It is interesting, and amazing, the manner in which Jesus steps into our prejudices and hatred to paint a picture for us of God’s mercy, his compassion, and his love. How he takes us in our imperfect place and walks us toward light and away from our darkness. Jesus takes those things we attempt to hide as secular, or sinful, and instead uses them to define his holiness. He reaches into the dark places of our hearts and pulls out those things that keep us from following him with a genuine and a full gait. Whether it is him being seen in the bright light of the day speaking to an individual doubly maligned for her gender and her hated cultural identification, or as he notices an invisible woman bent over dismissed woman in the temple, or even as he publicly dined at the home of a despised tax collector, Jesus never permitted human divisions to hide his love, to stop his mercy, or to limit the scope of his compassion. That was exactly what Jesus genuinely presented in the flesh because that is exactly what God is. It is what God desires that we strive to be.
we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect, we are striving to forge a union with purpose. To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man. And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us but what stands before us. We close the divide because we know, to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside. We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another. We seek harm to none and harmony for all. Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped. That even as we tired, we tried. That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious, not because we will never again know defeat but because we will never again sow division. Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid. If we’re to live up to our own time. Then victory won’t lie in the blade but in all the bridges we’ve made. That is the promise to glade. The hill we climb if only we dare.Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb
I was struck by the poem, especially the reference to the scripture, a phrase found in three different places in the Old Testament, ‘everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid.’ A passage used almost 50 times in the writings of President George Washington. In one of those OT passages, the prophet Micah speaks to a people who have have rejected God but have not been rejected by God. A people who have laid aside their heart for God and exchanged it for a heart that can hardly listen or follow God. A people who are destined to be bullied and buried under their own ruble and taken into slavery by those who have pronounced judgement against them. A people who God is promising an ultimate rescue, and refuge, and safety from those who seek to destroy them, a time of mercy, acceptance, shelter, and peace for all who have weathered the same fate of suffering discrimination, prejudice, and destruction. A people hated by others but always loved by God. A people who God leads back to a hardy heart able to fully follow Him.
It is not surprising that George Washington would be drawn to this biblical phrase. Our imperfect founding fathers, while personally struggling with it, were at least in theory, supporters of this concept – as evidenced in their writing of the the Declaration of Independence,
‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’Declaration of Independence
They, as we are today, were plagued with the question, ‘is our calling to protect our unalienable rights, or is our calling to promote the unalienable rights of all peoples?’ It is a difficult balance, one that we still struggle with today. Ironically, this was the calling which prompted Jesus to send out his disciples in Mark 6.
This brings us to another prophet, a prophet who was a big supporter of Micah’s vine and fig tree proclamations – until he wasn’t. The prophet Jonah, a prophet for whom God also provided a vine, or a plant, to give refuge. This refuge, for Jonah, was a place to pout, a place to withdraw from those he hated, those for whom he had decided deserved no mercy or compassion. Jonah was a prophet, used by God, to call people back to God. And Jonah was an effective prophet, and he did it well, until God instructed him to go to a people who he could not stomach, a people who Jonah had already condemned, a people for whom he held no hope and even less concern. God told Jonah to go east but Jonah went west. God told Jonah to go to Ninevah, but Jonah headed to Tarshish. The folks at Tarshish were tolerable, the people at Ninevah were beyond reprehensible. There was hope for God’s message at Tarshish, there was no hope for the people at Ninevah. They were a waste of time, they were a waste of Jonah’s time. To be honest, Jonah didn’t want them to have the option of hope, such were the feelings of this ‘man of God.’
