February 18, 2018

Lent I: Love for the Wilderness to Come

Sermon: Lent I
Love for the Wilderness to Come

Mark 1.9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And 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.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

• • •

The Lord be with you.

On Wednesday night we looked back to last Sunday’s Gospel, which told the story of Jesus’ transfigura-tion. I made the point that this was the start of Jesus’ and the disciples’ journey to the cross. They were about to set on a course that would be dark and difficult, and to strengthen and sustain their hearts, he gave them a vision of great light and splendor, showing them for the only time something of his true glory as the beloved Son of God. This was light for the dark journey to come, a journey we will join them on during this Lenten season.

Today’s Gospel text takes us back to the beginning of Jesus’ journey of ministry. This is when God sent him out for the work he was called to do — proclaiming the in-breaking of God’s kingdom, and demonstrating that through powerful words and acts of love and mercy. This is the traditional text we read on the first Sunday in Lent, and just as the story of the Transfiguration showed how Jesus prepared his friends for the darkness to come, so this story tells us how God prepared Jesus for the wilderness and temptation that was to come as he went about his work.

As we read this text, you may have noticed something similar to last week’s Transfiguration story. In both cases, the heavens were opened and God’s voice was heard from heaven, affirming that Jesus was the beloved Son of God. Immediately after his baptism and this divine affirmation, Mark says, Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit, there to be tested by the evil one, to be beset by the wild beasts, and to experience the comforting ministry of God’s angels.

I want to suggest to you today that this story shows us how Jesus was prepared for the difficult journey of ministry he took. It was through his baptism and through the affirmation of God’s love for him as his beloved child that Jesus was strengthened and would be sustained in the days and years to come.

And so, if the Transfiguration was meant to give light to the disciples for their dark journey, Jesus’ baptism was meant to put God’s love firmly in his heart for the lonely and tempting journey into the wilderness he made.

Mark spares us the details of the temptations Satan subjected Jesus to. It is enough to for him to tell us that he went into the wilderness for forty days. This is a clear allusion to the story of Israel, who were delivered from Egypt and became God’s sons and daughters at Mt. Sinai, where they received the word that God had chosen them to be a nation of priests, called to bring his light to the whole world. When they left Mt. Sinai, they travelled into the wilderness and faced temptation after temptation, test after test. In the face of those challenges, they let go of God’s word of redeeming love and failed those tests by failing to trust that God was with them to help and sustain them.

However, unlike the Hebrews, when Jesus went into the wilderness, he held on to God’s word that was given at his baptism, clung to his identity as God’s beloved Son, and trusted God when he was tested. In baptism, God had reinforced his love and calling for Jesus in a powerful, memorable way. Jesus remembered that, and it sustained him.

But that’s not all. Mark includes a message for followers of Jesus here as well. There is an interesting detail in Mark that is not found in any of the other Gospel stories of Jesus’ temptation. Look at v. 13 — “He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

Folks have wondered why Mark added this detail about the “wild beasts.” Let me tell you why I think it’s there.

Many scholars agree with the traditional view that Mark was associated closely with the Apostle Peter, and that his Gospel reflects Peter’s point of view. Peter, of course, was identified with the church in Rome, and it is said that Peter died in Rome as a martyr under the Emperor Nero during a particularly intense period of persecution. Commenters think that Mark may have been written as a pastoral Gospel, designed to strengthen and sustain the Christians in Rome who were going through that persecution.

If that is the case, then Mark’s mention of the “wild beasts” here would be very clear to those first readers. It would have a special significance for those called to face the wild beasts in the arena. It would say to them that their Savior faced the same kind of testing and the same danger and difficulty they did.

It would also remind them to find strength and sustenance in the same way Jesus did, by remembering their baptism, when God’s word affirmed them as his beloved daughters and sons, and by knowing that God’s angels were with them to minister to them no matter what they had to endure.

And so, Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation is meant to be an encouragement to all of us as well. The journey of discipleship is filled with challenges, obstacles, and pitfalls. It can be like the wilderness — lonely and dangerous. We face trials without and temptations within. Sometimes it seems as though we are at the mercy of the wild beasts of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Here is my encouragement to all of us today — let us remember our baptism. As we walk through each day, which can sometime be a wilderness, let us remember and hold on to the fact that God has washed us clean and claimed us as his own beloved children. Let this affirmation strengthen and sustain us.

And as we face whatever “wild beasts” of adversity may threaten us, let us rest in God’s accompanying presence and the ministry of God’s angels. We are his beloved children, and nothing can ever separate us from his love. Amen.

The Saturday Monks Brunch: February 17, 2018



Intriguing photo essay at The National from a book marking the 75th anniversary of the presidential retreat at Camp David in 2017.

During his first two terms, President Franklin Roosevelt retreated on the presidential yacht, the USS Potomac. But WWII changed everything. Security officials feared that the yacht could be sunk by German U‑boats or attacked from the air, so they decided that it was just too risky to use. In March 1942, officials from the National Park Service were tasked with looking for a location that could serve as a presidential retreat.

