Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Why We Tell This Story Again: Mark 1:9-13
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 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. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Some of you may be having a bit of deja vu as you listened to our Gospel reading for today. You might remember hearing this story back in January when we celebrated Jesus' baptism. Maybe you're wondering why it would come up again so soon in the reading. Maybe you're wondering if I've run out of ideas and if I'm just hoping that you won't remember that I preached this sermon a couple of weeks ago. Maybe you're wondering if I thought church might be cancelled, so I just figured that I had to re-use a sermon because I didn't have one ready for this week. Well, I did start working on this sermon before this morning, I promise. And, I, too, thought it was strange that this story come up again so quickly in the Lectionary. But, sometimes good stories are worth hearing again, especially when we are including details we didn't hear the first time.
Last time we talked about this passage, we talked about the baptism section, and how Jesus provided us with a model of leadership that was unthreatened by vulnerability. At that time, it was important to talk about how that particular act became a model for his ministry and all our ministries as we seek to follow him. This week, though, we have a little less need to talk about the baptism story, and more need to talk about the time in the wilderness. We've hardly talked about the wilderness part of the story at all. The wilderness part of the story is a little tricky. This wilderness story is a challenging paradox. It somehow manages to say a lot and not as much as I wish it would at the same time.
The wilderness time of this reading is only two short verses. The author of Mark tells us, "… the Spirit immediately drove him 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." Today is the first Sunday in Lent and it is traditional in many churches to tell the story of Jesus' time in the wilderness. That is the main reason this story has come up again today. So far, this liturgical year, we have told the story just before it (of Jesus' baptism) and the story just after it (of Jesus beginning his ministry after John is arrested). The lectionary asks us to wait until now, just as we begin the contemplative season of Lent, to spend some of worship talking about Jesus' time being tempted and tended in the wilderness.
I will tell you one of the things that tempted me as I worked on this sermon. This week, as I saw a mere two lines to work with, I was sorely tempted to preach from a different version of this story. Both Matthew and Luke include a distinctly longer and more detailed version of this story. It is kind of exciting. Like the Mark version, Satan is there in the wilderness. But we get a much more detailed picture of what he does there. He offers a hungry and tired Jesus some things that many of us would find difficult to deny were we in a similar situation. He tempts, maybe even dares, him to do three things: turn stones into food, to test the faithfulness of God by throwing himself off the temple in hopes that the angels would catch him, and offers to give him all of the kingdoms of the world if only Jesus would worship him. What rich imagery! Devils, angels, temples, hosts of kingdoms, all at Jesus' feet. Imagine all the things that I could say about each one of those temptations. I could probably keep you here for hours preaching on that version of this story. So, when I saw these two short verses in Mark's version of the story, I was tempted to pick something else. Something a little more exciting. Something with a little more meat to it. But, then I read one scholar who challenged me on that temptation. She argued that may this spare little story can tell us more about Jesus and about God than we might first imagine.
This scholar, Karoline Lewis, returned to the few words we have about Jesus' time in the wilderness in the book of Mark. She reminded me that the wilderness time is deeply connected to Jesus' baptism. We know something special happened at the baptism at the moment that God's Spirit begins to possess Jesus. And, we have an idea that something important is going to happen in the wilderness at the moment we realize that the Spirit has driven him there. Lewis suggests that when we have the full list of temptations, like we do in Matthew and Luke, it can distract us from what the author of Mark was actually trying to accomplish with this story. Lewis doesn't think this author is trying to give us a list of temptations that we should avoid just like Jesus did. That is one way that some people read the Matthew and Luke versions. She doesn't think that this author is using this story to make sure people don't succumb to gluttony, pride, or greed. That may be what the other Gospel writers are doing. But, that's not what this Gospel is doing.
