Tuesday, September 9, 2014

New Humanity // The Beginning


sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 09/07/2014

video available at www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard
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[have monopoly board out – reflect on playing monopoly over labor day and vacationpretty good at it, but it kind of brings out the worst in me, stuff that’s been the shadow side of my strengths my whole life…]


We're starting a new message series today called "New Humanity." As summer comes to a close and a new season (and school year and all the rest) begins, it's a great chance for us to consider and embrace the good news that the living God has something profoundly new for each of us.  A new us, in fact. A new way of seeing the world. A new world arriving, right before our newly opened eyes. A new way of being in this new world. A new humanity.

Mark’s gospel (meaning “good news”) is the first of the four biblical accounts of the life of Jesus. Mark is understood to have been the travel companion and interpreter of the famous disciple, Peter, so we might think of Mark’s account as Peter’s.


1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah,, 2as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way”—

3“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,

‘Prepare the way for the Lord,

make straight paths for him.’ ”


4And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”


9At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

12At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.


I have to imagine that when we look around at ourselves and one another and this world in its brokenness, we would welcome some good news. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes we see heroism, and love, and beauty, and mercy and other good and hopeful things. But more of the time, we see the parts of ourselves and our world that are crumbling and painful. We see our failures, our anger, our shame, unworthiness, frustration, fears, and vulnerability. We catch ourselves doing exactly what we set out not to do, and then rationalizing it, even though we know deep down that we are lying to ourselves. We see people around us doing exactly what we know will only hurt themselves or others, sometimes oblivious, sometimes well-aware of the path they are on. We see people and families and groups and nations relating to one another in ways that spell pain and disaster. We see our natural world falling apart under the strain and violence it endures as a home to people like us, struggling to self-correct, groaning under the weight of our ravenous appetites and collective obesity.

For good news to be truly good news to this broken creation, and to us, it would have to be pretty flippin’ good news, indeed, wouldn’t it? And that’s what Mark, and Peter, and the others who were first-hand witnesses to Jesus are claiming.


The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah...


Anything sound familiar there at the start? The beginning is signaling something to us.  It's reminding of us of our first beginning - In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1) - and letting us know that we're about to be let in on some news about a new beginning.  Good news about nothing less than a new creation, a new humanity.  A new self with a new way of being in a new world coming with and in and through and around Jesus, made visible by his light.  A new human community with Jesus at its center.

And you may notice that the phrase “the beginning” isn’t the only connection to the book of Genesis and the first creation. Mark also includes references to water and the Holy Spirit, to God being pleased, to wild animals, and to temptation. All elements that factored meaningfully into the story his readers were familiar with from their Jewish faith. Of course, they are all rearranged and organized not around Adam and Eve, but around Jesus (someone that another biblical author calls “the second Adam”).


Here’s my thesis, a summary of what we’ll be exploring in this series. Jesus is the flesh and blood start of a new chapter in human history (what a later biblical writer calls “the firstborn of a new creation”) who lives with new, vital motivations and a revolutionary capacity for good empowered by a transformative, divinely enabled revelation of an in-breaking reality (a reality that Jesus calls “the kingdom of God”). And even more than that, Jesus makes it possible for us to be participating members of this new humanity, inviting us to join him in living in the light of what he can see clearly, and what we are learning through trusting confidence in him to see as well. This is at the heart of what Jesus’ first students called discipleship, and involves letting go of our seasoned, sophisticated, grown-old-beyond-our-years understanding of how to survive in the old creation and adopting the child-like faith required for thriving life in the new. A new creation that is present, at least in part, at least present enough to be able to draw life from, right here, right now. At your work. At play, and rest. In your wider community – your neighborhood, your city, your world. In your family life. In your personal relationships. In the part of your life that you think of as your spiritual life, the place where you long for a soul connection to God, to Love itself.

Let’s dig into this a bit, see what Mark is getting at.


The story starts with John the baptizer (also an older cousin of Jesus, as we learn from other gospels), an eccentric prophet type out in the wilderness, calling people to repentance. John represents, in many ways, the best of the old humanity. He’s devoted his life to God and to helping people become part of God’s family. (That’s what baptism is all about – the Jewish people baptized non-Jewish people as part of the initiation rites into Judaism. It was symbolic of the Jewish people going through the red sea when God delivered them from slavery in Egypt, on their way to the promised land. So when people are coming out to be baptized, it’s their way of saying they’d wandered from God’s path, and they were turning back, re-affirming their commitment to be God’s people.)

And yet, still, like all of humanity, John lives in the wilderness, not in the garden, reminding us that all of us, like Adam and Eve, are cast out of the garden, no longer at home with God and each other, no longer naked and vulnerable, no longer safe in Love. John’s even wearing a leather belt, reminding us that he is clothed in the death of an animal, like God clothed Adam and Eve to cover the shame of their rebellion against him in the garden of Eden.

There’s more too, something else that’s telling about the old humanity, the way all of us, including John, experience ourselves and the world.

Let’s try an experiment. Listen to verses 7 & 8:


7And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

What do we hear when we hear this, what do we take away? I suspect that what we hear is that someone is coming who is going to be pretty impressive indeed. And that, of course, is what John’s message is – don’t get caught up in your enthusiasm for me; keep your eyes peeled for the One who is coming – he’s the one who will change everything!

But that’s not exactly how John says it, is it? John’s message is framed in the context of comparison, of seeing the goodness and strength of Jesus relative to the unworthiness and inadequacy of himself.

