Grown Up Religion
Today's scripture lesson is not PG. It's not even PG13. The language, the imagery, the message is for grown ups—for those mature enough to grapple with a rough and ready God. What takes Luke two chapters to tell us, Mark burns into our souls in seven verses. While Luke tries to prepare us with tender phrases, the writer of Mark brutalizes us with physical images. God "tears open the heavens" in order to claim and bless Jesus. Then, before the baptismal water has even begun to dry we watch God "throw" Jesus into the wilderness. This is what the Greek word means. The God we meet in Mark does not coddle us, does not entertain us, does not try to please us. This God takes Jesus—and takes us—and throws us into the barren rigor of Lent.
According to tradition, Jesus was thirty years old when this story takes place. Back then the life span was some where around fifty. So what we are seeing today is a talented young man at the prime of his mid-life power. Jesus has been nurtured by loving parents, educated by learned rabbis, shaped and encouraged toward this day of validation. Now the Big Boss has promoted him—visibly tapped and named him as the guy to watch—the home town boy plucked out of the ordinary in order to become extraordinary. Yet before Jesus has a chance to celebrate—to don his power tie or shop for his BMW—God intervenes one more time. Our baptized superstar quickly learns that he has been chosen not for privilege, but for service.
Several years ago I attended the graduation ceremonies at Princeton Theological Seminary—traditionally the birthing ground of many of the movers and shakers in our denomination. The ceremony was held in the University Chapel—a large, ornate structure where the pulpit soars twenty feet above the peons in the pews. After a procession complete with brass and organ fanfares and academic hoods from every prestigious university in the country, it came time for the sermon. That year Henri Nouwen, a Jesuit priest well known for his books about spirituality, had been asked to deliver the message. It soon became clear that Nonwen's soft, gentle voice was somehow out of place in the midst of all that forceful pomp. His message, it turned out, was even more misplaced. For there—with all those graduates plotting and planning how they might capture the "power pulpit" in the land, Nouwen talked about humility and simplicity and the poverty of a faithful life. What he told all of us was that "downward mobility" is the only appropriate goal of the Christian life.
The call to downward mobility is what Jesus wrestles with in the wilderness today. He wrestles with what it means to take the power of the Holy Spirit so recently poured into him, and use it not for his own glory—but for the glory of God and for the building up of the kingdom. In the wilderness, God challenges—tests—Jesus to make sure he understands what his public ministry is really for. God does this by making Jesus grow up—by forcing him into some scary and threatening territory—leaving him to figure things out for himself—leaving him to ask and answer some tough questions with only his own heart as a mentor. The text tells us that the angels ministered to Jesus in the midst of his temptation. But it is clear that they did not do his struggling or his questioning for him. No, for Jesus, growing up during those forty days in the wilderness meant finding authority and meaning for his life. Not "out there" through the approval and demands of others, but "in here"—through the internalized values and commitments of his own soul.
In his best seller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey describes what he calls a Maturity Continuum—the personal growth that takes place when we move from being dependent, to being independent, to being interdependent. He suggests that we need to move from a paradigm of you—you take care of me, you come through for me, if I fail it is your fault. To a paradigm of I—I can do it; I am responsible; I can choose. To—finally—a paradigm of we—we can do it; we can cooperate; we can create together something better than anything we do alone.(p. 49) This morning—there in the wilderness, Jesus moves from dependence—expecting God to do everything for him—to independence—claiming his own authority and possibility for being God-in-the-flesh. As Christ's body in the word today, we are called to make the very same transition.