They chose an old WPA site from the 1930s in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains, that to this day is very difficult to find. Camp David’s official name is Naval Support Facility Thurmont, and it is commanded by a U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Corps officer and staffed by a team of sailors, marines and other military personnel under the White House Military Office (WHMO). The retreat was named for President Eisenhower’s grandson.

Today, absolute privacy is the gift Camp David continues to bestow on presidents. Press access is extremely limited, and photography is rarely permitted. Unlike at the White House, where every moment is observed and recorded, at the camp, it is possible to close the door and draw the curtains, shutting out the nation for a precious brief time. It’s a place where presidents can breathe.

Here are a few pictures from over the years, featuring most of the presidents who have enjoyed respite at Camp David.


From RNS:

The founder of a Kentucky creationism museum will appear at an Oklahoma university, after all, after the student body president initially canceled the event over objections of female and LGBTQ students and their supporters.

Creation Museum founder Ken Ham and the University of Central Oklahoma announced Thursday that the event will happen March 5, as planned.


From The Daily Telegraph:

A Hunter Valley town, which some claim is the Australian home of the mullet hairstyle, will host a festival to celebrate the cut which arguably epitomised toughness and sexuality in the 1980s.

The inaugural Mullet Fest in Kurri Kurri will centre around a competition to award the best mullet in five categories — every day, grubby, ranga, ladies and junior mullet and publican.

After the winner in each category is announced, the person with the “best mullet of them all” will be crowned, said hairdresser and festival host Laura Hawkins.

I hope those who are participating realize that wearing a mullet requires maintaining a lifestyle:


Why I love Chicago Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon.


From Bloomberg:

The centerpiece of Apple Inc.’s new headquarters is a massive, ring-shaped office overflowing with panes of glass, a testament to the company’s famed design-obsessed aesthetic.

There’s been one hiccup since it opened last year: Apple employees keep smacking into the glass.

Surrounding the building, located in Cupertino, California, are 45-foot tall curved panels of safety glass. Inside are work spaces, dubbed “pods,” also made with a lot of glass. Apple staff are often glued to the iPhones they helped popularize. That’s resulted in repeated cases of distracted employees walking into the panes, according to people familiar with the incidents.



You MUST check out this set of amazing interactive videos on hummingbirds at National Geographic. New advances in camera technology allowed researchers to record these lightning-fast creatures and observe their behaviors in speeds the human eye can discern. Yes, the picture above shows the hummingbird’s tongue.


Last week we were watching the tear-jerk episode of This Is Us when it shows how the dad, Jack, died. He went back into the house for the family dog and also brought out “the family photo album.” Remember when we had “the family photo album”? THE family photo album. I looked at Gail (this being shortly after we had moved) and said, “Yeah, I would have had to carry out 20 large boxes.”


From The Washington Post:

SpaceX is preparing to hit another orbital milestone with the launch of a pair of experimental satellites on Sunday that are designed to beam an ultrafast, lag-free Internet connection down to Earth.

The test satellites, dubbed Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b, are a part of a years-long plan by chief executive Elon Musk to create a fleet of orbiting devices to blanket the globe in wireless broadband connectivity. SpaceX ultimately intends to put about 12,000 broadband satellites in low Earth orbit, and Sunday’s payload will mark the company’s first attempt at realizing the dream. The initial satellites in the network are expected to come online next year.


This may be the prettiest song Nick Drake (our Lenten muse) ever recorded. This is “Thoughts of Mary Jane,” from his first album, Five Leaves Left [LP].

Enjoy, and happy Saturday.


The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve (4)

Adam and Eve. Fuseli

On Fridays, we’re doing a series on Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. In this book, he examines how “the story of Adam and Eve has over centuries decisively shaped conceptions of human origins and human destiny.”

The next two chapters explore the seminal (pun intended) impact of St. Augustine on how we have read and understood this story ever since.

In the end, for Augustine, it’s all about sex. Just as it was in the beginning.

If Greenblatt’s analysis of Augustine’s life and its important turns is correct, an emphasis upon (obsession with?) things sexual was a common thread through it all.

He begins with an experience Augustine never forgot: the day in 370 AD when he and his father went to a bathhouse in Thagaste, and while there, his father noticed “the signs of active virility coming to life in me, and this was enough to make him relish the thought of having grandchildren.” Though his father was delighted that the young man was awakening to sexual maturity, his pious mother Monica was alarmed.

And thus began St. Augustine’s lifelong struggle with concupiscence, the lust of the flesh understood in primarily sexual terms. Also, so began a way of thinking that led to a deeply theological distrust of sexual desire and its designation as the primary evidence of original sin, passed on from our first parents.

When the young man went away to Carthage to pursue his education, he wrote that he found himself “in a midst of a hissing cauldron of lust.” Within a couple of years, he had settled into a relationship with a woman with whom he lived for 13 years and had a child. This cohabitation was conventional at the time and did not deter his mother Monica from trying to get him married to a good Catholic girl somehow.

