Tag Archives: wilderness

Lenten Wilderness and the moving target of truth

John 18:12-27

19 Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. 20 Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” 22 When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” 23 Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” (Read the whole passage)

We are coming to the half way point of our Lenten pilgrimage. We entered into the wilderness two weeks ago, and we will have two more weeks to go after this. But this year, as we have been using the Narrative Lectionary and the Gospel of John, we have been hearing different stories than the usual ones. We began in the wilderness of grief and loss with the story of Lazarus. We then jumped forward to a moment familiar to us in Holy Week, Jesus washing the disciples feet. This week, we hear a story of Peter and Jesus again… yet not as they interact with one another, but as they are contrasted.

As we continue our wilderness journey today, we are thrown forward again. This time we hear a story from Good Friday, a nighttime story of the chaos between Maundy Thursday and the cross. And it can be an odd moment for us to consider in the middle of Lent. Yes, we know that Holy Week and passion are place that we are eventually headed, but the Lenten wilderness is still very much before us. And Lent isn’t quite the intense chaos of Good Friday. Instead, it is slower, quieter, toned back place. And so again, we hear this story with new, Lenten ears.

After Jesus is arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, only a few hours after washing the feet of the disciples and sharing in the Last Supper, he is brought to the high priest Annas. While Jesus is questioned in the court of the high priest, Peter is outside in the courtyard with the common folk around the fire. And each is questioned, Peter and Jesus, about their identity and relationship to the message that they have been proclaiming together for three years.

As Jesus responds, he does so grounded and firm in the things that he has been preaching and teaching. He asks for the wrong that he is accused of to be pointed out to him. But as he is struck by a solider, it becomes clear that he is in the middle of a game of power. A game where truth is a moving target, a game of politics and manipulation, a game of self-interest and control.

The temple authorities are not expecting Jesus to stand firm. They are expecting Peter instead. Peter plays the game. They know that when most people are faced with he power of the temple, they will recant and deny their heresy… even if they aren’t heretics.

The high priests want Jesus gone, but they also want to take away the power of his message. They don’t want a martyr, they want a disgraced prophet who took everything he said back before he was put to death. They want Jesus to grovel and to admit that he was just seeking power too.

And so, Jesus’ trial is just a game, a sham. Jesus is doomed from the beginning because the temple authorities don’t care about the truth… or at least the truth isn’t their main concern until Jesus starts speaking it.

They want Jesus to do what Peter does. When faced with accusations of being one of Jesus’ followers, Peter denies even knowing the teacher, master and friend that he has been following. He chooses to save his own skin, rather than stand for what he believes.

But instead, Jesus doesn’t play the game.

We know this game well. It is the game that plays out on the news, in parliamentary chambers or capitol hill, in board rooms of fortune 500 companies and on twitter. But is also played in PTA meetings, church committees, between neighbours and in families.

It is the game where truth and honesty are moving targets and information is controlled, but information is power. Truth is dolled out in small bits by those on the top, because when it comes out too much at a time it often spells the end of power, it embarrasses and shames.

But here is the most insidious thing about this game of the moving target of truth that we play. Often, we don’t even realize it. Sure there are some out there who know the extent of their manipulations, and who are only seeking power. But so often we aren’t even aware of the game. We are instead trying to the right thing, we are attempting to be faithful, yet as we seek to do the right thing at all costs, we end up doing the wrong thing.

And it might be only in this Lenten wilderness that we are in that the truth our game playing is finally revealed.

A the church gathers together week after week for worship, we begin by confessing our sins. It is a moment in community that sets us apart from much of the world. As we confess, we speak truths about ourselves that the game of power and the moving target of truth would never allow. We admit that we have done wrong, that we have failed to do right and that the truth is not in us. Our confession is very much a lenten wilderness moment, a moment when the truth is finally revealed about us.

If we listen closely to Jesus’ words today, we notice that he too gives a confession. But his is different than ours. Jesus says:

I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret.

If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong.

Jesus speaks things that sound almost opposite to our confession of sin. Jesus confesses the truth.

As Jesus is in the middle of this stormy game of human sin and the moving target of truth, does something that neither Peter nor the rest of us can do.

