Category Archives: Sermon

I am the Good Sheep

John 10:11-18

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”… (read the whole passage)

Sermon

Today, is Good Shepherd Sunday. Each fourth Sunday in the season of Easter, Christians around the world and through time celebrate Jesus as our Shepherd. Good Shepherd Sunday is the middle Sunday of Easter connecting those first resurrection accounts to Jesus preparing his disciples for the beginning of the church. And as such, our focus today shifts from the resurrection accounts that we have been hearing for the past 3 weeks to the Gospel of John and to Jesus’ sayings regarding the Good Shepherd.

A shepherd can be a bit of an odd image for Jesus to use to describe God’s relationship with the community of believers. For us, Shepherds conjure up images of idyllic meadow scenes. We imagine that male model in a robe version Jesus holding a lamb in his arms. You don’t even have to look around here much to find that kind of image.

Yet, for the people hearing Jesus’ speak, shepherds were more complicated image. One the one hand, King David the greatest king of Israel, had been a shepherd and so the image applied, from then on, to the kings of Israel. But being a shepherd in Jesus day was not an ideal career path. Shepherds lived out in the fields with their sheep. They were dirty, smelly, and uncivilized. They were mysterious nomads who only came into towns and villages on occasion. Shepherd were something between beggars and gang members. So it is odd that Jesus would choose that image, and odder still that he wouldn’t immediately tie it to the kingly side of the image.

Instead, Jesus talks about the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, not the shepherd who sends his sheep to war demanding they lay down their lives for king and country.

Yet, along side the Good Shepherd, it is the contrasting figures that Jesus’ hearers would have known. The Good Shepherd who is willing to die for his sheep stands against the bad shepherd, who is willing to sacrifice the weak sheep for the flock. The Good Shepherd stands against the hired man who cuts and runs at the first sign of trouble. The Good Shepherd stands between the sheep and wolves, the wolves who are out to kill the sheep.

Jesus’ audience lived in a world full of bad shepherds, hired men and wolves. Their world was dangerous and threatening. A Good Shepherd, a Good leader, a Good King was a rare blessing to sheep flocks and nations alike.

We too know what it is like to be sheep and to have bad shepherds, hired men and wolves around us. We know it in our families, our workplaces, our communities, our political leaders, our churches. In fact, we know the bad shepherds, hired men and wolves so well, that we find it hard to imagine or to identify Good Shepherds at all. We find it hard to trust that our Shepherds are Good, and often we are waiting for a Good Shepherd to reveal themselves as a bad one.

Good Shepherd Sunday is a certainly a day to talk about the shepherd-like qualities of God. To name the ways in which God cares for, loves and looks after us. Yet, the point of the day may just as much be the sheep as it is the shepherd. But not that solitary sheep safe and comfortable in the arms of the shepherd, like those paintings on the walls of so many churches would suggest. No, it is the flocks, the way that sheep are a group that is truly significant.

While bad shepherds, hired men and wolves are dangers for flocks, often it can be other sheep who might pose just as much risk. Sheep, individually can be intelligent, caring, delightful animals. It is when sheep are in groups that they have problems.

Sheep flocks are poor decisions makers, they are jumpy herd animals, easily tricked by predators. Sheep flocks will stand and let predators hunt them down out of fear. Sheep flocks will run from the one wolf nipping at their heals, into the mouths of the waiting pack in the other direction. Sheep will follow a leader off a cliff because they are taught from an early age to follow no matter what.

Sound familiar? Like how people act in groups.

And so often, because we have experienced the dangers before, because many churches and faithful people have been sacrificed by bad shepherds, abandoned by hired men, eaten up by hungry wolves. Because we know what it is like to stand and do nothing in the face of danger when no sheep wants to be the first to act, because we know what it is like to run from a small problem only to be faced with a much bigger one, because we know what it is like to follow our panic off a cliff… because we know these things — we have real trust issues.

We have been hurt as sheep, and we find it hard to trust. We find it hard to risk ourselves. And sometimes we even sabotage our shepherds and our flocks so that the bad thing that we know is bound to come is at least something in our control.

Despite our trust issues, Jesus says a curious thing today about sheep and shepherds.

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.“

It is curious, because throughout the gospels it is pretty clear that the disciples, the crowds, the pharisees and scribes, the temple priests, the Romans… none of them really know who Jesus is. None of them really understand what Jesus is doing.

In fact, if the sheep really knew the shepherd… we wouldn’t be celebrating the season of Easter right now. We wouldn’t be celebrating Easter because the sheep wouldn’t have put the shepherd to death on Good Friday.

If Good Shepherd Sunday is really just as much about being a good flock as it is about Jesus being a Good Shepherd, there is a disconnect. Because human beings are not usually good sheep.

