Epiphany 3B Sermon (1997)

3rd Sunday after Epiphany
Texts: Mark 1:14-20;
Jonah 3; 1 Cor. 7:29-31


Children’s Sermon

I just happened to have a bunch of Super Bowl tickets here. Anybody want one? [Hand out tickets to those they indicate they want one.] Ah, I see we have a few Green Bay fans here! What an exciting day, heh? These aren’t real tickets, of course, but it’s fun to dream, isn’t it? If these were real, we’d find a way to get to New Orleans fast. We’d drop everything we’re doing–including church, right now!–and we’d get to the airport fast. If we caught the first flight to New Orleans, I think we’d still be able to make it. Wow! Wouldn’t that be great!?

And there are Green Bay fans who almost did that. When the Packers won the championship two weeks ago, they canceled all their other plans and made plans for the Super Bowl. They spent thousands of dollars to drop everything else and make sure that they got to the game today. But, when you’re a big fan, and if you can afford it, you’ve got to be there. It’s too big an event. Packer fans have been waiting a long time for this–thirty years! And every Packer fan would want to be there today.

Now, I do have some other tickets here, too. They’re for the Kingdom of God Bowl. Any takers? Do we have any big fans for the Kingdom of God? Anyone who is ready to drop everything they’re doing and go? Well, I just read a story about some people who were. St. Mark tells us that Jesus came preaching that the Kingdom of God is coming, and there was at least four people who dropped everything immediately to come with Jesus. The first four disciples–Peter and Andrew, James and John–all dropped their fishing nets (because they were fishermen) and immediately went to follow Jesus. Wow! They must have been big fans of the Kingdom of God to do that! And they had been waiting a long time, too, for centuries and centuries. If the Kingdom of God was coming, then this was just too big an event to miss.

Now, I have to be honest: it’s just been in the last few years that the Kingdom of God has seem as exciting to me as the Super Bowl. Until these last five years or so, the Kingdom of God has seemed like a big event to me. One of the reasons, I think, is that Christians have most often thought about the Kingdom of God as heaven, as the place where you go when you die. But if the Kingdom of God is where you go when you die, then why were Peter and Andrew, James and John so fired up to go immediately to follow Jesus? No, I think that they thought that the Kingdom of God is more than that. I think that Peter and Andrew, James and John had a sense that it was a big event coming real soon and that they wanted to be part of it. A big event, kind of like today’s Super Bowl. I think that’s why they dropped everything to follow Jesus.

I need to talk more about this with your Moms & Dads, and all our other friends here about this, because, as I said, it’s only been the last few years that I started to understand this better myself. But before you go back to your seats, I want you to notice something about these tickets to the Kingdom of God Bowl. It says on there that “God invites you to play!” Did you know that? God’s wants you to be a part of this big event! That’s even better than the Super Bowl! You only get to watch the Super Bowl. Only the Packers and Patriots get to actually play in this year’s Super Bowl, Reggie and Brett and all the rest. But for God’s Kingdom you even get to play. You get to show God’s love to others just like all us grown-ups. I just wanted you to know how special this event is, that you get to play, too. Thanks for coming up. Enjoy that Super Bowl today! And then, like it says on your ticket, God’s Kingdom is every day. So enjoy sharing that love of God today, tomorrow, and all the days after!


How about the rest of you? Do you experience the coming of God’s Kingdom as exciting of an event as the Super Bowl? It’s only been the last few years for me, really. And I think it’s because I really didn’t have much of a picture of God’s Kingdom as an event. I mentioned the part to the kids about thinking about it as heaven, a place where we go when we die. That’s part of it, I think. But I’d like to suggest another reason it’s hard for us modern persons to see the Coming of God’s Kingdom as an event, as an event we really want to be part of like the Super Bowl. And then I will sketch out how things have changed for me over the last several years.

I’d like to suggest to us that a big reason for modern folks not seeing the coming of God’s Reign on earth as an event is that religion has mostly become for us a matter of personal belief. And it’s connected with that view of heaven as the place we go when we die. What matters most is a person’s belief in Jesus as a ticket to heaven, almost like one of these tickets here. Our belief in Jesus gets us a ticket to heaven. Isn’t this something like the most common way we have approached the coming of God’s reign. Do we even see it as a reign here on earth? Or only in heaven, where we go when we die?

Now, most of us do have some notion that God’s Kingdom means more than that, that it’s about sharing love with others, and things like that. But I still think this strong emphasis on making a personal decision, about what you do or don’t believe, has gotten in the way of getting a clear picture of that. For Peter and Andrew, James and John to have immediately dropped what they were doing, I think they must have had a notion of the coming of God’s reign as a big event–too big of an event to be missed. They probably had the wrong kind of an event in mind when they started out, but they saw it as event nonetheless. How about us? Do we see it as an event at all? If so, what kind? If it’s like the rapture idea, which is still popular today, that God will come and punish all the bad people and save the good people–well, that’s more like the idea that Peter and Andrew, James and John had in mind when they dropped their nets and followed Jesus. The event that they came to witness–Jesus’ death and the cross and then his rising from the dead to forgive them and to set them straight–well, this was all quite different than what they imagined at the beginning. In the cross and resurrection they came to know of God’s reign of the power of love and forgiveness into this world in a way that we still haven’t come to appreciate, I think.

So let me suggest a way to see the coming of God’s Reign in this world as an event, a big event that began in the cross and that has spanned all these two thousand years, slowly but surely changing the world in ways we might not even realize. And I’m going to start with what might seem like a strange example, but it’s one that spans many of those centuries to help us to see how this is an event that is changing the world. My example begins with this modern story from the New York Times called “In Back of the New Mall, an Age-Old Ritual Slaughter.”

