Lent Devotion, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018

Standard

In the opening verse of his Gospel, Mark calls Jesus “Son of God,” a title used several times in the story of Jesus. At his baptism, Jesus hears a voice from heaven say, “You are my Son.” The Gerasene demoniac asks, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” On the Mount of Transfiguration, three disciples hear a voice from heaven say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.” At his trial, Jesus is asked, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” And after his crucifixion, a Roman officer exclaims, “Truly this man was God’s Son.”

To understand the significance of this title, it is helpful to look at two backgrounds: the Jewish and Roman. Today, a few words about the former; tomorrow, the latter.

In the Jewish Scriptures, “Son of God” includes these meanings:

–the king (Ps. 2:7, Ps. 89:26-27)

–God’s people (Exod. 4:22-23, Jer. 31:9)

–angels and the heavenly host (Ps. 89:6-7).

In Jewish writings other than Scripture, the son of God is associated with the righteous and with the Messiah. “Given such a broad pattern of usage and the veneration of Jesus by early Christians, it would have been remarkable had he not been regarded as Son of God.” (C. Clifton Black, Mark, p. 205)

To call Jesus God’s Son is to say: He is chosen by God to communicate God’s way of life for the world. In him, we see divine love.

Son of God, through the power of the Spirit you have been sent by your Holy Father. Open our ears to hear you, that day by day we will receive the words we need. Amen.

Lent Devotion, Monday, Feb. 19, 2018

Standard

Mark’s Gospel opens, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

In these words, Mark states his belief that Jesus is the “Christ.” Christ comes from the Greek word for “Anointed One,” which in Hebrew is the word “Messiah.” The kings of Israel had been anointed with oil as a sign that they were chosen for their office by God. When Israel’s line of kings came to an end, hope sprang up that God would one day raise up a new ruler who would save the people. Many in Israel shared the hope for a coming Messiah, but there was a wide range of opinions concerning what the Messiah would do. Some looked for a military figure who would drive the Romans out of the land. Others looked for a priestly figure who would renew Temple worship and establish ritual purity. Others looked for a political figure who would sit on the throne of a re-established Davidic monarchy.

Mark states that Jesus is the Messiah. But as the story unfolds, we learn that Jesus isn’t quite what anyone expected. He renounces the use of violence. He rejects opportunities to seize political power. He challenges the enforcement of strict purity laws. Through his radical trust in God and his suffering service to others, Jesus re-defines the role of Messiah.

            Messiah Jesus, it’s not always easy for us to grasp who you are, for you came into the world confounding expectations. Even today, we may look to you as a kind of super-hero who will make all our problems go away. But that’s not why you came. You are among us so that we might learn to trust your heavenly Father, and live the way of your Spirit in serving our neighbor in need. Thank you, Messiah Jesus. Amen.

Evil Will Not Win

Standard

Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Bangor, PA, is grieving the death of a sixteen year old member who died of injuries sustained in an auto accident. The pastor of the congregation (my son) asked me to preach in his stead on Feb. 18, both because his time is filled with providing pastoral care and because of his own need to hear God’s message of hope in the midst of grief. This is the sermon I preached; the text is Mark 1:9-15.

Our Gospel reading today is only seven verses. It’s short enough that if our minds drift for a few seconds, we might miss the whole thing. And yet that handful of words is a rollercoaster of emotions that quickly move from good new to bad news to good news to bad news to good news.

The passage begins with Jesus’ baptism by John in the River Jordan. “And just as he was coming up out 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.”

Wow! That’s good news; better than good, spectacular news! Jesus receives a stunning affirmation from God.

But Jesus has no time to bask in the glory. “Immediately the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts.” Jesus finds himself in bad news:  demonic forces try to tear him away from the identity he received from God.

But then this: “the angels waited on him.” Good news is back into the picture.

But the rollercoaster continues, for next we read: “John was arrested.” Bad news again.

But then: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.”

There you have it. A seven verse roller coaster alternating news good and bad.

It strikes me that the pattern of these seven verses is the pattern of our lives. One day is filled with delight, the next with despair. Life runs like a smooth road, and then is shaken by potholes. Our lives are filled with ups and downs.

