Follow, Into the Wilderness

“Follow, Into the Wilderness”

Mark 1-16 Jesus, wildreness, animals

Mark 1:9-15 (1:12) – February 18, 2018

This past week, on Wednesday, our country was transfixed and horrified to hear of yet another mass shooting. This time, in a high school, in a more affluent town north of Fort Lauderdale. These students, these adults had absolutely no idea that anything like this shooting could possibly happen. Not there. Not to them. And, not on Valentine’s Day.

I wonder how many of those families who are even now preparing to bury their loved ones feel like they are lost in the wilderness? Grieving, angry, fearful, at a total loss. Not even able to process the horrific events that happened in so short a time on Wednesday afternoon. What kind of messages are the ministers in that community of Parkland, Florida preaching this morning? This first Sunday of Lent?

Our Gospel lesson from Mark this morning begins with Jesus getting baptized in the Jordan by His cousin, John the Baptist. The heavens open, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends upon Jesus. A voice from heaven is heard saying, “You are my Son. With You I am well pleased.”

This is the very beginning of Jesus’s ministry, and we find it right at the beginning of chapter 1 in Mark’s Gospel. And, immediately—one of Mark’s favorite words—immediately after the baptism, the Holy Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness. Alone. All by Himself.

Imagine, being in the wilderness all alone. I am not sure whether a lot of people today could survive adequately in the wilderness, especially if they grew up in an urban area like Chicago. Perhaps Jesus was especially hardy. We are not told much else, except that He was out there for forty days, and at some point in this period, Jesus was tempted by Satan, the adversary.

Except—I’d like to focus on the wilderness. Jesus went to the wilderness for forty days.

Have you ever felt like you have been in the wilderness? Wandering there for forty days? Or, for even longer? Have you gone through experiences of lengthy unemployment or under-employment? What about times of sickness, and chronic health difficulties? Periods where there have been a whole series of illnesses and deaths of your loved ones and family members?

What about internal difficulties? Approximately one in four Americans suffer from some sort of mental illness or mental difficulty like depression, anxiety, or some sort of compulsion, if not the more severe kinds of affliction like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. That’s a lot of people. And, those people often feel like they are all alone. All by themselves. These people are in a great deal of internal pain.

These times of sadness, anxiety, fearfulness, even downright despair sometimes threaten to overwhelm us. These are truly times of wandering in the wilderness. 

Let us go back to the families and friends of the people who were shot at Douglas High School in Florida, just five days ago. Here we have a whole community suddenly plunged into the wilderness. How on earth can they possibly cope? How can they find any way to hope for a better day or develop any kind of a positive outlook?

We are not going to leave these dear folks wandering in the wilderness forever. I will return to them and their dire predicament in just a few minutes. I want us to refocus on Jesus. Yes, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at His baptism. However, like my favorite commentator David Lose, it struck me that it is the Holy Spirit “that drives Jesus into the wilderness, that place of challenge and struggle and purification and testing and temptation.” [1]

Yes, we believe Jesus willingly withdrew into the wilderness for a time. But, what about other people, like those dear ones in Florida? Overwhelmingly, people do not willingly choose sickness or loss or deprivation, chronic pain, mental illness, or despair. And, what about us, wandering in the wilderness?

How are all of these people supposed to handle things when everything seems to be falling apart? With repeated, multiple losses, or chronic difficulties, or financial reversals? The list can go on and on. Some folks never get back on their feet, either physically, emotionally, financially, or spiritually.

When I was in my twenties, I had two small children. My former husband and I were in desperate straits. Even with college degrees, we could not find jobs. Even crummy jobs. Both of us had work for short periods of time, and then one or the other would get laid off, or the company would relocate out of state, or the position would close. No health insurance, for years. We were hitting the pavement, going to employment agencies, doing just about everything we could, for years. And, if it wasn’t for the long-term generosity of our mothers and families, we could possibly have been kicked out of our apartment and living in a car.

I know very well what it is like to do wilderness wandering. Struggling all alone. Seemingly, all by myself.

As David Lose says, “Truth be told, we rarely volunteer to go to wilderness places. We don’t often look for opportunities to struggle. Which is probably why Mark reports that the Spirit drove Jesus rather than simply make a suggestion.[2]

As Dr. Lose tries to make absolutely clear, God does not maliciously cause us misery or suffering. God does not desire that for beloved children—which we all are!

Notice, the Holy Spirit is not the one who tempts Jesus. Instead, the Holy Spirit is the Comforter and Sustainer who remains with Jesus throughout His time in the wilderness. Just so, the Holy Spirit can be with all of us through our wilderness wanderings. Indeed, God can be at work both for us and through us during our wilderness wanderings and difficult times. [3]

Sometimes, it is not easy. Sometimes, years ago, I would cry out to God, “Where are you? Do you even care about me, at all?” This is one of the hardest times of all, when folks are tempted to totally give up hope. Some struggles—physical, emotional, financial, mental or spiritual—are so difficult to bear. And, what if you have several of these struggles at the same time? On top of each other?

I want to give people a warning. I am absolutely not advocating that anyone stay in a dangerous or abusive situation. If there is danger of any kind, or any sort of abusive behavior or language coming your way, please get out. Please call someone, call or text me. Or, tell someone you trust.

All the same, God can be right next to us through extended difficult times. Again and again, I have heard testimonies about Jesus sitting right by a person’s side, all the time they went through chemotherapy and radiation treatment for cancer. Or, Jesus sitting with a person while they were having treatment for debilitating depression. And, perhaps we can “look at the struggles around us in light of this story and ask, “Even though I did not wish for this, how might God be at work through this difficult period. What can I get out of this? How might God use me to help someone else?” [4]

Yes, our thoughts and prayers are with these dear ones in Florida, mourning the loss of their loved ones. Yes, we can come alongside of people going through wilderness wandering of many types. And, yes. God is there, too. As Comforter, Sustainer. As the Spirit was with Jesus in the wilderness, so the Spirit will be with us, too.

Thank God for heavenly mercies. Jesus promises never to leave us nor forsake us. Amen.

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2015/02/lent-1-b-wilderness-faith/

“Wilderness Faith,” David Lose, …in the Meantime, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

My Soul Magnifies the Lord!

“My Soul Magnifies the Lord!”

Luke 1-46 Mary Magnificat, colors

Luke 1:46-55 (1:46) – December 24, 2017

People have been writing songs about the Virgin Mary for centuries. Songs of praise, songs of worship, songs honoring God, and lifting up Mary for saying “yes” to God. Christmas carols might be the first thing that come to mind—but I am also thinking of music from centuries past. From the familiar first part of Handel’s Messiah, to the various settings of the Magnificat, with lyrics from the first chapter of Luke—our Gospel reading for this morning.

Some Protestants might not be as familiar with the Virgin Mary as many Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Mary is held in extremely high esteem in many denominations and faith traditions throughout the world, and for excellent reasons. I honor her greatly.

Did you know that Mary—an unwed teenager from an oppressed people-group in an occupied country under crushing Roman rule—was also a radical? A subversive? Was plotting to overthrow the existing oppressive government and replace it with the rule of God?

What surprising, even shocking things to say about the sweet, innocent Virgin Mary! Everyone associates her with travel to Bethlehem while nine months pregnant, and needing to deliver the infant Jesus in a stable, because there was no room for them in the inn.

That Mary? Radical? Subversive? Yes.

Let’s back up. Go back to last week’s sermon, where the angel Gabriel surprises Mary and tells her God would like for her to be the mother of the Messiah.

But, what about Mary’s opinion? For a teenager, Mary must have been mature and sensible. She acknowledges the angel’s statement and God’s will. Mary says “Yes, I see it all now: I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve. Let it be with me just as you say.”

Sure, the wonderful classical settings of the Magnificat were often sung in a foreign language, like Latin. Or, in text from the King James version of the Bible, full of “thee’s” and “thou’s” and all manner of archaic words. Listen to the first part of her Magnificat, as translated in the modern version by Eugene Peterson, “The Message.”

“I’m bursting with God-news; I’m dancing the song of my Savior God. God took one good look at me, and look what happened—I’m the most fortunate woman on earth! What God has done for me will never be forgotten, the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others. His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before Him.”

One well-known depiction of the Virgin Mary is one that is meek, docile, sweet, and not raising a fuss at all. But, wait a moment. Do we realize what Mary is going to sing next? How revolutionary were many of the statements in her song?

“Even more importantly, Mary’s song is an overture to the Gospel of Luke as a whole. Mary’s lyrics set the tone for Jesus’s radical and controversial ministry that is to come:

You have shown strength with your arm;

You have scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

You have brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

You have filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

“In contrast, the Christmas season leaves too many still hungry, and too many even further in debt.” [1]

Do you hear what radical things Mary is saying? If these lyrics of her song were more well-known, would our understanding of Mary be changed? Here Mary is advocating social change, rescuing victims—neglected women, forgotten elders and children, abused strangers and refugees—from being trodden underfoot, even ground under the heel of bragging, bluffing tyrants and braggarts. Turning all society as it was in her day—and ours—upside down.