But Jesus knows that. That is why when Jesus starts talking about the Good Shepherd he doesn’t begin by saying that the sheep know the shepherd.

Jesus starts by saying this,

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The Good Shepherd is not a King to rule over the sheep. The Good Shepherd is not an uninvested caregiver like a hired man. The Good Shepherd is willing to not only stand between the wolves and the sheep… The Good Shepherd is willing to stand between sheep and sheep, even when that leads him to a cross.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is willing to die for his sheep… is willing to die for us. And only a few weeks ago we told that story. We heard that Jesus did in fact die and it wasn’t the wolves that killed him… it was the sheep, it was us.

For us, that just doesn’t add up. A Good Shepherd who dies? Wouldn’t a good shepherd just make the problems go away? Wouldn’t a Good Shepherd keep the sheep away from the dangers?

Well, not if the sheep are the problem.

Jesus’ doesn’t make the problems go away. Jesus faces them head on. Jesus faces us head on.

Jesus faces our sheep problems right along side us. Jesus faces them by becoming a sheep along with us.

Jesus confronts our sheep problems, our trust issues with Shepherds, by becoming part of flocks.

Jesus the Good Sheep has come to lay down his life for the sheep, with the sheep. Jesus the Good Sheep comes to show us a new way to be sheep, a way of trust, forgiveness and grace. Jesus shows us to the other side.

Even in a dangerous world. Even if we are expecting the worst and treat Jesus like a bad shepherd, even if we turn into wolves and want him dead. Even if we have trust issues… Jesus comes to lay down his life for us. Jesus comes to give himself to us. Jesus comes to wash, to forgive us, to feed us, to go out into the dangerous world with us. Jesus comes not take the dangers away, but to face them with us. To show us to the other side. To show us that even when there is a cross, what follows is an empty tomb.

The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, but the Good Shepherd also rises again on the third day. And the Good Shepherd, the Good Sheep rises so that we will know what is it is like to rise too. The Good Shepherd knows his sheep because he has been through life and death with us, and we will know the Good Shepherd when we rise to new life.

Amen.

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The Disappointment of Holy Week

Mark 11:1-11

…Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

(Read the whole passage here).

Sermon

The Palms have been waved, and Hosannas sung. Today begins Holy Week, today we join with anticipation as the people of Jerusalem greet Jesus, riding into town like a King. This moment begins as sequence of events that pushthe people of Jerusalem and us from welcoming Jesus as a King to only days from now demanding death. During Holy Week, we re-live and rehearse this movement, this change in attitude towards Jesus, towards God. We rehearse this movement because as much as we would like to believe it belongs only to the people waving palm branches 2000 years ago, it is an experience that we know too well. It is expectation and hope met with disappointment and resentment.

The scene of the Triumphant entry is not easily identified by us for what it truly is. The idea of riding a donkey up a dusty road covered in palm branches, into an ancient city does not trigger memories or images for we modern people. Yet, for the people of Israel the symbol that Jesus represented was far more powerful than we imagine.

For us it would be better to imagine a Head of State stepping down the stairs of a private jet, being met by the welcome of cheering crowds and a band playing presidential music. Or we might be better to think of celebrities and stars walking down the red carpet to screaming fans and the flashes of media cameras. Or a motorcade with little flags on long black limos with motorcycles and big guys in suits with ear pieces and guns under their jackets.

Jesus is not just some guy on a donkey, and the reception he receives from the people is not just an impromptu greeting. Jesus has been headed towards this moment since he first rose out of the waters of the Jordan river and that voice thundered from heaven, “This is my son, my beloved.”

The people of Israel too, have been waiting for this moment. They have been anticipating the arrival of Messiah. They have been waiting for a King.

A King who was to hear the cries of the people.

A warlord who was to oust their Roman oppressors.

A spiritual leader who would re-establish the Kingdom of God on earth, with the Jerusalem temple at its centre.

And so when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a steed, just like the Kings of Israel would have according to the Old Testament, the people believe that their salvation is near. They have high expectations for what is to come. They shout Hosanna, which does not mean Praise the Lord, but means Save Now. They believe that Jesus is One who has finally come to meet their expectations, to deliver on their hope, to save them from their problems.

We know this hope, we know this expectation. We have all longed for the one who will save us. Who will save us  from our problems, from our worries, from our brokenness, from our suffering and pain.

And again, we know the disappointment that will come. We know what it is like to have promises broken. We know that un-met expectations lead to resentment.

Holy Week is a reminder of this experience.

Holy Week is a practice in disappointment.

As much as we long for a saviour to come on our terms. A king from the house of David or a prime minister leading our party of choice. A warlord who will oust our oppressors, or a lottery ticket, romantic partner, job opportunity that will finally make our problems go away. A spiritual leader who will establish God’s Kingdom, or a pastor or program that will bring all the people missing from pews back to church (along with their wallets).

