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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

First Jesus Withdrew - 01/22/2017

Doing this Discover Islam education series in the community on Thursday nights has stirred up memories of my experiences in interfaith studies in seminary. In my senior year I took a class called Jesus and Muhammad. It was a small class of about a dozen people, Christians and Muslims, side by side, each of us curious about the others' relationships with and understandings of Jesus or Muhammad. It was co-taught by one of our Lutheran professor/pastors at LSTC, Mark Swanson, and Dr. Assi, a Muslim scholar from the Chicago area. These two men have dedicated much of their professional and personal lives to fostering interfaith dialogue. They have a way of encouraging this by speaking words of love and hope into spaces that can be tense and difficult at times, but in the end are so very fruitful.

In one of our first discussions as a class, they led us through an exercise. First the Christian students were asked to name all the ways we could describe Jesus. We joyfully  jumped to the task … son of God, Light of the Nations, Redeemer, Divine, Messiah, Resurrected, the Lamb of God  … etc. I still can feel the hope rise up inside me when I think of all these thing Jesuss is to us, to this world.

Then it was the Muslim students' turn. What words would they use to describe Muhammad? Model they said, first, and then man, prophet, husband, not divine, teacher, leader … etc.

And I remember it hit me almost right away as I listened to my classmates create this list … we Christians hadn't said “model” at all.

I  distinctly remember being curious about this difference between the two lists. I do think most Jesus-followers seek to model Jesus, but our list clearly showed that we were more keyed into Jesus' divinity than his humanity.

So I think a lot more about that now, and when I read the Gospels, I try to be a little more intentional about seeing ways in which followers of Jesus can model his walk on this planet – model his ministry, his interactions with others, his habits.

The gospel story from Matthew we have today is one of those places where we can find one of those modeling gems. Our reading for today has a lot going on in it. John the Baptist, who we've heard a lot about in the last couple of weeks, has been arrested.

Jesus delivers his first sermon to all with ears to listen: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!”

He calls his first disciples and we get one of our most beloved bible verses. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

In our minds perhaps we see these men looking up from their work as Jesus approaches, they are sitting in boats, just offshore, the fishing nets are in their hands, sea water drips from them. Jesus says follow and they drop the nets and come to shore, leaving their father bewildered in the boat, leaving all their familiars behind.

The ministry has begun, and so has the journey to Jerusalem, with teachings, proclamation of the good news of the kingdom and healing.

So much happens that we may miss where this all starts … first Jesus withdrew.

It is a reaction to the arrest of John the Baptist … the river prophet who told the people of the Messiah who was coming – the anointed one sent by God to free the people and bring about peace and justice in the world. When he baptized Jesus, the heavens opened up, remember? A dove landed on Jesus and a low and barely discernible voice rolled out of the heavens. I imagine it sounded a lot like wind and thunder, but there were words – “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” John the Baptist was right. The kingdom of heaven was near! He was arrested for that proclamation. He had caused hope to rise up too much in the people.

So Jesus withdrew. Maybe he felt overwhelmed by how dangerous this vocation was. When a Jewish man was arrested by representatives of the Roman empire, it probably wasn't going to end well.

And also, Jesus seemed to care deeply about John the Baptist. He would withdraw again when he learned of John the Baptist's execution at the hand of Herod. 

 Our gospel accounts of Jesus do often include these instances of how Jesus left the crowds – or tried any way – to be in a quiet place to pray. So I think we can imagine that following the news of John's arrest and death, Jesus withdrew to pray and grieve.

Interestingly this is the same word used when we hear how God spoke to the Magi and told them of Herod intentions. “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left (they withdrew) for their own country by another road.” (Mt 2:12)

 It is also the word used when God spoke to Joseph and told him to go to Egypt because Herod was trying to kill the child Jesus. “Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went (or withdrew) to Egypt.” (Mt 2:14)

The understanding we come away with then, is that these times of withdrawing from the situation at hand are times of prayer and also times of listening for the voice of God to come rolling out of the heavens once again, sounding, perhaps, a lot like thunder and wind, but carrying also God's word.

