Downward

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
February 7, 2021
Mark 1:29-39

After an exhausting day of ministry; after teaching, healing, casting out demons, Jesus goes to pray. But as his fame begins to grow, it’s harder for Jesus to have any privacy. The disciples find Jesus and say, “Everyone is searching for you” (Mark 1:37). Everyone is searching for you. Of course they are. Jesus is casting out demons, he’s healing the sick, he’s proclaiming good news. Who wouldn’t want to find Jesus? Jesus has what everyone is looking for – meaning, community, purpose, health, connection, grace, love. Everyone is searching for Jesus. And at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, it seems that things could only get better from there because everyone, everyone wants what Jesus has.

But it doesn’t stay that way for long. In fact, things get worse. At the end of the story, at the end of the gospel we see Jesus again praying by himself in the dark, in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night before he is crucified. And rather than the disciples hunting for him, they are deserting him. Sure, there are people looking for Jesus on that fateful night; but they come with swords and spears when at one time they came with their pains and sorrows. And the people? The people who once came flocking to Jesus for healing and compassion are now clamoring for his execution. What we read today is the mirror image of what we will read on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Though we might think that the story of Jesus will be a continuous ascent into glory, it’s really about Jesus descending into the depths of human depravity, treachery, and suffering. And Jesus goes beyond that, even to hell itself. Redemption only comes after desolation. That is the story. A story of suffering and betrayal and disillusionment and anguished prayer. A story of downward mobility. Yes, we suppose that Jesus could have claimed power and authority for himself. We suppose that Jesus could have marched in with an army of angels to destroy the Romans. We suppose that Jesus could have set himself up as king; it would’ve been so easy with his fame and popularity. But that is not who God is. Jesus took a different path, the path of humility. 

And in that, we see the whole story of God. Not just the story of Jesus, but the fullness of who God is. God dwells in Light Inaccessible in Heavenly Realms beyond our knowing. And yet God is the very one who chooses to be near. This God of power and might is the same God who rested on the seventh day; this is the same God who called Moses to deliver the Hebrews; this is the same God who lamented at the destruction of the holy city Jerusalem; this is the same God who was with John the Baptist when he was beheaded; this is the same God who empowered Paul to die for his faith; this is the same God who inspires the martyrs to face the burning stake and the sword. This God is the very God who plumbs even into the depths of the human soul and dwells in the fullness of human pain. This is the same God who bears our infirmities; this is the same God who lives in the anguished hearts of parents who see their children in pain; this is the same God who finds a home in every ICU bed; this is the same God who makes space in every morgue. This God defines humility.

Yet we turn from this God through our own petty little sins and through the system and history of sins that we perpetuate. We seek out the Lord God when we want blessings but turn away when we are challenged. We praise and then we crucify. And still God will not abandon us. Every time we manage to find new ways to sin, God will go even lower so that we will not fall into the abyss. This is a God of downward mobility. Downward mobility. 

So why do we construct our lives to go the opposite way? Why do we get so easily swindled by easy teachings, catchy sayings, and promises of prosperity masquerading as Christian doctrine?

See, we have a serious problem in Christianity. We are stuck in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark; we search for Jesus because he’s handing out all the easy stuff. We are grateful, rightfully so, that Jesus Christ has been born for us and goes about teaching and preaching and casting out demons. We are more than happy to receive the healing and the blessing but when it comes to picking up the cross? When it comes to the anguish of the Garden of Gethsemane and the hard wood, and the nails,. and the sting of the whip? When it comes to actually changing our ways? “Well, thanks but no thanks.” We have not matured in faith. So I say it’s time for us Christians to grow up. And to grow up we have to lower ourselves.

I’m especially reminded of this on Scout Sunday, which we celebrate today. Whenever I mention to people that I was in Boy Scouts they ask if I am an Eagle Scout. When I share that I am, they go on to congratulate me for climbing the ranks, for earning an award. But that misses the whole point. I only became an Eagle Scout because some older scout showed me how to correctly wear a backpack. I only got to where I am because of those adults who taught me merit badges, and mentored me, and showed me how to serve others. I think about that other scout who showed me the differences among a clove hitch, a taut line hitch, and two half hitches. Those are knots, by the way. The very fact that people congratulate me on being an Eagle Scout is a symbol of the problem. The honor should not be given to the one who has risen through the ranks. No, the honor should be given to the ones who lower themselves to serve.

I know that it is seductive to be the center of attention; it is seductive to receive the accolades; to be congratulated. I know it’s seductive because I’ve felt it. It feels really good to hear someone say to you, “everyone is searching for you.” But I believe that once Jesus heard those words he took the divine step downward; not to greater glory, not to gain more followers, not to attract more people to his cause. No, he took the deliberate step to the cross. 

And this, I think, is why Jesus went to go pray. When everybody was clamoring for Jesus, just as he was becoming famous, maybe he felt that pull upwards. Maybe he heard that sinister voice that tells us to gain glory for ourselves, to increase our popularity. But instead Jesus wakes up in the early morning, in the dead of the night, and goes out to pray. And in prayer Jesus comes face to face with the fullness of his identity – in prayer Jesus is called downward. He’s called into greater service, into greater love. He is called to go to the different towns and proclaim the message there also instead of staying around in that town and resting on his laurels. From that moment of prayer, the rest of the Gospel of Mark is one long journey down to the cross.

Think about your own life now. And I have a word of challenge for you. Whenever you are feeling that call upwards; whenever you are being seduced to raise yourself up; go and pray. Go with Jesus, in the dark of the night and open your heart to God. Don’t listen to the crowds who congratulate you or who sing your praises. Most of them are only doing that because they want something from you. No, go out in the dark night of your soul and listen for that still small voice. You will know that voice is true because that voice, the Holy Spirit of God, will call you downward.

Granted, this will make you appear very odd to the rest of the world. As it did for Jesus. My old theology professor puts it this way: “To know this One, to think these thoughts, is to become a stranger in a strange land, all in the midst of the life and world and time we know so well. Such is the Crisis of Holiness” (Sonderegger, Systematic Theology: Volume 2, The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons, 332). 

In this 2021 – Year of Prayer, I hope that we all learn be strangers; to go out, in the dark of the night, and to listen for the Holy One. To find space away from the crowds, away from our own selfish aspirations, and to listen to God. And then finally, to make our way down to the cross.

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