Jesus will lead us home
Over the last few weeks we’ve been on a strange and amazing journey through the story of the birth of Jesus. We don’t think it’s strange and amazing, of course, because we’ve heard it so many times; we hear it every Christmas season, and we’re so familiar with it that we don’t even baulk. But it is strange, and it is amazing, and we need to hear it again as if for the first time and ask ourselves the question, ‘What does it all mean? What did God think he was doing?’
A young girl, perhaps only fourteen or fifteen, engaged to be married to a respectable village tradesman, has an unexpected visit from an angel. The angel tells her that even though she’s never slept with a man, she’s going to become pregnant and that the child she will bear will be holy, the Son of God, the one to whom God will give the throne of his ancestor David, and that he will rule forever. That was quite a message, and it’s not something that happens every day, is it? How often do you get an angel knocking on your door telling you that you’re going to be the parent of the Son of God?
But of course the Son of God needs two parents, and Mary’s fiancée might be forgiven for being rather skeptical when he hears the news that she’s pregnant without having slept with anyone, including himself! And so he gets a message from God in a dream, telling him that it’s okay, God did this, this child will be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy about a child called ‘Emmanuel’, God with us, and he is to name him ‘Jesus’ which means ‘God saves’, or ‘God to the rescue’.
But the scriptures say that the coming king of God’s people will be born in Bethlehem, where old King David came from, and Joseph and Mary live way up in the north in Nazareth in Galilee. But at the right time, a census is announced and everyone has to go to their ancestral family home to be registered. Joseph is descended from David of Bethlehem, so off he goes, with a nine-months-pregnant wife, not exactly wonderful timing, don’t you think? Wrong – the timing is perfect. While they’re in Bethlehem the baby is born, and so on his birth certificate, if they had had such a thing, would have appeared not only that he was descended from the family of old King David, but that he was born in David’s town too. Rather neatly arranged, don’t you think? Let no one say that God doesn’t have an eye for symbolism.
But we’re not done yet, and we haven’t seen an angel for at least a paragraph, so it’s time for a few more to appear. You’d think that God would send a birth announcement to the current king and leadership of Israel, telling them that their long-awaited deliverer had been born, but apparently God thinks shepherds are a more receptive audience! So he sends first one angel, and then a whole choir of them, to visit a group of shepherds on the hills outside Bethlehem, telling them that the Saviour, the Messiah, has been born and that his birth is good news for all people - including people who don’t normally get invited to royal birth celebrations – people like them, in fact. How will they know which baby is the right one? Because of the halo over his head or because ‘little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes?’ No, because he’s the only baby in Bethlehem that night sleeping in a feeding trough! A rather strange sign, but then the whole episode is strange, isn’t it? The Messiah, the king God had promised to send his people, born not in the corridors of power but with the ordinary working people. Apparently God’s idea of how you change the world is different from ours.
But God hasn’t finished inviting strangers. Apparently the holy family, as we call them now, stayed in Bethlehem for some time – long enough to move Jesus out of the manger and into the house with the relatives. In fact, it might have been as long as two years later when another group of strangers showed up in Bethlehem looking for the child born to be king of the Jews. They hadn’t had a dream or seen an angel – they’d seen an unusual star, and because they were astrologers, they interpreted it as being significant: it meant that a new king had been born for the Jewish people. But why would pagan astrologers be concerned about such a thing? Why would they go to all the effort to come on a long journey to find this king, bringing costly gifts with them? And when they saw him, obviously the child of a working family, not a royal household, why would they continue to believe that this was the one? Why would they prostrate themselves before him in allegiance to a king of a country not their own?
All very strange. And the strangeness isn’t finished yet; we’ve got more dreams coming. The wise men were warned in a dream not to go back to King Herod, so they returned to their own country by another way. King Herod was furious and sent death squads to murder all children under two in Bethlehem; he wasn’t going to have his throne threatened by an upstart claiming to be God’s anointed king! But again God sends a dream, this time to Joseph, warning him to escape, and so the holy family become refugees, going down to Egypt just like old Jacob and his family a thousand years or more ago. After the death of Herod another dream tells Joseph it’s safe to return, and so he comes back home again. He maybe thinks he should go back to Bethlehem if Jesus is to grow up to be the successor of David, but when they get there they find that Herod’s son is still ruling that area, so they go back to Galilee instead, and Jesus is brought up in Nazareth. The king doesn’t learn kingcraft in the royal courts of Herod; he learns it in the carpenter’s shop, working with Joseph. Very strange.
This is the story as we have celebrated it, and now it’s time for us to ask the sixty four million dollar question. My friend Harold Percy used to say that it might be helpful for us Anglicans to write a new liturgical response into our worship books; after we say the Creed, we should all then say together, ‘So what?’ In other words, ‘Why is this important? Why does it make a difference to us? Why are we still celebrating this story two thousand years later?’
In today’s gospel reading Mark wants to help us answer that question. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark doesn’t tell the story of the birth of Jesus; his Jesus strides onto the stage of history as an adult, showing up at the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist, appearing out of nowhere, as it were. But this doesn’t mean that Mark doesn’t root his story of Jesus in the past. Rather, he alludes to two Old Testament passages to help us answer the question, ‘So what?’
