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Now is the Time (February 18, 2018)

Mark 1:9-15

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.”

I love the gospel of Mark. The author writes in a fast-paced style, leaving out things that aren’t necessary to his/her main point, with a literary style that ties everything together. The author pulls the reader into the story and continues to make us part of it. We are included as participants all through this gospel.

The first Sunday in Lent is always Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, but Mark’s gospel cuts to the chase. The temptation is two verses, no fluff, “And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

That’s it. No description of the temptations. No conversation with the tempter. Not even a mention of whether or not he actually resisted the temptations (though we have to think he probably did). Sparse. Few details. Spirit drove him, 40 days, tempted, wild beasts, angels. That’s it. Then he starts his ministry with another two verses, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” Again, not a lot of fanfare.

Now, I guess we could compare Mark’s version to Matthew and Luke, then fill in some of Mark’s missing details from there. Because the other gospels include what the specific temptations were—there were three, apparently. They also have Jesus outwitting the devil with his vast knowledge of scripture and divine wisdom. We could spend our time doing that, emphasizing what isn’t in Mark. But then we miss out on what the author of Mark actually does do in this temptation text.

You see, Mark doesn’t care how many temptations there were or how Jesus overcame them. For Mark, the Reign of God begins today. Get on board, because now is the time. God’s reign has come, and nothing will be the same. It’s like an old B Western. “There’s a new sheriff in town. Things are gonna be differ’nt. You better get used to it.”

OK, bad metaphor. But in Mark, Jesus brings this sense of urgency, that time for opposition to God is up, that God’s reign of peace and compassion and justice have truly arrived and will be taking over.

And Mark has this way of inviting us to be part of that narrative. If Jesus is the one in whom all this comes, then now is the time to get on board. The time is fulfilled, Mark writes. The time is now.

So Mark only includes elements of the temptation that make those points. Jesus is driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. The implication and vocabulary implies that Jesus is possessed by the Holy Spirit. This is entirely God’s doing.

Cast out into the wilderness, Jesus confronts Satan, the personification of all things opposed to God. Get used to it, Satan, your 15 minutes of fame are up. And now is the time.

Jesus is with the wild animals, where he’s vulnerable. But nothing happens to him because this is a new day. In the reign of God those who are powerless will be vulnerable no longer. And now is the time.

John is arrested, Mark includes that. John’s ministry was the one that was calling for God’s justice. Now that ministry has been stopped by those threatened by it. Immediately, then, Jesus begins to proclaim that God’s justice has arrived. Those who been able to silence the voice of God’s justice are now done. And now is the time.

The author of Mark proclaims this as real, and present here and now.

And that’s where he/she invites us into the story. The time is fulfilled. These things are happening today. Jesus brings all that God envisions, and we are called to be part of it.

Mark would have us ask, where is Satan today? Think a minute and ask, “What are the forces, the powers, the institutions that are opposed to God today?” Mark invites us to confront them with Jesus, let them know their 15 minutes are up. God’s peace and compassion are going to be lived in this world—right now. By us.

Mark would have us ask, what are the wild beasts today? Think a minute and ask, “Who is preying on the poor, the weak, the vulnerable today?” Mark invites us to stand up to them with Jesus because in the reign of God those who are powerless will be vulnerable no longer.

Mark would have us ask, How is John the Baptist arrested today? Think a minute and ask, “What voices for God’s justice and peace are being silenced today?” Mark invites us to take up that cause and, with Jesus, proclaim God’s justice for all people. Those who silence the voice of God’s justice are now done.

The time is now, Mark writes to us.

I’m well aware that there has already been yet another school shooting in 2018. 17 more children have been killed. The time is now, Mark writes to us.

There is a war on the vulnerable poor right now. A budget proposal for 2019 includes drastic cuts to food stamps, grants for education, healthcare supplements for the poor, housing subsidies for the poor, among others. The time is now, Mark writes to us. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2018 in Sermon

 

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What To Do When You Can’t Do Anything (March 5, 2017)

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This is the very first thing that happens to Jesus after his baptism. He’s led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The Spirit leads him, deliberately, into the wilderness. If the Spirit is doing it, it must be important, somehow.

