Lent 1B Sermon (2009)

1st Sunday in Lent
Texts: Mark 1:8-15;
Genesis 9:8-17


Kathryn Rogers, Director of National Sales — that was her new title. She had worked so hard for this moment. Boarding the plane, she couldn’t help but feel the smile indelibly marked on her face. The smile said, “I made it. I’ve arrived.” And according to her definition and most standards, she had made it! How often she had dreamed of what it would be like to be her own boss, traveling on an expense account to cities she had never visited. She felt free, in charge. Now she was on her way to New York, the Big Apple, where she could live it up and spread her wings. Inside her carry-on was fifteen hundred dollars cash, saved for this occasion. She wasn’t sure what it would buy, but it would be something she couldn’t get or do at home — something that would just blow ’em away back in her small hometown. Maybe an extravagant night out, maybe a designer dress. She deserved such a treat! As a woman working in what is still mainly a man’s world, it had been a long time of feeling just outside the inner circles of power. Now, it seemed that she was about to be invited in. She was a small-town woman on her way to the wealthiest, most powerful city in the world. She was about to be able to say “yes” to being invited inside those walls of power.

After the long flight and traffic-choked taxi ride through Manhattan, she absentmindedly turned on the hotel-room TV to catch the news. As the static cleared, there emerged the picture of a child. Not an ordinary child, but a child with a swollen belly and toothpick limbs and bulging eyes. Her inclination was to turn it off, to look for something on another channel. But she couldn’t; this special report on drought victims put its hooks into her. Soon she was in tears, feeling just a taste of what mothers feel who watch a child die of starvation, unable to quell the weakened whimpering.

The news ended, but she couldn’t shake the images. Here she was, on the verge of being an insider, but she remained haunted by these images of an outsider, of this small child who was so far outside this world’s wealth and power that he was barely on the fringes of staying alive. The thrill of being in New York now seemed hollow. She looked out the window down to the sea of neon and thought of her pocket money. What excess, what thrill would she blow it on? That was when she said it out loud, talking to herself, “No.” She said “no,” at least for the time-being, to stepping inside those walls of power, so that she might stand in sympathy with one so far outside them. She said “no” to the tempting fantasies of living it up, so that she could say “yes” to someone else’s idea of just living. It was 11:00 p.m. Manhattan came alive . . . without her.

Saying “no” to say “yes.” That’s what transpired in the Palestinian wilderness when Jesus said “no” to the Tempter, in order to proclaim “yes” to the Good News of the God’s kingdom being close at hand. Jesus leads the way for us in saying “yes” to the invitation to enter God’s kingdom.

With Jesus, and the Kingdom of God, we have something quite different than the normal human halls of power, where you have to be invited in. In God’s kingdom, it’s not just making the best out of being an outsider, but it’s actually an invitation to come out. Like Kathryn, we’re invited to choose to stand with those outside human power.

In this morning’s lesson, we read that Jesus accepts the invitation of the Spirit to go out, to go out into the wilderness. This is even farther out, apparently, than John the Baptist, who came as the one already crying out in the wilderness. Mark’s gospel opens with this very intentional geography of being outsiders. Kathryn Rogers had hopes of becoming an insider in this nation’s seat of power, New York. The seat of power in Jesus’ nation was Jerusalem. If you wanted to be an insider, you would want to get connected with the temple there. But Mark’s gospel opens with John the Baptist in the wilderness, outside of Jerusalem, with all the people of Jerusalem going out to him! Jesus joins John there, where he is anointed with God’s Spirit, only to be driven further out into the wilderness. From there, its on to Galilee — which today would be like getting transferred from New York to North Dakota. Jesus returns to Jerusalem only to drive the money changers out of the Temple, which prompts the temple leaders to drive him out of the city and onto a cross. Mark’s gospel ends with the resurrected Jesus once again going away from the seat of human power, back to Galilee. Mark uses geography to make a definitive statement about the kingdom of God: it will not be found in the places of human power. To say “yes” to the kingdom of God is to accept an invitation out of those places.

More amazingly, it is also an invitation to choose being with the people in those places outside human power, to choose being with outsiders. Jesus found himself constantly with the sick and possessed, with the social outcasts such as lepers and tax collectors. At one of his most poignant moments, Jesus moved into the middle of a circle of disciples and brought a child with him, saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me . . . welcomes the one who sent me.” (9:37) There’s a good chance that, in impoverished Galilee, this child which Jesus embraced was not too unlike the one that Kathryn Rogers saw on TV — poor, hungry, barely hanging on to life. Jesus’ invitation into the kingdom is to welcome just such outsiders to human power. We are invited out, and once there we are to invite in the outsiders.

Saying “no” to invitations into human power, in order to say “yes” to being invited out to God’s power, doesn’t just happen to messiahs in the desert. It can happen to you and me, who bear the cross of Christ in ordinary ways, day after day. We, too, are daily confronted with temptations to find the power of our lives in the inner sanctums of human power. In following Jesus, we are instead invited to find the true power for our lives outside those circles of human power. We are invited out, to be with those who are most victimized by human power.

Can we say “no” in order to say “yes”? During this season of Lent, what might we, by God’s grace, say “no” to, in order that we might say “yes” to a life of greater meaning and purpose? Might we, for instance, find new ways to embrace the children of our community? To support the unemployed?

In a few moments, we will be invited to our Lord’ table, to be nurtured with his strength. Invited in, you say? Yes, to be fed, to gather with the rest of us outsiders, those of us who know that God welcomes us here precisely because we were outside his grace, and now through Jesus Christ we are embraced by it. We were lost, but now we’re found. We are invited in to be nurtured by that grace, but only for a few moments. For then comes that all-important invitation out: “Go in peace. Serve the Lord. Remember the poor.” And the people say: “Thanks be to God!” Amen!

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, March 1, 2009

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