Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Wilderness Experience ~ Mark 1:9-15 ~ First Sunday in Lent

This was no way for Jesus to celebrate his baptism…

Just moments ago, the heavens were torn open, the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove; and a voice confirms that he is God’s beloved Son…

Then immediately, the Holy Spirit casts Jesus out into the wilderness for forty days…

To be tempted by Satan… 

To live among wild animals…

For Forty days Jesus could be attacked by bandits…  For forty days he could die of exposure, starvation, dehydration…

Forty days in this God-forsaken place.

Most of us have never had to literally “survive” forty days in the wilderness.  But we all have “wilderness experiences” like Jesus did.  We all go through dark and difficult times, times when threats and pains and temptations afflict us.  We feel alone, helpless, and broken.  Every wilderness experience feels as though it will last forever.   

And it is always during our wilderness experiences that Satan goes on the attack…  It is in these times that you’re afraid—and Satan will exploit your fears in order to break your faith—and break you

Unlike the wilderness temptation narratives of Matthew and Luke, Mark does not describe any of the temptations that Jesus faced during these forty days.  But we can easily imagine the ways Satan tempted Jesus—because Satan tempts each of us in the same way.

With no source of food, shelter, or water, and with wild beasts and bandits all around, Satan would be telling Jesus “God has abandoned you.  If God truly loved you, you wouldn’t be going through all this.  God isn't pleased with you.  God hates you.  You won’t make it out here…”

Not content to stop there, Satan would also be to lure Jesus into disobedience, so as to say: “Why obey a God who would do this to you?  God's not going to take care of you—so take care of yourself.  Do whatever you want.  Make God serve you.  And if God doesn’t give you what you want, then curse God.”

Out in the wilderness, Satan stops at nothing to drive you toward doubt and disobedience.  And it is so easy to believe the devil’s lies because all the threats and setbacks we suffer would suggest that they're true.  It’s easy to doubt God’s love and faithfulness when we suffer.  It’s easy to believe that God has abandoned us when we consider the enormity of our sin.

But in the wilderness (which was, by all indications, a God-forsaken place) God cared for Jesus.  God didn’t leave him out there to fend for himself.  God sent angels to serve Jesus.  God’s care gave Jesus the faith that carried him through.  Out in the wilderness, Jesus learned to trust in God’s promises and God’s faithfulness with all the threats and all the danger around him.  God’s care gave Jesus the strength to stand firm against Satan’s attacks. 

It is certain that we all will have our time in the wilderness—but God’s promise to us is that we’ll never be alone when we’re there.  Regardless of where life takes you, you will never be alone.  God will be there to take care for you.   God will not allow you to be destroyed.

When Satan is on the attack, you can count on God to be there to defend you.  And God will be stronger than Satan.  God will always be stronger than the pain and the agony we suffer.

We cannot know the mind of God so as to understand the reasons why we’re going through these tough times…  But when you’re in the wilderness, God will stop at nothing to make his presence known.  God’s strength will fill you when you’re at your weakest.  God’s grace will give you courage to face your fears.  By caring for you in your crisis, God will draw into a deeper and more powerful relationship. 

In the hour of trial, God speaks to you a Word of Truth—a Word that God spoke at your baptism:

You are my beloved child.”

 This is a truth that does not change—regardless of whether things are at their worst, or we have sinned our worst…

And as members of the Body of Christ, our duty is to speak God’s Word of truth.  In a time such as this, all of us know someone who’s going through the wilderness right now.  They are our sisters and brothers gathered here among us.  Yet they are also our neighbors; people known to us and strangers as well; people near and far—precious lives that are being harassed and destroyed by suffering and evil. 

God sends us to be angels who care for them.  You are sent so that others may know Jesus Christ because they know you.  This is what it means to “go in peace and serve the Lord.”  This is what it means to live as a baptized child of God.

It’s a dark and dangerous world out there—but God’s plan for the redemption of the world will not fail.  So do not be afraid when the darkness falls over you; do not be afraid as God sends you to serve.  You are a beloved child of God.  God will have the victory.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday ~ Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

What do you believe God sees when God looks at you?
Does God see a terrible sinner…a miserable failure…an abomination?

Or something else?

Our answer to that question has a powerful impact on our relationship with God. And as we begin our Lenten journey, it's a question that we all need to ask ourselves.

In our first reading from the prophet Joel, we hear two strikingly different messages coming from one God.

And we'll hear this same inconsistency in all of the prophetic books of the Old Testament...

The lesson begins with a prophecy of darkness and gloom. The first two verses of the reading are absolutely terrifying. God is bitterly angry and prepared to pour out judgment and wrath on his own people as punishment for their sins.

But read on, and we hear of a God who "is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, who relents from punishing..."

So what is God's disposition towards us? Are we living under an angry God? Is God preparing to destroy us, as so many Christian voices are saying?

