Easter Life

Easter Life

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 8, 2018

2nd Sunday of Easter

                          Acts 4:32-35 and John 20:19-31

 

 

Easter has come and gone. Or has it? The liturgical calendar tells us that we are now in the Season of Easter—7 weeks that conclude at Pentecost—50 days for us to examine what it means to be Easter people—what it means to live an Easter life!

 

Our reading from the Gospel of John occurs on the first day of the week. It is still Sunday. Earlier in the chapter, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb to find the stone rolled away and the body of Jesus missing. She runs to tell Peter and John. They run to the tomb and find that her words are true. Peter and John return to their homes, while Mary stands at the tomb weeping until Jesus appears. She only recognizes him when he speaks her name, “Mary.” Then Mary rushes to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

 

That same evening the disciples are in the house together. If they really believed Mary’s story it has had little impact because they are still locked behind closed doors in fear of the Jews. Then, Jesus comes among them. “Peace be with you,” he says. To prove his identity, he shows them his hands and side and then, “Peace be with you,” he says again. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He breathes the Holy Spirit upon them, transforming them, as one commentator puts it, from those who follow (disciples) to those who are sent (apostles).[i]

 

They will now represent Jesus to the world. Yet, a week later, they are still behind closed doors. Not much has changed except they have told Thomas they have seen the Lord. He refuses to believe them though, going so far as to say that he will need to do more than see the wounds to believe; he will have to touch them. Into their midst, again Jesus appears offering words of peace and offering himself to Thomas. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” A better translation might be: “Do not be unbelieving but believing.”[ii]

 

Down through the ages, Thomas has been stamped with the name Doubting Thomas, but who Thomas is in the story is not nearly as important as who Jesus is. Certainly, Jesus has every right to scold Thomas since he has been told repeatedly by Jesus himself that Jesus will return. At the very least, we might expect Jesus to show his disappointment in Thomas, and all the others for that matter. But that is not what Jesus does. Instead, he walks through a closed door to get to Thomas. Jesus meets Thomas where he is, and Jesus does what he does so well—he offers himself, in love.

 

The disciples receive the Easter message and they are called to respond to it. Just as he was sent by his Abba Father, Jesus sends them into the world to spread the good news. These are big shoes to fill. Are they up to the task? Not at first! A week after Jesus makes his resurrection known, the disciples remain paralyzed by their circumstances. They may have been called to live as Easter people, but they are not yet capable of doing so. But, in time, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we know that they do.  Eventually, these same men who fell asleep when they should have been praying, who denied Jesus when they should have proclaimed him as Lord, who abandoned him when they should have clung to his side—these same men become so sure of Resurrection hope for all people, that most of them will die as martyrs because of their faith in Christ as the Risen Savior.

 

Today, some 2000 years later, how do we represent Jesus to the world? How do we live the Easter life? Do we live like we believe that Jesus has made all things new or do we celebrate Easter as just another holiday on the calendar? Do we live in hope or do we look at the state of the world and the state of the church and let a vocabulary of death creep in and push Easter out the door?[iii] Through the waters of baptism, we are claimed as God’s children. We are followers of Jesus, and even in our crazy mixed-up world, we are witnesses. We can be a witness by serving as a missionary in a far-away land or by serving the needy in Valdosta. We can teach a Sunday school class, sing in the choir, share our own experience of God’s love with someone who needs a word of hope…In large ways and small ways, we participate in God’s story of love for all people.

 

Erich, who was born with Down’s Syndrome, was in his early 50’s by the time I became his pastor. Soon health problems began to emerge so that he was frequently away on Sunday mornings due to an illness or a hospital stay. But when he returned—let me just say—he did so with flair. Bursting through the doorway with arms flung wide, Erich would announce at the top of his lungs, “I’m back!” You see, Erich loved church. In fact, his mother was convinced he would have been a preacher if things had been different. For Erich, being in God’s house was special, so special he insisted on wearing his suit coat and tie. Everything had to be just right and then, “I’m back!”  By his actions, he showed his heart’s yearning to be in God’s house. Erich was a witness!

 

Day in and day out, we have a choice to make. How will we live this Easter life? In our modern world when there are so many choices of places to be and things to do on any given Sunday morning, one radical, counter-cultural way that we can be faithful witnesses is simply to show up.[iv] Think about it! Perhaps just being here says the thing we need to say most: Gathering as a community of believers to pray and confess and hear God’s word, and worship—it matters. Just showing up matters. And if we are away for a while, returning is important! We might even return with a little flair, “I’m back!”

 

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! And not only on Easter. Christ is risen every day of our lives, every day for all of eternity. We stand in a long line of saints who have proclaimed to the watching world: “Jesus has made a difference in my life and he can make a difference in yours, too. There is hope! Come and see!”

 

One week after his resurrection, Jesus meets Thomas where he is and provides what he needs. Neither Thomas’ skepticism nor the closed door can keep Jesus out. Finally, when Thomas recognizes him and proclaims, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus responds, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who will come to believe down through the ages. He pronounces a blessing upon us. Through God’s grace we have accepted the Easter message as true: Jesus has been raised from the dead and now life can be lived—not in fear—but in joy because nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God.