Harold Kushner writes: "For responsible religious adults, God is not the authority telling them what to do. God is the divine power urging them to grow, to reach, to dare. When God speaks to such people, God does not say, as one would to a child, "I will be watching you to make sure you don't do anything wrong." He says rather, "Go forth into an uncharted world where you have never been before, struggle to find your path, but no matter what happens, know that I will be with you." Like a parent who is genuinely proud when children achieve success entirely on their own, God is mature enough to derive pleasure from our growing up, not from our dependence upon God." (When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough, p. 132)
So, when Jesus was thrown into the wilderness—at the peak of his professional promise—he was tested for forty days, to see if he could claim his own authority and then use it for the common good. As the text tells us, he was surrounded by wild beasts. Now in a literal sense, we know that in the barren wilderness near the River Jordan there roamed jackal, leopards, wild boars, and bears—not the safest environment for a man all alone. But wild beasts can also exist in a spiritual sense. Often the beasts that endanger us when we are struggling with our own temptations are the beasts of anxiety, envy, greed, bitterness, jealousy, and despair. They can be just as terrifying and just as destructive as any snarling leopard or slithering snake. A literal translation of Mark's text reads: "the wild beasts were Jesus' companions." Companions, friends, colleagues—all these terrors and weaknesses and temptations that besiege us? Yet, brothers and sisters, that is the way it must be. We must befriend our enemies, embrace our weaknesses, learn from our temptations if we are ever to own our own authority, claim our possibility—and move from the desert into the marketplaces and board rooms and family rooms of our living.
Our scripture text for the day ends with Jesus leaving the wilderness—going into Galilee—claiming his own authority and purpose—to preach, heal, and transform—to call disciples as his partners—build the kingdom of God—not for his own glory, but for the glory of God. This is the final step on Covey's Maturity Continuum—the move from independence to interdependence—from "I" am responsible—to "we" are responsible. As one theologian has put it: "Strong people are those who are strong enough to admit that they need other people. The rugged individualist is a spiritual adolescent." (Willimon, The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything, p. 84).
There is a true story about a man who experiences a time in his life when everything seemed flat, boring, dull. He went to his physician who found nothing wrong with him physically. The doctor then suggested that he take a day for some spiritual renewal. He was to go to a place that had been special to him as a child. He could take food, but nothing else. The doctor then handed him four prescriptions—one to be read at 9AM, one to be read at noon, one at 3PM, and the final one at 6PM. The patient agreed and the next day, drove himself to the beach.
At 9AM he opened the first prescription, which read. "Listen carefully." For three hours do nothing but listen? Our friend was annoyed, but decided to obey. At first he heard the wind, the birds, the surf—predictable beach sounds. But then he found him self listening to his inner voice, reminding him of some of the lessons the beach had taught him as a child—patience, respect, the interdependence of the different parts of nature. Soon, our friend was feeling more peaceful than he had in a long time.
At noon, he opened the second prescription, and it said, "Try reaching back." His mind began to wander, and he discovered himself being overwhelmed by all the moments of joy and blessing and giftedness he had been given in the past.
At three, he opened the third prescription. This one was harder. It read, "Examine your motives." Defensively, this man listed all the motivating factors of his life—success, recognition, security—and found satisfactory explanations for them all. But finally it occurred to him, in a shattering moment, that those motives were not enough—that the lack of a deeper motive probably accounted for the staleness and boredom of his life. "In a flash of certainty," he wrote, "I saw that if one's motives are wrong, nothing can be right. It makes no difference if you are a scientist, a housewife, a mail carrier, or an attorney. It is only when you are serving others, that you do the job well and feel good. This is a law as irrefutable as gravity."
At 6:00 PM he read the final prescription. It said, "Write your worries on the sand." He took a shell, scratched a few words, and then walked away—never turning back. He knew, with a great sense of relief, that the tide would come in, and his anxieties would be washed away." (adapted from Stephen Covey, pp. 292-294)
My friends, today Jesus grows up in the wilderness. He listens to his inner voices, he reaches back for the blessings of his past, he examines his motives, and then, when he finally understands who God has called him to be—he moves back out into the world, ready to serve. And he leaves his worries written in the barren sand of the wilderness. This Lenten season, may we, too, allow God to lead us on a desert Journey, welcoming the wild beasts as our companions. May we allow the angels to minister to us as we struggle to accept our own authority and responsibility. Then, leaving our anxieties behind, let us so forth to serve others—energized and committed to preach Good News and be Good News for a world in need. This is the promise and possibility of this season.
May it be so, for you and for me. Amen.
Susan R. Andrews Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church Bethesda, MD