Sermon Starters: based on The Way by Adam Hamilton

January 8th, 2014

Week 1: Baptism and Temptation Mark 1:9-13; Matthew 4:1-11

Jesus, a symbol of repentance and the cleansing of sin, went to the Jordan to be baptized. Huh? Jesus was the “one who knew no sin,” the one person who didn’t need to be cleansed, and yet he went through this ritual?

This is one of a number of theological issues that the early Christians had to wrestle with as they tried to explain what God had done through Jesus, and Mark takes this issue head on. He shows John the Baptist raising the very question that readers will ask and has Jesus answering for them: It is “necessary to fulfill all righteousness.” In other words, Jesus’ baptism is the first note in a theme that runs throughout the gospels: Jesus stands in our shoes. He doesn’t call from a distance and invite us to join him. He comes and stands alongside us in the midst of the messiness and chaos of our lives.

Continuing that theme, Jesus’ next move is to head out into the wilderness to fast for forty days and nights (the origin of the season of Lent) and to do battle with the devil. Jesus and the devil quote the Old Testament to one another as they argue, reminding us that, with a little creativity, we can make it seem as if the Bible says almost anything we want. Jesus is standing in our shoes and being tempted to walk a different path from the one God desires for us, but Jesus shows how being in constant communion with God gives us the strength to see through the lies clothed in proof-texting.

Jesus not only stands in our shoes and identifies with our struggles; he shows us that it’s possible to transcend the messiness and chaos of our lives, overcome the temptations, and walk the path that God desires for us.

Week 2: The Healing Ministry Mark 1:21-28; Luke 4:18-19

Jesus continues to demonstrate how he stands in the shoes of human beings by being present in, and redeeming, the worst situations we create for ourselves. A number of these demonstrations take place in the context of healing. Jesus healed people of diseases and demon possession and even raised people from the dead! Our reaction? These are pretty incredible stories, but how can something that seems so fantastic and supernatural have anything to do with God meeting us on a mundane, human level?

Well, if we set aside for a moment the more sensational aspects of these stories and look at them as one human being interacting with another, we see that the people Jesus healed all had something in common. Their afflictions isolated them from everyone else.

Jesus spent most of his ministry in the rural areas of northern Israel, not in cities like Jerusalem. Towns such as Nazareth and Capernaum were isolated from the hustle and bustle of the big city, and many of the folks there probably didn’t know or care about the latest news from across the empire. But one of the ironies of a small, isolated town is that it’s hard to be anonymous. Everybody knows everybody else, and they all know each other’s business. In a big, densely populated city, someone with a skin disease or other affliction could easily hide and get lost in the crowd, but in a small town, everybody knew who the lepers and the demon-possessed people were. These people were isolated because everyone knew who they were and shunned them. It’s into this particular pain of loneliness and isolation that Jesus met the people he healed.

Early in Mark’s gospel, a demon-possessed man interrupted when Jesus was teaching the crowds. This probably was not the first time the man had interrupted a public gathering, and the people were probably ready to run him off again. But Jesus commanded the unclean spirits to come out, restoring the man to sanity and enabling him to rejoin the community. Jesus did more than cast out demonic spirits; he healed this man’s isolation and loneliness.

Jesus did the same thing for blind men and a man unable to speak (Matthew 9:27-34). By making them whole again, he enabled them to participate fully in the life of their community. Jesus did the same for ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19) who were shunned because of their skin disease.

Jesus identified with those who were shunned and isolated because he had been there, too. Jesus found himself rejected by the people in his hometown after he proclaimed that Isaiah’s prophecy of the “year of the Lord’s favor” was being fulfilled (Luke 4:14-30). Then, as now, Jesus stands in our shoes, goes through everything we experience, and shows us it is possible to start a new path and walk in God’s way.

Week 3: Proclaiming the Kingdom Matthew 5:1-2a, 7:24-29

Sometimes we think it would have been nice if Jesus had been more direct. If only he had left us a set of three core principles, four spiritual laws, or one specific prayer that would make everything all right, he might have made our lives as Christians a whole lot easier. There would certainly be less disagreement and fighting over what Jesus really meant. Then again, we’d probably find things to fight about anyway. Religious people are pretty good at that.

