“Beloved in the Wilderness,” Mark 1:9-13, February 22, 2015, FPC Holt

“Beloved in the Wilderness”
Mark 1:9-13
February 22, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

“Beloved” video reflection by the kids of X-team, shown in worship before this sermon.

Audio of sermon available by clicking here.

2015 2 22 Slide01How do you pack for a trip? Do you have a checklist you go through, meticulously making sure to attend to every wardrobe detail and amenity? Or do you do my dad’s method, working head to toe, thinking through every detail of what he would need for a trip, contacts, toothbrush, shirts…you get the idea.

Depending on where you’re going the list might change. As my sister was packing for her honeymoon in Jamaica this past week she certainly packed differently than I did when I was headed towards Cincinnati for her wedding.

Your packing list can also change depending on how much room you have to pack. I know several members of the Tres M trip packed very strategically to make sure they could get all of their personal items as well as donations of toothbrushes and soccer balls, some packing, weighing, and repacking till they got it just right. My parents sometimes go on camping trips on my dad’s motorcycle and they have to be very creative in the packing of the small trunk on the back of the bike, prioritizing camping equipment over a diversity of clothing.

2015 2 22 Slide02But, what about when you are unsure of your destination? How do you pack for an uncertain future? There are times when all the list making in the world cannot prepare you for what is to come, when what is needed are not things, but strength and hope-filled conviction.

2015 2 22 Slide03Just a few moments ago we watched a video of our X-Team kids, telling us about how they understand what it means to be “beloved.” One of the things this church does very well is that from an early age the children, youth, and adults of this church hear and recite the affirmation that they are a beloved child of God. It was a joy to interview the X-team kids and to have the opportunity to hear how this message has become a part of them, and how it frames their views of how they should care for others, and how God cares for them.

In our scripture today, Jesus received this affirmation for himself, we read: “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. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

2015 2 22 Slide05It’d be a nice and happy place to end our scripture passage, basking in the love-drenched identity of Jesus as beloved child of God. It’s tempting to tack on an “and then they all lived happily ever after, Amen!” to the end of it, close the book and go on our merry way. But that’s not our reality, and that’s not our scripture.

In the very next verse Mark’s gospel tells, “and the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” So much for a happy baptism day. Certainly somebody could’ve thrown him a brunch beforehand at least. But no, Mark’s gospel doesn’t allow for that, and Jesus is immediately thrust into the wilderness.

If you heard me preach on Mark’s gospel a few weeks ago you’ll remember that “immediately,” is a favorite word of this gospel, God’s action is decisive and encompassing.

2015 2 22 Slide08Though these two snapshots of Jesus’ life, baptism and wilderness, may seem incongruent, I would argue that they are actually a very important pairing. When Jesus goes into the wilderness it is not as one lost and alone, but as one claimed as beloved, as one accompanied by the Holy Spirit. This is foundational to our own life in God as well: claimed by God, we face the world; confronted by the world, we are sustained by our identity as God’s beloved.

2015 2 22 Slide09 If you visit my office, and I hope you will if you haven’t yet, you’ll see on the wall several pieces of art by one of my favorite artists, Brian Andreas. His whimsical, child-like drawings feature stories in the form of anecdotes, vignettes, and snippets of conversation. Brian Andreas is able to capture emotional truths in just a handful of words. For me, the prints on my wall nod towards my own theological understandings of how I understand God and God’s relationship with us.

2015 2 22 Slide10Here’s one of the prints, right from my wall. It says “I’m not here to keep you from the places you feel you need to go, she said. When you’re ready, I’m here to remind you of the way home.”

I believe this is God’s intention for our lives, to love us in and through our every wilderness, providing a light in darkness, manna-sustenance in our journeying, and a way home for every prodigal son or daughter.

2015 2 22 Slide11This is why we as a church go to such lengths to affirm the call that each of you is a beloved child of God. We hope that this church will be a place where you feel the baptismal waters rush over you, where you experience God’s love through the love of your Christian brothers and sisters. And then, when you are confronted with the wilderness of this world, the darkness that you will inevitably face, that you are fortified for those journeys by the love of God and the deeply rooted knowledge that you are a beloved child of God.

2015 2 22 Slide12One of the ways that we are seeking to deepen our affirmation of God’s claim on our life this Lenten season is to state what we believe on these pieces of paper, so that our experiences of God might live on into 2065 when our time capsule is opened for those Presbyterians of Holt who will then be celebrating 200 years together as a congregation.

SLIDE 13 - BOCConfessional statements can be their own sort of spiritual tool for our journeying, allowing us to claim our identity in God and confront the world around us. As we have been addressing our denomination’s Book of Confessions throughout this year it’s been revelatory to see how each confession has been shaped by the theological, social, and political issues of their time.

