Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Love We Need to Face the Wilderness

[This, as near as I can recall, is the sermon I shared this morning during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

Mark 1:9-15
Years ago, when our kids were small, we were all shopping together at a mall book store in Toledo. In the children's section, we ran across a book with a blue cover showing a happy toddler in a bath room with reams of toilet paper he had pulled from the dispenser. The title was Love You Forever. Ann read it first and then, crying, handed it to me. When I read it, I couldn't keep from crying either. Love You Forever is a fun and touching ode of love from a mom to her child. The text is punctuated with a recurring promise from mother to child: "I'll love you forever. I'll like you for always. As long as I'm living, my baby you'll be."

Any normal parent can identify with that sentiment. When parents have children enter their lives, they don't stop being parents just because their kids grow up and live responsible, adult lives. As long as we're living, our kids will be our kids and even if they sin and rebel and walk away from God or us, we will always love them.

Parents who love their children give their kids strong foundations for life. And, while I hate to think of this as being genetically built into us, studies have shown that the love, support, and caring discipline provided by fathers is especially important.

Several studies, for example, have been done comparing the faith lives of two groups of children, those who regularly attend worship with their moms only as opposed to those who do so regularly with their dads only. Those who attend with only their fathers are far more likely to continue with lives of prayer, service in Christ's Name, and regular worship than those brought to worship only by their mothers.

Of course, it's better when both parents go to worship and Sunday School with their kids. Better too, when both parents seek to live out their faith in Christ on Mondays through Saturdays, as well as on Sundays. Martin Luther said that the family is to be "a little church," in which Christ is daily worshiped, glorified, and served. But these studies on the spiritual development of children are echoed in studies into other realms of living too: When fathers love, affirm, and nurture children, children are better prepared to face life's challenges.

Our Gospel lesson shows us that God the Father knew the importance of giving strong affirmations of His love to Jesus, God the Son. He knew that His love could sustain Jesus through all that Jesus came into the world to do for you and me. Take a look at the first few verses of today's Gospel lesson, Mark 1:9-11.

Jesus, Mark tells us, was baptized by John the Baptist. We know, of course, that Jesus didn't need to be baptized by John. John was offering a baptism of repentance, a baptism that symbolized that people were turning away from their sin and turning, instead, in faith toward God, God's will, and God's promises, in anticipation of the coming of the King of kings. Jesus never sinned and Jesus was and is the King of kings. But Jesus also came into our worlds to share everything that we go through. So, He was baptized by John.

Look at what happens next: "...just as He was coming out of the water, He saw the heavens torn apart..." Last Sunday, when we looked at Jesus' transfiguration, we saw this very thing happen. The heavens were torn apart so that God the Father could express His approval for Jesus. The same verb translated as "torn apart" shows up again at another place in Mark's Gospel: At the moment when Jesus died on the cross and curtain in the temple that concealed the holy of holies, the place where God dwelt on earth, was torn. In all these instances, the unseen realm of God were breaking into our fallen, imperfect world. God's kingdom was breaking into the world at the very moment that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan.

Now, look at what comes next: "...and the Spirit [descended] like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are My Son, the Beloved; with You I am well pleased." Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were all together in that moment. This really was the kingdom of God breaking into our world!

But notice what God the Father says to Jesus: "You are My Son, the Beloved; with You I am well pleased." Do you see what the Father was saying to Jesus? It's this: "I'll love you forever, I'll like you for always. As long as I'm living, my baby you'll be."

The One Jesus taught us to call Abba, Father, the first person of our three-three-person-in-one-God is a great Father! "I love You completely and always," the Father was telling Jesus.

Something similar happens to us when we are baptized. The Word of God is invoked over the waters of Holy Baptism, the Holy Spirit reaches down to us, and in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we become children of God. Rebellious children can walk away from parents and God, of course. But that doesn't alter God's love for or commitment to us. Pull out the green hymn books and turn to page 124 in the front. This comes near the end of the baptismal liturgy. A blessing is given to the baptized:
Mark James, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.
You see, through the pastor and the Church, God tells the baptized, in words similar to those the Father addressed to Jesus in today's Gospel lesson: "I'll love you forever. I'll like you for always. As long as I'm living, my baby you'll be."

Jesus needed the assurance of the Father's love for Him. Go back to our Gospel lesson, to Mark 1:12. "And the Spirit immediately drove Him [Jesus] into the wilderness."

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke are a bit more dainty in describing how Jesus came to be in the wilderness. They say that the Holy Spirit "led" Jesus there.

Mark though, says that the Spirit "drove" Jesus into the wilderness. The word translated into our English translation is, in the Greek in which it was originally written, ekballei, a past tense form of a compound word ekballo. Ek is a prefix meaning out. Ballo, from which we get words like ball and balloon, means throw. Literally, the Holy Spirit threw Jesus out into the wilderness.

The wilderness, or literally in the Greek, the desolate, is a place of terror, a place of sin and temptation, of struggle with tests of character. In other words, the wilderness is the every day world in which you and I live.