Make no mistake-- God was angry at the people of Israel for their sins. And God is announcing judgment on the people. But God's judgment is not about destroying and abandoning.

Through all the prophetic books, we hear the words of a God who is grieved beyond words for a people who have turned their backs upon him and his laws. God's anger is grief at the destruction that sin wreaks upon the human community and upon God’s creation.

God's mercy triumphs over God's judgment. If there is one single message we can glean from all the prophetic books is that God absolutely will not abandon his beloved people. God’s judgment always serves the greater purpose of turning the hearts of his people back to himself.

This is the character of our God-- and this has been God's way of dealing with a sinful humanity since the Garden of Eden.

God will do whatever it takes to redeem us from the powers of sin and death that enslave us and hold us prisoner-- and God did. God became a human being in Jesus Christ and laid down his life at the cross for our redemption.

God would not do this for someone he hates. God does this for a people who are loved more than they can ever know. When God looks at you, God is not angry or disgusted. God is merciful. God is forgiving. God sees a person who is loved so much that the cross was not too high a price to pay for your redemption.

With such great love shown to us in Jesus Christ, Lent is a time for all of us to heed God's pleas to return to him. It's a time to receive and celebrate his forgiveness. It's a call to commitment; a call to submit ourselves to God's rule over our lives.

And it's very appropriate that Lent is associated with giving something up-- because the season is all about repentance. To repent is to renounce those things that take the place of God in our lives; it's renouncing all of the things we're too afraid to "miss out on" if we put God first. Yet God is not looking for us to give up those things for just forty days. Obedience means abandoning these things for good.

Now is the time for all of us to hear God’s Word of judgment on the sin that enslaves us—but not while trembling with fear. God’s Word of judgment is God’s urgent plea to be cleansed and purified, so that we can live each day feasting on the love and forgiveness given to us in Jesus Christ.

Your God is gracious and merciful—so return to the Lord your God and receive the gift of salvation.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

He Comes Down ~ Mark 9:2-9 ~ Transfiguration Sunday

He was as close to heaven as he could be...
Jesus is up on a high mountain, together with Peter, James and John.  And there, in that place, he is transfigured; he is transformed—his clothes become radiant with the glory of God; then Moses and Elijah appear out of nowhere and begin talking with him...  And a mighty voice says to his disciples “This is my Son, the Beloved.  Listen to him!”

What a moment this must have been for Jesus.  The glory of God is radiating from him.  Here, there are no crowds clamoring for his attention, and his enemies cannot even touch him.  Here, he could bask in the glory that was rightfully his as God’s Son.  This is where Jesus belonged. 

And Jesus’ disciples wanted to stay there with him.  Peter was ready to build three dwelling places so that he and the two other disciples could remain there forever with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  What a heavenly existence this would have been, living each day in the light of the glory of God. 

But Jesus will have none of that. 

Jesus comes down the mountain…  Jesus leaves it all behind.

He goes back to the world below that was so full of suffering and evil…  He goes back to live among his enemies who would stop at nothing to end his life.  He moves on into the future, fully knowing that he will not experience God’s glory again until after his suffering and death upon the cross.  He moves on knowing that tougher days lie ahead.

How difficult it can be to move on…

How difficult it is to face our tomorrows when the future presents us with so many uncertainties—and so many threats.

Many of us may remember a period of time from our past when life was good and the joys were many.  We remember the “good old days” when life was better than it is now.

Many of us, however, have never known “good old days,” but we dream of living that kind of reality.

Whether it’s on memories or in visions, we all have our very own ideals of life as we want to live it.  That’s the kind of life where we know we belong.  And our hearts ache for that so much because life as it is right now is so much more complicated.  With the passing of time, we suffer losses and pains that we could have never imagined in even our worst nightmares.  We sin; we make mistakes, and we have to endure the consequences of those actions.  The struggles of the present time grow so enormous that life isn’t about living, but trying just to cope with all the hardships.  We don’t belong in the life that we know now.

Our traumas and our failings become so significant that we come to believe that life, as we know it now, will always be this way…  All we see ahead of us is just more pain and discouragement…

But this is not the future that God intends for you… 

And this is why Jesus came down from heaven to earth; this is why he left behind the glory of his moments on the mount of transfiguration and returned to the world below…  Heaven is Jesus’ rightful dwelling place, but he chooses instead to make his dwelling-place with us.  Jesus came down to be our redeemer.  Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, came down from heaven to be our redeemer; to us to bear away the sin of the world by giving his life upon the cross.  Even still, he comes down to redeem us from our brokenness and despair. 

Jesus does not want us to live in fear of our tomorrow.  Even if we know that the worst of our trials has yet to come, God does not want you to be held captive by that which you fear and dread.  He abides with us strengthen us in the power of his redemption as we face the difficulties and the impossibilities of life.  