SLIDE 14 - Theological Declaration of BarmenMost recently, I taught a class on the Theological Declaration of Barmen, the panel of which we rose today. It is an apt confession to be paired with our scripture today as well as with this, the first Sunday of Lent. The Barmen was written in a very dark wilderness time, as Adolph Hitler was rising to power in 1930s Germany. In all times, the world offers untruths about our identities and value as individuals, but in 1930s Germany these untruths were amplified and propagated to a devastating and horrific extent, as racism and nationalism superseded humanity. It is staggering to be confronted with the terrors of that dark time in history.

SLIDE 15 - Preaching in Hitler’s ShadowTo gain some sense of the Christian resistance to Hitler in the context of that time I read various sermons in an anthology called, “Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich.” In it was a sermon by Gerhard Ebeling, preached at the funeral of a 34 year old German man who was systematically killed by the German government because they saw him as unworthy of life, a view so abhorrent it is hard to fathom in our context, but was indoctrinated in many Germans at that time under the banner of national strength.

With this man’s grieving parents before him, Ebeling preaches, “God’s love…burns for the lost and leaves the ninety-nine for the sake of the one lost sheep in order to take that one on the arm and to care for it and to rejoice over it. So special is God’s love that this love does not love those who are worthy of it but rather those who have special need of it…. I am compelled to speak and testify: that Jesus stands on the side of these little ones, for us little ones: ‘Do not despise one of these little ones.’ Jesus stands up for the life of the weak, the sick, and the vulnerable. Not only with words and expressions of sympathy but with action. He healed the sick, he gave love and companionship to the despised and rejected sinners….We must testify today to this work of Christ in the midst of our world so that we never despise one of the little ones, that we do not abandon those Christ has accepted and for whom he died.”[1]

SLIDE 16 - BibleWhile I cannot begin to comprehend the depth of wilderness surrounding Ebeling and this grieving family at this time, these are gospel words that are familiar to me, that speak hope into our world today, and whatever is to face us in the future. This is what the church is about, drawing close to that message of a love that never abandons or forsakes us, giving us the strength of the Gospel to stand in the face of whatever may come.

We are indeed beloved children of God, and so I ask you to join in the message our children know so well.  Let us read on the screens, inserting our own names as we go. “I [state your name], am a beloved child of God.” And all God’s children say: Amen.

[1] Dean Garrett Stroud, ed., Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), 139.

“From Where Will My Help Come?;” Psalm 121; March 16, 2014, FPC Jesup

“From Where Will My Help Come?”
Psalm 121
March 16, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01I spent this past weekend in my hometown in Ohio working on some wedding planning and enjoying a shower thrown by my best friend and her mother. It was a busy but good visit, unfortunately cut short by one of this winter’s many treacherous blizzards. My parents and I kept checking the forecast. There would be snow. It would hit my parents house. They might see anywhere from 6 to 12 inches. And so, I left a day early to get ahead of the storm, but there was still that lurking feeling, “what if the storm takes a different path?” “what if it hits when I’m in the traffic around Chicago?” “What if I need to find a hotel tonight for Bailey and me?” “What are the chances of find a pet friendly hotel last minute?” “What if I get in an accident?”

Slide02All of these “what if”s were circulating around in my brain as I set out that day. With that in mind, I certainly understand the questioning of the traveler in our passage today: “Where will my help come from?”

Slide03I made it back to Jesup safe and sound and the storm I avoided brought upwards of 6 inches of snowfall to my parents home, closing school there for two days. Like it or not, given all the information at hand, I made the right decision.

Slide04Our traveler in the Psalm today was not equipped with a GPS and hour-by-hour forecasts from the Weather Channel complete with radar map, but with prayers and blessings by the sending community.

Psalm 121 is in a very unconventional format compared to most Psalms as it is thought to be a conversation between a traveler and the traveler’s home community. This Psalm looks a bit different when we look at it from that lens:

Traveler: I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

Community: He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.

Traveler: He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

Community: The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

Slide07This Psalm is a conversation, but it’s also a statement of faith. Even in the traveler’s uncertainty there is immediate affirmation of faith in God’s presence on the journey: “from where will my help come? my help comes from the Lord.” These phrases are back to back, as it almost said in the same breath. The traveler is simultaneously worried in personal circumstances and confident in our God who transcends all circumstances. There’s a beauty in the abundance of blessings offered to the traveler. While the traveler asks for help in a specific journey, a specific pilgrimage, likely to Jerusalem, the community blesses with confidence in God’s presence “keep[ing] your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” When we ask for a little, God responds extravagantly.

