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Jesus Christ and Johnny Cash battling the wild beasts: another sermon on the baptism of Jesus

March 6th, 2006 by isaac · 2 Comments

I preached at church last night on the baptism of Jesus in Mark 2. It’s actually pretty funny because last month when I preached it was practically the same lectionary text! Anyhow, it was a great act of divine providence to get another change at that text because I thought I did a terrible job the first time. I’m interested in what anyone has to say about my attempt this time.
Title: The beast in me. Author: Isaac. Date: March 5, 2006. Lectionary text: Mark 2:9-15

That new Johnny Cash film came out on DVD the other day. I watched it the other night. And I thought I’d preach a sermon on Johnny Cash—you know, something hip like “the gospel according to Cash.” This journalist guy down in Florida wrote a couple books like that. One’s called “the gospel according to the Simpson’s,” and the other is “The gospel according to Disney.” But how about something a bit more modest: a sermon on the gospel according to Johnny Cash.

Well, that might be a little too ambitious as well—he has too many songs and his life has way too many interesting twists and turns. So, how about I’ll just on one song? I mean, who doesn’t like Cash, right? Ok, one song…a song from his later years, from the album that kicked off his American Recordings series in 1994. The song is called “The beast in me.” It’s an important song—Cash went as far as to say that it’s the emblematic song for his album (even though he didn’t write it—Nick Lowe wrote it for him). He says over and again, “God help the beast in me.”

Now, I have to admit, the subject I want to preach about this evening is pretty basic. So, please forgive me if all this is just review. I couldn’t help it—Cash’s gospel is simple; he shoots straight, no messing around. This is all I have: Why Jesus? What’s so special about Jesus appearing on the scene? Yeah, I know some of us got that sort of thing at Sunday school years ago. Very basic. But I don’t think it’s basic in the pejorative way—I don’t think it’s a question that we should dismiss as too elementary and move on the bigger and better things. It’s basic in the sense that it’s a question that always should agitate us as we go about the ordinary. It’s a question that we have to keep coming back to. Why Jesus? It’s a question at the foundation of Mark’s gospel.

So there’s Jesus in Mark chapter 2. Suddenly appearing on the scene. And he’s there with John. In the first chapter, Mark gives us a passage from Isaiah that says that a messenger of the Lord will prepare a way for the Lord in the wilderness. So, here’s John at the Jordan River, in the wilderness outside Jerusalem, and he’s attracting quite the crowd—people streaming from Jerusalem into the wilderness. And that’s where Jesus shows up suddenly, out in the desert, not in Jerusalem, the city of David as everyone would expect of a proper Messiah. No…Jesus, the Messiah of Israel is anointed on the outskirts of town, on the wrong side of the tracks. And he’s not anointed by some priest, or in the temple, but by this guy who eats locusts and honey—sorta like Winnie the Pooh? But probably not as cuddly, I imagine.

Anyhow, this landscape is explosive. Mark makes the rocks and trees proclaim the good news of Jesus. He takes us back to the wilderness and to the Jordan. Mark draws from important images in Israel’s history. The book of Deuteronomy is framed by the Jordan River. At the beginning of the book God tells the people to cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land. But they doubted God’s protective care and had to stay in the wilderness—they feared the inhabitants of the land. And at the end of Deuteronomy (i.e., ch.31) God takes Moses to the edge of the Jordan and tells him he cannot enter the Promised Land. Joshua will lead the people across the Jordan and into the land, not Moses.

But now here’s Jesus, and he’s returning to the Jordan. You see, Joshua succeeded where Moses fell short. Joshua made it past the Jordan and conquered Canaan and paved the way for the city of David, Jerusalem. But now Jesus is going back to the wilderness, back to the Jordan, back to the figure of Joshua. Mark is presenting Jesus as the new Joshua—it’s actually the same word in Greek: Joshua, Jesus = same Greek word.

In the times of Jesus, the promised land of Joshua had grown weary; its people, Israel, felt the burden of foreign dominion—the Roman Empire is breathing down its neck. Jewish revolts flared up across Palestine. Revolution, liberation was in the air. The people cry out for deliverance; they beg for God’s salvation, God’s redemption, God’s liberation. Joshua may have succeeded as a deliverer but that was only for a time; the people are now in need of another deliverer, a stronger one—one anointed as God’s special emissary ready to crush the head of the serpent, to strike a devastating blow to the dominion of Satan.

