Lent is a good time for wandering in the wilderness– a place that naturally causes us to be slow and cautious. We have to go in alone, experience our own journey and receive our own call from God.
If we move too quickly, we might miss something. Or we might get lost. Maybe that’s the point of Mark’s expeditious storyline: we have to first be lost before we are found.
Maybe the Holy Spirit draws us out to the wilderness, not so we lose our whereabouts, but to help us lose the stuff that weighs us down and holds us back from a greater challenge – life after Lent. Living our faith out in our communities where the wild things are.
The wilderness that Jesus enters is a literal wilderness, where many people do not go. But those who do go often pack for the journey – a tent, sleeping bag, food, you know, the basic essentials.
I am not one of those people. While I like my alone time, I’m not the “outdoor” type. I’m more “Indoorsy” as the comedian Jim Gaffigan joked. I prefer hotel beds and bathrooms as opposed to sleeping on sticks and rocks, and leaving myself vulnerable to wild animals. But it should never go without saying, following Jesus can be a physically risky endeavor.
But Jesus is also out there spiritually, and this is a place that even fewer people dare to go. And who can blame them. Those spiritual places force us to see ourselves as we are, without filter or finery. They cause us to change our mindset, especially when we’re content.
That’s the thing about Lent. It invites us to places we dare not go and to face the things that make us uncomfortable. It could be physical – sleeping outdoors and waking up covered in a rash. Or it might be spiritual, like facing temptations that lure you away from becoming more like Christ in the world.
Maybe God drives us to these wild places because God knows that out of the wild our personal demons and struggles unlock our true strength. Maybe God knows better than us that the fears we face can forge a stronger bond to the Divine.
We might be tempted to skirt the wilderness, to turn away from encountering the wild places in our lives. It’s not hard to give over to temptation or to run off with the wild beasts.
But if we are to be called disciples, if we are to be renewed for new possibilities and be prepared to truly live in our world as God calls us, we must face the wild. And we must go in alone.
Now if we blinked we might miss the hidden gem in in this particular story. And if we don’t slow down we might overlook the fact that there are angels with Jesus.
Buried in Mark’s story is a reminder that wherever we are in life, we are never alone. God is right here with us, just as the angels were with Jesus, serving and caring for him. Just as we learned last week, “When we go with Jesus God goes with us.”
As Emily Heath describes, “Lent is an opportunity to spend 40 days alone with the one who has been there before.”
She asks, “Have you ever had a hard time with faith? Jesus knew what that was like. Do you struggle to make choices? So did Jesus. Are you grieving? Jesus grieved too. Are you preparing yourself for something new, for something you don’t know how you are going to survive? Jesus knew what that was like, too.”
Jesus goes out alone with God. And we too are cajoled and prodded by the Holy Spirit to leave our comforts behind to join him. Despite the temptation to believe differently, we are never really alone. The Spirit of God is there to “…help us in our weakness,” says St. Paul, “it intercedes for us.”
Out there we go – to find our footing and strength that will help us move closer to our true selves as both disciples of Christ and children of a loving and giving God.
Out there we go – to develop our spiritual muscles that will help us stand up to the spiritual darkness and systematic violence that plague our communities, and threaten harm upon God’s children.
Out there we go – to learn how to stand in the fray of hatred and bigotry, to teach and to be the love of God to all people.
We might be tempted to think that our faith, spirituality, or religious preferences should be private – between the individual and God. But Jesus teaches us it’s very public as well. Our true self comes alive in our personal relationships with other people.
The mass shootings that seem to happen way too frequently force us to look deeply and directly into the eyes of evil, and seek the heart of Christ in every situation. If God is in all things, so too is Christ. We have to take the time to look and find ourselves in that darkness too.
You see, God has called us to be the angels that nurse the sick and wounded back to health; to feed the spiritual and literal hungry and starving around the world; to protect each and every child no matter the cost to our standing in society; and raise everyone up to God’s glory and righteousness just as God did for his Son.
I hope that you will take the time this Lenten season to really be honest with yourself, and to see what the wilderness is offerings you – a new life, a new ministry, and new ways of being God’s beloved.
As you face the tough decisions and tougher realities, know that God looks at you, and cares for you, with nothing but compassion and love, just as God watched over Jesus as he journeyed towards the cross and beyond.
The Holy Spirit brings us into the wilderness to discover the joy of being the beloved sons and daughters.
“Even if it means going further in the wilderness, even if we feel more lost than ever, I invite you to follow the one who has been there before us. He might not lead us down easy paths, but he will also not lead us astray.”
Brown Taylor, Barbara. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2. [Westminster John Knox: 2008]. p.45.
Heath, Emily C. Reflections on the Lectionary. Christian Century, January 31, 2018. p.20.
Johnson, Deon. Wilderness. episcopaldigitalnetwork.com. February18, 2018
Beyond the physical grandeur, mountains make great metaphors for life. For example, she’s suffering in a mountain of pain; the kids are overwhelmed with a mountain of homework; that poor family has been buried under a mountain of debt, and so on.
In the bible, mountains often set the stage for crucial events. Noah lands his ark on Mount Ararat. Abraham almost kills Isaac on Mount Moriah. Moses brings down the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai. Jesus gives his inaugural sermon on a mount. Forty days after his Easter resurrection, the disciples will watch in awe from the top of a mountain as Jesus ascends to heaven to be with God again.
In Mark’s telling of the Transfiguration, Jesus climbs up a high mountain, with only Peter, James, and John by his side. A cloud comes over them and Jesus begins to transform in front of their very eyes. The men react with normal fear and awe, as most of us might. But before they can piece together what’s going on, God enters the scene and confirms Jesus’ identity.
“This is my Son the beloved” God declares before giving them the imperative, “Listen to him.”
With all we have learned about Epiphany, the Transfiguration is one of the best revelations there is. Upon this mountain there is a dramatic and sudden manifestation of the divine truth as God reveals His eternal glory in and upon Jesus. But what I really love about this story is how God invites us to be a part of it. “Listen to him,” God says, “Watch and learn.”
Jesus calls us to follow him. And as we move towards Lent, God will reveal to us exactly what that entails.
It’s fitting we end our series on Epiphany with one of the greatest revelations of Christ’s glory. “The Mountain,” as Susan Butterworth writes, “is a bridge between heaven and earth.” Following Christ across this divide, we see God and all his divine glory. So it’s important to walk beside Jesus and listen to what he has to say.
The great mystics of every religion believe there are many paths up the mountain to meet God. Like life, those paths may be rough or smooth, steep or gentle, boring or colorful, tiring or exhilarating. Yet, they’re all on the same spiritual mountain, and ultimately they all converge at the very top where the Divine meets us in our humanity.
I do not deny this to be true, or doubt the fact that God can reveal God’s self to whomever God choses. What the mystics teach us is the truth that God is All-in-all. In all of us, in all places, always present, always ready to be with us, to rescue us from ourselves. If you believe that to be true, then that truth must be true in all ways.
The Bible tells us Jesus is God’s beloved. To walk with him, and follow in his footprints, is to walk with God Incarnate; the One who calls out to us and invites us to experience to the greatest epiphany called life. Jesus is my spiritual Sherpa – he guides me up and down the mountainside showing me my eternal glory.
As it is with any journey, life is bound to be tricky, slippery, filled with life threatening challenges and difficult obstacles. But never forget when you’re in step with Jesus, God’s in step with you.
The epiphanies we received these last few weeks remind us that God is bigger than any mountain, stronger than any struggle, more powerful than any demon. There is nothing in life that can overpower God or replace God’s love for you. You are the beloved child of God.
The only real obstacle that can get in your way... is you.
I have a cousin who was born and raised on an island (a metaphor all of its own). After reading Ernest Hemingway’s great story The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Diane made a decision to face her fears and conquer that mountain Hemmingway so famously wrote about.
