Friday, March 02, 2012

Hearing "Beloved" in the Wilderness

Sermon preached on the First Sunday of Lent (February 26) at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Mark 1:9-15

Technically I am a Baby Boomer, but I have never felt like one. My parents are not of the “Greatest Generation.” They were born during World War II. I tried for awhile to identify with Generation X, but that ended in disaster when I went to a meeting for “Gen X” clergy and was thrown out (in a matter of speaking) because I was too old.

There ought to be a word for those of us who spent our teenage years in the seventies. What a very strange time to grow up. None of the excitement of the ‘60’s, none of the “greed is good” ‘80’s. All we had was Watergate and Disco. Not much to build a life around.

These are identity issues and we all have them. Life is a quest to know who I am, and I have been around long enough now to know my identity is a moving target. And I know you and people like you well enough to know I am not alone. Just when you think you have a handle on who you are, something changes and you have to re-reassess. Even the pieces that are relatively stable are constantly in flux. I spend a lot of time with couples who are preparing for marriage talking about the dynamics of relationships, how they are always changing. The vows of marriage don’t freeze a relationship in some kind of permanent blissful stasis. Mostly they are polite and think I’m just another jaded old guy.

For a person of faith, the quest for identity is a spiritual quest. Who I am is so much more than my physical make-up or the facts of my history. It’s very much about the mystery of how we think and how we feel. It is greatly affected by relationships with others. We have all met people—hopefully many of them—who have changed our lives, which means changed our identity. And the realm of all this mystery, what happens between me and you and you and you and you, is the realm of the Spirit.

People of faith choose to believe that there is a mystery quite beyond ourselves, outside of our control, and totally “other” from us who nevertheless is with us in profound ways. We call this mystery God.

People of faith who are Christians choose to believe that this mystery is best known in a unique man who lived two thousand years ago named Jesus. It is a gift we choose to receive that this man reveals to us both who God is and who we are. In him the mystery is not totally revealed, but it does begin to make sense, and more and more over time as we are continually formed and re-formed in his likeness.

One of the great gifts of Jesus is that I can go a long way to finding my own unique identity in him. He is my ultimate companion on the identity quest, always there to reassure me that God is there, for me, and sometimes to challenge me when I become too sure of myself, usually to the detriment of others.

The story we have from Mark’s Gospel this morning, because it is so wonderfully compressed, gives us a strong picture of what the quest for our identity is like, at least if we are going to encounter the same Spirit that Jesus encountered.

Jesus comes to the Jordan. He’s thirty years old and, presumably, just striking out on his own. We don’t know anything about what he is thinking about his own identity. Some want to believe he was crystal clear about who he was, his unique relationship with God. Others are quite sure that he didn’t have a clue. Nobody actually knows, of course.

What we do know is that he is fully human, and if he is a fully human being he’s having fully human thoughts about who he is. Maybe he has some pretty firm ideas about that, but he has to be carrying around the question, like the rest of us, “Who am I? And what does that mean?”

Something attracts him to a preacher named John who has amassed quite a following along the Jordan River. John says over and over and over again, “Metanoeite! Metanoeite!” Change your lives! Turn around! Take a different path! Repent! And he baptizes people as a sign of their commitment to this different path.

And Jesus joins them. And he has a vision. He gets a message from the mystery. The mystery is torn open—that happens once and awhile if we are paying attention—and if he had any doubts about his identity, well, they are put to rest. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Moments like that can change our lives can’t they? The lack of them, especially from the people we love, can deeply trouble us. One of the great messages of Christianity, so distorted by those who find John the Baptist’s judgments of others more comforting than God’s, is that we are, in fact, beloved. We believe that is our identity. Unlike everything else in this world it does not change.

One of my favorite prayers from the Prayer Book says

…so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness…[1]

What incredible good news is that?

But that good news gets severely tested all the time and we are sorely tempted to let go of it. The Spirit did not let Jesus rest in that awesome moment of affirmation. And there is some sense here that he would have liked to, and who wouldn’t, who doesn’t. But the Spirit drives him into the wilderness. And he is met there by the one called Satan. The word “satan” comes from the Hebrew word meaning to accuse or attack. Satan is the one who tries to turn God against us and who tries to get us to believe that God has done precisely that.

Whether Satan is a real being or not doesn’t much matter. We all know that voice. It is a very clever voice, used by religious people all the time, trying to get us to believe that we are separated from God unless we jump through the right hoops or put on a good enough spiritual show.

Mark the Gospel writer doesn’t give us details of Jesus’ encounter with Satan. I think he thinks he doesn’t have to. We all know what this is about, because it is our journey too.

But Mark does give us a funny little detail. “…and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” He was not alone, the goodness of creation was there and the messengers of God were there to keep whispering in his ear, “Beloved, beloved, beloved.”

Someone pointed out to me the other day that I have said that the purpose of Lent is not for us to pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps and prove our worthiness to God. But wasn’t I doing precisely that by trying to get us to adopt spiritual practices? I said, the difference is that we don’t do a spiritual practice in order for God to love us, we do it in order to be able to hear God tells us that he loves us again and again and again.

You cannot tell me that you are so sure of your identity, of your place in the universe, that you do not need to find the equivalent of your own wild beasts and angels so that you can hear, “Beloved, beloved, beloved.”


No comments: