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." 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
Not much of a come-on with that title. Please bear with me.
I’ve thinking about it, history that is. A college classmate has me reading a book I probably wouldn’t have chosen, tracing the discovery in the late Middle Ages of an ancient Roman poem. Talk about the mists of time. We can only go so far back and human footprints disappear. Oh, they are forever digging up relics and chipping some frozen Alpine ancient out of the ice. But, let’s face it, we don’t know very much, humanly speaking, of humanity’s origins.
Almost as little as we know about where we are going.
Jesus appears in Galilee and declares that this time, about which we know so little of its origin and its destiny, isn’t emptiness but fullness. Or, more accurately, fulfilledness. Modesty prevents the young Jewish rabbi from saying it as baldly as I shall: that in him, the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, we behold the design for the creation, from its beginning to its ending.
Now you know why I spent fifty years in the pulpit and endless hours with confirmands on behalf of a young man who died almost two thousand years ago.
Because in him lies the explanation and the best hope for the human race. That is, for history.
I mean his embrace of everybody. No one is beyond his reach. Look at the Gospel accounts. He found time and room for children and women and lepers and Pharisees and wastrels, soldiers and thieves, the rich and the poor, “all sorts and conditions of man,” as the old politically incorrect collect puts it. He was, frankly, indiscriminate in his welcoming spirit, a spirit that runs counter to our perennial felt-need for hierarchies, moral, academic, ecclesiastical, political, you name it, elevating some to thrones and consigning others to the ash heap.
Which, the ash heap, otherwise known as Golgotha, let us not forget, is where the young rabbi flings wide his arms to enfold the entire world: “God so loves…”
History, by starts and fits, lurches in that direction, where with the young rabbi’s eyes we see each other and all others as members of one earthly family.
But I also mean the way he makes in this world. How very different it is from all the others who think they can lead us to a better place. They would fight fire with fire. They would live by the sword… and die by it. Theirs is the fist and the hammer. And in this world so prone to violence, a world that perceives weakness as an invitation to slaughter, who can blame the hero who defends the powerless with the might of his arm, the logic of his mind, and the accuracy of his guns?
Laughable, it sometimes seems, to propose, as Jesus does, a strategy of weakness. The turned cheek. The seventy times seven of forgiveness. The love for the enemy. The second mile. Supremely, the way of the cross. There are, to be sure, those among the young rabbi’s most devoted following who see no contradiction between “God and guns,” who “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition,” whose favorite depiction of their hero is as an avenging angel.
Which, to tell the truth, turns the Gospel upside down. For that Gospel celebrates a King who rides donkeys. It chronicles, not his self-getting, his total self-giving. It honors him as the master who claims his best achievement is to serve. It crowns him with thorns. It enshrines his greatest accomplishment, two killing crossed beams of wood.
History does not confirm the persuasiveness of the young rabbi’s strategy. Mostly, the world doesn’t know what to do with it. Still it persists. Two thousand years later, and counting.
Sunday morning, every Sunday morning, and several times in between, Christians are wont to pray a certain prayer. That prayer’s first petition sounds like the opening words out of Jesus’ mouth as he begins his earthly ministry, now on our lips, asking Our Father, “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” That happens, the kingdom coming, when - following that bearer of a cross a couple of millennia earlier - Christians (and anyone else) embrace the stranger and make a peaceable way through time. Like God intended.
Then history achieves its purpose.