Wilderess Wondering

Wilderness Wandering

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 18, 2018

1st Sunday in Lent

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

 

The paraments are purple, again. Did you notice? It seems like only yesterday they were the same liturgical color leading up to Christmas. Maybe you grew up in a tradition that followed the liturgical calendar. That was not the case for me. In fact, I learned about celebrating Advent and using an Advent wreath with candles of purple, pink, and white through my mother-in-law—a life-long Presbyterian.

 

Many years have passed, and I have celebrated the liturgical calendar from season to season with Kinney and our children and with our church family. Along the way, I have learned a few things—one of which is—there are people in every church who grew up celebrating the church calendar with all its color and rhythm and poetry. And there are those for whom such practices are still quite new. With this in mind, I want to take a few moments this morning to consider the use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons, which became a common practice in the Western church in about the 4th century. Although the colors varied somewhat at first, by the 12th century they were systematized by Pope Innocent III. It will not come as a surprise that the practice of using liturgical colors in worship was rejected by the Reformers after the Reformation. But by the 20th century, many ancient Christian practices—including this one—gained new life in Reformed Churches. I guess it finally dawned on us that we had thrown out the proverbial baby with the bath water; discarding too much of the poetry and heart of our faith story in the process.

 

The Presbyterian Planning Calendar explains that the liturgical colors of the Christian year are white, purple, red, and green. White is used for the special days or seasons in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, such as Christmas and Easter. Red is the color for Pentecost and is often used for ordination services. Green is used for Ordinary Time—periods that are not marked by a specific festival or season and Purple marks the seasons of penitence and preparation—Advent and Lent.

For most of us, Advent hardly seems like a time for penitence or preparation, though. Oh, we give a nod to the prophets of old and we listen to the yearning of the people of Israel for a Messiah. We even sing Advent hymns like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” But we hardly wait to sing Christmas hymns until Christmas Day and the twelve days following. Rest assured, if I chose only Advent hymns for the Season of Advent, I would hear about it and so would every member of the Worship Committee.

 

Utilizing the church calendar, though, we recognize Advent and Christmas have come and gone—as has Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord, and Transfiguration of the Lord. Now, by the mark of ashes on our foreheads, we have entered the Season of Lent—a penitential time of 40 days—a time set aside for us to follow the footsteps of Jesus as we journey toward Easter. The time is meant to be self-reflective in nature. We may feel led to give up something that will allow us more time to pray, fast, read Scripture, serve others, make amends…

Every year on the first Sunday of Lent, we gather in worship to hear a reading from one of the gospels about Jesus in the wilderness. The telling from the Gospel of Mark stands out for its brevity. As is his minimalist nature, Mark rushes us through the scene at break-neck speed, which is one reason why we should pay attention to every word because every word counts. So, let’s take a closer look at the intensity of Mark’s account. First, as Jesus comes up out of the water at his baptism, the heavens are torn apart.  After the voice calls from the heavens, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. There, for 40 days, Jesus has some extraordinary company: Satan and wild beasts and angels. Only after the time of preparation is complete does Jesus set off to do his Abba Father’s business of proclaiming the good news.

If we want to know more about Jesus’ wilderness time, and of course, we always want to know more, we might look to other gospels to fill in some of the blanks. But maybe we have enough to ponder—even with Mark’s bare-bones story-telling style. For instance, we might consider the sky being torn asunder. Who’s doing the tearing? It appears that it is the Holy One who is doing the tearing—an act that will be repeated later in the gospel when the temple curtain is torn from top to bottom when Jesus dies on the cross. Yes, God is doing the tearing. God is doing a new thing through Jesus for us and our salvation. What wondrous love is this!

Pondering this text further, we might wonder why the Spirit is doing the driving—driving Jesus out into the wilderness. The Spirit does so for a purpose—a divine purpose. I daresay, if we examine our own lives we realize every wilderness brings with it lessons to be learned. In what desert place have we chosen to grow, lately? Well, you see, that’s just it. None of us voluntarily chooses to go to the wilderness. We aren’t eager to struggle. But struggle and temptation and darkness—well, they come to us all at some time or another. Do we trust God to be present in such times? Do we see that even though God does not cause our misery, God is at work in us and through us and around us—even in our darkest hour? What have we learned in the wilderness? What might we learn from Jesus’ time in the wilderness?

