Sunday, February 22, 2015

Walking With Jesus In the Desert

February 22, 2015 –– First Sunday of Lent
Genesis 9:8–15 / 1 Peter 3:18–22 / Mark 1:12–15
Walking With Jesus In the Desert 

Mark tells us that right after Jesus’ baptism, The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. On this first Sunday of Lent we are called into a 40-Day period of spiritual examination and focused disciplines that enlarge our souls and help us to be better followers of Jesus Christ.

As we seek to follow Jesus think about this: The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert…. Can you imagine God “driving” God? If you understand the Trinity, that is what Mark is saying. The Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, drove Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, into quite an unpleasant situation (from our human perspective). Even more, the verb “drove” is the same word used to describe Jesus “driving” demons out of people!

So Jesus responded to the Holy Spirit’s leading, and the Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark gives no mention of the specific temptations. Some have suggested that Mark’s emphasis here is not on “temptation” so much as it is the desert. The nature of life in this world is a spiritual desert––a place where demons lurk like wild beasts. We live in a world where demons try to destroy all that God loves. By ourselves we are vulnerable and even helpless. We need a Savior.

Jesus came into our world, not only to die for our sins and rise again in victory over death, but also to model for us what a perfect life lived in the Spirit is like. Life in the Spirit is "present tense”.  In our human weakness (and our desire for some control) we want God to give us a road-map to the future. We want to know the details of what to do next week or even next year. God’s Spirit is always saying “Trust and obey me right now.” Jesus shows us a human life that was a day by day response to the Spirit. And sometimes God sends things into our lives which are not pleasant, but the hard things are meant both to drive us into the arms of our loving Lord and to make us strong. Just as we don’t build physical muscle by being a couch potato, we do not grow strong spiritually without being subjected to difficulty and struggle.

But like the many people who get try to use some magic pill to get a near-perfect body, we want an easy way to healthy spirituality. Haven’t there been times that you’ve been impatient for God to do something that meets your expectations? So often God’s answer seems to be Wait. Part of Jesus' temptation was enduring the "waiting." The basic temptation from Satan was for Jesus to "do something" sensational and right away to prove he was God. Surely one of the besieging thoughts was simply “You know who you are and what you’ve come to do––get with it”. In other words, the temptation is “don’t wait on the Spirit’s leading.” It’s easy to think that if we’re doing a good thing (even what we think is a godly thing) we don’t have to wait on God. We want to charge full speed ahead. Jesus waited.

At the right time Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God. When Jesus announced This is the time of fulfillment he was not talking about a moment of chronological time. He uses another word for time that goes beyond our watches and calendars. It is God’s time, and God’s time is always a dynamic now––the present moment when the Spirit wants to lead us. When we live in that moment of God’s “time” we enter the Kingdom of God. and the Kingdom of God is the rule of God breaking into the world’s spiritual desert. So the Good News comes: If we follow Jesus from baptism to the cross––and yes, through the “desert” of our various temptations––he will lead us to full salvation.

But we should always remember that hard times will often follow our high times. Jesus went from the glory of his baptism to…. seemingly nothing––into the desert. So for us, a new commitment…. a fresh obedience…. an especially good time of worship when we personally sense God’s closeness…. any spiritual “high” can be a challenge for the powers of hell to test our response to God's presence in our lives. We are called to follow Jesus in every way, but we cannot faithfully follow Jesus in obedience to God…. we cannot faithfully follow Jesus in service to others…. and, even more, we cannot faithfully follow Jesus in death to self…. if we do not first face the reality of who we are in our weaknesses and temptations in the “desert”.

Baptism and temptation were not just for Jesus. They are for all who follow him, and in this Lenten season we follow Jesus through the wilderness of temptation to the surrender of the cross. We are to keep following even when sometimes it means waiting in not so pleasant situations. If we will do that, Jesus will lead us to a life that is beyond our comprehension.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Leprosy of the Human Heart

February 15, 2015 –– 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Leviticus 13:1–2, 44–46 / 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1 / Mark 1:40–45
The Leprosy of the Human Heart

Leprosy was a big deal in Bible days. It was a seriously gross illness that could slowly rot a body even as the person lived in it. It is an awfully perfect analogy of sin, and there is a figurative application in the many Old Testament texts that deal with it.

Leprosy would separate a person from society. There could be no contact with others, even family. Someone could go months or years and never be touched. Imagine having to go through life yelling out to others to avoid you while identifying yourself as Unclean!

If only we could truly see that this is what sin does to us, but our modern and tech-driven society has found innumerable ways to insulate us from the immediate repercussions of sin. We live in a world that celebrates immorality of every type: financial and physical violence as well as sexual. We do see the world around us hurting and unravelling, but most people cannot––or will not––make the connection with disobeying God. Sin is making our whole existence dangerously unclean.

The leper that came to Jesus to be healed knew what the stakes were. He knew his situation was hopeless. There would be no natural healing. He would live the remainder of his life with a hideous deterioration of his body and then die an awful death.

But there was Jesus…. This man had heard of him somewhere… With nothing to lose he proclaimed the words of faith: If you wish, you can make me clean. The love of God is always wanting to save. Do we want to be saved? Sin blinds us so that we do not really believe we need to be saved. We can easily assume, “I’m not that bad.” The only people God cannot save are those who do not desire it. We have to want what God wants.

This leper wanted the gift of God. The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. Jesus said to tell no one. (Jesus was not seeking the notoriety that later sent him to his death.) Still, the man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.

