Saturday, February 25, 2012

Testing Our Mettle

Zion Lutheran Church, Twin Valley, MN
February 26, 2012
Lent 1/Mark 1:9-15
Installation of Pr. Anne Pairan

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Mark the gospel writer likes to keep things moving right along—he writes in a lean style that is always short and to the point.

So while Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels give us similar, but longer and more elaborate versions of the story of Jesus’ temptation, Mark wraps it up in just 34 words—the length of a Facebook update.

But even so, Mark conveys to us, in dramatic, strong language the core of this story sandwiched between Jesus’ baptism and his first sermon….and for our purposes we can further reduce it to three words I want to explore with you:   wilderness, temptation, and angels.

The Spirit, in the form of a dove, descends on Jesus when he is baptized in the Jordan River…conveying God’s blessing and power….but suddenly the scene shifts.  

The Spirit, who at first is a sign of peace and favor, suddenly becomes Jesus’ taskmaster.  And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness…” (v. 12)

When you and I hear the word “wilderness,” we probably think of the northwoods of our great state, perhaps the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.   We hear “wilderness” and we probably smile and dream of a time and place away from the hustle and bustle of work and commitments.   “Wilderness” is a place to retreat and renew and rebuild our scattered lives.

But this is not the wilderness that the Spirit drove Jesus into.   In the Bible, the wilderness is most likely a dry, god-forsaken desert area.   It is a place of danger, where you could easily lose your life to the scorching heat, thirst or wild beasts.

Most importantly, the wilderness is about extreme loneliness.  In the Hebrew language, the word for “wilderness” means, roughly, “word-less.”   Wilderness is devoid of human contact, it’s where you are utterly alone with your dark fears and morbid doubts.   Wilderness is to be avoided at all costs.

The Spirit of God drives the newly-baptized Jesus into the wilderness….which is to say:  the Spirit takes Jesus to that place where we all spend some time during our lives—a place of questioning and deep anxiety and utter extremity—a place where no one, not even God, seems to be present.

And what happens to Jesus in the wilderness?   He does not just go there for a quick overnight in a sleeping bag and a cozy tent; Jesus stays there 40 days, which is a biblical way of saying “a good long time.”    Jesus is in the wilderness 40 days, and he is not in a protective cocoon—Jesus is “with the wild beasts.”

But what chiefly happens to Jesus during his 40 days in the wilderness, with the wild beasts, is that he is tempted by Satan.

We tend to misunderstand this idea of temptation, mainly because we have trivialized it.   We’ve frittered away the idea of being tempted because we assume it has something to do with falling off our diet, or tipping the bottle too much, or cheating on a spouse, or getting your hand caught in the cookie jar.   Temptation is a great National Enquirer headline word—it is, too often, the stuff of juicy gossip.

But in the biblical worldview, and in the language of Christian faith and life, temptation is always about something broader, deeper and more dangerous.   Martin Luther in his Small Catechism explanation to the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer—“Lead us not into temptation”—has this to say:  “God tempts no one to sin, but we ask in this prayer that God would watch over us and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful self may not deceive us and draw us into false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins.  And we pray that even though we are so tempted we may still win the final victory.”   

What does it mean to be tempted?   Temptation is about something far, far worse than falling off your diet or reneging on your no-smoking pledge.   Temptation is about doubting your God-given, God-claimed identity.  Temptation for Jesus in the parched wilderness was about being distracted from his mission, side-tracked on his path to the Cross, for us and for our salvation.

So what we need to picture here is a battle royal out in the wilderness.   Satan, whose name means “adversary,” assaults Jesus repeatedly over the course of a forty day period.   Mark doesn’t give us a blow-by-blow account, but maybe that’s OK.  Mark’s narrative leaves a lot to our imaginations, and perhaps that helps us identify with Jesus all the more.

Because we, too, have our own “good long times” in the wilderness of doubt and despair.   You and I also are pressed to the max, pinned to the wall, by all the “wouldas, couldas, shouldas”—all the ways we doubt ourselves and despair of trusting that God is with us.

This is where the Spirit drives our Lord Jesus….into the wilderness, with the wild beasts, to be attacked and assailed by his adversary for days that stretched into weeks that extended beyond a month:  Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness—which we ponder at the start of our 40 days of Lent.

What was God up to here?   Why did the Spirit “drive” Jesus into the wilderness?     What good, if any, did this episode do in the longer narrative of Mark’s gospel?

Richard Swanson, a seminary classmate of mine who teaches the Bible at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, encourages us to think of temptation as testing.[1]  

Swanson asks:  What if “the satan,” the adversary here is someone who actually serves God’s purposes?

There is a biblical precedent for this possibility, in the Old Testament Book of Job.  In the first chapter of Job, Satan is pictured among the heavenly beings in God’s royal court.   God allows Satan to test the genuineness of Job’s faith by permitting misfortunes to fall upon Job.

Professor Swanson wonders whether the satan is sort of like a building inspector, whose job it is to make sure that a building has been constructed “straight and true.”   The tempter who is really a tester, takes the full measure of Jesus’ faith and trust, for the sake of all the challenges that lay ahead of him, culminating in the greatest challenge of them all:  the Cross.

So what is the outcome of Jesus’ forty days of testing in the wilderness?   Mark doesn’t come out and tell us, exactly, but there are two things we do know.   First, Jesus was “waited on” by angels.   God’s heavenly messengers are dispatched, like waiters in a restaurant, to see to Jesus’ needs in the wilderness.    This place of utter desolation and loneliness isn’t finally bereft of God’s presence, God’s care, God’s keeping.   Jesus may be the only human being in sight—but angels are present, serving him.

Second, we know that Jesus didn’t succumb in his 40 days in the wilderness.   Jesus doesn’t die in the desert.   He comes through this wretched time of testing, and he takes up his calling to announce God’s Reign over all things:  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

These are the words of Someone who knows whereof he speaks.   Jesus has seen God’s word, God’s will and God’s ways attacked—but God has not been defeated.   Satan, the adversary, is no match for the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This whole story, brief as it is, has a biblical rhythm to it.   Jesus is reliving the story of ancient Israel, God’s chosen people who escaped through their “baptism” in the Red Sea, were tested for 40 years in the Wilderness of Sinai, and emerged eventually to enter the Promised Land and live out their days as a sign of God’s glorious and gentle rule over all things.

This whole story, brief as it is, has stamped itself on our lives, as well.    There is a divine template here that reminds us of the rhythm that marks our lives as well.

Our Baptism into Christ doesn’t place us under a protective bubble.   Rather, our Baptism leads us into wilderness times and desert places where we feel dry and bereft, often for a “good long time”—abandoned by our neighbors, seemingly forsaken even by God.  

But God is never absent from such times of temptation.   God uses the adversity that comes to us to “test our mettle” and refine our faith, more precious than gold.

Pastor Anne, you are called to do what angels do best:  to be a messenger of God’s faithful, saving presence to these people, when their faith is under fire, their trust in God tested.  

When they are in the wilderness, serve these folks the same life-giving Word of God that sustained our Lord Jesus in the desert.   Proclaim to them the nearness of God’s Kingdom, God’s gentle and glorious rule over all things, in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

[1] Richard W. Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Mark (Pilgrim, 2005) pp. 133-136.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Making Contact

Salem Lutheran Church, Hitterdal
Epiphany 5/February 12, 2012
Mark 1:40-45

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

There’s a lot going on here in this story from Mark chapter one, and (at first blush) not all of it makes sense.

Jesus is on a whirlwind tour through Galilee, which we might think of as that portion of Minnesota north of Highway 2.  Jesus was hitting mainly small towns not unlike Hitterdal.   Which isn’t a surprise because except for a couple of trips to Jerusalem Jesus was mainly a rural and small-town guy.  And that’s fine because wherever you go, you’ll encounter persons who reflect the whole gamut of human experience—warts and all.

So, speaking of warts, this leper comes to Jesus, and that in itself is a problem.  Because lepers in Jesus’ day were supposed to stay put, in their place, outside the normal traffic patterns of life.   The community couldn’t risk contamination by those with skin conditions that rendered them unclean.   The rabbis considered healing of leprosy to be about as unlikely as raising the dead.

So if you’re a leper, you’re one of “Walking Dead,” and the wider community prefers that you don’t do much walking. 

But not this leper.  He walked, he left the leper compound, he refused to stay hidden from others, he ventured forth and found Jesus.

And the first words out of the leper’s mouth tell us that he’d been paying attention to the news about Jesus.  “If you choose, you can make me clean,” he said, kneeling at Jesus’ feet. 

In the request itself there’s a hint that the leper knows he can press this only so far—“if you choose,”

“Jesus, you can just say it, or maybe even just think it, and I will be cleansed.   You don’t need to gaze on my disfigurement, you surely don’t need to touch me; just choose, and I will be well.”

But Jesus doesn’t do doctoring at arm’s length.   If the leper made the first move, Jesus—almost reflexively—completes the journey by reaching out and doing something he never should have done:  touching the leper’s uncleanness.

This, too, is astonishing.   If not downright illegal under Jewish laws, Jesus certainly was expressing a reckless disregard for all the taboos that kept his community intact.   A preacher I know once declared that Jesus performed two miracles here.  The second miracle was the cleansing of the leper.  But the first miracle was Jesus’ touching of the leper’s diseased skin.

Jesus breaks the taboo because he is “moved with pity.”  Jesus hurts in his gut for this pitiful man.   Some ancient manuscripts use another word, connoting anger, not pity.   Jesus was angry, Jesus was indignant against all the dark forces that keep people enslaved.

Either way, the result is the same, because Jesus is in the freedom business.  Jesus came to liberate persons, and the best way to set an unclean leper free isn’t just to think kind thoughts about the leper, but to stretch out your hand and break through the barrier and make contact with the untouchable.  That’s how you defy a skin disease for which the community believed quarantine was the only protective measure.

So Jesus sets aside all the “rules and regs,” all the laws about leprosy, by taking on the man’s uncleanness and thus sweeping away his uncleanness, setting this man free.

Jesus doesn’t flinch at breaking the law, if it means one of God’s children can be turned loose….

….and then, in the next breath, Jesus the lawbreaker commands the leper to go and keep the law:  “Go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded…”

Break the law one minute; keep the law the next.  What gives here?  Is Jesus a little “schizo” when it comes to the law?

No, not really.  Because Jesus is in the freedom business, remember?   And sometimes you have to break a law to set someone free, while other times it’s the law itself that allows justice and mercy to roll down like mighty waters.

Here’s what I think Jesus was up to.   The community protected itself against leprosy by isolating lepers.   You don’t so much treat the leper as you guard the community.   And just as leprosy couldn’t be self-diagnosed (you can read all about it in Leviticus 14!), being cleansed from leprosy wasn’t something that you could unilaterally declare for yourself.

Jesus wanted this leper to be 100% free, and that meant being returned completely, to the community from which he had been expelled…..and the way to do that was for the leper to “obey the law,” be pronounced leprosy-free by the priest, and offer up a sacrifice that thanked God for healing and “sealed the deal.”

Jesus broke the law to free the leper, just as he commanded the leper to keep the law, also to free the leper.  Law-breaking or law-keeping:  it’s all about freedom.

The Law can never save us, but it can keep us alive long enough for our Savior to save us.  The key here is:  what makes for freedom?   Do we obey the law for the Law’s sake?  No.  But that doesn’t mean that the Law doesn’t sometimes serve the cause of freedom.

OK, we’re in the home stretch now.  

But there’s one last twist in this strange story.   As Jesus commands the leper to keep the laws regarding re-entry into his community, Jesus lays a harsh gag-order on him:  “See that you say nothing to anyone…”

Here, this leper is having the best day of his life, and Jesus wants him to keep mum about it.  That would never wash nowadays.  The leper would have fired off a Tweet or a Facebook update before Jesus could hush him.  

And it didn’t work in Mark’s story, either.   Jesus, who was 100% effective as a leper-healer, had no success putting the kibosh on what now came out of the former leper’s lips.   “But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word…”   Ironically, the leper was such an effective evangelist, that Jesus now had to restrict his own travel plans!

Students of the Bible puzzle over why Jesus tried to muzzle the leper.  I think it’s mainly because Jesus didn’t want people to go gaa-gaa over signs and wonders before he got to the greatest Sign and Wonder of them all:  the Cross and the Empty Tomb.

But for now, let’s just say that God’s powerful, passionate love overflowed so completely through Jesus, that sometimes it even caught him off guard.   Jesus couldn’t keep some folks from singing, because freedom will do that to you!

And the same strong, future-opening love of God in Christ just keeps overflowing, into and through lives, too.    This morning we witness that as a miracle unfolds right here, in just a few moments.

Little Courtney is no leper—far from it.  Everyone wants to touch her and hold her.   She’s the toast of the town, and for good reason.

But Courtney does need what Jesus intends to do for her today.   She needs to be set free, just as all of us need to be set free.  

Although you have probably noticed little evidence of her sinfulness, Ingrid and Dane, this will change soon enough.   She will soon learn to speak and I predict that some of her favorite words will be “me, myself and mine.”   She is under your protective care right now, but as soon as she goes out in the world there will be persons eager to lead her astray.   And even though she is the picture of health and life this morning, she is not immortal.

All of which is to say:  Courtney is like all the rest of us.  She is a human child, captive to sin, death and the power of the devil.

But, here’s the good news! Jesus is here.  Jesus is “calling dibs” on Courtney.  Jesus is going to set her free this morning with water and a Word to which she’ll be able to return, every day, for as long as God gives her life.

And in saying all this about precious little Courtney, I hope you know that I’m saying it about you and me and everyone else whom God is calling to faith.   Enslaved to thinking the world revolves around us, captivated by forces that would lead us astray, in bondage to mortality….we are prime targets for Jesus, the freedom-bringer.

Jesus reaches across all boundaries and touches, indeed takes on our uncleanness.  Jesus turns us loose from the Evil One, even in the valley of the shadow of death.  

And Jesus liberates us so compellingly, that we can’t keep quiet about it…just as I hope and pray that her baptism into Christ will become something that Courtney never grows tired of hearing about and spreading abroad, all the days of her life.

And so may the same be said for all of us who have been set free by Jesus our Lord.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.