Jesus went from the good news of baptism to the bad news of temptation. Mark tells us, “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts.” Imagine one of these wild beasts—say a bear—who had observed Jesus. The bear says,

“I watched a man who came into the wilderness for forty days. He seemed to be in some kind of intense struggle, a struggle clearly visible in his face. You could sense a demonic presence in the air. All the forces of evil were attacking the man.

“This evil was strong; you could feel the tension. The skies grew black; the thunder rolled; lightning flashed. Torrents of rain and hail fell violently upon the earth. And then, just as quickly as the storm came up, the skies cleared; the sun came out, blazing with a heat hotter than I have ever felt.

“Evil was strong during those forty days. So strong, that we wild beasts cowered in fear.

“Yet the evil was not besieging us. It was attacking the man. Watching him closely, I saw intense struggle etched on the lines of his face. At times, his eyes showed fear; at other times, doubt; at other times, uncertainty. He was going through a terrible time of testing. I expected him to break at any moment; to give in and die on the spot, or to flee the desert with wild screams

“But the man did not break. He held firm, and as the forty days went by, I saw peace and love growing in his face. He seemed to come to a clear understanding of who he was, and what he must do. The power of evil did not defeat him.

“I think another power was protecting him; a power that enabled him to be stronger than all the forces of evil. I believe that other power was God; yes, in the midst of the terror, God was with the man.

“There were times I thought I saw angels come and minister to his needs.

“There were times I saw the man assume the posture of what humans call prayer.

“There were times I heard the man speak the words, “The Scriptures say,” and then he quoted words from memory.

“The power of God was with the man. That, I believe, got him through the days of testing. And so he emerged from the struggle victorious. Evil did not defeat him.”

Thus spoke the bear in the wilderness.

Jesus was not spared the dangers that Martin Luther referred to as “sin, death, and the power of the devil.” Such forces threaten us, too, as our life bounces from good news to bad news to good news.

During the years I was a parish pastor, I knew many people who were faithful and courageous during times of bad news. One couple in particular inspired my wife and me to write the following hymn text:

Death-like forces pounce upon us,
Shattering our hopes and dreams.
Honesty admits that darkness
Threatens morning’s dawning gleams.
But Christ’s Word speaks in the silence
Whisp’ring its new hopeful sound;
And God’s people deep in caring
Come as friends to rally ’round.

There are times for tears of sadness
As we grieve the pain of loss.
Yet we cling with faith and fervor
To the vict’ry of the cross.
Christ our fortress, Christ our steadfast,
Christ our guide when times are bad.
Death is not the one who rules us,
Tears will turn to joy at last.

We may shake and we may tremble
In the face of darkening hours.
Yet we will not lose our laughter,
Nor give in to beast-like powers.
Hopefulness renews our spirits
Through the myst’ry of God’s love;
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
Granting new life from above.*

In the 1970s, while pastor of English Lutheran Church in Minersville, I was called upon do the funeral for a high school senior who had been shot and killed in his school parking lot. He and his family were not members of English; they lived in the Washington D.C. area. His grandparents were members, though, and because the boy’s parents intended to live one day in Minersville, they wanted him buried there. When visiting the grandparents, they attended church, and so I had a passing acquaintance with the family.

The funeral was in the church, and then we went to the cemetery. After the committal, the mother spoke to me saying, “Pastor, it’s like you said: ‘Life to death to life again.’”

I had spoken no such words that day, and at first I assumed that, in the worst hour of her life, she was completely losing it. Then it hit me. A week or two earlier had been Easter Sunday. She and her family had worshiped with us that day, and my sermon had been interspersed with the refrain “life to death to life again.” In some way, the Holy Spirit had brought those words to this grieving mother’s mind.

Life to death to life again. Or as I’ve framed it today, good news to bad news to good news.

Sin, death, and the power of the devil exert a strong grip on us. But their hold is not lasting.

No one has expressed it more eloquently than Martin Luther. In the hymn “A Mighty Fortress,” Luther wrote of demonic forces that threaten to devour us. They are powerful indeed, he acknowledges. And yet, he writes, “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. The Kingdom’s ours forever.”

Amen.

