The Transformative Power of the Gospel

Inspired by John 12:20-33

So, before we get into what is yet another challenging text from the Gospel of John, I want to take a moment and talk about the gospel. Not the Gospel of John, or any one in particular, but about the lower case g gospel, the gospel in general. From some recent conversations I’ve had with some of you over the past month or so, I feel like we need a refresher, a primer, of what exactly the gospel is. Many definitions and ways of describing it have been offered over the last two millennia. Because depending on the Christian scripture you are reading, you’ll get different views from different authors. So, in my own words, I define the gospel this way: Christ died and was raised for the sake of the world, so that we can die and rise with Christ, today, for the sake of the world.

Now the first part of that, Christ died and was raised, is pretty common among various theologies, but it’s where I think many of us stop. Christ died and was raised and now everything is going to be ok! Now let’s celebrate! And there’s certainly a time and place for that. Christ’s death and resurrection is certainly worthy of celebrating! But that’s only half the gospel, and we do a disservice to the gospel, to ourselves, to the world, and to Christ, if we allow ourselves to stop there. Not to mention the fact that stopping there, would not be true to our identity as Lutherans. For you see, the gospel is in its truest, most complete form, when it is allowed to become ingrained and alive in our hearts and minds.

The gospel is incomplete without you. It does not exist in a vacuum. It does not exist as a concept in a seminary textbook. If the gospel ceases to do its work on us, if it ceases to transform our hearts and minds, if it ceases to change our hearts and minds, then it ceases to exist. It’s like that age old question, “Does a falling tree make a sound in the forest if no one is there to hear it?” I’m guessing Jesus would say, “Who cares?” Because the fact that no one is there, is more of a concern than if it makes a sound or not! Jesus did not fall and rise for nothing. Jesus fell and rose to transform, to change, your hearts and lives for the sake of the world.

But there are many people who are coming to American churches, to feel better. Better about I don’t know what. Better about themselves? Better about their life? Better about the world they live in? And if that’s the only reason they are coming, to feel better, then they’re eventually going to end up disappointed because that’s only half the gospel. But if we can come to a point in our faith journeys, when we can be open to the transformative power of the gospel, for the sake of the world—always for the sake of the world, this is not just about you, this is not just about us as individuals, but always for the sake of the world—when we can be open to the transformative power of the gospel, that’s when the gospel flourishes, that’s when the gospel comes to us in its fullest.

And that’s why these Gospel readings during the season of Lent are so challenging! Lent asks us point blank, how we are doing with that! “How open have we been to the transformative power of the gospel?” That’s a hard question! Because nobody likes constructive criticism! Some of you may be better at taking it than others but nobody really likes it! We may appreciate the benefits of constructive criticism, but when we are receiving it, uh uh, no way, it sucks! Forget that. Take our Gospel reading for today. Some people came up to Jesus’ followers with this simple, benign request, “We want to see Jesus.” And then Jesus, out of nowhere, launches into yet another monologue about falling seeds, and death, and hating our lives. And by the end of the story we don’t even find out if they ever got to see Jesus or not!

Now, to be fair, this story takes place right after the events of Palm Sunday in John’s Gospel. Which, I know, is kind of weird because next Sunday is Palm Sunday. It’s one of the weaknesses of this lectionary, it jumps around the timeline a bit and doesn’t always line up well with our church year. But aside from that, tensions are heightening at this point in John’s Gospel. Jesus just rode in to Jerusalem, being hailed as the king of the Jews, which both the political and religious leadership did not take too kindly to. Jesus’ end was near, his days were numbered. Which probably explains his mood, as well as all this talk about death and dying and hate.

But behind all of that, is this same call of the gospel, to be transformed, by dying to oneself, and rising into something altogether new. In this scene Jesus uses the image of a seed to convey this message once again. He says that if a seed doesn’t fall into the earth and dies, it remains just a seed. But when a seed falls into the earth and dies, it sprouts and grows and becomes something altogether new. It ceases to be what it once was, a seed, ultimately bearing nourishing fruit. And he’s not just foreshadowing his own death and resurrection here because he goes on to say that whoever loves their life will lose it, and whoever hates their life will save it.