In the modern era we’re used to propositional truths, core principles, and arguments supported by facts. We’re used to being able to wrap our minds around something, and we’re encouraged to be skeptical of ideas until we’re fully able to understand them. But Jesus wasn’t a twenty-first-century motivational speaker. Jesus was a first-century Jewish rabbi, and he spoke like one. He used stories (commonly called parables), analogies, and exaggerated language (hyperbole). He talked about things we can’t even begin to wrap our minds around, so he built bridges using ideas and situations we can understand (John 3:12).

The purpose of Jesus’ teaching was to help us understand the Kingdom of God. God’s reign in all of creation is a present reality, even though many parts of our world live in rebellion against it and do a good job of convincing us that other powers reign. This was also true during Jesus’ time, when the Roman emperor claimed all temporal and eternal authority and brutally cracked down on anyone who suggested otherwise.

God’s reign is a possibility that exists for each person who chooses to follow in the way of Jesus. Disciples play by the rules of God’s reign even while the powers of the world follow a different set of rules. Being in harmony with God can lead us into conflict with the world. God’s reign is also a future reality that will be fully consummated at some point, when all earthly kingdoms are disabused of their notion that anyone but God reigns. When and how this will happen is not clear, and it’s not for us to know. We are simply called to live in light of God’s promise, to allow the Kingdom to reign in our own lives, and to let God take care of the rest.

Week 4: Calming the Storm Mark 3:35-41

The Sea of Galilee (not actually a sea but in fact a big lake) is a frequent setting of the gospel stories. Several of Jesus’ disciples were men who fished the Sea of Galilee; teachings and miracles occurred on its waters; and Jesus took a boat across the lake when he needed time alone to pray.

In this week’s lesson, Jesus continued to emphasize the twin themes of his standing in our shoes and God’s reign over all creation. In Luke’s gospel (Luke 5:1-11), Jesus first met Peter when he asked to use Peter’s boat as a platform to teach the crowds. Peter complied, even though he likely had been fishing all night and would rather have gone home to sleep. To thank Peter, Jesus told him where to cast his net, and Peter hauled in the biggest catch of his life. Jesus shared in the struggles of this working fisherman and allowed him to glimpse a world beyond his own.

Later on, after Peter and the other disciples had joined in with Jesus, they found themselves crossing the lake at night in the middle of a fierce storm. At least a few of the disciples were fishermen who had seen their share of storms and were used to working at night, so the fact that they were scared means this must have been a really bad storm. But while they panicked, Jesus was in the back, asleep! They woke him up, and with a word Jesus calmed the storm.

In many surviving examples of ancient literature, water represents chaos and unpredictability. In the Bible’s first creation story, God’s spirit was “hovering over the deep waters” (Genesis 1:2). God made order out of the chaos, demonstrating his reign over the cosmos. Later, God parted the sea to lead a group of emancipated slaves to freedom, destroying a powerful army in the process (Exodus 14:21-30). Before Jesus’ ministry emphasized those themes, God was shown identifying with lowly, oppressed people and exercising authority over all creation. This is exactly what Jesus was doing when he calmed the storm that scared the disciples.

In a similar story, Jesus sent the disciples ahead of him across the lake at night, and they found themselves in a storm (Matthew 14:22-33). That time, Jesus walked out on the water toward them, asked Peter to join him for a few steps, and once again calmed the storm with a wave of his hand. Jesus’ mastery over chaos is matched by the image of Peter joining him out on the water, showing us not only that is God in control, but that through God’s power we, too, can rise above the chaos of life and participate in God’s work to make order out of the world’s mess.

Week 5: Sinners, Outcasts, and the Poor John 4:3-10

Jesus identified with and healed those who were isolated because of their sicknesses, and he sought out those who were shunned for other reasons, too.

Zacchaeus, the tax collector, was shunned because he served the oppressive Roman regime, collecting the taxes they required. Tax collectors didn’t get a salary from the Romans, so they had to earn their income from those who owed the tax, and many tax collectors made themselves rich off this practice, rather like a mobster charging “protection money.” They were known to be a corrupt bunch, and so good, upstanding religious people wouldn’t associate with them. But Jesus invited Matthew to follow him and even ate at Matthew’s home, which had no doubt been paid for with money extorted from his neighbors (Luke 19:1-10). At the dinner party, Zacchaeus stood up and promised to turn over a new leaf and repay those he had cheated. This was all in response to Jesus’ gracious love and acceptance.

