate for a worship space and he was not welcome there until he could act right. For the rational among us, it would be tempting to try to reason with and correct him, saying that no, Jesus’s teaching that the Kingdom of God is at hand are not the end of God’s people, but a transformation of them. For the patient and non-confrontational among us, it would be tempting to roll our eyes and ignore him until he went away.

Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God, takes a different action. He carries his lesson from the wordy discussion of synagogues to an action, intervening in the life of this man with an unclean spirit. This man is more than his affliction to Jesus, he’s a child of God, and his place is in the synagogue, worshipping with the community. But he is trapped by this unclean spirit, which dominates him and forcibly speaks through his mouth. ”Jesus’s gospel is a healing word and action. The Jesus of Mark's gospel has offered, inside the very synagogue, his teaching of freedom, a word and act that heals the human being.” Jesus looks at the man with an unclean spirit and enacts his teaching of God’s kingdom with us, saying, “‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.” God’s good news is both word and action, and Jesus brings both to the people he meets in Mark’s Gospel with an authority that leaves them astounded.

If at the word and action of Jesus, unclean spirits are compelled to act, how much more, then, are we, his disciples, compelled to act? We are astounded, to be sure, but rather than be paralyzed with shock, God calls us to enact our amazement by responding in faith to Christ’s teaching about the good news of God.

God’s good news is both words and action. Which leaves us with the question: how can we do faith in the same sense as Jesus does his teaching? I’ve not met enough people with unclean spirits to try my hand at exorcisms, and I don’t have the same kind of authority as Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God.

But we do have the Holy Spirit, who guides our every action. We do have our experience of God-With-Us in our lives. We do have our own testimony of what Christ means to us. We do have the opportunity to share love with one another in both words and actions.

We can build up the kingdom of God, which is already at hand, in so many ways. God’s good news is both words and action, so we can proclaim God’s glory by what we do and what we say. Worship attendance is a great way to enact God’s call on us. You’re all already here, so good job there. 

On this Souper Bowl Sunday we can share God’s good news by reaching out to those in need, knowing that God reaches us in our need as well. We contribute financially to the church and its missions and we bring food to the hungry through the Lowell Food Bank.

We can spread God’s Word by growing as a community of faith, bearing one another’s burdens through prayer and sharing meals with someone who might be struggling or lonely. We can show the world that this is a tightly knit community of faith, even in the face of potential division, our love for one another reaches across aisles, between pews, and around tables.

We can live the good news of God by changing our hearts and lives, and choosing to see a beloved child of God where others might only see an unclean spirit. We can connect with those who are not like us, or who look broken, because we too, were once broken and now God is reforming us day by day until we are whole again in Christ.

Jesus teaches as one with authority, and his message is that the time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand. He embodies the arrival of God’s kingdom, and its fulfillment will not be understood until he reaches the crucifixion and resurrection. Until then, we have his teaching, both with his words and his action. He sets us free and restores us to who God has created us to be.

We all have a little bit of the man with the unclean spirit in us. ”We must trust and believe that Jesus has come not to destroy us but to restore, heal, and save, so that we may obey his loving authority. God’s good news is both word and action, and whatever picture of Christ we may have in our heads, we know that he comes as the redeemer. He comes as the Holy one of God. He comes to restore us to ourselves, and to God. He comes with authority to call us to action.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Unity (Dialogue Sermon with Rev. James Holeman)



John 13:31-35
31When Judas was gone, Jesus said, "Now the Human One has been glorified, and  God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify  the Human One in himself and will glorify him immediately. 33Little children, I'm with you for a little while longer. You will look for me--but, just as I  told the Jewish leaders, I also tell you now--'Where I'm going, you can't come.' 34"I give  you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must  love each other. 35This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other."

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Philippians 2:1-13
1Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in  the Spirit, any sympathy, 2complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same  love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3Don't do anything for selfish purposes but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. 5Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

6Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. 7But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human  beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, 8he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, 10so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

12Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his  good purposes.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

Both: The Church does not always speak with one voice.

Joseph: There’s a measure of the absurd in what we’re doing.

James:  We have been tasked by GAP to use a passage and give a sermon on “Unity.” 

