Wednesday, March 08, 2006

All I really need to know...

I learned, not in kindergarten, but childbirth class!

We are through four sessions of a five-session childbirth class at The Birth Center in Bryn Mawr. I'm learning a lot, some of it helpful (like labor massage techniques and how to tell when labor is advancing) and some of it terrifying (like when they passed around a device that looked like a knitting needle they use to artificially rupture the bag of waters if it doesn't naturally rupture). Actually, most of it is both of those as I know I need to know these things.

In other news, I was at the library yesterday working on a paper for my Pentecostalism class. Because "Scooter" is coming soon, I'm desperately trying to get my schoolwork done; being a pastor and new dad will be enough on my plate at once. The day off from church to do schoolwork was prompted by the sobering recognition that I will be at church for 25 hours in a row this weekend taking part in our youth's 30 Hour Famine program. Aaah!

Anyway--a glimpse inside the scattered brain of Pastor Mike. Hope to see some of you tonight at prayer time and Young Adults, some of you Thursday at Bible Study, and all of you Sunday at church!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Worship on Sunday, March 5

Hi all--it was great to worship today. Dawn Flay and Missy Newton graced us with excellent solos and we together welcomed the Spirit. Today, we embarked on Lent together (OK, technically this was on Ash Wednesday, but who's counting?) Following is the message on Mark 1:9-15: Jesus' baptism, wilderness experience, and beginning of the ministry.

