Tag Archives: Repentance

“Right Place, Right Time”

Gospel Lesson: Mark 1:9-15 (NRSV)

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear from President Brian Blount of Union Presbyterian Seminary as he delivered the keynote for the annual gathering of Presbyterian Christian educators.  As he spoke with our group, he made the point that our memories of the past are often seen through the rose-tinted glasses that we call nostalgia.  According to President Blount, “If it wasn’t for nostalgia, nobody would ever go back to Disney World!”

As somebody who grew up in Florida as a young child, this gave me a good laugh because I knew exactly what he was talking about.  My family and I had spent countless hours at the Magic Kingdom…and I had boxes of pictures to prove it!  My parents had given me an inexpensive 35 mm camera with which to capture our experiences.

One of the dozens of “Kodak Picture Spot” signs that were once found throughout the Magic Kingdom.

Of course, if we weren’t sure which memories we wanted to immortalize on film, the Disney folks (along with their sponsors from Kodak) seemed more than willing to help us out.  Throughout the park, signs had been installed to help us find the perfect place to capture our “Magical Memories.”  Of course, these signs usually meant that we had to wait in line, just so that we could take the same shot as dozens of other tourists.  But at least when we got back home, I wouldn’t be the only kid in class who hadn’t gotten a picture in front of the teacups!

Thankfully, the photos only captured those joyful, artificial memories.  They don’t show the monotony of waiting in line after endless line for countless hours all for a few minutes of entertainment.  They don’t capture the breakdown into tears when my sister and I had become exhausted mid-afternoon from the heat and the frantic pace that we had been keeping up all day trying to fit everything into this magical experience.  And they don’t remember the utter disappointment on our faces when we would have to seek shelter from the torrential downpours that strike central Florida with such frequency that you’re left wondering what fool ever nicknamed this place the “Sunshine State!”  No.  They don’t retain those moments.  Our photographs only reinforce the idea that this truly was the “Happiest Place on Earth.”

But as I think back on our family vacation, I am at least experiencing nostalgia for some place that I have actually been.  What truly amazes me is my ability to have a nostalgic memory of an event when I wasn’t even present there to begin with!  Take the baptism of our Lord.

When I picture this moment in Scripture, I usually see Jesus being dipped into the serene blue waters of the mighty Jordan river and emerging in shimmering light all while a dove descends in gorgeous slow motion and, from out of nowhere, triumphant horns proclaim a hymn of coronation.  Years of viewing classic paintings and big screen theater depictions have left this indelible image in my mind. However, the reality is that the true setting for Jesus’ baptism was a far sight from the idyllic scenes that we hold in mind.

When you see it as it truly is, one of the first things you might notice is that the Jordan River is not a large water feature.  In fact, when looking at it, you might think that it would be more accurate to name it the Jordan Creek.  For the most part, it is a shallow, narrow waterway, which takes little time to cross.  Probably the only thing less impressive than the river’s size is the appearance of the water itself.  While we imagine an endless flow of crystal clear water, which reflects the bright blue skies overhead, the real Jordan’s waters appear a dingy brown that makes it look less like a baptismal pool and more like a drainage ditch.  If these were the waters where people were coming to be made clean, you can just imagine how dirty with sin they must have felt.

The “mighty” Jordan River.

Of course, part of my false memory is the sight of our Lord Jesus confidently arising from the water in his bright white robe.  But more likely, his clothes might have actually been stained with the sediment of the river.  Shivering from his dip in the cold, murky water, Jesus probably couldn’t wait to get out of the Jordan…to move on from this place.

But if nostalgia has left us with a false sense of serenity at our Lord’s baptism, our minds make no effort to improve the next scene in our Gospel tale.  The Spirit that only moments ago had softly descended upon our Lord now drives him out into the wilderness.  While the River had its drawbacks, at least it was a communal place.  But now, Jesus finds himself in a place of absence.  Here, there is no food, there is no water, not even a muddy puddle the likes of the Jordan.  Here, there is nobody else to keep him company.  Well, almost nobody else.

While we might be hard pressed to think that there is a right place and a right time to encounter Satan, we can certainly say that this isn’t it.  For forty days and forty nights, Jesus’ experience in the wilderness allows him to embody the experience of Noah in the ark and of the Israelites wandering for forty years before entering the Promised Land.  As he relies on the angels of his Father to provide for his sustenance, Jesus is tempted by Satan to reject God. But Jesus remains faithful.  And at the end of his fast, he is prepared to begin a ministry that will lead him to the cross and the tomb.

Every year as we enter into Lent, it seems like we see everyone lining up to create the same memories of penitence.  Everyone is pledging to give up chocolate, or television, or Facebook.  On Ash Wednesday, we piously share pictures of the gray cross that is marked on our foreheads as though it is a sign of honor.  We do all the things that signal to the rest of the world that now is the right time and this is the right place for us to come to God with penitent hearts.