Joseph: We’ve been partnered together because of how much we are alike

James: We’re both young pastors (in Presbyterian terms that means we’re under 50).

Joseph: But James and I are by no means interchangeable. 

James: For example…

Joseph: I grew up in the 90’s, 

James: Child of 80’s. 

Joseph: East Coast,

James: West Coast

Joseph: Southern 

James: Northwest, 

Joseph: Bow ties are cool. 

James: thinks it’s hilarious that he likes bow ties, Joseph and I are not unified, and the items we are voting on in Presbytery today highlight how un-unified we are as a denomination….”

Joseph: We are voting on some tough things later today. We each have come to this meeting with our own biases. I have every confidence that those biases are drawn first and foremost from a place of faith, rooted in scripture, and abounding in love of God and neighbor. 

James: None of us are here to ruin the church. We are not, however, of one mind with regard to what God’s will looks like.

Joseph: We are here to discern God’s will for our Presbytery. We are not unbiased, we all have a specific mind of what it means to build up the Body of Christ.

James: Today’s passage, particularly verses 3 and 4 remind us just how hard it is for us to actually be humble in our motives. In the NIV the verses read: “3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

“In humility value others above yourselves…” For us to really be united we need humility. We need to choose our sisters and brothers in Christ before ourselves. Eugene Peterson in the Message puts it like this- “Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead.” AND “Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.”

Joseph: The easiest way to get to unity would be to foster some sort of spiritual copy and paste. Wouldn't it be great if everybody thought and acted just like me? Then we could all be correct together! If we want unity, then everyone can just change to be exactly like me!

Doing things the easy way, where everyone else changes, is an exercise in selfishness. Choosing humility enacts our much more difficult calling to love one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We struggle to “[not] do anything for selfish purposes but with humility think of others as better than yourselves.”

By we, I mean me. 

James: Me too! Choosing humility… easier said than done right? My guess is a lot of people came to today’s Presbytery meeting a lot like me. In some of the controversial areas we are voting on later today (like Marriage), we may not be sure how the vote will go. But we are fairly convinced that during the discussion at least one person will be right most of the time. ourselves….

Joseph: My guess is that very few of us are willing to have our minds changed as we discuss those controversial issues. It’s rare to come in with one bias and to leave with another.

James: But how many of us are coming to this meeting ready to vote against our own conscience, because we feel led by God to put the interests of others… unity first? How many of us have even had a conversation with God about that as a possibility?

Joseph: Verses 3 and 4 challenge us. "Don't do anything for selfish purposes but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others." Ultimately, the problem is that we are too selfish to accomplish unity by ourselves.

James:  All it takes is looking at verses 5-11 to see how far Paul is challenging us to go in terms in humility. Jesus… JESUS… is the example Paul is calling us to follow. Jesus who was in heaven, glorified with God and the Spirit… choosing to empty himself to come to our mess of a world. And then choosing to allow himself to die by cross… understood at the time to be the absolute most degrading, demeaning, terrible way to die… and Jesus does it all for others… for you and me. He goes from the ABSOLUTE highest place you can imagine- to the ABSOLUTE lowest one for us. That’s the kind of humility we are called to have.

And I don’t know about you. But when I use that mirror (Christ) to examine my own motives on just about anything, I have to admit that I come up severely lacking. Even when I am at my best- I am not sure that my motives are completely pure. 

Joseph: We’ve got to use Christ as a mirror to examine our own our motives, even when we know we’ll come up short. God’s love and Christ’s saving actions on our behalf are the foundation of Christian Identity. We Presbyterians have long affirmed that we are not our own, that we belong to God. But sometimes we forget who we are, and act out of our selfish nature. We lose sight of the Christ-centered purpose Paul lifts up for us, and fall victim to our own impure motives. Then we try and justify ourselves, and the mental gymnastics begin. We selfishly look for the right reason for having done the wrong thing.

When I was in Seminary, I recall looking around at my fellow students and judging them: “Really? You think God called you to ministry?” I told myself that I was focused on the health of the Church, that we as a denomination need strong leaders and preachers to reclaim our identity as the Body of Christ. “Really? you think God called you to ministry?”

