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Deep into Lent are we, and it’s clear that something is coming, as we gather around the images and stories and lessons for today. Something is being forecast with our readings for today…particularly this strange OT reading about the Israelites in the wilderness...
There is a cross coming into view, albeit perhaps fuzzy right now: Through our lessons, particularly our Old Testament readings these past weeks — the covenant and the rainbow of Noah, the promise to Sarah and Abraham, the 10 commandments, now we’re still in the wilderness of our Lenten journey, it might be foggy, might be rainy, but — a cross is starting to come into view. We’re not there yet. Today, it’s this strange, gruesome image of a serpent on a pole…
This OT lesson is worth recounting because it is a snapshot of the entire Old Testament pattern… in Bible Study: “God blesses, people mess up, God gets angry, people repent…” See that here? They’re in the wilderness – free at last (God blesses) but complaining and tired, they want to go back.
Moses reminds them of the food and how far God has brought them “we hate the food”, we would rather be back there! (people mess up) God gets angry, sends serpents to bite them.
The people cry out for help. Moses petitions God for the people. God give them the snake on a pole. And those who look to it are healed. (God blesses)
It is a curious story. And it’s in our lectionary because of our Gospel reading. Because Jesus in the Gospel of John makes a reference to it: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Humanity be lifted up.” Same effect: Those who look to him are healed.
There is a cross coming into view.
But let’s stay with the OT story in the wilderness. Snake’s on a pole. God getting angry. I think this story is amazing. It’s entertaining on one level, in its strangeness. But I laugh at it mostly because I can totally relate to complaining in the wilderness. “We hate the food.” (NRSV: “We detest this miserable food.”) They of course are referring to manna, the holiest of holy bible food...next to the body and blood of Christ, of course.
Do you ever feel like the Israelites in the wilderness, wanting to go back to the way things used to be? Sure it wasn’t perfect back then, but at least it was better than this?
If we had a nickel — for every time we heard somebody say (or thought it ourselves): if only we could go back to the way it used to be. In other words, “We hate the new food. Why, when I was growing up...”
I laugh when I read this text mostly, I’m afraid, out of discomfort, because it so aptly hits the nail on the head. “God, why did you bring us to this point?! We hate it.”
“God why did you bring us to this point in our lives? WE hate it. We detest this misery.”
And then all of a sudden…SNAKES! In a recent poll of “Things We’re Afraid Of,” 36% of Americans list snakes as #1.
Any chance those snakes are a gift? Like a sharp tone in your mother or father’s voice – a sharpness you never heard before, and frankly it hurts. There’s a bite to it.
Any chance those snakes are a gift? When we’re longing for the past, we’re not fully in the present because of that? But as soon as you’ve got a snake slithering toward you, man, you’re right in the moment! Your head is pulled right out of the clouds of the past, and all your senses are in tact – adrenaline, reflexes all as sharp as your body is possibly able. You are alive—that’s what adrenaline junkies are all about. “Never felt more alive, man!” is what they say.
Any chance those snakes were a gift? God snaps us out of our natural default position to complain (which we often do from the easy chair), to long for something more (especially when we’re relatively safe and wondering “well, how can we get safer”), our natural default position to get nostalgic about the past, to burrow in to what we know…
God snaps us out of that with a bite, a sting, a harsh tone. And then with adrenaline pumping, sticking us right smack in the present moment…
…Mercy. Grace. Healing comes. Salvation (salvus).
Sometimes we need that jolt to remind us that God is the one who brought us here, God is the one who has never left us. And God is the one who will bring us to the promised land. Sometimes we need that jolt, because we forget. Ever seem like we say the same thing in church, week after week? Because we forget (people mess up) that God has brought us here, that God is the one who has never left us, that God will bring us to the promised land at last.
But there’s a cross coming into view. For Christians, gotta go past the cross to get to the empty tomb.
Anyone who’s gone through surgery knows that pain comes before the healing. (By the way, the serpent on the pole, of course, is the medical symbol.) Those who look to the serpent will be healed. It’s not an idol. If the people think that the snake itself (or the cross itself, for that matter) is the cause of the cure, then it becomes an idol. But if they look to it as a reminder of the mercy and providence and presence of God, then it becomes a holy symbol. If they look through the bronze serpent, just as we look through the cross of Christ, then it is healing. In even and especially the most gruesome and strange symbols—a snake on a pole, a bloody cross—God’s love is poured out, and not just for us, but for all, as John 3 tells us: “God so loved the cosmos.”
The cross is coming into view! It gets harder before it gets easier. In that truth there is grace, there is relief, there is healing. There is salvation.
And even here in the wilderness, friends in Christ, Jesus is our rock. AMEN.
Sisters and brothers, siblings and friends in Christ, God is always doing a new thing. God is always moving us in the direction of change, evolving us toward greater faithfulness, deeper peace, fuller grace.
That’s true in this exciting story as well. All the Gospels have a story about Jesus in the temple overturning the tables. But interestingly, this one in the Gospel of John comes right at the beginning of his ministry. Chapter 2! Matthew, Mark and Luke all have Jesus driving out the money-changers not until the week before his crucifixion, at the end of his earthly ministry. It’s part of what fuels the chief priests and scribes’ fire to have him arrested and finally crucified, remember? But here Jesus does this at the beginning of his 3 year ministry. What’s happening here? Did John forget to mention him doing it again a few days before his passion, death and resurrection?
Whatever conclusion you come to, what is going on here, it’s something different in terms of what this means. John’s Gospel, as I think I’ve shared before is very different!
For one thing, Jesus doesn’t show much emotion. He doesn’t call names — he doesn’t call them “robbers”. I don’t even think he seems all that angry, like in the other Gospels. In John, it’s not an indictment on financial corruption, economic inequalities, social injustice. Jesus just says, “Don’t make this a marketplace.” In John, it’s always a deeply spiritual matter...which can arrive us at those other issues. But what’s happening here first is a radical theological spring cleaning and replacement.
See, the people were used to buying cattle, sheep and doves when they arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover. That’s what you did as part of the ritual sacrifice, that’s how the people celebrated Passover. First, they sacrificed by traveling all the way to Jerusalem every year...specifically to the temple, the only place where God was believed to dwell. And then, when they get there, after walking all those miles, they’d buy an animal to sacrifice. Like Professor Karoline Lewis said, “You’re not gonna schlep a sheep from Galilee.”
So everyone was used to seeing this mall of animals, like a farmers market, in the inner walls of the temple.
And as for the “money changers” — by the way — this very well could have been their livelihood... I have a friend who used to act out this scene, from the perspective of the money changers: Jesus knocking over everything: “Man. That’s my dinner tonight, man. How am I going to feed my family this month. Who is this guy?” I think his is an interesting commentary on this story in Matthew, Mark and Luke. That’s a good entry point. But here in John, Jesus is doing something radically theological (as opposed to political in the other cases).
Jesus is throwing out ritual sacrifice. He is throwing out the idea that you have to buy something to earn God’s favor. I’d even say, as a Lutheran, he’s throwing out the idea that you have to do something to earn God’s good graces. Radical theological replacement, you see. Theological spring cleaning. Out with old — that is, the old idea that God only lives in the high temple, in the holiest of holies, there in Jerusalem. Out with the old — that is, the old idea that you have to buy a sheep or a goat or an ox and sacrifice it in order to get this inaccessible God to notice and bless you (like so many other religions, btw)...
What’s happening here, already in chapter 2, is that we’re getting to see that God is breaking out, God — i.e. Christ himself — is breaking beyond the walls and the rules of the temple and the tradition. In fact, Christ himself is the temple now! There is no one place to go where you can visit God. God is out there on the road.
We see again that in John as Jesus just. keeps. moving! Holiness is everywhere now, not just in temples (or churches).
And because it’s everywhere we’re no longer chained to a checklist of sacrifices and journeys we have to make. Jesus becomes the temple. And this temple, that is his body, is nothin’ but love. Nothing but abundant life and peace and forgiveness and grace!
Overflowing, all-encompassing holiness.
That’s what we’re offered now. Here. Friends in Christ.
When holiness shows up everywhere, when we’re covered by Christ, then we do start to act differently, we do start to see differently, we do start to use our money differently, vote differently, speak differently, serve differently. We don’t change our ways because there’s some kind of reward at the end! That’s the old ritual sacrifice transaction: I’ll give you this, God...so that will will give me that.
We don’t barter with God! We already have this reward!
We only respond to God...who through Christ, always acts first in LOVE and generosity. God always makes the first move, all we can do is respond (great statement of faith!). Danker: “Jesus did the work, we just get to do church.”
When people are doing cruel things, or when members of the family are clearly burdened — church people, or people that say they’re Christians — it always makes me sad because it’s like they’re reading the Bible but not understanding it. They’re reading something, and at the same time not seeing/getting/receiving that this God is pouring out love and forgiveness FIRST. Not after we make some kind of sacrifice or do some kind of ritual or good work to earn this.
Dearly departed (regardless of political party) Rep. John Lewis of Georgia: John Lewis was a Freedom Rider, marched with Dr. King and participated in those famous sit-ins in the Deep South, where he and other African Americans would walk into a diner and just sit quietly, waiting patiently to be served. People would spit on them because they were black, they’d pour hot coffee and syrup on them, call them all kinds of horrible names…
And as John Lewis talked about this and other forms of non-violent resistance he said at the heart of it all was love. “You have to love your enemies and those who persecute you.” (I wonder if he was reading Howard Thurman and the Gospel of John too.)
And then he told this story from just a couple years ago, when a former KKK member requested an audience with Lewis because he wanted to apologize. And with tears in his eyes this now-very-old white man says to the late great John Lewis, “I’m sorry for what I did to you, those many years ago. My heart was filled with hate. Not anymore. Will you accept my apology?” And John Lewis said, “I accept your apology,” and then reflects calmly in this interview, “See, that’s the power of radical love, the love of Jesus. It’s the most powerful force in the world, and it has the power to overturn the tables.”
Friends in Christ, Jesus in the temple, this “cleansing” is breaking us out of old, oppressive, tit-for-tat ways and systems. And inviting us again — “come and see” — that’s how it begins! The Holy Spirit is inviting us again down the road of discipleship, down the path of Jesus. This is a radical theological replacement! Love not law. No more burdens or chains. Freedom is walking the way of compassion and forgiveness. New life.
This love, grace, mercy and cleansing healing is for you. It’s right here and now. Take a deep, Johanine breath today, in this Hallelujah Anyhow Lent: soak it up. Chew it down, drink it in. Taste and see that God is great. Feast on this abundance that Christ offers freely to you today. The old has been replaced with AGAPE — unconditional love — and so we. have. been. made. new. Greater faithfulness, deeper peace, fuller grace. Thanks be to God. Hallelujah. AMEN.
Grace to you and peace from God who makes and never breaks the covenant with us. AMEN.
I’m looking this morning at our first lesson from Genesis.
Abraham and Sarah are given new names in the covenant that God makes and never breaks with them.
And we too are given new names in the covenant that God makes with us in holy baptism. Share with the person in the room with you, or if you’re joining with us, share those special names we were given, no titles, no last names – just our naked and blessed first and middle original names. For many of us that was the name spoken when we were baptized.
God makes a covenant with us. And there are always two sides to a covenant.
What is God’s side of the covenant?
God’s side of the covenant: to do the impossible –
giving Abraham and Sarah a child. (Can you believe it?)
making this insignificant Iraqi couple the mother and father of today’s 3 major world religions. Muslims, Christians and Jews all share the same ancestors: Abraham and Sarah! (Can you believe it?)
God’s side of the covenant: to do the impossible –
to forgive you all your sins and grant you newness of life.
At the beginning of our worship every Sunday: we confess and receive this forgiveness of sins.
(Can you believe it?)
Beloved, God’s word never fails.
The promise rests on grace:
by the saving love of Jesus Christ,
the wisdom and power of God,
your sins are forgiven and God remembers them no more. Journey in the way of Jesus. Amen.
Siblings in Christ, God always makes the first move. Yesterday in confirmation: diagramming sentences...
But what about our side of the covenant? Wrote a song about it..
“take up our cross and follow Jesus.”
-live among God’s faithful people
-hear the Word, celebrate the Meal
-proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed
-serve all people following Jesus’ example
-strive for Justice and peace in all the earth.
“take up our cross and follow Jesus.”
The cross we bear is the one that was streaked across our foreheads in our baptisms, on Ash Wednesday, whenever we touch water...
The key to both sides of the covenant: faith and trust.
God’s faithfulness. And our trusting in God’s goodness.
With Luther, and for us as Lutherans, faith is a gift…so the key is really accepting faith/trust in God, which God gives us in baptism.
I can’t think of a better image of trusting in God than the image of offering our money…back to God. Please, please don’t hear this as a fundraising drive. I could care less about money-raising right now. This is a deeply spiritual practice to take our income and lift a percentage of it up to God. The offering was the original point of worship for the ancient Hebrews. Abraham will learn this as the story in Genesis continues. Worship is taking the best of what you have, what God has given you, and offering it up. In his day, it was his best sheep. In our day, it’s our money. The offering is a symbol of trust, at the heart of our worship service, right in the middle, between the Word and the Meal. Because our money is so important to us.
A little while back I met with a group of pastors and we sat around and simply shared our own giving stories. Basically, how do we practice offering our money.
Where did we get our ideas about that.
And I was inspired and a little shocked, to be honest –
…shocked because the stories I heard about faithful giving did not come off as pious or pompous they came off as inspiring – our bishop talks about how she kept tithing during a season of her life that was the most difficult, financially. And she can move us to tears as she reflects on how...it was all about trust in God.
You too are examples of a people who have accepted the gift of faith, Bethlehem friends! God gives us faith in our baptism. It’s not something we have to earn or grow or manage. It’s just offered freely to us. And we turn and offer back to God, in so many ways.
Lent is a time to reflect again on our tithes and offerings. It’s one of the pillars of Lent: giving praying fasting.
You are examples of a people who have accepted the gift of faith! Every time you open your hands and receive the bread and wine, you are opening yourselves to God’s guidance in your lives. And that is inspiring and shocking too. It is a symbol of that covenant made new in Christ Jesus who promises us forgiveness and ever-presence.
And here’s the thing: God never breaks that covenant. We might fall short, but God never breaks the covenant. We might change, but God never breaks the covenant. God always keeps God’s promises.
God always keeps God’s promises. And here’s the promise God makes to us on our Lenten journeys: “I will be with you. As you seek ways to live more faithfully, I will be with you. As you continue to struggle to be honest about some wrong directions and decisions you’ve made in your life, I will be with you. As you struggle to offer back to me,” God says, “what I have first given you, I will be with you. As you struggle to receive this gift of faith, as you struggle to trust, I will be with you. As you live out, struggle to live out, the covenant I made with you in your baptism, I will be with you.”
These Lenten days can be very difficult, if we take them seriously, if we take up our crosses and follow. To the rest of the world these days are just more busy days, routine days, nothing-special days in our lives (oblivious to the fact that all of this is a gift from God — all of this: the paint on the wall, the raindrop from heaven, the air in my lungs — is a gift from God). To the rest of the world these days are just more busy days, shaped by the news headlines and the retail sales. But to us who struggle to follow Christ, to us who gather to be together and recognize that everything is a gift of God, to us who have opened our hands and received the gift of faith, we have a promise. “Never will I leave you. Never will that change.” Jesus assures, “Come, pick up your cross, lose your life today…and find it in me forever.” AMEN.
Friends in Christ,
Welcome to an Hallelujah Anyhow Lent!
“No matter what comes my way, I’ll lift my voice and say, Hallelujah Anyhow!”
Now, I wonder how many of you are loving this Gospel music style? And how many of you are not...especially during Lent!
I’ve known we were going to do this ever since our worship planning meeting in January. As we talked about all the hardships of this year, this pandemic season, this divided nation, this troubled heart…and decided together, let’s sing Hallelujah anyway this time around. Yeah there’s meaning in refraining from the A-word (or H-word, depneding on how you spell it), but not this time. We can still mark Lent.
And believe me, my little liturgical heart has been pitter-pattering ever since! Singing Hallelujah during Lent...much less singing it joyfully and upbeat? We always, bury/fast from the Alleluias during Lent.
But this year’s different...in so many ways, and we’ve gotta sing out, “My God has never failed me yet so I’m gonna stand my ground…”
Look at this Gospel text for today: We jump back to Chapter 1 again, and it starts with the heavens ripping open, the dove descending, Jesus gettin’ baptized, and the original voice (same one we heard last week on the mountain of Transfiguration) — that original voice saying “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
And then immediately—right after that—no baptismal reception, no cake in the Jordan River narthex, no handshakes and hugs—no, immediately the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness...TO BE TEMPTED BY SATAN! FOR 40 DAYS!
Welcome to Lent, right? We’re now into day 5 of our 2021 40-day Lenten journey. I don’t know about you, I’d rather ease into Lent. You giving anything up for Lent? Taking anything on? I’d rather kind of try it. Grace, you know? But look at Jesus: ALL in! Tempted, wilds, 40 days, no games. Satan.
Friends in Christ, we’ve got a lot to contend with too. Our baptismal liturgy isn’t messing around:
“Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God? Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God? Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?”
These are the questions at the baptismal font.
We’ve got a lot to contend with, and Mark’s Gospel style is honest about that. So is our atypical Lenten Gospel Acclamation! “Through every test and trial, I’ve got the victory. The enemy has tried his best to make me turn ’round, bring me down…”
Our Lent this year begins also with the story of Noah and the flood! Maybe you haven’t thought about it since Sunday school? It’s a troubling story as an adult: God wanted a re-do on creation. Everything had gone awry, and so God flooded the planet, save for a very few, but God also said never again would that happen. God was heartbroken that it did, and God put a rainbow in the sky — a reminder of peace and beauty instead of violence at the last.
We live on this side of the flood, the rainbow side! Whenever we talk about Noah and the flood during Lent, you have to think: baptism. The waters that destroy are also the waters that save!
Jump back to Mark and Jesus getting baptized, there’s that dove again! The sky ripping open, but instead of a deluge of destruction, God keeps the covenant, God cares about what happens down here, and on this side of the flood, on the rainbow side, it’s the dove of peace that descends among us.
But that doesn’t make the struggle go away. In fact, the struggle just begins. Mark keeps it real! Jesus is driven immediately into the wilds to be tempted, right away. And then we hear about John’s arrest on top of that! And that’s right about the time — right at the moment of temptation and testing, trials and tribunals, right at the moment of arrests and riots, racism and injustice, right at the moment of horror and disease, and despair, right at the moment of bloodshed and even death — that’s right when Jesus shows up among the people and starts proclaiming and preaching the good news — that God has come near. That’s a soft translation. The Greek actually says God IS here, now. Change your ways.
Temptation and turmoil are still coming our way on this side of flood. But God is with us anyhow. Hallelujah? Through it all, “through every test and trial, [you’ve] got the victory.”
This is Lent is Markan: Being baptized, blessed, beloved — we don’t then escape the challenges, the struggles, the pains of this life: no, we’re driven right into them...immediately. And still we’re gonna sing, “Hallelujah anyhow.” God’s never failed us yet, so we’re gonna stand our ground.
Lent this year starts with a making a stand. Making our stand in the cold waters, as we remember the covenant God made with Noah after the flood, and the covenant that God made with us after the baptismal waters “splish, splash,” crashed down on you and me! It all starts there, and then immediately the troubles come our way. OK.
Don’t be surprised. Don’t be discouraged. Don’t be afraid. These things are bound to happen.
(Speaking of liking or disliking this Gospel musical style Gospel Acclamation — I saw Bono of the band U2 give a great interview, where he talked about Gospel music — “everything is up” vs. the Blues — honest. Maybe listen to Blues music this Lent too. Honest.)
The cross is honest. Our central symbol, even here at Bethlehem, the place of the manger, the cross comes first. It’s stark. Troubles are bound to come our way. And yet, in the shadow of the cross, we sing together.
Friends in Christ, peace be with you on this side of the flood, the rainbow side. Peace be with the stands that you make this season. As you stand for justice, as you stand for those who are hungry and homeless and cold this week through Hypothermia Shelter — so much struggle and pain for so many — peace be with you as you stand your holy ground in the waters of baptism, in the Gospel of God. The peace that Jesus gives us isn’t a cheap peace, on the surface, it’s down in our bones.
Nothing can shake it. Not temptations, not heartaches, not ship wrecks, not terror, not even death itself.
For WE know, that God has the final say, that Christ conquers Satan, that life on this side—on the rainbow side—of the flood, is renewed: a gift of grace, made new each day in the waters of baptism. Splash yourself every day of Lent, and give thanks for your baptism.
And that goodness is ours to share. Hallelujah? That goodness, comes from God, and will stay with us through it all. Amen.
Whenever it’s time to pack for a trip, I always pack too much. I’ll admit it. That might not be a problem for everyone, but I’ll admit it, I always stuff too much in there. Rarely do I bring exactly what I need, which, truth be told, is really not much at all. I drag around with me that extra jacket, an extra pair of pants, or a whole other set of shoes. And that’s just clothes, I’ll throw in a few extra packs of shampoo or soap. And when I get home after the trip and unpack, there are things in there I never even touched.
I’ve dragged too much extra stuff all over Europe and Central America; and I can overburden our family when we’ve traveled in our little Toyota across the country. I have yet to perfect the art of packing only what I need for the journey.
I guess I think I’m afraid I won’t be OK, if I don’t have extra.
“What if I need it? Just in case,” I justify.
And then you know the funny thing? Despite all that extra packing, there’s always something that I really do need, that I don’t have.
Friends in Christ, welcome to the season of Lent!
Lent is often envisioned as a journey, a 40-day journey, into the wilderness. (40 days because of Jesus’ 40-day period of temptation in the wilderness—we’ll hear that this coming Sunday. Also 40 days because of the Israelites 40 years of wandering in the desert.)
And it all starts today, Ash Wednesday — for those who want to participate. It’s not for everyone. In fact, most opt out. That’s one of the things that I love about Lent actually — as opposed to, say, Christmas, where everyone is caught up in one way or another. Observing Lent, on the other hand, is much more under cover — especially given this Gospel from Matthew text: we don’t practice Lent out in front of people — sure we do the ashes (and lots of jokes there about how public that is), but really that’s also about our own self — it’s an outward sign of the inward work that’s before us. As as far as the whole season of Lent goes, we do it quietly, behind closed doors and with no fanfare. The rest of the world continues as usual, but we mark and travel a Lenten journey.
So how shall we pack, I’ve asked before?
Lent is a time for letting go of all the extras in our life. Traditionally Lent observers giving up things, we can fast. Mother Teresa said, “God cannot fill what is already full.”
And we are full, aren’t we? Even in these lean times? Mother Teresa was right, there’s not much room for God.
We are “stuffed” in so many ways: Stuffed with food, stuffed with things in our closets and garages, stuffed with ego, stuffed with desires, stuffed with fear, stuffed with worry. “What if I need it? Just in case. But it means so much to me.” What might you release, what extras might you shave away so that God can fill you?
See, in all our overpacking, the one thing that we do need gets left out...or just squeezed in at the last minute. I don’t think we leave God out...but...how we can just squeeze God in at the last minute.
The grace, the peace of Christ can just get stuffed into the outside pocket of our lives, like that last-minute pair of socks that I almost forgot. So then grace and peace, the central gift of Jesus becomes just one more thing that I drag around — dangling, could fall out, can’t enjoy because I’ve got so much other stuff.
Siblings in Christ, Lent is a time to empty our bags, take stock — and lighten up. Ever travelled light? Rick Steves is fond of saying, “No ever gets back from a trip and says, ‘You know, I wish I had carried more stuff.’” The gift of Lent is in the lightening up, the clearing out, the cutting back, the fasting. It’s in the giving up, in the quieting down, and the opening of our hands in prayer and our ears in attentiveness. Theologian Paul Tillich said, “We are most powerful, not when we possess, but when we wait.”
How will you keep Lent? I hope you do.
If you choose to give something up or take something on (like walking or gardening or meditating), do it because it will ultimately clear some space for God’s full grace and deep peace in your life. If your Lenten discipline becomes just one more thing on your to-do list, then it’s already become just one more item you’re stuffing in your luggage.
Somehow Lent and its disciplines got to be burdensome…all about gloom and doom, more weight on our shoulders, when Lent is, in fact, the Old English word for “springtime”!
Are the trees in my back yard all about gloom and doom because they have no leaves right now? Or are they incredible because, if I look closer, I can spot the tiny brown buds on every little branch, they’re not dead and depressing, but rather something is happening beneath the surface! That’s Lent!
Lent is a gift. Packing light is a gift. Clearing out is a gift. It means there’s room being made for something to happen — for God’s ever-present grace and peace to move in and take over our lives in Christ Jesus.
But first, we have to get honest. It comes not when we’re proud and bloated and too busy to let go. We have to be honest — that’s what the ashes are all about.
It’s hard to be honest: “We almost have to woo humility during Lent.” Honesty can be like a skiddish deer at the brook: you have to be patient and still before our humility tiptoes out. The ashes are a little like bait, as they scratch across our foreheads, the humility, our honesty before God can creep into the light. Oh yeah, I am self-centered, I am neglectful of my relationships and of care for my own body, and of care for God’s planet. Oh yeah, I have fallen short at trusting Jesus, at letting go of my many treasures... [pause] This is our confession. Step one of the Lenten journey: Ash Wednesday. Gotta remember, before we heal. Gotta be honest. Ash Wednesday, we get our bodies into it: kneel, feel the ashes, hear the words “remember that your are dust,” see that cross in the mirror...and also smell the oil of healing.
Christ abides with us into this journey.
Christ awaits our unpacking, and guides us into the springtime. So we follow, and as we go, we go lighter.
Some of you know I was a youth director before I went to seminary. And during my time at Holy Trinity in Thousand Oaks, CA working with the junior high kids, a pastor came to serve that church, who I greatly admired. He was only there for a short time as an interim. But we know how even short stays with dynamic leaders can be such a gift (I’m thinking of Pastor Elijah here). This new pastor was so kind to the people of that congregation. He was very intentional in all of his conversations; he was very good at connecting people with one another; he visited the sick; he met with the youth kids; and he started up a small group program while he was there. The church grew during his short time. I knew this man as a kind and loving pastor, truly a shepherding spirit, caring for God’s people, loving them, feeding them with Holy Communion. He was just so nice.
But the more I listened to his sermons and read his book, I started to realize that he was something more than just a nice, loving pastor. This man was a prophet for justice and equality for all. When he preached, it was like the prophet Amos or Isaiah standing in front of us, crying out on behalf of God for peace in our world and for the end of all oppression. Like Moses, “Let my people go!” He called us out on our self-centered, white-privileged ways, that fail to extend the same love that we’ve received to the margins: to the immigrant, the stranger, the outcast and the forgotten. He even talked about justice for the earth and all the creatures of God! It was the first time I had ever considered that the United States may just be the new Roman Empire, and he reminded us often about Jesus‘ ministry over and against...actually under...the most powerful nation in the world. We squirmed uncomfortably in our pews, but something cracked me open and I saw him in a new way.
God is calling us to be more than just a nice place and nice people that gather for worship once a week, he prophesied. God is calling us to do more than just offer some charity to the poor, offer some generous handouts, down to those who have less. All these things are good, but God is calling us, he would preach, to be about radical, systemic change, dreaming and risking it all for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, even if it means our lives. And then he would kindly greet us with a handshake or a hug, always a nice smile, as we came out of the church at the end of our service.
This pastor I’m talking about is George Johnson...of blessed memory. He was my friend, he was nice, he was a gentle pastor...but at one point I suddenly started to see him in a new way too. He was a fiery prophet calling for justice and change, challenging us to risk our lives and be actual disciples, followers of Jesus, not just safe, comfortable believers in Jesus.
As we look at our text today, and as we’ve been looking at the Gospel of Mark in this cold season, I think it can be easy and even tempting to conclude that Jesus is a just prophet for social justice and change. That’s because he is. Just like Pastor George was just a kind, loving guy.
Up to this point — Chapter 9 in Mark — Jesus has turned his world on its head with his love and care for the poor and the outcast, with his casting out the demonic systems and illnesses. Bringing women and children to the center, touching and healing the ritually unclean, the bleeding, the dead, the foreigner. I mean, he’s advocating truly universal health, education and equality for everyone. It’s not a detached, complicated, sanitized spirituality with Jesus in the first 9 chapters of Mark. He’s not hovering, esoterically; he’s rooted and radical and real. It’s ministry on the ground, and in the trenches — tangible, immediate and welcoming. Yes? I’m always amazed how this social justice of Jesus gets suppressed and even denied, many times by Christians themselves, only seeing him as a spiritual savior of individual souls...rather than an incarnate savior of whole communities, particularly, especially those who are oppressed or overlooked. Mark 1-9 reeks of Jesus’ radical justice agenda.
But, just like good ol’ Pastor George was more than just a nice, sweet pastor — which he was — there was more…
Jesus is more than just a prophet for social justice and radical welcome of the stranger and the outcast — which he is and always will be. But there’s more...
And in our text today, a few of the disciples (and us, by the way) get cracked open, and see Jesus in an even larger way.
This isn’t about getting someone wrong, and suddenly seeing them in a totally new and different way. (That happens too.)
But this is about getting a person right, but suddenly seeing them in an even more expansive way. Setting our mind not just on earthly things but even more, on divine things.
This prophet Jesus (he was such a prophet that some were mistaking him for John the Baptist and Elijah) — this prophet for social justice and change, was even more than that, friends in Christ:
This prophet was God’s own Son. “Listen to him, listen to his agenda.” All this stuff he’s been doing, is more than just earthly revolutionary activist-for-change behavior, upturning traditions and challenging assumptions...
(!) This is divine presence come down to be among us...to be for us, and for everyone. Jesus is God’s Son. What a way to end this season after Epiphany and move into Lent — with another Epiphany, a divine revealing: “This is my Son, the Beloved.” And then a command: “Listen to him.”
Transfiguration is the mountain top experience of this time of the church year, before we drop down into Lent this week.
Know that the one you follow, the one who brings children and women to the center, who heals the sick and the demon-possessed, who welcomes the outsider, even if their religion or their appearance is different...know that the one you follow, who calls and empowers the people of his time — and us — to imitate him in this radical business of — not just donating — but moving aside and faithfully sharing. Know that that one you follow isn’t just a human prophet for justice. He’s even more: he’s God’s own Son. He’s the salvation of the world. He’s life eternal for you and for all. He’s love everlasting. He’s grace and peace that the world cannot give. He’s freedom and joy. He’s hope for the future and thanksgiving for the past. He’s bread and wine, body and blood poured out for you and for...everyone...even the creatures. He so loves this whole earth, that he gave his whole self away.
Know that the one who heals the sick and raises the dead raises you too — right now! — from that which holds you down and hold you back from being the beloved child that God has created you to be. Know that this prophet Jesus, is forgiveness of all your sins, all your self-centered behavior, all your ignorance and shame, and greed and envy. GONE. Jesus is God’s Son, not just a social prophet. And you are made new today because of it!
Your slate has been wiped clean! And you are being sent back out there, into this Lenten season, into this coming spring, renewed, hopeful, at peace, and ready to serve, pray, fast, and give (just like Jesus did).
So let’s listen to him, siblings in Christ. Let’s listen to him. Let’s hold out our hands, and open our ears and our minds and our hearts, as we move off the icy and foggy mountain top, and listen. For God’s own son has got something to say and something to give. Thanks be to God. AMEN.