Our expectations for salvation. For our version of salvation will only lead to disappointment, this week more than ever.

This week, more than ever do we try to hold God’s feet to the fire for not being God in our image… and by Friday, Save Now becomes Kill Now.

But the disappointment is necessary. Because none of this has been about what we want. Jesus has reminded us all along the way, that our expectations, that our version of the world is not what he come for.

Jesus has come to do God’s work. Jesus has come riding a donkey, a symbol of peace, rather than the war horse of a conqueror.

And peace is what Jesus delivers. It will not be on our terms. It will not come by Thursday or by Friday morning. It will not happen in the Garden when Judas comes with soldiers. It will not be in Pilate’s court.

No, peace does not come on our terms. Salvation is not according to our version.

Instead, in the place where we have finally given up on peace, On Golgotha, where no one can imagine salvation. On the cross, where there is only death. God will deliver us from evil, and the King will finally sit on his throne.

On Good Friday, salvation will finally be on God’s terms.

We just won’t know it until Sunday.

Amen. 

 

What do churches do with people who want to see Jesus?

John 12:20-33

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

Lent has been long and hard on us this year. Other years, this 5 week season of preparation for Holy Week is about opening us up to Jesus’ work in the world, helping us to see just where God is doing important work in our world. This year, Lent has not been so much about opening us to new understandings, but instead about peeling back our layers of self-interest and showing us how we get God wrong.

We began Lent as Jesus showed us that wilderness is not the scary place we imagine, but where God meets God’s people. We continued as Peter rebuked Jesus for talking about death, and we were shown how our fears get in the way of seeing God’s work. We then watched as Jesus overturned tables in the temple, accusing people of selling God and we were shown that our own tables have been turned right side up.

And last week, Jesus reminded us that the familiar verse of John 3:16 is not exactly the verse we hope to use to convert those around us, but instead comes in the context of a reminder of how we are condemned already… and it is in our dark world that God shines a light, even if that light stings a little.

As Lent concludes this week, and we prepare for Palm Sunday and Holy Week, the themes of this season continue. We are being shown the ways, that as people of faith, we miss the mark, despite our best efforts to be faithful.

Today, the disciple Philip is milling about the busy religious marketplace of Jerusalem. This scene actually comes after the triumphant entry, where Jesus rides into town on a Donkey.

Unlike Peter, James and John, Philip is not a leader among the disciples. He is more of a background kind of guy. Peter is the one who speaks up as the leader of the group, even if he is putting his foot in his mouth half of the time. James and John are vying to be Jesus’ second in command. The three got to go up the mountain with Jesus. But Philip is behind the scenes. While Jesus is teaching the masses, Philip is finding the boy with 5 small loves and 2 fish to feed the 5000. Today, Philip is away from the action, from the crowds surrounding Jesus.

And this is where some Greek Jews come to him. They are from far away. They have come to the Holy city for passover… perhaps this will be their only chance in a lifetime to be in Jerusalem for the festival. As foreigners, they are unfamiliar with the city, but they have probably heard about this rabbi and teacher who rode into town like a King.”Sir, we wish to see Jesus” they ask.

Philip, uncertain, goes to Andrew. Together, they leave the Greeks behind to go and talk to Jesus, who gives them a long speech.

If Philip were a church member today, he would be an usher or greeter. He would be one of those volunteers who like behind-the-scenes work. Peter, James and John might be up front preaching, reading the lessons, conducting the choir, or on church council. Philip would be in early to make coffee, he would probably have picked up some doughnuts for a snack after church. While others are up front leading or taking charge, Philip was the disciple looking for a place to eat or sleep, he is the one making sure that people are looked after and that everyone has what they need.

But when the Greeks come looking for Jesus, when that visitor walks in the door of the church, he knows how to pass out a bulletin or a cup of coffee… but he isn’t so sure about taking people to meet Jesus.

If I had to guess, it would seem that many church members are Philips. Faithful people diligently working behind the scenes, caring for each other.

And like Philip, the faithful and diligent behind-the-scenes disciple, we can be uncertain of what to do with people who ask us, “We wish to see Jesus.”

We know how care for each other, to make sure the bulletins gets passed out, the coffee made, the snow cleared, the potlucks served. We are great at signing new members up for mailboxes and getting them on committees. We know how to welcome new faces and familiar faces into our community, we know that the hospitality we extend has something to do with the God who welcomes us in the waters of baptism and saves a place for us at the table for bread and wine.

Yet, sometimes we are uncertain of how to respond to that very direct question asked by the foreigners, by the visitors among us. “We wish to see Jesus.”