 

It is a messy world we live in. Wars continue; the global economy shifts from day to day, and the future of our young people causes us concern. Yet, there is hope if we take up the mantle handed to us and continue to love in the name of Jesus. As representatives of Jesus to the world, we are called to live an Easter life! And, by the power of the Holy Spirit, living an Easter life transforms us—inspires us.

 

Joseph T. Nolan has written a poem that speaks of the hope Christ planted in our hearts with his words, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

 

We have not seen…and we believe

We believe in God whom we do not see

because of Jesus who was seen

and people who live by his Spirit.

 

We believe in God whom we do not see

because of truth and beauty,

love, goodness, and integrity,

which makes the divine a part of human life.

 

We believe in the Spirit we cannot see

because we see the Creator Spirit

at work in our lives

and hear the Spirit’s voice in our silence.

 

We believe in the earth and its people

in spite of the evil we see

because we have shared their goodness.

 

We believe in the church we see

with its saints and sinners

because it has given us the Word

and gathered us in the breaking of bread.

 

We believe in a providence we do not always see

because God made us,

and here we are,

with [countless] years behind us.

 

We believe in the resurrection

in spite of the death we see

because we have been raised up many times,

and passed from death to life.

 

We believe in God whom we do not see

because of the One who said,

“He who sees me sees the Father.”

 

We have seen him in our humanity,

in his risen body,

and we believe. [v]

 

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

[i] Ibid, D. Cameron Murchison, 402.

[ii] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol.2, Beverly Roberts Gaventa

[iii] Feasting on the Word, Gail R. O’Day, 405

[iv] A prophetic word shared by Father David Teschner during Lectionary Group

[v] Joseph T. Nolan, Let the Earth Rejoice: Scripture, Prayers and Poems for the More Abundant Life, Thomas More Publishing, 2002, pp.23-24.

*Cover Art “Christ Shows Himself to Thomas” by Rowan and Irene LeCompte from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54879

The Risen Son

The Risen Son

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 1, 2018

Resurrection Sunday

Acts 10:34-43; Mark 16:1-8

 

Without a doubt, the most challenging sermon to preach in the entire Christian year is the one preached Easter Sunday. For one thing, because the message is critical to our Christian story, there is a lot of pressure to tell it rightly. For another, Easter tends to draw all sorts of people into the church—those who have heard the story a thousand times; those who have seldom heard it; even those who have never heard it. Yes, this is an important day in the life of God’s people. With so much hanging in the balance, maybe the best approach is the KISS method—you know, “Keep it Simple, Silly.” Using the KISS method, then, it seems to me the pressure is off because the simplest and the most important words have already been spoken: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” With these words still hanging in the air, then, I guess my work is done. Happy Easter! (With hands raised in blessing, start to leave the pulpit.)

 

April Fool!

 

Isn’t it bizarre that Easter falls on April Fool’s Day this year? On the other hand, maybe there is no better pairing. After all, the joke is on Satan, the joke is on Evil, the joke is on Death. In her book, Wearing God, Lauren Winner writes:

 

Jesus’ crucifixion was layered with…irony—calling Him king, clothing Him in mock-royal garb. But if Jesus’ elevation was mocked by the Roman [authorities], that very mocking was in turn undone by the resurrection. It was not the Romans who had the last laugh.[i]

 

It was not the Romans who had the last laugh. It was not the religious leaders who had the last laugh. It was God! For with the rising of God’s Son, Christ was victorious and through him, abundant life is available to all of us for all time! Therefore, in a host of different languages, today the greeting resounds around the world: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”  Easter marks the beginning of Christianity. Without Easter, there would be no Gospel; no Good News to proclaim. Without Easter there would be no reason for us to be here this morning in this church—there would be no church—and all would be lost.

 

All seemed lost that first Easter morn, when Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome headed out to tend to the body of their Lord. These same women, along with others, had looked on from a distance that Friday that seemed anything but good. They had watched while all their hopes and dreams of new life were nailed to a cross!   In 1st Century Palestine, it naturally fell to women to care for the bodies of the deceased. So, after the Sabbath, they rose with the sun, to perform the natural only to be met with the supernatural.

 

Imagine their distress, when they entered the tomb and were greeted by a young man, dressed in white, who said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So, they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The End!

 

The End? What’s this? Another April Fool’s joke? Surely there’s more to the story. Surely Mark doesn’t mean to leave us hanging with a resurrection scene minus Jesus, minus the disciples, minus Peter.  Well, if we look carefully at our Bibles, we notice that not one, but two additional endings have been supplied—a shorter one and a longer one. How strange—we have choices!

 

Do you remember the children’s book series “Choose Your Own Adventure”? My children loved them. They were more than books—they were games. The books were designed to allow the reader to select different actions for the characters. For example, if the reader wanted to go in one direction, he might have the option to leave page 7 and resume the story on page 11. If another action was preferred, page 19 might be the better place to continue. The creator of the book series came up with the idea while telling bedtime stories to his daughters about this character named Pete, who had wild and fun adventures. But one night, the father ran out of ideas, so he asked his daughters, “What should happen next?” With enthusiasm, they came up with different paths for the story to take…and thus, “Choose Your Own Adventure,” was born.[ii]

 

I wonder if that’s what happened with the ending of Mark. Maybe one monk, and then, later, another, encountered the ending and thought it to be a terrible way for the adventure to conclude—with no resurrected Jesus, no disciples, no Peter… Surely the REAL ending was lost, surely the REAL ending went a little like this…. Regardless of how it transpired, Mark 16:8 is widely considered to be the end of Mark’s gospel: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.”

 

If we allow this conclusion to stand on its own, we may find that instead of an incomplete ending, it provides the perfect beginning. In her commentary on Mark, Kimberly Clayton Richter points out two major themes woven throughout this gospel.[iii] First is the person of Jesus who is the Christ, the Son of God, who preaches, teaches, heals, and loves all people. He embodies the authority and power of his Abba Father. Jesus embodies that which the powers of the world will stop at nothing to silence!

 

The second major theme relates to the disciples. At first, they act like models of faithfulness, dropping everything to follow Jesus. But repeatedly, they are portrayed as fellows who just do not get it. They misunderstand; they doubt; they are filled with fear. And even though Jesus speaks of suffering and of being last and least, his disciples want to know which of them is the greatest, and who will sit on his right and his left in glory. They fall asleep when he needs them most. By the end of the gospel, one of them has betrayed Jesus, one has denied him, and all have fallen away.

 

Surprisingly, in Mark’s telling, it is the women who are portrayed as “getting it” more times than not. Yet, the women witness the empty tomb only to run away in fear and tell no one! So, the dilemma is this: Who will go and who will tell? Only the reader is left! Thus, Mark’s ending sends us back to the beginning of the story to re-read Jesus’ words, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

 

WE are left to share the good news and continue the mission of Christ in the world. Along the way, like the disciples, we may doubt. We may fear taking up our cross and following Jesus. Often, we will prefer glory to suffering. Instead of watching and praying, we may fall asleep. Nevertheless, it falls upon our shoulders to receive and believe Jesus’ resurrection promise: “He is going ahead of us. We will see him.”[iv]

 

Where do we expect to see Jesus, the Risen Son? At home, at work, at school? Do we expect to see Jesus in the faces of loved ones AND strangers? Do we expect to find Jesus in the baptismal waters; in the spiritual food provided at the Table he has set for us all? Where do we expect to see Jesus? If we look, we will see him. For no matter where we go, Jesus is already there. He has gone ahead of us!

 

On that first Easter morning, the women knew that the sun God placed in the sky had risen; they knew because of the light it provided for their trek to the tomb. They would soon learn that God’s only begotten Son had also risen—risen to be Light for the world! Hallelujah! The Son is risen and on this day around the world, in a host of different languages, the greeting rises from the midst of God’s people—Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

[i] Lauren Winner, Wearing God, 198.

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Choose_Your_Own_Adventure

[iii] Mark Commentary, The Life with God Bible, NRSV, Kimberly Clayton Richter, 62-63.

[iv] Ibid, Richter.

*Cover Art “Christ is Risen” ©Stushie Art; Subscription

 

“A Different Pace”

A Different Pace

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday

Psalm 118; Mark 11:1-11

 

Recently, I’ve been rushing through life too quickly.  I know this because—well, because several of you have told me so. Take, for example, Jesse Spencer who, at our last Session meeting, said something like: “You mean we aren’t having something special EVERY day of Holy Week,” or Bart Greer’s suggestion that I not only rest up for Holy Week but that I also be sure to take my vitamins. And if your comments haven’t been enough to get my attention, there have been other signs—like the fact that I forgot to text Sissy Almand as soon as I arrived at the office Tuesday—something I assured her I would do. I remembered at 5:30 that evening when I was getting ready for Tuesdays at the Table. Oops!  Yes, I admit it. I’ve been rushing through my life too quickly.  It is a common refrain though, isn’t it?  How often we walk through our days—“run” might be a better term—and in all our rush and hurry we miss the signs.  In our urgency, we can, in fact, miss life.

 

As you may have heard me say before, one of the most frequently used phrases in the Gospel of Mark is “kai euthos” which is translated in the NRSV as “and immediately.”  There’s a sense of movement and urgency as Jesus goes from place to place. Looking back over the first 10 chapters of Mark we find: The Spirit immediately drives Jesus out into the wilderness; As Jesus passes along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus immediately calls Simon, Andrew, James and his brother, John and they follow him; When a leper begs for healing, Jesus touches him and immediately he is made clean; When Jesus heals the man with the withered hand on the sabbath, the Pharisees go out and immediately conspire against him; When the woman who has suffered from hemorrhages for twelve years touches the cloak of Jesus, immediately she is healed and immediately Jesus is aware of it; When Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James and John and they come down from the mountain, the crowd sees Jesus and they are immediately overcome with awe.

 

All this motion, all this urgency, brings us to our text today —which happens to include the phrase “and immediately” twice.  Yet it is a phrase that will be used seldom in the remaining six chapters of Mark because with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, things slow down. Mark alters the pace for us to accompany Jesus slowly and intentionally through his last days—days we call Holy Week. Truly, as we celebrate Palm Sunday, our gospel reading invites us, entices us, begs us to slow down enough to really be present for this week of events that will change the world—that will change us—if we only let them.