The crazy thing is that Jonah was incredibly successful even in his rebellion. All the crew of the ship he attempted to flee on ended up praising the one true God because of his Jonah’s life witness. Jonah, however, ended up in the belly of a big fish who was traveling east, and soon Jonah was in Ninevah, exactly where God had called him to go originally. So Jonah begins resentfully communicating the message from God. He half hearted proclaimed ‘Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!’ Ninevah, a city of such size that would take Jonah three days to walk the distance, so he began that first day. It was the worst sermon ever, it didn’t even mention God. His posture communicated a complete indifference towards the people, if not a full on disgust. Jonah began that first day acting as a ‘mistreated’ adolescent who has been asked to take out the trash by an ‘unreasonable’ parent. Shoulders shrugged, head looking down, ambivalence in his voice, and a heart that was hardly present. Not only did he not care, he actually hoped no one would listen. But they did listen, by the end of the first day they had heard, the entire city, they had not just heard but they had taken the message to heart. Logistically this means that Jonah covered a three day journey dismissively telling God’s message as he had to run though the city, or, that the people were so impacted that the word spread fast, accomplishing a three day endeavor in a day’s time. The people responded immediately, the impact was so intense and blatant that the King even joined in, his heart was genuine in its hardy acceptance. The people and their leaders had all responded to God’s message – lives had been changed, hearts had been turned, a miracle beyond miracles had happened, and God’s prophet had totally missed it. With shoulders shrugged, head down, and feet furiously shuffling to get out of the city, Jonah found his vine, a plant that had grown up just to shield him from the heat of the day. A plant to give him shelter. It was the place where he retreated to pout and complain.
‘This is why I wanted to go west,’ Jonah complained to God. ‘I knew that you are merciful and full of compassion and that you would do just this, that you would forgive these horrible, horrible, people. You said you would destroy them but now you are giving them mercy. You let this horrid group of humans change your mind and move your heart!’
This experience of Jonah reveals to us that it is impossible to be whole hearted on board with God’s plan if you are not first fully trusting God’s love and his timing.
If you are unable to be a conduit of God’s love then you are unable to see the miracle of God’s mercy and compassion. The tragic thing is that Jonah was the avenue for one of the greatest miracles of God. An entire people grabbed ahold of a revolutionary movement in just the limited time it took for the sun to rise and set – the lowliest of society to the heights of royalty and ultimately to the King had turned to God. It was a huge miracle and a huge act of God’s transforming power, a miracle that Jonah was invited to witness, instead, Jonah pouted because these people did not deserve God’s mercy, but he did. His hatred and prejudice got in the way.
By the time that Jesus walks out of the wilderness he had seen and experienced it all. He had experienced human connection, rejection, adoption, and affection. He had been a part of family, a part of religion, a part of the oppressed, a part of the people. He had been recognized by God and head on attacked by Satan. He had resisted, accepted, rejected, embraced, loved, and even left – all difficult and often painful actions. He had been in the midst of holy and at the door of hell; he had stepped into the waters that said ‘yes’ to the Father and had stepped back from the edge of the steeple saying ‘no’ to self; he had been tempted by evil and had instead stuck with truth. As he walked out of the wilderness, reality hit, immediately he was confronted with the oppression of a political system which was compounded by the collusion with a religious system. The stage was set, it was time for Jesus to step out of the shadows and onto stage center.
Up to this point, Mark has acquainted us with Jesus just through the actions of Jesus, ‘he stepped into the water,’ ‘he stepped into the wilderness’, ‘He came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.’ But now we hear the words and witness of Jesus as he says, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ It was a statement of undeniable definitiveness said with a confidence and authority that could not be silenced. Quite frankly, we could spend the rest of our time just deconstructing each of these words and phrases, for they all add to this frank proclamation from Jesus. Instead, we will look at two:
‘The time if fulfilled.’
A statement of ‘it is time’
or an even more frank message that ‘it’s time,’ probably said with an exclamation point.
However, it can also be interpreted as ‘that’s enough’, as in a parent deciding that the dinner table conversation has gone too far, too out of control, that it is time to reel it in. Jesus has not only spent 3 decades in the flesh, seeing the human experience from the inside, he has also seen the unseen, the evil that permeates under the surface, and then he saw the attack on ‘right’ as he learns that John the baptizer has been arrested. “That is enough’ he yells, it is time to turn this around, to look back to the holy God, it is time for change! This was not a passive moment for Jesus, nor was it a delicate entrance into the public eye, it was a bold, it was unapologetic, it was time.
