This post includes the bulletin, the sermon, and the music for the service.
Sermon 1/10/2021 Downside Up
Date: January 10, 2021 Outdoor worship
Scripture Lesson: Mark 1:4-11
Sermon: Downside Up
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
It was a slog, but some of us even read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Or
maybe it was The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Or The Rise and Fall of the
Ming Dynasty. We are captivated by the concept of the rise and fall of
civilizations, cultures, governments, and movements as well as the rise and fall of
individual leaders, entertainers, and other public figures.
This week, we have had cause to reflect on the rise and hopefully fall of the Trump
era. More on that later.
But again and again in history we see the rise and fall of different phenomena.
In the scene that we were told about today from the gospel of Mark, we see a
people who have fallen. They are on the down side of things. They are living
under occupation. The Romans have the Jews under their thumb. They are being
oppressed: their labor and their money extracted for Roman benefit. They are in
the ‘fall’ position.
And we hear of this prophet, John, calling people to repent and be baptized. He is
talking about preparing the way for one who will reverse their fortunes. A savior.
A messiah. So the people pour from the capital, from villages and towns, out into
the desert to hear John. To be part of creating the conditions for a rise in the
fortunes of their people. They are turning toward God in hopes that God will bless
them and improve their circumstances and rescue them from Roman oppression
through the one who is to come.
And we are told that among those who head out to the Judean wilderness, to the
banks of the Jordan River, is Jesus, of Galilee. And after he is baptized, a voice is
heard saying, “You are my Beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests.” [Mark
This story is written for us, for those who come after Jesus, for those who need to
be told that Jesus carries the authority and approval of God.
And maybe part of why we need to be reminded of this is because Jesus doesn’t
follow the usual human pattern of rise and fall. He doesn’t overthrow the Romans.
He doesn’t become a civic ruler or military leader. He doesn’t follow the usual
trajectory of rise to power, fortune and fame. In fact, Jesus inverts that pattern. He
turns it upside down; his life ending in a humiliating public death on a cross.
James Howell of Duke Divinity School points this out when he writes, “In the
world, it’s rise and fall. The rise and fall of the Third Reich, the rise and fall of the
business tycoon, the rise and fall of a movie star. But with Jesus it’s fall and
rise…We fall, and from that lowest point, we rise.”
We see this in the story of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus goes out to the wilderness to be
baptized. The leaders in the capital, Jerusalem, the Temple authorities, they do not
go out to the Jordan to be part of what John is doing. But Jesus goes among the
common people. He goes low. He goes down into the water. The symbolism is of
dying and rising to new life. Baptism is about the emergence of a new creation.
Jesus invites people to be part of a new creation; a reality that is not based on the
assumed pattern of rise and fall. The wielding of status, success, prominence, and
Jesus addresses himself to fall and rise not rise and fall. Again and again in his
ministry we are told of his encounters with the lowly. He seeks out those who are
lost and forgotten. Those who are suffering and marginalized. Those who are
considered ‘less than.’ Jesus looks for those who have fallen, or been pushed
down. So that he can lift them up. With Jesus it is about helping lift up those who
are down. And he gets down to do it.
And what he teaches us is that our highest good is found in lifting others up. In
helping the fallen to rise. That is how we rise. That is how we become a
The conventional pattern of rising involves amassing wealth, or status, or power, or
influence. And this is often done on the backs of others. Empires are built on the
shoulders of smaller countries and their wealth and labor. The Roman Empire.
The British Empire. And, yes, the American Empire, came to what is seen as
greatness on the backs of slaves from Africa, labor from Asia and Mexico, and natural resources extracted form other lands. And the wealth of the few continues
to be built on the backs of the many who are denied health care, pensions, vacation
time, affordable housing, good schools, clean air and water, etc. It is built on the
backs of people who work long hours in unsafe conditions here and abroad. The
rise is achieved on the fall of others as it was in Jesus’ day.
But what Jesus shows us is what it means to rise by lifting others and standing
beside them not by standing on their backs. He shows us that we rise by going
down, looking down, reaching down, and serving others. We elevate our humanity
by honoring the humanity of others, especially those who are hurting and
struggling and bereft. And what Jesus shows us is that we are to lift each other,
one on one, and as a community, a society. The people who went to John the
Baptizer were looking to lift their people, their society, in the face of the
oppression of the Roman Empire. It was about lifting the community as a whole.
They were seeking a better future for their country.
We are called to lift one another one by one, yes, but also to lift one another by
creating institutions and organizations and power arrangements and economic
systems that lift everyone. We are called to pursue justice for society as a whole.
We are called to lift each other through societal arrangements that provide for
everyone, not arrangements that provide for some at the expense of others.
The way of Jesus undermines the whole notion of hierarchy and rise and fall.
Maybe that is why we need to hear again that what Jesus is showing us is the way
of God. The way of Divine Love. That Jesus is beloved, favored by God.
Because we are always in danger of doubting, of being drawn into the power
arrangements that lead to the traditional model of rise and fall.
Rise and fall. We saw the manifestation of that phenomenon this week. A
president who built his rise on the backs of people who perceive themselves as
being left behind, ignored, forgotten, cut out, and cut down. Using them for his
gain. And once it became clear that his cause was lost, he had no more need of
them. It was never about them and their needs. It was always about him and his
needs and what they would do for him. And now they can do nothing for him so
he has abandoned them. That is rise and fall.
But we, as followers of Jesus, are to be about fall and rise. And a great challenge
for us as Christians and for our society is how we are going to reach out to those
who have been betrayed by the president. They are still our neighbors and
coworkers. Still our family members and fellow citizens. So, how are we going to
reach out, reach down, and help to lift up those who are angry and hurt and embittered? What about their pain? They, too, need lifting up. What word of
hope and uplift and redemption do we have? How can we talk about a rise for all
who have been battered? I don’t know exactly, but I know that we must take this
The story of the baptism of Jesus does not just tell us who Jesus is, it tells us who
we are. We are the ones lifted by the love of Jesus. No matter how low we may
be. No matter how deep we are mired. Jesus goes low. Reaches down. And lifts
us up. And he calls us to extend our hand. And take hold of another.
As followers of Jesus, we are to concern ourselves not with the rise and fall, but
with the fall and rise. Our fall under the water of baptism, our death to the ways of
the worldly power, and our rise to the way of Jesus, lifting each other in love. Let
us remember the call of God in our lives empowering us. Brennan Manning, who
wrote The Ragamuffin Gospel, puts it this way:
“Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other
identity is illusion.” [Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for
Intimate Belonging, 20th century]
Hear that again: “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the
true self. Every other identity is illusion.”
May we part of the fall and rise that define the commonwealth of God.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For
additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.