Now, this isn’t calling us to be a bunch of self-deprecating people with low self-esteems. But rather, it points back to what Jesus was just talking about, allowing ourselves to be transformed by the power of the gospel. Those who, as Jesus puts it, “love their lives”, are those of us who resist being changed, who resist being transformed, those who think, “I’m fine just the way I am!” They are the seeds that don’t fall into the earth to sprout and grow and bear fruit. They stay right where they are, becoming stale, and stagnant. That is not what Jesus fell for, that is not what Jesus died for.

With all that being said, I also find hope and comfort in this passage. After Jesus is finished talking about seeds dying and loving or hating one’s life, he says, “I’m deeply troubled. What should I say? ‘Father, save me from this time?’ No, for this is the reason I have come to this time.” In the midst of all the anguish Jesus must have been going through, the stress, the anxiety, the fear, as his end came closer and closer, he did not stray from his course.

Jesus was unrelenting, Jesus was unwavering, Jesus was committed as ever to his mission of salvation of the whole world! I find comfort and hope in that like no other. For I know how I can waver, how I can relent, how I can stray. I know how I resist being transformed. I know how I fight change. I know how I would rather stay safe and secure in the familiar. And so, it is comforting to know, that the one that we follow, is relentless in God’s commitment to us—no matter what. Thanks be to God. Amen.

God's Exposé

Inspired by John 3:14-21

Well, we are deep into the season of Lent now, and John comes at us with another challenging text. But before we get into all that, our passage also contains probably the most well-known scripture verse of the entire Bible, John 3:16. And as such, it’s probably the most misused scripture verse of the entire Bible. Misused, because it is too often used as a weapon to attack people with. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.”

That verse has been thrown in people’s faces as a way to judge, attack, and condemn. I’m sure in your travels you have seen many signs in front of people’s houses or sometimes in a field on the side of the road, or maybe a protest sign outside of a Planned Parenthood, signs that tell you where you’re gonna go if you don’t do whatever the sign says. And many times, whether it’s relevant to the sign or not, John 3:16 will be somewhere on that sign.

What’s odd to me is what comes after that verse. Not only is it not what you’d expect but you find that it really doesn’t fit the context of all those judgmental signs that it gets attached to. And what follows of course is this, “God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” Why isn’t that the verse on every sign and billboard in America? I mean if Jesus isn’t here to judge the world, should we be? And maybe that’s why we never hear about John 3:17. What good is your religion if you can’t judge other people right? That’s no fun! You mean we sharpened our pointer finger for nothing Jesus? We had this ready to go! We’ve been practicing and everything! Jesus then goes on to say more about judgment, but it’s nothing we want to hear of course, which is why most stop at 3:16.

Jesus speaks of a judgment as something that has already taken place, not one that is coming at some future time. And to illustrate how that works Jesus speaks of light and darkness in a very different way than the light and dark motifs that we are used to hearing in the seasons of Advent and Epiphany. The light and darkness that Jesus speaks of here, is about exposing the evil in the world. People love darkness, Jesus says, more than the light. Why? Because their actions are exposed by the light.

And who is that light? According to John, it’s Jesus. Jesus’ presence, Jesus’ teaching, Jesus’ care for the world, is what exposes the world’s actions, for good or bad. So, in a sense, John presents Jesus as the great whistleblower. God’s great exposé of the world! Keeping in mind, that according to John 3:16 and 17, this is not about who is going to hell and who is not. This is about the here and now, and how well the world is following the light, Jesus—how well we are following Jesus’ lead and taking care of each other and the world—how well we are bringing new life into the present.

And that’s what this is all about, if we keep this passage in context. This reading from John’s Gospel, is the ending of his conversation with Nicodemus. And you may remember that Nicodemus was really struggling with Jesus and his teachings. He wanted very badly to buy into everything that Jesus was laying down but some of it was just too hard for Nicodemus to swallow. This is the same conversation where Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs to be reborn if he wants to see God’s kingdom. And naïve Nicodemus was like, how can a person enter their mother’s womb again? It went right over his head. But this new life that Jesus was talking about was the ability to see, clearly, the world around them, and identify if it’s God’s kingdom, or something else they see.

Let me give you some real world examples of what Jesus is talking about here. In the not so distant past we have seen our share of whistleblowing and exposés, from Watergate, to Edward Snowden exposing NSA activities. But let’s go way back, over a hundred years ago, to an exposé that we are still reaping the benefits from, Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle. Around the turn of the last century, Upton Sinclair, a follower of Jesus but very critical of organized religion, went undercover as a worker in one of Chicago’s largest meatpacking plants, in hopes to uncover the poor working conditions of immigrants there, only to uncover the horrific health conditions and unsanitary practices of the meatpacking industry.

Soon after the publication of his book, the government passed the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act. You can thank Mr. Sinclair for our ability to have a medium rare steak without fear! However, as a follower of Jesus, he was disappointed that the real reason for his work, the welfare of immigrant workers, fell on many deaf ears. But it was his faith in Jesus that allowed him to see their struggle, exposed by the light. Because we cannot address a problem until we can see it.

Fast forward to modern times and there has been a lot of things that have been exposed by the light in recent years. Matthew Shepard, a college student who was brutally beaten, tortured, and tied to a fence in near-freezing temperatures, left to die,  because he was gay. Now, it was already known that homophobia was a real problem in American society when this happened in 1998, but it took the widespread media coverage and investigation for our nation to realize how violent homophobia could be. This was not news to the LGBTQ community, they live it, each and every day. It was the rest of society that was in the dark, until brought out into the light. Though it took 11 years, hate crime legislation was finally passed, in the hopes of minimizing this kind of violence. Because we cannot address a problem until we can see it.

Let’s take racism as another example. After the election of President Obama, many Americans were feeling pretty good about our fight against racism. Only to find out how alive and well it really is here. To you of older generations, did you ever think you would hear the word Nazi in the news as often as you hear it today ever again? So many things that we thought were behind us have reared their ugly heads again. Why? Because of the light, exposing the actions of all, and giving us the ability to recognize that certain behaviors, certain language, are simply not ok. But we cannot address a problem until we can see it.

Let’s take sexism as our final example. These past couple years have been fraught with example after example of the sexism that runs rampant in every corner of our society, as man after man is exposed for sexual harassment or worse. For most of us, the names have been real shockers: Bill Cosby, Garrison Keillor, Matt Lauer, Al Franken, Kevin Spacey, just to name a few.

We live in a world where I have to make sure that my daughters know that it is not ok for men to touch you like that, or speak to you like that, or look at you like that, no those behaviors are not normal. We live in a world where we have to tell our boys, out loud, that it is not ok to talk about women in ways that are dehumanizing, or degrading in any way, not even amongst yourselves in the locker room! No, not ok! That’s not normal, in spite of what you may see on TV or in the news!

The strange thing about all these examples is that in spite of how painful the process has been for people in the exposing of the evils and sins of our world, the mixed blessing in all of them is that we can now see them more clearly. And we can’t address a problem, we can’t address sin and evil, unless we can see it. But by addressing the problems of society, we can bring new life to a hurting world, to hurting people, to hurting family members and friends who have been effected by the evils of this world.

And isn’t that why Jesus was lifted up on the cross, to bring new life into the world? To shine a light into the darkest corners of our world for us, as if to say, Look, people are hurting there, someone needs help there, God’s children are crying over there. Go. May we not be afraid of the light, but welcome it. May we be courageous enough to step into it, and serve the world with the unconditional love that we have already experienced through Christ, the light of the world. Amen.

Takin' It to the Streets

Inspired by John 2:13-22

So we are taking a detour from the Gospel of Mark this month, as every Sunday’s Gospel reading this month except for one will be from the Gospel of John. But don’t let that fool you. Remember that we are in the season of Lent, and so these passages from the Gospel of John that we will be exploring are some pretty tough, hard-hitting passages; like the one for today. Also remember that Lent is that time of year when we shake out the cobwebs from our souls, in preparation to recommit our faith journeys at the Great Vigil of Easter service. And so in order to do that, we are provided some Gospel readings that really cause us to take that long hard look at our inner most selves, take stock, refocus, so that we can move forward again as the Easter people we were made for.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Today we have this story from John’s Gospel, that has left many a Christian scratching their heads in confusion. It’s a story that has caused scholars and theologians to debate over for centuries. Like you, I have heard many different takes on this story over the years in sermons. I’ve heard sermons about how if Jesus got angry then it’s ok for me to get angry. I’ve heard sermons on righteous indignation.