I had an experience something like this. When I was 15 years old I didn't speak more than five or 10 words a day for about three months. I'm not exactly sure if one thing prompted this or not. Looking back I remember this a being a hard time for me. I was afraid of a nuclear holocaust and it was haunting me. It was the year of the nuclear accident at Three-Mile Island. It was the year the Iran hostage crisis began. It was also just after I had made the move from my beloved Chicago, my Dad and my life there to the U.P. I was mad at my mom for a couple of years.

I imagine all this contributed to my self-imposed withdraw from communicating with the world.

I don't know what I was waiting for, it's not like I had had a plan – I was 15, quite stubborn, with a flair for the dramatic. I just knew I wanted something to be different. And I think I wanted my mom to feel as horrible as I did. And I wanted, more than anything, I thought – to move back to Chicago. I prayed a lot and I listened a lot.

That Christmas, my whole family in Manistique – my mom and sister and brother, my aunt and uncle and their two kids and my grandma – piled into a Winnebago and headed across the country to visit my other aunt and uncle near Los Angeles.

The adults took turns driving. I couldn't drive yet, but as the oldest kid in that motley crew, I did get navigator duty. My job as navigator was to interact with the driver and make sure they stayed alert. It wasn't a hard job with my Uncle John. He was always quite alert and filled up a space quickly with his presence and his voice.

So there I was late in the night, in the passenger seat. My Uncle John driving and singing ALL the songs from the musical Annie.

So I just sunk into that passenger seat, trying to get small and invisible, still holding my voice back, listening and praying. And that's when I heard it – it was the strangest thing, but it was quite real – thunder and wind and words – it was God, and I knew right then I was not going back to Chicago and there was a whole lot in store for me and, most importantly, I knew God was with me and I was going to be OK if I expanded my vision of myself beyond Chicago.

By the end of that trip I was speaking again and despite the turbulence in the world around me and my own difficulties in moving to a new way of life, I felt at peace and I felt that hope welling up in me.

Now, I am not advocating that everyone should withdraw for three months and speak to no one like a petulant 15-year-old. But I can see how this experience led to a deeper understand of the balance Jesus models for us here – of withdrawing for a time of quiet so he could hear what God was saying and discern how God was seeking to use him.

The other thing we begin to pick up on when we pay attention to how Jesus withdraws first, prays and listens, is the pattern of how that is often followed by powerful examples of God's activity in the world. In our reading today, Jesus withdraws and then emerges to proclaim the good news about the kingdom of heaven, calls his first disciples and begins his ministry of teaching and healing.

Later Jesus will withdraw and emerge to feed 5,000 seekers with five loaves of bread and two fishes. In another instance we will withdraw from the crowds and emerge to have an encounter with a Gentile woman that makes very clear the wideness of God's mercy – it's not just for the Jews, but for all people.

And finally, Jesus will withdraw for a time of payer and listening in the garden of Gethsemane. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” (Mt 26:39b) And then he will emerge and make the journey to the cross that comes to us here today in bread and wine – in our forgiveness and our own discipleship.

So let me end with a prayer today.

Let us pray,

God – you are so very present in our world – a world that we often clutter with noise and things and self and our own ambition.

We thank you for the gift of your Son, Jesus – the One who came as healing oil to be poured out over all of creation in a Divine conspiracy for our good, for our eternal lives.

And we thank you also for Jesus' example as a human being of your creation, like us in so many ways. We thank you for the way he taught us to quiet ourselves and listen for you – and so we pray you help us follow his example.

Let us withdraw first – and then emerge to speak words of love and honesty into our broken relationships, our friendships, our illnesses and our strengths, our failures and our triumphs.

Let us withdraw first – and then emerge to make this a faith community, a town, a state, a nation, a world where all your children are seen and loved as you see and love them.

Let us withdraw first – and then act, modeling our teacher Jesus and allowing your will to work through us. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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