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

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Fwd: 2012-01-15 Restart, Part 2: Bless

- James

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: "James McTyre" <jamesmctyre@usa.net>
Date: Jan 15, 2012 8:45 AM
Subject: 2012-01-15 Restart, Part 2: Bless
To: <JAMESMCTYRE@usa.net>

From Evernote:

2012-01-15 Restart, Part 2: Bless

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 2: Bless

Mark 1:9-11 (New Revised Standard)

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."


So, it's 2012. A brand-new year. We're starting the year with a series called, "Restart." Last week, we did part one of a restart, "Confess." We talked about how John the baptizer-baptist appeared in the wilderness, eating honey-covered locusts (I hear they're quite tasty), and calling everyone to a baptism of repentance for the the forgiveness of sins. If you want to make a new start in this new year, you have to start at the river of confession. Confession is always the crucial first step in any restart.

Why is that? Simple physics. Hang on. I never flunked physics because I never took it. A man's gotta know his limitations. You remember Isaac Newton? The apple fell on his head and it ruined high school? Newton's First Law of Motion is, "An object in motion remains in motion." You don't need to be an Einstein to figure that out. It's not just the first law of nature, it's the first law of human nature. If we're going a direction, we keep going that direction. If we're thinking one way, we keep thinking that way. It's why Republicans stay Republican and Democrats stay Democrat, even when there's no logical reason left to do so. A teenager on the phone remains on the phone. A man at the golf course remains at the golf course. Unless acted upon by an equal and opposite force.

An object in motion remains in motion, unless acted upon by an equal and opposite force. It sounds like physics, but again, it's human nature. You know how you operate. You know how your family operates. You know how your business or your school works. People just LOVE change. Oh, and it's especially true for the church. Every week, after worship someone says, "I'm so tired of singing hymns I know. Could we PLEASE sing more irregular, Korean hymns?" Oh, wait. That was a dream I had after dinner at the Asian Buffet. What I meant to say was, we just DON'T love change. You know. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Newton called that the NASCAR corollary. It takes some kind of force to make us see that our broke is really broke and we need fixing. Because "broken" can kind of sneak up on us, right? You can get so used to being broken that you think it's normal, and because it's normal for you, you think everybody else ought to be the same way, or at least stop giving you such a hard time for being abnormal. It takes some kind of force. Sometimes it's financial force. Sometimes it's relational force. Sometimes it's your health. Sometimes it's an emotional crash and burn and makes us go, "Uh oh." I'm broke. I'm broken. I'm heading TOWARD a breaking point and I need help. So that's where we start with a restart. Confession.

This week, we move on to part two, which we're calling, "Bless," because that's what happens next in the scripture. And because it rhymes with confess. Confess, bless. Last Sunday, John appears in the wilderness, calling us to confess - that was part one. And now, along with all the other people around the countryside of Judea and all the other people from the holy city of Jerusalem, along with all the other people coming to John and confessing their sins comes one more person, the last person you'd ever expect. Jesus. Really? Jesus. Well, that's interesting. Who would have thought Jesus had sins he needed to confess? Surely not BIG sins. Not like any of OUR sins. Cause we've got some whoppers round here. I mean, some of your naughty thoughts, alone, could fill a couple of books. But Jesus isn't like that. So, why, was he there? I think Jesus was there for the same reason he was anywhere: to show us the way. Jesus was there to show us the way PAST our sins. And past your sins, on the other side of your sins, is blessing.

So, today, let's put the sins behind us, and move to blessing.


If you have small kids, or if you had children who were small before they became progressively larger, you know the true joy of Christmas isn't just in the getting of gifts; it's also in the getting rid of gifts. Last year's gifts. It's called, The Purge. There's so much more room in Santa's sleigh than there is in your house. Right? You know what I'm talking about. Either in the weeks before Christmas, when the toy drives are happening, or now that the tree has turned dangerously brown and everything's covered in needles, you do The Purge. You hold up the aging Polly Pocket and you say to your child like a southern prosecutor leading a witness, "You're not really going to play with this dilapidated, old, toy, ever, again. Isn't that right?" And if the answer is affirmative - and you're hoping it is because closet space is the only part of the housing market that's still at a premium - then you put Polly and last year's version of Elmo, and Woody and Buzz the dinosaur in a box. And with a big Sharpie you write, "Garage Sale" on the side. And you take it down to the dark, damp basement with all the other boxes marked, "Garage Sale," that you're going to get around to. In spring. And you just feel, lighter. Cleaner. Relieved. And so will your kids. As soon as they let go of the box and feel their way back upstairs. There's only so much stuff you can put in your house before you or the people from that show on The Learning Channel have to do The Purge. And once you've done it, you feel good. You feel free.