What gets mentioned twice in the reading today? God's spirit. First, as the Spirit descends into Jesus and then as it drives him into the wilderness. Nothing else in this story is mentioned more than once. Not the devil, not the angels, not even the voice of God. Only the Spirit, the manifestation of God's presence, is mentioned more than once. Lewis argues that that means that what is most important about this story is not the specific temptations that Jesus avoided, but the means by which he avoided them. It appears that Jesus was able to resist his temptations not by some brute strength or great intelligence or severe discipline. None of those things are mentioned. What is mentioned is the Presence of God. The Spirit, which drove him into the wilderness, did not abandon him there. No, the Spirit stayed with him. He was not alone there. God was present. The angels tended to him. He was not alone. That was what kept him from giving in. He was not alone and the Spirit bolstered him during his struggle. Maybe the only way that we, too, can resist that which tempts us is by remembering that God's spirit is with us, too, and we are not alone.
What are the things that tempt you when you are in the wilderness? For me, often it's not so much power or greed as it is despair. I find it hard to watch the news anymore. In the last few weeks, as I've watched the news, I've seen four devoted, God-fearing young people who were dedicated to serving their neighbors, killed in senseless, hateful acts of violence. Kayla Mueller, 26 years-old, found God through service to others, and had been living in Turkey in order to advocate for Syrian refugees. She was killed while being held captive by people with a worldview that is so warped by hatred and despair that they are working to bring about the end of the world through the most violent means necessary. Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha, 23, 21, and 19 year-old respectively, also believed that their faith called them to serve those less fortunate than them. Deah and Yusor, married just six weeks, planned to travel to Turkey this summer to provide dental care to Syrian refugees. They were murdered in their home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, executed for something possibly as petty as a parking dispute, but more likely because their killer took issue with their Muslim faith.
When I hear these stories, I am tempted to despair. I am tempted to believe that whatever good is left in this world is slowly being drowned out by hatred and beat down through violence. If these four people, people who loved God and loved their neighbors, can be cut down so easily, how can I do anything but despair. This is where I meet the tempter... not in the wilderness, surrounded by wild beasts, but at my kitchen table, keyboard in hand, as these mournful images roll across my screen. Where is my hope, where is the Spirit, in the midst of such brokenness?
As I was reading about Kayla Mueller's life, I came across this quote from a letter she wrote her father a few years ago. When talking about her life of faith and her vocation, she said, "I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine. If this is how you are revealed to me, this is how I will forever seek you... I will always seek God. Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering." I think Kayla discovered something about God that the author of Mark was trying to tell us in the story of Jesus' baptism and wilderness journey. When Kayla was in the midst of great suffering, she learned something new about God. She realized that, even there, God was present and God was empowering her service. Rather than despair at the devastation she saw around her, she felt God's pull toward service. She realized that she was not alone. The Spirit of God was with her, helping her to overcome any temptation she had towards despair or apathy or isolation. God was there, and through God, she could face her greatest temptations.
Now, I must say out loud what some of you may be thinking. How could I even consider that God was with her when her final months were so dangerous and when she died so violently? How could I imagine that God was with the Barakat and Abu-Salha family when they were executed in their own home? Well, I don't think that feeling God's presence means that our lives with always be comfortable and safe. Even Jesus, Beloved Son of God, incarnation of God, was tempted in the wilderness and even he was killed as his lived the life of service and compassion that he was called to. No, we are not promised Divine Protection, like God is the bodyguard who navigates us through the dangers in life. What we are promised is that the Spirit is there, even in the midst of the wilderness. We may not always see God in the way we expect. Maybe the only way we can feel God is by holding the hands of the ones suffering with us. But, this story, and many more in Mark, will promise us that the Spirit is there. During this Lenten journey, I pray that we are willing to continue to look for God, even when we are in the wilderness.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon
Sermon Brainwave Podcast #403 First Sunday in Lent: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=595
Karoline Lewis, "The Greatest Temptation": https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3537
Matt Skinner's Commentary on Mark 1:9-15: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2342
Toni Rossi, "I Find God in Suffering: The Fate and Faith of ISIS Captive Kayla Mueller": http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christophers/2015/02/i-find-god-in-suffering-the-fate-and-faith-of-isis-captive-kayla-mueller/
Bill Chappell, "We're All One," Chapel Hill Shooting Victim Said In StoryCorps Talk,":
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.