Sunday, February 26, 2012

God Who Names Us: Sermon on Mark 1:9-15

"Jesus in the Wilderness" by Stanley Spencer

About fifteen years ago, in the winter, I was traveling from Boston home to Binghamton, and I stopped in Springfield, MA for lunch with a college buddy. About half an hour after I got back on the road, I noticed something ominous in the gray drizzly twilight. I noticed that all the big rigs had pulled off the road… none of them were traveling alongside the cars any longer. With my heart pounding I immediately pulled into the next rest stop and asked the first truck driver I saw what was going on. He answered with one word: “Ice.”

I quickly called my college buddy and asked whether I could sleep on the couch for the night… If the weather was too dangerous for truck drivers, I figured, I wasn’t going to risk it in a station wagon. Later that night, under quilts on the couch but still mentally jittery from what felt like a narrow escape, I looked over at the coffee table in search of something to read and saw a copy of “Outside” magazine.

Now, I am no outdoorswoman. Unless you count the ocean, in which I will happily spend every waking minute I can. But I picked up the magazine, because I didn’t have anything else to read. And very quickly I found myself absolutely riveted by an article by Jon Krakauer on what was then a recent, ill-fated expedition to climb Mount Everest. “Into Thin Air,” was the title of the book he eventually wrote about that expedition. And one theme of the article, and the book, is the sheer danger of uncontainable, uncontrollable, unpredictable wilderness, and the arrogance of people in the face of something they ought to give far more respect. A team of climbers, mostly experienced, led by expert guides and local Tibetan assistants called sherpas was not able to safely negotiate the fury of that mountain. Of thirty-four climbers, eight died that day. Three of them were the highly paid, expert guides.

Now, I’m not equating safely getting my Volvo off an icy road with the plight of the ’96 Everest expedition. But for me the two are forever fused together in my memory. Why? The common factor is danger. Their extreme, extraordinary encounter with danger, and my fairly benign and pretty unremarkable brush with danger, yes. That icy night I read about people who encountered the danger of the wilderness immediately after I had a brief (if relatively tame) brush with the danger of an icy road, and for some reason, that made their story all the more real and vivid to me.

How we read or hear something depends on the context in which we hear it. Take this morning’s gospel. We’ve heard this very passage, give or take a few verses, several times over the past months. But when we heard it in Advent, for example, we were focused on John the Baptist… his role as Jesus’ unsettling cousin, ready to prepare the way of the Lord as we ourselves were preparing for Christmas. Then in January, we heard this passage and focused on the story of Jesus’ baptism and ours, the one where God promises to be with us.

Today, having just stepped across the threshold of Lent, we hear something entirely different. Today our ears are trained to the subtle signals of danger crowded into these few verses. It starts as Jesus is coming up out of the water—even those words, “coming up out of the water,” connote danger; baptism by immersion always suggest that very real threat of drowning—and the heavens are “torn apart” so that God’s presence and voice can be made known. This is no gentle parting of clouds so that the angelic sunbeams can smile down. This is a sundering of the barriers between heaven and earth, a rip in the mostly necessary wall between nature and the supernatural. It’s terrifying.

And then there’s the voice of God. Don’t underestimate the danger ancient people would have perceived there, either. As much as we would like to tame that notion of “the fear of the Lord,” and make it about awe and respect, the ancient peoples experienced it as real terror. My professor of Old Testament often talked about how the Hebrews’ attitude towards God was much like ours towards radioactivity: it is powerful and it is dangerous, the kind of thing that causes a psalmist to write, “The mountains melt like wax before the Lord…” (Psalm 97:5).

And then there’s the Spirit driving Jesus out into the wilderness, that locus of danger for the ancient world, and no less tamed in the year 1996 or the 2012. Throughout scripture, the people go out to meet God in the wilderness, to be opened up and clarified and tested and tried. Lonely prophets, wandering warriors, enormous bands of escaped slaves… all find the wilderness the place of danger, where God is encountered—or, maybe, the place of God, where danger is encountered.

The dangers keep coming: the testing of Satan, the presence of the wild beasts, even the ministering angels. What do angels always say when they first appear to people in scripture? “Don’t be afraid!” These messengers of God, again, despite our attempts to tame them, are terrifying, dangerous.

Even that throwaway line at the beginning of verse 14… “After John was arrested…” John the Baptist, Jesus’ oddball cousin… we know what dangers awaited him: a sojourn in the wilderness of Herod’s dungeon, followed by decapitation. The arrest of John spurs Jesus to declare, “The time is fulfilled, and the reign of God has come near; turn around, and take a look at the Good News…”  (Mark 1:15). This suggests nothing so much as the fact that Jesus was willing at that moment to launch himself headlong into danger.

And yet… and yet… what do we have at the heart of this story? That terrifying voice from heaven, nevertheless bestowing a blessing—the blessing—on Jesus. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased” (Mark 1:11). There it is, that benediction, that moment in which God lays claim to Jesus. That moment that tells us, danger may lurk all around, the wild beasts may be circling. But God is here, and God’s intention is to use it all for good.

God names Jesus “Beloved Son, Beloved Child.” We come to those words with our own understandings and biases, from our own contexts. Some of us may have heard words like those from our own parents and been blessed by them. Some of us may have longed to hear words like those, but never did. Some of us can’t understand what all the fuss is about “words,” because everyone knows that it’s actions that speak much louder. But for ancient people, the act of naming is a powerful one. The act of naming conveys everything about the relationship between the namer and the named. And the act of naming tells us the nature of the person being named.

For God to claim Jesus as Beloved Child is for God to say, I hereby bequeath to you everything you need. Into this passage fraught with danger comes the voice of God telling Jesus that he is not alone, that he does not need to fear. God’s presence is with him. The water, the wilderness, the wild beasts, even the angels are no match for God’s claiming Jesus as Beloved Child.  

I want to say something about God’s protection here, but I am hesitating, because it is a curious kind of protection that allows Jesus, in the end, to be given up to those who turn out to be far more dangerous to him than wilderness or wild beasts. Does the protection of God mean we will never spin out on an icy highway or find ourselves in situations of greater peril than that? I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s what God’s protection means, or else every soldier would come home alive and whole. God’s protection, if we are to take Jesus’ life as the great example, means something else. Maybe our journey through Lent can help us explore exactly what that is.

Jesus launches himself headlong into danger. As we read the gospel texts throughout Lent we will see the danger lurking, first in the background, and then very much in the foreground of Jesus’ story. And as we read the gospel texts throughout Lent we will see something else as well. We will see how Jesus’ Lenten journey, which begins with God claiming him as Beloved Child, ultimately leads to God claiming us as Beloved Children. We will see how, at the same time God is claiming Jesus as Beloved Child, God is also claiming Jesus for us. And just as the water and the wilderness and the wild beasts are no match for God’s claim, neither are our own fears or doubts or episodes of wilderness wandering. Danger notwithstanding, the story of Lent is a story of Good News; God is with us and God is for us, and no wilderness or wild beast or icy highway or mountain disaster changes that. The time is fulfilled, and the reign of God is so near it is here; turn around, and take a look at the Good News. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Wilderness Experience

I remember being stranded in Massachusetts in an ice storm a number of years ago, and finding a copy of "Outside" magazine on the coffee table next to the sofa on which I was sleeping. It contained an article by Jon Krakauer on the infamous, ill-fated Mount Everest expedition of 1996. Never a terribly outdoorsy person myself (unless you count the ocean, in which case, I am a mermaid), I nevertheless was enthralled, horrified, fascinated, terrified and otherwise grabbed by the throat by what I read. Man/ Woman against nature, people stripped down psychologically to the most basic level of what it is to want life when nature seems to want the opposite for you. It took my breath away.

I came across this little video last year (I believe it had different music then). It is the work of an artist, Simon Smith (downloadable at, and the music is by Explosions in the Sky.

There is something about it that reminds me of that Everest expedition... the human being, in this case Jesus, fully exposed in the midst of an incredibly hostile environment. Jesus relies on God, in the face of forces that want to annihilate him. Jesus relies on God, and we can too.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Essential Character of God: A Meditation on Joel 2:1-17 for Ash Wednesday


When I was nine years old I was sick, out of school for several weeks with a virus that just would not go away. Two interesting things happened to me during those weeks. First, I got to witness history unfold: I watched the very first episode ever of “All My Children,” and had my first glimpse Erica Kane, who was then just a scheming high schooler. And second, in the midst of my infirmity, Ash Wednesday came around, and I went into a complete panic about the fact that I would not be able to receive ashes.

You might wonder: what interest did a nine-year-old girl have in putting a black splotchy cross on her forehead? Especially since—there was no one much around to take note? I feel confident I did not have a real appreciation of the meaning of the ashes, but that didn’t matter to me. All I knew was: I wanted those ashes. I needed them. That’s all there was to it.

Ashes are a symbol of sorrow and death and repentance. In the stories of God’s people found in the Old Testament, ashes are put on like some sort of strange anti-makeup when circumstances are dire, terrible. Job covers himself with ashes after all his children are killed. The people of Nineveh put on ashes when they realize God is serious about destroying them as punishment for their wicked ways.

Christians, from the very earliest times, wore ashes as a sign of their repentance from sin and embracing a new way of life. And so we, too, wear ashes on this day, the start of Lent, a forty-day season (not counting the Sundays!) of immersing ourselves in the life and teachings of Jesus. Lent is a time when we too repent. But just like that nine-year-old girl who wasn’t a hundred percent sure what the ashes she needed actually meant, we aren’t sure, it seems to me, of what repentance means.

That’s where our story from Joel comes in. I wonder if you caught what was going on in the first eleven verses of that reading...  listen again to just a couple of verses:

Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.  ~Joel 2:2b-3

It’s subtle, but can you hear it? The army? The army Joel is describing is a swarm of locusts. They leave behind them “a desert wilderness.” It’s a terrifying description, all the more so when you get what exactly is being described. In the face of this uncontrollable force of nature, the people of the ancient world would have covered themselves with ashes because it was crystal clear to them: only the help of God could save them. They needed God.

And then, in verse 12, the whole tone of the passage changes.

Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;  rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.                                                                                            ~ Joel 2:12-13

The prophet tells us that God says, “Turn to me,” and that’s it, the definition of repentance, in a nutshell. Turning to God. Sometimes we wonder exactly what we’re repenting of. Oh, some of us have an excellent idea of what our sins are. When I was a nine-year-old I made lists, and carried them into the confessional with a flashlight... until it dawned on me that the light illuminated my face as well as my nice, detailed list. But some of us wonder what we’re repenting of. We feel that we are basically good people... and we are, we’re wonderful people, every single one of us! So... we don’t need to repent, right? We’re already on the right track, so... put away the ashes. Right?

But that’s not what repentance means. “Repentance” doesn’t mean that we have a long laundry list of offenses, with or without flashlights to read them by. Repentance means something fairly simple, something that the murderer and the person who frets because she didn’t smile broadly enough at the check-out clerk have in common. Repentance, turing to God, is our acknowledgement that we need God. When we repent, we are saying, “I need God.”

I need God. To fill my lungs with air, to help me get out of bed in the morning, to keep me honest about how I spend my days and nights. I need God. This is the essential character of the human being: we stand in need of God, we can’t do it (whatever “it” is) alone. And the really, really good news for us is that the essential character of God meets that need. God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” as the prophet tells us (Joel 2:13). “Steadfast love” is what makes up the essential character of God. And we can turn to God in repentance, not because we have successfully enumerated our sins, or because we know exactly the right prayers to say, or because we have finally figured out the secret of how to be really, really good people. We can turn to God in repentance—saying, “I need you”—because the very nature of God is to love us faithfully, to forgive us extravagantly, and to long for our wholeness even more than we long for it ourselves.

So repent and believe the gospel—the good news that we need God and God is love and faithfulness. And wear your ashes like a sick fourth grader... the end of the story is that my mother brought them to me in a little envelope, and she applied them to my feverish forehead. And I needed them, I didn’t quite know why, but putting them on filled me with an irrational joy. Wear your ashes like that. Thanks be to God. Amen.