We accumulate. Sometimes it's physical stuff, like toys. Power tools. Shoes. Games, gizmos and gadgets. Ball caps. Star Wars action figures. Beanie Babies. UT bobbleheads. There's a thin line between "collecting" and a cry for help. Sometimes we accumulate physical stuff. Sometimes, though, we're more weighed down by intangible stuff that's harder to shove in the basement. We accumulate habits that turn into addictions. We pick up points of view that turn into prejudice. Or ugly ways of speaking, or twisted ways of thinking, or ways of acting that are just plain ugly. Sinful. And we know they're messing us up, but that's the direction we've been going for as long as we can remember. A person in motion remains in motion. A brain at rest remains at rest.

If you've acted or if you've thought in a particularly toxic way, you build up immunity. If you've spent the past year, or past years, or past generations being a certain way, you've got a lot of momentum pushing you to keep going the way you've always gone. It's so hard to stop. It's so hard to stand firm when the tide's slamming against you. But then, when we do that purge, that confession, that repentance for the forgiveness of sin as Mark calls it, there's this incredible lightness that falls over us. We feel lighter, cleaner. Maybe even born anew. We open the box and shake out all the garbage and it feels so right. Right with God. Right with the world. Almost as if the skies are opening and God's saying, "Well done. I'm proud of you."

Maybe it's different for you, though, in a good way. Maybe you're just spoiled with all the affirmation you get, year after year. If so, rejoice and be glad.

Do you have any idea how many people would love to trade places with you? Just for one day? Do you have any idea how priceless those words are, "Well done. I'm proud of you?"

One of the criticisms I hear these days is that we spoil our kids with cheap affirmation. People complain that we give kids awards for everything. And, I can say I've sat through some really long awards assemblies. After a while you do wonder, did we need to give Bobby the Chemistry Award for not setting his eyebrows on fire, this year? I don't know. Maybe for Bobby that's a HUGE achievement. It might be the only award he ever gets. It might spur him on to grow up and someday invent a flame-retardant eyebrow gel that saves millions in hospital bills.

Imagine how different the Bible would be if after Jesus rose up out of the water, God shrugged and looked away and said, "What's the big deal? He's sinless. Why give him an award for that?"

But God didn't. God did something else. Here's what God did.


Mark, chapter 1, verse 9 says, "In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan." He came with all the other people from the countryside and the big city to be baptized in repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This much we know. 

People always ask - or often ask - Did he really need to? 

I - and other preachers - have done all sorts of gymnastics around this one. Because confessing sins you don't have makes no sense. Maybe Jesus had some secret sin the Bible won't talk about. Or maybe it was because he was tempted, and temptation itself is sinful. Or, if you're more on the esoteric NPR side, you could argue that our traditional, Christian definition of sin is too limited. That sin is more than our personal peccadilloes (and that's a good word that just sounds naughty). You could say sin is more than just bad thoughts or bad actions; sin's the general human condition of separation from God. OK. That goes over big in a Children's Sermon.

Goodness knows, enough preachers have gone that route, including me. Preacher's aren't usually  physically flexible, so we go in for spiritual gymnastics. But, how or even why Jesus got to the waters of baptism aren't nearly as important as what comes next.

Verses 10 and 11 say, "And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

And again. If you'd rather think about religion than practice faith, you can have all sorts of debates over whether everybody saw and heard God speaking, or if Jesus alone saw and heard. Mark's not really clear in how he writes it. How wide is God's bandwidth? What's God's frequency? We don't know. And apparently Mark didn't think it was important enough to go into great detail about the width of the dove's wingspan or the depth of God's voice, or whether God was on a loudspeaker, or whispering in his ear.

What's clear in verses 10 and 11 is the affirmation. The blessing. The love. The pride. Jesus was blessed. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all sang as one in a mystical moment of Triune harmony. There was a blessing. And it was glorious. Could Jesus have gone on to do what he did without that moment of blessing in the river of confession? I have no idea. Baptism is a sign, and an act, of unconditional love. Unconditional love does not do gymnastics.

People talk a lot about unconditional love. But until conditions are unfavorable, it's just talk. God's love dives past, parts the waters, of conditions. The entire, physical world is built on laws of condition, laws of cause and effect, laws of action and reaction, of force against force. True, heavenly, unconditional love is not from this world. It's just kind of one of those things we that we know it when we see it. 

Like the man with nothing to confess going to be baptized.

In this part of the country, you can get into arguments about baptism. How much water you use, how deep it is, and whether you can do it every Sunday. We don't baptize as often as some churches. And we only do it once. And we sprinkle. In the Presbyterian church, we say, once you're baptized, you're always baptized, whether we do it here, or you had it done in some other church, or in a river, or in a hospital. You just get it once, and it sticks. And it doesn't matter if the minister or the priest messed up and called you by the wrong name, or spilled the water, or forgot half the words. (We do make it a point if professional pride to try NOT to make those mistakes.) But in our church and our Tradition, baptism is one and done, and it's good. (How many other things do you only ever get to do once in your life?) 

