Sylvania United Church of Christ
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The sermon for week February 26, 2012

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February 26, 2012
First Sunday in Lent
Mark 1: 9-15

One evening a few years ago I saw an actor perform a monologue of the entire gospel of Mark. He walked from the back of the church holding a Bible over his head as he recited the opening verses of the gospel, "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

For the next few hours the congregation sat entranced, as the words of the prophets, Jesus and the apostles washed over us. The gospel came alive! The words were familiar; but somehow this man dressed in robe and sandals managed to free the words from the page, so they entered our lives with new urgency.

Mark's gospel lends itself to drama because it leaps off the page and never stops running. The most frequently used word in Mark, is immediately.

For Mark the good news of Jesus Christ begins, not in a lowly cow stall in the little town of Bethlehem but in the wilderness of Judea at the Jordan River. People from Jerusalem and all over the Judean countryside gathered at the river to hear a prophet named John proclaim a baptism of repentance.

Those who left Jerusalem and traveled into the wilderness to hear John preach must have been looking for something they hadn’t found in the holy city. If they wanted to hear from God, why not stay in Jerusalem where there were any number of priests in the Temple to whom they could refer at any time.

Perhaps they made their way into the wilderness because John offered them something we all need, a chance to come clean, to stop pretending we are someone other than who we are, a chance to start over again.

John provided no rules about how this was to be done. There was no pre-determined liturgy. John’s baptism bypassed the Temple and all its rites. In the wilderness the people were given an opportunity to open their eyes to the “new thing” God promised was about to happen, not in the Temple; but right in the middle of their muddiest river bottom.

And so it was here, in the middle of nowhere, Jesus chose to be baptized. And it was here, and not in Jerusalem, that a heavenly voice was heard just as Jesus was coming out of the water saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

When those who witnessed the event heard Jesus identified with favor from above they may have expected this “Beloved Son” to sprout wings and fly away. Some may have expected him to lead the resistance against the abusive power of Rome. Others may have wondered if this man from Nazareth would dismantle the corrupt leadership in the Temple. None of those things happened.

Instead, Mark tells us no sooner had the sound of the heavenly voice faded into silence than: “The Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.”

Each year the season of Lent begins with a battle. On the first Sunday in Lent tradition calls for the reading of the familiar story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Matthew and Luke provide the details of that struggle in their gospels; but Mark’s abridged version leaves us to wonder what really happened in that desolate place.

Mark provides only a few scant details describing the wilderness where Jesus spent those symbolic days, although he makes a passing reference to wild beasts and angels. Apparently there is an ambiguity about the wilderness as there is about so much of life.
Discerning the difference between the forces of light and darkness may have been what those days and nights in the wilderness were all about for Jesus. For it is right there, in the middle of nowhere, and with only the company of beasts and angels that Jesus gained a clear sense of his mission.

When Jesus emerged from the wilderness, he began his earthly ministry in Galilee, not with a pair of celestial wings, but with the stripes he had earned in battle. Jesus met Satan early on, and again throughout his life, encounters that confirmed the identity of Jesus and revealed the nature of the enemy.

The story of Jesus tempted by Satan on the first Sunday in Lent is a cautionary tale warning us that the only way we will get to Easter is through the wilderness.

There are things to be learned in the wilderness that cannot be comprehended elsewhere; but it’s easy to get lost there. It’s a shadowy place each of us visits during our life time. However we arrive there it soon becomes apparent that there’s no easy way out. We’ve entered a painful maze of uncertainty, a cul de sac of waiting, and not knowing.

The wilderness opens up a place within us where we discover that the devil is not the only one who practices deception. We are masters at fooling ourselves. Such introspection should take place at all times within us, but Lent is that particular time in the church year when we pay attention to the process. There is something about queuing up in church on Wednesday night to be smudged with ashes and reminded, “You are dust and to dust you shall return,” that brings us back to earth and nudges us toward serious Lenten reflection.

The wilderness is a place we usually avoid whenever possible; but the Lenten season is a wilderness with a difference. It’s a wilderness we choose. Over the years it has become a time for getting honest with ourselves and with God.

It is a time for facing our Shadow rather than fleeing from it like Punxsutawney Phil, the Pennsylvania ground hog, who saw his shadow and hurried back to his underground burrow to wait another six weeks for spring.

Lent is a season of 40 days which carries the promise of ending in the springtime of the soul. To enter the wilderness voluntarily takes nothing away from the lasting effects of whatever we may learn there. To go to the depths of any experience is to discover the sacred in the distressing disguise of the fearful and unfamiliar.

As a church we have voluntarily entered a process of study and reflection which invites us to envision the future to which God is calling us and determine how we may all work together to secure it. At times it feels like we’ve entered a strange and formidable landscape. We call it a transition, but sometimes it feels like a wilderness.

Transition can stir up anxiety in us, because we cannot know the outcome of the process and yet we feel a sense of responsibility for it. At the same time the transition has proven to be a sacred experience for many, because we discern that God has called us to this time and place. We are more aware than ever that God’s Kingdom comes, not at some future time; but right here in this church with all the immediacy of a chapter out of Mark’s gospel.

The God who “makes all things new” is continually recreating the church in Christ’s image and purpose. So we’ve been warned to be wary of looking backward at what once was when God may be calling us to something we have never been. During the transition we are becoming aware that we are an important part of the “new thing” God is doing. A prospect that arouses both fear and curiosity.

The landscape of the church is changing because a church in transition is a church that is moving from what it was to what it will be. So it helps to have a handsome map on the wall informing us “You are Here” whenever we feel lost or overwhelmed by the process. The map reminds us that the wilderness is not a permanent dwelling place. We’re moving through the wilderness, not pitching our tent there.

When Jesus emerged from the wilderness he proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The experience of Jesus in the wilderness was transformative, for it was in the wilderness where Jesus’ identity was confirmed and his mission defined. The transition holds out the promise of the same result for us.

We are engaged in a process that promises to open up a sacred place within us where we will learn who we are and who God is calling us to be. The transforming power of the Holy Spirit is present and available to guide us as we confirm our identity and define our mission. The church’s transition is a time to discern God’s call upon us as we move into the future together.

Meanwhile, we must “Mind the gap,” an expression we grew accustomed to hearing during the years my husband lived and worked in Great Britain. Public transport is a convenient and relatively safe and inexpensive way to travel over there, so we traveled by train and under-ground often.

Unique to the British was the recorded message heard each time we entered or exited the trains. “Mind the gap!” the voice warned, referring to the small and seemingly innocuous gap between the platform and the train, a softly spoken reminder to watch your step when moving on or off the carriage.

“Mind the gap!” is an appropriate job description when applied to the tasks of a church in transition. Transition is a time of letting go of expectations, old patterns, and the baggage from the past. There is a gap that occurs between letting go of the comfortable and familiar traditions that have informed our past and taking a leap of faith into the unpredictable future. It can be frightening at times; but it needn’t divide us. Every one of us is needed if we are to complete the journey together.

The voice that warns “Mind the gap!” is reminding us that we cannot have it both ways. We cannot remain on the platform when God is calling us toward a future that lies somewhere beyond the current wilderness.

Our goal for the journey is to travel light, arrive safely, and just in time for the heavenly banquet to which each of us is invited.

So all aboard, now, and mind the gap!

Thanks be to God!

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