Sunday, March 29, 2009

Clean Heart, Right Spirit

copyright © 2009, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
5th Sunday in Lent, March 29, 2009

Psalm 51:1-12

John 12:20-36

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.

The core of Psalm 51 is in this 10th verse, which marks the center of the psalm both as literature and as theology. It is the cry of every human being honest enough with themselves to admit that we have fallen short, we have disappointed, we have wounded others and ourselves, we have compromised what is good by our attraction to what is less than good by either a short or long shot, doing what is wrong in hopes that it will somehow turn out right, the way some folks for centuries hoped to be able to produce precious gold from baser metals.

The venerable Sir Isaac Newton, mathematician, physicist, astronomer, author of much that we know as modern science, was also much less than modern in that he was attracted to the ancient belief in alchemy; the man who invented calculus, who correctly derived the law of universal gravitation, also sought the secret to the ancient and secretive pseudo-science bent on turning base metals into gold. He was convinced not only that gold could be made from simpler, less-expensive materials, but also that ancient alchemists had actually done it by some now-lost process which he hoped to recover. All he needed to do, he believed, was to unearth their secret processes. He never succeeded, of course, because — well — it was an idea that didn’t “pan out,” if you’ll pardon the Gold Rush pun. Gold, we now know, cannot be made from anything but ... gold. It is an element, not owing its existence to any other combination of elements.

We know that, and we realize it is foolish to try pursue an alchemist’s path to making precious gold out of other things that are not precious. Just so, a clean heart, as desired by the psalmist, is similarly pure, elemental, and not derivable by any means other than a right spirit, the natural home of a clean heart.

Having lost such a thing as a clean heart, how could it possibly be recovered? Can we, by our own effort, somehow magically erase all hurt we have caused, all guilt we have known, all shortcuts we have taken in the process of discovering that bad means lead to equally bad ends? Apparently we cannot, which is the clear reason why the psalmist’s prayer asks not for the power to become right-hearted by some sort of auto-correction, but asks God for a new act of creation, literally as transforming as the first Creation, which fashioned a world out of a watery chaos. Truly, his prayer is that God will act again in his spirit, as God acted in the very creation of the world, and make possible a clean heart, a right spirit in the place where an unclean heart and a wrong spirit now live.

I remember my days in seminary, occasionally traveling from the Princeton Seminary campus to the university campus a block away, to use their library. I also remember that very often, the books or periodicals I went looking for weren’t there. It was infuriating, knowing that a professor had assigned some reading and placed the volume on hold, only to discover that someone had removed it without going through the bother of checking it out, which is a polite way of saying, they had stolen it. When I asked one of the librarians what was going on, she said, “You’re from the seminary, aren’t you?” Wondering how she knew, I said that yes I was. She told me that readings set aside for seminary students had the highest theft rate on the campus.

I was shocked. Really, I was. “How is that possible?” I asked.

She said, “I don’t really know, except that you folks over at Holy Joe College (I took that for a deprecatory characterization) believe in grace; which in your cases apparently means that you figure you’re already forgiven, so taking what you want only requires a subsequent prayer for forgiveness to make everything right.”

Hmmm. New and right? Clean, even?

The psalmist was surely on to something. And of course, you and I know, it’s not just seminary students who spend lifetimes getting up to this kind of behavior. I remember a student at the university lamenting to me one day that his classes were so competitive that often, when the professor announced a required reading had been placed on reserve at the library, the race was immediately on to get there first, because, invariably, someone would remove it or hide it elsewhere in the stacks in order to score an advantage over others who arrived too late to find it. I suppose the internet has alleviated some of this behavior, but I doubt it has eliminated the sort of spirit that drives it.

The French philosopher, Simone Weil, once declared that “All sins are attempts to fill voids.” Though we may try to fill the voids in our lives with anything and everything, we remain empty because there is an empty place that is fitted only for God, and which rejects all impostors. Some day, if we are as acutely aware as the psalmist, we may ask God to fill that emptiness, and in the process see a sort of wholly, holy new life to which God is calling us, and find we have hearts that are freshly cleansed, spirits newly right, almost like being born again.

Or, of course, we can always choose to remain in what one preacher called “a wrecked relationship with God and other human beings,” trying desperately to assert our cleanness of heart, rightness of spirit against all evidence to the contrary. Our only hope for recovery is to take the first step, which is to acknowledge that something about us is seriously out of whack, and throw ourselves on the mercy of God’s court, just as the psalmist did before us.


Moving into our gospel reading, have you ever noticed that in John’s gospel, when someone asks Jesus what appears to be a fairly direct question, he seldom responds with a direct or obvious answer? In today’s passage, there were folks John described as “some Greeks” who told Philip they wished to see Jesus. Philip told Andrew, then they both went to tell Jesus. Something must have gotten lost in the translation, because Jesus’ response seems to bear no connection whatsoever with the request.

Greeks: Hi... Say, Mister, we’re interested in seeing Jesus, what do you say?

Philip: Hm, I’m not sure, let me check it out with someone for you... Hey, Andrew, before you run off to become the patron Saint of Scotland, these guys have a question. They say they’d like to see Jesus. What do you think?

Andrew: Hm, I think we’d better ask Jesus.

Andrew and Philip: Hey, Jesus, these Greek guys want to see you.

Jesus: The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

Greeks, Philip, Andrew, and First Presbyterians in Cottage Grove all in unison: Huh?

Listen, the Gospel of John is not for wimps, you’ve got to have ears to hear, as Jesus was fond of saying. Eyes to read wouldn’t hurt either. This little dialogue takes place in John just after Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, with shouts and cheers and folks throwing palm branches in his path. Upon seeing this, the Pharisees said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” (12:19) Then, as if to confirm the Pharisees’ worst fears, the Greeks, representing all the non-Jewish world, approached the disciples about seeing Jesus. This, of course, makes his response more understandable. He takes it for the sign that it is, that he is to become the seed from which will grow an access to God that includes the whole world.

The hour had come for the Son of Man to be glorified, to be the means by which clean hearts and right spirits could be created for all the world’s people. This was no spiritual alchemist’s shortcut to the good by way of the not-so-bad, nor a utopian dream about the innate goodness of all people, rather it was God’s own acknowledgment that people could not become good by their own device, but required an act of God, a new creation to make it happen. That is what Jesus was, and is. The new creation of God, by which our hearts, our selves, are made clean, new, and right.

That is where our Lenten journey is leading us, and not only us, but anyone and everyone who shares with us their desire to see Jesus. Jesus is the answer to the Psalmist’s prayer for a clean heart and a right spirit. He is the answer to all our prayers, in the end. And moreover, even better, access to Jesus is available to everyone, though someone must bring the word, someone must tell, and there is no one to do the telling about the way to clean hearts and right spirits but Philip, and Andrew, and you, and me.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Drawing Near with Songs of Joy

© 2006, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
4th Sunday in Lent, March 22, 2009

Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22; John 12:1-11

Gathered in from the lands,
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south...
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love...
... and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.

As many of you probably know, seminary students of the Presbyterian persuasion, preparing for careers in ministry, all have to take courses and pass exams in the biblical languages: Hebrew and Greek. No other denomination that I know of requires this, though some encourage it. And Presbyterian congregations may be either happier or sorrier for it, depending on how often it is inflicted on them on Sunday mornings — no one wants a linguistics lesson on Sundays instead of a sermon. But like it or not, pastors for this church in the past, present, and foreseeable future will have to have demonstrated some facility in Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek in preparing for ministry. It’s not a requirement that seems destined to go away. The idea is that it helps keep our pastors from being entirely dependent on translators for our understanding of scripture.

And I am glad for that, I have to say. As with the study of any foreign language, study of the biblical languages helps a person realize that translations of the Bible are very often more art than science. If you studied French or Spanish or German, and gained enough facility to read a novel or play in an original language other than English, you will know that it can be a disappointment to have to go back to reading a translation.

Probably every student of French since the 1950s has had to read Le Petit Prince — The Little Prince. One of the most famous lines of that little book ends a dialogue between the prince and a fox. In English translation, the fox’s parting words read, “And now here is my secret ... It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” It is a lovely thought, but in French it sounds like a lovely thought set to a melody, maybe even in my battered pronunciation: “Voici mon secret ... on ne voit bien qu’avec le ceour. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”1

Every translation carries with it some imprint of the point of view of the translator. That is one reason why it is important to read the Bible in other than our favorite translation now and then. When we do, it gives us just a hint of the need to take the meanings of the English words in which we read the Bible with some degree of humility about their absolute meaning.