Up until this point, she had never flown on an airplane. She had never climbed anything beyond a tree or a treadmill. And the only thing she knew about Africa was what she read in books. But that didn’t stop her. Something greater than her fear was tugging on her heart, and the only way to discover what it was would be to take the 24-hour flight, face her anxieties, and conquer that mountain.
Overwhelmed by the new life that surrounded her, Diane saw God not only on the mountaintop, but in the beautiful smiles of the African people, in the diversity of life that roamed the open plains around the Serengeti, and of course within herself. By this one event, you might say, she was trans-figured; reshaped and renewed by the Spirit of God in Christ. All because she listened to the words that God spoke on her heart.
This is a great reminder that mountains, real or metaphorical, are natural. Some are born out of violent tectonic shifts, others out of messy volcanic eruptions or an unexpected earthquake. The wind, rain, floods or mankind might be able to beat them down and scar them up, but mountains will not go away. They just take on a new shape and form. As a part of God’s creation, so do we.
When you face trials and tribulations, when life comes at you hard and fast, when the world seems too big to handle, Jesus says, “Come to me, all who are weary and I will give you rest.” He tells us to lay our burdens on him, for his yoke is light (Matthew 11:28-30). I can't think of a way to begin our Lenten journey, than to walk with Christ to the cross and resurrection, free of the baggage and suffering.
There will always be tough times ahead, and plenty of twisting and rocky roads to climb, but they cannot break us, only strengthen us. The bumps and bruise we acquire along the way trans-figure us…so that we become human witness to God’s divine glory, here and now.
When you’re in step with Jesus, God is in step with you, moving through you, healing you, casting aside the demons and obstacles that seek to throw you off the path you’re on.
When you’re in step with Jesus, God is in step with you opening your eyes to the endless possibilities of joy and peace upon the mountain.
If we keep our senses of humor and our willingness to celebrate life fully and faithfully, the journey can enrapture us and transform our humanity into divinity. We just have to pick a path and start walking. And from there, God will make us shine brightly with Jesus.
Prayer: Holy God, mighty and immortal, you are beyond our knowing, yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ, whose compassion illumines the world. Transform us into the likeness of the love of Christ, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity. And so it’s in his name we pray. Amen.
It’s Super Bowl Sunday. And like millions of people around our country, my family and I will gather at a friend’s house to watch the game. I can’t think of a better way to spend my Sabbath then by eating great food, sharing warm hospitality, and resting on a couch with the top button of my jeans undone. Just as God intended.
Speaking of Sabbath, our reading from Mark is a continuation of the holy day where we last saw Jesus in a Capernaum synagogue blowing people’s minds away with his teaching and casting out of demons. There we learned that nothing in our life is more powerful than God’s mercy and grace that comes to us through Christ Jesus.
This week we could add upon that theme by stating no problem is “too big” or “too small” for God to handle. It might not seem like a big epiphany, but it does reveal something about God’s self in Christ. And it does cast a light on our place of importance in God’s kingdom.
Moving out of the public space of a synagogue we enter the private home of Simon and Andrew, where Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. Her illness is not nearly as dramatic as a demon possessed man, but remember this is first Century Palestine. There is no Walgreen’s or a CVS nearby to get a dose of Theraflu.
Having just witnessed what Jesus did across the street at the synagogue, Simon immediately turns to his teacher for help. And immediately Jesus responds with willingness and compassion.
He grabs the suffering woman by the hand and raises her up. Immediately she is healed. As Mark writes, “The fever left her, and she began to serve them.”
What did you notice about Jesus in these few short verses? What great epiphany did God revealed to us about God’s self?
The obvious might be how Jesus makes the most ordinary event, extraordinary. A simple fever, a simple touch, it might seem like a small act but it’s an enormous gesture. When we dig into the story, we see how God uses human compassion for divine revelation.
First, notice Jesus’ movement.