One is coming, he says, who is “more powerful than I.” John says that he’s not worthy, or sufficient, to even stoop down and untie the sandals of this one who is coming. John is speaking of himself, relative to Jesus, as lower than the lowest of slaves, the ones who have the job of attending to the dirty feet of their masters. Why isn’t John worthy even of such a demeaning task? In his worldview, it’s because of the depth of his weakness, his insufficiency, in comparison to the One who is coming. Even John, this holy, wild man out in the desert, surviving on locusts and honey feels unworthy.

John speaks using the same shame-framed language of strength and sufficiency, vulnerability and worthiness that characterizes the first humanity.

Isn’t this how we think about ourselves, from the earliest ages? We constantly evaluate how we measure up, in strength, in attractiveness, in intelligence, in wealth, in talent, in goodness. We feel shame about our flaws, feel like we will be judged unworthy as a result, feel like we don’t belong with those who are stronger, more attractive, smarter, richer, more talented, more good.

This whole paradigm is an essential part of the old humanity that Mark is setting up in contrast to Jesus, who is about to appear in the story. As we’ll talk about next week, it’s connected to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Genesis story, in contrast to the tree of life, which God placed at the center of the Garden of Eden for humanity’s benefit.

One more note, before we move on to Jesus’ arrival on the scene. John says that the thing about Jesus is that while he, John, baptizes with water, Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. In the first creation story in Genesis, at first the earth is formless and void, deep water covering everything. John – the representative of the first creation – immerses people in water, the symbol of the first creation, a good thing in and of itself, the thing out of which the creation was formed. Jesus, on the other hand – the firstborn of the new creation – immerses people not in water, but in the Holy Spirit. In the Genesis account, the Holy Spirit is the one who hovers over the chaotic waters. It’s the Holy Spirit that broods over the water like a mother broods over her chicks, overseeing their development from pre-embryos to soaring birds of the air. Jesus, in other words, is up to something very, very special.

And, in fact, something extraordinary happens when Jesus arrives on the scene.


9At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

So yeah, pretty cool that the Holy Spirit shows up, like a dove descending, hovering just like he did in the first creation, but this time over Jesus, the start of a new humanity. And pretty cool that heaven is torn open, and God’s voice affirms Jesus as his Son, whom he loves, and all of that. Not to belittle any of that - because we’ll get to that more as the series develops - but none of that is the first extraordinary thing.


The first extraordinary thing is that Jesus is baptized by John. Jesus, the powerful, super-worthy-sandaled one, bends down below the unworthy-to-untie-his-sweet-sandals weak one. Jesus, the m,,,,,,,,c sinless, flawless, perfect one participates in the repentance-for-the-forgiveness-of-sins baptism by letting the flawed, sinful one baptize him. What is going on here?

Well, there are lots of theories as to why Jesus might have done this, of course. Some of them holding merit. But I want to leave those alone for now. And I want to invite us just to look at what’s happening and see it for what it is, on its face, unconcerned for now with the question of why.

The unbroken, unflawed, powerful, sufficient, good, perfect new creation is humbling himself before the broken, flawed, weak, insufficient, evil, sinful old creation. Letting himself be immersed in the waters of the old creation, joining himself in with the plight of the vulnerable children of God. The first glorious new human placing himself head down in service below his cousin, the soon-to-be-beheaded prophet who could not imagine himself worthy even to serve him.

This is a picture of a man who doesn’t look at the world through the lens of shame and worthiness, strength and weakness, power and vulnerability. Jesus doesn’t even play that game, does he? He comes over to the table, takes the game board, flips it upside down, and says, can I get you anything to eat or drink? Do your feet need washing?

We see our vulnerability, and all we want to do is get rid of it. Cover it. Hide it. Fix it. Distance ourselves from it. Comfort ourselves that others are more vulnerable than we are. Run from it. Live in denial, pretending it isn’t there. Or just as bad, be consumed by it, depressed by it, cowering in shame and fear, bitter, angry.

Not Jesus. He clothes himself in it.

This is where the new humanity starts. With an embrace of our common vulnerability in the wilderness, made possible by a child-like confidence that God will address my needs as I take the steps he leads me to take, without fear of loss or hurt or the negative judgments of others, without the need to make myself look good or defend my reputation or secure my standing. With freedom from the cursed concerns about comparison and worthiness and strength and sufficiency. With a singular view towards what is it God would have me do today, right now? What is the posture God would have me take before others? The new humanity, in other words, begins with a naked faith in Love. A lot like a baby that’s just been born.


Practical Suggestions (a la carte):

1. Pray the Lord’s prayer like a 3 year old. Spend a minute remembering (or imagining, if you can’t remember) what it was like to be inside your head and heart before you compared yourself to anyone else, before you had thoughts of worthiness or unworthiness, thoughts about being flawed or insufficient, or how you measured up. To just be you – limitation and all, but minimal shame – and pray the Lord’s prayer from that place. Do it at the beginning of the day each day this week, closing with this: help me to maintain this kind of child-like faith in You today.

2. Sing or Dance or Pray with a Child (or an with an animal or alone, with God). Sing a song. Dance a dance. Pray a prayer. Or something you’re not great at, not comfortable doing with other old creation grown-ups. Once a day this week. As an exercise in experiencing the gap between the old humanity and the new.

3. Serve someone. Someone with less power (strength, money, talent) than you have in this world. But do it asking God to make you unconscious of that dynamic, and wakefully conscious of your shared vulnerability in the wilderness that is this world.


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