But Augustine was on a spiritual journey as well, eventually becoming an adherent of the Manichees, a dualistic, esoteric, and syncretistic religion that for a time satisfied his struggle with where evil in the world originated. However, his devout Catholic mother continued to pursue him, even at one point moving from North Africa to Milan to be with him when he took a teaching post. There, under the teaching of Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, Augustine warmed to the allegorical teaching of the Hebrew Bible, a book the Manicheans had despised as the dark story of a God who created an evil world. Eventually, his lover and partner left him, and not long afterward he was converted when reading these words from Romans: “Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites.”

Putting on Jesus, Augustine put off sex and made a vow of continence. His mother was ecstatic.

The autobiographical portion of Augustine’s Confessions ends with an account of the most intense spiritual experience of his life, one which he had together with his mother while they were conversing one day. As they were discussing “that no bodily pleasure, however great, could ever match or even remotely approach the happiness of the saints” (p. 95), they felt themselves caught up into heavenly realms, where they touched eternal Wisdom “for one fleeting moment.” A few days after this mystical experience, Monica died. She had been the love of his life upon this earth, and this final experience captures Augustine’s longing for what he saw as the blessings of pure love, spiritual love, love that can never be compared with base lust or erotic desire.

In the more than forty years that succeeded his moment of ecstasy — years of endless controversy and the wielding of power and feverish writing — Augustine, priest, leader of a community of monks, and bishop of the North African city of Hippo, spent an extraordinary amount of his time trying to understand the story of Adam and Eve. He thought about it when he sat, book in hand, on his bishop’s chair (his cathedra), when he addressed his clergy and congregation in solemn assembly, when he grappled with complex theological issues, and when he tirelessly dictated letter after letter to his network of friends and allies. He brooded on it through his bitter polemics against heretics. He continued to ponder its mysteries when he heard the terrible reports in 410 of the three-day sack of Rome by a Visigothic army led by Alaric. Over the decades, he had persuaded himself that it was not a story at all, at least not a story in the sense of a fable or myth. It was the literal truth, and, as such, it was the scientific key to the understanding of everything that happened. (p. 96f)

And the key was this: “The world as God made it was good, perfectly so, and it would have remained good, had it not been for the original, terrible act of human perversity. All the miseries that have followed — the endless succession of ghastly crimes, the horrors of tyranny and war, the seemingly natural disasters of earthquake, fire, and flood, and what Hamlet calls the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to — are just punishments meted out by a just God. Such is the meaning of being ‘in Adam.'” (p. 102)

And that brings us back to sex. For, how did every human being born after Adam come to share in this original sin?

The problem is that even the most legitimate form of sexual intercourse — between a husband and wife mutually bent on engendering a child — is also corrupt. The current of sinfulness that courses through it is precisely the mechanism that carries the stain of evil from one generation to the next and infects the dreams of those most determined to keep themselves pure and chaste. Human sinfulness is a sexually transmitted disease. (p. 108)

There’s more. After Adam and Eve, not only does humanity pass along sinfulness through sexual intercourse, but even the very act of intimacy itself has become corrupted. The act of sex (between a married couple intending to beget a child) is not sinful but even within the chaste, consecrated bounds of marriage it cannot be “performed without evil,” Augustine claimed. That “evil” is the overwhelming feeling of erotic desire. Originally, he thought, Adam and Eve somehow must have been created to “unite in the task of propagation as a deliberate act undisturbed by passion” (p. 118). Now, however, passion “disturbs” every act of intimacy. And the most clear evidence of the fact that we are “in Adam,” tainted by original sin, is that we cannot control when we are sexually aroused.

Augustine found further proof of this in the story of Adam and Eve.

In one of his first works, Augustine took an allegorical approach to the early chapters of Genesis. However, about a decade later, he began to work on a book about the literal truth of the story. Given the human condition as he had come to understand it, he concluded that it must be an “unvarnished representation of historical reality” (p. 111).

One of the texts he struggled with was Genesis 3:7, where it says that after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, “their eyes were opened.” Laboring to grasp this literally and refusing to accept any metaphorical reading, Augustine eventually concluded that it meant this: “They turned their eyes on their own genitals, and lusted after them with that stirring movement they had not previously known” (p. 114). Adam and Eve’s original sin led to the original proof that they had fallen — they saw that they had become sexually aroused apart from their own control. This was why they covered up — not simply because they were unclothed but because they felt the throes of passion involuntarily and exhibited the physical signs of that.

One of Augustine’s legacies — bolstered by his interpretation of Adam and Eve — is that Christians have had a intensified focus upon and conflicted relationship with sexuality ever since.

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The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve (3)

On Fridays, we're doing a series on Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. In this book, he examines how “the story of Adam and Eve has over centuries decisively shaped conceptions of human origins and human … [Continue reading...]