I’ve heard sermons on the corruption in the temple or how the money changers were cheating people, or what first century Roman coins looked like. And they weren’t necessarily bad sermons, but those messages just weren’t speaking to me this time around. However, I did hear a preacher say that in this passage Jesus is saying that the Jewish religion was being replaced by Christianity. And just so we’re clear, I wholeheartedly do not believe that for a second.

So, what are we to make of this story? I really don’t think Jesus was overly concerned with people being cheated out of their money in the temple. I also don’t think that Jesus was overly concerned that these transactions were taking place in the temple. And I don’t think that Jesus had anything against cattle and sheep in the temple either. But don’t get any ideas, if you have cattle or sheep at home, and I know some of you do, please leave them there. I think Jesus’ mind was on much bigger things than money transactions, or corruption, or animals in the temple. I think Jesus’ concern was more about why they were there in the first place. They were there, not just to make a transaction with those money changers, but to make a transaction with God in the temple.

Now there’s at least two problems with this: one, because they were operating under a sacrificial system, they believed that blood had to be shed, that some kind of transaction had to be made, in order for God to love them, in order for God to want to have a relationship with them; and two, and even more importantly, they believed that could only take place in the temple, in one temple in the entire world, in one geographical place. And for Jesus this was a ludicrous idea at best, if not outright heretical!

For starters, Jesus knew that God couldn’t be contained by bricks and mortar. But more than that, God now resided in him, in the flesh and bones of Jesus, and getting the world to see that, was a huge job! But he knew it was something worth fighting for, because he knew how badly the world needed God outside of the temple. He knew how badly the holy was needed outside that holy place. And he knew, it was something worth dying for.

But this was foolishness to them! The idea that the God of heaven and Earth could love us unconditionally, without sacrifice, without bloodshed, without some kind of transaction being made between us and God, and all without a temple, a holy place? Preposterous!  But not for God. You see, God loved the world so much, that God gave up a place in the heavens, to become flesh and bone like us—to be closer to us than they could have possibly imagined. But the world didn’t understand. And this foolish Jewish carpenter turned preacher quickly went from being an annoyance, to being public enemy number one. And the only way they knew how to deal with him, the only way they knew how to shut him up, for good, was to have him executed. And so that’s what they did, thinking that their troubles were over, the problem of Jesus solved.

And that’s where you come in. Wait pastor, aren’t you forgetting the resurrection? No, you are the reason Jesus was resurrected! You are the ones called to continue the work that Jesus begun! You are the holy place where the Spirit of God now resides! When Christ ascended out of this world, Christ did not abandon the world but instead sends you out those doors, week in and week out, to proclaim to the world that God cannot be contained by a temple, God cannot be contained by a church, God cannot be contained by a theology, God cannot be contained by human decisions, by human behavior, by human weakness! God cannot be contained by human sinfulness! God’s love for the world is without condition, without requirements, it is free, and it is meant to be proclaimed by each and everyone one of us, to the entire world, in thought, word, and deed!

All because Jesus now resides in you. And I don’t just mean in this church, or any church for that matter, I mean that Jesus now resides in you, in your very bodies, in your flesh and bone, because God knows how to do that better than anyone—which is why we call ourselves the body of Christ for the world. And also why we come here, each and every Sunday, week in and week out, to be nourished, at that table, for the work ahead. Now, there are probably a lot of different understandings of communion among you, and that is totally ok.

You won’t get any judgement from me if we believe different things about what really happens at that table. Depending on the day I may have different beliefs about it! But one of the things that I have really come to appreciate about traditional Lutheran theology concerning communion is the belief that somehow, someway, Jesus is present in the bread and wine. No idea how that happens, it is a beautiful mystery.

But what I love about that belief, is that somehow, in someway, we take in the very presence of Christ, in our physical bodies, as we consume the bread and wine. The holiness of what happens at this table, becomes a part of you. You become the holy place where God resides. And you, get the opportunity to take that out into the world—in the way that you love people, welcome people, forgive people, care for people, protect people, do all the things that Christ calls you to do.

The streets of Old Town Auburn, CA
As I was writing this sermon, I couldn’t get a certain song out of my head, Takin’ it to the Streets, by the Doobie Brothers. It was really bothering me because I was trying to concentrate on my sermon, so I finally thought, I’ll stop and listen to it so I can just get it out of my head once and for all. And so I’m sitting there listening to this song, singing along, cuz how can you not sing along to that song right? And maybe for the first time I really payed attention to the lyrics and thought, wow, these really speak to what I’m writing about!

These are some of the lyrics: “You don't know me but I'm your brother, I was raised here in this living hell, You don't know my kind in your world, Take this message to my brother, You will find him everywhere, Wherever people live together, Tied in poverty's despair, I ain't blind and I don't like what I think I see, Takin' it to the streets.” Another reason this song may have been on my mind is because of the news lately, and seeing all these amazing, awe-inspiring teenagers, pleading to our lawmakers to do something about gun violence, literally taking it to the streets. Or the many peaceful protestors pleading for equality and justice for women, or our brothers and sisters of color, or our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community.

In this crazy story from the Gospel of John, I hear a call to take it to the streets. And from our perspective, it is the love of God, who is Christ. Because God refuses to be contained by these four walls, God calls us to take Christ out into the world, in flesh and bone for the world to see and experience. In your flesh and bone. May we be ever thankful that we have a God who cannot, who will not, be contained, in any one place. And may that thankfulness drive us to take it to the streets. Amen.

Hard Truths about Hard Truths

Inspired by Mark 8:31-38

Last week’s sermon was pretty challenging, both to hear and to deliver. So I thought to myself, I’ll go easy on them next week. Besides, I don’t think I got it in me to do that again so soon. So, I sat at my desk, after everyone had gone home last Sunday, only to read today’s Gospel story. Well, that’s just great, I thought, thanks God. Last week’s Gospel story was challenging because even though the good news of the Gospel was explicitly stated, “Now is the time. Here comes God’s kingdom. Change your hearts and lives. And trust this good news,” it wasn’t the kind of good news that we like to hear.

Today’s Gospel story is challenging because not only is the gospel not explicitly stated, but it’s really hard to find any good news here! You really have to dig and sift through this to find something that vaguely resembles good news! But maybe, just maybe, we’re asking the wrong question, searching for the wrong thing. Maybe, just maybe, we’re just supposed to be simply listening to whatever God has to say to us, so that we can be the good news when we leave this place. Hold on to that thought, we’ll return to it later.

So, our Gospel story for today, comes immediately after Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Christ, not just a prophet, not just a good teacher, but the Christ himself. Jesus says let’s not go around sharing that right now. And that’s where our story picks up. And Jesus goes on this very depressing rant about being rejected and killed and rising, and then he calls Peter Satan and he doesn’t end there, he tells them to take up their cross or else they too are going to die.

All of a sudden Jesus turns into a negative Ned. That’s the male version of negative Nancy. We all have one of those in our circle of friends right? That friend who always sees the glass half empty, who sees the negative in everything and just has to comment on it, you know, the Eeyore of the group. And I’m sure his followers were like, where in the world did that come from? Somebody woke up on the wrong side of the bed!

But of course, it was much more than just his attitude that was troubling them, but it was his words. This is the first of three times in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus predicts his own death. And Peter takes hold of him, meaning that he faces him, looks at him, and in so many words says, No! Not gonna happen! I don’t want hear this! Good ol’ Peter, we can always count on Peter to say what’s on everyone else’s mind right? And Jesus gives it right back to him, looks him dead in the eye and basically says, No! You don’t know what you’re talking about! Your head is in the wrong place Peter! With some name calling thrown in there too but we don’t need to go there. But in this exchange, between Peter and Jesus, they are speaking, out loud, one to another, some hard truths. Peter could not accept what Jesus was saying, and had to speak up about it. Likewise, Jesus could not ignore the cross, looming ever closer, and had to speak up about it. And both were speaking up out of love for each other.

I’m sure most of you can relate to them. I’m sure there have been times in your life when you have had to speak a hard truth to someone. And even though it’s done out of love, that doesn’t make it any easier does it? If anything, it makes it harder! Maybe it was a wrong that someone inflicted on you that needs to be addressed. Maybe it was a friend or family member that you see going down a path that will surely lead to no good and you just can’t bite your tongue any longer.

Or maybe it’s something seemingly simple like asking for help, or saying no when asked to do something when your heart just isn’t into it. Or maybe something bigger, like speaking out against an injustice. Hard truths come in all shapes and sizes. But a hard truth about hard truths is this, they’re never silent, otherwise they wouldn’t be hard. No, they are said openly, plainly, as Jesus lovingly did with Peter, as Peter lovingly did with Jesus.

Now, there are a few different ways you can take this sermon on hard truths. You can take this on an individual level. I think that’s the default anyway right? When you listen to a sermon it’s natural to think how it applies to you, and there’s nothing wrong with that. So taken that way, you could ask yourself some challenging questions like, what hard truth is God trying to communicate to me? How have I resisted or dismissed it? Have I outright told God, as Peter did—No, I’m not buy’n it; there must be another way!

Or, what hard truth are you being called to speak to someone else? And when you do, how prepared are you for their response? And the other side of that coin is, how prepared are you to receive a hard truth from someone else? Now that’s taking this on an individual level but I also want you to hear this, and every sermon, communally.

What does this have to say to you as a congregation? What hard truths have been spoken to you in the past O Bethlehem, and how did you come out on the other side of that? You’re still here. You’re still standing! You got through it. Have those hard truths come from God? From other people? From both simultaneously? And how did you initially react O Bethlehem? With defensiveness? Dismissiveness? Anger? Hurt? Sadness? Did you eventually take that hard truth to heart? Or maybe it’s still ringing in your ears. These are important questions because it will affect how you respond the next time a hard truth is spoken to you O Bethlehem. And there will be a next time because thankfully the Holy Spirit never stops speaking! And she speaks both words of comfort and hard truths.

Now let’s flip this around. What hard truths do you feel God calls churches to speak to others? For example, churches are speaking hard truths concerning whether or not they will fully welcome those from the LGBTQ community. And no matter where they fall on that issue, it’s going to make them unpopular with those who don’t agree with their version of the gospel. Does Bethlehem have anything to say about that? There are churches speaking hard truths about the injustices against our black communities.

And no matter where they fall on that issue, it’s going to make them unpopular with those who don’t agree with their version of the gospel. Does Bethlehem have anything to say about that? There are hard truths being said right now about guns in this country. And no matter what side they come down on, they’re going to be unpopular with those who don’t agree with them? Might the church have something to say about that issue? Does the gospel shed any light on that issue? And if so, who will speak it?

And so another hard truth about speaking hard truths, is that they don’t make you very popular. Why? Because they often hurt, both the hearer and the speaker. I would imagine that Peter and Jesus walked away from that exchange hurt, scarred, confused, angry, or all of the above. When you have had to speak hard truths to people, I’m sure you have received a whole bunch of different reactions! And “thank you” is probably not one of them! At least not initially. When you speak hard truths to people they can feel attacked, and get defensive. Seminaries should probably have standard issue body armor to hand out at graduation because of this! Because I don’t care how thick a new pastor thinks their skin is, I can guarantee them, it ain’t thick enough!

Jesus spoke hard truths, and it got him rejected, arrested, beaten, and executed in a most horrific way. That was, quite literally, his cross to bear. And it’s a heavy cross, as seen here in this 17th century painting by Italian artist Domenichino. He called it, The Way to Calvary. And for me, it’s not the cross or the soldier or the angry faces that strike me about this painting. What I find particularly haunting about it, is Jesus looking at us dead in the eye, as if to say, “Be sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. Because this, this, is what speaking hard truths looks like, this is what following me looks like.” We will be laughed at, insulted, mocked, utterly rejected, by many. This is not about winning a popularity contest. This is about the good news of the gospel, and as we heard last week, the good news doesn’t always sound like good news to everyone. Sometimes not even to us! Because the gospel often calls us to speak hard truths that need to be said.

