Saturday, February 28, 2009

God in the Wilderness with the Beasts

Mark 1.9-15


To tell you a little secret, I must say that I’ve never in my life been farther east than Evanston, Indiana or farther west than Phoenix, Arizona. Now, I’ve traveled all the way up and down from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico, but I still think from time to time about how I’m not very well traveled, especially not as well traveled as my cousin Tyler who just came back from Denmark. He remarked to me on Friday at lunch, “It’s no big deal. It’s just Europe.” It’s amazing how our perspective on other places change the more we visit places or even live in other places for extended periods of time. I know my perspective of Taylor has changed and keeps on changing even as I have only two months living here as your pastor. After having lived here for two months, I’m beginning to see more of what’s around me as the depth of this place keeps getting revealed piece by piece. Living in a place always changes your perception of that place and deepens your understanding of it and the people who inhabit it.

Just this past Thursday, the conference pastors from this part of the Northwest Synod all got together for our monthly worship and meeting. At the meeting portion of our time together, Mphatso Thole visiting pastor from our companion synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Malawi, told us what ministry in the ELCM is like – its challenges, opportunities, joys and sorrows. He told us of how there are over 300 Lutheran churches in Malawi, and yet they have just over 50 ordained pastors to serve all those congregations. Each pastor serves upwards of nine churches and uses a motorcycle to get from place to place to be able to administer the sacraments to the people of the church. It’s a different context and a different situation, and I can only imagine what it is like even with Mphatso’s descriptions of what it is like.

One of the things we spent quite a bit of time talking about with Mphatso were the challenges that the ELCM faces. We had opened our time together in worship focused around Jesus being driven out into the wilderness to face temptation, Satan, and even wild beasts. For Mphatso, wild beasts are a very real thing to contend with in Africa, as either large animals like elephants or predators like lions are real dangers that people face in the land of Malawi. Yet, Mphatso also stated quite clearly that the most dangerous wild beasts that Malawi and most of Africa faces are the wild beasts of poverty, hunger, and HIV/AIDS. Each year, these wild beasts prey upon the people of Malawi to the point where the average life span of someone in Malawi is only 37 years. This got me really thinking about all the “wild” places in the world I have no personal experience with, because I’m not well traveled. I don’t mean wild as in terms of savannah, desert, or jungle, but those places in the world where grief and sorrow have a seeming stranglehold on the lives of people.

Yet, this also got me thinking about I push to the side the fact that there are “wild places” all around, even in the places I’ve gotten to know well, as people deal with the wild beasts in their lives. We too deal right here and now with wild beasts that cause grief, break relationships, and strain our ability to see the good in the world God made deemed to be “very good.” People right here, right in Wisconsin, right in this county deal with the wild beast of poverty and malnourishment. People right here deal with the wild beast of drug and alcohol abuse. People right here deal with the wild beast of domestic violence. People right here deal with failing health as disease take control over our bodies that once worked so well.

These wildernesses have existed all over the earth throughout the ages. This was especially true for Jesus, as he dwelled in the wilderness for forty days and contended with wild beasts himself. What’s strange is that Jesus is driven out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit AFTER the Father from heaven declares that he is the Son of God. It’s as if just as soon as Jesus is declared to be the Son, he has to go into the lonely place of wilderness to figure out what all this means for him. To make matters worse, Jesus has to contend with Satan tempting him. The thing is, the Gospel of Mark isn’t very clear as to how Satan was tempting Jesus. Maybe it was simply Satan trying to see if Jesus really was going to hold onto his proclaimed identity as the Son of God. To think that Jesus didn’t see all the wrong that was all around him in the world would be very naïve. Jesus knew that people struggled with pain and suffering. His temptation could very well have been whether or not he was going to confront that pain and suffering in the world. He saw the wild beasts of his world as clearly as he saw the wild beasts out there in the desert. The question he contended with: How is God going to respond to a creation that is groaning with sin and death?

Yet, Jesus’ presence in the desert should tell us something of how God is answering that question. God knows that there are wildernesses in our lives – real and imagined. God knows that there are wild beasts that we contend with in our daily lives. And God comes out into those wildernesses to be present with us in our pain and suffering, not leaving us in the grip of sin and death.

Jesus had options. He could have answered Satan’s temptation by becoming a tyrant and forcing us into obedience with God’s ways. He could have wiped the earth clean and started over. But Jesus, God, the Son of the Father, sees that he is as much a part of all this creation as every one of us and simply loves all of creation too much to be done with it all. God says in sending us the Son, “there is nothing you can do, no wilderness that you can go where I will not come to you bringing love and mercy.” Jesus’ faithfulness and unending love is the choice he makes in response to Satan coming to be with us in all that we are – even coming into our wilderness and death, facing our many and various wild beasts.

There was one other thing that Mphatso talked about last Thursday. He said that, even though there are many challenges, many wild beasts that the people of Malawi face and the Church needs to confront, the people have a vibrant and strong faith. Even mired in a society where life expectancy is less than half of what it is here in the U.S., the people in Malawi hold firmly onto the promises of God’s love and care for them, because it gives them hope that all the wild beasts around them aren’t the only truths for them in their life. In Jesus, they have a truth of eternal life and release from the Sin and death that is present all around them.

We would do well to recognize this truth that Jesus holds for us in our lives. Jesus comes to us in our lives and brings us hope, love, and forgiveness. We would do well to recognize that Jesus comes for everyone around us as well. We would do well to recognize that Jesus is in the faces of anyone who wanders in wilderness and contends with wild beasts. I keep finding out more about the wild beasts that this parish, this county, this town deal with, but I also keep finding out more and more about how Jesus is alive and loving the people in the lives of the people who live, work and love here. I know this to be true no matter how far I’ve gone or how far I haven’t gone in my life.

1 comment:

J said...

Great words. Like always, great words and pretty timely.