One biblical commentator notes that what’s most important in Mark’s telling of the wilderness event is how:

…Jesus is retracing the steps of Israel’s history in order to rewrite her story. Whereas Israel in the wilderness stumbled and wandered for forty years in sin, rebellion, and distrust, longing again for the chains of slavery, Jesus withstands Satan’s tests in the wilderness for forty days. [Then] he announces that the time has been made full, and God’s rule has come near. All of the old obligations to the priests, to the temple, to Herod, and to Rome have been canceled, not only for Jesus, but for all those who repent and follow him into God’s rule.[i]

All the old obligations have been canceled and, in the darkness—whether Jesus’ or ours—we learn we are merely dust. Truly, we need help and it is our Abba Father who comes to our aid. It is God who makes us new. It is God’s Spirit who journeys with us to show us the way and keep our enemies at bay.

What happens to Jesus in the wilderness? Jesus lets go of human things and fully embraces the will and way of his Abba Father. In the wilderness, he struggles physical and spiritually, but he comes forth from the darkness a new man—filled with the Spirit and equipped for the humble revolution he is about to lead.

The lectionary links today’s story with the story of the flood—a story that comes about because of the downfall of the order of things established at creation. The future now belongs to a small group of people, who live under the covenant of the rainbow cast in the sky by God’s own hand. Jesus, too, inaugurates a new day, a new covenant, a new structure. “The way things have always been” will be no more. A new empire is being built right before the eyes of Jesus and his disciples. Out on the horizon, we stand as children of God, as brothers and sisters of Christ. Through the waters of our baptism, we have a new identity and a new mission. We are free. We are filled with the Spirit. We are equipped to make a difference. Are we making a difference?

Lent offers an opportunity to take stock of our lives but, in the words of Rev. Sarah Dylan:

Lent often gets turned into a very domesticated kind of pious self-improvement; I give up something that most respectable people think is a good thing to give up, at least for a time—chocolate, beer, swearing, or some such—drop a few pounds and maybe look a little more like what our culture thinks of as “good,” and other than the purple on the altar Sunday mornings, hardly notice the difference. But if I want to experience this quest fully, I need to note for myself the ways in which the quest we’re on for these forty days is NOT tame or respectable. Jesus left his family and entered the desert with wild animals and angels…and we are striving to follow him.[ii]

Striving to follow Jesus, we have entered the desert of Lent on our own spiritual quest. How will we wander onward? Will we rush through the 40 days ahead as if there is nothing of value to be learned? Will we continue to turn our faces toward anything but God? Or will we tread upon the earth at a different pace…listening…watching…praying…obeying?

Jesus is not alone on his journey. Neither are we. Let us go forth boldly. Moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day, let us be transformed into the likeness of Jesus. Then, when we gather here on Easter morning, with paraments of white marking the occasion of the resurrection of Christ, our Lord—we will have even more to celebrate!

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Stanley P. Saunders, Feasting on the Word, 49.

[ii] Rev. Sarah Dylan @sarahlaughed.net, First Sunday in Lent, Year B.

Jesus on Tour

Jesus on Tour

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 4, 2018

5th Sunday after Epiphany

                                        Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39

 

The ministry of Jesus is in full swing. After astounding the people in the synagogue with his teaching and healing the demon-possessed man, Jesus enters the home of Simon and Andrew. He learns of Simon’s mother-in-law’s fever and raises her up, restoring her to health. Notice, Jesus touches the woman—the Son of God touches the woman. The healing power of touch cannot be denied. Study after study has revealed how human touch and community affect the overall quality (and, often, quantity) of life. It was true in the days of Jesus and it is still true today. But isn’t that what incarnation is all about—Jesus entering the world taking on human flesh, to be among us, to be one of us. The kingdom of God is at hand.

 

Through the power of Jesus, Simon’s mother-in-law and is made whole. Although we don’t even learn her name, there are important lessons to be learned through her. For one thing, she represents our need for wholeness. In Bethlehem, in 400 A.D., Jerome preached on this very text saying:

 

O that he would come to our house and enter and heal the fever of our sins by his command. For each and every one of us suffers from fever. When I grow angry, I am feverish. So many vices, so many fevers. But let us ask the apostles to call upon Jesus to come to us and touch our hand; for if he touches our hand, at once the fever flees (Corpus Christianorum, LXXV, 468).[i]

 

While I may feel no obligation to ask the apostles to beseech Jesus on my behalf (since Jesus is our High Priest—that hardly seems necessary), still, I appreciate Jerome’s sentiment for don’t we all have fever? And when Jesus comes to us and touches us, aren’t we changed?

 

Another important lesson we can learn from Simon’s mother-in-law comes through her response to healing. The Gospel of Mark introduces her as the first deacon (diakoneo) of the New Testament. This word (diakoneo) is used earlier, after the Temptation in the wilderness, when the angels tend to or care for (diakoneo) Jesus. In our reading for today, it is Simon’s mother-in-law who responds to the healing touch of Jesus by rising from her sick bed and caring for others in service and love. Is there any better response?