And God does indeed welcome us to turn back to the ways of the Lord.  But as we make this turn, God wants us to know something very important.  Despite the way we might remember things, God is always  with us.  When we look back to discover that so much of our nostalgia masks the grimmer truth of our past, one thing holds true.  God was there.  When we look at our present walk through this time of repentance, God is here.  And as we look ahead to the ministry that awaits us, as we too approach the cross and the tomb, we must go forward to proclaim the Good News, carrying with us the assurance that God will be here.

Friends, throughout our own Lenten journeys, I encourage each of us to recognize that this is the right place and the right time to turn to God.  In the midst of the joys in our lives, as we celebrate a successful day at work, a good grade on that school project, or a joyful family event, may we turn to God and give thanks.  As we are faced with health setbacks, financial struggles, peer pressure, and family dysfunction, may we turn to God and seek guidance.  And as we experience all of the other moments along the way, may we turn to God who is ever with us.  Wherever we go in these forty days, may we know that there is nowhere that we are cut off from God.  For by the covenant of grace, established through our Lord Jesus, God is with us in every time and place.

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ we bend our knees and lift up our hearts, giving glory to God forever. Amen.

This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, February 22, 2015 (The First Sunday in Lent).

“Pesky Perseverance”

Old Testament Lesson: Jonah 3:1-10 (NRSV)

1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8 Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

“If you build it, he will come.” For Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella, this message is mysteriously spoken to him to one evening while he is walking through his cornfield.  And for us, this remains one of the best known film quotes of all time, even twenty-five years after the theatrical release of Field of Dreams.

If you’ve somehow managed to avoid the movie, the story centers on Ray’s need to build a baseball field in his cornfield, in order to fulfill a vision that he has had.  Ray seeks to do this, even while everyone around him doubts the credibility of his vision and even he himself questions the validity of his mission.  And yet, each time I watch the film, the character that truly draws me into the story is that of recluse Terrence Mann.

Portrayed by James Earl Jones, Terrence is a celebrated author in the vein of J. D. Salinger.  Having once written a book that some consider to be a masterpiece and others regard as offensive, his celebrity and infamy have driven him into a life of solitude.  But when Ray has yet another vision, he becomes determined to convince Terrence to come out of his self-imposed isolation, so that together, they might pursue Ray’s dream. Ray comes to Terrence seeking his help, but the author has no interest in helping this stranger to fulfill his ludicrous vision. Clearly this is a “fool’s errand” taken on by a man caught somewhere between nostalgia and hopeless idealism.

Reclusive author Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) drives Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) out of his home after he hears the Iowa farmer’s crazy dream.

I wonder if this is perhaps where Jonah thought that God was dwelling when he received the call to go to Nineveh…between nostalgia and hopeless idealism.  The Lord knows the “wickedness” of the people of this city, just as his prophet does.  And Jonah also knows that God’s righteousness would justify the complete eradication of such a sinful population.  So why then, does God call his servant to speak words of warning?

Perhaps God looks at the people of Nineveh and sees them for who they once were.  The Lord sees in the city more than one hundred twenty thousand of His children.  These are the Sons and Daughters, whom God had fashioned.  They were the pride of God’s creation.  And when God looks upon them, even in their present, corrupted state, the Lord’s first impulse is still love.

Perhaps God looks at the people of Nineveh and sees them for who they will become.  The Lord looks in the city and sees a multitude of souls who wait for the offer of redemption.  These are the faithful servants who will turn back to their God.  They will repent  of their iniquities.  And when God looks upon them, even in their present, broken state, the Lord’s first impulse is still mercy.

But Jonah does not share God’s vision of love and mercy.  The immoral people of Nineveh deserve the Lord’s wrath, not His compassion.  God should crush them under foot, not welcome them to return with open arms.  Even as God speaks to His servant Jonah, the prophet can’t understand what the Lord is saying to him.  And in his frustration, Jonah flees in the opposite direction, on a boat bound for Tarshish.  But escaping from God isn’t that easy.

As I was thinking about Jonah’s inability to understand the command of his God, I realized this past week that I was faced with a communication breakdown of my own.  I’ve recently found myself engaged in some extended conversations with Rebecca.  There’s just one little problem: I don’t have a clue what she’s saying!

We’ve reached the point where my daughter clearly has thoughts and ideas that she is prepared to share with us.  But unfortunately, her speech development isn’t as advanced as her overall language comprehension.  And so, while I can clearly recognize that she is sharing some truly complex thoughts, I can’t  understand much of it.

