Nineveh – Hope for the Hopeless

Wednesday, February 28, 2018
First Lutheran Church- Albany, NY

Hopeless – Could there be a worse word in the English language? When a person is hopeless they have totally given up. They feel there is nothing more that can be done about a particular situation. “What’s the point; it’s hopeless.” And when this state of hopelessness continues for too long, they themselves feel as though they are hopeless – that their life has no meaning. They feel they are beyond help, beyond attention, and their life is worthless. Hopeless – just the very word casts a dark shadow.

When a person is hopeless they can find themselves in a dark emotional state. Their joy is gone, and their voice may eventually grow silent. After all, what’ the point of continuing to speak when no one is listening, when you keep being ignored. We see this a lot when a person is burdened with chronic poverty. They may try to get ahead, but circumstances prevent it. A loss of employment, inadequate pay, increases in rent, medical expenses….the list is endless to the contributing factors that lead to poverty. And while poverty can happen to anyone, minorities are the most vulnerable. And many times these individuals are so misunderstood. Names like lazy get thrown around by individuals who don’t take the time to find out who these people really are, and what their situation is. Hopeless – another word for lost and neglected.

It’s not just individuals that suffer from hopelessness. Entire groups, communities, and countries can be overcome by the spread of hopelessness. Ethnic communities that are seen as the “other” are looked down upon, ridiculed, and left to their own. These communities and countries try to speak out for help, but it’s easy to just say, “We’ve got our own problems to fix. We’re not going to help those communities, those countries. ” After you’ve been ignored and beaten down long enough, sometimes hopelessness can turn to anger and violence because one feels helpless. And so people act in ways they normally would not. They want someone – anyone – to hear them. Hopelessness – it leads to hunger, suicide, riots, and even death.

Our Scripture reading this evening is a perfect example of an entire country being labeled as “other.” Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria in what is now northern Iraq. Assyria was the hated enemy of Israel. The Israelites remembered the many battles they had with Assyria, whose power – like their own – was growing. Power, then and today, causes conflict. And each group labeling the other as the enemy leads to suffering. The people who suffer the most are not the governments of each country trying to get ahead and hold on to their positions of power, but the individuals in those countries – individuals who as a whole don’t want war. They want safety and peace for their families whom they love, and whom God loves.

When a person or place is considered “other” it’s impossible to realize that they too are beloved by God. The Book of Jonah begins with “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.” The people of Nineveh, like people everywhere, were acting in ways that were hurtful to God, and so God asks the prophet Jonah to go and speak the word of God to them so they will repent. Jonah however, didn’t want to do that. Jonah didn’t want to waste his time with those people. So Jonah runs as far away from Nineveh as possible – all the way across the sea to Tarshish or what is now Spain – where he thinks he can hide from God. After the incident with the whale – we won’t go into that tonight – God asks Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh, and Jonah finally agrees. He speaks the word of God to them, and we hear that they surprisingly turn around. The people fast and repent. Everyone repents, even the king.

It makes you wonder if maybe this was the first time anyone came and spoke the word of God to them. The word of God is powerful. God’s Spirit can do amazing things with people’s hearts. It wasn’t Jonah who caused them to turn to God, it was God’s very word and Spirit that transformed them. What a wonderful gift for the people of Nineveh to have received. They may have never heard how much God loved them. The people of Nineveh may have felt hopeless – trapped in being labeled one way because of the actions of their government, much like people today in various countries including our own. And Assyrian soldiers were exceptionally brutal and gruesome in their treatment of captives discovered through inscriptions and tablets found by 19th century archaeologists. But individual men, women, and children are not directly responsible for the actions of their governments. We only have to look at the refugee situation today to see that people in situations like this are seeking refuge and release from war and brutality. So to label an entire country as the enemy is as sinful as the actions many people condemn.

And the Ninevites were a condemned people, even by Jonah, but not by God. For God saved the people of Nineveh. God heard their cries, felt their sincere repentance, and breathed new life into them. Isn’t that what we all hope for?  That all people will experience God’s grace? Or do we, like Jonah angrily say, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live. “Wow, angry at God’s graciousness! How quickly Jonah forgot what God did for him. Jonah really is speaking for many people even today. Deep down, many people want to see revenge. They want people to get what’s coming to them, forgetting that if God gave us what we deserved, we’d all be punished. But that’s not the God we worship. Our God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

God’s word is relevant for us today. Like Jonah and his anger over the bush that died, it’s easy to feel compassion for something when it affects us personally, but hard when we haven’t built a relationship or connection. When we label someone or some country as other, we separate them from ourselves. We take away their humanity, and then it’s easy to not care what happens to them. But God cares about relationships. God cares for every living part of creation.

And that’s why God’s word is hope for the hopeless. God’s word is filled with mercy, grace, and forgiveness – sometimes even for those who may be beating themselves up for something they haven’t done themselves. The hopeless need to hear that they are not forgotten by God, but God is with them even if they don’t acknowledge God’s presence. Our belief or unbelief does not impact God’s presence, but our awareness and realization of God’s presence transforms us. It moves us from a state of hopelessness to a place of hope, knowing that while we don’t know how God will act, we believe that God will indeed do something. And most of the time God works through people. God’s work – our hands.

Hope – could there be a more powerful word in the English language? Hope is not mere optimism or positive thinking. Hope gives people the courage to get up day after day and try again even when the circumstances seem hopeless. Hope gives courage to those who are living in fear, confident that the God who loves them will never leave them. Hope is a light in the darkest of places that keeps one moving forward even when the way is dim, even when we are afraid. Hope raises us up from the shadow of death, and breathes new life into us. In God’s eyes no one is a hopeless cause. No country is hopeless. In God’s eyes all people are worth saving. Hope will turn the world around. That is the word of God we need to hear and to proclaim to others today. Amen.

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Take Up Your Cross-Be Bold

Sunday, February 25, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Loudonville, NY
Mark 8:31-38

Tonight, is the closing ceremony of the 2018 winter Olympics. It’s hard to believe that it’s been two weeks since they began. It’s even harder to believe that the torch relay began back on Oct. 24, 2017 in Olympia, Greece, and over 7500 relay runners carried the torch to PyeongChang, South Korea ending on Feb. 9th for the opening ceremonies. Over 2900 athletes from 92 nations compete in one goal – to win an Olympic medal. And let’s be honest, if you’re going to win a medal you want it to be gold. These athletes train for endless hours each day year after year in order to be the best in their sport. What keeps them going no matter how tough it gets is the reward at the end – winning the gold medal. They have the support of their friends who get caught up in that goal with them. They actually see their friend on that Olympic podium with the medal around their neck. It’s no longer an individual goal, it is a collective goal shared by family, friends, and entire countries. Everyone now has a stake in this goal.

Imagine if the athlete changed their mind, if they announced that this wasn’t the goal they were going after anymore. Imagine how everyone would feel if they were the best in their sport with the best chance of winning the gold, and they just decided that it wasn’t who they felt they were anymore. Family, friends, sponsors, entire countries would be devastated, and downright angry because their dreams, their goals would be lost now too.

That’s exactly what is going on in today’s encounter in Mark’s gospel between Jesus and Peter. Peter had just proclaimed Jesus as the Son of God. He believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the one who was going to save them. Peter had seen the miracles that happened through Jesus. He saw people being healed and demons fleeing. Peter witnessed the power Jesus had, and that’s what excited him. After centuries of being defeated by conquering armies, after what seemed like no end to the Roman government oppression, here was someone who had more power than anyone on earth. Jesus was the Messiah who was going to bring about all the changes that Peter, the disciples, and so many countless others had been waiting for. Jesus had the power to make everything great.

And then Jesus tells Peter and the others that he is going to be rejected, tormented, and killed. Hold on! That wasn’t part of the plan. That wasn’t the goal. That wasn’t what the disciples who had been living and learning from Jesus had planned! Jesus could have everything. He could give them back everything. So Peter tried to stop Jesus from this crazy idea of changing the goal, until Jesus called him Satan. That would stop anyone dead in their tracks. They were friends. How could Jesus call him Satan? Peter was doing the same thing that Satan tried to persuade Jesus to do in the wilderness. They were trying to get Jesus to go a different way – their way – not God’s way. The kind of Messiah that Peter and the others had in mind wasn’t the kind of Messiah that Jesus was. They wanted a Messiah that would benefit themselves. Their goal was not Jesus’ goal.