Like Philip, we might go to Andrew instead. We might point a visitor asking for Jesus to the bathrooms, show them how to use a hymnal, we might ask the pastor to do the Jesus talk for us. Like Philip, believing in Jesus means serving and caring for those around us, making sure they are happy and comfortable and welcome. But also like Philip, talking about Jesus makes us uncertain, uncomfortable even.

And sometimes Christians and church people forget why people walk through church doors in the first place. We forget why we keep coming back again and again. We forget that the volunteer roles we sign up for, the jobs we agree to do, the relationships that become so important to us, the community we form and become a part of are not the things that make us the church. They are not the most important reasons we show up here on Sundays, or why a visitor would darken our doors.

These things are BECAUSE of the most important reason why anyone would show up in church.

God.

When the always helpful Philip goes to Andrew, and the two go to Jesus not sure what to do with these foreigners…

The Greeks are looking for the King who rode into Jerusalem. And visitors who come into a church may have many reasons that draw them in. And in the midst of being a busy community, we may forget the core reason of why we are here.

Yet, Jesus takes their question and steers it in a new direction.

Jesus says, “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

God is busy drawing all people. All nations. All kinds, young and old, new and familiar, those leading up front and those behind the scenes… God is drawing all of us to the Christ who is lifted up on the cross. God is the ultimate reason that we are all here regular or visitor, seeking and searching or committed and devoted.

God is gathering us together, and God who is we are ultimately looking for when we show up at church. God is who makes the church the church. God is who finds us, even as we are uncertain at times with what to do with that question, “We wish to see Jesus”

Today, Philip, even though he is not sure how to Answer the Greeks, is still trying to be a faithful disciple and follower of Jesus.

And Jesus recognizes that too.

Jesus knows that our attempts to be faithful are often what get us in the most trouble. And still, God is here among us. God is working with our failing faithfulness and God is drawing us all to the cross. God is drawing us all to place where humanity’s attempts to be faithful ended with the execution of God in flesh.

And yet at the cross and again at the empty tomb, God will show us that it is God’s faithfulness does not fail. That God’s faithfulness is why we are here. And that God’s faithfulness will be on full display when Jesus is lifted up, drawing us all to God’s love.

Amen.

The Day After Jesus Cleared the Temple – The reality of church decline

John 2:13-22

He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (Read the whole passage here). 

Jesus has come a long way from the wilderness to here. We began Lent as Jesus went for 40 days in wilderness to do what God has always done… to search for God’s people in the desert. But this time we weren’t there. So Jesus returned to civilization to begin his preaching and teaching. Last week, Jesus began preparing his disciples for what was to come – death and resurrection. And Peter would have none of it. Peter’s fears got in the way of seeing what God was up to.

Today, Jesus strikes out for a place very opposite of the wilderness. Jesus heads straight to the heart of Jerusalem society – the temple, God’s dwelling place, God’s house. The temple was a bustling place of business. There were pilgrims coming and going from all over Jerusalem. Pharisees debating religious law. Priests performing sacrifices. And lots of people selling things. Selling animals for sacrifice. Kosher food and clothes. Selling whatever a religious person might need in order to access the temple appropriately.

For most Jews the temple was the experience of a lifetime. It was something that took time and money, and was not easily afforded. The temple was a place for rich folks to come and go from, for those in the middle to visit occasionally, and for those on the bottom, the poor had no hope of ever getting the chance to make it into the temple.

But it had not always been so. All the rules about sacrifice and ritual that the temple was based on were not about keeping people out when they were first given to the people of Israel. Instead, they were meant as means to talk about God in a communal and shared way. They were meant to facilitate the communal practices of worship and prayer. They were meant to make it easier for everyone to access God’s love and God’s forgiveness of sins. As people tried harder and harder to follow the letter of the law, to be faithful Jews, they created more and more barriers to God, rather than making access easier.

By the time Jesus comes to the temple, the cost and process for even getting into the temple, an enormous building surrounded by huge imposing walls meant to protect the holy of holies, was so cumbersome that only the rich and privileged had real ease of access.

It is not surprising that Jesus seems to lose his cool. Jesus running around with a whip, overturning tables and yelling is not the Jesus we are used to. Jesus declares, “Stop making my father’s house a marketplace”. These words are more profound than we imagine. In greek ,the word for household is oikos and from that comes the word oikonomos or in english: economy. Jesus’s words could be heard this way:

Stop making my father’s economy a marketplace

What had begun as a means for the people of Israel to access God, was now a money making machine. It was a place for entrepreneurship, for making money. And the exclusive product being sold was God.