One day, as I sat in judgement over my fellow seminarians, a thought occurred to me as through the Holy Spirit had whispered it in my ear. “You know that some of them would say the same thing about you right?” I had set myself up as judge over what a true call to ministry looked like, and told myself I had the best interests of the Church at heart. But my selfish nature had taken my right reasons and accomplished a wrong deed with them. Selfishness can be finding the right reason for doing the wrong thing.

James: But that is not all- selfishness can also be doing the right thing for wrong reason.

Doing the right thing for the wrong reason… for myself this can be best described as those moments when I look at the choice I’m making and notice all the conjunctions… the “ands” that are a part of the decision….

Yes I want to come alongside and comfort my friend who’s grieving in this restaurant with me. I feel bad for them and help them AND look at how other people in this restaurant are looking at us AND I’m sure my friend is embarrassed she is making a scene AND isn’t this an inappropriate place for this…

Joseph: Someone asks me for cash. Of course I want to help them out, that’s the proper Christian response. AND I also have other things to do, AND I’m getting kind of a weird feeling from them.

James: So It’s time for me to visit some of my congregation members. It will be great to see how they are doing and help them feel cared and loved AND it’s been a while since I’ve done this AND I don’t want anyone to critique me AND wouldn’t it be great if the congregation REALLY noticed how much time I put into caring for them AND

Joseph: Pastor’s and church members alike, we’re all a mess. We do the right thing for the wrong reasons, we find righteous reasons for doing the wrong thing. We forget our Christian identity as servants of God and instead try and puff ourselves up, choosing arrogance over humility because we’ve forgotten who we are, and whose we are.

James: It seems we need to face facts. Humility and therefore unity are unachievable goals for us as humans. That’s what makes verse 13 SO INCREDIBLE…. SUCH GOOD NEWS!!  “God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his  good purposes.” We can’t do humility and unity alone. But we are reminded that God is at work in us anyway. That God desires to give us the willingness, and energy, and ability to work outside our selfish nature. 

Joseph: Our nature, depraved, sinful, and selfish, is repurposed into our Christian identity only through the intervention of the LORD. "God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes." God's claim on our identity leads us right back to the beginning of the passage. God's presence and work in us and through us turn "ifs" into assurances. "Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ," and there is, 

James: ”any comfort in love," and there is

Joseph: ”any sharing in the Spirit," and there is, 

James:”any sympathy," and there is.

Joseph:Our selfish nature does not rule our Christian Identity, God does. God has already taken care of our redemption, so we don't need to hold on to selfishness. God is already holding on to us. All of us, even the ones who disagree with us when the church does not speak with one voice.

James: The unity, described in verses 1 and 2 are NOT humanly possible. It only happens if and when we allow God in…  to mold us in a way completely contrary to our sinful/selfish nature. And if you are like me, we need to allow God into our hearts to do this work over and over and over and over and over again.

Joseph: Allowing God into our hearts over and over again does doesn't solve all our problems. Unity based on our Christian identity always leads to the cross, because it doesn't make sense in a world so shaped by selfishness. But it's not our problems or division that define us: God's love defines us. Unity through humility and Christian identity doesn't erase all our problems, it's a living testimony that even though we go to the cross, we go there because we are united by Christ's love for us, and our love for one another.

James: If we're not letting God help us to choose humility and unity, it's just lip-service. Our "Love one another" becomes just a farce.

Joseph: So let's come together to "carry out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling." We know that we do not save ourselves through selfishness, we are saved by God's mighty hand. Let's act like we believe it, and carry that truth out into the world, knowing that God's salvation is stronger than our fear, stronger than our trembling, stronger than our selfishness, stronger than our disunity. Let's claim our Christian identity and show the world that even if we are going to the cross, we are going there united in Christ. "God is the one who enables [us] both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.”

James: Our Identity is centered around Christ, who ”humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Our unity is grounded in what God has done for us. When we fall victim to the disunity of our selfish nature, we are not being who God has created us to be, who God has called us to become.

Both: The church does not always speak with one voice.

James: And we don’t always agree with one another.

Joseph: Sometimes we’re selfish

James: Sometimes we forget humility.

