Friday, February 20, 2015

Fooled by the Dove (Lent 1, Feb 22 2015)

Homily:  Yr B Lent 1, Feb 22 2015, St. Albans
Readings:  Gen 9:8-17; Ps 91; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mk 1:9-15

Creative Commons:  Photo by David Campbell
The last time we read this text from gospel of Mark, we were fooled by the dove. 

We read the part about the dove just six weeks ago when we celebrated Jesus baptism.  “And just as Jesus was coming up from the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And if you’re like me, you were fooled by the dove.  I had this beautiful picture of a lovely white bird gently fluttering above Jesus.  It was a peaceful scene, after all the dove is the bird of peace, isn’t it?  And I imagined the voice to be a gentle voice, a kind voice.  If we had been making a video of this passage, we would have flooded it with soft lighting, and played some sort of heavenly music in the background, maybe even a choir of angels with a harp in the background for good measure.

And that’s because we were completely fooled by the dove.

Because the beginning of Jesus ministry in the gospel of Mark is anything but peaceful.  It is, rather, violent and harsh.  No sooner has Jesus emerged from the waters of his baptism, than the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends upon Jesus and immediately throws him out into the wilderness. 

The wilderness of Judea is a violent and threatening place, void of human habitation.   It is a hard, rocky desert, oppressively hot during the day and bone-chilling at night.  Food and water are scarce and in Jesus’ time it was the habitat of aggressive animals, snakes, lions and bears.  Forty days was a long time to be in the wilderness.  Forty days is a long time to be without human contact.  For the wilderness is not just a harsh place; it is also a lonely place.
The wilderness is part of our experience too.  We may not pass through an actual desert, but we do pass through places in our life that are harsh, that are threatening, that are lonely.  If you’re not there right now, you know someone who is.  And when we’re in the wilderness, often one of the first things that we do is cry out, “Why me?”

One of the things I like about today’s gospel is that some of the answers we might be tempted to give to the “Why me?” question are ruled out.

When we’re in the wilderness we’re not there because we are unloved by God.  When life is hard, when you feel lonely, it is not because God does not love you.  God’s voice tells Jesus in no uncertain terms that he is loved, and yet Jesus too enters the wilderness. 

And neither are we sent to the wilderness as some sort of punishment.  Again, we know that Jesus has done no wrong, yet he spends 40 days in the wilderness.  It’s hard.  But it’s not a punishment.

Why do we end up in the wilderness?  We end up in the wilderness because stuff happens.  In Jesus case, it was the stuff of God, the Spirit of God who drove him into the wilderness.   For most of us, most of the time, it will just be the stuff of life that puts us in the wilderness.  Life can be hard.  Life can make us feel alone.  But even when we’re in the wilderness, we’re not alone.  God knows what it’s like.  God’s been there.  God is there with us.

And God has this amazing ability to transform the stuff of life into the stuff of God.  Even in the wilderness, even when life is harsh and difficult, God can work for good.  With God’s help, our time in the wilderness can be transformative.  For Jesus, those forty days of trial in the wilderness were a time to learn to trust God.

Where do you put your trust?  In whom or in what do you trust? 

Take a look around.  It’s not hard to figure out some of the places that people put their trust.  We put our trust in our friends and families, in our jobs, in our bank accounts, in our homes, in our pensions, in our possessions, in our entertainment, in our health, in our abilities, and the list goes on.  But in the wilderness, when all of these are stripped away, where then will you put your trust?

Our psalm today is about trust.  In Psalm 91, the psalmist urges us to place our trust in God, and offers us what is perhaps the greatest promise of our faith:  that if we do put our trust in God, if we make God our stronghold and our refuge, we will be made safe.  If we trust in God, we will be rescued from our troubles and protected from evil.  We will be held in the hands of angels, lest we dash our foot against a stone.

I find myself drawn instinctively to the promise of the psalm.  It seems to resonate with our deepest longings for assurance and well-being, for a solid place in which we can put our trust.

When I hear psalm 91, my gut says yes.  But at the same time, my head tells me that all is not well.  Evil and pain and sorrow are a part of our lives, sometimes the largest part.  Those who trust in the Lord do dash their feet against stones.  So how do we reconcile the promises of the psalmist with the very present reality of pain and suffering in our midst?  Maybe it seems possible to trust in God when times are good.  But what happens when we enter the wilderness?  Where then do we put our trust?

The journey into the wilderness is one of the central motifs of our Christian faith.  The most famous journey into the wilderness in our scriptures is the story of the Exodus.  You remember the story.  The people of Israel were slaves in Egypt.  But in the Exodus, God brings them out of Egypt, ending their oppression.  He makes them pass through the waters of the sea, declares that they are his people and leads them into the wilderness. 

The wilderness is meant to be the place where the people come to know God and learn to trust him.  But it doesn’t turn out that way.  Instead, they complain about the lack of food.  They fashion idols, the golden calf, and they turn to false gods.  They put God to the test, telling Moses that they’ll head back to oppression in Egypt if God doesn’t start doing things their way.  Faced with the reality of the wilderness, they put their trust in the wrong things.

The story of Jesus journey into the wilderness that we read in our gospel today is a deliberate re-telling of the Exodus story but with a difference, a different ending.  Jesus passes through the waters, the waters of baptism.  The voice declares him to be the Son of God.  The Spirit drives him into the wilderness.  In the wilderness he experiences the same hunger and the same trials that the people of Israel experienced.  The promise that he heard at his baptism, the promise that he was God’s beloved Son was put into direct conflict with the harsh reality of life.  But in response, Jesus does what had proved so difficult for the slaves escaping Egypt.  He puts his trust in God.

There is a way of reconciling the tensions of this world with the promises of God.  It is the way of faith, the way that puts its trust in God.  Our human journey will take us to difficult places.  Our journey will take us into the wilderness, to desert places where our experience of suffering will cause us to doubt God’s promises.  And at those times we will remember the story of Jesus own journey, the story of one like us who fulfilled his purpose in life not by avoiding pain and sorrow but by confronting them and overcoming them, bringing compassion and healing to those who suffer, light to those in darkness and reassurance to those who place their trust in God.

Why was Jesus driven into the wilderness at the very beginning of his journey?  Maybe it’s because that’s where we need him the most.  Maybe it’s because we need to know that when we hit those challenging places on our journey, the places where worries and doubt creep in, where trust seems hard, where hope is fragile, that’s when we need to know that Jesus has been there before us and meets us there, walking with us on our journey, easing our burdens and helping us to learn to place our trust in God.


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