Sermon Ideas For Mark 1:9-15 Part 1
Examining one's assumptions about life is a luxury that most people can ill afford. Who's got the time? Most of us feel that we're in a canoe paddling swiftly downstream and fighting frantically for some modicum of control. There is little time to ask questions about assumptions—questions about who we are and what we've made of our lives. The crucial decisions have been made (or made for us), so it's too late to examine assumptions. Besides, self-evaluation is hard work; it's painful to face the fact that we may be headed in the wrong direction or may have to alter our plans. Who among us can face up to the reality that the assumptions upon which we've based our lives may be wrong or in need of alteration? Few have the time or courage!
Thus, we spend most of our lives managing assumptions; managing the decisions we've made or the ones that have been made for us. It's also no surprise that the gurus of modern life are managers, administrators, bureaucrats, and technocrats—people who manage assumptions and decisions; people who tell us how to make an assumption work; people who tell us how to make our assumptions run more efficiently; people who tell us how to downsize our assumptions. Managing and controlling assumptions is a modern preoccupation. The nineteenth-century philosopher Tocqueville predicted as much when he saw the rise in what he called "administrative despotism." He saw in administrative despotism a way in which modern societies would lose freedom. Administrative despotism, says Tocqueville, "does not break people's will, but softens, bends, and guides it; it seldom enjoins, but often inhibits action; it does not destroy anything, but prevents much from being born..."1 Such is the way of those who manage assumptions. It's easier and less painful to manage, administer, and seek vindication for an assumption than to examine it!
Religion can also play such a role in our lives. Such religion can be called utilitarian religion: a religion in which God is placed in the service of human assumptions and needs. The god of administrative religion is the great "Manager in the Sky." If humans can only find the right incantation, make the right sacrifice, pray the correct prayer, the desired results will be forthcoming. The trouble is that management is an illusory game, because we can't control life. We know that! Such a realization may come to us amid crisis. It is the experience of those who have suf fered a painful collapse of their carefully constructed world and find that they are not ultimately in control. Part of being human is discovering that we are not in control. Loss of control doesn't mean that God has abandoned us. It does mean that we cannot control God. It is sheer superstition that seeks to control or manage God to achieve personal goals and desires. In his book Will and Spirit, Gerald May says that we must finally come to the realization that our efforts to control God must be abandoned: "Slowly, if one is willing to accept some humility, the situation becomes clear. It is not for us to use the power of mystery but for us to be used by it. We do not embrace it with our arms, it embraces us. We do not capture it but are captured by it."2
All of this suggests that we need to step back and examine our assumptions. This is precisely where our scripture lesson from Mark's Gospel leads us. After his baptism and the experience of wilderness temptation, Jesus appears in Galilee and says: "The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, repent and believe the gospel." This is the most dramatic announcement in all the gospels, because it's an invitation to do the very thing we've convinced ourselves that we cannot do. For what is repentance if not the power to go back and re-examine old assumptions and set out in a new direction. Frederick Buechner, I think, has a helpful definition of repentance when he says "to repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, `I'm sorry' than to the future and saying `Wow!'"3
What is the "wow" of the future to which Jesus points? Well, in a word, it's about politics! Jesus calls it the Kingdom. When Jesus announces that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, he is, in effect, announcing the reality of an alternative community. In the midst of people and institutions which seek, hold, and use power and authority, he announces (not just advocates) an alternative power structure which exists in the presence of governors, corporate CEOs, congressional representatives, bishops and presbyteries. Jesus' announcement is not a "pie in the sky" utopianism but about a real community in which God's realm can begin to take shape.
On what grounds does he dare make such a claim? What did he think was about to happen to justify such a claim? As James L. Mays points out, the plain fact is that nothing happened, nothing changed to justify say ing that God's realm was immanent except that he, Jesus, was there. Nothing was different after he made the proclamation, and kept on making it, except that he acted as if God's politics were real ,and he became the presence of the gospel which offers us a concrete word to which we can turn in trust in the midst of the other commands we hear. And that, frankly, is it! Jesus' very presence and his own acting on the announcement is the only grounds upon which he justified such a claim.4
So the question that comes to us from our morning scripture lesson is this: whether we find his life so convincing that we are led to re-examine our own assumptions about ourselves and the way we live and turn in faith to the God proclaimed by Jesus and decide to give ourselves over to the politics Jesus presents in his life. Mark's Gospel offers an invitation to a new politics; a politics that is not based on greed; a politics that does not marginalize whole groups of people in order to benefit the few; a politics which questions assumptions; a politics of compassion amid the powers that are organized for shortsighted gain and efficiency; a politics of peace amid the spirits of this age which would justify violence simply because it serves national or personal self-interest; a politics of faithfulness to the other in whom God is present amid a politics in which the other is a threat.
So it all comes down to a question about politics and a question about assumptions. An alternative politics has been proclaimed in our midst. Jesus is the politics of God in our midst. To become involved with him is to become involved with the politics of an alternative government. It all boils down to weaving God's politics into our lives and our communities. The time is now. Repent and believe in the good news of the gospel!
Roger J. Gench Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church Baltimore, MD
1. In Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), p. 209. 2. Gerald May, Will and Spirit (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1982), p. 35. 3. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p.79. 4. James L. Mays, "Jesus Came Preaching" in Interpretation Vol. 26: pp. 30-41.