Jesus must go back to the Jordan; he must return to the Promised Land as the Lord’s anointed one—the Messiah, the Son of God, sent to deliver the beloved people from oppression, from subjugation. The people of God cry out in a loud voice for redemption. They shake their clenched fists at heaven and beg for God to come down and set them free from enemy rule, from the suffocating darkness settling over the Promised Land.

And these cries pierce the heavens. “The heavens are torn open,” Mark tells us. The Spirit of God descends like a dove to anoint the one who will deliver the people from the powers of the enemy. And the heavens are split; the curtain between heaven and earth is torn; a change has taken place in the cosmos.

This language comes from Isaiah 64—read the whole thing if you get a. I’m sure it sounded a bit like a manifesto for the Jews of Jesus’ day. But let me quote just the first verse: “Oh, that you would rip the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! Come down and make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you.” This is apocalyptic language—words that speak of the end of the world as we know it. This stuff is of the same sort as those terrifying passages later on in Mark’s gospel, in chapter 13.

The heavens are torn—this is the sort of change that leaves a different world. This is the power of God breaking through all the layers of evil’s dominion. The cries of the people of God escape the censure of the secret police and reach the throne room of God, and God answers with power. Like Paul says, nothing shall separate us from the love of God.

God answers with a son, with the child of Mary, a human being like us, a descendent of Adam, a creature formed from dirt. This chosen one is God’s secret weapon. Yeah it’s true, he’s a human just like the rest. And he’s a child of Israel like all the others. And he’s a child of God, just like you and me. But this one is a new beginning. This one marks a new era. This one begins the reign of God. “The time has come,” Jesus says, “The kingdom of God has come near” (v15). The air is electric with anticipation. All creation groans as something new is born.

God tears open the sky as the Spirit descends like a dove and hovers over the waters. Just like those dark waters in Genesis 1, at the beginning of creation. But, at these Jordan waters, there is a new creation, a new movement of God, a rebirth. Jesus is the new Adam, the anointed one of God, the Messiah of Israel sent to save the world from the powers of sin. And this Jesus marks a special site; his body is the place where heaven breaks into our condition and breaches the boundary between heaven and earth.

This Jesus is the focal point of the streams of light, streams from heaven, the Holy Spirit descending like a dove. And now there is a gaping hole, a “gracious gash” (Joel Marcus) in our world where the kingdom of God now freely flows into our presence, into this moment, this place, our gathering, this fellowship—this Spirit from heaven is flowing in and through us, all of us. Heaven has come near to us in Jesus. The kingdom is at hand. The heavens are torn open forever. This flow of the Spirit shatters all bounds, all walls, and streams down into Jesus and through Jesus into all creation.

Through our baptisms we have been brought into the baptism of Jesus, baptized into the body of Christ, into this movement of the Spirit. We come here, we gather together to worship our Lord through our fellowship, and taste those waters of life, those streams of living water coming down from the throne-room of God, made present for us through the Spirit. The Spirit is in our midst because we are in Jesus. We’re in Christ’s body. That’s what baptism means.

But what does this Spirit do to us, now that we are in Jesus, in Christ’s body? The text says the Spirit throws us out in the wilderness, out into the desert where Jesus resisted the powers of Satan, where he thwarted the advances of the Adversary. In the desert we are faced with out fears, faced with those wild beasts.

Now, the last time I preached this same passage I used this icon (see this post for image). And I think my problem last time was that I chose the wrong icon—I’m just looking for an excuse… it was a lousy sermon, hopefully nobody remembers it. But, interestingly, it was the same lectionary text. (The lectionary does funny things sometimes). I know this is probably a bit irreligious—which might be ok since Mennonites don’t take pride in religiousness. But I think this might be the better icon for this evening. (look here to see the image). This is the American Recordings album I talked about earlier. And on it we see Johnny Cash, the man in black; and he’s in the wilderness with the wild animals—one on each side.

The danger with thinking that the Spirit sends us out into the desert, into the wilderness all around us, to battle the beasts is that we end up thinking the beast is always over there, out there—at the office, at school, in the White House, on the streets, in Iraq, wherever. All that may be true. But Johnny Cash says “God help the beast in me.”

Cash is out there in the wilderness with the wild animals and discovers the beast in himself. God shatters the sky and pours out heaven into our presence and we are driven by the Spirit into the desert. And in the desert we discover that Christ has come to set us free from all Satan’s powers that hold God’s good creation in bondage. And we come to see that the same beasts out there are inside us. “The beast in me.” How will we ever be set free from the evil that besets us on all sides—inside and out?

