Sunday, February 26, 2012

The First Sunday in Lent, Year B - February 26, 2012 (Genesis 9:8-17, Mark 1:9-15)

I realize she may not technically be classified as a “wild beast,” but our cat, Luna, does have a tendency to go wild on us most mornings at about…oh, 5:00am. She usually starts by purring in my face. Soon she is standing on my chest, head-butting my chin. If I don’t wake up, she begins walking around on my stomach to make the point. I can shove her off, but then she’ll just repeat her tactics with Melinda, who is usually much more patient with her. If we shut Luna out of the bedroom, then she impatiently and noisily scratches at the door until we let her back in. It’s enough to confirm my sensibilities as a dog person, although I hear they’re not much better about this.

beastly Luna on the prowl
It wasn’t until a few days ago, however, that we started connecting the dots of this animal behavior to realize that Luna’s morning antics correspond to our children’s restlessness. Sure enough, if Luna wakes us up, it is because she has sensed some stirrings in the kids’ bedroom…perhaps a wet bed or a nightmare or playing with toys before they’re supposed to. It’s all like a miniature version of the well-documented phenomenon that animals can sense something is up in the hours and minutes before the strike of a natural disaster. We’ve all heard the stories. No one really knows why or how this happens. Perhaps it’s their superhuman sense of hearing or ability to sense changes in the atmosphere. Call it raw instinct, call it some special inner sense, but animals seem to know, in many cases, when something is up. They respond to certain critical situations often before humans do.

In fact, I wonder if something along these lines might be happening in this account of Jesus’ temptation. After he is baptized, Jesus is driven into the wilderness where he is with, of all things, the wild beasts. It is the only place in all of Scripture, in fact, where Jesus is with animals,  with the sole exception of the donkey he rides on Palm Sunday. I would guess most of assume there were animals and beasts at Jesus’ birth:

“I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown,
"I carried his mother uphill and down,

I carried his mother to Bethlehem town."

"I," said the donkey, shaggy and brown.

But, truth be told, neither Matthew nor Luke, the two gospel writers who record Jesus’ nativity, say anything about animals in the stable, even a donkey, shaggy and brown. In the way that Mark tells the gospel of Jesus, the friendly beasts show up just following Jesus’ baptism when he is in the wilderness being tempted by Satan.

And, yes, it is a critical situation. Something, you might say, is up.  This, my friends, is a turning point, not just in the life of Jesus as he heads out to an intense time of trial, but in the life of the entire world. This is a new beginning. God had once before cleansed the world with water. God had made a covenant with Noah and all the animals of the ark after forty long days of rain that a fresh new day of promise had dawned. The heavens had opened and hope had shone through in the form of a rainbow. God would never again destroy the earth in order to restore it. Now, once again, after forty long days in the wilderness, after the heavens had torn open and hope had shown through in the form of a dove, God is restoring creation through the life of his Son.

Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom (1826)
This, Mark means to tell us, is moment all of creation has been waiting for, even, it seems, the wild beasts. In the baptism of Jesus and his subsequent temptation in the wilderness, a brand new day has begun. God has announced a new chapter—the final chapter, in fact—in his plan to reconcile the entire cosmos to himself, and strangely, even before Jesus has called his first disciple, the wild beasts are gathering around him as a sign of the peacefulness and promise to come, a vision of Paradise regained. It’s fun to imagine that some of them may even be purring and head-butting his chin in playful expectation that something important is about to happen.

