Category: Lectionary Yr B

Sermon: Who Can Be Saved?

My sermon for October 11, 2015, from the Gospel reading. This is a familiar story of a very rich young man who finds out that he has to turn from his life of privilege to following Jesus if he wants to experience the kingdom of God.

Who Can Be Saved?

Mark 10:17-31 NIV

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”

29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

An Important Question

We know this story — the story about the “rich, young ruler” — because we have heard it since we were  children. It’s the story about a young man who seemed to have it all, and yet this young man also had wisdom beyond his years.

So despite his wealth and social standing, which were without dispute, this young man comes to Jesus and asks a very important question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

That is a very important question. And we have to applaud this rich, young, and powerful man for being concerned with spiritual things, and not just his material wealth and social standing. So far, so good.

But, Jesus treats him rather badly. First, Jesus upbraids the young man for his courteous address. “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asks. “No one is good except God alone.” So much for courtesy. Can you imagine how this rich and powerful young man must have felt to be corrected like that publicly by this itinerant teacher named Jesus?

But whatever his feelings, Jesus doesn’t give him the chance to start over. Rather, Jesus then begins to answer his question. “You know the commandments,” Jesus replies. And Jesus, just to make sure the young man does know them, begins to name them: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’

Okay, right here we need to stop and really listen to what Jesus has just said. Jesus points the young man to the commandments, but curiously when Jesus begins to name the commandments that are necessary to have eternal life, he starts halfway down the list. Jesus totally skips the commandments that have to do with God: Don’t worship other gods, don’t make idols, don’t take God’s name in vain, and keep the sabbath.

Instead, Jesus lists the commandments that have to do with our relationship with our fellow human beings: don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t give false testimony, don’t defraud (which actually should be don’t covet, but that’s a discussion for another time), and honor you father and mother. So, Jesus covers all 6 of the Ten Commandments related to how we deal with others, but none of them about how we deal with God. Isn’t that curious?

Maybe Jesus knows that this young man is scrupulous, as are all Pharisees if he is one, about attending to his own personal, spiritual life. He prays, he goes to Temple, he offers sacrifices, he dares not utter the four letter, unpronounceable name of God, he certainly doesn’t make or worship idols or attempt to render God’s image in physical terms. His personal, spiritual life may be so in order that it bears no perfecting. I doubt it, but there is a reason Jesus says what he says.

I think Jesus is probing to see what the young man’s self-assessment is going to be? So, he lists the six things that govern how we deal with each other. Of course, Jesus redefines the commandments in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says, “You have heard it has been said….but I say unto you.”

Using this formula, Jesus reinterprets the commands about murder, adultery, truth-telling, and love for enemies. Maybe Jesus wants the rich young ruler to do a bit of self-examination on the spot.

Whatever the test is, the rich young man fails. He reveals his own blindness to his spiritual condition by saying, “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Wow. Sounds pretty arrogant now, but imagine how it sounded to Jesus. For with his self-justifying statement, the rich young man just told Jesus everything he needed to know. This man is unaware of his faults, his failings, his weaknesses, his shortcomings, and thinks he has already done all he needs to do.

So, maybe the rich young ruler’s question about “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” was really a veiled, passive-aggressive attempt to get Jesus to compliment him. I imagine he had already set the scene in his head: He asks Jesus a question. Jesus replies with what he needs to do. He assures Jesus he’s already done it. Jesus pats him on the back and tells him, Well then, you’re just fine!

Only, that is not what happens because then Jesus drops a bombshell on him. “One thing you lack. Go sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. The come, follow me.”

And with those words, the young man’s world comes crashing down. All his piety, all his ritual, all his social standing, all his own self-perception, all of it was wrong! Jesus kicks the props out from under his pseudo-spirituality.

Of course, this sounds harsh to us, too. But, what Jesus was addressing was the long-standing idea that if you were rich, that in itself was a de facto indication of God’s blessing.

Which is why Jesus’ disciples are astounded that Jesus says that it’s hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. “If the rich can’t get in,” the disciples are thinking,”then, who can be saved?” If there’s no hope for the rich — the people God is obviously blessing — then there’s no hope for anybody!