I used to be able to buy myself a pass with responses like, “Oh, I see” and “Is that right?”  But now, I’ve learned that such replies simply won’t do.  Rebecca doesn’t just want to talk; she wants to know that I’m listening.  And she can be pretty persistent in her attempts to make you understand!  If there’s something she wants, Rebecca will pursue from one end of the house to the other, telling you about it time and again, until you get the message.  And if that’s what it’s like dealing with the resolve of my two-year-old child, I can only imagine what it must have been like for Jonah to try to evade the perseverance of the Almighty God.

This carving, found on a sarcophagus from third century Mainz, depicts various scenes from the Book of Jonah (Vatican Museum).

God thwarts the attempted escape of His prophet by sending winds and waves against his boat.  And in his stubbornness, Jonah actually allows himself to be thrown overboard to suffer certain death, rather than simply listening to the command that the Lord God has issued.  But having determined that Jonah would be the one to carry the warning to Nineveh, God saves the prophet from the sea by sending the most unlikely of rescuers. A fish swallows up Jonah and carries him safely through the sea for three days.

During his journey, the prophet recognizes that this strange protection is the Lord’s doing.  And while Jonah remains convinced that Nineveh is irredeemable, he still confesses in prayer that “Deliverance belongs to the Lord.”  After his prayer, the fish returns Jonah to dry land.  And having rededicated himself to his vow of prophecy, he goes to the city of Nineveh when the Lord issues a second call.

As I think again about the Field of Dreams, I am reminded that even when Ray convinces Terrence to join him in fulfilling a vision by going to a game at Boston’s Fenway Park, Terrence remains skeptical.  He doesn’t want any part in this bizarre mission of Ray’s.  That is until both men experience a new vision.  After this shared revelation, Ray and Terrence are united in the work ahead.

Sadly, despite God’s efforts, we don’t know whether or not Jonah ever truly shares in the Lord’s vision for Nineveh.  Even after he fulfills his work as prophet, Jonah still laments God’s decision to spare the city.  While he acknowledges that the Lord is “merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing,” Jonah’s anger leads him to a hill outside of the city, where he sits and waits, anticipating the destruction that he believes is surely coming.  But even as he waits in vain, that pesky God of his continues to come to him, inviting the prophet to share in the Lord’s vision of love.

Today, I believe that God is offering to share that same vision with all of us.  We are called, not only to return to God, but also to be a loving voice of repentance, which welcomes people to make their own turns back to the Lord.  And yet, even as we are invited to share this vision of love with our God, we are also faced with “Ninevahs” in our own lives.

These are the places and the people and the situations that we have no desire to engage.  And I know that we don’t like to admit it, but these places exist for each of us.  We look at the convict and see a man who is deserving of his sentence or worse.  But God looks with hope for one who might be rehabilitated into society.  We look at the addict and see a woman who deserves no pity for the condition she’s in after abusing her own body.  But God looks with compassion and sees a sick child who needs somebody to offer her care.  We look at the unemployed single mother and see a woman who is fittingly trapped in a situation of her own doing.  But God looks with love and sees a daughter who wants to provide for her child, just as much as the Lord wants to provide for his own.

But even as we struggle to enter Nineveh, the Good News for us is that our God is a pesky God.  The Lord is not only “abounding in steadfast love,” but God is also determined to call us to share in this love for the world!  With eternal perseverance, God is going to annoy us and irritate us and pursue us with all the love there is, calling us to share in his vision, so that we might stand in the midst of Nineveh and be God’s presence, calling people to receive God’s love and to return to God’s ways.

Friends, as we continue to seek to hear God’s call in our lives, let us acknowledge the places where we struggle to go and the Lord who calls us there anyway.  May we consciously ask whether the vision we follow is truly that of our God.  And may we trust in the Lord, who leads us to see people not as they are, in their poor, crumbling states now, but as they once were in God’s loving act of Creation…and as they shall be again in the fulfillment of God’s redemption.

To the Lord who speaks to us, and strengthens us, and blesses us with peace, be all glory and honor forever. Amen. (Psalm 29:1, 11)

This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, January 25, 2015 (The Third Sunday after Epiphany).

“Washed Away”

Gospel Lesson: Mark 1:1-11 (NRSV)

1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’ ”
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved;h with you I am well pleased.”

In the beginning there is water and the Spirit. As we read the first verses of Genesis, we are reminded that, before God speaks the first command of Creation, the wind of God moved over the waters of chaotic inexistence. In reality, water is just as much a product of God’s work as everything else. Our theology teaches us that, prior to the act of Creation, nothing (not even water) had come into being. But then why is water even mentioned?

Perhaps, for the people who first told the story of Creation, it was the best metaphor they could imagine for what came before “the beginning.” Water is a shapeless, formless substance. It is not inherently good or bad. It has the ability to preserve and to destroy. In the realm of all things created, water was perhaps the best image they could come up with for non-Creation.

