From Wilderness to Paradise

a sermon for the First Sunday in Lent [Year B]

Mark 1:9-15 and Genesis 9:8-17

Like many other people, my family decided to get a COVID puppy last year. That is, in those early days of the pandemic lockdown, when there was no school and no going out and we were all stuck at home we thought it would be the perfect opportunity to get our first family dog. We would be able to devote the necessary time things like housetraining and crate-training. Always around and playing nowhere else but in the backyard, we would give it plenty of love and socialization so that eventually (we thought to ourselves), we would have a nice well-adjusted animal companion. Joy, as we named her, is a sweet, loving pet. She is soft and affectionate and playful. She is a wonder to watch run and catch a Frisbee in mid-air.

our friendly beast

But—I have to be honest with you—most of the time we are also asking ourselves, “What, in God’s name, have we done? There is a wild animal living with us!” She has chewed up three pairs of our son’s eyeglasses, one of our daughter’s retainers, and a brand-new ottoman in our family room. There have been countless nights when she cried and howled most of the time, and we’re still not able to let her loose in the kitchen for long because she knows exactly how to grab our food when we turn our heads away. I know they say dogs are man’s best friend but at this point it feels like we are in constant conflict about who really controls the house. When will we find lasting peace? Are people really meant to live in complete harmony with these creatures? Our puppy-trainer is excellent, but even she explains how the secret to success of raising a good dog companion is to establish and maintain your dominance (which she calls leadership) and get them used to being out of your bubble. Harmonious relationships between humans and people doesn’t just automatically happen.

In that case, we should notice that something special is up when Jesus is driven by the Spirit out into the wilderness after his baptism. There he is, forty days in the harsh environment, with all kinds of wild beasts happily in his bubble. These aren’t puppies or dogs, either. These are all kinds of fearsome and dangerous animals that would have normally devoured a lone, unarmed person like Jesus—wolves, leopards, wild boars. Ancient Israel even had lions! It’s kind of funny, if you think about it. We sing all kinds of hymns and carols at Christmastime about the friendly beasts who come to tend to Jesus at his birth in the manger, but the only time that Scripture ever talks about animals being with Jesus is at his temptation in the wilderness.

Christ in the wilderness (according to Mark’s gospel)

We may see this as a strange and endearing feature to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, an easy to overlook aspect of Jesus’ very first steps, but for those who have ever longed for a broken world to be put to rights, this is the first powerful sign that day has arrived. He is with the wild beasts. A wilderness is being turned into a Paradise. God had once before cleansed the wicked world through a flood, giving Noah and all the animals of the earth a new beginning. The heavens had opened and hope had shone through in the form of a rainbow. A dove had gone out and hovered over safe ground. Now, once again, water is bringing about a new world. The heavens open and a dove hovers over someone steady and sure, a new foundation.

In the baptism of Jesus and his subsequent temptation in the wilderness, a brand new day has begun. God has boldly announced a new chapter—the final chapter—in God’s plan to reconcile the entire cosmos to God’s self. And, strangely, before Jesus has called even his first disciple, the wild beasts are gathering around him as a sign of the peacefulness and promise to come. He doesn’t even have to enlist an expert puppy trainer. They just know. Eden, at long last, has been regained.

How about you? Do you feel the draw to gather around Jesus, to respond to his announcement that God’s kingdom has come near? Do you, too, long for a fresh beginning, a total do-over in life, or maybe just today? Have you ever been adrift like Noah on the ark, 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 background does not matter. Your past choices do 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 God desires for us. This new day begins that moment by the Jordan River and reaches its conclusion at the cross in a new flood of grace where God’s own Son takes all the sin of the world and drowns it in love. Jesus goes into our most godforsaken territories and turns them into a Paradise.

“Noah’s Thanksgiving prayer” (Domenico Morelli)

For the sinner, for the person who is seeking, this is made real in the waters of baptism. 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, a promise that Jesus goes into every breast-haunted wilderness we may ever find ourselves in. God has guaranteed our place in that new creation even if we wander from its promise or were just too young to remember what it meant—even if we, at times, behave or carry on as if that new birth never happened. Out of God’s grace we are chosen and gathered as children from all ends of the earth. Each time we reflect on our own baptisms we are reflecting on just how powerful and permanent God’s love for creation is: Jesus has himself driven to the wilderness to save it. Jesus will die on the cross to restore it and rises again from its darkness to show its power. And so baptism is a chance to begin again. Even the act of 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, I later found out, before he finally got up the nerve to come inside. I think we church people can forget that. It takes many people a lot of courage just to enter church doors. We used that Lent as a time to have some intentional conversations about his life and his faith and where he perceived God’s presence 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 by virtue of the way our chancel was set up, 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, and in such an open way. I’ll never forget a comment one of them made after worship was over and she reflected on the event. “It was like it meant something to him,” she said.