In the NRSV it says, “As soon as they left the synagogue they entered the house of Simon and Andrew.” In the Greek, the adverb used is εὐθὺς (euthys) which is best translated as “Immediately.” Immediately Jesus leaves. Immediately he enters the house. Immediately they ask for help. And immediately Jesus responds. He does not hesitate or chose to do something else. He immediately offers compassion without giving it a second thought.
Except for the few occasions when he is praying, or the one time he fell asleep on the boat in the middle of a storm, Jesus is constantly on the go. There is always a sense of urgency that follows him. From proclaiming the good news to casting out demons or curing the common cold, Jesus moves as God does: Immediately.
Next, is Jesus’ method.
When he sees the ailing woman, Jesus immediately reaches out to touch her with his hand. This ordinary gesture of human kindness and compassion is a reflection of God’s intimate nature with us. Our God is not distant, or hidden away in some celestial realm. Our God becomes incarnate, and comes right up to us in human flesh.
With a single touch Jesus transforms our pain and sickness into health and wellbeing. With a single touch Jesus makes us whole and fully alive. With a single touch he saves us, restores us, and redeems us all back to God’s loving arms…even our mothers-in-laws!
Without uttering a single word, Jesus heals a sick woman. From there he reaches out his hand to the multitude that come for healing… just as he reaches out his hand to all of us in need today. Jesus loves as God loves: Intimately.
And then there’s Jesus’ ministry.
Just after she is healed did you notice what Peter’s mother-in-law did? She gets up and begins to serve all the other people in the house. She doesn’t let another second of her life go to waste. Instead she immediately goes to work, praising God in the most basic way – showing hospitality to others. No one tells her to do this. She initiates this action on her own. Instead of falling to her knees and worshiping Jesus like we might expect her to do...she shows her gratitude by doing what Jesus calls all of us to do: To serve one another.
God sent Jesus to serve us, and to do so with a purpose. And this woman gets it. Her eyes have been opened. This is her epiphany. Through Christ, God initiates our healing grace.
Instantly she begins to fill glasses with wine; puts out plates of cheese and bread on the table; sets out bowls of figs, olives and dates, humus and tabouli. What she does...might not sound like a big deal, but have you ever tried to make tabouli? It’s not easy.
The obvious lesson in this story might be that when God gives grace, it’s immediate. When God gives love, it is intimate. And by sending Christ to be with us, God initiates the first step in our healing and restoration.
But I believe there’s more to this simple story.
As I thought about Jesus holding the hand of this woman, and the transfer of power that healed her and caused her to react the way she did, it dawned on me… Christianity began not with the Apostles…but with this woman. And it was affirmed, not in the sacred space of a grand synagogue but rather in everyday life; in an ordinary house just like this one. She is the first Christian, just as the house is the original church.
This unnamed woman was the first to truly understand what Jesus’ radical new ministry was about. She is the first to recognize that serving others is the key to our call and pursuit of Christ.
We might be tempted to write off this act as nothing more than woman’s work, but that would be a mistake. Having seen the divine presence of God in Christ, this remarkable woman is awake, alive and renewed. And she moves with a great purpose and intention.
She transforms her kitchen into a new kind of worship space; making the table an altar where Christ would truly be present. In this new sanctuary people will gather to break bread. And a new kind of family will be born. Race, social class, gender roles and all our other demons will become powerless to the incarnate power of Christ Jesus whose hands reach out to heal us; to bless our meals, to bless our hearts, our homes, and all that is in the world.
Simon Peter and the other disciples won’t understand the power behind this event until after the Easter resurrection. Only then will it be made clear to them what Jesus meant when he said, “The Son of God came to serve and to give his life for all.”
Yet this wonderful woman saw it immediately. Through her, we receive this epiphany that nothing in life is too big or too small for God to handle. But if we don’t reach out and ask God for help, then the little stuff in our life will eventually become major headaches that cripple us and keep us from doing what we are called to do.
Although this first Christian is nameless to us, she will be forever remembered as the one who showed us how God can take the ordinary and make extraordinary…all we have to do is reached out and take his hand.
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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