Folks in Bible studies I have led in the past will attest, I find this to be continually fascinating. Take just one word from our Psalm reading for today. The word is translated “steadfast love.”

Even a casual student of the Bible will recognize that the phrase “steadfast love” occurs multiple times in scripture. And if you have ever noticed that, congratulations on your observant reading of scripture. The Hebrew word is one of the first words that students of biblical Hebrew learn: cheséd. That little word occurs 127 times in the Psalms alone, and some 241 times in the Old Testament. We might not spot it every time in translation, because translators are doing their job of translating the word in context, and no one English word or phrase can do it justice. So it is variously translated as “loving kindness,” “mercy,” “goodness,” “grace,” “kindness,” and, that old favorite, “steadfast love.” In fact, in the phrase of the beloved 23rd Psalm that we remember as “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me...” the word translated as “mercy” in that context is our old Hebrew friend, cheséd: “steadfast love.” Surely goodness and God’s steadfast love shall follow me.

There can only be one reason why this word is such a favorite in the Old Testament, and in the poetry of the psalms in particular. And that is because it so perfectly captures in a single expression all that God has done for his people, something of the very essence and nature of God.

And the psalm declares at the outset that the steadfast love of God endures. It not only endures, it endures for all time, endures forever.

Here is something worth remembering, when we search for the love of God through the trials of our lives. The phrase does not say “the steadfast love of God lasts forever.” Our trials are accompanied by a God who walks through them with us, so the observation of the Psalmist is that “the steadfast love of God endures forever.” The love of God is not an easy, sunshiny day love, but a love characterized by endurance, of the sort Paul described when he said love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”2 This is a love that bears, tolerates, suffers, undertakes, carries on and presses on no matter what. That is the cheséd of God.

David Livingstone was probably the best-known 19th century Scots foreign missionary, of Henry Stanley’s “Dr. Livingstone I presume?” fame; but perhaps the next-best-known Scottish missionary, especially in the New England states and Eastern Canada, was Alexander Duff. During his trip to the Americas in the 1850s he became so popular that today there are still some half dozen churches in Ontario carrying his name, “Duff’s Churches.”

Duff made a voyage to India with the specific purpose of bringing the gospel to the high caste Hindus, the Brahmins of high social standing, who valued good education. He packed 800 books to take for his library in India. As his ship rounded the Cape of Good Hope, it hit rocks and sank. Passengers and crew managed to escape with their lives, but not much else. A sailor walking the beach a while later spotted an object washed up on the shore. When he picked it up he realized it was a large copy of the Bible and there was also a copy of a Scottish psalm book. Duff’s name was on each volume. When he took them to the place where the passengers had sought shelter, Duff received them and turned immediately to our psalm for today, Psalm 107, reading it in its entirety to those who had been rescued, with all 6 repetitions of God’s “steadfast love.”3

OK, God’s love is steadfast in every sense of the word. But where does the passage from the gospel tie in? Or does it? Well, not all scripture ties together into neat little bundles, but I think the tie-in for this day could go something like this:

God’s steadfast love endures forever. Now that is saying something, because as anyone who has ever been to a funeral knows, forever is not a subject human beings can discuss with any claim to direct experience. There is Jesus, sitting in the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead, but we all know he would still have to die again some day, he wasn’t raised from death into some superhuman state. He was still mortal.

But everything about the scene in the gospel exudes something of a funereal quality. There is the previously dead Lazarus there. There is the anointing of Jesus’ feet with a costly ointment, something normally reserved in those days for the anointing of dead bodies before burial. And in case we missed the point, John reported that the aroma of the ointment filled the whole house.

Now there are probably a dozen ways to take Judas’ words about the waste of such costly stuff when there were poor folks who could have been fed with the money it cost to buy it. But I take it this way today: The steadfast love of God comes to us in hints and brief revelations throughout our lifetimes if we are looking for it, and in that moment, at Lazarus’ dinner table, the lesson was that when Jesus came to die, it would not mean the end of the steadfast love of God, any more than the death of the kings of Israel meant that God had ceased to care, or that the defeat of the nation when it was taken into exile meant God’s love was no longer steadfast. It just meant that the steadfastness of God’s love was once again to be tested through endurance. God’s love is enduring, through death, loss, disfigurement, dashed hopes, defeated dreams, in any and every circumstance, the love of God will remain steadfast and endure, just the way the love of a parent will endure almost anything for a child, even when all others have given up hope. Only more so.