He stakes a claim and tethers himself to the ground. Instead of the truth being a moving target, Jesus roots it in place.

And all of a sudden the game that is being played looses some of its power. The temple authorities cannot undermine Jesus. They cannot destroy his credibility, they cannot brush his teaching under the carpet.

Jesus is standing firm in his message.

In his message of the Kingdom of God coming near.

In his message of God’s love for creation, for humanity, for us.

Even at the height of the game… Jesus is still preaching about God’s mercy and forgiveness by demanding this errors be revealed.

It is a similar thing Jesus does here week after week. As we all blow in from the stormy chaotic world, where the game of power and the moving target of truth is constantly being played, the very first thing that Jesus does for us is root us. Stake us to the ground in confession.

We confess our sins, we admit our faults and failings. And the game is banished from us for a least a moment.

And then along with our confession, comes absolution. The promise of God’s mercy and forgiveness given to us. Mercy that holds us in place. That lets us breathe and live and let go.

It might feel uncomfortable for us to be so honest. Every week, we might feel like we are wandering into the lenten wilderness when we confess our sin and the games of power are left at the door. But God’s forgiveness is what we need and what we are given.

Jesus roots us in God’s love and all of a sudden the game of the moving target of truth doesn’t matter anymore. It doesn’t matters because human power means nothing next to God’s love.

The truth that Jesus proclaims, that Jesus confesses changes everything, changes us. And the vulnerable, honest, revealing wilderness that we have entered into becomes a place where God is also revealed to us.

The truth is proclaimed today, but it won’t be until Good Friday and the empty tomb that the temple authorities, that the mobs and crowds, that Peter and the fearful disciples will discover that it isn’t just Jesus teaching that cannot be undone. And with that truth revealed, Jesus will deal the other issue of his trial – his condemnation to death

Soon God will show us that life itself cannot be undone, and that the power of death means nothing next to God’s love and new life promise to us.

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Into the Lenten Wilderness

John 11:1-45

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”(Read the whole passage)

Last week we witnessed a Transfiguration moment, the Blind man having his sight restored. It was like the revelation on the mountaintop, eyes were opened to see the world, and see God, in a new way.

But by Wednesday, the euphoria of transfiguration was over. And we descended to the ashes, to the signs of decay and death around us, the evidence that sin and suffering still hold much sway in our world.

And now we begin Lent.

Lent always begins with wilderness. Usually we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation. After Jesus’ baptism, the spirit takes Jesus into the wilderness in order to be tempted. This begins Jesus’ ministry in Matthew, Mark and Luke. But as we explore John this year, through the narrative lectionary, we hear a story that normally comes at the end of Lent, a story that foreshadows Holy Week, a story of death and resurrection.

But with all of Lent still laying before us, there is still a long way until we are ready for Holy Week. We are just entering the wilderness.

So we hear this familiar story of Lazarus with different ears.

The wilderness experiences throughout this story are varied and different, yet they are all about the experience of being vulnerable and exposed. The wilderness is a place where safety and comfort is taken away, it is a place of wandering, a place of isolation.

The wilderness begins with news of Lazarus illness. He is in a wilderness that we all know, the wilderness of suffering. Suffering which leads to death. We have all seen this story before, whether it is a friend or family member. A life threatening illness strikes, yet there is hope for a cure. But the treatments don’t work, the prayers seem to be unheard and death is inevitable. A common wilderness experience.

Mary and Martha are helpless care givers for their brother, and his death brings them into a wilderness of grief. Martha’s a frantic and searching grief, Mary’s an overwhelming and debilitating grief.

Martha meets Jesus on road, she wants answers, she wants to point the finger, she is lashing out. Her grief is a wild and untamed wilderness experience, a roller coaster of emotion.

Mary also meets Jesus on the road, but her grief is different. She collapses at Jesus feet. She is crushed and falling, falling deeper and deeper into despair.

The disciples are also in a wilderness of sorts… they are lost and confused about Jesus’ actions. They have seen Jesus heal and care for strangers, yet here he is delaying to care for a beloved friend.

And finally Jesus, just like the stories of his temptation, is also in the wilderness. This time the temptation is again there, the temptation to rush in and save the day, to use his power to avoid all the pain and suffering of his friends and disciples.