Of course, we find water playing a prevalent role in our second story of beginnings today, as Jesus comes to be baptized. By the time this story is told, water carries with it the history of the interaction between the Jewish people and their God. When God sought to destroy the evil that had infested his Good Creation, the Lord used the waters of the Great Flood to purge the earth of evil. When God sought to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, he parted the waters so that they might pass, then brought them back together, so that their pursuers were cut off from God’s people. When the people complained of thirst in the wilderness, God sustained them by bringing forth water from a stone. And when God led the people out of the desert, the waters of the Jordan parted so that the people might cross into the land which the Lord God had promised to them.

The people flocking to see John in the wilderness carry all of these stories with them as they come to the water. And yet, the waters of baptism had, by no means, been established as a place to interact with the Almighty. Under Jewish law, those wishing to petition the Lord would have traditionally done so by going to the Temple in Jerusalem, so that they might make an offering to God.

But in that day, the people’s offerings had become tainted by the corruption of religious leaders, who abused their authority to pursue their own interests ahead of the relationship between God and the covenant people. And so, those people turned their backs on Jerusalem and returned to the wilderness, in the hope that they might here encounter God once again.

This act is a literal act of repentance, turning away from sin and toward God. The people confess their own sinfulness and are baptized as a symbolic mark that God has washed away all their iniquities. And yet, in all their zeal for renewal, the people have no idea just how close they are to God.

A Mosaic by Artist John August Swanson, depicting John baptizing Jesus at the Jordan.

Even John, who has dedicated his ministry to preparing the way of the Lord, is caught off guard when Jesus comes. John knows this man—this cousin of his. While there are many who need to come and seek forgiveness, Jesus is not among them. So, what is he doing here?

I heard a story of a pastor who had devoted his career to preaching God’s mercy and love and calling people to repent of their sins and to receive God’s forgiveness. But sadly, he silently struggled with one particular sin of his own, to the point that he began to doubt the truth of the Good News which he proclaimed. In time, his skepticism led him to conclude that there was simply no way that God could ever redeem him. His sin, known only to him, was simply too great for God to forgive.

But in his congregation, he was told that there was an old woman of great faith. It was said that through continual prayer and study, she had drawn herself close to God. And this woman firmly believed that Jesus spoke to her through visions. Filled with cynicism at the idea that anyone could have such a close relationship with God, the pastor met with the woman one Sunday after church and asked, “Is it true that you believe you hear Jesus speaking to you through visions?”

“Oh yes,” said the woman, “I don’t just believe it! I know it!”

“Well,” said the pastor, “the next time you talk with our Lord, do me a favor, would you? Ask him to tell you what grave sin I committed many years ago.”

Though she didn’t understand the request, the old woman agreed.

The following week, she met with her pastor again.

“So,” he asked, “Did the Lord come to you in a vision this week?”

“Yes, indeed,” she replied.

“And did you ask him about my terrible sin?”

“I did,” answered the little old woman.

“Well then, what did he say?”

“He said he forgot.”

“Huph!” the pastor laughed, satisfied that he had disproved the woman’s claim.

“Actually,” she continued, “He said that if He had forgotten it, perhaps you should too.”

So often, we struggle to forget the things that God has already chosen not to remember. We hold other’s sins against them and we even hold our own sins against ourselves. But the Lord God chooses not to remember those things, as though they had been washed away with the flowing waters of the river.

In fact this is exactly what Jesus does in coming to the River Jordan. In that moment, our Lord chooses love for God’s fallen Creations over the eternal separation that would otherwise result from our sin. In as much as Jesus chooses love for us by giving his life on the cross, he also chooses love when he allows his untarnished being to be immersed in the spiritually polluted waters of the Jordan.

And what we discover is that Jesus not only remains pure, but his righteousness washes over all those who come after him. In the generations of followers to come, baptism would not only mark a turn from sin. It would also signify one’s acceptance by God into the covenant of grace. The members of this community would receive the same Spirit that had descended upon Jesus. And just like our Lord, each of us would have the assurance that we too have been claimed as God’s beloved children, with whom God is well pleased.

Today, as we celebrate the baptism of our Lord and as we remember our own baptism through which our sins have been washed away, we should mark this as not just a moment of commemoration, but one for dedication. As baptism marks the occasion for the start of Jesus’ ministry with God’s beloved Creation, may baptism also serve as our own call to go and minister to the world.

Let us share the Good News of baptism like John before us. May we invite our Brothers and Sisters to receive God’s grace and may we extend to them our grace. Having sought forgiveness for our sins, may we not hold our iniquities against ourselves. And having been purified through the waters which Christ shares with us, may we know that our sins have been washed away, and we have been united with God and one another through the power of the Holy Spirit.

To the Lord who speaks to us, and strengthens us, and blesses us with peace, be all glory and honor forever. Amen. (Psalm 29:1, 11)

This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, January 11, 2015 (The Baptism of the Lord).