In the Bible, the wilderness is always a difficult place. It’s a place of preparation, of waiting for God, of learning to trust God. It’s a place where all the things we rely on are stripped away. Where we are the most vulnerable, weak, and lost. It’s a place where we are alone and where our strength is drained until we have nothing left.

And you can’t hurry through it, either. Which is why it’s often described biblically with a metaphor of “40.”

  • It rained 40 days and nights with Noah and his family trapped in the wilderness of an ark.
  • Moses fasted 40 days and nights on the wilderness of Mt. Sinai waiting for God to inscribe a covenant.
  • The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.
  • Which is why, by the way, that this Lenten season of preparation, repentance, and fasting lasts for 40 days.
  • Now, Jesus is in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights.

Have you been there? I have. I’ve spoken of it before. A “dark night of the soul” when everything within me that I’ve looked to and counted on to sustain me seemed to disappear. My strengths, my gifts and talents, my intellect, even my theology couldn’t hold me up. And I felt like I was falling with nothing to grab hold of, nothing to slow my fall. I was diagnosed during that wilderness period with depression, no amount of strength, perseverance, or endurance could get me out. It was a wilderness.

It’s not that I didn’t believe in God or questioned God’s existence, it’s that God didn’t matter. It’s not that I was hopeless, I was helpless, which is different. I was utterly, completely, and totally without any of my reliable resources. Lost in wilderness. Completely vulnerable.

Have you experienced that wilderness before?

Grief feels like that. When you put out all possible effort and still fail feels like that. Addiction feels like that. I imagine that our new refugee neighbors who have had to leave their homes and their countries, and who have been living in terror for years feel like that. That’s wilderness. And it’s not a place we ever want to be.

So why does the Spirit lead Jesus to a place like that?

Because it’s in the wilderness that you meet God most profoundly. Biblically, that’s what happens.

  • After the wilderness, Noah met God and was given a covenant of life.
  • After the wilderness, Moses met God and was given the law.
  • After the wilderness, the Israelites met God and were delivered into the promised land.

Maybe it’s because in the wilderness there’s nothing else to rely on. Maybe it’s because we’re in such need that we can recognize God. Maybe it’s because we’re so desperate that we actually are willing to trust God. When we live through the wilderness, when we have that experience of being held up only by the mercy of God, our relationship with God changes. What really happens in the wilderness is that we come to know who we are.

This is actually our Lenten journey. A wilderness journey of 40 days where we learn to rely more on God and less on the world. Where we get to know and to trust God more deeply. Where we find out who we really are as God’s beloved children.

When I was falling in the wilderness, feeling utterly helpless and vulnerable, I met God in a way that was entirely new. Actually, that’s not true. I didn’t meet God. God met me in the wilderness. I realized at some point that I was no longer falling, but instead, I was being held, lifted up. As weak and helpless as I was feeling, I experienced the reality that I was worth something to God. Without access to any of my own personal resources that I had been able to trust my whole life, I came to understand that I am gifted by God.

I went into the wilderness with fear and trembling, God met me there, and I came out with deeper trust in God and greater clarity for my life.

Why wouldn’t it be the same for Jesus? He went into the wilderness having just heard in his baptism that he was the Son of God, the Beloved. How could he live up to that? So he was led into the wilderness, God met him there, and he came out with deeper trust in God and greater clarity for his life.

When you find yourself in the wilderness, when you are feeling helpless and vulnerable and weak, Jesus assures us that God will meet you. 40 days is a metaphor for a long time, but God will meet you. You eventually will have the opportunity to experience God in a new way, to recognize how trustworthy God is.  You can, after the 40 days, know how loved and how worthwhile you really are.

I don’t ever want to go back into the wilderness. But if I find myself there, I will cling to the promise of a God who will meet me there.

 
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Posted by on March 5, 2017 in Sermon

 

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The Advantage of the Wilderness, 2/26/12 (1 Lent)

1st Sunday in Lent

Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15

 This is quite the dramatic description of Jesus’ baptism. I wonder how we’d feel about baptism if this sort of thing that happened all the time? Picture it: we all gather at the church, everyone in their best clothes. Relatives have all been invited and even those who haven’t darkened the door of a church in years have shown up to support the ones being baptized. Those being baptized along with their parents have been practicing their promises. The Godparents are nervous, because they have promises to make too and don’t want to goof them up. Everyone sits in the reserved “baptismal family” seating, which is, unfortunately, at the front. Those parents of small children are saying silent prayers that their kids won’t choose this particular time to throw a holy tantrum.

