February 18, 2018 Lent 1B
Watch a video of this sermon here.
What kind of fool are you? Over the next several weeks, as we mark the season of Lent, we’re going to be looking at the foolishness of God that puts human wisdom to shame. We will examine what it means to be a fool for Christ, someone who is willing to put pride on the line for the sake of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. By the time we get to Easter on April Fool’s Day, we are going to see Jesus get the last laugh on Death and Sin.
Today, on this first Sunday of Lent, we start out by following Jesus on a fool’s errand. A fool’s errand is a journey that doesn’t make sense. At first glance, it looks like nothing good can come of this trip; there is nothing worthwhile to be gained.
In this case, it’s dangerous. Temptations will try to steer us off course. And it’s a long trip. We aren’t talking a three-day weekend here. This fool’s errand is a serious, six-week journey into the wilderness.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:9-15)
No matter which gospel we read, the first Sunday in Lent always brings us to the story of Christ’s temptation in the desert. Since we’ve heard about Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his ministry in recent weeks, let’s just focus today on the wilderness, where the Spirit drives Jesus out on a fool’s errand. In other words, the Spirit expels, or throws Jesus out to be tempted.
Tradition holds that Jesus spent these forty days on a mountain that rises above the city of Jericho, probably sleeping in one of its many caves. Jesus would have been able to see the oasis just below him, less than an hour’s walk away. He would have seen palm trees and cultivated fields. Fresh fruit and cool spring water were within his view the whole time.
But Satan goes beyond the basic needs of hunger and thirst to tempt Jesus. Satan plays on the very human desire for power and acceptance. We want to be in control, and to have people admire us. Mark doesn’t give us the conversation between Satan and Jesus that we find in Matthew and Luke’s gospels. Mark’s focus is on the wilderness, that No Mans Land where it’s easy to lose direction, to get lost, to feel powerless.
As humans, we know that feeling of powerlessness all too well. There is still evil in the world. We are still broken people. We were reminded of that on Ash Wednesday, when a school shooting in Parkland, Florida took the lives of 17 people and put others in the hospital with critical injuries.
Descriptions of the shooter tell of a young man who had exhibited violent behavior in the past. Since the shooting, there have been cries for gun control, improved mental health care, and heightened safety measures in schools. Social media posts have condemned politicians, school lockdown procedures, video games, and violent TV shows for the part they have played in creating a culture of violence. Blame is being scattered everywhere. “Thoughts and prayers” are scorned. They won’t raise the dead, or heal the hurt that families of shooting victims are feeling right now.
In the face of such a catastrophe, the prophet Habakkuk comes to mind: “How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?” (Habakkuk 1:2) Stan Friedman suggests that while we are crying out to God, it’s quite possible that God is crying out to us: “How long will you keep calling to me for help and think that I’m not listening? I have heard you. And I have seen the violence. But it is you who do nothing…”
We often feel helpless in the face of death, any death. It’s hard to admit that we have so little control over our own lives. Another’s death forces us to recognize just how fragile we are, how mortal. Grief can paralyze us. We do nothing, because we just can’t. We want to cry out to God, “Lord, do something!” And God cries out to us, “I did already. I sent my Son. Now, you do something.”
This doesn’t mean that God has abandoned us. Think back to the Old Testament reading we heard earlier, the story of God’s covenant with Noah. Remember that the Lord had seen “that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Genesis 6:5-6)
So God sent Noah on a fool’s errand to build an ark.
There are parallels between Noah’s story and Jesus’ expulsion into the wilderness. For example, Noah spent more than a year cooped up with his own floating zoo, and the Spirit threw Jesus into a wilderness filled with wild beasts for forty days. Mark is the only gospel writer who mentions these wild beasts, and he doesn’t explain why.
We are left to decide if the wild beasts pose a threat, or if they are symbolic of the coming Kingdom, where all is at peace and wild animals no longer present any danger. Certainly in Noah’s story, the animals represent God’s desire to start over, to give creation a second chance.
There are other significant parallels between these two stories. Just as Jesus comes up out of the Jordan River’s baptismal waters, Noah comes out of the flood. Both Jesus and Noah immediately hear the voice of God make an announcement. For Jesus, it is the assurance that he is God’s beloved Son, and God is pleased with him.
But the words God speaks to Noah form the very first covenant we find in the Bible. That word ‘covenant’ is so important that God mentions it seven times in these nine verses. Unlike the covenants that will follow, this first agreement is completely one-sided. There is no requirement for the “party of the second part” to do anything .
God simply says, “I promise I won’t ever again destroy the earth by flood.” And to seal the agreement, God posts a very visible “note to self” as a reminder. He hangs his bow in the sky, with the business end pointing away from the earth as a sign that God intends only good for his creation, not destruction. Noah doesn’t even have to agree for this covenant to go into effect. God makes a promise, and that’s that.