What would you do? Suddenly your whole life had been restored. You were not going to rot away. You could go back to your family. You could embrace your spouse and hold your children or grandchildren close. Your whole existence…. given new life.

The most vibrant Christians are those who really know something of what it means to be saved from the horror of helplessness and hopelessness. In another Gospel story, Jesus told his host: whoever has been forgiven little loves little (Lu 7:47). If our love for the Lord seems too little, we can ask the Lord to let us see the “leprosy” that afflicts human hearts.

This is how to understand the Apostle Paul. When we read his letters it is obvious that Paul is totally taken with Jesus Christ. Paul knew that Jesus was his Savior. This is why he tells the Corinthians: whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.

We are not given the rest of the former leper’s story in the Gospel. We might imagine him going into the horizon leaping into the air and saying Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! I have no problem believing that he lived the rest of his days do[ing] everything for the glory of God.

Can we ask the Lord for the grace to do the same? It might first mean taking an honest look at the leprosy of our own hearts so that we see how badly we need to be healed.

If we do that, we can say the same thing to Jesus: If you wish, you can make me clean.

If you truly want that, Jesus will do it. He is the Savior of the world.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Presence of God’s Kingdom

February 1, 2015 –– 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Deuteronomy 18:15–20 / 1 Corinthians 7:32–35 / Mark 1:21–28
The Presence of God’s Kingdom

If you could have a face-to-face meeting with Pope Francis and ask him one question, what would it be? During the recent papal visit to the Philippines, twelve-year-old Glyzelle Palomar––who had been rescued from a literal life on the streets with its starvation, sex abuse, rampant drug activity and gang warfare––covered her face with her hand as she wept in front of a microphone and asked Pope Francis, “Why did God let this happen to us?”

What would you say to Glyzelle if she asked you the same question? This is perhaps the most basic issue that confronts human beings, especially when pain and injustice come too close. The Gospel of Mark gives us one of the ways God has chosen to explain what he is doing in our world.

Mark begins his Gospel by saying that Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God. If we had been there we would have seen…. a peasant Galilean carpenter accompanied by a rag-muffin type of following. Jesus himself was more like a street person than some outwardly commanding persona. So what caused people to realize that, with Jesus and the Kingdom he proclaimed, the world is more than it often seems? In our world of pain and death, we need some kind of assurance that God’s Kingdom is real.

We are not patient. Most of the time we would impulsively choose a super-hero kind of god. We want John Wayne to come in with guns blazing or Rambo to “whup-up” on all the bad guys (I’m out of touch with contemporary vengeance figures!). God doesn’t work that way. God does not overwhelm us; God wants to win our trust…. and our hearts.

Why should we give Jesus our trust and, even more, our hearts? Jesus had authority. Here was, by all external standards, an ordinary man who normally would have been a nobody. But when he talked, people were amazed. When he acted, people were astounded. And as he talked and acted, people could not help but be attracted.

Mark tells about a Sabbath day when Jesus stood to speak in the synagogue. The synagogue was the place where the Scriptures were read. As Jesus spoke in the synagogue that day, he spoke a new message and used himself as the basis for it. What would you think if I stood before you and said "God is doing a new thing, and it’s me"? We can understand why the Jewish leaders were upset with Jesus.

Yet there was his commanding authority. There was something that caused people to see beyond the simple Galilean peasant. There was life in what he spoke. There was a freshness and a reality––a power. When Jesus spoke, people listened. Jesus had authority.

Still, words can be deceptive. Someone like Hitler can express tremendous power with words so that he gets a following by emotionally manipulating people. Jesus' authority was challenged on the spot. In the synagogue was a man who was under the control of a demonic spirit. An onlooker would have seen the man get to his feet, but it was an evil spirit using the man's vocal chords which did the speaking: What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are––the Holy One of God! This demon knew exactly what was happening, and it was reacting. Satan fights back when his territory is invaded and challenged. In his first letter John says, The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work (3:8).

Here is where Jesus proved the authority behind his words. His talk of the kingdom of God was not mere talk. Jesus spoke again, and it was a command to the demon. The verb there is simply, "Shut up." Sometimes we need to tell the powers of hell––in the Name of Jesus––to shut up. But not only did Jesus make the demon shut up, he made it come out and leave the man. The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. The meaning was clear to the people in the synagogue: A new teaching with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him. Again hear St John: The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work.

As we live in this world––a world that is broken and even demon-filled––we in the Church need to know that we follow the One who has authority in this world. We belong to the King who has given us citizenship in his Kingdom. Yet, the world is not totally healed. God is not Rambo. He doesn’t do everything at once, and he does not do amazing things merely to impress us so that we’re almost forced to believe. St Paul tells us it’s only at the End that Jesus will hand over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power (1Cor 15:24). Until then we wait…. and sometimes we weep.

Can we see that even our pain can be a sign of God at work? He has created us to desire what is right and true and good. We are invited to turn to Jesus with our brokenness. We are invited to believe––and hope and trust––that Jesus can still heal. In fact, this is our response just before we are freshly nourished by the Eucharist: Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed. We are encouraged to be bold in the face of evil. The Son of God came to destroy the devil's work. Demons are all too real. Their delight is to ravage the lives of people like Glyzelle… and you and me. Our hope and trust is that Jesus is bigger than demons and evil and all the hard things.

When you go out into your part of the world this week, what do you expect to see and hear? If this week holds more pain and disappointment than pleasure and contentment, it does not mean that God is not at work. Jesus has already triumphed over sin and death and hell. He is giving us time to believe it. If you believe in the Jesus Mark tells us about, you know that God's Kingdom has come and that Jesus is the King.

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