Joseph: Yet God works through us anyway.

James: God keeps us united anyway.

Joseph: Therefore, we come together, diverse, disagreeing, and drenched in grace.

James: Around one table.

Joseph: In remembrance of Christ

James: To proclaim with one voice


Both: Jesus Christ is Lord. Alleluia, Amen.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Time is Fulfilled



Psalm 62:5-12
5For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.
6He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
7On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge in God.

8Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. Selah
9Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath.
10Put no confidence in extortion, and set no vain hope on robbery; if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.

11Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God,
12And steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord. For you repay to all according to their work.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Mark 1:14-20
14Now 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.”

16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea - 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. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

I’ve heard this passage, and the corresponding texts in the other gospels, preached a number of times. Each time the focus has been on the calling of the disciples. Either they had enough faith to drop what they were doing, and we should be like them, or that there must have been something special about our God to just make them abandon their obligations to join this man Jesus on his journey. We’re even left with a somewhat comical image of Zebedee looking around for his sons after they’ve seemingly disappeared. But the focus for me is on verses fourteen and fifteen, which set the pattern for the rest of Mark’s gospel.

Mark’s gospel is filled with “immediately,” and everything happens quickly after the preceding event. Mark only has time for the most important stuff, and chooses to start with this man John, who is out baptizing, using the same words as our call to worship this morning: “Prepare the way for the Lord;” And here we are, with ten verses in between, and this seemingly central character we’ve been introduced to has been arrested.

There’s no fanfare here, no story about how Herod had him arrested so he could later be executed, no account of why, he just disappears. Because this isn’t the Good News of John the Baptist, it’s the good news of Jesus Christ. John is not the story, he prophesied about the story that was coming. And Jesus is in Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.

The Common English Bible, which is currently my favorite translation, has three exclamation points in verse 15 of our Mark passage. It reads “Now is the time! Here come’s God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” These words are not just a call to action, they’re not something to sleepily read in a morning devotion, Haven’t you heard? Jesus is on the move!

We live in a world where our churches are in decline, and some are even dying. But we also live in a world that is waiting to hear God’s voice. In everything we do, if we are not acting out God’s voice, we’re just performing a party trick. Our accomplishments may impress us, and it is indeed easy to put our trust in visible touchable things. But the psalmist tells us that they’re just empty air. For God alone is our rock and our salvation, and we shall not be shaken. Like the old hymn says, You can have the whole world, just give me Jesus. You can keep your securities, your mutual funds, your fishing nets that I’ll just have to end up mending, all I want is a God who is my refuge, a God who is worth waiting for. Just give me Jesus. The psalmist says “Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath.” Our world has so little that we can really know. But I know Jesus is the truth, and Jesus is on the move.

We’re in a world that sometimes is spinning out of control and other times is mired in a mess that we can’t break ourselves out of. But the thing we can hang all of our faith on is God, who is our rock, our salvation, our fortress. In a world that we don’t understand, Just give me Jesus, because I know that God is a refuge for us, but it’s not a refuge where we can just sit around, waiting to be picked up by our heavenly mother to take us home. All that time spent waiting, and we know it’s worth for, and now the time is fulfilled, Because Jesus is on the move.

Jesus is moving from the wilderness to Promised Land, crossing the river Jordan into Galilee, and then Jesus will move to Jerusalem, the seat of the promised land. But the promised land is a shadow of the promise that is embodied by God-With-Us. The time is fulfilled in Jesus, the Christ, the source of all our hope. And Jesus is on the move.

He’s moving in new church developments, and in century old churches bringing new life into communities that all reason says we should just abandon. He’s moving in our communities, bringing us together over a meal, or helping us to clean fallen limbs out of our yard after a storm. He’s moving through peacemakers and warriors, even though they do not understand one another, Jesus is moving in both of them, acting in love so that neither peace nor war will need to be made. Jesus is moving through a world that is waiting for the time when it will be redeemed from it’s fallen state. Jesus is on the move, proclaiming the good news of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand.” It’s not some far off dream, it’s not a day to await, it’s already here, happening all around us. So come, Jesus says, “Follow me.” Leave behind what you know, what you have resigned yourself to, because I’m on the move, and even though you have no idea what it will look like, in following me you will be transformed. You can stay stagnant, but Jesus is on the move.