The first passage, strictly speaking, isn’t part of our gospel reading for today, which starts at Mark 1:4. But Mark didn’t start at verse 4; he started at verse 1, so I want to refer to this composite quote from the Old Testament that appears in verses 2 and 3:
“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’”.
The first half of this quotation actually comes from Malachi, not Isaiah, but the second part comes from the fortieth chapter of Isaiah. That part of Isaiah was written when God’s people were in exile in Babylon. About six hundred years before the time of Christ the Babylonian superpower had captured Jerusalem and destroyed it; many people had been killed and many more had been take away into exile in the land of Babylon, where they had lived for half a century or more. They interpreted this disaster as God’s judgement on their sins; they had been unfaithful to God, they had disobeyed his laws, they had worshipped other gods and committed acts of injustice against the poor and needy and so on. God had sent his prophets to call them to repent, but they had ignored them over and over again. So finally God had sent his judgement against them and had sent them off in exile as punishment for their sins.
But in the midst of their exile Isaiah spoke words of good news and encouragement to them. Listen to what he had to say:
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
“in the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken”. (Isaiah 40:1-5)
And a bit further on in the same passage:
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
See, the Lord GOD comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep. (Isaiah 40: 9-11)
What’s going on here? The people are in exile in Babylon, far away across the Arabian desert from Jerusalem, and they feel as if their God has abandoned them. But now God is coming back to them. He is going to lead them home from exile across the desert, like a shepherd leading his sheep, caring tenderly for the weak and the young along the way. And in fact, not many years after this prophecy was written, God did make it possible for his people to return from their exile to their old home in Jerusalem.
So why does Mark refer to this prophecy at the beginning of his ‘gospel’ – a word that means ‘good news’? Because he believes that there is a spiritual exile that we all experience. We all have a deep sense that somehow we’re not at home yet; as Bono sings, we ‘still haven’t found what we’re looking for’.
Most of you will know that I was not born in Canada; I am from another place! I love my adopted country and would not seriously consider leaving it, for a whole host of reasons. But every now and again I just find within myself this deep longing for the country of my birth. I feel like a stranger in a strange land, and I want to go home.
Now the interesting thing is this: even though I think this is a longing for England where I was born, it actually is not. How do I know this? I know it because when I go back and visit England, the longing is not satisfied. Things have changed, and people are just as weird there as they are here, and in a hundred and one ways every day there are reminders that this is a flawed country every bit as much as any other place. This is not the home I’m longing for.
This should not surprise me. The Christian message tells us that our longing for home will not be satisfied anywhere other than in the presence of God. And since we can’t find our way back to God by ourselves, the Father has sent his Son to live as one of us and to lead us home to God. That’s what’s going on in the Christmas story; God the Son has left the safety and security of ‘God’s space’ and invaded ‘our space’, to make it his space and to lead us home to God.
A bit later on in the book of Isaiah, the prophet ends a long lament about the sufferings of his people with this cry to God:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence –
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil –
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence! (Isaiah 64:1-2)
This is Mount Sinai the prophet is thinking about, when God came down on the mountain to give Moses the commandments, and there was fire and smoke and a shaking of the ground. “Do it again, God!” Isaiah pleads; “Let us know that you are with us, and confound our enemies while you’re about it!”
There was no fire or earthquake at the baptism of Jesus, but the heavens were torn open all the same.
And just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:10-11).
Again Mark is reminding his readers of Isaiah’s prophecies. You want someone to bring you out of exile into your true spiritual home? Jesus is the one who will do it. God has torn the heavens and come down; his Holy Spirit was given to Jesus, and his Holy Spirit is now given to all who follow Jesus.
And so there is no more division between ‘God’s space’ and ‘our space’. God has invaded our space and made it his space. God has come into the real world where tyrants murder little children and families have to run away to foreign countries as refugees – where parents earn their living by hard work and teach a trade to their children after them – where children are often misunderstood by their parents and grow up to be misunderstood by their friends too. God has come into that world, the real world, and he is determined to transform it. And he’s going to transform it by transforming the people in it – people like you and me.
Perhaps this morning you feel like the people Isaiah was writing for. Perhaps you have that sense deep inside that you’re in a sort of exile. ‘This place doesn’t really feel like my home; I haven’t really come home yet. I’m looking for something and I really don’t know what it is’. Perhaps you look around at all the awful things that are going on in the world and find yourself crying out, ‘God, why can’t you tear the heavens apart and come down – do something dramatic, for goodness’ sake! Save us!’
Mark wants you to know this morning that God has answered that prayer. God has come among us in Jesus to lead us to our true spiritual home in the presence of God. God’s Holy Spirit has come on Jesus, and Jesus has promised us the same gift. God will make his home in us, so that we can find our home in God. And Jesus is the one who has made it happen, by his coming among us as one of us. So let us follow him together, so that he can lead us home.