As Noah climbed out of the ark, he accepted God’s promise, heading off into his own version of the wilderness. Though the flood had destroyed everything, new growth had already begun by the time God called Noah out of the ark. Noah walked into a world that no one had ever seen before, a world that was being re-created right before his eyes. But he didn’t go alone. When God placed his bow in the heavens as a reminder to himself, he was also reminding Noah that God would always be with him.
As Jesus walked out of the wilderness and headed up the road toward Galilee, he was also walking into a world being re-created before his very eyes, but the change was not yet visible to anyone else. When the voice from heaven had spoken at his baptism, Mark tells us the heavens were ripped open. It’s the same word he uses later to describe the rending of the curtain in the temple at the time of Christ’s crucifixion (16:38). God was breaking into the world to establish his kingdom once and for all.
Both Jesus and Noah experienced God’s presence, God’s provision, and God’s promise on their fool’s errands into the wilderness. God’s very first covenant was a promise to Noah that he would never again destroy the world with a flood. God’s final covenant is the promise, sealed with Jesus’ own blood, that he will restore all of creation to its right relationship to God.
And this is where we come into the picture. Just as Jesus received the Holy Spirit at his baptism, so we receive the Holy Spirit when we claim Jesus as Lord. The little Greek preposition Mark uses means “into.” The Spirit descended into Jesus, filling him and strengthening him for his purpose. That same Spirit descends into us when we call on Jesus’ name.
Beware, though. This is the Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness, to be tested, to live among wild beasts, and to depend on God’s angels to care for him. Know that when we ask God to fill us with his Holy Spirit, we are asking God to send us into the wilderness.
It may seem like a fool’s errand to the rest of the world, but being thrown into the wilderness is as necessary for us as it was for Noah, and for Jesus. This is where we learn to depend completely on God. This is where we learn what it is God calls us to do in this world so that God’s kingdom can break into it, transforming it into a new creation.
It does no good to stay out in the wilderness, though. I’ve known times when I got stuck there. Maybe you have, too. Instead of moving forward into the unknown, I kept hiding in my own cave of uncertainty. I felt unprepared. I didn’t know what I was doing, so I did nothing. And God kept saying, “Stop wasting time. I’m right here. Let’s do this.”
There is nothing to be gained by continuing to wander in the wilderness, once we’ve learned what our mission is. God did not leave Jesus in the desert, any more than he left Noah in the ark. Just as the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, the Spirit also led him into his ministry in Galilee. That same Spirit pushes us into the wilderness where we can learn to depend on God’s provision, and it leads us out of the wilderness into the purpose God gives us.
Our purpose is the same one Jesus carried with him from the wilderness into Galilee: to bind up the brokenhearted, give relief to the oppressed, and proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God is here. As Christ’s church, we are strategically placed in this world to do just that. As Christians, we are each strategically placed in this community to offer Christ in ways that no other entity can.
On Wednesday morning, I listened as someone from the New Ulm Medical Center described a project designed to promote better health through happiness. The plan is simple, and it’s based on research that proves what common sense tells us: if we focus on positives, express gratitude, and are kind to others, our own mental well-being and physical health will be better than if we don’t. We can cope better with stress, and when bad things happen to us, we have the strength to endure them.
The BounceBack program encourages people to improving their health by improving their attitudes through three simple behaviors. The first is to reframe our personal experiences. Before you go to sleep, think of three positive things that happened to you during the day. Developing this habit makes us more aware of the good things in our lives, and keeps us from dwelling on the negative. Three positive things, right before you go to sleep, will re-calibrate your view of the world the next day.
Second, show gratitude. Think of someone who has influenced you, someone who made a difference in your life. Write that person a letter and express your gratitude. Say thank you and mean it throughout the day. Check out the gratitude walls at the local grocery stores and add your own words of thanks. That’s the secular version, but you and I know that giving thanks to God is even more powerful. As you think of three positive things before you sleep, thank God for those blessings.
And that brings us to the third practice in the BounceBack program: random acts of kindness. Doing a kind thing for someone else may brighten that person’s day, but it holds even greater benefits for the person doing the good deed.
This last healthy practice fits well with the first week of our “Surprise the World!” reading about blessing. When we make a point of blessing others, we are blessed in return. We become more grateful. We see things through a positive lens, rather than a negative one.
We are called, as followers of Jesus Christ, to love. Our job is to create a culture of love so irresistible that others have to ask us, “What makes your life so much different from mine?” Even in lament, we are called to reflect Christ’s love. We are called to bless.
Saturday was National Random Acts of Kindness Day. It followed Do A Grouch A Favor Day. How about we make today be Bless Somebody Like A Fool for Christ Day? Don’t think you have what it takes? God has particularly gifted you and strategically placed you to be Christ to someone. Maybe you just need a refresher course on what those gifts might be. Let Claire give you some ideas for ways you can be a blessing to someone else.
Did watching that bless you? If Claire can bless you just by listing six gifts Jesus gave her, imagine what a difference this whole church could make in our community, when we head out into the wilderness. It may seem like a fool’s errand, but Jesus is sending you out to be a fool for him.