So now… this is usually the point in the sermon where we would look at the parallels between story and us. And we don’t have to look very far in Christendom to see where God is being bought and sold. We can look to the prosperity preachers on Sunday morning TV, to the Christian book stores that promise to make our spiritual life grow, or places like FOX news who are using quasi-Christian beliefs to boost ratings.

But if we really look around ourselves here, or as Lutherans in Canada and the US, or as mainline Christians over all… I think we can safely say that Jesus wouldn’t have much cause to show up with a whip to overturn our tables.

If we are selling God here… we are not doing it very well.

We look a lot more like the day after Jesus has come through and upset the order of things. Now let’s not kid ourselves, the Jerusalem temple was certainly back to business as usual the day after Jesus overturned those tables. But the Jerusalem temple which had been built and rebuilt over the course of a 1000 years, would be destroyed for good within 40 years by the very same Romans that the Jews would soon be demanding to kill Jesus.

And after the Romans razed the temple for the last time, the Jewish people had to completely change the way they did religion.

Like the Jews after the destruction of the temple, our marketplace moment has come and gone. We were once the only show in town. We were once the centres of communities all over. Our religious leaders could phone prime ministers directly. Governments have mandated holidays on our holy-days. Public schools forced children to pray our prayers and read our holy books. On Sundays everything was closed and people couldn’t do anything but come to us. Lutherans, Anglicans and Catholics, we were planting churches and starting congregations left and right 40, 50, 60 years ago. We were the ones who controlled access to God.

In order to have people walk in our doors, all we had to do was build a building and raise the money to call a pastor. And Sunday Schools were bursting, confirmation classes full, choirs robust, Sunday worship was bustling.

Yet, like the people of the Jerusalem temple we began to lose sight of what our purpose was. In Jerusalem, providing access to God’s love and forgiveness was transformed into making the right sacrifices, being ritually clean and worshipping only in God’s holy temple. Forgiveness became a way to sell sacrificial animals, to earn money for maintaining the temple, to bring people from all over to Jerusalem.

For us, providing a place for the Body of Christ to hear the word and receive the sacraments has been transformed into maintaining structures and budgets. Sermons and worship have become selling features to pay for buildings and to fill offering plates. We have flipped the functions of our building and budgets with gathering for word and sacrament. Instead of buildings and budgets being tools that allow our faith communities to gather to hear God’s word, to be baptized and receive communion;  attractive, flashy worship becomes a tool we use to keep our budgets viable and buildings open.

But somewhere along in the past few years, Jesus showed up and declared,

Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

And like the temple authorities who protest, we have lost sight of what our buildings and budgets are for in the first place.

Yet, Jesus has a curious answer for us.

“Destroy this temple and in three days, I will raise it up”

Jesus is not talking about the physical structure. Jesus is not going to be found in the walls here. Jesus is not hiding in our wallets waiting to be put into offering plates.

Jesus is reminding us who builds this church in the first place. Jesus reminds us whose faithfulness is building the Body of Christ.

Hint: it is not our faithfulness.

God is the one who is providing the means for forgiveness. God is the one who comes to us in word and sacrament. God’s faithfulness is the purpose of our gathering together, week after week. Buildings, temple walls, balanced budgets, ritually purified coins, programs that bring the people in, animal sacrifices… these are not the things that show us where God is.

God is in the person, the flesh of Jesus who comes and meets us in our misguided attempts to be faithful.

God is the One we meet in the Word, in the words of faith proclaimed here, over and over. Words like forgiven, mercy, grace. Like Gospel, baptism, communion. Like peace, love and welcome.

God is the One that we feel and encounter in water, bread and wine. Who we touch as we embrace our brothers and sisters in faith. Who we hear with words of eternal life, with words just for us.

Jesus is reminding that God can raise up the body of Christ without bricks or mortar, without budgets and programs. God can build churches just with people, with a book, with bread and a cup. None of us can do that, no matter how strong our faith. 

As faithful as we try to be by building holy places for people to meet God, as upside down as get things as we try to sell God to pay for our holy buildings, Jesus is coming out of the wilderness to meet us right in the heart of our marketplaces. Jesus is coming right to the middle of our bustling temples.

And Jesus, for a a while now, has been relieving us of the burdens of buildings and budgets. Jesus has been overturning our tables and whipping us back into shape. And it is Jesus that shows us that God’s temple, God’s church is not buildings and budgets, but people, the Body of Christ.

Jesus shows us that our overturned tables have not been turned upside down, but instead Jesus has turned them and us…

Right side up.

The Wilderness is Not what We Think

Mark 1:9-15

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. (Read the whole passage here.)

Sermon

We have come a long way from the mountain of Transfiguration. Last week, Jesus stood on the mountain with Peter, James and John, and was changed into dazzling white. Moses and Elijah showed up and God spoke to all gathered there. Yet, by Wednesday, we had come down from that mountain, and we were faced with our own sin, our brokenness and our mortality on Ash Wednesday. And as we begin Lent, Jesus is tossed into the wilderness. 