 

Those of you who attend the First Friday Contemplative Service are familiar with Lectio Divina.  Lectio Divina (Latin for “Sacred Reading”) is an ancient practice in which a small section of Scripture is read, pondered, and prayed over—allowing time for the Holy Spirit to reveal new understanding. The process is sometimes described as ruminating over Scripture much like a cow chews cud.  The reader reads the same short passage over several times, perhaps aloud, allowing for quiet moments of reflection in between the readings.  Another approach is to read the passage several times but to imagine, each time, that you are a different person in the scene.

 

While preparing this sermon, I was struck by how our gospel reading lends itself to the practice of Lectio Divina, especially if imagine ourselves in the story—playing different roles, different parts.  So I invite you to sit with me for a while to ruminate over Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

 

While we hear verses 1-9 again, let us imagine we are one of the disciples who has been instructed to fetch the donkey. Following the reading, we will have a moment of silence and then share with one another.

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that had never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

[Silence & Sharing: What was it like to be asked to fetch the donkey? Would you have preferred something more glamorous? Did it make you uneasy? Has Jesus ever asked you to do something that made you feel uneasy?]

Although not named in the text, we might consider the owner of the donkey.  Let us imagine we are the owner.  Following this second reading, again we will keep silence and then share our experience with one another.

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

[Silence & Sharing: How did it feel to have something Jesus needs? Isn’t it true that we all have a donkey? We all have something Jesus needs to build up his kingdom here on the earth.]

Now let us imagine we are in the scene as the “many people.”  Eager to praise this king, we throw our cloak on the road. Perhaps we race into the field to cut down branches. Perhaps we have nothing to offer but our voice, so we shout, “Hosanna, Hosanna!” I invite you to hear the reading once more.

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

[Silence & Sharing: What did you do as Jesus passed by? How did you participate in the story? While these people shout “Hosanna” today, what will they shout when Friday comes?]

With the practice of Lectio Divina, we approach Scripture slowly and reverently.  It is, in fact, the way we might approach this entire week—this week we call Holy.  Maybe this is the best week to slow down enough to experience what God has in store—through prayer and Scripture reading, through one of the options available here at the church this week—like Tuesdays at the Table, walking the labyrinth or the Stations of the Cross, or participating in the Maundy Thursday meal and Tenebrae Service. With the celebration of Palm Sunday, our Gospel reading invites us, entices us, begs us to slow down enough to really be present for this week of events that will change the world—that will change us—if we only let them.

*Cover Art “Where the Way Leads” ©Jan Richardson Images; Subscription

Death on a Pole

Death on a Pole

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 11, 2018

4th Sunday in Lent

Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

 

Do you have any family secrets?  Has an uncle been caught selling moonshine in the mountains of North Georgia or has some distant cousin been arrested for something shady?  Most of us have a skeleton or two in the closet—some dirty laundry we would prefer to keep tucked away.  But in today’s gospel reading, instead of safely keeping family secrets, Jesus chooses to air some of his family’s dirty laundry.  We happen upon Jesus in the midst of a conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish ruling council.  If we back up a few verses, we learn that Nicodemus, who comes in the cover of night, says to Jesus, “We know you are a teacher.  We know you have come from God.”  Jesus quickly shows Nicodemus how little he really knows.  Jesus speaks of salvation, the kingdom of God, being born of water and the Spirit, being born from above.  Nicodemus fails to understand. And it is a bit amusing when Jesus uses Nicodemus’ own words against him, “We speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen…” Then Jesus reaches back into the history of his own people and drags out a bit of dirty laundry. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

 

A serpent lifted up?  What is the significance of this ancient tale Jesus resurrects from the Hebrew Scriptures?  Let’s take a closer look. In Numbers, the plight of the Israelites is recorded. The people of Israel flee from Egypt under the direction of Yahweh. For sustenance, God offers manna from the heavens and water—even in a dry, barren land. Although God provides, the people grumble and complain. Because the Israelite’s are unable to have faith in God, they are eventually condemned to wander in the desert for 40 years. No, this generation will not enter the Promised Land.

 

Just prior to the reading from Numbers, the Israelites reach Kadesh.  Moses sends messengers to the king of Edom requesting permission to travel on the King’s Highway, an old caravan route, but the king refuses to allow them passage. So, they must travel along the western border of Edom, a more treacherous path. With each step, the people grow more frustrated and impatient, and they speak out against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us out here in the desert to die?  There’s no food, no water.  By the way, we hate this miserable food!”

 

God hears their grumbling, gets angry, and sends poisonous snakes to afflict them. (Interestingly, the word “poisonous” literally means “fiery,” a vivid description both of God’s anger and of the painful experience of being bitten.)  What the people of Israel fear most—death—comes to pass. They realize “they’ve done it now” so they run to Moses.  “Help us.  We’ve sinned.  Pray for us so that Yahweh will take away the snakes.”  So, Moses prays for the people and Yahweh answers, but the answer comes in a most unexpected fashion. God tells Moses to make a bronze image of a snake and place it on a high pole. Moses obeys. “When anyone is bitten and looks at the image,” the Lord says, “they will live.”  Looking and believing—the people are saved.