Indeed, something had happened. There was a new creation. We watched over the next months and years as the splash created by his baptism rippled throughout the entire congregation, just as the same grace ripples throughout any congregation whenever a pastor cradles a new baby in his arms at the font. People began sharing a bit more about their own faith, their own God-given chances to start over. Something is happening in the life of Jesus Christ, the likes of which this whole world has never experienced or seen before. No matter how or when we travel through the flood waters of baptism, God’s purposes are made clear: Jesus is on the scene. He has come to gather us.

And even when powerful emotion is not there in our faith, even when we traverse the long days of wilderness when we doubt and wander, it is still true that the days when sin and death have the final word are now behind us. That time is no more. 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 church or as comfortable in a pew as on their family room sofa—each person 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 be free of tests and trials. After all, once his own baptism happens, Jesus is driven by the Spirit not into a field of daisies, but straight into Satan’s tests. As member of his body, we should expect the same type of experience, for we are subjects of a kingdom whose existence and goodness is not yet completely acknowledged by the whole world. Temptation is a regular part of the baptized life.

And we should also note that our gatherings will be gatherings of different-minded people, with different backgrounds and sometimes conflicting points of view. But because Christ is a new creation, the church can be together as diverse people who don’t devour each other like wild beasts. We learn to see those different from us not as threats, but as beautiful creatures of God who add to our human experience, who help populate a kingdom that includes all kinds. This is what the world will seek and be drawn to.

In one of his books, former Divinity School professor and United Methodist bishop Will Willimon tells the story of a newspaper clipping he once read about a woman somewhere in Louisiana who 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 comin’.  As far as Mark is concerned, the animals might already know it. It starts with a splash, then forms a ripple, until all of creation is caught up in the flood. Get ready. Turn around! And believe in the good news!”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Will Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002. P127

Over the Top

a sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord [Year B]

Mark 9:2-9

Two friends of mine who are married to each other have a competition every Valentine’s Day to see who can find the cheesiest, tackiest, most-over-the-top Valentine’s Day card. In the early days of their life together they used to purchase these cards, sign them and give them to one another and then circulate them among their friends and family so that we could vote on which one we found the sappiest. Nowadays, my friends upload them to their Facebook page and let dozens of people weigh in, and at the end of the day they reveal who won the most votes. The whole event is a lot of fun, and it’s really generous of them that they’ve allowed so many other people to join in the love they have for each other this way.

Whose will win 2021??

Let me tell you, there are a lot of doozy Valentine’s Day cards out there—ones with cutesy poems, ones with obscene amounts of glitter and shine, ones that have surprise sound or music coming out when you open them up— but my friends really have a knack for finding ones that really go over the top. I can’t wait to see what they’ve come up with today.

In the transfiguration of Jesus, God really goes over the top, you might say, to get the message across. It’s flashy, it’s bright, there’s a lot of shine. There’s even a surprise sound coming out of the clouds at one point. And, quite literally, he takes them over the top—over the top of a mountain somewhere in the region of Judea. Some people say it was Mount Carmel, but others point out that Jesus may have taken them up Mount Hermon or Mount Tabor. Regardless of which specific peak it was, that this happens on a mountain is important because in Scripture mountains are places where people traditionally receive messages from God. Jesus selects just three of his disciples, likely his closest friends, and goes out of his way up on this mountain, away from the crowds, in order to reveal something about himself.

Mountain peaks usually have this type of mystique about them. They offer perspective. Sometimes people go on retreats on mountains for this reason. The air is thinner and feels cleaner to breathe. We feel above the fray, away from it all. The views from the tops of mountains also often give us a sense of where we are in relation to everything else. This past summer my family got to visit the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado. At 14,415 feet it is one of the highest drivable summits in the U.S. We were there on a crystal clear day—spacious skies— and it was easy to see why the view inspired Katherine Lee Bates to write “America, the Beautiful” after she visited there in 1893. We couldn’t linger and admire the view for very long because our son passed out from lack of oxygen, but we were so high up that it felt like we could see half of the country up there, the fruited plain stretching out endlessly one way and the purple mountain majesties the other.

On the mount of transfiguration, the disciples get perspective on Jesus, the beautiful. It is not so much the view from the mountain that God focuses them on, but the view on the mountain. Jesus changes somehow. Maybe his face is different, or the shape of his body, but what the gospel writers remember most is that his clothes become dazzling white. The Greek word actually means “glittered.” He stands there, so bright to look at, too much to take in. This is over the top already, but then suddenly Jesus is joined by two of Israel’s all-stars: Moses on one side and Elijah on the other.

