The following sermon was delivered by our Drew Seminarian Leif McLellan:
My home state of Minnesota goes by many names: the land of 10,000 lakes, the frozen tundra, the great white north. We even like to joke that Minnesota has three seasons: cold, colder, and road construction. Some of you might think I am odd when I say that I love the cold and the snow. After moving out here to New Jersey I experienced a bit of a climate shock. Where are all my subzero days? Where is all the snow?? Although the climate here is not very different, I have still had to adapt to the new rhythms and the new seasons. One of my favorite parts about a long winter is how much better it makes the arrival of Spring. I absolutely love that moment when Spring comes knocking on the door after months of darkness and ice. That subtle moment when the temperature starts to rise, the ground begins to thaw, and the aromas of earthy soil and wet asphalt begin to mingle in the air. Something about being on the verge of Spring sparks in me a longing for warmth and green and new life.
This experience seems to mirror how we long for a kind of Spring in our own lives. How many of us live in a form of perpetual Winter? How many of us are not satisfied with the way things are? I know that I am not satisfied. I am not satisfied with myself, with my life, and with the state of this world. Within this dissatisfaction lies a deep desire. Perhaps you have felt it too. That almost indescribable desire for new things, for a Spring that breaks through and transforms everything. We yearn for that moment when we are finally satisfied with our lives. So we try to fill this desire in all kinds of ways. We work harder at school or in our careers. We strive to make the perfect family with the perfect home. We try so hard to get the kind of body advertising companies tell us we need. Yet, as much as we try, life seems to keep on going in much the same way as it always has. Like Peter in our Gospel reading for today, we often settle for human things not divine things.
Indeed, I find it easy to sympathize with Peter in this Gospel story. Jesus tells his disciples that he has to suffer at the hands of his own people and eventually be killed. If I were Jesus’s close devoted follower, I would feel distraught to hear his plans. I can sense Peter’s heart sinking, his insides twisting, and his head spinning as he tries to grasp what he has heard. With the threat of losing his beloved teacher, his fight-or-flight response kicks in. His adrenaline starts pumping. Finally Peter musters up the courage to oppose his teacher. Peter turns Jesus aside and rebukes Jesus for explaining that he must die on the cross.
Surely Peter’s rebuke makes sense to us. Mark does not tell us what Peter said, but I imagine that he was motivated by the fear of loss and a change in the status quo. But Jesus rebukes Peter in turn: “you set your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Now, this cutting remark does not imply that Peter and the other disciples need to put their head in the clouds and forget human life. In fact, the specific “divine things” that Jesus refers to impact physical, material, human life. In this case, God’s divine action takes shape in this world when Jesus is publicly crucified. I also don’t think Jesus’s point was to pile shame upon Peter. Peter had a very natural reaction to the threat of loss. It feels safer to have things stay as they are. Instead Jesus calls Peter into a new form of life where he no longer focuses on his wants, his worries, and his shallow desires. That is, Peter turns in on himself, on his “self.” He puts his focus on something other than the work of God. But this new form of life to which Jesus calls Peter is a life where he sets his mind to divine things. It opens him up to the way God works and lives in the world.
Jesus describes a radical new life that God gives to us. But he describes it with a rather puzzling paradox: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake […] will save it.” Let’s sit with those words for a second. “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake […] will save it.” …. This sentence is so simple yet so rich and full of power. With such heavy words, we must stay clear of dangerous interpretations. Jesus of course does not mean that we should all jump off a cliff together. And although we may experience hardship and pain in following Jesus, not all suffering and sacrifice necessarily leads us to life, especially not in instances of abuse or manipulation.
So how are we to make sense of Jesus’s words? The Greek word translated as life in this passage is ψυχή, from which we get the word psychology. It can mean life, soul, or spirit. It’s the thing that makes a person alive, our inner being. We might call it our “self.” So if we want to hold onto our self we will lose it. It seems to me that we in this society try desperately to save ourselves. We have somehow been convinced that we can make ourselves worthy of love and life; if we just work harder for longer hours; if we can just be the perfect partner, parent, or child; if we can just have that home or that body we always wanted. We lose ourselves in a world that demands exhaustion and perfection. We struggle in vain to fill that deep-seated desire for a new life.
But we are not bound to this kind of struggle. In the waters of baptism, God has given us grace to lead a new kind of life. God saves us from that self that we have tried to make by and for ourselves. We no longer need to make ourselves worthy or lovable or perfect. See, those old selves that we thought we had, they are already gone. It is not you who lives, but God who lives in you. Of course grace is not all sunshine and rainbows. As in any form of loss, losing that self to which we cling so tightly can feel painful. We may even find that we encounter dangers and suffering as terrible as Jesus faced. But the new self that God gives us opens us up to a joy that far surpasses the feeble pleasures of the old.
One of my favorite theologians, C.S. Lewis, writes powerfully about true joy that is the real object of our deepest desire. In distinguishing this joy from everyday feelings of happiness, Lewis writes: “I doubt whether anyone who has tasted [joy] would ever, if both [joy and happiness] were in [our] power, exchange [joy] for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.” In other words, we cannot make joy happen any more than we can turn Winter into Spring. To strive for the joy that comes with a new life in Christ, in fact, contradicts the whole point. To save your life means losing it. There is no more “you” to strive, to work, and to worry. There is only God working, living, and breathing through your person. For ultimately God, not ourselves, gives us new life. AMEN.
