First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Dr. Jane Florence
February 11, 2018
Scripture: Mark 1:9-15
Sermon: “Our Voice in the Wilderness”
The last two weeks, we have heard scripture of Jesus going into sacred places. Two weeks ago, Jesus “goes out to pray while it was still dark” (Mark1:29-39). The image of Jesus sitting under canopy of stars in quite communion with God as the sun rises is lovely. It makes us want to join in that pre-dawn experience. Last week, we saw Jesus on a mountain top enveloped in a soft cloud of misty wonder with glowing essence emanating from his being (Mark 9:29). It was ethereal, beautiful; we might plan a trip to Pikes Peak to see if we could find our mountaintop experience of sacred communion. In today’s scripture, Jesus goes not to velvet beauty of night sky or misty cloud covered thin place. Today we hear he goes to the wilderness where there are beasts. This trip replaces soft focus dreamy God-time of the other two texts with cactus, scorpions, rattle snakes, and blistering sun. This going scene is probably not tugging at your hearts to replicate. Wild beast, cactus, scorpions, rattle snakes, I’ve been in that wilderness quite literally; it sounds like south Texas to me.
Speaking of Texas, maybe you heard what a televangelist from Texas (Gloria Copeland) said this week, that Jesus is our flu shot and “he redeemed us from the curse of the flu.” According to her, believers “have deer season and duck season, but we don’t have a flu season.” Copeland encouraged viewers to ward off the virus with their faith by saying “‘I’ll never have the flu. I’ll never have the flu,’” She did not say if you needed to click your ruby red slippers three times while reciting this incantation, but it probably wouldn’t hurt.
Much of some Christian thinking has its focus on the God that is “out there.” They focus on the God that sits high in the heavens spinning hurricanes and twirling tornadoes on sinners and preventing the flu or granting wishes (like finding parking places) for believers. I read in scripture of the transcendent God (Out there God) who swirled planets into being and hung stars in the sky- who was, is and always will be.
As much as Christians personify the Out There God, we also personify an Out There Evil. Christianity is often depicting the Out there God and the Out there Evil as locked in a cosmic struggle of dual forces of good and bad. Just as Michelangelo painted God of the Heavens in white flowing robes, other artists gave us the visual of a red faced, gnarly creature, with pointed ears and pitchforked tail who perches on our shoulder and leads us into temptation, to whom we point the finger of blame or as theologian Flip Wilson explained “The Devil made me do it.”
I read in scripture of the transcendent God (Out there God) and the personified transcendent Out There Evil. However, I also read in scripture of the Immanent God that is “in here;” the god that dwells within the hearts not just the heavens. I read of the God that speaks from the still small voice within and the One who is the very ground of our being. Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is within you.” Apostle Paul said, “God is not far from each one of us, for it is in God that we live and move and have our being.”
If we dare conceive that God in all goodness, is not remote and far off in never-never land, but up close and very personal. If we dare to reach out to those cloud filled ceilings and draw God near to us, then must we also consider that which threatens to separate us from the Divine is not remote and far off Adversary, but also up close and very personal. Then the Cosmic struggle between the two resides not in a galaxy far, far away, but within the heart of us all which brings us back to today’s scripture story.
Mark isn’t the greatest story teller. He doesn’t weave intricate tales complete with dynamic dialogue, 3D characters or careful plot twists. Mark is more of a first century Twitter kinda guy. Most of his scenes can take place in the 280 character limit. This one reads:
Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan.
A voice said, “You are my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The Spirit drove him into the wilderness.
For 40 days he faced the Tempter and wild beasts. Angels waited upon him. Then Jesus went to Galilee and proclaimed the Good News.
(Actually Mark can tell his story and still have characters left over.)
Luke and Matthew add dialogue to Mark’s account. They both flesh out the confrontation between Jesus and the Tempter. I say “the Tempter,” not “Satan,” because when we hear words like Satan or the Devil we think in terms of how modern culture has personified the little red-tailed, pointy eared, pitch fork dude on the hot sauce bottle. In Hebrew teachings (Jesus was a Jew- so were the gospel authors), the HaSatan was not a cartoon character or the fire breathing ruler of Hell. The Tempter, or the Adversary was closer to the idea of “playing Devil’s advocate.” The Adversary was the one who took the opposite side, who challenged an opposing view to that which was thought to be the view of God.
In Luke and Matthew’s gospel, the Tempter plays Let’s Make a Deal with Jesus. If you are the Son of God… turn stones into bread… If you are the Son of God… jump off the roof… If you are the Son of God… I’ll give you all the world to worship me.” The Tempter promises food security to a famished man, prosperity to those who fear starvation. The Tempter promises safety, protection, not only from the flu, but even from daredevil risks like steeple jumping. The Temper promises power and fame and all the accolades of the earth if Jesus will trade in his identity as Son of God.
The Tempters promise for us is not to fall but to rise. This Tempter isn’t some pointed eared red faced flame throwing Devil that any one of us would have the sense to run away from. The Tempter doesn’t approach us to offer personal, social and professional ruin. The Tempter doesn’t say, “Come with me and I’ll ruin your life, destroy your career, steel your self-respect and cost you your family.” The Tempter promises prosperity, protection, and power. The Tempter offers to meet our needs. The Temper offers to conquer our fears and inadequacies offering youth, beauty and wealth, love, companionship and belonging; confidence, assurance and strength. The Tempter knows just where to hook each one of us because the Tempter knows us so well. It’s almost like the Tempter is in our heads, reading our mind, overhearing our thoughts. Satan is not in a fiery pit of hell or a galaxy far, far away, but as near as the breath of our being. The Tempter is our own voice of inadequacy. Our own voice of shame and unworthiness. The Temper is our own wrestling with our true identity.
The Sacred Creator of all that is, The God within and beyond us all, stamps ‘Made of Divine Worth’ on our hearts and declares to the universe, “this is my beloved son, this is my beloved daughter, with whom I am well pleased!” The waters of our baptism shower us with Grace that is greater than any misstep or mistake we could ever make. The Tempter challenges us to believe that we are God’s Beloved Sons and Daughters loved for who we are not what we do or money or power or status or appearance. The test for Jesus is whether Jesus trusts God’s voice that announced his identity and trusts his life as God’s Beloved. That holds true for all of us. In the face of our wilderness and wild beasts, that things that scare us, when our ego is threatened, our identity as sacred beings feels shaky, what will hold true as our identity?
This simple story in Mark has another character we often neglect. We get focused on the Tempter and follow the Tempter down our trail of our own temptations that we forget to go back and look at the story again. In Mark’s story the Tempter gets three words: “tempted by HaSatan.” The verse continues, “and the angels waited on him.”
Jesus isn’t alone with the Tempter forced to wrestle against the False-self by himself. The angels were with him. When he was tired and famished and thirsty and surrounded by wild beasts and longing for bread and security, questioning whether or not he had the strength to believe God’s voice and claim his identity, the angels were there for him. I doubt the Tempter was the red faced pitch fork guy, and I doubt the angels wore white robes with feather wings. Our angels who wait on us seldom do.
Maybe our angels resemble a Sunday school teacher we had as a youth who absorbed all our questions and doubts and assured us God still loves us even when we didn’t. Maybe our angelic messengers resemble a good friend who gave us the strength we needed when we thought we weren’t enough. Maybe they resemble a colleague who covered for us at work when we made a huge mistake or a relative or stranger that spoke a word of hope.
On Wednesday, the church begins a season of preparation and reflection called Lent. The forty days of the season reflect the forty days Jesus spent figuring out who he would be, what his ministry could be, if he would claim his identity as God’s beloved child or allow the temptations of world or ego to get the best of him. It can be easy for us to focus on the Tempter during this season, to ponder our darker side, to condemn ourselves and submerge ourselves in self-hatred and blame. It is easier to say all I’ve done wrong than all I’ve done well which is really more of our own ego calling out for attention, the self-inflicted pains, broken trust, chosen wrong.
Our Lenten Journey can be a journey filled with wild beasts into our inner wilderness of despair or regret. But even through those self-examinations, those explorations that are necessary for our growth, don’t forget about the angels that are in the wilderness with us just as they’ve been all along, offering care, and support, reminders of God’s voice that announces, “You are my beloved. You are my sons and daughters with whom I am well pleased. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
May it be so.