Lenten Surrender

22 02 2015

Mark 1

There is something about the Season of Lent which brings out the curious in non-believers.  I have a friend who wishes me a “Happy Ash Wednesday” every year and still another who never ceases to ask what I’m giving up, or “what are you doing for Lent?”  Over the past decade or so, it has become in vogue to add something to your routine or what we have come to call “taking something on”  as if somehow adding something to your routine may somehow be more fun for us than trying to observe a time of sacrifice and self-denial such as giving up smoking or forgoing that glass of wine at dinner.  This year, when I was asked what I was either giving up or taking on, I was quite happy to reply, “I am giving up my second job for a few weeks”

Many of us talk about giving up something we enjoy or taking on another project or making it a point to do extra acts of service and kindness.  Others mark the season as a period of reflection and set aside extra time for meditation. These practices are meant to help focus us on getting ready for Holy Week and and the joy that comes with Easter.  They are all right, good and joyful things … always and everywhere.  But there is another aspect to our Lenten disciplines, which are sometimes shown in a subtle way and sometimes they are obvious …. And that is the aspect of surrender.

We have just ended the season of Epiphany, a season where we celebrate the signs and wonders of Jesus’ ministry. Over the past few weeks, we heard stories about Jesus’ baptism, the casting out of a demon, and the calling of the first disciples. Last, we were treated to a true mountaintop experience at the Transfiguration, where Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah, the personification of the Old Testament Law and the Prophets. But like all mountaintop experiences, they must eventually end and we must leave that mountain and descend into the valley. After the highs of Epiphany, we are now called to a sojourn into the valley of Lent.

The First Sunday in Lent is typically reserved for a look at the temptation of Jesus.  Today’s Gospel says he was driven, into the wilderness for 40 days so that he will be prepared and equipped for his ministry. The wilderness is often seen as a setting for a period of testing, or used to describe a difficult time our in spiritual lives. God sent his people, the Israelites, into the wilderness for 40 years to wander with only the presence of a cloud or pillar of fire to guide them. Noah was on the ark in the wilderness of the floodwaters for 40 days until he was brought to rest on the shores of a mountain.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke describe and in a fair amount of detail the verbal sparring match Jesus has with the devil.  But here, in the Gospel of Mark, we have only a mention.  “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.”  If we didn’t have the other books, we would have no idea what transpired.  The focus of this passage is not so much Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness, but on his baptism and giving us a preview of the core message of his ministry:  “The Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the Good News.”

Jesus’ baptism presents us with a puzzle.  We say that Jesus was sinless and blameless, but he goes through this act of repentance. Why, then, does he do this?  By requesting to be baptized, Jesus demonstrates that even though he may not need to repent of anything, he does so as a sign of surrender to the will of God.  In fact, the entire passage here:  his baptism, his time in the wilderness, his temptation, even his encounters with wild beasts and angels show us that God is moving in a way he has not done before.  He is showing that the old system of the world is no longer valid, and a new way of living is being ushered in.  In the time when the Gospel of Mark was written, people would immediately connect the time of 40 days in the wilderness to the story of Moses leading his people to the promised land after they wandered 40 years in the wilderness.  In the Bible, the wilderness represents a place of testing, of self-examination, of turning away from the things of this world and focusing on the things of God.  It is a crucible where the people of God are changed and transformed into vessels that God can use for his glory and to advance this Kingdom that we hear so much about.  It is a place of surrender.

When Jesus meets the devil in the wilderness, the devil tries to get Jesus to use his immense power to tend to his own needs by turning stones to bread, and to show that he is God’s favoured by throwing himself off a cliff knowing that he will not be harmed.  Each time the devil tries to get Jesus to show himself as a type of Superman, but each time Jesus refuses.  When does use his power, it is always for the benefit of others.  He heals the sick, he raises the dead, he casts out demons, he feeds a crowd.  He surrenders the use of his own gifts and talents for his own benefit, and uses it to strengthen and edify the people of God.

Israel’s journey in the wilderness was marked by trials and tribulations at every turn, and it was also marked by sin and rebellion and even a plea to Moses to return them to Egypt and to slavery.  Jesus’ time in the wilderness re-writes that history by not succumbing to the temptations the devil throws at him and trusting in God’s grace, God’s love and God’s provision.  Even before he begins his public ministry, Jesus is about making all the old things new.  The coming of Christ is the fulfillment of the Law, where all the old obligations of temple sacrifice … the obligations to Herod and to Rome … the obligations which keep us under the yoke of the powers of this world … are done away with.

When God calls us into the wilderness, it may be that he is shaping us for what is to come.  We are invited to take this time as we journey to Jerusalem and to the Cross as a way of looking beyond ourselves and using our gifts and talents for the benefits of others, just as Jesus always insisted on using his power for those who are in need.

Being in the wilderness is tough.  It is easy get there and easy to find ourselves inside of it, but it is not so easy to get out.   Israel was encouraged to trust God to guide them through and they resisted at every turn, even going so far as to say they can find their own way out of the wilderness, thank you very much.  Like them, it is very easy for us to think that we know what’s best instead of listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to guide us through.  We may be tempted to go our own way and do our own thing, just like the devil tempted Jesus.  I said before that the wilderness is where God meets us and changes us …and change can be uncomfortable at best or even frightening at worst.  That fear can cause us to act in ways we normally would not.

I recall an article from the New York Times I read some years ago which began, “Pam Stout did not always live in fear” and then went to talk about how she was afraid the country she grew up in was nothing like the one she lives in today, so she tried to change the way things were going.  Pam’s zeal for change is not motivated not by love or a desire for justice, but by fear and anxiety. When we give into those forces, or to our own most base desires, we start to lose touch with the gifts that God has given us …. our talents, our skills and even in extreme instances, our friends or loved ones.  It is difficult to not take matters into our own hands as the devil tempted Jesus to do.  The Good News I have for you today is that the devil failed  … and because of the cross the devil stands defeated and remains defeated.  The devil stands and remains defeated because Jesus surrendered to the call into the wilderness and trusted the Father to see him through.

When bad things happen, or when calamity strikes, a question we may ask is, “Where is God?” The answer is, “Well, He’s right here, of course! He hasn’t gone anywhere!” A better question though might be, in what way is God here NOW and how or when will we know that He’s hanging about with us.

Instead of insisting on doing our own thing, when we turn our gifts and talents over to God and surrender to doing God’s will, we find that ordinary people like you and me can do the most extraordinary things.  In this act of surrender, in this act of “no longer living for ourselves but for Him who died and rose again,” we will find that God’s power “working through us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”

God doesn’t promise our journey through the Valley of Lent will comfortable.  God doesn’t promise it will be easy.  In fact, there may be plenty of times when we just want to give up and go back to Egypt and the comfort of a life that we know instead of a life that we don’t, even if the life we know is a life of slavery and bondage.  But if we trust God … if we live and act like we trust God … God does promise he will see us through the wilderness … through the valley of Lent … to the foot of the Cross … and out the other side to the empty tomb.


Jesus and Demons

3 02 2015

One of my guilty pleasures is that I like to watch the TV show “Supernatural.” Supernatural is about two brothers who travel about the United States in a 1967 Chevy Impala and fight against monsters, ghosts and other things that go bump in the night. Now before you wonder how anything like this could be something worth watching, I would like to advise you this show is now in its tenth season. One of the more popular storylines is when the brothers battle actual demons from the pits of hell. When we think of demons or demon-possession, we immediately call to mind something like we see in the movie “The Exorcist” with scales, disfigured faces, horns growing out of their head while it spins around … but they look nothing like that. The demons which appear in the show look very human except for when their eyes turn jet black or they leave traces of sulphur as they pass by. You see, in the mythology of “Supernatural,” demons are not fallen angels as we normally imagine them to be … they used to be human, just like you and me. When they died, their souls became so warped and twisted that all of things that make up the worst parts of what it means to be human were amplified and the good parts were done away with. What is left is something not human at all, but a monster. In the many plot twists that happen over the course of the story, one of the brothers become twisted and warped into a demon himself.

All of this, of course, is just so much television and fiction. Back here in the real world, we do not attribute people’s irrational or even inhuman, monstrous behaviour to demon-possession or the work of an evil spirit. But sometimes, when we come across someone who is just not acting with any sense of sanity, or they are rambling for no reason at all to the point it makes you feel uncomfortable, it becomes easy for us to use that language as a way of describing what kind of person they are. Or if any of you have spent any length of time with someone suffering from alcoholism or drug addiction, you know that there is the normal person … until they start one of their episodes and then they quickly turn into someone not at all like the person you know and love. If things are really bad, you might even say they’ve become twisted … or monstrous. And given enough time, the marks of their state of mind become permanently reflected on their bodies and eventually they are nothing like the person they were. In the Gospel of Mark, just as Jesus and his disciples had set out and visited a synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus comes face to face with such as person.

Mark is a Gospel that is short, but packed to the brim with action. In the first chapter alone, we have Jesus being baptized by John, his sojourn in the wilderness where he was tempted by the Devil, and the calling of the disciples. Now Jesus is ready to begin his ministry in earnest, and he does it not by going to the halls of power in Jerusalem where Kings, Priests and Scribes hang their hats, but to villages and towns and among everyday, ordinary people like you and me. At his first stop in Capernaum, he visits a synagogue on the Sabbath like any observant Jewish man and when offered the chance, begins to teach. It says that everyone is amazed at not only what he taught, but how he taught it. (As the Son of God, the Word of God made Flesh, it is no wonder that everyone was blown off their feet!) In the middle of all of this comes a man who is said to have an unclean spirit. He starts to cause a ruckus in the middle of the service. challenges Jesus, and accuses him of coming to destroy.

I am sure all of us can relate to this scene in some way. There’s the family dinner whose laughter and merrymaking is disturbed by the crazy relative who makes everyone feel uncomfortable. Or maybe there’s that walk in the neighborhood when you pass by someone babbling to themselves in an incoherent fashion and you begin to feel a bit queasy. They are not so different from the man in the story are they? Or there may be those who are suffering in silence, maybe some here in this congregation, where the the troubles of the world are just too much you feel you just might break and collapse under the weight of it all.

The Gospels are full of healing miracles, and there is more than one instance of Jesus exorcising a demon or unclean spirit. One constant things in these stories is that the demons and Spirits recognize Jesus for who he is, as today he is called “The Holy One of God.” Another is that when he speaks, whatever was troubling the afflicted person leaves at the sound of Jesus’ voice. When dealing with miracle stories, it is very easy to make one of two mistakes. On one hand, people may begin to obsess over the details of what happened to the point where Jesus almost seems like he is performing a magic trick. On the other, people may try to explain away the experience of being trapped in the same room with a disturbed man by attempting to psychoanalyze him based on just the few verses we are told about him. In both of these case, the mistake likes in focusing on the problem … today’s man in the synagogue … instead of the solution, who is Jesus. By keeping the focus of the story on Jesus, you don’t get magic or medicine … you get a miracle.

It was widely held that in the New Testament that the things that happened on earth were reflections of the Spiritual Realm. When St Paul talks about the powers of this world, he is not only talking about the systems of government but he is also talking about the powers of Sin and Death which rule over our fallen planet just as much as he is talking about the Roman Empire. While Rome let the people it conquered have some degree of autonomy and gave certain privileges to its citizens, there was no mistake who was actually in charge. The religious authorities of Jesus’ day were allowed to go about their business of teaching the Torah and performing their rites in the temple, but they owed their position to the pleasure of the Emperor and his governors. I would even venture so far to say a big problem that Jesus had with the religious establishment was that in being dependent upon the powers of Empire for their position, the Pharisees and Sadduccees over time became more concerned with maintaining the status quo. They twisted the Law to their own ends to keep their privileged position. What was meant to life-saving, life-giving and life-fulfilling had been warped into a legalistic code that was reinforced their own self-serving ends. The depth of their selfishness is so great that when they see Jesus healing people, feeding them, setting them free from oppression, they see him as a threat and immediately set into motions the plans that bring Jesus to the cross. You might even say …  they had become demonic, monstrous or unclean.

When Jesus arrives on the scene in today’s story, he speaks, and whatever is causing the man in the synagogue to act in such a disturbing way leaves him. And it is the same with every healing miracle. The language of being delivered from the bondage of physical and spiritual affliction pervades the Gospels. When Jesus speaks, people are not only released from the physical bondage of their sickness, but they are also offered deliverance from the powers of Sin and Death and Empire.

In exorcising the unclean spirit, Jesus is demonstrating the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God into a broken and fallen world. No longer will people have to suffer the things which torment us at every turn. The powers of Sin and Death are no match for the liberating power of Christ. We see nothing less than an all-powerful God reaching down with his all-powerful love to set things right at once and forever. Like in the story of Supernatural, the one who was twisted and warped into a demon becomes redeemed by the unconditional love of his brother, who never gives up on him.

Miracles serve to show us no matter what happens, no matter what monkeys we have on our backs, Jesus is there to set us free. Here in Key West, every day we see people who are under the grip of the things which make us inhuman whether its addiction to drugs or alcohol, or even homelessness or desperation from hunger. People at times can live so much on the edge of poverty they do things they normally would never do.

For the second time since I have been here, we are without a priest and it would be so, so easy to give into the demons of despair and anxiety and depression and wonder what will become of us. The Good News I have for you today that the One who cast out the unclean spirit is the same one who said, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest … you will find peace for your soul.” It is One who St Peter wrote about when he said “Cast your cares upon him because he cares for you … because he loves you.” For as many who suffer from disease or affliction or addiction, there are those who have recovered and look like they walked out of the grave compared to what they looked like before. If we keep our eyes on Jesus and listen to his words and reach out to the community to alleviate the demons of hunger and want as we are doing with our thrift shop and food pantry, we will thrive and be a beacon of hope to a city that is full of hurt and need as much as it is full of beauty and life.

These things are not magic. They are not simply medicine or a sure-fire program. They are nothing short of miracles just waiting to happen at the sound of Jesus’ voice.