For John’s gospel, as well as the psalmist, “life is double-plotted ... ordinary events unfold around us but ... hidden among all the mundane props are signs of the eternal. The wine is in the water, the light in the darkness, the Word in the flesh.” The rising is hidden in the dying, the saving is hidden in the losing. The steadfastness of the love of God is hidden in the enduring, even when we could swear from all outward signs that it had disappeared altogether.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Gallimard, 1946, p. 72.
2 I Corinthians 13:7.
3 Thanks to the Rev. Terri Thomas’ unpublished paper with these words paraphrased from a sermon by Donald A. MacLeod, “Thanks Telling,” preached October 13, 2002.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Zeal For Your House

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
3rd Sunday of Lent: March 15, 2009

John 2:13-22

Zeal for your house will consume me.

Zeal. Zealous. Zealot. The words that derive from the little term “zeal,” have fallen on hard times. They have become synonyms for words like “fanatic” or stand next to unsavory adjectives, as in “crazed zealot.” The primary word — zeal — receives mixed reviews, the second term — zealous — doesn’t fare quite as well, but the noun, zealot, now that has come to have an almost entirely negative modern connotation. A zealot has come to be used of a mindless, fanatical commitment to a portion of the truth as if it were the whole thing. In a 1913 poem called “Absolute and Abitofhell,” — a title that has to be seen written to be appreciated — poet Robert Knox wrote,

When suave politeness, tempering bigot zeal,
Corrected I believe to One does feel.

Interesting that the poet felt the need to add that adjective to the word zeal, rendering it “bigot zeal.” My dictionary1 goes about defining these related terms in this way:
  • “zeal: eagerness and ardent interest in pursuit of something.” Not too derogatory, that definition. But how about the related terms? They do not fare as well in popular understanding, I’m afraid;
  • “zealot: A zealous person, especially a fanatical partisan.”
  • “zealotry: Excess of zeal; fanatical devotion.”“zealous: filled with or characterized by zeal: missionaries.”
Missionaries? The overworked doctor in the missionary compound dispensing medicine for the suffering villagers gathered outside his door? The committed missionary teacher in the thatched hut, teaching rooms full of children how to read and write? Zealots? That little addition in the definition surprised me, I have to say. Missionaries are committed, faithful, self-sacrificing, yes, but if they are to be called zealous, then we may need to review that word association that connects zealotry with fanaticism.

Have you ever met a zealot? Who was it? How did you know he or she was a zealot? How was it for you? Annoying? Frightening? Disturbing? Usually a zealot is someone who will not be deterred from his or her cause, no matter what, I think we can probably agree on that. And we tend to carry among us the notion that this is almost uniformly a bad thing. Yet, on the other hand, is an equivocating or constantly rationalizing faith always a good thing? Aren’t there aspects of our faith, times in our lives of faith, which call for a complete commitment? Even a measure of zeal?

Here is a difficult thing to realize: If you ever were confronted by an uncompromising zealot who would not back down and who made you uncomfortable and perhaps even a little frightened, then you know how many of those felt who encountered Jesus. This is what makes our passage for today difficult for me. Jesus as zealot. That’s not the Jesus I want. I want sweet Jesus meek and mild, I am attracted to Jesus the lover of my soul, Jesus the wise and wonderful, Jesus the pure expression of the loving and forgiving grace of God, all these characteristics attract me to Jesus. But Jesus as zealot? These days we are likely to think of a zealot as someone who would cut out the heart of a child if it would advance a cause they believed in, marauding Taliban laying waste to obstinate Pakistani villages, wild-eyed fanatics who cannot see beyond their own blind loyalties to their tribe or faction. Yet it is not fair to leave it at that. Not if we read in scripture that Jesus is associated with a term like “zeal.”

The disciples, seeing Jesus in action in the temple, thought of a psalm which makes use of the word “zeal.” “His disciples remembered,” John said, “that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” Verses from the Old Testament, when quoted in the New Testament, are meant to call to mind an entire passage, not just a random line: as when Jesus uttered from the cross the chilling opening words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We are meant to think of that entire psalm, which speaks of the suffering of a righteous one, and a prayer that righteous one makes that God will come near, that God will save, the sort of prayer any of us would, and likely have made, at some time.