 

God takes the instrument of death—the serpent—and has Moses place it on a pole for everyone to see.  Death on a pole!  God takes something bad—the worst fear of the people—death—and out of it, brings something good—life, salvation. But humans, well, we are prone to do the exact opposite. We tend to take something good and make something bad of it, which is exactly what the Israelites do a few centuries later. In Second Kings we find that Moses’ bronze serpent (or perhaps a replica of it) is still a part of Israel’s worship.  But King Hezekiah, as part of his reform, must destroy the serpent on the pole because the people come to the temple to worship—you guessed it—the pole! They worship the pole God provided instead of the God who provided the pole.

 

The whole thing sounds like dirty laundry, doesn’t it?  I imagine anthropologists would have a field day with this story. Moses’ bronze serpent on a pole!  They would flip open their notebooks and chalk it all up to a talisman, a good luck charm.  “Such things are used in primitive cultures,” they might write, “to ward off plagues and evil spirits.”  Yet, it was Yahweh who introduced this “talisman!”  What a shocking story to find in Scripture!

 

Maybe this ancient tale would have remained buried in the Old Testament, squirreled away like some skeleton, were it not for the fact that Jesus raises it up in the middle of his famous dialogue with Nicodemus, in the middle of speaking about life that is eternal. I can almost see poor Nicodemus scratching his head, trying to understand. We, too, are left scratching our heads, as Jesus trots out this old tale of Moses and his snake-on-a-stick.  What does Jesus mean when he says, “the Son of Man will be lifted up?”  Is he talking about the cross or the resurrection or the ascension?  Although each of these interpretations have merit, it is most likely that Jesus is speaking of the cross—since the cross bears the closest resemblance to what this ancient object probably looked like. By referring to this tale, Jesus foreshadows his own crucifixion.

 

Of course, there’s another common theme between the stories: fear—fear of death. Lisa Nichols Hickman writes, “Everyone bitten by those fearful snakes in the wilderness were made to look straight in the face of what they were most afraid of as they gazed upon a serpent of bronze posted on a pole.”  No doubt, fear is a factor in the story of the bronze serpent on a pole—fear, not of the serpents in and of themselves, but fear of the death that the serpents cause. In fact, the issue of death is what started all the grumbling to begin with. Remember their complaint, “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to DIE?”  The people of God fear death and, in essence, God says, “Put this thing you most fear upon the pole. Take a good, long look at it. You have grumbled because you fear death. I have sent death by way of the snakes. I will lift up death before you on a pole, and you will see that I am God. Death is not the victor! I am the victor!”

 

After Jesus tells of the Son of Man being lifted up like Moses’ snake in the wilderness, he speaks what has become the most famous verse in the New Testament. It has been called “the gospel in miniature.” John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  Jesus offers to Nicodemus—to us all—not death, but life eternal.

 

Jesus will be raised up on the cross for all to see so the people of the world may look on him and live. As believers gazing upon God’s crucified Son, we know there is no human suffering that is utterly beyond the reach of our Lord’s healing and sustaining love. Just as the bronze serpent is a way for ancient people to deal with their fear of snakebites, the cross of Jesus Christ offers a way for people of every age to deal with their own fears. Because we know death does not have the last word. Christ is raised from death. Christ ascends into heaven. Christ sits beside the Father. Christ prays for us. And Christ will come again for us.

 

Matthew Arnold has said that humans are like animals in that they must die; but they are more miserable than animals for they long to see life steadily and see it whole. We long for life to have meaning, to see some thread of purpose neatly winding from past to present to future. We yearn to peer beyond the veil that hides God’s purposes from our understanding. We want to know. We want to control. We want to be free of the fear that imprisons us.

 

Poet Wendell Berry offers a word of wisdom concerning our worries and our fears:

 

A man with some authentic worries

And many vain and silly ones,

I am well-schooled in sleeplessness;

I know it from the inside out.

I breathe, and I know what’s at stake.

 

But still sometimes I am sane and sound,

However heart or head may ache;

I go to sleep when I lie down.

With no determined care to breathe,

I breathe and live and sleep and take

 

A Sabbath from my weariness.

I rest in an unasking trust

Like clouds and ponds and stones and trees.

The long-arising Day will break

If I should die before I wake.[i]

 

All of humanity has been bitten by death—it is our mortal condition. From dust we came, to dust we shall return. Of course, we fear things other than death. We fear the world in which we live: crime, poverty, wars and rumors of wars.  We fear sickness; failure. We fear the things we do not know; the things we cannot control.  But God is not a God of fear—God is a God of love and sound mind.

 

What are your fears?  In today’s Scripture reading, in the retelling of an ancient tale, we are invited to bring our fears to the cross—no matter what they are—bring them to the cross. Put them up on the pole and take a good, long, look. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

 

Children of God, lift high the cross, gaze upon the promise of new life, and be at peace.

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

[i] Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997, 187.