Another Wrong Answer

Jesus replies to the disciples’ concern about who can be saved (if a rich man can’t), with a strange answer — “With man this is impossible, but now with God; all things are possible with God.”

Peter, ever the one to pretend he gets it first, thinks he gets it. And, characteristically he blurts out, “We have left everything to follow you!”

Of course, Peter skips over the part about selling everything they had and giving it to the poor, but he wants to get Jesus’ approval, so he gives his version. And, he and Andrew, and James and John, and all the Twelve had left their families (although they still saw them frequently), had left their business of fishing (although they would return to it from time to time), and had left their homes (although they still own them). But, of course, Peter hopes Jesus overlooks the technical details and praises him for his sacrifice.

But, Peter doesn’t get the reply he wants, any more than the rich young ruler got the reply he sought. Jesus says,

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”

So, the disciples who have given up some things, will receive those things back 100-times in this present age — brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields!

Wow. So, even if you give up something, you get much more in return. In this life. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye, this is real stuff here and now.

Oh, with one addition — persecutions! Ouch and wow. Couldn’t Jesus have left that out?

Oh, and in the age to come, eternal life. Finally, we get to the answer to the question the rich young ruler asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

So, Peter’s attempt to justify himself backfires.

Who Can Be Saved?

All of this brings us back to the rich young ruler’s question and the question of the disciples — Who can be saved?

Here’s the answer: many who are first (here and now, in religious practice, in social standing, in Forbes’ list of billionaires), will be last; and, many who are last (in wealth, in social standing, in outward religious practice) will be first.

This first-will-be-last, last-will-be-first stuff has been called “the upside-down kingdom.”

So, let’s answer the question, Who can be saved?

When I was a kid, my mother read to me the story of the Little Red Hen. The Little Red Hen. Remember that story? It goes like this: The little red hen planted some grains of wheat. When the wheat germinated and grew, it came time for harvest.

“Who will help me harvest the wheat?” said the Little Red Hen. “I won’t” said the dog. “I won’t” said the pig. “I won’t” said the cow.

“Very well,” said the Little Red Hen, “I’ll do it myself.”

And, the story goes on like that for the grinding, and then the baking. Nobody wanted to help the Little Red Hen.

But when the bread was baked, the Little Red Hen asked, “Who will help me eat this loaf of bread?” Suddenly, the dog, the pig, and the cow had different answers. “I will,” said the dog. “I will,” said the pig. “I will,” said the cow.

But the Little Red Hen had a surprise. “No one wanted to help me plant the seed, or harvest the grain, or grind the flour, or bake the bread. So, now you don’t get to help me eat the bread.” And the Little Red Hen ate the whole loaf all by herself.

Now, this is a Russian folktale, which might explain the harshness of the Little Red Hen, but here’s the point:

Jesus wanted the rich young ruler and his disciples to know that 1) whatever you give up to get to God is nothing compared to God; and, 2) whatever stands in your way of wanting to get to God will keep you from God.

Or think of it like this: If eternal life is existence in the presence of God, maybe we ought to get ready for it now. So, if we value (and cling to) anything other than the presence of God, then we’ll miss it.

No matter how much we do other stuff, no matter how much we think of ourselves, no matter what our standing in life, no matter what others think of us — none of that matters.

What matters is how much we want to know God. And our willingness to give up everything that keeps us from God.

What are those things? Well, for the rich young ruler, it was money, status, power, and prestige. We still struggle with those things today.

For the disciples, it was their own self-righteous because they thought, “We’re not like the rich young ruler because we gave up everything to follow Jesus” — except their egos, and their pride, and their arrogance.

Conversion Means Turning From One Thing and Turning To Something Else

So, again, who can be saved?

Well, the answer lies in the idea of conversion, which is at the heart of our Christian faith.

Jesus’ call to any who would be disciples was always a call to leave one way of life and turn to another way, the kingdom way. The Greek word is “metanoia” which means to “change one’s mind.” For those interested in knowing God, we have to change our mind about ourselves, our lives, the lifestyle we are participating in — we have to decide to leave all of that and turn to Jesus.

