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If you are a folk-rocker of a certain age, you may remember a Jackson Browne song called “Before the Deluge.” Like a lot of popular music in the mid-1970s, it was depressing but singable.
The gist of the song was this: Things are going to hell in a handbasket, so let’s hold onto what’s good while we can. Let’s protect our earth as well as we can. Let’s love each other as well as we can. “Let the music keep our spirits high. … Let creation reveal its secrets by and by, by and by/When the light that’s lost within us reaches the sky.”
Reflecting post-Vietnam anger, post-Watergate delusion, and deepening angst over environmental disasters, the song did pretty well on the Billboard charts. Reflecting an “eat, drink, and be happy for tomorrow we die” philosophy as old as Ecclesiastes, the song rang true to much of human experience over much of history.
If you’re one of those kinds of people who believes there are only two kinds of people in the world—say, those who dwell on the “hell in a handbasket” part of life and those who live it up regardless, this song had a little something for everyone. The sentiment of the song, if not the piano-and-guitar musical style, is timeless.
And it is exactly the opposite of the Jesus way. It is diametrically opposed to everything the gospel is about.
Hear again the beginning of our gospel reading:
After John (that would be John the Baptist, the wild-man prophet who was preparing the way for Jesus) was arrested (and, as every Jew knew, would not be leaving his prison cell alive), Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and your lives, and trust this good news!”
Did you catch that?
After John was arrested and thus became a dead man walking, after the powers that be took out another leader of the people, after the authorities acted again to snuff out any hope of empowerment, after things for first-century Jews went from really bad to even worse, Jesus—an unknown country bumpkin from the tiny town of Nazareth—started proclaiming good news and calling poor and oppressed people, powerless and hopeless people to follow him.
Follow who? Follow him where? Follow him how?
And good news? Here comes God’s reign? Are you kidding? Don’t you know that things are going to hell in a handbasket?
It would be as if the story said,
After the president heightened the threat of nuclear war, Jesus said, “Hey, good news! This is God’s time.”
After reports showed the year just passed was the second-warmest on record, Jesus said, “The time is now. New light is breaking forth. Come on, let’s go!”
After the government stepped up its anti-immigrant actions, separating children from their parents, sending adults to countries ravaged by poverty and violence and threatening to send young people to places they had never known, Jesus said, “Trust the good news I have!”
After one full year of governmental chaos and arbitrary, unjust actions against refugees, the poor, and the sick, Jesus said, “Now is the time!”
After things went from bad to worse and then, the next day, got worse still, Jesus said, “Look lively, people! This is our time because this is God’s time! This is the sign that things are about to get better! Follow me!”
It sounds almost crazy, doesn’t it?
This is the gospel of Jesus Christ:
That when the world says: Things are getting worse and worse and there is no hope; things are getting worse and worse, and I’m at the end of my rope,
In this darkness, there is light. In your despair, there is hope. In your coming to the end of your rope, there is, perhaps, a new awareness of your need for others. In the failure of human systems and political solutions, there is an opening for Spirit power. In the depths of your pain, healing is happening. In your loneliness and fear, God is with you. In the failure of old methods and ways of being, there is an opportunity to try something new and different—to let even yourself be changed. In this apparent death, new life is being born.
Trust this good news! In the face of a brutal crackdown, trust that something good this way comes. In the face of uncertainty, trust in the reliability of God’s goodness. In the face of oppression and suffering, trust that transformation is occurring. In the face of hatred, trust in the one who created you in the image of Love and Mercy, Justice and Peace. In the face of deep division, trust in the power of community.
This is the good news! Come on, let’s go! Follow me!
This, my friends, is the gospel. It is as simple, and as challenging, as this.
Times are hard—and the Spirit of Love is at work. The time of transformation is at hand. So open your hearts that they might be changed. Change your lives that God’s love might flow through you. Come, follow me. We have so many people to love. We have so much healing to do. Let’s turn the world upside-down. God’s reign is at hand!
Notice that Jesus doesn’t have a 10-point plan. He has no multi-faceted program. He is neither ranting about the evils of the current system nor chastising individuals for their sins and shortcomings. What he has is the compassionate heart of God. What living into all the promise of that love requires is living together and loving one another.
Walking by the Sea of Galilee, he sees two brothers throwing their fishing nets into the water. Which is to say: He sees two men who are near the very bottom of a beaten-down society. He sees a couple guys who work hard for little reward, and he says, “Come, follow me, and I’ll give you a holy purpose. I’ll show you how to love. I’ll show you what love can do.”
He doesn’t say it will be easy. He doesn’t say it won’t be hard. He does seem to say it will require some change. He does say we will need trust something bigger and better and other than ourselves.
Next thing you know there is not one, but three rag-tag guys walking along the shore. Then Jesus sees a couple more sad souls and calls them, too, to drop their nets—to leave all their baggage behind. And they do. And they go on to change the world—one life, one heart at a time.
And what about us? Are we “before the deluge” people, trying to make the best of a bad situation we fully expect to get worse? Or are we “after the latest bad thing” people, making way for light to break into the darkness, looking for good news in the bad, trusting that God is in it all, and that if we allow ourselves to be changed, God’s reign will draw that much closer? Surely most of us are a mix of both, as well as some part “everything is fine” people—satisfied with the status quo, thinking we have all the answers.
We cannot, of course, know how any situation will turn out, or what the future holds. This is where following Jesus comes in. This is where trust comes in. This is where scripture and experience and community come in: sharing our stories of redemption and new life, telling our tales of unexpected blessings and those times when we helped bend the arc of history in the right direction.
There is, of course, no guarantee how things will go—only the certainty that following Jesus will often require swimming against the tide, that sometimes we, like the fishermen of old, will need to leave our nets—our baggage, our security, our old ways of being.
After John was arrested, Jesus announced the good news of God’s reign and began building a beloved community.
After our brother Lucio was ordered to leave this country and his family, we considered again what it means to follow Jesus. After Lucio made a hard and courageous decision and came to us, after Lucio continued to follow Jesus with trust and hope, we began to be changed. A new, beloved community began to take shape, filled with generous and compassionate people we hadn’t known before. After we and Lucio began working across lines of faith and language, background and class, after we acknowledged our needs for God and one another, after we came to see Lucio as our leader, God’s reign drew a little closer, God’s blessings multiplied, and it became easier to see the Christ in our midst, in one another, even in this horribly unjust, heartbreaking situation.
And so we trust, and so we follow.
Perhaps we should be neither “before the deluge” people or “after the bad thing” people. Jesus calls us to be “good news” people—trusting it, proclaiming it, living it.
Come, let us follow Jesus’ way of love, that both we and the world might be changed.