"Mission of the Beloved" (Mark 1:4-15)

Mark Longhurst, January 7, 2018
Part of the Epiphany series
the scripture readings can be found at the bottom of the page

January 7, 2018
Mission of the Beloved, Sermon, Rev. Mark Longhurst

Scripture: Mark 1:4-15


God’s love is a love that moves (even on frigid days when we stay in). Divinity moves, flows, flies, like a dove, outward. This divine love concentrates, to be sure, in quantity and quality through individuals like Jesus, like you, full of Spirit, and yet we identify the character of God’s love by the sheer effusiveness of it all. The prodigal son’s father, in Luke, throwing a lavish feast for the undeserving son. Again, in Luke, the wedding feast in which a king throws open the royal banquet hall for the poor, the wounded, the blind, and the excluded. God’s declaration that after six days of world-creation, this life, this universe, is not only good; it is very good.

Just as Jesus comes up out of the water, having been baptized by camel hair-clothed John, the heavens tear apart, and the Spirit descends—like a dove—on him. At this moment, heaven and earth unite. The love that God is, and shares, from the very beginning erupts through time and space. Mark, this first gospel writer, a savvy collector of tales from oral tradition, is invoking apocalyptic visions of the end, the end when heaven will shake and stars will fall. At the same time, Mark is echoing the prophetic yearning of Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger of ahead of you,” or, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down.” Where is justice, where is peace, in this world?

Mark’s message is that the fullness of God is here. Spirit broods, or hovers, over waters in the beginning, and now here she is again, coming down, alighting upon this man, Jesus, and here she is again, luring even us to greater capacity of compassion and truth in a terrifying and truth-shredded time.

A voice speaks, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” That God would have a Son and call him the Beloved is the measure of God’s grace-filled effusiveness, it’s that lavish banqueting character, that extravagant generosity, the quality of love that does not keep love for itself, satisfied and full, but gives itself away, empties itself for the sake of another. Paul’s letter to the Philippians quotes an ancient Christian hymn, a hymn that sings about how God empties himself, and takes the form of human being. That God would have sons, and daughters, and more sons and more daughters, and a global church, and holy religious traditions not our own, and a radiant congregation in the Berkshires in a town called Williamstown, and call us Beloved, is the measure of God’s delight in us.

The Son of God is not all touchy-feely, however, it is also a messianic trope honoring the king. Psalm two is a possible coronation Psalm, a song Israel sang in its Temple as it crowned king such as the bloody but unforgettable King David. The ancient Psalmist writes in God’s voice, saying to Israel’s King, “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” And yet Mark’s messiah is not a dominating King that lords it over others, that risks war, nations, and earth in order to secure glory. Mark’s Messiah, the one in whom God delights, is a well-cultivated secret. A secret kept hush-hush to disciples and demons alike, a servant of love who heals, and feasts with the poor, and challenges entrenched power and eventually gives his own life as an example of the love that empties itself.

“You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” We all need to hear this beautiful proclamation of essential identity. Especially since we live in a world that fears self-giving vulnerability, that so often refuses intimate praise, that reduces identity to political check-boxes, it is utterly important that we hear this, and even more critical that we experience this. You are a beloved son, a beloved daughter of God. No cruelty, trauma, parenting failure, crisis or position can steal your identity from you. This is who you are: beloved. God’s love flows from heaven, rips through heaven, to communicate the truth of your soul.

Our identity as beloved sons, daughters is beautiful, breathtaking, even, which makes it all the more disastrous when we hoard love. It’s so enticing to think that we are the beloved, and they are not. We are the chosen people, and they are not. We liberal, conservative, Christian, Muslim, straight, queer, have the truth, they do not. You could even name this the central conflict of the Bible and of Christian identity; in theological terms it is called doctrine of election. God calls, chooses, elects Abraham, in Genesis, and says, “I will bless you, I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars…so that you will be a blessing to others.” The blessing moves, spreads, shares itself with others. The nature of this beloved identity is that it never stops at the chosen, it flows to the world. This is why the words “Christian” and “exclusive” do not belong together; they are, in fact, opposites.

Mark, the first gospel writer, knows this. His action-packed narrative is about God’s love, and realm, moving throughout first century Palestine. It has to start somewhere, why not in Galilee? In fact, Mark uses the Greek word euthys (you-thoos) for “immediately or at once” 41 times, and 11 times in this first chapter! The rest of the New Testament only used the word around 10 times. Verse 10 reads: “and just as, or immediately” as he was coming up from the water, he saw the heavens torn apart...And then the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness….And then, Jesus proclaims the good news of God’s kingdom, and then Simon and brother Andrew leave their nets immediately to follow him.” The love of God is immediate: it is on the go from heaven to earth, through Jesus, across boundaries of race, and culture, and religion, and sexuality, politics, welcoming others to God’s realm with unabashed joy.

The topic of church vision is on my heart these days. What is the vision of this church? What are the core values of this church? What are our organizational goals? How do we measure them? Where do we hope to be in five or ten years? And, what’s more: how do we continue to live out Jesus’ vision of the God’s realm, here, today? Statistics of mainline church decline are so depressing and repetitive that they don’t really interest me anymore. What I’m interested in, and what I believe God is interested in, is how will heaven’s love will flow to, move through us and throughout the world. How will we receive, and pass on this gift of being named Beloved?

Throughout the season, I’ll preach through the Epiphany lectionary passages and hold up areas of vision to us. This vision emerges from our shared work together, on a self-assessment in 2012, on a visioning retreat in 2016; and it also pours forth from my heart. I’ve taken the liberty to help summarize, and identify six different areas of vision for us to discuss, and discern, and strategize, and pray about, and dream into. They are printed in your bulletin, directly under the sermon title.

They are: Leadership Development: I believe we become more effective as a church the more we invest, grow, and develop our lay volunteers and staff to become leaders. Arts & Spirituality: I believe we are uniquely positioned in the culture-rich Berkshires to become a church known for its embrace of the intersection of the arts and spirituality. Deepening contemplative practice: I’ve heard from many of you that meditation, and the Christian mystical tradition is not simply a side interest of mine, but something that inspires your heart, too. What would it look for contemplation to take its root in our church?

Creative family ministries: How can we build upon our already creative family programs to reach even more people, to have that much more fun? Social Justice witness: I believe the times of moral crisis in our country require us to own our identity, and live our witness, as a progressive Christian church with more courage and action than ever. And Transformational Worship: what if we built into all of our hearts the expectation that something of God happens here, in this sanctuary, together, that changes us, that stirs us, and inspires us to become a little more loving?

God’s love for the Beloved flows from the heavens, to a dove, through an affirming voice, and this heaven-stamped identity lands on Jesus even while it lands on all of us. Yet identity in the Bible is always connected to mission. We discover our beloved nature as we draw near to the kingdom of heaven, which has itself drawn near. We find ourselves, and our time, fulfilled—not by what we have done, or the suicidal mess that the world makes of itself, but by what God always wants to do.

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Mark 1:4-15

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

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

12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (ESV)

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