Tehuacan, Mexico — Past the Nissan dealership and Tehuacan Ford, just beyond the pastel-colored tract homes going up on the edge of town, the Slaughter of the Goats has begun again.As they have at every harvest, the goatherds have brought their animals … to this market town, and the matanceros, the butchers, have come from the nearby village of San Gabriel Chilac. Each day for two weeks, or as long as the herd might last, they will fill the courtyard of an old hacienda here with an ancient ritual of blood and death.

I said this story spans the centuries! Here’s the kind of ritual sacrifice that we thought was left behind long ago still practiced today. But as we read in the story, this ritual is beginning to finally lose its appeal, its power:

On the first and last mornings of the slaughter, there is still a dance — dancing the goats, the Indians call it. And each afternoon…, the goat killers rise up on their knees as their fathers did, to pray at their chopping blocks for the Lord’s protection…

Some of the dancers have begun to forget their steps, and no one seems to remember why one of them holds a flaming chalice toward the sky. Some in the courtyard say that this might be the last matanza, or that at most there might be a few more.

Why is this ritual losing its cathartic power? The article tells us:

It has been six or seven years since the matanceros could slash the necks of a thousand goats each day and let them stagger about the patio bleeding until they died. Because of the protest of animal rights campaigners in Mexico City. . . , the killing is now done with guns — thick, black livestock pistols that leave neat holes in the goats’ heads. . . . There is little recorder history of the slaughter, and some dispute over the prevalent notion that it supplanted rituals of human sacrifice, that existed here before the Spaniards brought their goats and stockmen’s guilds to the New World. But to view the slaughter as merely a way to butcher goat meat would seem to ignore the intensity and seeming symbolism of what takes place. . . .

This is amazing, isn’t it. From human sacrifice to animal sacrifice, and now even that is going by the wayside because of the protests of animal rights campaigners. But what is truly amazing about all this, I think, is that we as modern people don’t really realize where all these changes have come from, do we? Listen to what the writer of the article says: he implies that the Aztecs quit their practice of human sacrifice when the Spaniards brought goats and stockmen’s guilds. But are we to believe that the Aztecs had to wait for the Europeans to bring goats before they decided to kill animals instead of humans? Didn’t they have any other animals to use themselves? Or was it that the Spaniards brought something else that’s more likely to have caused that transformation? Yes, they brought the Gospel of Jesus Christ! Now, they brought it almost like a virus, mind you. Because we all know that they brought conquest and pillage and their own forms of killing and death. But didn’t they also bring something else? I’d like to suggest to you that the Gospel has been working all the while, however crudely the host who carried it may have behaved. When those ships landed, they carried the Gospel virus, and it caused a transition from human to animal sacrifice. And since then, it has continued to work on us to the point that we even have animal rights activists who campaign for the animals who are still being slaughtered.

Do you see what has happened slowly over the past two thousand years since the cross? We have come to gradually see things more and more from the viewpoint of the victims created by our usual way of doing things. Until today we even see things from the point of view of animals who are treated cruelly. But do you see that its the point of view of Jesus, the innocent victim on the cross to our brand of brutality, that has slowly gotten us to see things from that point of view, too. That where all the rights movements have come from in recent years, hasn’t it? Racial equality, women’s rights, multi-culturalism, advocacy for abused children–all these things have come, I believe, from the power of the Gospel slowly making changes in our world.

Now, the writer of that article is also an example of a third reason why we haven’t come to see the Kingdom of God as an event. The writer of the article chalks up the change in Aztec sacrifice to us, to the Spaniards bringing goats and stockmen’s guilds. And I think that a problem in general: we have taken credit for all these changes in recent years, all these rights movement. We see ourselves as just having finally grown-up, as having come to age as a civilization. We give ourselves the credit in this sort of way.

But no! We aren’t it at all! It’s the Gospel, the Holy Spirit, having worked all these centuries on us since Jesus that is finally helping us to get it. The coming of God’s Kingdom is an event that has been changing the world for two thousand years, changing the world much more than we know or realize, I think, because we have tended to take the credit for it. But we’d better wake up, because we still don’t have it quite right. Things have changed around so much for the victim in our time–again, something utterly unique and unheard in the past–that victim has begun to be a dirty word. Everyone now wants to claim victimhood because that’s who gets the power now to turn things around on those labeled as victimizers. Claiming victimhood has become the most common way to turn around and victimize someone else. Claiming victimhood has become a way of not taking any responsibility, of blaming someone else, and of trying to turn the tables of power on those designated as the former victimizers. Folks, let me suggest to you that this is an event that never would have happened without the Gospel working without our even realizing it. But because we haven’t realized it’s the Gospel, we still haven’t gotten it quite right. The Gospel is a way for each of us to take responsibility for the ways in which we victimize others because Christ, the truly innocent victim, forgives us. He forgives us. And he invites each of us to be part of this life-changing, this world-changing event. Little did Peter and Andrew, James and John know exactly what event they were signing up for that day. They knew it would be a big event, the biggest in the history of the world, but they didn’t know quite how until afterwards, until Jesus came back from the grave to forgive them. And Jesus invited them to start again because things were only beginning. Yes folks, even after two thousand years, there’s a sense in which things are only beginning. It’s the biggest event in all the world, and Jesus still invites you and me to be part of it! Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, January 25-26, 1997


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