Here, seeing the teacher, whom they have only just begun to follow, chasing the animals from the temple precincts and turning over the money tables, the disciples recall a half-verse from Psalm 69. But they surely recalled the entire psalm, and we are meant to recall it too. It goes like this:

Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God.
More in number than the hairs of my head
are those who hate me without cause;
many are those who would destroy me,
my enemies who accuse me falsely.
What I did not steal
must I now restore?
O God, you know my folly;
the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.
Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me,
O Lord GOD of hosts;
do not let those who seek you be dishonored because of me,
O God of Israel.
It is for your sake that I have borne reproach,
that shame has covered my face.
I have become a stranger to my kindred,
an alien to my mother’s children.
It is zeal for your house that has consumed me;
the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.
When I humbled my soul with fasting,
they insulted me for doing so.
When I made sackcloth my clothing,
I became a byword to them.
I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate,
and the drunkards make songs about me.
But as for me, my prayer is to you, O LORD.
At an acceptable time, O God,
in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me.
With your faithful help
rescue me from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from my enemies
and from the deep waters.
Do not let the flood sweep over me,
or the deep swallow me up,
or the Pit close its mouth over me.

I hope you hear in this fuller quotation from Psalm 692 echoes of the cross and Jesus’ suffering on it. Part of what these words foreshadow in our minds, and the minds of the disciples, is the cross to come. It is Jesus’ uncompromising zeal that has done it. His zeal for the truth brings condemnation on him in the end. John quotes the phrase about zeal for the house of the Lord, as Paul quotes the second half of that verse in Romans 15:3, “For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’” Jesus stands in for God himself, to receive the insults that humanity daily heaps upon him.

A new and perfect sacrifice for the sake of the sins of all people had arrived at the temple. There would be no further need for sacrificial animals. The foreshadowing of Psalm 69 shows that in the sacrifice of Jesus, the need for other ritual sacrifices came to an end. Matthew, Mark and Luke all place the temple cleansing at the end of Jesus’ ministry, while John places it here in the beginning. So scholarly debate has continued on and on over the years as to which placement is right. Was the temple cleansing a precipitating event for Jesus’ arrest and execution as Matthew, Mark and Luke have it, or was it just the second in a long list of acts of ministry, as John seems to have it?

It is the recollection from Psalm 69 of the zeal for the house of God that ties all four gospels together in seeing this as connected with the ultimate sacrifice of the Messiah on the cross. For John, the chronological timing is not so important as the self-sacrificing Messiah-implications that are wrapped up in each event of Jesus’ ministry. So, though it is reported early here, Jesus’ actions in the temple foreshadow the cross coming at the end as surely as zeal for the house of God will bring suffering at the hands of those who despise God and all who seek him.

It is interesting that among most Presbyterians, any time we begin to talk of zeal for our faith, or even the zeal of Christ, we will soon hear someone begin to say that it is the zealots that have caused all the trouble in the world, the fanatics who have so much commitment to their faith that they fail to take into account the rest of the world, the Jim Jones, the Osama bin Ladens, all the cults of darkness that have consumed many people over the years.

For this I have two thoughts. One is that there is little danger among the Presbyterians I have had the pleasure of knowing that our zeal for our faith will carry us off very far from our good sense. Born, as our denomination was, from a tradition of Scots common sense theology, we just don’t seem much in danger of wandering off with a Bagwan. The other thought, though, is this. Frightened as the prospect of a real and significant zeal for our faith might make us, it is this very sort of commitment which changes limp, moribund faith into faith that lives. Most young people do not despise the idea of giving their lives for something, it is giving their lives for something insignificant that they despise. If our faith is the most significant thing about us, then why can we not follow the Messiah, give our lives to it, body and soul, and hear the call to do something heroic, even zealous for our faith?

May zeal for God’s house consume us, may we carry forward the zealous fire, not the dusty ashes of our faith.

1 Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, 1984, Merriam-Webster, Inc.
2 Psalm 69:1-15, NRSV.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Spirit Driven
Communion Meditation

copyright © 2009, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
1st Sunday in Lent, March 1, 20

Psalm 25:1-10
Mark 1:9-15

As we begin our Lenten journey this week, Mark’s gospel starts us off with the beginnings of the ministry of Jesus.