How about you? Do you feel the draw to gather around Jesus, to respond to his announcement that the kingdom of God has come near? Do you long, too, for a fresh beginning, a total do-over of your life, another start? Are you, worn down by years in the wilderness, searching the skies for a sign of hope? The good news from the gospels is that in Jesus this fresh start, this new beginning, is always possible, for each and every one of us. Your age does not matter. Your personal background does not matter. In Jesus, God has come to contend with the fears, the temptations, the dark forces that estrange all people from God and the good that God desires for us. This new day begins that day by the Jordan River and reaches its conclusion at the cross in a new flood of grace where God own Son takes all the all the sin the world and drowns it in love.

river baptism
For the sinner, this is made real in the waters of baptism, regardless of our age when that occurred. Whether we were a tiny infant or a college student or an older adult, our baptism is a sign that we’ve been forever included in this new covenant established by Jesus’ life and death. God has claimed us as a member of his new creation and we are united to Jesus’ life eternally. Even if we forget it or were too young to remember it. Even if we, at times, act like it never happened. Out of God’s amazing grace we are chosen and gathered as his children. And each time we reflect on our own baptisms we are provided the opportunity to reflect on just how powerful and permanent God’s love for creation is: that Jesus will be driven into the wilderness to save it. That Jesus will die on the cross to claim it. That he will rise again to show his power for it. And so,baptism is a chance to begin again. Even remembering it, as Martin Luther says, is a chance to start our lives anew and, once again, take part in the kingdom of peace and righteousness that Jesus has begun.

One Easter in the first congregation I served we baptized a man who was in his fifties. He had first ventured into our congregation with his wife earlier that year in January after having driven by the front door regularly for about six months. It took him that long, he said, before he finally got up the nerve to come inside. We used that Lent as a time to have some intentional conversations about his life and his faith and where he had perceived God’s activity in his life. We came to the conclusion that it was time for him to be baptized. For reasons unknown to him, his parents had never taken that step with him when he was young.

That Sunday, as the water was poured over his head, a new thing for that congregation occurred. He began to weep.   It caught everyone by surprise, although perhaps it shouldn’t have. The people in the choir, who were standing nearest to him, were affected by his visible show of emotion. Some of them began to cry too, confronted with the seemingly un-Lutheran reality of a grown man moved to tears in worship. I’ll never forget a comment one of them made after worship was over as she reflected on the event:  “It was like it meant something to him,” she said.

Indeed, something had happened. Something was up, and we watched as over the next months and years the splash created by his baptism rippled throughout the entire congregation, just as the same grace ripples throughout this congregation when Pastor Chris or I walk a new child of God up and down the aisle after a baptism. Something is up in the life of Jesus Christ, the likes of which this whole world has never experienced or seen before. Whether our baptism occurs as an infant, as a child, as an adult God’s purposes are made clear: Jesus is on the scene.  He has come for us.

And even when powerful emotion is not there in our faith, it is still true that the days where sin has complete power are now behind us. The days of hope and promise have arrived. God has claimed us for his grand new restoration project on earth, and each person—be they young or old, be they intimidated by the front doors of the church or as comfortable in a pew as in their family room sofa—has the Spirit-given gifts to join in on the effort.

This does not mean, it should be noted, that the Christian life will be easy, that taking part in this restoration flood will involve no tests and trials. After all, once his own baptism is over, Jesus is driven by the Spirit not into a field of daisies, but into the wilderness for a time of testing. As members of his body, we should expect the same type of experience, subjects of a kingdom whose existence and goodness is not yet completely recognized by the rest of the world.

In one of his books, former Divinity School professor and United Methodist bishop Will Willmon tells the story of a newspaper clipping he once read about a woman somewhere in Louisiana who had raised somewhere around a dozen foster children despite her low, meager income as a domestic worker. Why did she do it?  Why did she suffer so? She responded, “I saw a new world a comin’.”[1]

A new world is a comin’. Something, brothers and sisters, is up. And as far as Mark is concerned, the animals might already sense it. You can see it in the ministry and in the lives of people in this very congregation. By the grace of God, we have a new beginning in Jesus Christ. It starts with a splash, then forms a ripple, until all of creation is caught up in the flood.

Wake up!  Turn around!  And believe in the good news.”                


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Will Willimon, Pastor: the Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002. Pg 127

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