‘Repent.’ This was covered in our insight portion of our Take 5 this week but it warrants voicing it again. Jesus, and John the Baptizer, both spoke of this essential act of repentance. It was the symbolic waters of John’s baptism and it is the purpose of what Jesus is about to start doing. Typically, the word that the Israelites would have expected to be used to say ‘Repent’ would be the hebrew word ‘Teshuvah’ – which means what we still automatically think of when we hear the challenge to ‘repent’ – a focus on our actions, our sin, our disobedience. We expect the listeners to hear this call as to point out their transgressions against God and their transgressions against each other. However, Jesus, and John, both use a different Hebrew word, their choice is the word, ‘metanoia’ which is much bigger and further reaching than just talking about the sin of an individual. In using the word ‘metanoia’ both of these men are calling the people to not only turn from their evil ways but to instead let God change their heart, to change their inner being, to have an entirely new perspective on life. This is a call not just to the individual but also a call to be a community of change, a force for good.
Jesus was calling a people to change, bigger than just a personal recognition of one’s own sin but to the way we see life, others, and God. This was the beginning of moving a people forward, forward from an externally monitored law, forward to truth written on our hearts.
As Jesus began to build this community he started by looking for those that were looking for this change of perspective, a change of heart. They probably could not define their quest in this manner but it was surely the reason they had been unable to find it up to this point. The tradition was that a rabbi would select disciples from those who had found the rabbi, however, Jesus went looking for those who were unknowingly looking for him.
Jesus walked among men who were in the midst of life. Individuals who were living life in their own community, working in their reality. They were the beginning of this new community Jesus was forming. Jesus called first to Simon and his brother Andrew, then James and his brother John. All four men dropped what held them to that place and turned to follow Jesus. They willingly left jobs and family, those left behind knew these men had been looking for. They had been searching and keeping their ears and eyes open, ready to follow, they had been whole hearted in their search and now they were following with hardy hearts, ready to see, ready to be used by God.
This is what it comes down to,
A hardy heart.
A heart that is ready and ‘robust; capable of enduring difficult conditions.’ It is an adjective that is often used to describe a plant that is able to withstand the cold of winter or the heat of summer. This year we planted some pansies around our house. Pansies are not anywhere near pansies, they are hardy, the extreme cold and the elements of winter only seem to strengthen their resolve to survive and look beautiful. These delicate flowers have a strong, hardy, constitution. There is nothing holding them back, they seem to have an inner determination to succeed. They are the definition of Hardy. In the same way a Hardy Heart is one that is determined in the search and resolved in the finding. Jesus was looking for followers who had Hardy Hearts, hearts that would have the resolve to survive rejection, grief, doubt, devastation, and even exhilaration. Hearts that were ready to take on a new perspective, hearts that were resolved to support the new person that God was creating, hearts determined to be community with other Hardy Hearts through the thick and the thin.
A vivd example of this occurred this past Wednesday a a good portion of Americans watched the inauguration sensing the hope they had not felt for 4 years, there was another portions of Americans who, at the same time, had broken hearts, they were now hopeless after 4 years of feeling hopeful. Both of these groups of people’s state of hope was based on a person, a politician, a political agenda, an external change – a change which can change again in 4 years. The hope and the hopelessness of that day were legitimate reactions, however, they were also a lesson for us all – our hope is not in a human being, not in a philosophy, not in an agenda, not in an institution, not in anything earthly, our hope is in God, it is in God alone. It is the singular determining factor of a hardy heart, it is an assurance of a lasting and persevering hope.
Viktor E. Frankl who survived 4 WWII Nazi concentration camps while losing his parents, brother, and his pregnant wife, wrote in his classic Man’s Search for Meaning that while in the camps he was struck by
‘the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’ After liberation Frankl went on to study what made some survive for a future outside the camp and others who were never able to regain any sense of hope even after liberation. He came to the conclusion that it all comes down to a future hope, something to look forward which is only possible when we are able to fill the ‘existential vacuum’ in our lives with that which cannot be destroyed by the actions of evil men. He concluded that there is a necessity within all humans for ‘meaning’.Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
This is what the Psalmist is alluding to in chapter 62.
‘For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. Selah. 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. Put no confidence in extortion, and set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.’Psalm 62:5-12
Jonah allowed his those things external to cause him to forget the source of his hope, he allowed his heart to fail. The disciples waited and searched for the source of their hope – they did not miss their hope when it called out to them, they followed with hardy hearts. Our hope is our meaning, it is our purpose, it is our deliverer, it is our God.