It is true that Mark is the shortest of the gospels, shortest by far. And it is also true that the other gospels contain many details of Jesus’ life and ministry that Mark does not. As Fred Craddock, teacher of preaching to at least three generations of preachers now, once reflected,1 it is difficult to listen to one gospel passage when the other gospels are in the room talking about the same subject, and often with more detail — and for that reason, in ways that are more familiar. [Mark], writing with such brevity that we could miss the importance of his words if we weren’t paying attention, relates three major events:
  • Jesus’ baptism,
  • Jesus’ temptation in the desert,
  • Jesus’ first preaching good news in Galilee.
The sequence of these three things is significant, not simply because it seems to be the familiar order of things to us, but because as the subject of a new exodus Jesus retraces the journey of Israel:
  • His baptism is reminiscent of Israel’s walk through the Red Sea, escaping from slavery among the Egyptians by means of water;
  • His 40 days of struggle in the desert recall Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness;
  • The good news he proclaims reminds us of God’s fulfilled promise when Israel entered the promised land.
And though his account is supremely brief, sometimes Mark surprises by what he does write. For instance, in the very brief words about his baptism we hear that “as he was coming up out of the water, [Jesus] saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him,” calling to mind, for the discerning among us, the words of the prophet Isaiah, a favorite of the gospel writers, where Isaiah prays earnestly for God’s holy intervention:

64:1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence —

2 as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil —
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence! NRSV

This is exactly what happened to Jesus that day at the Jordan river. As he was coming up from the water, Mark says, Jesus “saw the heavens torn apart...” That tearing of the heavens is described using exactly the same word Mark uses at the end of his gospel when Jesus uttered his loud cry from the cross and the curtain of the Temple was also torn in two.

Here also in our gospel passage for today, we have something unique in Mark’s account of the temptation of Christ that intrigues me every time I run across it. While Matthew records “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit,” and Luke writes, “Jesus was led by the Spirit,” in Mark, immediately upon receiving loving words from the heavenly voice, the gospel portrays the action of the Spirit in a much sterner and forceful way: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”

It strikes me a bit like the difference between going along willingly and being dragged kicking and screaming. In fact, the verb that Mark uses of the Spirit driving Jesus to the wilderness is the same one used to describe driving the money changers from the Temple toward the end of the gospel, and the driving out of demons by Jesus in four other places in the gospel (1:34, 39; 3:15; 6:13).

So why does Jesus go? Because Jesus goes to where the news has all been bad to proclaim the news that is good. Mark says “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts.” Mark is again thinking of Isaiah as he proclaims the coming of the Messiah, Isaiah who wrote , in a passage that is often read during Advent’s expectation of the coming of the Messiah:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom...
like the crocus...
... They shall see the glory of the LORD,
the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.”

No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there. NRSV
In an account of Jesus’ ministry in which only Satan, wild beasts and ministering angels are with him, by reading and listening for understanding, we discover that we, too, are present there in the desert. We know what it is to be dealing with wild beasts out there in the wilderness of our lives. Rising crime rates, desperate striving to make ends meet in a fast-fading economy, grappling with family problems, the beasts greet us at every turn, and there we are in the wilderness wrestling with them. Then, over the horizon, we see a distant figure coming closer and closer. It is the baptized One, Jesus of Nazareth, driven to our encounters with our own wild beasts by the very Spirit of God. Coming to us, to you and me. Being baptized and having the presence and power of the Holy Spirit granted to us is no insulation against real struggles with the forces of evil. Rather, the presence of the risen Christ promises us we are not alone in our struggles. “He was tempted, as we are, yet without sin,” says the author of Hebrews (4:15). His temptation was as real as ours, and just as deceptive. As Fred Craddock said, “No self-respecting Satan would approach a person with offers of personal, social and professional ruin. That is in the small print at the bottom of the temptation.”

No, here, today we have in this sacrament laid before us and in the stories about him a promise of real help, a real messiah. In the end, baptized and tested, Jesus turns to the world — to us — and says, “the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 “Test Run,” by Fred Craddock, Christian Century, February 22, 2003, p. 21.
2 Isaiah 35:1-9 selected verses.
3 “Test Run,” by Fred Craddock, Christian Century, February 22, 2003, p. 21.