Epiphany 3B Sermon (2000)

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


Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Wow! That sounds exciting! “Good News,” it says. It sounded so exciting that Peter and Andrew, James and John were willing to immediately drop everything in order to follow Jesus and be a part of it.

Does it still sound that exciting to us? Does it sound as exciting, for instance, as if the Packers were playing to go to the Super Bowl this afternoon instead of Tampa? Now, that’s an event that most of us would get really excited about. But the coming of God’s reign?

If that call of Jesus just doesn’t sound as exciting anymore, after two thousand years, I’d like to suggest that a big reason for us modern folks not seeing the coming of God’s Reign on earth as an exciting event is because we don’t really see it as an event anymore. Religion for us has mostly become a matter of personal belief, not really an event at all. If there is an event connected with it, it’s what happens to us when we die, at the end of our lives here on earth, not in the midst of them. What has come to matter to us the most is a person’s belief in Jesus as 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?

I want to suggest to you this morning that the coming of God’s reign is an event, the main event, and it is still exciting even after two thousand years. In fact, I’d like to say that it’s even more exciting today because it has been happening for two thousand years now. Right here in our midst, not in some far off place and time, even if we haven’t seen it as such. It’s the same event that St. Paul is grappling with in this morning’s second lesson, when he talks about “the present form of this world is passing away.” St. Paul is struggling, in this very strange and difficult reading, with the fact that the events of the cross and resurrection have changed everything. That’s how important an event this is. It changes everything, the very forms of our former worlds. So how does one live in this new world? Paul’s trying to understand. And we need to keep trying to understand, because it’s been happening for another two thousand years since St. Paul.

That’s why I’ve been so excited these last few years to discover the work of René Girard. He represents for me a next stage in this main event, this happening. Girard says that the Gospel impulse to see what really happened, because we know that Jesus was innocent and executed, is what led to modern science, a similar impulse to know what really happened. And now we have a more scientific understanding of what is happening to us, how it is that our old worlds are passing away and something new is coming into the world whether we like it or not.

How can we understand it? How can we see it? It’s not easy, as we can tell by these strange words from St. Paul. But it works best to see it if we choose a biblical image. It works best to see it if we start with the image of blood sacrifice. Have you ever noticed how the Bible, from beginning to end seems obsessed with it?


Well, according to the Bible, this is the happening that the cross and resurrection have begun: God has begun to transform our ways of sacrifice into ways of self-sacrifice, into loving service. You don’t believe that our ways are the ways of sacrifice? Why else is the Bible so obsessed with it? Girard’s work helps us to see more clearly the structure of our sacrificial ways that the ritual forms make obvious to us. By structure I mean this: to come together in community we always have to do so by excluding someone else. Sometimes, that’s just by simple neglect; we exclude them by ignoring them, leaving them out of the in group to fend for themselves, which often means death, because we humans really aren’t made to fend for ourselves. Sometimes, our exclusion is more active: we throw them. Sometimes, even more active: we kill them, we go to war against them. But the rest of us in-group come together by this exclusion. That’s the sacrificial way we need to see. It’s most obvious in the ancient forms of ritual sacrifice, so obvious that we have finally moved away from those forms, so that we can think ourselves more civilized than those who still practiced them.

Let’s start with an example, a recent story from the New York Times. 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:

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.

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. . . .

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:

There is little recorded 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.

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, their own more horrible forms of human sacrifice, as they performed genocide on the Aztecs to the point that very few of their ancestors have survived. 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 it’s 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 22-23, 2000


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