Jesus reached out and healed those who were excluded for ethnic and religious differences. In John 4, Jesus traveled south and passed through the region of Samaria, which was something a good, religious Judean ordinarily wouldn’t do. (Samaritans were not considered “pure blooded” by their Judean neighbors, because their ancestors had intermarried with other peoples; even worse, they worshiped God on Mt. Gerazim rather than at the Temple in Jerusalem.) Later, Jesus spoke openly in public with a woman wasn’t related to, and who was known to have had “a bunch of husbands,” if you catch my meaning. Jesus asked her for a drink and offered her the “living water” of love and forgiveness. The outcast woman was much more thankful to receive this good news than the people who had shunned her.

Week 6: The Final Week Mark 11:7-10

During the final week of Jesus’ life, he demonstrated how fully present God is in all human experience. During that week, Jesus experienced betrayal, abandonment, ridicule, loneliness, excruciating physical pain, and death itself. That week clearly was important, because the gospel writers devote anywhere from a quarter to nearly a half of their respective stories to narrating the events of this one week.

The final week started off on a celebratory note. Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey, with the crowds waving palm leaves and shouting “Hosanna,” which means “Save us.” That impromptu parade was an intentional mockery of a Roman triumph, which was a victory parade that a great general or emperor would receive after a major victory. The parody no doubt was noticed by the Romans. It also upset the religious authorities, who thought that Jesus’ stunt would invite the Romans to retaliate toward the entire population.

Jesus further provoked those in power when he drove out the moneychangers from the Temple courts (Matthew 21:12-13), saying they had turned the place from a “house of prayer” into a “den of thieves”—not exactly the way to endear yourself to people who have friends in high places.

The week was a flurry of activity, with Jesus telling parables, engaging in heated exchanges with religious leaders, and making cryptic predictions of events to come. Passover week culminated in the Seder meal, which Jesus celebrated with his disciples, including Judas, who would hand him over to the authorities a few hours later. The Passover meal was already loaded with spiritual significance, as Jews remembered how God delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt; Jesus added a new layer of meaning by telling his disciples that from now on the meal would be a remembrance of how God delivered us from slavery to sin and death itself. Ever since, Christians have celebrated this meal and called it Holy Communion.

One difficult issue the early Christians had to confront was that most people found the idea of a crucified messiah nonsensical at best, and offensive at worst. Why would God let his chosen one suffer such a fate? Over the years, the church has come up with many different ways to frame the death of Jesus in terms of God’s work in redeeming creation. Some Christians talk about it in terms of a grand victory over the forces of evil and death, since in the Resurrection, Jesus breaks the ultimate power of death. Others frame it in light of the sacrificial system practiced at the Temple, where a pure, sinless offering was given to atone for people’s sins. Still others explain it in terms of the example Jesus set for us in his unlimited and sacrificial love. There are many other ways of understanding the significance of Jesus’ death and Resurrection, but whichever metaphor we prefer, they all point to this theme that runs throughout the gospels: Jesus stands in our shoes, experiences everything we experience, and demonstrates that a better way is not only possible but has already begun.

Week 7: Epilogue John 20:19-23

The story of God’s redeeming work in the world doesn’t end when Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John end their stories. It doesn’t end when the pages of Scripture run out. God’s story continues in each of our own stories, in which as followers of Jesus we overcome pain, suffering, and death.

Our culture is full of stories reflecting these themes. In the last half century, popular tales such as the Chronicles of Narnia, the Lord of the Rings, and the Harry Potter stories have all shown unlikely heroes making great sacrifices, even laying down their lives, to overcome incredible odds and defeat the forces of evil.

After journeying through the story of Jesus, the question is put to each of us: How do these themes resonate in our own lives? How do we experience Jesus standing in our shoes? How do we follow Jesus in actively loving those who are poor, sick, oppressed, and shut out by the powers of this world? What sacrifices are we willing to make for the benefit of others? How does God empower us to overcome sin, evil, and death in our own lives? What does it mean for us to be people who live in light of Resurrection?

However you and your congregation answer these questions, may you feel the presence of Jesus with you in every step of your own story.

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