My first year in Seminary, I was met outside the chapel door by a Korean artist and worship leader. Right before we entered he addressed all of us who would be worshipping that day saying that we were required to participate in worship, and that none of us would be permitted to spectate. For me, it was a wake-up call. How many times had I attended worship and merely watched Jesus move past me. You have the option to stay stagnant and spectating, but Jesus is on the move.

So here we are, the church, in the world but not of the world. We are the body of Christ, we are the face and hands and feet of Jesus. And we have long thought that we could expect our church to grow without really working at it. We could just wait for the time when our pews would be filled like they once were, when we couldn’t get that new building fast enough. When we would prepare ourselves to be disciples with pulpit lectures and passed plates. Then when the day of the Lord came we would be swept up like the faithful church mice we were. 

Our task was to prepare the way of the Lord, and to make his paths straight. John’s message is one of preparation. But it’s too late to prepare, because the one for whom we were preparing has arrived. The Time is fulfilled because Jesus is on the scene, and Jesus is on the move. With Jesus on the move, we cannot expect to keep up just by being passive. The time is fulfilled, Jesus is on the move, and wants us to go with him.

We are the body of Christ, and we are part of a movement. We are not individuals taking a stand, we are not waiting for the Day of the Lord foretold by the prophets. At least I hope not. Because this is not the good news of John the Baptist, it’s the Good News of Jesus Christ. Because if the church is just waiting for the world to change, it’s going to pass us by. The Psalmist speaks to this, “For God alone my soul waits in silence.” We’re not supposed to wait for the world to accommodate us, we’re supposed to wait for God. With Jesus on the scene proclaiming that the kingdom is at hand, we no longer have to wait for God. John pointed to what was coming, but now The time is fulfilled. God-with-us is on the move.

Columbia Seminary has a January term where one takes a single course and does nothing but that for the month of January. So the professor’s have to pack a semester’s worth of information into about three weeks. In the middle of the three year program, students are required to take a class where they explore an alternative context. Some folks travel to Easter Europe to experience Orthodox Christianity, others explore the way Christianity has grown and changed on the Caribbean Islands. The course I took was Transformational Church and Urban Ministry in Atlanta. Growing up out in the country in Burke County, urban ministry was a totally different world for me. Over the three weeks of that class, we looked at various different models for what a church can look like and still be a church. Because the world is changing around us and traditional models don’t speak to everyone.

One church met in a storefront and had a coffee shop built in, had a professional jazz band and didn’t do any congregation singing. They had a community garden out back, and their nursery was almost always empty because the children wanted to be in the main worship space.

Another church was renting an auditorium from a local elementary school, kept everything they used in worship in boxes to be unpacked before every worship service, and then moved it all back out at the end of the day. They broadcast each of their three worship services live over the internet, and had a surprisingly large group of members who lived in Romania. Their Associate Pastor for Online Ministry handled most of the technical stuff, and also keep the conversation going long after worship ended.

Another church met in an old church building, which they shared with a couple of other worshipping communities. The old church had died out, but left its building in trust so that other communities would have access to a traditional sanctuary, even if they could only afford to rent the site one day a week. The three newer congregations that used the building split the rent between one another, and each used it at a different time on Sunday, and used it as a base of operations for mission and outreach on a different day during the week.

In studying the various contemporary church models, I have come to the conclusion that there is only one “right way” to do church: and that is as faithfully as possible. Whatever model we use now and in the future, so long as we act in faith, our offering is pleasing to God. We can’t stand still just because we’re afraid of what might happen, as Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote in his book Lament for a Son, “Faith is a footbridge that you don’t know will hold you up over the chasm until you’re forced to walk out onto it.” But we have to walk out over the chasm, because that’s where Jesus is, and Jesus is on the move. So we must step out of our fishing boats and follow wherever our God calls us, because power and steadfast love belong to our Lord. Even when it is scary, and it will be. But when we step onto that bridge of faith, we are one step closer to a God who is too loving and powerful to just stand still, but is always active in our lives, even when we aren’t active ourselves.