*Cover Art “The Serpent in the Text” ©Jan Richardson Images; Subscription

 

Consumed by Zeal

Consumed by Zeal

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 4, 2018

3rd Sunday in Lent

Exodus 20:1-17; John 2:13-22

 

Recently, I heard someone say how difficult it can be to read Scripture with fresh eyes—especially when the story is quite familiar. The comment made me think of a spiritual exercise taught by Ignatius of Loyola—the Spanish theologian who founded the Society of Jesus—more commonly known as the Jesuits. Although Ignatius left behind many teachings, the one I wish to consider this morning relates to our imagination. In this method of encountering Scripture, we are invited to spend time with a gospel story, for example, and try to imagine ourselves actually in the scene—fully present. As we meditate on the setting, we become participants—so much so, we may feel the rays of the hot summer sun beat down on us or we may feel the itchy clothing we are wearing.  If the reading involves Jesus interacting with others, we keep our eyes on him. We notice how he walks, with whom he makes eye contact and even the tenor of his voice.

 

Spending time with Scripture in playful, imaginative ways, may lead to fresh insights. It may even lead to a story like the one I am about to share about the day I witnessed Jesus cleansing the temple. It happened on Passover—one of the busiest times of the year for those who serve in the Jewish temple. People from near and far flocked to the city of Jerusalem to offer sacrifices and to celebrate this religious spring festival. My job was to take care of the exchange of money. You see, as Jews for whom idolatry is a sin, coins with Caesar’s image or anyone else’s for that matter, were not allowed inside the House of Yahweh, so in the outer court, I sat year after year, taking in coins and giving out coins.

 

On this particular day, things were chaotic as usual but then something extraordinary happened—SOMEONE extraordinary happened—I should say.  Jesus! Some called him a prophet, others thought he was Elijah or John the Baptist returned from the dead, while still others only knew him as the son of Mary and Joseph. Regardless of his name, he had made quite a name for himself throughout Galilee, Jerusalem, and the surrounding area. People of all sorts followed him—men, women and children, outcasts, the poor, the hungry, as well as some Jewish religious leaders. Even some Roman citizens were drawn to his message and his miracles. On street corners, people huddled together to ask, “Is this the Messiah? Could he be the One?”

 

As I sat at the money-changing table in the outer court of the temple, doing my job, I listened to the “baa” of the sheep, and I tried to ignore the scent of all the animals. With the noise of the people, rushing in and out, along with the sounds of the animals, the temple looked more like a place of commerce than a place or worship—but that was the way things had always been. Certain tasks had to be performed to keep the temple running just as Yahweh had instructed the people centuries ago.

 

Business as usual—at least that’s the way it appeared—until Jesus walked in. Although I had never laid eyes on him, the moment I saw him I knew in my heart—he was the One—he was the One about whom everyone was talking. He came in with his disciples and I watched while he stood looking around the temple—taking it all in. Then he got so angry—furious, really. He started yelling. He noticed some cords lying on the floor; they had probably been around the neck of some animal on its way to be sacrificed. He reached down and picked them up and began swinging them over his head, driving out the sheep and the cattle, all the while yelling at the top of his lungs, “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

 

He came toward all the moneychangers, myself included. I was startled when he grabbed hold of the table and hurled it to the ground. Coins scattered everywhere, and I scrambled to pick them up. I was afraid the people would steal them and then I would have to explain the missing money to the priests. But there was no need for me to worry. No one noticed the money on the floor because every eye was turned toward Jesus.

 

Crouched there on the floor, I saw the Jewish leaders rush toward Jesus, their voices slicing through the air, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Without hesitation, Jesus responded, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus, overcome with anger, took on the religious leaders without hesitation. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if he might be just another zealot, trying to take over the Roman Empire. One of the other moneychangers echoed my thoughts, “Another fanatic—he doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into—they’ll kill him—mark my word.” And, of course, they did. The religious leaders were not ready for this Savior—would they ever be?

 

Years have passed, but I have never forgotten Jesus, consumed with anger, cleansing his Father’s house. At the time I could not understand his rage. We were in the Second Temple, which was not nearly as grand as the one King Solomon built long ago, but still, it was the house in which God dwelt—or so we thought. And the sacrificial system initiated by Yahweh involved animals being offered for the sins of the people. I suppose it did look a bit like a marketplace, but as I said, we had always done it that way. But, you see, Jesus came to change all that. He came to change everything, even the sacrificial system of the temple. No longer would God be housed in the temple—as if God was ever housed INSIDE anything. Jesus came to help us see that once and for all. Jesus came to show the world that God had come to the earth as a flesh and blood man. God was present in the person of Jesus, and after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, God was present everywhere to believers through the power of the Holy Spirit.[i]

 

What does this mean for people throughout all time? It means that we do not have to come to a building to meet God. We gather to worship and pray and confess—but it is not about the building—no matter how beautiful—it is about God. And the experience of worshiping together prepares the body of Christ—the body of believers—to go out into the world better attuned to see God in all of life. Believers may gather in one place—but then the church, the real church, rushes outside the doors to be on the lookout for God and to be ready to serve in whatever way God leads.

