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"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." -- Mark 1:15
It's a humble journey, the one we begin today. This first Sunday in Lent. It's oh, so humble, so modest, so unassuming, and it begins so unremarkably, unlike other journeys in our lives, journeys that start off with the hurrah of loaded suitcases, satchels filled with degrees or wedding licenses or retirement gifts, and people waving at us as the car speeds up.
But it's a humble, humble journey we begin today. This Jesus-journey humble? Really? The scripture just read seems pretty sensational. It starts, after all, with a baptism featuring an other-worldly voice. And then there's the trek through the wilderness littered by Satan and wild beasts, then "cleaned up" by angels.
And if that's not enough, the passage ends with a powerful message booming out from the Super Hero Jesus, who strides into Galilee to change the world.
Oh, no! It's a humble journey we begin. The gospel writer Mark's terse account of these awesome things isn't spectacular. No, his telling of the beginning of Jesus' ministry is remarkably understated, unlike the gorgeous paintings and silver screen renderings-and with which we've grown up-not to mention Matthew's account and Luke's.
Take the baptism, for example. Jesus, dripping wet from the nondescript River Jordan, a river that at this point is hardly big enough for a good dunking. Jesus sees the heavens torn apart when he gasps up from under the water, and watches the Spirit soaring intently into his life, like the gold finches that zoom hungrily to the bag of thistles that hangs from the bush outside our kitchen window.
Jesus hears the voice that reverberates in his ears and heart, a voice that sounds like love-talk from a parent after the recital or the game or at the bedside in the evening of a very normal day:
"You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased."
Jesus sees and hears, but we folks, waiting our turn on the shore for baptism, we're absorbed in conversations with our neighbors or in messages we're punching out on our blackberries.
We don't notice anything unusual going on. It's pretty quiet where we are, even though Jesus' ears are ringing and his senses smarting. How about the wilderness wandering? That's pretty dramatic, isn't it? No arguments with Satan are scripted for us by Mark.
No details are given about the hungers for food or power-hungers that make our mouths water and stomachs growl. Nope. Mark's account isn't like that. Not at all. Just, "He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him."
His booming voice, changing the world as he strode into Galilee? How we wish it were so!
His words of life-changing importance were no doubt called out into a world noisy with the slapping of fish nets and the lively bartering of the market place and the hum of everyday discourse. No doubt Jesus' voice had to compete with those everyday distractions as well as with the strident voices of other prophets shouting doom to the Roman oppressors.
It's a humble journey, a humble journey with Jesus that we begin in Mark's Gospel today, this First Sunday in Lent. It's a quiet, unassuming, modest journey.
At the same time it's an amazing, remarkable, life-changing journey for us Jesus people, for us Easter people, because we peek out of an empty tomb to watch it begin, and we know that this journey is filled with God's voice ringing in our ears and hearts, Satan's temptations and wild beasts lurking in the shadows of our lives, angels when we need them, and our unashamed witness about how we follow Jesus.
Our journey is like Jesus' journey. It's both humble and obedient to the point of death, as well as it is glorious and world-changing.
It begins with an undignified smudge of ash on our foreheads, foreheads that were splashed with baptismal waters years earlier and a voice: "Child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever." "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
Our travels are marked by a trail of muddy footprints as we make our way through a wilderness littered by the beastly issues of home and school and office, stress and sickness and sadness, confusion and chaos and violence.
Wet tissues and drafts of thank-you notes mark the oases where angels-messengers from God-have shown up, just when we needed them, Jan, with a voice-mail message of unconditional love.
Tim, with a word of understanding and forgiveness. That young man with the long hair and earring at the car window after the accident.
Like Jesus, we call out as we travel with words similar to those that Eugene Peterson uses in his rendering of the gospel The Message: "Time's up! God's kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Message." What simple and glorious words to speak!
And that is our journey, a humble, modest, glorious journey. Now, in particular, what does this humble and amazing journey look like?
I think that it looks like Russ' journey. Russ is my dad. He's 87 today, and he's living with lymphoma.
Lymphoma has enlarged his tonsils and shown up on CT scans as spots that march from his throat down into his abdomen.
Lymphoma has also "enlarged his heart" and shows up as delight in each day, even the days in the week after chemo. His enlarged heart shows up as love-filled looks into the faces of the people who fill his life, people who cuddle up next to him to warm him when he shakes with a chill that no one else feels.
Russ' enlarged heart, so to speak, shows up as public prayers of noisy gratitude to his Lord, Jesus, and as prayers of quiet humility in bed at night as he holds my mother's hand and prays aloud on behalf of both of them.
Russ' journey is a humble one, and a remarkable, even glorious one. We who surround him are learning so much from him as he follows Jesus from baptism to death, tempted along the way to despair, and shouting about God's reign as he goes along
No story describes Russ' pilgrimage better for me than this one. It happened in the bitter, metallic-tasting week following another chemotherapy session.
Russ is a big man, 6'1," 200 pounds, muscled by World War II and a life of hard work, but weakened by chemotherapy, and so he struggled one evening to get out of his recliner.
Instead, he slipped ever so gradually and ever so uncontrollably to the floor. Lee, my mother and his wife of 63 years, watched helplessly. Her 85-year-old arthritic knees wouldn't let her do anything else but watch as he slid down gently to the floor.
And so Russ lay there on the floor of their den. He couldn't get up. He couldn't even do what Lee urged, roll over to get up on your knees, and back up into your chair. Just couldn't move.
"The strangest feeling," he said later. "The strangest feeling not to be able to move!" What did he do then? Cry out in frustration? Sink into despair? Hunker down in humiliation, weeping, "This is what I've come to?"
No. Although he may have been tempted to do all of those things, what Russ did was laugh. He laughed wonderful, tender, silly laughs. He laughed as he lay on the floor. He laughed at his helplessness, and then, so did Lee.
The neighbors laughed, too, the ones who just happened to telephone to see how he was, and who were summoned to help. They all laughed as they worked to get Russ up off the floor, and laughed the hardest when a sort-of vertical Russ fell back into the chair, but squarely onto the lap of the man helping him.
From his hospital bed the next few days Russ talked with others about that night. He laughed again as he spoke about how he couldn't even move, he was so weak. And he spoke poignantly about how it felt to be so helpless.
Then he told everyone who would listen about his deep sense of gratitude for his life and about his profound sense of peace about dying. "Lord, Lord, Lord, thank you for this wonderful day," Russ prays day after day. "I feel terrible," he'll tell me, "but I've had a good week."
We, who are younger, healthier, and busier with our day-to-day worries, listen with awe. We realize that we are watching a man on a humble, glorious journey.
And we realize that we are learning about how each of our journeys can be enriched by Russ' example of Christian humility and Christian joy, this journey following Jesus, repenting and believing the good news about the nearness of God's reign.
Lord Jesus, we are privileged to watch you on your humble, glorious journey; we are blessed to follow you from baptism, through the wilderness, and into the midst of the people with whom we share the good news of the Reign of God; and we are awed that our journey with you will take us through these 40 days of Lent to the blood-stained cross and the wind-blown empty tomb.
Give us strength for the journey, so that we may laugh with delight on Easter morning.
Lord Jesus, it is in your holy and precious, your sweet and beautiful, name that we pray, Amen.
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