Jesus’ goal was for a deep relationship between God and all people, so deep that nothing could separate us from God. He proclaimed God’s message of love and forgiveness. He healed people to show them the power of God’s love. He taught them God’s grace and mercy is for all people – that all people are God’s beloved. Jesus preached that God’s power of love was more powerful than any other law or government rule, that God’s kingdom is filled with compassion and justice for all people, not just those who supported the Roman government at that time, or individual groups who benefited financially, but those who loved their neighbor.

Jesus’ goal was a dangerous one that ultimately cost him his life, because God’s kingdom of justice and peace is a threat to those who want power and control for themselves. That’s why Jesus said, that in order to be his disciple one has to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him.

Denying yourself doesn’t mean thinking less of yourself. It means seeing yourself in relationship to God so that it’s not our goals we seek to achieve, but God’s. It means losing ourselves – those parts of ourselves that separate us from God – so that we can find our true selves in our identity as God’s beloved. Denying ourselves means seeing ourselves as God sees us – faults and all – so that having a true understanding of who we are we can use our gifts and talents to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth by serving our brothers and sisters.

That’s what it means to take up our cross. It isn’t a personal cross that only benefits ourselves. It’s what we do for others, just like Jesus. And like his journey, it involves risk, sacrifice, and possibly even our life. It’s no wonder Peter reacted the way he did. And if we’re honest we’ve all reacted the same way at one time or another when we thought God should do things our way. Taking up your cross it not the path most people would choose for themselves, but it is if we follow the way of Jesus.

Today, the Women of the ELCA all across the country are celebrating Bold Women Sunday. It’s a day set aside to honor the courage of women all across the centuries who have taken up their cross. Women, who as we see even in our Scriptures, have endured much to have their voices heard. But they didn’t speak out for themselves, they spoke out for others who were neglected, overlooked, cast aside, oppressed, and abused. Bold women throughout the centuries have endured oppression, but instead of choosing the easy path, they chose the risky path. They have chosen, and continue to choose the path of taking up their crosses, to make life for others better.

Jesus said, “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” A life that is lived only for ourselves is not a life worth living. The poet John Donne said, “No man is an island.” History has shown that narcissists who think only of themselves don’t just hurt themselves, but countless people around them. God created us to be in relationship with each other and with God. God created us to be stewards of creation and each other. This is our goal.

Tonight, the closing ceremonies of the 2018 winter Olympics will come to an end. Some athletes have received medals, most will not. But their effort in setting out to achieve their goals is something we can learn from. What if we carried our cross – the cross of Christ – with the same devotion that the athletes carry the Olympic torch for all to see? What if we all approached taking up our cross and following Jesus with as much focus as the athletes? What if we didn’t care how many times we fall , but we kept getting back up time and time again to speak out as advocates for the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed because that goal is most important? What if we stopped listening to the voices that say it can’t be done, and we didn’t give up until all people lived in freedom and peace? That’s what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus – to follow his passion to bring God’s kingdom here on earth. Take up your cross. Follow him. Be bold. Amen!

Our Journey Through the Wilderness

Sunday, February 18, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Loudonville, NY
Mark 1:9-15

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, which began on Ash Wednesday. Most often we refer to Lent as a journey lasting 40 days, a significant number in the Bible because it signifies a long time of preparation. There are many examples in scripture of the number forty. In our first reading Noah and his family were on the ark for 40 days. With all those animals and no open windows I’m sure it seemed like a lot longer! When Moses was on the mountain with God he waited 40 days to receive the Ten Commandments. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 days on their way to the Promised Land. Jesus was in the desert 40 days and forty nights, and there are many other examples as well. The point is that these spiritual journeys were long. In the course of our entire lives 40 days isn’t really a long time, but it certainly can feel like it, especially when we are facing great challenges. When life is incredibly hard, 40 days can seem like an eternity, especially if there is no end in sight. The significance of this number on these spiritual journeys is just that. Forty represents an amount of time that seems to go on forever.

Journeys can be something we look forward to, like a journey to a new destination for a vacation. We look forward to those journeys with excitement and anticipation. We plan all the things we want to do, and look forward to the adventures that await us. And the time on those journeys seems to fly by. But some journeys we don’t welcome at all, like journeys of grief when a loved one dies, when we experience chronic illness, or poverty. These journeys can take a very long time to get through. And there are moments when a person is tempted to just give up believing that things will ever get better. Hopelessness can set in. And if these journeys of grief and pain are not happening to us, there is a temptation toward apathy. There is a temptation to think that our small actions won’t make an impact so why bother. Temptations on our journeys in life are everywhere. That’s why it’s so important who we take on our journeys with us. Who we travel with makes all the difference in the world.

That’s why our story from Mark’s gospel is so shocking. When Jesus was baptized, he saw the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove, and he heard God speak that he was Beloved. What a wonderful moment! Yet that same Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Mark says that God’s Holy Spirit literally forced him into a place that he did not want to go. It was a journey he wasn’t planning on taking, but he had no choice. And while he was there he faced temptations from Satan, and wild beasts were there. One might begin to question from Mark’s gospel exactly what the Holy Spirit is really like. So often we imagine the Holy Spirit as a gentle dove, the Advocate, the Comforter, the one who brings peace, yet in Mark’s gospel we get an image of the Holy Spirit tossing Jesus out into a place that if he had a choice he wouldn’t want to go. So what’s up with the Holy Spirit? Isn’t the Spirit supposed to be our Advocate?

What is an advocate? It’s one that is on our side. It’s one that supports us, and is with us through our trials. This was not the only trial that Jesus faced, in fact, this was just the beginning. His 40 days in the wilderness was a time of preparation. It was a time of fasting and prayer where Jesus would gain the wisdom and spiritual strength needed to face even more trials and suffering. In his baptism the Holy Spirit drove him right into the wilderness, which is a part of life. Times of wilderness can’t be avoided no matter how hard we may try. The Holy Spirit always leads to life, but the journey of life isn’t always easy. It is filled with evil and wild beasts. The latest school shooting in Florida this past week proves this. Violence is all around us and it may seem like there is nothing we can do but pray, but that is a temptation that even Jesus faced. Prayer is not just taking our concerns to God and waiting for God to act. God acts through us. God acts through humans to be the answer to the prayers we raise up. Just as the Holy Spirit forced Jesus to face the realities of temptation and evil in the wilderness, so the Holy Spirit through our baptism forces us to face the realities of temptation and evil in our world, our wilderness. And more often than not it does feel like a wilderness because there is so much evil that we have to face. But here is the critical point we have to remember. We not only have to face these realities, but we do not face these trials alone any more than Jesus did.

The Holy Spirit is with us on our journey through life. God will give us the strength we need to overcome the wild beasts that we all face. God’s holy angels wait on us too. We are not alone, and we as a community of faith have each other to support and encourage us on our quest. These companions on our journey are what give us the confidence, courage, and strength to do what God is calling us to do- care for all God’s people and all of creation. God is more powerful than evil, yet God needs us to rise up and stand against the evil and injustices we see in our world, in our wilderness.

During these 40 days of Lent, let us remember that though our baptism we have not been called away from this world, but have been called and sent into this world to be agents of change for good, to stand up for those who have no voice, to bring justice to those who are oppressed, and to be the answers to the many prayers that are being lifted up to God for peace and justice. Let us not forget we have powerful companions on our journey through the wilderness. Amen.

Treasured Dust

Sunday, February 14, 2018 – Ash Wednesday
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Loudonville, NY
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51:1-17,
2 Cor. 5:20b-6:10 & Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

 

“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” To many, smudging our foreheads with ashes may seem as though we are reminding ourselves that we are nothing more than dust or dirt. Nothing could be further from the truth. While these crosses of ash remind us of our mortality, and our need to acknowledge and confess our sins, the words that remind us that we are dust are not words of condemnation. These are words of promise.

