About Me

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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Restart: Confess

How do you make a clean start? Can we really be better in the new year? What does the Bible say about breaking old habits and beginning a new way? Jesus started his ministry by following the path of "restart" taught by John the baptizer. Together, John and Jesus give us the tools for crafting a new beginning in God's Spirit. In this series, we'll explore their steps in the first chapter of the Gospel According to Mark. We'll see what it takes to restart in 2012. – James
Week 1: Confess

Mark 1:4-8 (New Revised Standard)
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

So, it's 2012.
On to the Mayan calendar it's the last year.
Not LAST year, as in, 2011.
But THE last year.
I've met Mayans on mission trips to Mexico.
Not even Mayans observe the Mayan calendar.
They know it's there.
Just nobody pays attention to it anymore.
Kind of like the President.
Remember that disaster movie, "2012"?
With John Cusack and... other people?
It came out in 2009.
Disasters were big that year.
Like, Thanksgiving at Tiger Woods' house,
General Motors finances,
and Michael Jackson's doctor.
We're getting kind of used to disastrous years.
Why would 2012 be worse?

I'm hoping 2012 is a very good year.
Comparatively speaking, the bar's not set that high.
Come on, 2012. You can do it!
Anything short of global apocalypse?
I don't usually do resolutions.
But I turn 50 this year.
This month.
I figure, unless I live to 101, my goose is way more than half cooked.
So I'm making resolutions.
I want to lose 20 pounds and I want to get my cholesterol back down to triple digits.
I want to actually read, instead of scanning.
I want to rid myself of the illusion of multitasking.
I want to set my email on vacation mode, even when I'm not.
I want to kiss Kristen more and embarrass our children less.
I want to walk the dogs every day.
I want to call my parents more.
I want to learn sign language.
I want to be able to taste the difference between lager and ale.
I want to read the Bible for pleasure and not just for work.

I'm trying to be reasonably optimistic about this year.
I'm not expecting 2012 to be the living end.
But I'm not expecting it to be the ending end, either.
Mine or the world's.
I don't see 2012 as an ending.
I see it as a beginning.
I want it to be a restart.

What did you do on New Year's?
We actually managed to stay awake to watch the Times Square celebration.
We watched Kathy Griffin and Anderson Cooper, because that has to be the oddest pairing since,
I don't know, Arnold and Maria.
Ashton and Demi.
The Kardashians and everyone else.
What always amazes me is how quickly this sea of non-New Yorkers, who can barely navigate the subway, seem to just vanish from the streets.
All that's left is a bunch of empty bottles and Nivea signs.
It's like the Rapture happens every year at 12:06 in a very confined space.
Except instead of being transported to some Left Behind nirvana, they just leave, to go back wherever.
Saints and sinners - mostly sinners - stumble back home, wherever that is.
And Sunday slides, and Monday comes, and the biggest change is the date we have to remember to write on our checks, if we still write checks.
Same old stuff.
Different day.
New year.

A lot of you are on a fiscal calendar that doesn't start January 1.
A lot of you are in school, or teach school, so New Year's is really just a halfway mark.
It won't be a new year until next fall, and you get new teachers, or new students, hopefully.
(They liked seventh grade SO much they came back. Again.)
And really.
After you reach a point, all the years just run together anyway.
Don't they?
(Did that happen in 2009 or 1969?
The way fashions come back, it's hard to tell.
I remember bell-bottoms.
Well, that's no help.)

People celebrate New Year's, but honestly, it's not that big a deal for most of us.
Just another night falling asleep in front of the TV.
Just another day.
On, and on, and on.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Tim Conway tells the story of when he was a boy.
His dad liked to fix things, but he wasn't very good at it.
Their doorbell stopped working.
It was one of those old-fashioned buzzer types that only buzzed when the button was pushed.
"I can fix it," his dad said.
And he did.
Except that he got the wires reversed.
So it buzzed all the time.
Eventually, the family got used to it.
One morning, they were sitting at the breakfast table, the buzzing stopped.
His dad said, "I'll get it."
Whether or not the doorbell was broken depended on your point of view.
A lot of us have gotten so used to being wired the wrong way, we forget how the right way feels.
How many times have people who have had heart stents or knee replacements said, "I didn't realize how bad I felt"?
When stuff gets broke slowly, you don't notice.
You get used to it.
The years go on and you forget how good it felt to be fixed.
That's why we all think we're normal.
Everybody else is weird.
The Normal Bar's only set as high as we say it is.
Want to test that?
Next time somebody asks you how you're doing, say, "I'm normal."
See what response you get.
Don't worry. You're right.
You're telling the truth.
For you.
You are normal. As far as you know.