As we enter in Lent, this year bouncing from vignette to vignette, hearing these examples of different wilderness journeys, we can recognize ourselves. We have been there too, we have all been tossed out into the wilderness in just the same ways.

We have been in the wilderness of grief and loss. We have been there in the midst of broken relationships, in the midst of addiction, in the midst of job loss or difficult times making ends meet. We have been through wildernesses of illness and disease.

And we all know that our world and society creates wildernesses of suffering and isolation because of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, and whatever other arbitrary divisions and categories for people we create.

And it isn’t just individuals who wander in the wilderness.

This week an entire nation is once again wandering in a wilderness of gun violence, after 17 people were killed in a Florida high school.

And of course, many churches find themselves in wildernesses of decline, wondering about the future, wondering how to keep on with fewer resources and few people to carry the load.

With all these wilderness experiences around us, it may seems strange to practice one as the church… to create one that begins Ash Wednesday and ends on Good Friday.

Yet, we rehearse this Lenten wilderness journey year after year because avoiding the realities of life will not help… we can only pretend everything is okay for so long.

Rather, as the body of Christ, we practice going through the wildness year after year so that we learn how to navigate them when we encounter them in life. We practice so that we know how to make it through. We practice so that we can see the other side…

But even then, there is a deeper message that the Lenten wilderness gives us…

In the wilderness, God finds and gathers us.

As Jesus waits to go to his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus, he does so knowing that his purpose is not to heal people and make them feel better. Jesus has come to announcing the Kingdom of God coming near… and that rushing to make any suffering just go away does not really deal with the true issues of our world.

And so when Jesus finally goes to Bethany, he brings his confused disciples with him. He brings them so that they see that aren’t just wandering around with a gifted healer. Jesus has called them to follow a deeper purpose… to take up their crosses and find new life.

On the way, Jesus stops to collect Martha. He promises her even in her frantic grief that he is the resurrection and the life.

And then he collects Mary, and with her, he simply weeps, he comes along side her in her despair to let her know that she is not alone.

And finally, he comes to Lazarus. Lazarus who has entered into the last wilderness waiting for us all… the wilderness of death.

And here standing in front of the tomb, is not the end of wilderness, not the escape. But rather the farthest out, most vulnerable, most isolating moment of any wilderness journey.

Jesus has gathered Mary, Martha, Lazarus and his disciples as the moment when all hope is lost, when nothing makes sense, when safety, security and healing cannot be imagine.

Surely, the disciples couldn’t have been more confused than when Jesus commands the stone to be rolled away.

Surely, Mary couldn’t have been born the thought of seeing the body of her dead brother once again.

Surely, Martha couldn’t be expected to believe that Jesus was the resurrection and the life in this moment.

Surely, Lazarus couldn’t have been anything but dead, since it had been four days.

Surely, Jesus couldn’t have waited this long to heal Lazarus.

“Lazarus, come out!” Jesus commands.

Who but Jesus could know that the wilderness leads to this place?

It is not the escape or exit from a wilderness journey. Rather, this moment, this Lenten moment at the tomb is the revelation that all the things we think give us safety and security, the things that may protect us and prevent us harm are all but illusory.

We practice Lent year after year because the wilderness is life. It is where we always are.

And it is where Jesus gathers us up. Lost and alone and vulnerable to a world of sin and suffering, Jesus comes and gathers us up.

Jesus comes and gathers up and brings us to the cross and to the grave, to the very places where sin, suffering and death seem to have won and Jesus declares their power over. Jesus declares that the Kingdom of God has come near to us, here and now.

Because in the face of confusion, suffering, grief and death, in the face of human sin, brokenness, failures and faults, in the face of more mass shootings and the inexorable power of decline…. what else is there but to be gathered around Word, Water, Bread and Wine.

When there is nothing else for us,

Jesus gathers us around Wilderness words like, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Jesus gathers us around water that washes our dead bodies, heals us of our suffering, and unbinds from our sin.

Jesus gathers us around a table of bread and wine, a table that sits next to an empty tomb and has room for all.

Jesus gathers in the wilderness because the wilderness is where we are, and so the wilderness is where God will give live to the world.

The wilderness is where God gathers us around new life.

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.