 

For you, a believer or seeker in this day and time, where do you find God? What I mean is, where do you expect to meet God, to experience God, to participate with God in God’s ongoing work? Perhaps you expect God only to be in the church—along with the leaders of the church, who are called to serve. But if we accept the biblical teaching of the priesthood of all believers, doesn’t that mean everyone is called to serve and not just inside the church? And if God cannot be contained in any temple, any church, any structure, then isn’t all of life indwelled by God? Whether you are at home, at the office, at school, having lunch with a friend, baking cookies for the Father Daughter Valentine Dance, packaging or delivering meals for Break Bread Together, showing a kindness to a child, out on the golf course, or by the ocean’s shore—isn’t God in the seams and crevices of it all?

 

It took some time for me to recognize that God came to the world because of his great love for us; to understand that Jesus the Christ was and will always be the Savior of this world; to understand that the Holy Spirit dwells within every baptized believer. But thanks be to God—I was given eyes to see. Maybe what we all need to see is this: Jesus came to replace the temple once and for all. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “Christ in you; the hope of glory.” Christ lives in you and, by the way, you and I live our lives, there is hope for God’s kingdom to be called down on the earth every day.

 

Oh, gathering to worship is still important, make no mistake. But the church is not the only place where God is! Yes, God is here, but God is also out there. We come to this place to worship, pray, give thanks and we come here to prepare for the week of ministry that lies before each of us. We are the body of Christ. That’s what Jesus was trying to tell us that day in the temple. With all his heart, soul and mind, Jesus wanted us to understand God’s love is for everyone—not just a select few. Jesus was ready and willing to tear down the doors of the temple to get the message across—God’s new kingdom is breaking in. God kingdom is here among you!

 

On that day, Jesus demonstrated the words of the psalmist, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”[ii] We are all consumed by something—so often it is the things of the world, the opinions of others, success, the accumulation of wealth, a list of dos and don’ts. Those of us who were the sellers and moneychangers for the temple were consumed by the work at hand. Jesus’ disciples were consumed by their desire for a Savior who would overturn Roman rule and give them a place of honor. The religious leaders were consumed by a list of rules and the way they had always done things. But Jesus, Jesus, was consumed by zeal for his Father’s house. And now, because of his sacrifice, the house of God is open for business—open for every man, woman, and child—because everyone is welcome to the Lord’s house. Everyone is welcome to the Lord’s Table. Just believe and be consumed by the things of God!

[i] David Lose, www.workingpreacher.org

[ii] Psalm 69:9

*Cover Art “The Temple in His Bones” ©Jan Richardson Images; Subscription

 

A Follower – Not a Fan

A Follower—Not a Fan

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 25, 2018

2nd Sunday in Lent

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Mark 8:31-38

Our gospel reading puts us in the middle of a story that begins in Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They tell him, “John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets…” Then Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responds, “You are the Messiah!” On the heels of this declaration, Jesus starts to prepare his disciples for his pending death, but Peter gets so upset he takes Jesus aside to rebuke him.

Although we might be surprised at Peter’s audacity, we likely sympathize with his confusion and alarm. After all, Jesus does openly and vividly share that he will endure great suffering; he will be rejected by the religious rulers and be killed, and after three days rise again.  A little later, Jesus tells his disciples and those gathered around, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus invites them—and us—to follow him; follow the path he takes—oh, but what a daunting path it is. Surely, we want to be obedient to our Lord, but who wants to suffer? Who wants to be rejected? Moreover, who will eagerly sign up to be killed—even if it is only for three days? Oh Jesus, yes, we want to follow you—but we want to stop a few steps shy of the cross!

In a moment of clarity, Peter recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, but then, in the blink of an eye, he loses momentum because he’s unable to define “Messiah” in the way Jesus does. Seeing only with worldly eyes, Peter takes Jesus aside to scold him because Peter thinks he is in the driver’s seat. Peter thinks he is the guide on this tour, but the only guide Jesus is interested in is his Abba Father. Jesus is not looking for guides. Jesus is looking for followers.

Earlier in Mark we learn about the death of John the Baptist. You will recall that King Herod puts John in prison because he has spoken against Herod marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. And even though Herodias has a grudge against John and wants him killed, Herod fears John, and believes him to be a holy man. Turns out, Herod likes John’s preaching—he doesn’t understand him, but he is entertained by him, nonetheless. (Of course, that does not stop him from chopping off John’s head.) In the end, you might say that Herod is a fan. But Herod is not a follower.

There’s a difference between a fan and a follower. A fan is an enthusiastic admirer or a spectator while a follower is committed to serving or imitating another person. Regarding Jesus, are we followers or do we better fit the description of a fan? Do we come to church on any given Sunday not really expecting anything to happen except maybe to be entertained? Could it be that too many churches are filled with fans instead of communities of followers?

Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Later he says, “Those who are ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed…” For the people of Israel, under Roman rule, dying by execution on a cross was a shameful affair. But today, what is there to be ashamed of? What’s scandalous about our watered down, domesticated version of Jesus?

A few years ago, or so the story goes, a large department store came up with the idea to sell dolls in the form of baby Jesus. The advertisements described it as being washable, cuddly, and unbreakable, and it was neatly packaged in straw, satin, and plastic. Appropriate biblical verses were thrown in for good measure. To the department store executives, it had all the markings of a sure-fire success, but they were wrong. It didn’t sell. All those baby Jesus’ laying around in straw and plastic. Desperate to be rid of the dolls, one store manager took drastic measures, putting a sign in the store window that read: “Jesus Christ; 50% off; get him while you can.”