God wants for you to embrace tomorrow as a gift—and it is another day for you to experience the presence of Christ right there with you in whatever the day may bring.  If we move forward into our tomorrows with faith and trust in Christ, we will witness God’s glory.  We will experience the awesome power of God as Christ gives us healing and transformation; as we overcome the worst of what life brings us by the amazing grace of God. 

If you’ve been torn down so much that you don’t know where you will ever find the strength to face the day ahead, know that Christ has come down from heaven to take your hand and lead you forward. 

As we embark on our Lenten journey in just a few days, keep your focus on the cross—because the cross is the sure sign that nothing that will come your way in life can stand in the way of God’s redeeming work in your life.  The cross did not have the final say.  Out of that cross the fullness of God’s glory has been revealed to the world in the resurrection of Christ.  Christ triumphed over the cross—and you will over triumph over your cross. 

So may the cross be a sign of your hope—a sign to give you confidence that you will witness the glory of God.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Made Clean ~ Mark 1:40-45 ~ Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Today we hear the second of a total of ten healing stories in the Gospel of Mark.

With every healing story we are challenged to listen very closely to the text—because Jesus’ was doing far more than just healing a mortal body…

God didn’t send Jesus to earth to be a healer; God sent Jesus to be our Savior.

So when the sick and the demon-possessed came to Jesus, his healings served the purpose of revealing God’s compassion and the mercy of God toward those who sin and those who suffer.  It was Jesus’ compassionate acts for people brought them to faith—and it was by faith that they received God’s gift of salvation.

So when you hear a healing story, don’t hear it as a story of what can happen in your life if you have enough faith—because that’s not their point.  It is so very easy to hear these healing stories think to yourself, “if I had the faith of this person, I wouldn’t be sick; I wouldn’t be in need; I wouldn’t have this depression; ...  I would be cured.”   When we suffer, it is very hard to have faith; it is very hard to put your trust in God.  If we hear the healing stories in this way, we’re going to feel guilty for not having enough faith.

When you hear a healing story, hear it as a story of Jesus’ love and Jesus’ compassion for you in your time of need.  And remember that it is Jesus’ work in our lives that gives us the faith to believe and trust in him.
 
In today’s healing story, there is a man with leprosy who comes to Jesus, falls on his knees, and cries out “if you are willing, you can me clean.”

Now in biblical times, leprosy was just about the worst thing that could happen to a person.

It was excruciatingly painful.  You would be covered with painful sores on your skin—and the disease would even afflict your bones, your muscles, and your joints.

And leprosy was highly contagious.  You could contract leprosy even by touching the clothing of a leprous person—or going their house.

Since leprosy was so dreaded by society, lepers were expelled from their homes and families.  You were driven out of town and forced to live in total isolation.

You were unclean, as the laws of Leviticus chapters 13 and 14 stipulate.  You were absolutely forbidden to participate in the religious life of your community.  You were, in essence, cut off from God. 

It was even believed that people with leprosy were cursed by God. 

With leprosy, you were no longer a person.  You were your disease; you were a scourge to be discarded from society like trash in a landfill…

So a person having leprosy certainly had no business pushing his way through a crowd to get to Jesus.  And he had no reason to expect Jesus to do anything else but run away from him as his legs could carry him.  Jesus was unholy; the leper was unclean...  But Jesus doesn’t run away from the leper…

And the leper does not asked to be well...  He doesn’t ask Jesus to cure him...  He doesn’t really ask for anything; he simply declares to Jesus his faith: “if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

And Jesus, full of compassion, stretches out his hand, touching the leper, and says “I am willing.  Be made clean.” 

In that moment, the leper is made clean.  He is no longer cut off from human contact; he is no longer a disease; he is no longer cut off from God…  Jesus makes him a whole person with a place in the family of God.

But at the same time, Jesus becomes unclean when he touches the leper.  Jesus willingly becomes unclean so that the leper can be restored to God.  That is what a savior does. 

Our savior is willing to reach out his compassionate hand to you in your uncleanness.  After all, Jesus is not the Savior of those who are clean; Jesus is the Savior of those who are unclean.  The holy Son of God us amid the wreckage of our sin; the holy Son of God meets us in the misery of our suffering—even in those times when we feel as though there’s no God to even believe in. 

By Jesus’ own healing touch, our gravest sins and our illnesses and our weaknesses no longer rule over our lives.  We become whole persons; beloved children of God; forgiven unconditionally; bound for eternal life in the presence of Christ.

And while we will never understand God’s ways as to why we suffer and why sometimes our prayers for (physical) healing get answered and others do not, there is one prayer we can pray with utmost, absolute confidence… 

We can approach Jesus Christ (just like the leper did) and be made clean.  We don’t have to achieve a certain level of holiness to come to Christ—we can come to him just as we are right now.  He is willing to make you clean; he is willing to extend his compassionate healing hand to you.  Jesus is working to deliver you through your present trials so to bring you, at the last, to your eternal salvation.  Jesus is working in your life so that you can have faith and believe in these promises.

The healing we need most of all is the healing that is given—the healing of knowing that our sins are unconditionally forgiven; the healing of knowing that there is life after death. 

Today, Christ announces to you: “child of God, you are made clean.  Go now, and live in the everlasting love of your God.”

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Prayer: Your Most-Needed Rest ~ Mark 1:29-39 ~ Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Here we are in the 1st chapter of Mark...  Jesus' ministry has just begun-- and it's been a whirlwind...
For forty days he was out in the wilderness being tempted by Satan...  He's called his first disciples... 

And from the moment he began to proclaim God's Word—his fame has spread like wildfire.  Jesus has literally an entire city following him wherever he goes.

One thing you can say about Jesus' ministry-- is that it has been incredibly successful.  Things are going great.

But one thing we cannot forget was that Jesus was human; he had to have been exhausted ; he had to have been stressed after all he went through… 

So after a long day of preaching and healing that stretched well into the night, Jesus rises up early in the morning-- while it's still dark-- and he goes off to a lonely place to pray.

He chooses prayer over sleep…

He chooses prayer over the crowds that were still clamoring to see him-- even in the middle of the night. 

Jesus’ most urgent need; his top priority in the midst of these busy times: was quiet time-- alone with God, in prayer…

Simon Peter and his companions certainly had a different idea of what should have been Jesus’ top priority… 

They go and hunt Jesus down—and when they find him, Simon says “everyone is looking for you!”  He speaks to Jesus as if Jesus is not doing we he should be doing.  People need him. 

But that’s not how Jesus saw it.  Of greater urgency than even ministry was the urgency for Jesus to be alone with God in prayer. 

The crowds were not going to set Jesus’ agenda…  Neither were his disciples… 

Jesus served his heavenly Father above all—and in his time of prayer, Jesus submits himself to that authority. 

As you read the four Gospels, you will see this same pattern repeated quite often…  Jesus frequently goes off by himself to pray.  Prayer kept Jesus in line with God’s purposes.  It was in prayer that God gave Jesus the wisdom and the strength to do what God sent him to do.

One thing that we all have in common with Jesus is that we have to juggle many priorities in our days.  And most of the time, our priorities are significant and important…  We have to earn a living and pay the bills; we have to raise our children right; we have to take care of our loved ones; and we have to take care of ourselves.  There is always much for us to do—and much for us to fix. 

But do we approach prayer with the same urgency as Jesus does? 

All too often, we look at prayer like Simon Peter and the disciples did…  We see prayer as non-productive time.  After all, you can’t pray your bills away; you can’t pray your kids off to school; you can’t pray away the dirty laundry…  In order to pray, we must stop doing other things—including the important things… 

And how difficult it is to pray when the answers we seek so fervently do not come…

Then if we actually do manage to take time for prayer; it can be incredibly difficult to stay focused.  Thoughts and worries swim around in our minds like sharks.  Sometimes, we’re distracted by the fact that we’re just exhausted. 

I know that if I were in Jesus’ shoes, I’d be using my precious “alone time” for sleep, not for prayer… 

But for Jesus Christ, prayer was the most important rest in his life. 

Like Jesus, we need the rest that is prayer.  Stress and guilt and worry literally suck the life out of us. 
But prayer is an act of sheer defiance against these things.  When we come before God in prayer, we are saying to God, “here I am, I am yours.  I want you to rule in my life.  I trust you.  Help me.”

When you come God in prayer—God gives you life.  God gives you life that can withstand and flourish against the onslaught of the pain and adversity that comes your way. 

And God will give to you the peace, and the courage, and the wisdom to do what God wants for us to do.  God will lead you through your trials, through your confusion.  You will make it through, because God is with you.

Prayer is not easy.  But the Holy Spirit is always with you when you pray.  When you can’t put two words together, the Holy Spirit speaks to God on your behalf.  When all you can offer to God is your silence, your frustration, your anguish, that is enough. 

So if you’ve been praying and praying and nothing has seemed to come from it; keep at it.  And don’t go at prayer alone.  Reach out to your brothers and sisters in this community.  Ask someone to pray for you or with you.  Ask someone to help you to listen as God speaks.  And don’t give up until you receive God’s peace.

And offer to pray for someone today.  One of the simplest and most powerful ways that we can share the love of God with someone else is to pray for them or to pray with them. 

It’s a tough world and a tough existence we live…  Our need for prayer is urgent.  We can’t afford to put it off until we have the time.  Do whatever it takes to come before God in prayer.  Come to God in prayer and receive the peace that surpasses understanding.   Come to God in prayer and be lifted up on eagles’ wings.