You may wonder, “How can calling someone dust, be a word of promise?” After all, what is dust? Some might answer that question with “that horrible substance that seems to get everywhere!” or “That stuff we want to be rid of!” It makes our list of chores longer, and no sooner do we get rid of the dust, but it’s right back again. Dust is relentless. It causes allergies too, some effected so bad that allergy shots are needed. We buy filters to get rid of it, and we shake it off our shoes. Dust is not something people usually put on their list of top ten favorite things.

In fact, as we gather here tonight, we might recall that these words were first spoken by God to Adam after he and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. God was angry – disappointed really – and told them that because of their sinfulness, they would endure hardship in life – not because God was inflicting this punishment on them, but because they had brought it on themselves. And humans have been doing that ever since. God was disappointed because God only wants the best for us. Even the prophet Joel tells us that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” After God had finished lecturing Adam, he spoke these words, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” While these words reminded Adam of his mortality, they were also words of promise and hope. They are words that remind us of where we began, and with whom we are connected.

God created us out of the dust of the earth. To God even the dust is sacred, especially the dust. God exhaled and breathed into life the first humans from the dust of the earth. God exhales and breathes new life into us each and every day. God wants us to remember that the breath of God’s Holy Spirit changes dust into something holy and sacred. Whenever God exhales and breathes and divinely speaks, things are no longer ordinary. They are holy. Like water, and bread, and wine, and humans made from the dust of the earth.

It’s not just humans that are made of dust. The clouds in the heavens are formed when water droplets attach to …..dust. The beautiful comets that dance across the night sky are formed from ice, and gas, and …..dust. And according to the Big Bang Theory, scientists tell us that this big blue ball called earth was created from …..stardust. Yes, even the planet itself was formed from dust. God breathed life into the dust of the universe. God thought dust was that useful and that important.

It certainly changes the way we think about dust, and the way we care for all of creation for we share the same substances, the same particles. True, we’ll still sweep those dust bunnies out from under our beds. We’ll still wipe it off the furniture, and the things we have in our homes. But dust is more than just the stuff we want to get rid of. Dust is the substance of life. So when we hear the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we are being reminded to draw closer to God who first gave us life from the dust of the earth. We are being asked to return to the Lord with all our hearts. We are being reminded to remember that our very lives exist because God breathed us into existence, along with the rest of the universe. To God we are that useful and that important. And even more so, we are treasured.

Lent – and particularly Ash Wednesday – is a time when we are asked to return to the very beginning of our lives – to empty ourselves of all that we’ve accumulated along the way – the sin, the hatred, the prejudices, the worries, the fears, the hard hearts – and let God breathe new life into us again. Lent is a time to return to God, to be re-created, and to allow God to create in us a clean heart, and put a new and right spirit back within us. That new spirit will cause us to rejoice always even when we experience sorrow. That new spirit will create in us generous hearts, knowing that if we have God in our life we possess everything. That new spirit will bring our hearts back to God, “for where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also.”

The reason we receive ashes on our foreheads is not a false piety to be seen by others, but a reminder that we were made out of dust. Dust made sacred from God’s holy breath – dust that God made and treasures. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Return to the God who loves you. Return to the God who treasures even dust. Amen.

 

 

Stop, Look, and Listen

Sunday, February 11, 2018 – Transfiguration
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Loudonville, NY
Mark 9:2-9

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. We take pictures so we can capture the moment. We want some way to make spectacular moments last, so we can re-live that moment over and over again. New cell phones make that a lot easier, so that when one of these moments happen you can take a picture in an instant.

I’m not just talking about taking pictures while on vacation. I’m talking about taking pictures while an extraordinary or special event is happening. With the Olympics beginning this weekend, there are many opportunities for people to take pictures of these special events. Yet, as I watch events like the opening ceremonies or figure skating, I can’t take my eyes off of them. If I were there to take a picture, I’d lose being caught up in the moment.