Jesus is on the move, and the gospel message isn’t passive, it’s an urgent message to the people of God that we are no longer enslaved to sin and death. We have been purchased by God, and although on our own we are only a breath, God says we are valuable enough that God moves through us even in our brokenness, for no other reason than God loves us. I’m not sure what it will look like to fish for people, but I want to be on the move with the God who loves us all that much.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Before we Know it.


Before We Know It from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.


1 Samuel 3:1-10 (307)
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli, The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

2At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. 4Then the LORD called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6The LORD called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. 8The LORD called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy. 9therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

John 1:43-51 (112)
43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 

47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is an Israelite in whom there is not deceit!” 48Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened up and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

The most famous sermon in American history didn’t start out as a sermon, it started as a speech at a political rally. It began as a refusal to return to normalcy, a demand that normalcy change to a more righteous, and equal form. The speech looks to the promises of the past, lives in the reality of the present, and reaches towards the hope for the future.

Toward the end of the speech, someone from the crowd, a gospel singer named Mahalia Jackson, called out to the man on the podium and reminded him that he was not just a political speechwriter, but a preacher blessed with a prophetic voice.

“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”

Mahalia speaks: “Tell them about the dream Martin.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. forsakes his notes, and lets the dream speak for itself. The dream stands up and carries a nation forward because the people who heard about the dream dared to try and make it a reality.

Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’” We share a vision of a far-off hope, made near through Christ. Before we know it, we will see greater things than these.

Dr. King’s dream is still out there, parts of it have been realized, but we’re not all the way there yet. Racism and White Privilege still have a choke hold over many parts of our culture. All people are diminished while those injustices stand.

But we know that it will not stand forever. We share a vision of a far-off hope, made near through Christ. Before we know it, we will see greater things than these. We live in a World come of age, ready to take the step of putting Christ at the center of our life together, a world where suffering is replaced by redemption. Where despair is redeemed to amazement.

We share a vision of a far-off hope that even though the church’s walls may be crumbling, the foundation is strong, and God is rebuilding her so that she will glorify him and enjoy him forever.

We share a vision that even though the word of the LORD is rare in these days, and visions are not widespread, that our dim vision will be made light, because the lamp of God has not yet gone out in this world.

But it seems so far off. Our vision, like Eli’s, has grown dim. We struggle to see the promise of God through the fog of an anxious culture. We struggle to see the work God is already doing among us through the smoky haze of violence, burning around the world and chasing us back to our living rooms on the evening news. We struggle to remember the hope God has given us through the gloom of soul-emptying despair that threatens to take us.

But the hope we have is more than nebulous, more than wispy, more than misty. The gloom will not take us, the violence will not consume us, the fog will not overwhelm us. We share a vision of a far-off hope, made near through Christ. Before we know it, we will see greater things than these.

The hope that seems so far-off is brought near through Christ.

Two thousand years after the pivotal moment of human history, it’s obvious to us that Jesus is so much more than just a man from Nazareth. Those who lived and walked alongside the incarnate Word did not have have the advantage of our perspective.
"Jesus has presented no proclamation about the reign of God that could excite the imagination of Philip or anyone else. Philip has no evident reason to find Jesus to be remarkable.” Yet Philip does find himself amazed at the person who invites him to join the Gospel that is already written, but is still being spelled out.

“He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.” He sees something in this man called Jesus of Nazareth that compels him to do more than just follow, he has to find his friend Nathanael bring him along. Before he even known this man, he has to share, and he makes powerful claims about who this Jesus is.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

Jesus is a truly human man from Nazareth, on his way to Galilee. Philip is just a human from Bethsaida. If John’s Gospel goes out of its way to reveal these origins, it’s no wonder that Nathanael jumps to conclusions based on the neighborhood Jesus grew up in. “[John] presents most of Jesus's contemporaries as making he same mistake as did Nathanael in appraising Jesus and his message. They assumed that Jesus's origins could explain who he was.” But we know from the beginning of John’s Gospel that although Jesus’s human origins may begin in Nazareth, Christ’s origins as the Word of God go all the way back to the beginning.