In that respect, we're all kind of like Mayan calendars.
We tell the truth, we mark the days, we understand how things are... as far as we know.
But the thing is, "as far as we know," isn't really that far.
"As far as we know" has an end-point.
"Far" ends here.
January 8, 2012, 11:32am is as far as we know and as far as we can know, right now.
And wait, before your eyes roll back and you say, "Oh, he's getting all metaphysical on us," NO! I'm getting all biblical.
Because the Bible is written for people who are blinded by normal.
The Bible is written for people who have a gut feeling they're TOO normal,
whose normal has snuck up on them year by year,
maybe even generation by generation,
and who catch the clue,
get the hint,
and sometimes even bolt awake
knowing that somewhere, somehow the wires between broke and fixed got crossed.
One day, you see yourself from 20,000 feet (the Bible called that, "Heaven")
and you get it that a healthy dose of "abnormal" wouldn't be so bad,
that there's something better beyond normal,
and you could really, really use...
a restart.

If you've ever felt that way, or you're starting the new year feeling that way, good.
Because that's a really big sign Jesus is on the way.
The passage we read today from the New Testament, Mark 1:4-8, is one that almost always gets read on this Sunday of the church calendar year.
We go from Jesus's birth, two weeks ago, to the start of his ministry some years later.
The Bible's really good at time-shifting.
You thought it started with the show, "Lost."
The Bible's been shifting time for years and years.
Jesus is just about to start his ministry, but before he does, something starts happening.
Something starts happening and it's a sign.
It's a sign that what's considered normal is about to change.
Listen to how Mark describes it.
There's no fanfare.
It just happens.
In his first chapter, verse 4, Mark writes, "John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness."
No backstory.
No, "Meanwhile, as Jesus was growing up."
It's just, Boom.
John the baptizer appears.
(That's now the New Revised Standard Version - which really isn't that new anymore - says it. He was "John the baptizer."
Everybody knows he was John the Baptist.
Of course he was Baptist.
Dunking people in the river.
What I like about the word "baptiz-er" is that it describes John by what he does, not just who he is.
He is John the Baptist, who baptizes.
Maybe that's redundant.
But whatever.)
"John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins."
That, in itself, isn't so abnormal.
People who were converting to the Jewish faith were often baptized as a sign of initiation.
The difference is that the people coming to John were ALREADY people of faith.
Mark says, "John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins....
...And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan...."
If you lived in the Judean countryside, or in the city of Jerusalem, you were Jewish.
You were already a person of faith.
It's kind of like if you woke up and decided, "I want to become a Tennessean."
Well, you're already a Tennessean.
(Yup, we all talk like Dolly Parton and get our corn from a jar. Right.)
This is so beyond stereotypes.
This is so beyond organized religion.
This is describing something human, something transcendent.
You know how you can never find the thing you're staring at in the refrigerator?
It was like suddenly, people from the whole Judean countryside, and all Jerusalem realized their normal just didn't cut it anymore.
Maybe they had an awakening.
Maybe they just had a suspicion.
Probably a lot of both.
You know how it is.
That creeping feeling finally creeps to the surface.
That's what was happening.
And the next three words knock it out of the park.
Mark says, "And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan.... (wait for it)...
confessing their sins."
Now, remember, this means more than it normally sounds.
All people from the countryside and the city were going out to John and were being baptized...
confessing their sins.
What sins?
It's not as if this was a new thing.
It's not as if they didn't get to hear the Ten Commandments, and all the other hits, all the time.
Being reminded of their sins was their social network.
It's not as if they said, "What? You mean, dishonoring my father and my mother is wrong? Seriously?"
No. They got it.
They got the whole sin thing.
Confession was not new.
They understood guilt.
They understood shame.
This was something else.
Something different was happening.
Or at least, "fixing" to happen.
And at this point, the people didn't exactly know what it was that was going to happen.
John didn't come right out and say.
He said, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
Okaaaay. Whatever that means.
That's all they got for now.
Maybe John himself didn't really know for sure.
Maybe even John himself had just a quick flash-forward past the darkness of normal.
But that was enough.
A quick flash of future in the darkness was enough to bring people to their knees.
Enough to bring people out of their day-to-day-everyday to confess that what they thought was fixed might, in truth, be broken.
A new year appears in the middle of a dark night.
A new year appears and brings you the chance to come-out, come-out, wherever you are.
Come down to the river of life.
A new year is a chance to confess whatever's in you that's broke and needs fixed.
But before you can fix anything, you have to get that it's broken.
Before even Jesus can fix you, you have to confess that you need fixing.