Or think about occasions like baptisms or weddings. So often people are so concerned about getting a picture at just the right moment that they are distracted from the actual event. In a sense, they are missing this opportunity because they are more focused on preserving it, rather than being present in that holy moment. You see pictures, and other things to memorialize an event are great, but the problem is that we can become so focused on taking the picture, that we actually miss the glory of the moment. The focus is on getting the right picture, holding the camera steady, making sure it’s the right lighting, etc.  and we miss that holy moment entirely when God’s glory is revealed in a spectacular way. I’ve witnessed that at some weddings or baptisms when there are so many pictures being taken that the holiness of the moment is missed by the photographers, and many others. It can be a terrible distraction.

We hear about just such a spectacular holy moment in our gospel story from Mark today. Peter wants to do that very thing; he wants to preserve a spectacular moment forever. He doesn’t have a camera, but when Jesus is transfigured on the mountain with clothes dazzling white he suggests building a booth or tent for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. While the Israelites were used to building tents or booths for a yearly harvest festival, it seems like a rather odd thing to us today doesn’t it? But think about it, when we are overcome with extreme emotion – terror, excitement, confusion….we don’t always know what to do or say either.

It happens a lot when a tragedy happens to someone, and so often we don’t know what to say, and often like Peter, we end up saying the wrong thing because of that. Our emotions get the best of us, and we want to do something, but we just don’t know what to do. It’s at times like those when the best thing to say is nothing at all, but that can leave us feeling uncomfortable. Most people aren’t comfortable for long with silence, especially when extreme emotions are involved.

It’s at that time we need the voice of wisdom from the Holy Spirit to guide us. We need that voice to snap us out of being trapped in our emotions to being present. We too, like Peter, James, and John need to hear the voice of God to bring us back to the present moment and what really matters. And what God says really matters is listening so we can see the whole picture, and experience the truth.

Listening isn’t just hearing with our ears; it’s being fully present in the moment. It’s engaging all our senses – hearing, sight, touch, taste and smell – so that we can more deeply understand. Take for example a lemon. We can see a picture of a lemon and know intellectually what it is, but until we touch it, smell it, and taste it, we really don’t know the fullness of the lemon.
That’s what God was saying when he spoke to Peter, James, and John, and to us today – stop what you are doing, and really be present in that holy experience. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

Listening is one of the most important skills we can master, because when we really listen, we are changed, sometimes even transformed. We have a clearer picture of who another person is, and who we are. How often during worship services do we really stay in the present moment? Every week we are blessed with the real presence of Christ in Holy Communion, yet we might be thinking about what we are doing after worship, the things we need to do during the week, the hurt or angry feelings we may be holding on to. Something extraordinary happens here every week. Are we present enough to really experience it?

It’s becoming harder and harder for people today to listen because we are always thinking about something, or checking our cell phones, dwelling on the past, or worrying about the future. God is saying, “Stop and listen.” “Listen to him!” “Listen to Jesus, because when we stop and really focus on Jesus and what he is saying, then we hear the voice of God speak to us, and we no longer are terrified. We have a peace beyond comprehension.

We may not experience Jesus’ transfiguration on a mountaintop like Peter, James, and John, but there are times when Jesus’ glory is revealed to each one of us. After all, he came down from the mountain to be with us. He came down from that mountain knowing he would suffer and die. He knew he would face unspeakable terror, but Jesus listened to the voice of God and he knew he would be raised to new life again. We have that assurance too through our baptism.

We come now to the end of these six weeks of epiphany where we have been trying to be more aware of where God is revealed to us each day. As we transition to the season of Lent, remember the same God who was revealed on the mountain of the transfiguration walks with us on this Lenten journey. During the forty days of Lent, let’s listen to the voice of God, listen to Jesus, and listen to one another. Listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit always guiding us to an awareness of God’s spectacular holy moments every day if we stop long enough to look and listen. Amen.

Raised Up to Witness

Sunday, February 4, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Loudonville, NY
Mark 1:29-39

What do you do when you have an important decision to make? Who do you turn to for the answers? And how do you know if it’s God’s will you are following or your own? These are some of the questions that were brought up by the confirmation students during our last confirmation class as we continue to discuss the Lord’s Prayer. These are important questions for all of us to ask ourselves. And we can look to the Scriptures for guidance.