This pattern of Transfiguration to Ashes to Wilderness is one that we repeat each year as we move from the season after Epiphany into Lent. On the first Sunday of Lent of each year we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, which sets the tone for our Lenten journey. The story of Jesus’ temptation represents both the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, but also is the first step of Jesus’ path to the cross.

Yet, in the year of the Gospel of Mark, the story seems to lack key elements. In fact, the temptation part of the story is obscured by two stories that we have already heard in the past few weeks. In January, we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism and we heard the story of Jesus entering Galilee to preach his first sermon, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you.”

The temptation part of the story is told in only 5 words by Mark, “He was tempted by Satan.”

And that is it.

No stones to bread. No power over all the kingdoms of the earth. No jumping off the temple.

In fact, Jesus is in the wilderness for 40 days, tempted by Satan, but also hanging out with the wild beasts and being waited on by Angels. Where is the fasting and praying? Where is the stoic resolve? Where is our example of resisting temptation? Mark’s version sounds almost like a spa vacation.

However, Mark remembers something that we have largely forgotten over time. The wilderness is not the place of trial and tribulation that we imagine. In fact, before Jesus arrived on the scene, the wilderness was actually the place where God met God’s people. God sent Abraham into the wilderness with the promise of land and descendants. Moses and the Israelites wandered the wilderness for 40 years, while God provided water from the gushing rock, and manna and quail to eat. Elijah was sent out as young man to save the people of Israel, and along the way God provided water at the stream and food delivered by wild ravens.

While the wilderness was a place fraught with danger, it was the place where God’s people met their God. God always showed up in the wilderness, and God’s people were not left to suffer alone.

When we imagine wilderness, we don’t usually think of it in these terms. We think of wilderness as the times and places, the experiences in our lives when God seemed absent. The times of illness or suffering, the times of workplace strife or family conflict. The times of addiction and doubt, of grief and depression. And yet, wilderness is no such thing. Wilderness is where God meets God’s people, while all these other things are simply part of the experiences of human life. They are part of the baggage we carry everyday.

Wilderness, as we hear about it in Mark’s gospel today, is the place where we go to leave our baggage, our troubles behind. Wilderness is where we are stripped of our burdens and our comforts, where day-to-day living, joys and sorrows, are left behind. Wilderness is where God takes us when we need to be renewed and refreshed, where we can let go and be cared for by God.

When the spirit tosses Jesus into the wilderness, it is not really about temptation like we usually hear with this story. In fact, the wilderness is the place where God goes to meet God’s people. And as Jesus waits in the wilderness with Satan, the wild beasts and the angels, there is something, or someone one curiously missing.

Human beings.

Jesus goes out to the wilderness, God goes out to the wilderness, just as God has always done and God waits. God waits for God’s people, and we don’t come. It is just the wild beasts and angels. And if there is any temptation on Satan’s part, perhaps it is tempting God to keep waiting and waiting for us. And just has God has always been, God waits for us in the wilderness. God waits the obligatory 40 days, long enough to be sure we aren’t coming.

And when God’s people don’t show up, Jesus does something new. Jesus breaks the pattern, God recognizes that waiting for us to come out to the wilderness isn’t working. We just can’t drop our baggage, we just can’t let go of life in order to find God.

And so Jesus gets up and leaves Satan, the wild beasts and the angels behind. Jesus goes to Galilee, goes to civilization, goes to where the people are. Goes to the place where they are living, where they are suffering, where their baggage is keeping them in place. God finds the people stuck in lives, stuck in their details and burdens, stuck with their obligations, their work, their family, their relationships. God comes to the place where human life is happening. God goes to where the people are and declares,

“The Kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the Good News.”

The wilderness is where God meets God’s people, and when the people won’t come to the wilderness, God brings the wilderness to us.

This is what our Lenten journey is about. God coming to us, bringing the wilderness to us. God’s coming and stripping us of our burdens, of our obligations, of our suffering and shame, of our self-centred focus. And God comes to meet us in whatever dark places we are in, whatever dusty, ashy places we exist in.

Jesus comes into our lives and delivers an ashy Lenten promise. 

Jesus promises that wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever we do, the Kingdom of God’s love is near to us, and that God’s enduring love will find us as we head toward death and resurrection. Towards crosses and empty tombs. From the first step of Lent, all the way to Easter.

Amen.

Jesus has not come to make us happy

Mark 1:29-39

…When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” … (Read the whole passage here).