And we baptize babies. Babies who are just as sinless as Jesus. I've talked before about how baptizing babies is my absolute favorite part of being a minister. It's as close to heaven as we'll ever get on earth. And it's not because the babies are so cute. And it's not because the parents and grandparents are so happy. It's not because of anything any one of us does. Or accomplishes. Or confesses. Or doesn't confess. Or forgets to do. I look out after a baptism and some of you are crying. Usually the same ones. You're the town criers. That's what you do. Tears and laughter and splashing with joy are completely appropriate responses when there are no words to describe the wonder and peace of unconditional love. Through our actions, God saying, "This is my son. This is my daughter. This is my child in whom I am well pleased." It's a blessing. And it sticks.

In that regard, I think Jesus' baptism did as much or more for the practice of baptism than it ever did for him. By following his example, we have a model for how to say the unsayable. We have an outward sign of inward grace that simply is. We don't know how or why it works and it doesn't really matter whether we do or not. It just does. And for that, we are grateful.


Last week, we began our journey of a restart by coming to the waters of confession. This week, we're in the river. We're knee-deep in the river and its clear stream is flowing around us, giving us eyes to see our bare feet beneath the surface. Grace. Grace is not a reward. You don't get the Fourth Grade Grace Award for having the biggest sins. 

("And now, for having the most trips to the Assistant Principal's Office in the 2011-2012 School Year..." Haven't heard that one yet.) 

The Apostle Paul took that one on in his letter to the Romans (6:1) when he said, "What then? Should we sin the more so that grace may abound? God forbid!" he said. Confession is not a competition although sometimes we act as though it is.  

If your sins are forgiven it doesn't matter how big they were or how small. They're forgiven and that's what matters. You're forgiven. You're beloved. It's not the confession of the sin that wins God's blessing; it's realizing that in spite of the sins, we have God's approval. You're blessed. You're NOT blessed by your confession. You're blessed by God. You're blessed. You're blessed. You're blessed, but you've got to purge out all that last year's junk before you have a place to keep it. You're blessed.

But it's hard to think that way. We're trained to think more about the glass being half-empty.

I'm guessing that you think more about why you don't deserve God's blessing than about having it. Maybe you were brought up to think pride is sinful, and therefore anything affirming has to be dismissed. Your sense of humility tells you you're not worthy. So you set your eyes on what you're not more than what you are. The glass isn't just half-empty. It's huge nanometers more than half-empty. 

If you're a husband, and for no rational reason, one day, you bring home flowers to your wife. (I know, this is purely hypothetical.) And she says, "Oh, I don't deserve these!" and throws them in the trash. (Again, it's a purely hypothetical situation that would never happen for so many different reasons.) How does that make you feel?  As the bringer of a gift, how would it make you feel for someone to throw it away because they, as the receiver, didn't deserve it? 

If your child brings you a crayon-colored picture. It's a picture of you. A picture with you, surrounded by rainbows and sun. And in big, multi-colored letters across the top it says, "World's Best Daddy." And you say, "Are you kidding me? Look how much better [insert nemesis dad's name here] is!" And you crumple it up and toss it away. (And some of you are getting mad right now and you're thinking, "How can he even say such a thing!")

Why would you ever want to treat God's love that way? Why would you ever want to throw away God's unconditional blessing? But, we do it all the time. We refuse it. We ignore it. We forget about it. We go out of our way to remind God and other people how rotten we really are. We feel ashamed for the stuff we're ashamed of, and guilty for feeling guilty, and we leave God's gift crumpled.

Which is not to say that you're sinless. If you're old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, you're old enough to need some forgiving. You've probably got some amends yet to be made. Let the blessing of God be your motivation to bless and to forgive other people. We're going to talk more about that part next week, though. For now, stay just a while longer in the waters of baptism. See how they've changed? Last week, they were the waters of confession. This week, they're the waters of blessing.

Same waters.

Different you?


So what do we do with this blessing? What do we do with the thing Jesus didn't have to do?

Imagine what would happen if all of us decided, right now, that we are going to do something we don't have to do this week? What if all of us decided, right here and now, that we're going to do something we don't have to do, or need to do, or maybe even want to do all that much, just because it's an act of blessing? Something irrationally kind and generous. Maybe you do that kind of thing all the time. Most of us are more run-of-the-mill types. We keep to-do lists of all the things we have to do. We've got calendars filled with all the places we have to be, by certain times, or our appointments get bumped out until next month. 

What if we all decided, right now, not just to do the things we have to do this week, but do dedicate ourselves to at least one act of blessing that we don't have to? One act of blessing that the world probably won't give us an award for, and could get along fine without? 

Now, if you've got a grouchy reputation to uphold, I don't want to mess with your mojo. I just think it's the things we DON'T HAVE to do that often have the greatest meaning. Like the things Jesus didn't have to do. What if we all decided to do an unnecessary, unexpected, unconditional act of blessing?

You've done that sort of thing before. Maybe it worked. Maybe it didn't. If you're thinking about whether it worked or not, you didn't do it right. Because then it's conditional. Maybe you didn't really mean to. But you've done it before. Restart.