The books of the Bible we call the gospels are the ones that tell the story of Jesus–Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Each of these four books has its own unique style and emphasis, its own way of writing and telling the stories of Jesus. The book of Mark, the gospel we are reading from today, is renowned for telling the stories quickly, without much detail. John records a lot of long teachings of Jesus; but Mark is action-packed, moving from one story to the next to the next very quickly.
This is certainly the case with this morning’s passage. In the space of seven verses, Mark manages to tell three distinct stories: the story of Jesus’ baptism, the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
The stories start suddenly; we simply read that Jesus came from Nazareth to be baptized by John in the Jordan river. And as he was coming up, he saw the Spirit descending like a dove from heaven, and he hears a voice coming from heaven, saying “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Just a quick aside–can you imagine the thrill of that moment? Jesus is being baptized in the river and as he is coming up out of the water, all of the sudden the Spirit of God is presence, and a voice from God rings out from heaven and says that this man is the Beloved Son of God. What a thrill it must have been, to know without a doubt that God is here, in this moment. We see the dove, we hear the voice, and our skepticism would just melt away as we saw God reveal His presence to the world. That must have been quite a moment.
Of course, we do know a few moments like that in our lives sometimes, don’t we? There are times, maybe just a few of them in our whole lives, where we can look back and we can say without a doubt that God is here; that we have been in the presence of God. Can you remember a moment like that?
We all have known a few times like that; in the birth of a child, at a meaningful worship service, in a time of prayer when we know beyond a doubt that we are in the presence of God, that God is where we are in that moment, and even deep in our spirits. The story of Jesus’ baptism was one of those moments, when all who were there knew, beyond a doubt, that God was there. Those moments are rare and precious and we hang on to them our whole lives.
But what happens next in the story of Jesus is jarring. Mark says that after his baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” It appears the ink was barely dry on Jesus’ baptismal certificate before the trouble started. And even the language of the passage is harsh: the Spirit “drove him out;” the implication is that God’s Spirit pushed Jesus into the wilderness, the terrifying wilderness where for forty days he stayed alone. In the wilderness we read that Jesus was tempted by Satan; Matthew and Luke fill out this story a little bit, but Mark doesn’t tell us about how this happens. We read that Jesus was out in the wilderness, where the wild beasts are; but we also read that the angels waited on him.
We can also see this, if we look close enough in our lives. We can see times when we have felt that God sent us into a wilderness, into a place where wild beasts were. We have gone through times of temptation and felt horribly alone. And it’s not as easy to talk about these times; we try to forget them or to look past the dry times, the times when we cannot sense God’s presence. But we all have them. And often, as was the case with Jesus, they come right after our moments of greatest spiritual triumph. Many times, after we have an experience where we know beyond a doubt that God is here, the very next thing that happens in our lives makes it feel like God is completely absent. Perhaps a great spiritual renewal is followed by a tragic physical illness. Maybe a family reconciliation is followed by a sudden death. Sometimes in our lives we feel as if God is completely gone, and that is our wilderness moment.
And yet after forty days, we read that Jesus came back to Galilee and then was able to start his ministry. He comes back to Galilee and he proclaims the Gospel: “the time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God has come; repent and believe the good news.”
I don’t believe it’s accidental that Mark strings together these three events in Jesus’ life: his baptism, the wilderness, and the start of his ministry. And the crux of the three events, the central event that gives the other events their power, is the wilderness. It is as if the wilderness event is absolutely necessary to Jesus coming back and being able to minister with power. If you or I were writing the story, this is perhaps not how we would do it. I think we would take out the wilderness altogether.
Think about it–why would the Spirit drive Jesus out into the wilderness? The Greek verb used here for “driving out” is the same verb, ekballo, used when Jesus casts out a demon. It is the same verb used when Jesus cleanses the Temple and “drives out” the moneychangers. This is a forceful verb; Jesus in his greatest moment of his life, his baptism, and all of the sudden it just abruptly ends and he is driven out, cast out into the wilderness. If we were responsible for getting Jesus’ ministry off the ground, we wouldn’t cast him into the wilderness. We would say, “He’s so high right now, after getting baptized, this is such a moment of great triumph, that he should start preaching right now. He should go right into the synagogues and into the Temple and preach while he’s on a roll!
And yet of course this is not what happens. It may seem logical to us, but it does not seem logical to the Spirit of God. And of course it is of utmost importance that it seems logical to the Spirit of God because we want that same mind to be in us. We read in 1 Corinthians that “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.” And in Proverbs we read, “There is a way that seems right to a person, but that way leads to death.” Those things that seem logical to us are not always right; and here it seems that though the wilderness may not be logical to us, it is precisely what God believed was essential to Jesus’ ministry, so much so that right in the moment of triumph, the Spirit drove him there.
What happened in the wilderness?
Jesus suffered in the wilderness, and this suffering carried with it its own form of temptation. When you’re a kid and you suffer, sometimes you lash out at those around you. You tell your mom or your dad, “Leave me alone!” when what you really want (and what you really need) is for them to be there with you. That reaction is because when children suffer, they feel angry at everybody because they feel like everyone has a hand in their suffering. And so they push everyone else away to rely on themselves, because they think they’re the only ones that they can trust. In the same way, when we suffer, it is tempting to push God away; because the reality of suffering is so great and so real to us in that moment that we think we can only trust ourselves. As Jesus suffered, he too had to resist the temptation to push the Spirit of God away, but to rely that the spirit would be with him in the wilderness.
Jesus is driven into the wilderness, and here he is formed by suffering, by temptation, by self-denial. The wilderness experience seems to form him for ministry–it seems to be a necessary stop on the road. Just as much as his baptism shaped him for ministry, so too the wilderness shaped him for ministry. The experience of suffering and temptation and self-denial taught him how to handle the suffering that sometimes comes from one’s calling. Suffering uniquely made him fit to share
Experience tells us that this is true. If you do not believe it, look around the world with me. See how the blood of the martyrs nourishes the church to grow. See how in China, the church has grown from 5 million people to easily 100 million, maybe as high as 150 million Christians, in just over half a century. This, during some of the most withering persecution any church group has ever faced. The wilderness shaped the Chinese Christians to be the Christians God wants them to be. See how in Latin America, Christian groups thrive in the slums of Brazil and in the rural villages of Chile. See how in Jos, Nigeria, the church thrives despite threats of violence every day.
This, while Christianity in the west continues to be on the wane, while it appears to be more and more irrelevant. We try to make it relevant by playing newer music or offering uplifting casual sermons or giving great facilities or re-thinking old beliefs in a modern context, and we ignore the fact that around the world the church is strong because it suffers. The church grows not because it is brilliant, but because it is foolish in that way God seems foolish. It grows not because it is free, but because it is completely captive to Christ. It grows not because it takes advantage of the best corporate wisdom, but because it subscribes to a different, better kind of wisdom. In the end, the church is relevant only inasmuch as you and I are willing to suffer and even to die for it. In Europe and North America, the church runs aground even when it has every advantage, when it has money and when it has freedom, because we have let ourselves be formed by the suburbs rather than being formed by the wilderness. We are a product of feasting instead of fasting, and we are flabby and tired as a result.
We stand on the very cusp of Lent, right in the beginning, and we find ourselves at a crossroads unique in the world. Unlike Christians in Brazil, or in China, or in India, or in Nigeria, we can choose whether or not we suffer this Lent. We can choose whether this month and a half will be a time of intentional reflection, self-denial to change and to grow to be more like Christ, or we can choose to make this month and a half like every other month and a half in our lives. During Lent, we can choose to give up something; when we give something up, we learn to live without it and then we don’t let it control us. Or we can choose to take on a new discipline; disciplines are like friends. When you have a friend who you really let into your life, you wind up looking more like that friend (this is especially true of our spouses). When we take on a new discipline, even though we don’t necessarily “feel like it” at first, slowly, the discipline shapes us and grows us.
There is a tendency in churches like ours to claim our Christian Freedom to not “do” Lent. We are free in Christ, and so we don’t have to eat fish on Fridays, or give up chocolate or soda or beer or television or coffee. We don’t have to give anything up, don’t have to take on a new spiritual discipline, don’t have to re-commit to study or prayer or worship or service, because we don’t have to do anything legalistic like that to be a Christian.
On one level, of course, technically, you’re right. We don’t have to do these things. But let me also say that it is a foolish person who cuts their ties with suffering and then expects to be a good Christian. We see how God has used suffering in the lives of Brazilian, and Chinese, and Nigerian Christians; we even see how God used suffering to shape Jesus. Suffering is a rare and precious tool to shape us, and if we really want to be shaped to be like Jesus, it is very foolish of us to say no to that tool.
This Lent, let me gently invite you into the wilderness. The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, but I today gently invite you in. Take some time today to choose how you will suffer during Lent. Perhaps you will let go of a treasured food or a treasured drink. Perhaps you will choose to take on a new discipline; for instance, you could start your day with the Lenten Devotions Dick Rusbuldt has written for our church, or you could commit to reading the four gospels or the entire New Testament during these next six weeks. Perhaps you will choose to take on a new way of service, a new way that you could find to serve others that you’ve never tried before. It will not be easy, but the wilderness never is. The fact that it is not easy is what makes the wilderness effective. The fact that it is hard sometimes is what makes it able to shape us. A soft hammer and anvil could never forge a tool for a carpenter; but it is the hardness and force of the hammer and anvil which shape a tool. Just so, the fact a discipline is hard sometimes is what makes discipline the way to change and grow and be shaped to be a tool for God’s service.
Mark gives us an interesting detail in this passage. He gives us so few details in the book that we should pay attention to whatever he does tell us. And he tells us that in the wilderness, that scary place, there are wild beasts; but he also says that there are angels. If you choose the wilderness of suffering this Lent, you will meet wild beasts that you didn’t know lived around here. You will confront pride and arrogance and self-righteousness that you didn’t know lived in your soul. But you will also be waited on by angels; you will be preserved in suffering, cared for by the Lord.