*New Life, For Tom and Faith Wertman, and in gratitude for their example of grace and courage in difficult times.
Text: Joseph J. Scholtes, Jr., b. 1948  and Bonnie Scholtes, b. 1948  © 2012         Ebenezer      Music: Thomas J. Williams, 1869-1944                                                                          8 7 8 7 D

Lent Devotion, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018

Standard

Yesterday I noted how the openings of Mark’s Gospel and the book of Genesis are both about beginnings. John’s Gospel does the same, saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

Like Mark, John connects the person and work of Jesus to the creative power of God, a power that calls all things, not only humans, into existence.

It is good to be reminded that God has created more than we humans. Too often we have treated the rest of God’s natural world as if it were no more than a stage on which the drama of salvation is played out. We sometimes treat nature as if were simply placed there for our benefit, to be used, manipulated, and abused in any way we see fit.

But all things exist, not for our convenience, but for God’s glory. And we are called to be faithful stewards and caretakers of God’s creation.

Creator God, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you are at work creating the world and filling it with new life. You have given we humans the special honor of caring for your world. Give us inquiring minds to seek an understanding of how the world works. Fill us with passion to care for water, air, and ground. And place in us a deep respect for every species, for all belong to you. Amen.

Lent Devotion, Friday, Feb. 16, 2018

Standard

I find it helpful, fun, and illuminating to read Scripture intertextually; that is, to be alert for connections between different books of the Bible. Reflecting on these connections draws me more deeply into the mystery of God.

The first word of Mark’s Gospel is one such connection. Mark wrote in Greek, and his first word is arche, which means “beginning.” In English translation, the first sentence of the Gospel is “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Arche brings to mind the opening words of Genesis: “In the beginning. . . .” And then follows the story of God’s act of creation.

By imitating the opening of Genesis, Mark is telling us that God’s creative power is at work in Jesus.

The story of Jesus is not only good news for people, but for everything that belongs to God who is “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” (Nicene Creed)

Almighty God, your creative power surges through us, around us, and beyond us. You make the blood that flows through our veins, the grass that grows outside our windows, the fish that swim in the deepest seas, and the stars that light the vastness of space. Our vision is limited and sees only a small part of all that is yours. We bow in humble gratitude for all that you have made, giving thanks that in your Son and through your Spirit, you continue to make all things new. Amen.

Lent Devotion, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018

Standard

The end is the beginning.

That’s one way to speak of the Gospel according to Mark. As he nears the end of his Gospel, Mark tells of women, who upon entering the tomb of Jesus “saw a young man dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:4-8)

And that’s it. That’s all Mark wrote. (In most Bibles, you will find some additional verses. But these were added later by writers who felt uncomfortable with Mark’s abrupt ending.)

Mark knew, of course, that the women eventually told what they had seen and heard. If they hadn’t, there would have been no reason to write his gospel. So why leave the story open-ended?

While we can’t be certain of Mark’s motives, I think he is saying something like this: “The end of the story is really the beginning. To be part of Jesus’ life, you need to immerse yourself in it again and again. So return to the opening of my gospel—where Jesus appears in Galilee—and hear it again.”

Throughout the days of Lent, we’ll follow Mark’s advice, and take a close look at the opening verses of his Gospel.

Gracious God, thank you for your servant Mark, whose puzzling ending invites us to encounter you anew. As we look at his words, and think about his message, give us ever-growing desire to be drawn deeply into you. Surprise us with your Spirit, enlighten us with your Word, and keep us always in your Love. Amen.

Lent Devotion, Ash Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018

Standard

Beginning.

It’s Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.

By calendrical coincidence, it’s also Valentine’s Day. This day is filled with Cupid shooting arrows; with gifts of flowers and chocolate; and with the giving of cards decorated with hearts and kisses. It’s a fun day that celebrates romantic love.

Romantic love is a powerful force. Yet it pales in comparison to the love to which Ash Wednesday points: the passionate commitment of God to a wayward world. This divine love is not rooted in feeling good, but in dedicated service and sacrifice for the well-being of the beloved.

God puts this love into action again and again. God is ever at work, giving us new beginnings. That is the witness of Scripture, including the Gospel according to Mark. Mark will be our companion this Lent, inspiring us to grow more deeply into the gifts of God.

God of beginnings: You awaken us each day to new adventures in life, lifting us from sleep so that we might walk anew with you. As we start our Lenten journey, give us eyes to see the wonder that is around us; give us hands that offer compassion those we meet; and give us hearts that are open to the generosity of your grace. This we ask in your Son’s name, and by the power of his life-giving Spirit. Amen.