What subversive idea is our revolutionary Mary advocating now? Feeding the starving? Giving the poor a banquet? Turning the unfeeling, callous rich people out into the cold? Yes, these radical words are the words found in Luke chapter 1, before we rush on to the narrative of the birth of the Baby in Bethlehem from Luke 2.

Mary was singing two thousand years ago. But, things haven’t changed much. Political leaders are still calling one another names while people starve. “Refugees struggle to find a home in a world with increasingly closed doors. The poor sleep under bridges while the rich build homes with rooms they will never need. And Abraham’s descendants—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—continue to fight over the lands where God’s messengers first spoke to all humanity.”[2]

As the Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg stated in his article on the radical nature of Mary’s Magnificat, “The Christmas story has, over time, too frequently come to have a sense of ‘preciousness,’ of saccharine sentimentality, of almost sickening sweetness as if you had eaten all the candy in your stocking all at once on Christmas morning. When this super-sweetening of the story happens, we can miss the radicality of the claim that God is found, not as the royal child of a queen in a palace, but as the son of an unwed teenager, born in a stable in a religiously-conservative small town.” [3]

Sure, we can see this saccharine sweetness of Luke chapter 2, once it is pointed out to us. But, in reality, life was not so pretty for teenaged Mary, pregnant without the benefit of marriage.

We are still in the season of Advent, the season of waiting. Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent. We still watch as Joseph and his greatly pregnant wife Mary walk one hundred miles to the town of Joseph’s ancestors (and Mary’s, too).

We still wait for the baby Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. We still hold our collective breath with all the rest of creation as we wait—and wait.

Luke, the writer of our Gospel, has a different take on things. Yes, he waits, too. But he waits with songs. Mary’s song—Mary’s Magnificat is a great example.

As Dr. David Lose says in his commentary, “Have you ever noticed how often Luke employs songs in the first several chapters of his story about Jesus? Mary sings when she is greeted by her cousin Elizabeth. Zechariah sings when his son John is born and his tongue is finally loosened. The angels sing of peace and goodwill when they share their “good news of great joy” with the shepherds. And Simeon sings his song of farewell once he has seen God’s promises to Israel kept in the Christ child.” [4]

These songs are deep expressions of the heart and soul to God and to the listeners—including us. These songs are hymns, psalms, songs of praise and exaltation, and even songs of resistance. Mary combined all of these into her song.

I’d like to close with a portion of a modern song written to Mary, asking her if she knew her infant son would truly be the Messiah, the Son of God. This song was written by Mark Lowry, and asks: “Mary, did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation? Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am!

Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know?”  [5]

We are still waiting…

 

[1] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2011/12/magnificat-learning-to-sing-mary%E2%80%99s-song-a-progressive-christian-lectionary-commentary-on-luke-146-55/

“Magnificat! Learning to Sing Mary’s Song,” Carl Gregg, Patheos, 2011.

[2] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week Four. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

[3] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2011/12/magnificat-learning-to-sing-mary%E2%80%99s-song-a-progressive-christian-lectionary-commentary-on-luke-146-55/

“Magnificat! Learning to Sing Mary’s Song,” Carl Gregg, Patheos, 2011.

[4] http://www.davidlose.net/2015/12/advent-4-c-singing-as-an-act-of-resistance/

“Singing as an Act of Resistance,” David Lose, …in the Meantime, 2015.

[5] http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/m/mark_lowry/mary_did_you_know.html

Mary Did You Know lyrics

(A heartfelt thank you to An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide. Some of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this guide.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my Advent sermon series. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Baptized, Beloved

“Baptized, Beloved”

luke-3-21-baptismchrist2

Matthew 3:13-17 (3:16) – January 8, 2017

Water. Water is used for a great many things. For washing and cleaning, certainly! Washing clothes and dishes, washing hands before dinner, washing cars in the summertime. Cleaning things, too, like brushing teeth before bed, and cleaning instruments and tools. Water is used for a special, cleansing purpose in the Christian church, too. Water is for cleansing of people, and washing of souls, of body and spirit.

The Gospel of Matthew begins our Scripture passage today with Jesus at the very beginning of His ministry. He comes to the River Jordan, to see His cousin John the Baptist. And what is John doing at the Jordan? Baptizing people, cleansing them while they confess their sins, washing their souls, inside and out.

Let’s back up a bit, and take a look at the passage from Isaiah, from the Hebrew scriptures. Here we have a prophetic suggestion of what is to come; the prophet tells us here in the book of Isaiah about the Sent One of God.

Did you know that God deeply cares about the Sent One? The prophet says so! Listen again to verse 42:6—“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you;” We see that God is faithful to God’s promises, and will care for those whom God loves. In fact, God is within the Servant the prophet speaks of, And, God means for this Servant to transform and cleanse the mess the world has been in. [1]

This is awesome news! The mixed-up world will finally be washed and cleansed. Except, Jesus does something completely unexpected. Jesus does not come to cleanse the world, at first. No, Jesus comes to John to be obedient and go through the waters of baptism Himself.

We can see from the Gospel passage that John is really hesitant to baptize Jesus. He says, “No way, Jesus! I oughta be baptized by You! And here You are, coming to me to be baptized?”

I want to remind everyone that Jesus had no sin. He was both God and man at the same time. Yet, Jesus came to be baptized by John. Jesus wanted to identify with sinful humanity in every way. Plus, Jesus wanted to fix the mess the world was in.

Look at verses 6 and 7 of the passage from Isaiah: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” That sounds like washing and cleansing this fallen, mixed-up world. That sounds like the mission Jesus had in His ministry here on earth.

But, Jesus is not there yet, at the beginning of Matthew 3. Jesus needs to be baptized, to fulfill all righteousness. And, what is righteousness? “Compassionate justice and care for those who are poor and/or marginalized, humility and faithfulness that always point to God as the One who is at work in this transformation, and the hope—the promise—of new things that will dazzle us and rattle the foundations of our safe little worlds. When read, and heard, together, the texts from Isaiah and Matthew dramatically illustrate God’s own deep faithfulness and care.” [2]

We can see from the Gospel of Matthew how God has deep faithfulness and care for Jesus, God’s Son. After Jesus convinces John to baptize Him, the heavens open, the Spirit of God as a heavenly dove descends, and God the Father says, “This is my Beloved!”

Let us imagine ourselves in that crowd on the banks of the river, watching the baptisms, as people are cleansed from sin. John is washing their souls, inside and out. Hear the sound of the rushing water. You and I, all of us are crowded together, jostling each other. We watch John the Baptizer, with that new rabbi Jesus, in the water. Suddenly, the heavens break apart! Everyone, all of us in the crowd know the Spirit of God is present, in the likeness of a dove coming down from the sky.

What do you think of when you hear the voice of God saying, “This is my Beloved!” What goes through your head? What kinds of feelings are going through you? Are you scared? Excited? Puzzled? Confused? Or, all of the above?

Think of baptisms we have seen, even participated in. Do you think baptisms are just an excuse for gifts and a party? Or, does baptism mean much more? Consider your own baptism in light of this Gospel reading. Now, think of the others in this congregation, too. Close your eyes. Think of God saying to you—yes, to you in particular—“You are my Beloved!”

            God is saying that to each one of you. Really and truly.

I found this story on a pastor’s sermon board, online. It was written a number of years ago by a Pastor Del in Iowa. He tells the story of his grandmother’s death, and his subsequent desire to find out more about his grandparents’ families.

“I began to ask questions about my genealogy… about my great grandfather (whose last name was Fahling) whom I remember well from my childhood.

“As I questioned my mother about the family history on my father’s side, she indicated to me that my great grandfather’s real last name is unknown. It seems that he left the old country and came to the New World as a boy, his journey paid for by a farmer with the name of Fahling. Upon crossing the waters of the Atlantic, my great grandfather took up residency with this farmer, labored on his land and took upon himself his sponsor’s name and identity and became part of the Fahling family. He even receiving a share in the inheritance of the family farm.

“At first I was disappointed with the loss of a history, but then I realized that in many respects this is the meaning of our baptisms. Crossing the waters, we take on different residency, ordained labors, and new identities and begin a new history. We become an integral part of the family of God through sharing in the baptism of Christ who sponsors and pays for our journey.”[3]

We have several different ways to come to an understanding of baptism. Yes, we have been washed and cleansed from our sins. We have crossed the water. Yes, each of us has been adopted by God. Yes, each of us has a new identity. And, yes, each of us is Beloved, much loved by God, our heavenly Parent.

Consider this last understanding of baptism, about each person, child or adult, in our congregation. And then about each baptized person you know. God considers each one God’s Beloved. Do we consider each one Beloved? Do we treat each person as God’s Beloved? How would that understanding change the way we treat each other?

Not that baptism magically changes us and—presto, change-o—causes us to become Beloved in some magical way. No! We are Beloved because God says we are. Just as God called Jesus Beloved, God refers to each of us in the very same way.

Praise God! I know I am God’s Beloved, the same way you are, too. What a marvelous name. What a fantastic feeling. What a wonderful God we serve.

 

(Thanks to Kathryn Matthews and the United Church of Christ’s Worship Ways for several ideas used in this sermon.)

[1] http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_january_8_2017   by Kathryn Matthews

[2] http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_january_8_2017   by Kathryn Matthews

[3] http://desperatepreacher.com//bodyii.htm

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)