Traveling alone can be rather isolating, even fear laden at times when encountering inclement weather or gridlock traffic, but much more so if you’re traveling towards ancient Jerusalem. While I’m sure the traveler would have loved traffic updates from a smart phone or at the very least a guidebook with maps for water sources, he is blessed with more than supplication for the immediate needs, he is blessed with protection every hour of every day.

Slide08“I lift my eyes to the hills.” This phrase stuck out to me as I read through the text this week and the more research I read about it, the deeper this phrase effected me.

One possible reading of this text is that the hills could point to the hilltops around Jerusalem where the shrines of other gods were located. The affirmation that “my help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth,” points to a God beyond any deities that can be contained to a hillside.

Slide09Another way this text was presented was that the hilltops were a frightening place with steep paths and rock formations that robbers would hide behind. When looking to the hilltop the traveler could’ve been filled with apprehension at the unknown hazards on the road ahead.

I’ve come to understand the text in light of all of these ideas. Yes, these hillsides are created by God, but they are also home to the distracting temptations of following other Gods. Yes, God carved out the mountain, but people have used those same beautiful formations to hide behind and inflict pain on those who wish to travel that path.

If you can’t see yourself traveling up through Jerusalem, perhaps you can find yourself traveling in other ways through your life. Through places and stages of life that bring you to both the beauty of God’s providence of creation and the temptations and hurt of this world.

Slide10While Psalm 121 is cast in the Bible as the Psalm of travelers, it has been applied more widely in the thousands of years since. It can be found in hospital delivery rooms and over the cribs of babies as way to affirm God’s presence during baby’s entry into and all through this treacherous journey of life. Hospital chaplains use Psalm 121 before someone enters the operating room, traveling through the fog of anesthetic and the uncertainty of surgery.

In verses 3-4 the affirmation that God neither slumbers or sleeps is not just speaking of God’s steadfastness, but also comparing God’s infallibility to the other deities that dot the ancient Jerusalem hillside. There was a common believe among the neighbors of Israel that their gods either “slept” or died during winter months and came back to consciousness during seasons of growth and harvest. Our God who is maker of heaven and earth is not so fickle.

Slide11The maker of heaven and earthy is present in all experiences, keeping constant watch over all who travel through life. In this short Psalm God is referred to as the keeper of our lives six times! What does it mean to you to be kept by God?

Slide12What would it mean for you to believe that you are surrounded by this blessing of a community of confidence in God’s providence?

What would it mean for our world for us to be that community; to share with other the confidence we have in God’s presence in each individuals’ wilderness journey?

Slide13This season of the church calendar also has us in the midst of a spiritual pilgrimage, Lent. Lent acknowledges a time of wilderness, when Jesus went into the wilderness and experienced a time of temptation and threats of harm. In Matthew 4:1 we read: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” In a parallel account in Luke 4:1 we read, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” As in our Psalm today it’s important to recognize that Jesus did not travel into the wilderness alone, but was filled with and accompanied by the Holy Spirit.

We will experience wilderness, times of fear and temptation, but we will not go into that wilderness alone. We are accompanied by the Holy Spirit, and surrounded by abundant evidence of the God who made heaven and earth.

Slide14When we feel lost it is good to look to the hills for affirmation of God’s providence, but we can also find that confirmation by looking down at our feet. God made the heavens and the earth, AND God made us. God crafted together our very beings and breathed the breath of the Spirit into our lungs. God is with your every step, your every journey, your every wilderness. May you hold fast to the promise that wherever you may go “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” Amen.

“Known;” Psalm 139 and Hebrews 4:12-16; October 14, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Known”
Psalm 139 and Hebrews 4:12-16
October 14, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

This week I adopted a dog. His name is Bailey and he’s a sweet little four year old terrier. Anyone who’s had a dog in their lives before will have an idea of why he came to mind as I was reading these scriptures this week. The second verse of our Psalm today sums up a dog’s attitude towards their owner quite well: “You know when I sit down and when I rise up… You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.” Dogs have a way of following your every move. They’re interested in what you’re doing and interested in what your goings on might have to do with them.

And when I read Hebrews’ account of God’s word being like a “two edged sword” and “all must render an account,” I thought of the Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy and company approach the wizard to ask to go home, for courage, for a brain, and for a heart, he angrily bellows “I know why you have come.” The wizard knows their ways, having had watched them all along, and requires that they do as he asks before he will fulfill their desires.

Our two passages today speak of God’s knowledge of us, describing God as knowing us in a way that falls between Bailey’s inquisitive and encouraging attentiveness and the Wizard’s frightening omniscience. God dotes on us with love and examines us with judgment.