The rich young ruler’s problem was that he just wanted to add something to what he was already doing. His opinion of himself and of his own life indicated that he thought he was self-sufficient spiritually. It wasn’t about the money. It was about his unwillingness to give up one thing for something even better.

But, that’s too hard, you might object. It is hard, and that’s the point. What God calls us to is not the easy way of no sacrifice.

God called Abraham to turn from his homeland and the possibility of family, but God promised him so many descendants he wouldn’t be able to count them.

God called Moses to give up a life of obscurity in the back country to lead his people out of bondage into freedom, and promised to be with him.

God called David to be king over Israel, leaving the pastoral life of the shepherd which he obviously cherished.

Whatever we leave, give up, abandon, turn our backs on, in order to follow Jesus is nothing in return for what we gain — with persecution!

Don’t we wish that Jesus had just said, “You’ll get 100-times more in this life and in the life to come.” And that he had stopped there, without throwing the idea of persecution into the mix?

Why does persecution go with this life of turning from our old life and turning to Jesus? Because then we’re not like other people. We live a different life for different reasons devoted to a different purpose than the world around us.

It’s the spiritual equivalent of the sick chicken that gets pecked to death by the flock because it’s different.

Who Can Be Saved?

Back to our original question: Who can be saved? Let me tell you first who can’t be saved.

Those who depend on themselves without recognizing their own shortcomings can’t be saved.

Those who do not want to be transformed, can’t be saved.

Those who believe their life is god enough for them, can’t be saved.

Who can be saved?

Those who turn from self-sufficiency to God.

Those who recognize that God is God, and we are not.

Those who understand that the Creator of the universe has a better plan than ours.

Those who know that they need to change, to be changed, in order to know God.

The Bible tells us that Jesus loved the rich young ruler. He loved him for his piety, his interest in the kingdom of God, his desire to live a righteous life. But the rich young ruler himself went away sad because he knew, too, that simply adding something to his life was not the way to enter the kingdom of God.

Who can be saved? All who turn from life without God, to life in the kingdom of God.

Sermon: God Doesn’t Look at Things Like We Do

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God doesn’t look at things like we do. That’s a simple statement, but a profound theological thought. And, that is the point of the reading from the Old Testament for this Sunday, I Samuel 16:4-13. Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow on that theme, and I must admit, this sermon had a mind of its own and took me in a completely unexpected direction.

God Doesn’t Look at Things Like We Do

I Samuel 16:4-13 NIV

4 Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”

5 Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

6 When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”

7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

8 Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” 9 Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” 11 So he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”

“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”

Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”

12 So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”

13 So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah.

The Story of David’s Anointing As Israel’s King

I must confess: I love this story! And who wouldn’t? The text we read this morning continues the lesson from last week. The backstory is that the people of Israel began to demand that before Samuel died, he would find a king for them.

Samuel talked to God about their request. Despite God’s objection, God gave Samuel permission to get them a king, but with some dire warnings first. Samuel, as God instructed him to, warned the nation that God would take their sons, their daughters, their herds, their fields, and anything else a king could get his hands on for the king’s own purposes.

Despite that, the people said, “Yep, that’s what we want because we want to be like other nations who have kings.” That’s my paraphrase, but that sums it up.

Israel had come from the bondage of Egypt led by Moses; had been led into Canaan by Joshua; had been led both civilly and militarily by a series of judges, both men and women. Samuel becomes the last of these judges.

But Samuel isn’t just any old judge. Samuel himself has heard the voice of God as a small boy in the charge of the priest, Eli. Samuel has responded to God by saying what Eli tells him to say, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.” At least, that’s how I learned the story when I was a small boy.

So, Samuel becomes for the nation both the last judge and the first real prophet they have ever had. But Samuel’s sons, like Eli’s before him, aren’t cut out of the same cloth as their father. The people of Israel know this.

Their concern not to be ruled by Samuel’s corrupt sons, and to be like other nations pushes Samuel to take the whole matter to God.

Now, don’t miss this part. God says to Samuel, “It’s not you they’re rejecting, it’s Me!” But then God goes on to grant reluctantly their request.

