First Sunday in Lent
February 26, 2012
If you want to be a pastor, the first step is to declare your intention to your synod and apply for ‘candidacy.’ Anyone can go to seminary and study what pastors study, but getting to be a pastor is a longer process. You have to be accepted in your intention at every step along the way, so that when you get to the end, you and the people who have the power to ordain you are all convinced that your call to ministry is valid and that you are qualified to serve God’s people with the authority of the Church.
The first person you meet comes to hear your call story. He asks you all kinds of questions. How long have you wanted to do this? What is your background in life: college, career, training? What ministry experience have you already had: peace corps, young adults in mission overseas, camp counselor, Sunday or Bible study leader? What obstacles will make his difficult: spouse, kids, money, loan debt? By the time you get to seminary, you are pretty practiced at telling the story in a paragraph or maybe two.
This short piece of Mark’s Gospel story sounds a little like Jesus’ call story. He was baptized in the Jordan and saw the heavens torn open and heard God call him Beloved. Then comes the complication: he doesn’t just get to go out and preach and teach, he is confronted with everything in the universe that would keep him from realizing his ‘belovedness.’ In my Bible study days we used to say that when you make a plan to bring yourself closer to God or to be more focused on what God wills for you, the Devil is sure to appear to pull you off-track. After all, our leader said, if the Devil pulls you away at the beginning, you are no threat to his kingdom.
I’m not sure I would still use the same vocabulary, but it know that the universe, or something with real power seems to oppose every step we make to change for the good. It’s usually when we decide to quit smoking or go on a healthier eating plan or the gym that circumstances collide to make everything much harder. You are tested in your commitment, and often, it’s true that you just can’t fight it. You just slide back into your old behavior. The same thing is true of our spiritual lives: that plan to pray every morning? Well, how many days do you suddenly have sleepless nights and oversleep in the morning before you either give it up as a failure or make it through to something you really do as often as you planned. Those random acts of kindness, one day, two or three before you forget?
Matthew and Luke go into much more detail about Jesus’ temptations, but Mark in his urgent and abbreviated style tells us that he was in the wild places for 40 days of temptation and that he was with the wild beasts and that angels waited on him.
We are left to our own imagination about what those temptations are and what his dialogue with Satan might be. It was the wild beasts that caught my attention. Maybe because I am familiar with every ‘wild beast’ that can get in the way of following the Christian life. In every call story, in every initiation story, there is an enormous test which must be survived before the candidate can step into his or her new role.
Psalm 66:10 For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried.
We have those expressions: your mettle is tested, you go through the refiner’s fire. Testing is a time of refining, of getting rid of what isn’t necessary, so that the purity and usefulness of what you need is apparent. In many ways, each of us comes here with a story in which our faith and our faithfulness is tested by Satan and the wild beasts, or whatever you call it. Those are the days when your faith is tested to the limit and you aren’t always so sure that your faith, or you will survive intact. What was it for you? That occasion when you wanted God to answer for the wild beasts that invaded your world? What were those beasts that tore at you and at your faith? The trial you survived to tell the story of how God was present for you and that even the wild beasts couldn’t rip you out of God’s hand?
What this story from Mark’s Gospel tells us today is that we don’t have to be afraid. Any test of our faith can’t keep us away from God. No matter what wild beasts we confront, Jesus has been there before us. He’s been in the wilderness, tempted by Satan. He’s confronted the wild beasts and shows us that angels wait to minister to us. In the abbreviated version of Jesus’ call story we have before us today we see that nothing can keep us away from God’s love for us or from God’s call to each of us to live in the ministry God has in mind for us in this life. And so Jesus, after standing up to the wilderness, to Satan, to the wild beasts for all that time, comes to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God. “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe.
Jesus is not just a model of good behavior for us. Jesus is the gift of God that makes it possible for us to live the life God intended. It was in Jesus testing here and the final test on the cross that we see him stand up to the powers of evil in this world, look them square in the face and defeat them by never giving in, even at the cost of his own life. In his resurrection, the power that brings him back to life becomes our power as well. We are released from every power that would keep us from trusting God and living like God’s people. In Jesus’ resurrection he passes that power on to us to continue his fight to change the world so that no one is lonely, afraid, hungry, beaten down, left on the outside. That is our work now, and day by day we are tested by the powers that would keep us from being Jesus in this world. And so we turn to him again, listening to this story of his journey out of the waters of baptism, into the wilderness to meet the wild beasts, and his return with confidence to be God’s liberator and healer. May we learn from him our own belovedness, our own mission to love the world God loves and the power to go forth in freedom to be his people.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.