Jesus says in no uncertain terms there will be a cost to following him: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel will save it.” What does our religion cost us in the “day in” and “day out” of our lives? Martin Luther said, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.”

Jesus is in Caesarea Philippi, a very Roman place, and from this point in the Gospel of Mark, he will be heading south, south to Jerusalem, south to the cross. Jesus isn’t so interested in what people call him along the way: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets—or even the Messiah. Jesus isn’t interested in the size of the crowd—whether the meeting hall is in a small church in Valdosta or one with stadium seating. Jesus isn’t calling half-interested fans to join the throngs—no Jesus is interested in sold-out, committed followers.

Are we fans? Or are we followers? In the words of one preacher, “Fans are here today and gone tomorrow. Following takes commitment. Following takes sacrifice. Unfortunately, the church is filled with …people [who] are fans of the building they gather in…fans of the preacher or worship leader. There are those who are even fans of Jesus [who] have never made the transition to become a follower…”[i]

Jesus is on his way to cross and with every step he’s on the lookout for followers. Peter goes through the motions, says the right words, “You are the Messiah,” but it will take time for him to truly understand what that means. It will take time for him to set his mind on divine things. The Gospel of Matthew tells us when Simon Peter proclaims Jesus as the Messiah, he gets a new name, just like Abraham and Sarah before him, “Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”  Jesus gives Simon a new name—Peter, Petros, Rock. One day, Peter grows into that name—no longer a fan—but a committed follower who will take up his cross and follow Jesus, who will end up on his own cross, crucified, tradition says, upside down.

We dare not domesticate the message Jesus proclaims. In every way, Jesus turns his disciples’ perceptions upside down, which should give us something to ponder: Aren’t we in the most danger when we think we have Jesus all figured out? If Jesus doesn’t get under our skin—make us uncomfortable—do we really know him?

Jesus wants all of us—body, mind and soul, sold out to God. Everything comes under his reign—the words we speak; what we post on social media; whether we forgive or hang onto a grudge; how we spend our time, talents, and money; whether we live with a sense of gratitude and wonder or with a chip on our shoulder certain the world owes us something. Our brokenness and shame, our hopes and dreams, all of it comes under the reign of our Lord AND all of it can be redeemed because of the price he paid on the cross.

Plain and simple, the way of Jesus is not the way of the world. A sacrifice—freely choosing for the sake of the Christ—is required.  It’s one thing to go through the motions and say the words, “I will take up my cross and follow the way of Jesus,” but it’s another thing, to do it.

From Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, hear Jesus’ invitation once more:

Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for? If any of you are embarrassed over me and the way I’m leading you when you get around your fickle and unfocused friends, know that you’ll be an even greater embarrassment to the Son of Man when he arrives in all the splendor of God, his Father, with an army of the holy angels.

The Season of Lent is a time of preparation—a time of self-examination. Let us spend the coming days wisely. Let us take stock of our lives so we can honestly answer: Am I a follower of Jesus—or am I just a fan?

<SILENT REFLECTION>

<AN AFFIRMATION OF FAITH>

<GLORY TO GOD>

<PRAYER OF THE PEOPLE>

Holy and Loving God, you blessed Abraham and Sarah and promised to make them ancestors of many nations. In Jesus Christ, you opened your covenant to everyone who lives by faith in you. O God, we give you thanks and praise. And now, hear our prayer, O Lord, that we may all live in peace and be a sign of your abiding love. We pray for all pastors and teachers—that they may lead the church by humble example, taking up their cross in faithful service, and living for the sake of the gospel. Sovereign God, we pray for peace among the nations and for integrity within governments. Ultimately, may your will be done upon the earth. Merciful God, you hear the cry of the poor, and you satisfy the hungry with good things. For the poor and the oppressed, that they may find deliverance, and for all who voluntarily take up the cross of self-denial to serve the poor and alleviate human misery, hear our prayer, O Lord. Now in a moment of silence, we lift before you those who have asked for our prayers, those we love, and the burdens we carry. (Silence) Grant these prayers, Holy God, by your grace. Stir up in us the will to seek your kingdom with dedication, humility, and love. All this we ask in the name of Jesus, who taught his disciples to pray: Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name; Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, For thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory forever. Amen.

<THE GIVING OF OFFERINGS>

Now, not because we must, but because we are grateful, let us return to God what is ours to share.

<DOXOLOGY>

<PRAYER OF DEDICATION>

Almighty God, accept these our offerings along with the dedication of our lives, that we may be for the world a sign of your abiding love and a testament of your enduring promise. This is our fervent prayer. Amen.

<HYMN>

<BENEDICTION>

Go boldly from this place of worship to follow Christ, our Lord, wherever he may lead.

May God the Father bless you;

May God the Son take care of you;

May God the Spirit encourage you;

Both now and forever more. Amen.

 

[i] www.crossrhythms.co.uk/articles/lifefiles/Are_You_A_Follower_Or_A_Fan

*Cover Art “Following the Flow” ©Jan Richardson Images; Subscription

 

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.