Our Psalmist’s relationship with God is one of joy, praising God for being fearfully and wonderfully made. The psalmist speaks of God’s knowledge of him from the very beginning his life, how God knew every detail of him even when he was still in his mother’s womb. In Hebrews chapter 4 God’s Word is described like a sword, separating out soul from spirit, bringing judgment to thought and intention.

In both passages, God is spoken of as knowing every detail of our lives, both good and bad. Whether we take initiative for a relationship with Christ or try to ignore God’s impact on the world, God is still aware of all that we are and what we do. When we open our hearts to God we open our lives to God’s judgment, but also to God’s grace.

Presbyterian pastor, Robert Boyd Munger wrote a sermon called “My Heart, Christ’s Home,” that speaks of welcoming Christ into our lives through the metaphor of welcoming someone into your house. At first he is excited to have Christ in his house. Christ makes the darkness light, builds a fire on the hearth and banishes the chill. Then he tells Jesus, “Lord, I want this heart of mine to be Yours. I want to have You settle down here and be perfectly at home. Everything I have belongs to You. Let me show You around.”

He shows Jesus the house, room by room. As he watches Jesus look at the house he sees things in a different light. In the study, his mind, he realizes there are books, magazines, and pictures he’s not proud of, and asks Christ to help him to be filled with scripture and images of Christ. The dining room is a room of his appetites, his favorites being, “money, academic degrees and stocks, with newspaper articles of fame and fortune as side dishes.” Jesus did not eat of those things, but instead tells him of satisfaction that can be found by fully pursuing God alone.

Jesus continues through the house, asking to go into each room, and he lets him in but becomes more and more reluctant when Jesus wants to be let into his relationships, the work that he does, and the way that he spends his time. Then, they get to the hall closet, the place of hidden things. There’s an odor that emanates from this closet that he is unwilling to deal with, but when he hands Jesus the key, Jesus cleans it out in a moment. Finally, he decides to entirely transfer the deed to his heart to Jesus, in the knowledge that he cannot keep this house of his heart clean on his own.

Just as this man decided to surrender the house that is his heart to Christ, we are called to surrender our lives to Christ. This does not mean that we offer up just the pretty and cleaned up parts of our lives, but that we share all parts of our lives with Christ.

In Psalm 139 the psalmist says, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.”

God is ever present in the world and desires to be ever present in our lives. Even when we strike out on our own, intentionally following darkness, God is still there beside us. When we run away from what God has called us to be and do, God is still there beside us.

Once we are aware of God’s presence in the world, our ignorance or inaction are both acts of disobedience. Through God’s creative act of bring each of us into the world God has placed a call on our lives for a relationship with God’s self.

Galatians 4:8-9 says, “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?”

When we welcome Christ into our lives, we are inviting both affirmation and judgment.  As we read in Hebrews 4:13: “Before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

There is no hiding from God. God has known us since time began, and will continue to know us through eternity. God delights in who we are, but is not naive to the good and the bad that we allow to occupy our lives. We should be prepared for the correction that comes by fully opening our hearts to Jesus Christ.

Author Anne Lamott writes in her book, “Traveling Mercies,”: “God loves us exactly the way we are, and God loves us too much to let us stay exactly the way we are.”[1]

Christ desires to clean up the house of our hearts, to sweep away all things that are harmful for us. Only when we welcome Christ into our hearts can that sort of cleaning begin.

Hebrews 4:14-15 says, “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

Author John Burgess points out that as these verses follow the passage we just discussed about being laid bare before God, these verses cause us to “wrestle with the theological tension between God’s word to us and our words to God, between God’s judgment that lays us bare and God’s grace that empowers us to ask help of God in our time of need, between God’s claim on us and our claim on God by virtue of Christ’s saving work…The God who places us under judgment is the very God who loves us and sympathizes with us in every respect.”[2]

Jesus Christ came to earth and experienced deep pain, loss, grief, and struggle. We needn’t be afraid to face God with complete honesty and candor. God can take our anger, cursing, crying, whining, and confessing. When we come to God, especially in our weakness, we express our deep need and desire for God’s grace.

The good news is God doesn’t leave us in our own sinfulness. God brings it to the light and then washes it clean. Through Christ we do not have to assume the punishment for our sins. Christ has already taken on our sins through his death and resurrection. There is nothing we can do to deserve God’s love and nothing that we can do that will stop God from pursuing us. God knows us intimately and yearns for us to know God’s self in the same way. Let us open our hearts with honesty and with joy and receive God’s grace. Amen.


[1][1] Anne Lamott, “Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith”

[2] “Hebrews 4:12-16, Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 4