The time of baptism comes, and all gather around the font. Water is poured, the Word is spoken, candles are lit, and promises are made. Just when everyone breathes a sigh of relief that all has gone so wonderfully well, suddenly the heavens are torn apart, the Holy Spirit resembling a dove descends on the newly baptized, and a voice booms from above, “These are my beloved children; with you I am well pleased.”

I have to admit, that would be cool, don’t you think? Pretty impressive and powerful, right? Obviously, God is doing something that would get our attention. That would be just amazing—so far.

But then, in this text Mark goes on. This remarkable scene at Jesus’ baptism takes a turn. Right then the Spirit, who up until now has been cute and quiet, like an innocent little white dove, takes hold of Jesus and hurls him out into the wilderness. That’s the verb used here. The Spirit doesn’t guide Jesus, or suggest to Jesus, or even lead Jesus. The Spirit drives him, throws him, violently casts him out into the wilderness all alone, where he had to deal with Satan and wild beasts for six weeks.

What would we do if that happened at our baptisms? Suddenly, baptism isn’t so fun. Thrown into the wilderness for forty days with the wild beasts, tested by Satan the whole time. If this is what happened, we’d probably rethink this whole baptismal thing. Forty days in the wilderness sounds pretty lousy. Wild beasts? Satan? Sure, some angels came and help him out, but is this what we really bargain for in baptism?

So what is really going on here?

In the Bible, the wilderness is a difficult place. It’s a place where all the things we rely on are stripped away. It’s a place where we are the most vulnerable, weak, and lost. It’s a place where we are alone and where our strength is drained until we have nothing left. Have you been there?

You’re in the wilderness when you’re grieving the death of someone you love. You’re in the wilderness when you experience serious illness or injury. You’re in the wilderness when you try as hard as you can for as long as you can and still can’t find a job or save your children or even gain a foothold in your life. You’re in the wilderness when your best and most honest efforts still result in falling prey to an addiction or losing control. That’s wilderness. And it’s not a place we ever want to be.

And in spite of that, or perhaps because of that, the wilderness is also a place where people in all times and in all places have been met by God. Maybe because in the wilderness there’s nothing else to rely on. Maybe because we’re in such need that we can recognize God. Maybe because we’re so desperate that we actually seek God out. The wilderness is a place or a time in our lives when the saving power of God is real; because there is nothing else. When we live through the wilderness, when we have that experience of being held up only by the mercy of God, we are changed. We have that opportunity in the wilderness to know what we mean to God; in the wilderness we come to know who we are.

If we aren’t thrown into the wilderness immediately after baptism, we’re thrown there eventually. No one chooses to go; we’re always thrown there. The advantage we have is that when we’re thrown into the wilderness, we go with the promises, the assurance, the clarity of who we are in baptism. We can come out of it knowing God more fully and trusting God more deeply.

On Ash Wednesday, we experienced the reminder that we will all die, that ultimately in the face of death we are all helpless. We were marked with a sign of that helplessness, a sign of wilderness on our foreheads: we were smeared with ashes, the dust of the earth out of which we came and to which we will return.

But more than that, this mark of death was shaped in the form of a cross. We were marked not just with death, but with the cross of Christ and the promise of life. We were marked with assurance of the presence of God no matter how deep our wilderness becomes. Even in the wilderness of death, God meets us there to lift us up to life.

Last Wednesday we were reminded of our helplessness in the wilderness and our utter dependence on God. Today we recall the reality that we are at times thrown into the wilderness. But most of all we have the promises of God, spoken at our baptism, that no matter how deep, no matter how dark, no matter how lonely the wilderness may be, God will meet us there. And that really is cool. That really is impressive and powerful. Because God really is doing something that not only gets our attention, but truly is amazing.

 
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Posted by on February 28, 2012 in Sermon

 

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