Jesus Christ, the man from Nazareth who is also the Word made Flesh, brings us close to God, and brings the kingdom of God near to the people of God. "[Jesus is] the means by which human beings can have an authentic encounter with the divine.” The vision of far off hope, about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, is shown in the person and work of Christ Jesus.

We share a vision of a far-off hope, made near through Christ. Before we know it, we will see greater things than these.

Nathanael’s honest question about Jesus’s humble origins show that God does not require us to be great in order to work through us. God works in our lives before we can respond in faith. God called Samuel even before he knew the LORD, Jesus was creating in the world even before the world knew him. Philip saw that the law and the prophet’s pointed to Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.

Jesus reveals that he knew Nathanael even before Philip found him. “When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, ‘Here is an Israelite in whom there is not deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’” Perhaps a minor miracle, knowing someone’s heart before meeting them in person, not a big thing compared to raising the dead.

Nathanael responds to being known with praise, “Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’” "The overwhelming shock is that this person whose earthly origins can be identified, this Jesus, elicits a response appropriate to God.” Nathanael gives a testimony about the nature of this son of Joseph from Nazareth, he speaks of the far-off hope knowing that he’s standing right in front of him.

We share a vision of a far-off hope, made near through Christ. Before we know it, we will see greater things than these.

Jesus turns towards this response in faith, and promises that even greater things are coming.

Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened up and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’”

In that second part, from “Very truly” on, Jesus is talking to all of his followers, even us reading it today. A more southern translation might say, “Very truly, I tell y’all, y’all will see heaven opened up and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’” Or even more colloquially, “Really, y’all, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

I wonder how we will respond to that promise of hope? I wonder how we will answer God’s call to follow him, how we will extend the invitation to “Come and See.” I know that God works in our lives before we can respond in faith. I know we will answer God’s voice, calling in the night. I know that Christ has brought us close to God, and brought our hope close to us.


We share a vision of a far-off hope, made near through Christ. Before we know it, we will see greater things than these.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Fringe Benefits


Fringe Benefits from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.


Acts 19:1-7 (169)
1While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. 2he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied “New we have not even heard there is a Holy Spirit.” 3Then he said, “Into what were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s Baptism.” 4Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied - 7altogether there were about twelve of them.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Mark 1:4-11 (42)
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around is waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop to untie his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

A crowd begins to gather at the edge of town. You can hear the commotion long before you can see what's going on. Drawn out by the spectacle, you try and see what has started to happen, maybe it's the beginnings of a fight, maybe an especially talented street performer.

Instead, you're confronted by a voice crying out in the wilderness, declaring in the language of scripture that the day of The Lord is coming. This roaring prophet sounds the part, his voice carries over the whispers and murmurs of the assembled throng, firm and powerful with conviction, yet it also has a burned-out tone to it, a crunchy edge to his words brought on by too much shouting. It's a wild man from the wilderness, dressed in Camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, the way the great prophet Elijah is said to have dressed. This must be John the baptizer.

Rumor has it that he is spends so much time in the wilderness that he doesn't even have room in his diet for the many kinds of food available in the city. He has traded the comfort of civilized life, with the fruits and meats from all across the region, for insects and whatever wild honey he can find. John the baptizer lives by an unrelenting trust in what God gives him. You push through the edges of the crowd, finding room a few rows back from the prophet, surrounded by the excitement of a crowd that wants to hear God's word spoken anew.

At the town limits, on the banks of the Jordan river, at the edge of the wilderness, John tells the story of something amazing about to happen, the world is on the fringe of renewal, The Lord is coming. God is not stuck in the middle of a temple, or even bound by a particular community. God is free to come even to the fringes of the culture. ”He proclaimed, 'The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop to untie his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.'" God is free to share the benefits of grace with the poor and oppressed instead of the wealthy and powerful. God is free to change the world, starting at the Jordan river. It’s wild. It's weird. It's...strangely compelling...

So many of the folks in the center square were turned inward, only looking at what they could grab and hold for themselves: power, wealth, comfort, security. The folks in the center are too afraid to move because they might lose something, and they have so very much to lose. Every step comes with the question, "what will it cost?"

But here on the fringes with John the baptizer, we can see the benefits of a world made new, like the sunrise over the wilderness as it reflects off the water of the river Jordan, dancing over the ripples every time someone new is baptized. From the fringes, we can see the freedom of God, dismantling the status quo and continually creating and recreating in the world. ”Into the wilderness of our own broken lives and our own bleeding world erupts the promise of a baptism of new life.” John brings a promise that God is coming, that our sins can be cleansed, that we can turn away from self-centeredness and toward the fringes where we have the benefit of seeing what God is freely doing in the world.

But the one who is coming after John brings an even more promising future. “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan” The freedom of God is such that even absurd things, like joining sinners in baptism, is possible. The freedom of God is such that a promised future can be expanded, grace can be abundant, and the world can change.

John's Baptism is cleansing, but like everything else he does, Jesus's involvement adds to human experience by his participation. Baptism maintains its cleansing, but also becomes a claiming and a commissioning. John is the herald, Jesus is the Lord. Jesus’s baptism is not one of turning away from sin, but of turning toward his identity as the Son of God. "The cross reveals that the sonship declared at Jesus's baptism involves obedient suffering. This is evident in the baptism scene itself, for Jesus voluntarily joins the ranks of penitent sinners.”

The more promising future is ready to emerge, the kingdom of God is at hand! At the town limits, on the banks of the Jordan river, at the edge of the wilderness, something amazing happens. Jesus steps forward and is baptized, and the fringe of renewal expands, and takes us further out into the wilderness where we will meet God.

Yet Jesus, even before he takes a deep, dripping breath, on the fringe between the river and the ground, on the fringe between Jerusalem and the wilderness, finds that he has intersected another fringe. “Just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” God rends sky in Jesus’s view so that God can share this moment, this space, this affirmation, with Jesus. “and a voice came from heaven, “you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” A private moment of revelation, a private joy within the Triune God, a powerful intersection at the fringes between heaven and earth, earth and water, civilization and wilderness.

From the shore, all we can see is another one of John’s baptisms. We don’t know, living in Mark’s narrative of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, that the central event of human history is about to unfold. ”Jesus knows who he is by means of an experience that is not accessible to objective public verification. Others must discover this truth by listening to what Jesus says and by watching what he does.” God is also free to wait for human discernment, not every divine intervention is accompanied by angelic armies or thousands of conversion. God is free to act apart from humanity, sharing a moment with Jesus as the ongoing story moves towards a cruciform climax.

And yet God’s freedom also means inviting us to participate in building the kingdom, inviting us to be uncomfortable with a fallen world and to show that a redeemed life can impact that world, but we can’t participate in what God is doing on the fringes if we stay stuck in the safety of self-centeredness. God is free to move beyond our comfort zones, and the challenge of Christian discipleship is to follow, whether that leads us to the outskirts of town, or the river Jordan, or even into the wilderness of we-know-not-what.

John comes from the wilderness to offer Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus, immediately following his baptism, is driven out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps we are too eager to stay in the embrace of these walls and pews. Maybe we're too quick to come in from the wilderness, to come up from the water. I wonder, if we stayed a little longer, would we see the Holy Spirit too? Would we see the heavens torn apart and be forever changed by it?

If we stay in the center, we're not likely to find out what God is doing out on the fringes.

It's not just about God becoming a person, giving up cosmic, transcendent power, and taking on the dustiness of human life. There's also an empowering by the Holy Spirit. Jesus doesn't just take on sin and suffering, he also receives the power of the Holy Spirit and uses it to breathe life back into the human condition. "Baptism matters because we are who God says we are. The identity declared at baptism, however, is only a word until it is revealed with convincing power in the unfolding story of our life and death - and resurrection.” We join Jesus’s baptism so that we can follow him in his death, and in his resurrection. We are who God says we are, and God says we belong to God. We do not belong to ourselves or our own self-centeredness, we belong to God, who sets us free to follow Christ to the fringes. We are no longer concerned about our own benefit, but about responding in faith and gratitude to God.


We do not fear judgment, because we know God is gracious freely. We do not fear death, because Christ has given us life. We know the benefits of living on the fringes: that’s where we experience God.