Everybody's got their own version of normal.
And maybe yours is working just great.
Maybe you couldn't be happier than you are right now and will be throughout 2012 and all the years to come.
That's great.
I could not be happier for you.
Share your secrets with the rest of us.
But if you've arrived in this new year with some baggage...
and if that baggage is getting uncomfortable...
if your baggage is beginning to hurt...
hurt you, or hurt the people around you...
let me offer you a chance to lay it down.
I think that's really all John the baptizer-Baptist was doing:
Just offering people a chance to tell the truth, about their normal.
In itself, not such a big deal.
But for some reason, the people came from all over.
From all over the countryside, from all over the city they came and laid their burdens down.
By telling the truth.
By confessing.

If you wanted to, you could ask your husband, or your wife, or your boyfriend, or your girlfriend...
you could ask your mom or your dad, or your kids...
you could ask your boss, or your secretary, or your teacher...
if you wanted to, you could ask them to tell you
what's normal about you,
what's usual about you,
what's predictable about you
that you need to resolve to change in 2012.
They might already have a list.
("Thank you for asking; Chapter One....")
And they might be totally right.
But also, you have to remember, they're living in their universe of normal, too.
Maybe they're just as weird as you are.
Or more.
What John-the-whatever-you-call-him and Jesus are offering you is a chance to really, really listen to your heart.
Because your heart knows.
Deep down, you already know.
Or you have a suspicion that something about normal is broken, and needs to have a restart.
Maybe you can't quite say what it is yet.
Stay with John a little longer.
It'll come.
It could be you're not ready for Jesus yet.
He'll wait.

In the tenth chapter of Mark there's this amazing story.
There's a blind man named, Bartimaeus, sitting by the side of the road.
He hears that Jesus is going to come walking by him, and he starts shouting, "Son of David! Have mercy on me!"
And it's really embarrassing and weird and abnormal to the people around.
And they tell Bartimaeus, "sternly," (which, remember, is always how religious grown-ups talk: "sternly.")
They tell him - sternly - to be quiet.
To shut up.
To be like they're being.
You know, normal.
And Jesus hears him and tells his disciples, "Bring him here."
And they do.
And this is the really amazing part.

They bring this embarrassing, noisy, blind man to Jesus.
And Jesus asks him, "What do you want me to do for you?"
And the disciples are going, "Duh!"
And the crowd is going, "Duh!"
And we readers are going, "Duh!"
He's Blind Bartimaeus.
Could it be more obvious?
Does Jesus really need to ask?
Of course not.
Jesus doesn't need to ask.
Maybe Bartimaeus needs to say.

Maybe Bartimaeus is like those people who came to John, looking to be baptized in, and by, and for the confession of sin.
You've got to think something's broke before you'll ever want to be fixed.
Jesus tells Bartimaeus, "Go, your faith has made you well."
Maybe that means Bartimaeus was a master of faith.
But he wasn't.
He was just ready to see, see past the normal darkness.
And he said so.

You may be a Jedi master of faith.
You may be able to say to a mountain, "Be moved!" and it will hitch up its foothills and move.
That would be really abnormal.
We'd love to see it.
You're probably more like me, more like the rest of us.
You'd like to lose a few pounds.
Pay off some debt.
Live healthier.
Live more faithfully in the coming year.
You don't want to start all over.
You don't want to be totally different.
You don't need to be somebody else.
You just want to restart.

Here's what John the baptist is saying to us.
He's saying, "Good.
"Good for you.
"Take that first step."
Don't try to drink the whole river in one gulp.
Just wade in.
Let it flow.
Let it baptize you,
as you confess, that there is something broken,
and normal's just not going to be good enough anymore.

All of us.
We've got this whole, new year ahead of us.
Annus Domini.
The Year of Our Lord.
Not the year of the Mayans.
Not a year like any other, because it's new.
It's different.
Maybe a little abnormal.
In a good way?
Can't say.
We don't know yet.
So there's a tone of uncertainty about the unknown that will, in all certainty, advance toward us whether we're ready or not.

But John doesn't stop at the unknown.
The one who stared into the darkness of the world, the one who heard its confession left us with these words of hope.
He said - no he PROCLAIMED, the Bible says - he proclaimed,
"The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.... I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
So as scary as facing whatever it is that needs to change might be, there is hope.
Hope is coming.
We can restart.

Sent with Writer.

- James