Sermon

For the past 3 weeks, we have been setting the stage with Mark’s gospel. Setting the stage for what starts next week. Next week Jesus will go up the mountain of Transfiguration, with Peter, James and John. He will change before their eyes into dazzling white and God will instruct the disciples to listen to him. And then Jesus will go down into the valley of Lent, down into the wilderness of temptation, down the road to Jerusalem and his journey won’t end until he heads up that second mountain, the mountain of Golgotha, the mountain that ends in a cross.

But today we are still laying the ground work. Jesus has been preaching in synagogues, exorcizing demons and today we glimpse Jesus’ healing ministry. Jesus leaves the synagogue of Capernaum and goes to the house of Simon Peter and Andrew. There Simon’s month-in-law is sick and in a bed. Jesus takes pity on the poor woman and heals her… and in an almost comical moment, she gets up and starts serving her guests.

And then everything gets crazy. The whole town hears that Jesus the healer is there, and they all come clamouring for healing. Everyone with a cough or cold, with a limp or back pain, with short sightedness or epileptic seizures, they are all hoping to have their illnesses cured.

Jesus starts the work of helping the needy masses, and yet we get the sense that this is not what Jesus is interested in. He isn’t playing doctor happily, and by early morning, he sneaks away to get some quiet and space. Jesus must have been wondering where all these people were when he was preaching in the synagogue.

And this is the dilemma that Jesus faces all the way through Mark’s gospel, the problem that Jesus faces all the way to the cross. When Jesus is healing people and exorcizing demons, the crowds flock to see him. But when he preaches the Kingdom of God coming near, people get upset. The authorities feel threatened. When Jesus brings his message to the people, the people get uncomfortable and begin to turn on him. They like it when they are getting something from Jesus, but when Jesus proclaims and declares change and transformation on their end, they back away and get upset. It is all well and good to be healed of a chronic condition, but suggest that the way the world works might change and people get antsy.

As Jesus spends the night healing in frustration, we can see a problem that still exists among people of faith today. God is easy to for us to seek out when we need something. When we need help, healing, comfort, God seems like an easy ask. When are in trouble, or have problems for which there seems to be no easy solution, we turn to God with relative ease.

As people of faith, it is all too easy for the ways we experience God to become about us. God becomes something we expect to be doing something for us. When life throws us those curve balls we turn to God to heal our hurts and pains, to solve our broken relationships and strained families. But even in our day to day, week to week, Sunday to Sunday relationship with God we can start to expect God to be doing something for us. We like to experience God on our terms. As people in the pews our terms might include the right music, entertaining sermons, 60 minute services, comforting bible readings and prayers, cushy seats. As pastors we like to deliver God on our terms, with liturgies planned to our liking, in bible texts that make the points we like to make, in prayers and hymns chosen to fit our themes.

When we don’t stop to think about it, it is easy to fall into the pattern of expecting that God is all about satisfying us, that we come to God waiting to be filled up, entertained, healed, set right and made comfortable.

But that is not what Jesus has come to do. Even still, as he spends all night attending to the masses as they demand to be healed, Jesus can only take so much. Jesus declares,

Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.

That is what I came out to do.

Not to spend his time healing and exorcizing demons. But preaching the message.

Jesus has come to preach the message that Kingdom of God has come near, and that is not what the people are clamouring for. The people want their problems solved, they want comfort and healing, the want to be free from demons and evil spirits, they want things to go back to normal, things to be easy, things to be better. And what is the matter with Jesus? Why couldn’t he just stay a couple extra days, or a week and heal everyone? Is that to much to ask?

The issue that we discover today is this convergence of what the people want and what Jesus has come to do. The people want their symptoms treated, and Jesus wants to address the root of the problem.

It is far too easy for us to make God and faith and church about us. It is easy for us to come to God clamouring for healing and comfort, clamouring for God to approve of us and our ways of being in the world.

And that is not to say that Jesus is not the great healer, or that God doesn’t love us deeply just as we are. But God has bigger plans for us than comfortable pews and our favourite music. Jesus does so much more than make our fevers go away, or relieve us of our back pain.

Jesus has a message to preach. “The Kingdom of God has come near.”

And Jesus’ message cuts right to root of our issues. Jesus has come to deal with the source of our hurts and pains, of our griefs and sorrows. Jesus has come to address the reasons we put ourselves first, others second and God last.

Jesus has come to deal with sin and death. To deal with our sin, with our death. Jesus came come to meet sin and death by coming near. By coming near and joining with us in our sin, by taking on our death. And Jesus comes near to show us that sin and death are not the end. We are not here to be on palliative care, to only be comforted and relieved of our pain. Because that is what relieving us of our hurts and pains is. Because that is what comfortable faith is. Palliative care.

But Jesus has come to do the hard work of saving us. Saving us from ourselves, our self-centred, self-interested, deathly ways. And that is what Jesus has come to do.