It's also a place in which a war for our eternal souls is waged between unseen forces: God and His angels, on the one hand, and Satan--a name for the devil that means adversary--and his demonic forces, on the other.

Through His cross and resurrection, Jesus has already won this war. All who repent and believe in Him and the Good News He has brought are part of God's kingdom and live with God for all eternity, starting right here and now in the wilderness.

But Satan is selfish and desperate, violent and willful. He wants to tear us from God's hands, not because he values us, but because he knows how much God values us, which God showed when Jesus went to a cross bearing our sins on His sinless shoulders.

Some well-meaning Christians deny the existence of the spiritual realm, or of a war going on between God and Satan, with you and me as the prizes for which they battle. Years ago, I was in a study group with other Lutheran pastors. The subject of angels came up and one of our colleagues scoffed at the whole notion of angels or demons, Satan or hell. "I find it hard to believe in extraterrestrials," he told us with something of a smirk. One of our older colleagues put his hand on this fellow's shoulder and said, "Mike, if you don't think that Satan, demons, or hell are real, you haven't been paying attention."

We need to pay attention too!

Turn Ephesians 6:12 in the New Testament. It says: "...our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic forces of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." (And here, "heavenly" doesn't refer to the place where God reigns, but to the unseen spiritual realm where the war for our souls is played out each moment of our lives.)

In the wilderness, you and I are tempted to take the easy way through life: to sin and walk away from God. God will let us do that, if that's the path we choose.

God won't force Himself on us, ever.

And, there are going to be millions of people in hell who were baptized and who are loved passionately by God, but who spurned God's love, Christ's cross, and the call to repent and believe and so are eternally separated from God.

But that isn't the way it has to be!

We can walk with God even in the wilderness and Jesus shows the way. Look at the last phrase of verse 13 in our Gospel lesson: "and the angels waited on Him." If we will rely completely on God, He will care for us. He will make a way through the wilderness.

In his book, You Were Made for More, Pastor Jim Cymbala tells the story of Roberta, a member of his New York City congregation. Roberta had misused drugs and engaged in all sorts of sinful relationships for decades. She came to faith in Christ through Cymbala's congregation and began a life of recovery from her addictions. She was living with God, free of her past. And though she was HIV-positive, Roberta refused to let the possibility of death from AIDs keep her from living life to the full with Christ by her side.

As she was improving, serving God, and growing in her faith, at that moment, a man from her past re-entered her life. (This shouldn't be surprising, by the way. My experience shows that anytime Godly and good things are happening, Satan will try to find ways to derail them.) The man told Roberta that he was clean, free of drugs for some time.

While wary, Roberta began seeing this man. She didn't love him. But she did feel affection for him. And, as she told Cymbala, they knew about each other's "stuff." Maybe they could build a life together. Still, she was still uncertain and praying about things.

In the meantime, the man invited her to visit him at his place in upstate New York. Roberta had a friend who lived in the same little town and, wanting to do things God's way this time, she arranged to stay at the friend's house, then visit the man at his place.

She had settled into her friend's place and borrowed the friend's car to see the man she now referred to as her "boyfriend." But she was thrown out into the wilderness at almost the moment she greeted him in his kitchen. In his pocket, she could see, was a pipe for smoking crack cocaine.

Without saying a word, her head swimming, she went to his living room and began to pray. "God," she cried out silently, "give me strength to get up and run out of this house right now! I know I should leave!"

As Roberta prayed, she heard an unspoken whisper, spoken undoubtedly by Satan, the one who tempted Jesus in His wilderness: "Let's be honest here--this is who [your boyfriend] is, and this is who your are down deep, don't you know?" Satan continued to tell her that her life could never get better, that she could never be right with God, that she ought to make do and once more take up the life of an addict and enjoy some good times before she left this world.

Just then, as though reading from Satan's playbook, the boyfriend came into the living room. He knew that the jig might be up. "Don't leave!" he kept telling Roberta.

But praying to God for strength and help, Roberta picked up her purse, pulled out her keys, made her way to the car, climbed in behind the wheel, and, her hands shaking, put the key in the ignition and drove away.

The man didn't stop campaigning to get her back. He would leave calls on her answering machine. But Roberta didn't answer. You see, she knew what all of the Bible teaches and what we see in Jesus in our Gospel lesson:

When confronted with temptations to sin or testing circumstances that could lure us away from God, we close our ears; we run away from the temptation; and we cry out to God to help us do things the right way, God's way.

And even if and when we do fall into sin, replacing our flimsy wisdom for the true wisdom of God, so long as we're still breathing, we can turn back to God. We can, in the Name of Jesus, turn from sin. We can entrust ourselves to Christ and know that God will make a way through all of our testings and temptations. And we can come back to God, because, as God has said through the death and resurrection of His Son:
"I'll love you forever. I'll like you for always. As long as I'm living, my baby you'll be."
Trust in Christ and God will make a way for you to believe and to know that His love is always true. It will empower you to live your life a better way, God's way. Amen

1 comment:

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