We could stop right here because here is the Bible saying that God is making an accommodation to Israel that God does not want to make. What does that say to us about God?  Does God change God’s mind? Does God grant requests that God knows are not going to turn out well? Interesting questions, but that’s not what we want to focus on this morning. But, at a minimum these questions ought to make us a little more humble about what we think we know about God.

But back to the issue at hand and the story. The problem Samuel has is that he has already anointed Saul as king of Israel. Unfortunately, Saul isn’t working out and by this passage we read today, God has rejected Saul as king. Unfortunately, again, Saul refuses to step down.

So, Samuel has to slip around and disguise his trip to Jesse’s village, Bethlehem, as an occasion for sacrificing to God. At this point, remember, Jerusalem is not the center of Israel’s civic or religious life. There is no Temple, and Shiloh, and other worship sites are prominent. David eventually will make Jerusalem the capitol of both government and worship, but that won’t happen for several more years.

But, back to the story. Samuel invites Jesse and his sons to join him for the sacrifice. At this point, Samuel sees Jesse’s son, Eliab, and thinks, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”

God quickly corrects Samuel’s presumption, and Samuel looks at all seven of Jesse’s sons, none of whom God has chosen. Samuel asks Jesse, “Do you have anymore sons?”

“Only the youngest, but he’s out tending sheep,” Jesse replies.

Samuel says, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”

Well, apparently they do sit down because when David arrives, God says to Samuel, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”

And, so Samuel does.

Why Do We Love This Story?

So, why do we love this story? I think first we love this story because of the characters in it: Samuel, the beloved prophet, priest, and judge; the wicked King Saul, who is being replaced; and, of course, David the shepherd boy who walks from the pasture into the presence of God and the Kingdom of Israel.

If there is ever a rags-to-riches story, this is it. And, the story of David is built on this idea of the underdog, David, who defeats Goliath, the giant Philistine. We all root for the underdog.

And, in this passage, the Bible tells us that David was a healthy, strong, good-looking kid. That only makes this story better. And the message I got as a kid was “be like David.”

But, if that’s why we like the story, we have missed the whole point of it.

The Key to the David Story

Even though David was a good-looking, healthy kid, that’s not why God chose him. Quite the contrary actually. The key verse to understanding this story is verse 7. When Eliab appears before Samuel, he’s a good-looking kid, too. And Samuel makes the assumption that his maturity and good looks, and being the oldest, mean that God has chosen Eliab. But, listen to what God says about Eliab:

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Don’t take his appearance or his height into account, Samuel is told. Why? Because God doesn’t look at things like we do!

And that is the key to understanding this whole passage. God doesn’t look at things like we do.

Of course, the temptation for preachers right about now is to tell you how God sees things. But of course, if we knew how God saw things, then we would see things like God does, and this whole story and verse 7 wouldn’t make any sense.

But even though we don’t see things like God sees them, and more importantly, God doesn’t see things like we do, we can still take some hints from this story of David about what that means.

Some Hints About How God Sees Things

So, how can we tease out from this story, how God sees things? Here are some thoughts that stand out to me:

  • We look at outward appearance, God looks at the heart.

Obviously, that is not an original thought of mine, because God clearly tells Samuel exactly that. But, here’s the problem — when David appears the writer of this story describes David’s outward appearance!

“He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.” — I Samuel 16:12 NIV

Now, of course, this verse makes it sound like that David is chosen because of his “fine appearance and handsome features.” I wish the writer of this story had said something like, “Even though David was short and stubby, and a little scruffy looking, God said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”

That would have made more sense. But we have to let the writer be human, and humans do what? Answer: humans look on the outward appearance. So, the writer illustrates God’s point with his own description of David.

But, what does God see in David’s heart? Well, it can’t be that David will be completely obedient to God, can it? Because if you know the story of David, you will remember that after David has become king, when he was supposed to be out fighting with his men, he’s lounging around his palace in Jerusalem. Looking from his palace down on the modest houses around the palace, David spots a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing on the rooftop of her house.

You know the rest of this story. David sends for Bathsheba, commits adultery with her. But that’s not all. To cover up the evidence of his adultery, David has Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed in battle. Of course, eventually Nathan the prophet confronts David, and David repents of his sin. David’s repentance is captured in Psalm 51, in one example.