That is what Jesus is doing.

Saving us from ourselves.

Amen.

What have you to do with us Jesus?

Mark 1:21-28

… a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”… (Read the whole passage here.)

Sermon

Today, we pick up in Mark’s gospel where we left off last week. Jesus has preached his first sermon, “The Kingdom of God has come near” and called Simon and Andrew, James and John to be disciples.

Now the group of them head to Capernaum, which becomes the home-base for Jesus’ ministry. It is the Sabbath, the day of worship, and they go to the synagogue. Jesus begins teaching, as was the right of any circumcised Jewish man. Usually, it was local scribes or rabbis who preached but sometimes travelling preachers like Jesus would come by to teach.

As Jesus begins, the congregation notices something different. Jesus is not teaching like the scribes. The scribes who were like walking encyclopedias of religious knowledge. The scribes were experts in the law, in the teachings and interpretations of the Jewish faith. The scribes didn’t innovate or interpret, they simply memorized what had been interpreted and written down by rabbis and other authorities long ago. New teaching was dangerous and probably heretical. It was important to stick to what they knew to be tried and true.

Yet, Jesus was preaching something new. Something different. Jesus was preaching from his own authority. Preaching like he had some special access to Moses, Elijah and the other prophets. Like he had special access to God.

While most people weren’t sure what to make of this Jesus guy, who he was or where his authority came from, one person did. Or rather an unclean spirit did. While regular humans don’t see who Jesus really is, the supernatural unclean spirit knows. And the spirit knows that Jesus is a threat to the established order. The spirit knows that Jesus has come to turn things upside down. The spirit knows the world that he and the people around him are stuck in is the past. The comfortable systems, traditions and ways of being that they are used to are over. Jesus is going wreck things.

The spirit is the one who speaks.

What have you to do with us? I know who you are!

The man with a spirit might just be a man with an unclean spirit. But for Mark the man might also represent the ways in which that community, that world, was possessed by tradition. Stuck in past. Unable to introduce any change that threatens the status quo.

Sound familiar?

Churches these days often struggle with this issue. We often long for things to be as they once were. We long to have Sunday schools with 100 kids every Sunday, and services that are standing room only. We long for offering plates to beoverflowing, we hope for more baptisms than funerals. We long for the past, or at least the way we remember things to be.

As a faith community or as individuals we can be possessed by our past. We can fear change, block anything new, strive to keep things the same. As the old joke goes,

How many Lutherans does it take to change a lightbulb?

Change!??! That lightbulb was good enough for my grandfather, so it is good enough for us.

When the unclean spirit names the threat that Jesus is not only to the good deal that the spirit has possessing some poor man, but also the threat that Jesus represents the whole world of the people of Capernaum and beyond, Jesus will have none of it.

Be silent and come out of him!

Jesus will not be deterred by the anxiety and fears, or the unwillingness of the spirit or people to let go. Jesus is preaching a new world, Jesus is calling the people around him into the future, into a new way of living. Jesus’ new teaching is astonishing, radical, unheard of. And it comes from a place that people don’t understand, but that the unclean spirit gets. The unclean spirit knows that the old ways, that the established approved way of doing things is safe, is comfortable, it is known. The spirit knows that people would so often rather be possessed by trying to maintain the past than face the unknown future.

Be Jesus knows that God is calling us into something new and unknown. And Jesus knows that we need to be exorcized of our fears and worries if we are going to see God’s future. Because we are often possessed by maintaining our past, by trying to recreate what we once were. We hold onto the traditions, systems, and ways to doing things that were good for our grandparents and so, we believe, are good enough for us.

Now don’t hear Jesus wrongly. Jesus is not saying that the past is wrong or bad. Jesus is not saying that God wasn’t active in the past, or that God wasn’t working through the ways we used to do things. Often when churches and individuals face change, letting go of what we once were is so hard because it feels like we are dishonouring our forebears. It feels like we are saying our parents and grandparents were wrong, that they weren’t being faithful.

That is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus knows that God has been present among the people, among us the whole time. Jesus isn’t exorcizing us of our past. Jesus is exorcizing us of our holding on, of our resistance to change, of our need for safety and comfort. Of our fears and anxieties.

It is not the past that keeps us from seeing God’s future, it is our efforts to keep things the same, to recreate what once was, what we once were.  And Jesus’s new teaching is really about showing us that new world. Showing us God’s future. Showing that God is coming to, meeting us in the future. God knows we cannot go backwards.

And that is what is so radical to the people in the synagogue in capernaum, so radical for us today. God is not a God of the past, God is not about keeping things, keeping us the same. God is about resurrection, about turning death and forces that hold us back, into new and abundant life.

Let us pray,

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.