February 18, 2018
“[Jesus] was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Mark 1:13
Today we have made our way here in wintry conditions so that we can enter the desert. I know. It’s weird to be talking about a desert wilderness when several inches of snow fell last night. But here we are, on the first Sunday of Lent, at the beginning of our own forty-day time, and everything is so…spare.
Lent has begun, and so we have a new setting for our worship service, one that’s a little less elaborate. We won’t be singing or speaking any “alleluias” during Lent. We don’t sing as much during worship. The communion liturgy will be more brief, though its essence is still there.
We’ll have new wording for our various prayers – after the offering, after communion. And as you may have noticed, we have new language for our confession. I think it’s helpful to change our words a bit from season to season because it helps us pay closer attention to what we are actually saying.
I don’t know if it was a trick of my mind, but earlier this week, when I was reviewing today’s bulletin for the first time, I came to this sentence in the confession: “We fail in love, neglect justice, and ignore your truth.” But instead of “we fail in love,” I read it as “we fall in love.” It took me a minute to realize my mistake. Not “we fall in love,” but we “fail in love.”
Falling in love. Failing in love. Both part of the human condition. That was one of the best parts of having Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day converge this year. We’re good at falling in love, but we don’t escape failing at it either. Lent offers us a chance to tell the truth about who we are – the whole truth.
As we follow Jesus into the wilderness this morning, we notice that, typical of Mark’s gospel, there aren’t a whole lot of details to go on. We don’t hear how Satan actually tempts Jesus like we do in Matthew and Luke. There’s no recording of their conversation. We get two sentences about it: “And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus 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.”
What do we learn about the wilderness in this brief account?
We learn that the wilderness is a place that Jesus does not choose to go. He is driven there by the Holy Spirit, still wet from his baptismal plunge into the river. His baptism has not prevented him from encountering evil. It has sent him barreling towards it. And maybe this time in the wilderness is good practice for contending with evil. Remember that when Jesus returns from the wilderness, his first act of public ministry will be an exorcism.
The wilderness is also a dangerous place. Those wild beasts are not cute companions or therapy dogs. They are threatening. As the days pass and Jesus grows more weak, I can imagine the wild beasts pacing around him, licking their chops.
And of course the wilderness is a place of temptation. We don’t get the specifics of what Satan offers up, but I bet it was some juicy stuff. The forces of evil are pretty good at figuring out where we are most vulnerable, where we are most easily led astray.
Those forty days are meant, of course, to remind us of the forty days that the Israelites spent wandering the wilderness after their escape from slavery in Egypt. You would think that the people of God would have been so grateful that they would have been praising God day and night and worked to build a communal life in which everyone was safe and loved. And sometimes they did exactly that. But remember that the wilderness was also where the people hoarded manna even when God told them explicitly not to. And the wilderness is the place where they melted down any precious metal they could get their hands on to make idols to worship. The wilderness does not necessarily bring out our best selves.
What do our own wildernesses look like? Sometimes we’re thrown into the wilderness by a crisis – a sudden illness, a divorce, a death, the loss of a job. We find ourselves unsure of what the future holds, and we give in to despair. Or we find ourselves in a wilderness surrounded by temptations that pull us away from what matters. We neglect the relationships that are most important to us.
Sometimes the wilderness looks like seventeen dead teenagers and adults after yet another school shooting.
Our wildernesses may look different, but they share some features with the one to which Jesus was sent for those forty days. We, too, are often forced to go there against our will. We wonder when this season of wandering will be over. We worry that the wild beasts – sometimes in the form of fear, anxiety, depression – will catch up with us and devour us on the spot.
But you know what else is in the wilderness? Angels. In Mark’s story, the angels wait on Jesus. The Greek word is diekonoun. The angels minister to him. They serve him. What a relief that must have been in the midst of suffering and temptation – to have that kind of tender care from those who know best how to offer it.
I don’t know how you imagine angels, but I think they take all kinds of forms in today’s world. For me the angels have included the friends who fed me and took me in when I was too exhausted from the latest round of exams and papers to think straight. Angels are the people who pray for me. Angels are teachers and mentors. Angels are the strangers who say something kind at just the right moment.
Angels aren’t wimpy. They have to be made of strong stuff to keep ministering to people in the wilderness. They strengthen us to stand up to evil. For me this week the angels have included the kids of Parkland, Florida, who have called us to account and said, “Look, you’re the adults. Figure something out. Do something to protect us.”
That’s what we’re called to do as baptized people. To figure something out. To address the evil in the world in the ways that God has equipped us to do. It’s part of what we promise in the baptismal service: to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.
So here we are in the wilderness, surrounded by both the wild beasts and the angels. It is not a safe place, but we are not alone as we wander through it.
I love today’s psalm [Psalm 25]. Like so many of the psalms, it’s an honest plea to God for what the speaker most needs. I especially love verse 7: “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love, remember me.”
We fall in love. We fail at love. Both are true. That’s what the wilderness teaches us. But God does not look at us and see all of the wrongs we’ve ever done. God does not see us as a summation of our sin. God looks at us and sees…us. God remembers us – beloved children created for a life that includes both brokenness and beauty. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