These are two figures that loomed so large in ancient Israel’s history and mindset that their presence would have immediately raised Jesus’ street cred in the eyes of the disciples. Based on Peter’s reaction, we can tell that suddenly they think Jesus is a bit more important than they had probably up to this point. Moses represents the beauty of the law, that long and holy tradition of following God’s commandments. Elijah represents the beauty of the prophets, that long and holy tradition of hearing and heeding God’s Word among in community. Flanked by these two, Jesus is seen in a new perspective, and this is the message of God’s over-the-top card: Jesus is not just some guy who comes to heal the sick and teach Scripture. Jesus is not just a Messiah who will march onto the scene and violently overthrow the powers-that-be. He is at least as great as Moses and Elijah, at least as beautiful as the two ways God has, up to this point, related to God’s people.

J Nance

In fact, by the end of the transfiguration, God’s message is even clearer. Jesus does shine fairer, Jesus does shine purer. A voice thunders from the midst of the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Moses and Elijah mysteriously disappear. We are left with only Jesus.

How often do we place Jesus just on equal level with so much else in our lives, as just another commitment in our calendar, just another authority among many? I think that is a temptation, even for people who follow Jesus, maybe especially for those who follow him. Jesus means to be everything for us because we are the ones he loves. Richard Graham, former Lutheran bishop of the Metro-DC Synod once said, “Jesus is the light of the world. Christians don’t advance the conversation [in a helpful way] when they say to the world, ‘Jesus is just an interesting option.'” The transfiguration is the over-the-top message that says Jesus is more than just an interesting option. There is no one equal to him.

Therefore, we listen. We listen to the way Jesus speaks to us, the way Jesus reaches out to people. We listen to the way he speaks to people who are hurting, the way he speaks truth to those in power, the way he calls out the hypocrisy of religious leaders. We listen to his invitations to children and others who are often overlooked. And foremost, we listen to his words about what’s going to happen to him, the very message he has already tried to get across to his disciples, although they don’t seem to hear it. He tells us that he will go into Jerusalem and be handed over to the chief priests and elders suffer, and die, and then rise again on the third day.

In fact, he commands Peter, James, and John not to mention this transfiguration until after that point, until after all that hard stuff has happened and he’s risen from the dead. He has given them on the mountain a glimpse of the final glory promised in him. They will need that glimpse as they traipse with him through the grueling road of suffering ahead. It gives them the perspective they will need—that the love of God in Jesus will be victorious over all the dark and devious things the children of God encounter. Jesus will once again shine purer and fairer after the tragedy of the cross.

The Transfiguration (Raphael)

This pandemic feels like we’re all in a deep valley. It’s like the opposite of a mountaintop, the air is stifling here, and I’m not sure any of us have any real perspective on how it is changing us as a society and as individuals. People talk about how it will leave a permanent mark on us, what we’re learning. Maybe it will change our lifestyles in certain ways for a long time to come. There is a lot of speculation about this, lots of predictions about how this time will affect us all. I’m not sure we can really say anything about that yet with any certainty. It’s fun to predict and say international travel will never be what it once was, or that facemasks will always be part of our wardrobe, or that people won’t use office buildings anymore. But I have a sneaking suspicion we won’t really know what that future life will really be like until we actually up from this valley on the other side. It would be nice to have a vision of that post-pandemic life, so we could plan an all, but until then we just trudge through. Perhaps the end is more near than we realize.

Jesus’ transfiguration is a vision of that final, future life, when he is finished with the suffering and the dying. when the cross and the nails are behind him. This shining moment in the thin mountain air is the vision of that distant time when we are all finished with our grief and our sorrows, when we’ve come out of this long valley of confusion and death to a new summit we will never leave. Perhaps that glorious end is more near than we realize, too.

This is the time of the year—the Sunday of the Transfiguration—when Pastor Joseph and I fulfill a yearly Epiphany tradition. We haul out the big ladder and climb to the top of things to hang the purple drape on the cross for Lent. Thankfully neither one of us is really afraid of heights, so we’re not against doing it, but there is a bit of danger involved so we try to be very careful. My ears don’t pop as I go up, and the oxygen isn’t thinner, but the middle of the cross is the highest point in the sanctuary, higher even than the balcony. Every year I am taken aback by the view from up here, the perspective from this cross in this particular room.  From here, as I hang this drape and try not to fall, I can look out and imagine all the people of God’s kingdom, all the people who sit in these pews and in churches across the world and be reminded of the long vision of hope Jesus gives us.

May you stand here, just for a moment, and take in with me this year that God really goes over the top in his love for us. In his transfiguration, on the cross, Jesus, the beautiful—the most beautiful—goes totally over the top. And all of us win.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.