So, it cannot be that David’s heart is pure, or even obedient. What does God see in David’s heart?

That brings us to the second way God’s view of things is different from ours.

  1. We look for power, God looks for possibility.

David, God knows, will become powerful. It is David’s power that becomes his downfall. No one else in his kingdom could have taken another man’s wife except David himself. But, as powerful as he was, David was also able to see his own sin and repent. Unlike his predecessor King Saul, David’s heart was open to change, to repentance, to conversion, to transformation.

God isn’t looking for self-sufficient power. Rather, God is looking for spiritual possibility. Which is the same kind of thing Jesus was saying when he said about 1,000 years after David:

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 Blessed are those who mourn,

for they will be comforted.

5 Blessed are the meek,

for they will inherit the earth.

6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

for they will be filled.

7 Blessed are the merciful,

for they will be shown mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart,

for they will see God.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers,

for they will be called children of God.

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

You don’t have to be rich, strong, full or powerful. It’s the upside-down kingdom, this kingdom of God. Where possibility trumps power, where the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. It’s a contradiction to our culture and every culture. It’s what God is looking for.

If God Doesn’t See Things Like We Do, What Hope Do We Have?

Well, first of all, just because God doesn’t see things like we do, doesn’t mean that we can’t begin to see things like God does.

Listen to that again, very carefully: just because God doesn’t see things like we do, doesn’t mean that we can’t begin to see things like God does.

I think that is the point of Paul’s great hymn about Jesus, from Philippians 2:5-11 KJV:

5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:

7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:

8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

9 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:

10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;

11 And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” I like the King James Version. In other words, “think like Jesus.” Other translations say, “Have the same attitude as Jesus..”

Regardless of translation, Paul’s point is that we can see things the way God sees them. And that mindset, that attitude, always leads to self-sacrificial love.

Secondly, if we can have the mind of Christ — his attitude, his perspective, his love — then it will change us and our conversations and conduct.

If we can look on the hearts of those around us, like God does, and see in each heart the possibility of this person loving God, because they are God’s creation and Jesus died and rose again for them, then that might change us.

It might change the things we say on Facebook, it might change the comments we make to co-workers, it might begin just ever so slightly to nibble away at our cultural prejudices, our knee-jerk reactions, our critical natures, and our divisive rhetoric.

God doesn’t look at things like we do, but we can look at things like God does. At least a little more than we used to. Each day.

And when we look at people’s hearts, just as God looked at David’s, we realize that sick hearts can be healed, broken hearts can be mended, rebellious hearts can be turned, hard hearts can be softened, and black hearts can be made white as snow.

That’s what God sees. Not our perfection, but our potential. May we see with the eyes of God those around us. Amen.

Sermon: The Paradox of Following Jesus

On the last Sunday of Lent, I preached from John 12:20-33. It’s the story of Jesus after his entry into Jerusalem, and this passage involves three things. First, there were those who wanted to see Jesus; secondly, Jesus warned that those who loved life in this world would lose theirs; and, finally, Jesus described what following him really meant. I used three phrases to capture these three points: focusing on Jesus, forsaking the world system, and following faithfully. Here’s the podcast of the sermon:

The Lenten Journey: Into the Wilderness

The Temptation of Christ (detail) 6

Our services have been cancelled tomorrow — Sunday, February 22, 2015 — because of snow and ice. But, this week’s lectionary readings are so full of wonderful opportunities for reflection as we begin the Lenten season, that I wanted to share some of my sermon notes with you.

The Texts

The Gospel text for the Year B, the first Sunday of Lent, is Mark 1:9-15. This is Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism and the Spirit’s “thrusting” him into the wilderness where he was for “forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

Mark’s version is the shortest of the synoptic Gospels. Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 are longer and contain much more detail, including the three temptations from the devil.

The Markan text covers three significant steps in Jesus early ministry: his baptism (v. 9-11), his 40 days in the desert (v. 12-13), and his initial proclamation of the kingdom of God (v. 14-15). A preacher could take off in any one, or all three, directions and not go wrong.