Mark’s gospel, which is the church’s focus for this year, is unique in that is has a central driving focus – the crucifixion. From the very beginning of Mark’s gospel there is an immediacy, a holy urgency, that continually drives his story. He begins with the baptism of Jesus, and continues a fast paced detailed account of what happened by the continual use of the words and or immediately. Jesus and the disciples are going from one thing to the next, continually on the move. Jesus has a lot of work to do, and not a lot of time to get it done. He is on a mission from God and there is no time to waste.

This fast pace begins right away. It begins with the heavens being torn apart at Jesus’ baptism, God’s voice proclaims Jesus as “My beloved Son,” the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan, angels minister to him, John is arrested, Jesus begins preaching and teaching, he calls disciples, he casts out demons, he heals people….and this is only chapter one! Do you see what I mean? There’s a lot going on right from the very beginning. If you sit down and read the gospel of Mark in one sitting it is a super-fast paced, action packed adventure. And we’re just reading about it. Imagine what it was like for Jesus!

Just imagine for a moment about the energy it must have taken for Jesus to confront the unclean spirit in the temple last week. He didn’t respond with violence or destruction, but with healing. That requires a lot of focused energy. Immediately after they left the synagogue, they go to Simon and Andrew’s house most likely looking for a little time to relax. But Simon’s mother-in-law was sick – so no rest for the weary Jesus. He took her hand and raised her up. Then the fever left her and she began ministering to them. You can’t do God’s work without first being raised up, without first being given new life, and that is what we all receive when we experience the hand of God through Jesus. He raises us up to where he is. He gives us our purpose in life. He gives meaning to everything we do. When Jesus raises us up, we too are part of God’s mission of bringing about the kingdom of God here on earth as it is in heaven.

And we need that healing touch from Jesus because it’s so easy to forget that we are part of God’s mission. It’s tempting to want to follow our own desires instead of God’s will. Even in our gospel account today we see many examples of that. Once Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law they bring all the sick and possessed in the city to him. And Jesus tells the demons not to speak because they knew who Jesus was. How were they going to reveal that information? Were they going to spin it for their own purpose so that Jesus was known simply as a miracle worker? Jesus didn’t come just to perform miracles. He came to proclaim the kingdom of God. He came to tell us about God’s mercy, compassion, and love. He came to set us free and raise us up. The demons or evil spirits just wanted Jesus to be known as one who could give people what they wanted, but Jesus didn’t come to give people what they want; he came to give people what they need. And often what we need isn’t necessarily what we want.

So getting back to our confirmation questions, “How do we know what it is we really need, and what we are called to do?” Jesus showed us the way. He went away to pray, to connect with God, and hear what it was he was to do next. Jesus constantly prayed to keep his will aligned with God’s will, and to make sure he was following God’s plan. Yet, so often while he was praying the disciples were well, freaking out. Look at today’s story. Simon and his companions were hunting for Jesus. They were frantically trying to find him because everyone was searching for him. They all needed something from Jesus. They all had things that they wanted Jesus to do for them. And we so often do the same thing today. We have our own ideas of what God should do and how they should be done. We want our own will instead of God’s will.

Jesus told the disciples, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” Everyone – including the disciples – wanted Jesus to stay around, but Jesus had to follow God’s mission. They would have been happier if Jesus stayed with them, and maybe he would have liked to stay in one place for a long time too, but Jesus was faithful to God’s will, and that doesn’t always make everyone happy. Yet, Jesus didn’t come to please everyone; he came to raise us up to new life, to a new way of living, to a new way of being. This is why Jesus came. This is why he suffered, and died, and rose again. Jesus was raised to new life, and through him we are raised up too.

As we continue our journey from the manger to the cross in this Epiphany season, let us take time to pray and commune with God, so that we will hear the Spirit’s voice as to what God is calling us to do and be in this world. Let us pray, Gracious and Loving God as we raise our prayers to you may our words to others build up not tear down. Help us to extend hands of healing to others just like Jesus- hands that raise up others. And may our lives be a witness of how you Almighty God have raised us up, and continue to raise us up through Jesus Christ who lives in us through the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.