But hear the good news of Christ our Lord, our saviour. Jesus is there in the wilderness with us. We are not alone as we resist the enemy. The body of Christ is there with us, if we choose to look away from ourselves and into those around us. And so, in this surrounding wilderness, in our deserts, in our very midst, our very selves, where wild beasts roam, Christ comes and surrounds us with the Spirit. The sky is torn open and heaven comes to us in the wilderness, as we confront the wild animals. And we come to see this place, this desert—inside us and out there—where Satan established his foothold, as the fountain from which the kingdom of God will flow and bring new creation to a dry and weary land.

I’m sure you can think of plenty of places that feel like wilderness, like those open spaces where the wild animals roam ready to tear your flesh apart; and where, like Cash says, those beasts inside us are ready to tear apart our neighbors. But I don’t want to start calling out sins or anything like that. I want to talk about a wilderness a little closer to home, something that’s going to happen right after this service—the community life meeting. I know, it’s not too exciting; the stuff we talk about is just so ordinary—stuff like, what we’re doing with our money, what’s the deal with membership, what’s up with the deacons, those sorts of things. All that mundane stuff that we talk about so we can keep on being the church.

But I wonder if that’s our wilderness. I get impatient, as we wander around issues; keep on talking about the same thing forever; sit there in awkward silence. And we get frustrated with each other—we may even turn into wild animals, raging around, mauling each other, talking about this fellowship that is so close to our hearts.

But this is an important time together. It’s our wilderness where we unmask those beasts inside us, raging about. It’s a time when we have to listen and look really hard at each other, cultivate those gifts of attentiveness, and see how we are all a bunch of wild animals created for fellowship. That wilderness is the place where the Spirit pours out the kingdom in our midst, shows us that Jesus is with us—that Jesus comes to us through the ones around us. And like Jesus, after this time in the wilderness, we are ready to proclaim the good news: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is here. Repent and believe.” It’s here, heaven is here, it’s in those places where the wild animals roam—we just need each other to help see it.

Tags: sermons

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Eric Lee // Mar 9, 2006 at 4:31 pm

    Through our baptisms we have been brought into the baptism of Jesus, baptized into the body of Christ, into this movement of the Spirit. We come here, we gather together to worship our Lord through our fellowship, and taste those waters of life, those streams of living water coming down from the throne-room of God, made present for us through the Spirit. The Spirit is in our midst because we are in Jesus. We’re in Christ’s body. That’s what baptism means.

    Issac, this is beautiful. How very interesting, too, as we are preparing a couple of people within our congregation for baptism during Lent. Also, at our Bible study last night, we were reading the end of Acts 10 and then got into somewhat of a lengthy conversation about Baptism and the Eucharist. The conversation got tangential and weird when we seemed to forgot that Baptism and the Eucharist is first and foremost about God, not our own devices. Thanks for reminding us of this.



  • 2 isaac // Mar 14, 2006 at 3:46 pm

    Eric, thanks for reading the sermon. And I am especially glad it connected with your church life. I think that’s what I like about preaching the most: it somehow gives me an opportunity to say something about us—i.e., the church—and what we do and think. I write so many papers and every time I turn one in I get depressed because it seems to make no difference (just one or two people read it). And I think that’s why at the end of my sermons I have to get concrete, I have to make the message particular. Like in this one I turned to the community life meeting as my church’s wilderness. The more and more I preach and the more I hear preachers, I just get so frustrated when the message stays so abstract—it seems so vacuous. It’s like that passage from Sebastian Moore I posted a while ago: “He is opening up before the thirsty wanderer the mirage that is the final exacerbation of thirst.” So many preachers paint a picture of a beautiful mirage and I’m left totally thirsty, maybe even more thirsty than before. I need something I can taste, something I can feel, something concrete—like a person, the one I’m looking at, the one at my side, the one on the street, the one in the newspaper. So, I guess, that’s why I usually turn to something quite particular, a specific part of church life, at the end of my sermon. I speak from my own need. And I need preaching that takes me into a new world where everything comes alive, where my old exhausted reality is transfigured into the site of God’s triune overflow of living love. But that takes work, hard work…poetry. And hopefully, some day, I can do that. And as I wait for that idealistic day to come, I hope for those surprise moments when my frail words somehow lead a listener (just one, that’s all I want) into the divine life. But most of the time I make myself sick with all my stammering words.