However, because Lent is often imagined as a journey, the desert experience is very appropriate for this first Sunday in Lent. Mark’s dynamic description of the movement from baptism by the Jordan to the desert describes the Spirit as “thrusting” Jesus into the wilderness.

Journey as a Universal Metaphor

The wilderness experience is not just a good opportunity for Jesus, and for us, to step back and reflect on our spiritual journeys, it is an archetypal experience known across cultures.

In his groundbreaking book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the universal metaphor of the “hero” and his or her mythic journey.  The hero’s journey typically involves three phases — the departure, the initiation, and his victorious return. For this text, we’re concerned with only the first phase, the departure.

Campbell believes that the hero’s movement from the relative safety of the status quo into a wild and scary land sets the stage for the journey. In his rather awkward prose, Campbell writes:

The folk mythologies populate with deceitful and dangerous presences every desert place outside the normal traffic of the village. (pg. 64)

In other words, when you leave home on an adventure into the unknown, it can be pretty scary! And on this journey into the desert, these “deceitful and dangerous presences” are often demons, devils, or human-like creatures that beguile, entice, and tempt. Campbell describes that one of the human-like creatures from Central Africa is said to try to entice the hero to fight. When the hero has the advantage of the ogre, the ogre bargains by saying, “Do not kill me, I will show you lots of medicines,” which means a kind of shamanic power. Sounds very much like what the devil offers to Jesus!

Now, let me be clear: I am not saying that the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is a myth. However, because the hero’s journey is a metaphor known across time and cultures, there must be something to the idea of a spiritual journey or quest.

And that thought brings us back to Lent. Jesus’ experience in the wilderness was necessary for the beginning of his ministry. Likewise, we as his followers also must face head-on the reality of our own demons, and all those spiritual powers that would distract, deceive, and derail our journey.

For years I did not like Lent because I thought it was generally dreary and depressing. But without the experience of victoriously battling our demons and resisting the siren-song of temptation, we cannot take the next steps in our journey. Jesus settled his allegiance to God in the wilderness, and so must we. Anyone can serve God in the bright light of day, but obedience to God when surrounded by darkness is a learned obedience.

I also like the scene in at the end of verse 13 — “He was with the wild animals and the angels attended him.” Not only do we see Jesus resisting the devil, but after he has done so, Mark gives us a hint of paradise restored. For the first time since Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a human being dwells with the animals in peace, and God’s messengers shuttle back and forth between heaven and earth attending to him.

During these next weeks leading up to Easter, we must remember that the Lenten journey from baptism to resurrection runs right through the desert.

5 Questions We All Ask About Healing

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I preached from Mark 1:29-39, last Sunday, and chose to address the issue of healing. The 5 questions that I think we all ask about healing are:

  1. Why does illness and suffering exist?
  2. Why did Jesus heal?
  3. Does God still heal today?
  4. Why isn’t everyone healed?
  5. What can we do in the face of illness and suffering?

Here’s the podcast of that sermon where I attempt to answer these 5 questions —

Podcast: Everything Is Made New

In 2 Corinthians 5:6-17, the Apostle Paul reminds the church in Corinth that one day each of them will have to stand before the judgment seat of Christ. In other words, it does matter how we live our lives in this world. While faith in Christ secures our eternal destiny, just as it did Paul’s, how we live determines our reward when we enter the presence of God. But we do not have to live our lives in our own strength, for if we are “in Christ” we made new by the power of Christ. Our lives are lived for others, in ways that are pleasing to Christ now and in eternity. Here’s the link to my sermon titled, Everything Is Made New.

Podcast: Life in the Spirit

Trinity Sunday offers an opportunity to examine Paul’s idea of life in the Spirit. According to Romans 8:12-17, living in the Spirit means that we don’t live by the “flesh” — which is a word Paul uses to identify that which is dying and passing away, that lifestyle to which we were slaves prior to coming to Christ.

Life in the Spirit means we are God’s children, and as God’s children we form habits as we are led by the Spirit of God. Those habits will bring us into conflict with the world that lives by the “flesh” and we will suffer as Christ suffered because we are living by the Spirit. But, Paul reminds us that if we suffer with Christ, we will also be glorified with Christ, too. Here’s the link to Life in the Spirit.