The Water Gospel

John appeared in the desert, as a voice crying out in the wilderness. The world has always been a wilderness, a desert, waiting for someone to speak the word of God. It was true then, it is true now. John was not just a voice, he also baptised people to prepare them for someone greater than himself. John didn’t start a religion. He announced the coming of someone who will rise above religion! That man was Jesus, and he also came to John to be baptised – his first public appearance at age of 30. He didn’t wait in the sidelines, aloof from the ordinary people. He came as one of them. (Luke 3:1-22)

Temptations (Luke 4:1-12). Jesus overcame three temptations that are central to human existence:

  1. Hunger. Not enough to feed the body. There is another hunger that Amos spoke of, hunger for the word of God: “The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.” (Amos 8:11-12) That was God speaking, by the way.
  2. Worldly power. Ambition for political power and control is straight from the devil. God allows governments to exist so they will work for the common good. But when they act only for power and domination, they are under the devil’s command.
  3. Religious exhibitionism and misuse of Scripture. The devil quotes Scripture! Easy to use religion and scriptures for one’s own ambitions.

Jesus appears in synagogue in his hometown, Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30). He reads from Isaiah, a powerful passage:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

He announces that Isaiah’s words are fulfilled this day in their hearing! He is the fulfillment! The people are amazed and speak well of him. But it doesn’t last long. He goes on to tell them of Elijah’s miracles. When he reminds them that the only leper that Elijah healed was Naaman the Syrian, they drive him out of town and try to throw him off the cliff to kill him! God forbid that a Syrian was healed instead of the many lepers of Israel. Religions like to be exclusive – us, not them.

In another synagogue, in Capernaum, he confronts a demon. The demon pleads with Jesus and recognises him as the Holy One of God. Jesus quietly drives the demonic spirit out. It’s an amazing short scene, almost a conversation between two who know each other. The demon recognises what the people of Jesus’ own hometown did not. (Luke 4:31-37)

More healings, more demons shouting, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Messiah. Amazing scenes. (Luke 4:38-41)

Chapter 4 concludes with Jesus stating that he has come to preach the good news of the kingdom of God to other cities as well. So he leaves. And that’s where chapter 5 begins with the calling of the first disciples (Luke 5:1-11).

Luke’s version is very different from the versions we read in the other three Gospels. I love the contrast between Jesus and Peter. Jesus is almost playful, getting into a boat and preaching from the boat! Peter does the religious thing: he calls himself a sinner. How easy to do that. Sin is the language the church teaches. Jesus goes on the water, where all life originated, to show that the Word of God cannot be tied down to anything that doesn’t move, that doesn’t sway, that doesn’t play, but also that doesn’t face danger! Water is life-giving. But water can also be deadly. The Word of God is a double-edged sword according to Hebrews: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12)

The church is too anchored, too unmoving, too safe, and prone to manipulating people with constant talk of sin. Peter represents the classic church mentality. No wonder Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesus would build his church on Peter. I never took that passage too seriously. I prefer the playfulness of Jesus that I see in today’s Gospel reading. Yes, following Jesus is serious stuff. But every once in a while he invites us to get out of our safe zones on land and go with him on the waters that are constantly changing and constantly playing with our certainties. So I’m calling today’s message, the Gospel of Water – or better yet, the Water Gospel.

Once upon a time a sculptor was chipping away at a huge block of marble. Two young children, a boy and a girl, watched him work for many weeks. They stood silently and were amazed when finally a magnificent lion emerged from the stone and stood towering over them. They ran to him excitedly, their eyes wide with wonder and asked: “How did you know that there was a lion hidden in that rock?” The sculptor laughed and wondered to himself how he could answer their question. He looked at the children and said: “I was very quiet when I first started and listened to the stone and I heard the lion roaring inside. Then I chipped away at everything that wasn’t the lion and set him free!”

We have covered Jesus with so much of our own making that we need to do what that sculptor told the children. We must chip away all the stuff that hides Jesus from us, so that he can come out again in all his playful and surprising glory. As I look at these early chapters of Luke, this is the message that I’m getting. Perhaps it helps you too in your own search for Jesus. Don’t be afraid to join him in the swirling waters of life. 

The above was preached as a sermon on September 27th, the First Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church. The audio file of the sermon is available below for listening or downloading.

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