 

Of course, the news of Jesus’ healing power spreads like wildfire. So many others, who are sick or possessed by demons, are brought to him that by sunset, the whole town is standing outside the door. So many people; so little time!

 

Imagine what would happen here in Valdosta if Jesus came into our midst, touched a few of us, and healed us, quick as a flash. Wouldn’t we all be dancing for joy? Wouldn’t we call our neighbors and friends? We would send the good news out via mass email, the Valdosta Daily Times, our church website and Facebook page, you name it! Jesus is touring Georgia and he has started here, at First Presbyterian Church! Now imagine this place next Sunday. Have no doubt; you would need to arrive early. Don’t even plan to sit in your favorite seat. In fact, if you don’t arrive at the break of dawn, bring a nice, warm jacket because you will be forced to stand outside and listen from a distance—all the while just hoping to catch a glimpse of Jesus the Master Preacher and Healer.

 

In Capernaum, at the home of Simon and Peter, the people are pressing in on Jesus from every side. He heals, he casts out demons and then, and then, and then, it’s morning and he’s nowhere to be found. Jesus is so passionate and his ministry is just getting started, but wait a minute! Where did he go? In the early morning (it’s still dark outside) Jesus goes off to a deserted place to pray. Why do you think Jesus goes off to pray? When we think of Jesus praying, we might envision him kneeling, holy and still, in perfect peace, but maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe teaching and healing the people has drained him. As a pastor, I can bear witness that preaching can be exhausting. In fact, the responsibility of attempting to speak God’s word to God’s people can take every ounce of energy a person can muster.

 

Part of my doctoral work at Columbia included research about pastors and their preaching practices. Some of my research involved conducting interviews—one of which I will never forget.  While interviewing a woman pastor serving in Holston Presbytery, I asked: “So, tell me, what do you enjoy most about preaching?” Without missing a beat, she answered “12:05.”  Cracked me up! The honest truth is that for most of us, preaching is rewarding but it is also challenging. With that in mind, I can’t even fathom what it was like for Jesus who was preaching with a power and an affect never before seen on this old earth. 12:05, indeed!

 

Jesus looks around and there are people in need—everywhere. And like a new star in town overtaken by paparazzi, the only way he can find a moment of peace and quiet is to slip out of the house while everyone is asleep. Surely, he needs refreshment and renewal. Here and in other places in the gospels, in times of stress, temptation and decision, Jesus returns to God for guidance and strength. Time and time again, he shows us the need for balance in life: work, rest, prayer, and, yes, even play.

 

But his prayer time is cut short when Peter and his companions interrupt him. One scholar notes how most translators are gentle with Peter and his friends saying that they “hunted” or “searched for” or “went after” Jesus. But, in fact, the word used here implies hostility. In other words, Peter and his friends are astonished at Jesus’ behavior, and they’ve come to set him straight.[ii]

 

As I imagined this scene, in the happenings in the synagogue and in the home of Simon and Andrew, Jesus is the main attraction. However, Simon and Andrew are probably getting quite a bit of attention, too. Is it going to their heads? Are they toying with the idea of becoming Jesus’ managers? They seem to think they know what Jesus needs to be doing—and solitude and prayer—well, that’s not it. The tension between what the disciples think Jesus has come to do and what he has, in fact, come to do builds throughout the gospel. But Jesus will not be swayed. He will be the one to set the tone for his ministry. Instead of allowing the disciples or even the people to set his agenda, Jesus will follow the leading of his Abba Father. So, early in the morning, he goes off alone to be refreshed, renewed, and rekindled by Yahweh, so that he can go out and do ministry led by the Holy Spirit. The people’s ways will not be his ways. Not then and not now. “Let us go to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do,” he tells them.

 

Jesus does not come to be the Savior of Capernaum, or the Savior of Galilee or the Savior of Jerusalem for that matter. Jesus comes to be the Savior of the world.  Jesus comes in human flesh, to be among us, to be one of us. Jesus comes to cast out darkness, and to proclaim, “The kingdom of God is at hand.”

 

God’s ways are always grander than we can fathom. It’s something the prophet Isaiah knew well:

 

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.[iii]

 

In the person of Jesus, God enters the world to raise us up, to renew our strength. With the Spirit within us, we mount up with wings like eagles; we run and do not grow weary. The kingdom of God is at hand. This is the message of Jesus—the Bread of Life—who comes to heal and save the world. Like Simon’s mother-in-law, may he touch us, and may we rise as servants of our Lord! Amen.

[i] Ibid, 55.

[ii] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, Gary W. Charles, 337.

[iii] Isaiah 40:28-31.

*Cover Art “Christ Healing the Mother of Simon Peter’s Wife” by John Bridges, 1839; Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons