Sermon for 1st Lent -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
If you attend worship in almost any Protestant or Roman Catholic Church this weekend, you are likely to hear the Gospel lesson which I have just read, the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. That is because many Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations follow the Revised Common Lectionary, a three year cycle of lessons, and this Gospel lesson, Mark 1:9-15, is today’s text in that cycle.
Normally, you will hear a Gospel text just once every three years. However, the First Sunday in Lent always features the story of Jesus’ temptation. In other years, we will hear it from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Today we heard it from St. Mark.
Mark’s telling of this story is the shortest, no surprise since Mark is the shortest and, scholars believe, the oldest of the Gospels. Both Matthew and Luke add many more details – they each include the description of Jesus being tempted by the devil three times, with Jesus resisting each time and with Jesus finally telling his tempter to leave. Both Matthew and Mark conclude with angels coming to minister to Jesus and Luke adds an ominous concluding line with the devil departing from Jesus “until an opportune time.” Reading these words today, we know what that opportune time will be, Jesus’ betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane.
But what interests me in Mark’s short telling of Jesus’ temptation is that the same spirit that descends upon Jesus at his baptism now drives Jesus into the wilderness. Jesus is driven, not just led, but driven into the wilderness by the same spirit that just earlier had descended upon him and conferred to him God’s profound blessing.
Suffering is a common theme in Mark’s gospel. Scholars believe that Mark was addressing an early Christian community, perhaps in Rome, a community that was experiencing persecution for their faith. Some of Mark’s language is thought to be quite political, a challenge to Roman authority – many of the terms that Mark uses were also used by the Roman Empire to speak of their power and the divinity of the Roman Emperor. Mark takes these very terms and applies them to Jesus! His readers and listeners would have known that context well and, in their persecution, been affirmed and comforted by Mark’s words.
Thus, Mark’s community would have known the wilderness of which Mark speaks. The Holy Spirit drives Jesus into that wilderness, that place of challenge and struggle and purification and testing and temptation.
Why? Did Jesus need to be in the wilderness for some reason? Did this wilderness period of struggle and temptation provide something essential to his ministry or accomplish some end that is not immediately apparent?
Well, we do not know for certain, Mark does not tell us. But, it is safe to assume that the Holy Spirit did not drive Jesus into the wilderness at random, that the Holy Spirit drove Jesus to the wilderness with some purpose.
Which leads scholar David Lose, whose ideas have helped me with this sermon, to say that we, you and I, might also look at some of the wilderness places we have been and wonder how and why the Holy Spirit might have sent us into them?
Of course, we rarely volunteer to go to wilderness places. We do not often look for opportunities to struggle. That is probably why Mark reports that the Holy Spirit drove Jesus rather than simply suggesting Jesus go to the wilderness. And the same may be true of our own periods of trial, temptation and suffering. We do not choose these – they happen to us. Even when the challenges in front of us are our own making, let alone those put upon us by others or the fortunes of life, we rarely want or actively seek such hardship. But, can we possibly imagine that the Holy Spirit might make use of us during these challenges? That a whole other question, isn’t it?
Now, I want to be clear: I am not suggesting that God causes us misery or suffering. God does not work that way, God does not give us hardship to teach us something or to punish us or to put us in our place. Notice that the Holy Spirit does not tempt Jesus, the Spirit simply drives Jesus into the wilderness. Similarly, God does not want us to suffer or cause us to suffer. But, perhaps, God is at work for and through us in our own wilderness times?
I do not offer this lightly – I have spoken with quite a few folks here at Mt. Olive even during this past week about the wilderness times in your lives – death of a spouse or other loved one, divorce, cancer, abuse of too many kinds - I know that struggle, trial and even misery, that is, our own wilderness times, abound. So our question may be, in our own wilderness times, “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? These questions will not redeem our struggle and suffering, but they can remind us of God’s presence during our wilderness times, during those times that leave us feeling stretched beyond our abilities.
And, we need to remember that the same spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness accompanied Jesus while he was in the wilderness and brought Jesus out of the wilderness.
Thus, God will not abandon us anytime or anywhere. God might drive us there for our benefit or the benefit of others. Remember, God’s purpose in our lives is to take what seems only to cause death and wring from it resurrection and new life.
A good thing to remember as we begin this Lenten season. And every and any day. God is present in our struggles and we can see God at work in and through our struggles, all for the sake of this world that God loves so much.
Thus, we can not only survive our personal times of wilderness, we can emerge from them with renewed hope, faith and confidence, confidence in God’s eternal love for us and all of humankind. And to remember that God’s purpose in our lives is to take what seems only to cause death and wring from it resurrection and new life.
Like many of you I was deeply saddened by the death of Kayla Mueller, the young aid worker from Arizona, at the hands of ISIS in Syria less than two weeks ago.
I think CBS news anchor Scott Pelley caught the essence of Kayla’s sacrifice so well when he said this on the night it was confirmed that Kayla was dead. Pelley wrote these words:
“The holocaust survivor Victor Frankl wrote, don’t ask the meaning of life, life is asking what is the meaning of you? Some answer by dedicating themselves to those who suffer. And many bright lights in the darkest places are Americans, like Kayla Mueller. We were struck today by the letter she sent home from her cell. It was so much like others, written by those who would change the world, words from captivity that would outlive them.
“When writing home from a terrorist's cell, where do you start? Kayla Mueller started tight in the corner of her single, precious page. Her first stroke predicted there would never be enough room to hold her thoughts. Two rows on each line, margin to margin which would have been "well thought out," she writes but, "I could only but write the letter a paragraph at a time, just the thought of you all sends me into a fit of tears."
“They had all said goodbye when she left college in 2011 to work with the suffering in India. Why the hurry? Another young woman writing in captivity, Anne Frank, answered in her diary: "Nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world."
“From India, Mueller worked with refugees in Israel and Palestine. Back in Arizona she cared for AIDS patients and volunteered, at night, at a women's shelter. In 2013 she arrived at the Syrian border, the world's most dangerous place. Why take the risk? Another prisoner, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., writing from a cell in 1963 answered: "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. I'm compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home."
“Like Dr. King, Kayla Mueller had the vision to see freedom from a cell.
“"Even in prison I can be free," wrote Mueller. "I am grateful. I have come to see there is good in every situation."
“She is the fourth American hostage to die (at the hands of ISIS). In journalists, ISIS tried to extinguish truth. With humanitarians, they tried to kill compassion. But light defines the darkness. In these deaths ISIS is revealed and in her words Kayla Mueller captured the long struggle for a better world, "please be patient, give your pain to God."
Well said by Scott Pelley.
Kayla Mueller said, “I have come to see good in every situation” and “please be patient, give your pain to God.”
Not much to add to that, except these words, again: Remember that God’s purpose in our lives is to take what seems only to cause death and wring from it resurrection and new life.
If Kayla Mueller can do that, so can we.
Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Sermon for 1st Lent
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
Wednesday, February 21/22, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica