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.”
*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