Now, there is good news to be had in all of this. I won’t leave you on that note! The good news is what comes from this hard truth telling—life. Jesus doesn’t speak only of his death but also of his rising. And if we are called to die with Christ in our baptisms then we are also called to rise with Christ out of our baptisms. And Jesus didn’t only speak of us losing our lives, but also of saving them, by being willing to take up our own cross, for the sake of the world around us, by being willing to be rejected, by sticking our neck out for others even when its unpopular, by speaking hard truths that need to be said, even when the cost is high, especially when the cost is high. Jesus does not just look at you in warning, but also looks at you with yearning in his eyes—yearning for you to join him, on the way to Calvary—carrying that heavy cross of rejection, for the sake of the gospel, for the love of the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Change is Good News?

Inspired by Mark 1:9-15

Welcome to Lent. Lent is the 40 days leading up to Easter which began on Ash Wednesday a few days ago, but it is also so much more than that. Early in Christian history, the ancients of our faith recognized the importance of our Easter celebration, so much so that they quickly instituted a time of preparation for it, 40 days to be exact. Why 40? Well for a few reasons. The number 40 is an important number in scripture, and so it conjures up many stories to help set the mood of Lent:

the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years after escaping Egyptian slavery, reclaiming their identity along the way; Noah and his family were in the ark while it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, giving them lots of time for contemplation; Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights receiving the Ten Commandments which would change the course of history as they knew it; and from today’s Gospel story, Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, emerging from the wilderness with a very particular message, which we will get to in a minute.

But I’m not done with the number 40 yet. So, I’ve given you just a few of the many uses of the number 40 found throughout scripture. But it still begs the question, why 40? Why was 40 such an important number for Biblical authors? Many reasons have been given over the years as why that number keeps popping up in scripture. One of the most compelling reasons that I have come across, is the connection to how many weeks we are in our mother’s womb. And I find that compelling for two reasons: one, because of the incredible changes that we go through while we are in our mother’s womb beginning from fertilized egg to chubby little baby, and two, at the end of that 40, the ending result is a new birth.

Now, what does that have to do with Lent? Well, earlier I mentioned how Lent is so much more than just the 40 days that lead up to Easter, because of all that happens during these 40 days, or all that is supposed to be happening during these 40 days in our hearts. The idea is that we don’t come out of Lent the same people, but rather we come out on the other side as renewed, refreshed, recommitted Easter people! And that should be a reflection of our entire lives right? Are we not called to come out of our baptismal waters a different people—a renewed, rebirthed, reformed people? And Lent gives us this reminder year in and year out.

So with all of that in mind, let us now return to our Gospel story that we heard today form Mark. Now, we began our year in the Gospel of Mark back at the beginning of December and we are still in the first chapter. We have skipped ahead a couple times but we are essentially still in the first chapter. Today we heard the story of Jesus baptism, which we did read back in January, but this time we went further to include Jesus’ temptation.

The first Sunday in Lent should be called Temptation Sunday because we always read this story on this day, whether it’s from Matthew, Mark, or Luke. And it’s fitting isn’t it, after everything we’ve gone over about what Lent is. So, Jesus is baptized and immediately is thrown into the wilderness, immediately is thrown into a 40 day womb, immediately is thrown into a time of gestation, coming out on the other side ready to tackle the world as Christ our savior!

And tackle the world he does! Jesus comes out of his 40 days and utters his first words in the Gospel of Mark, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news! Now if you wrote a book, about one of the most famous people in the world, the first quote from that person that you used in your book would be a significant one. Right? Same goes for Biblical authors. The firsts are always important: the first story, the first lesson, the first miracle, the first words of Jesus. So, these words that comes out of his 40 days are significant and some have said that they sum up his entire ministry in the Gospel of Mark. He begins with “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom!” and let me just pause and share how I hear those words as your pastor.

I truly believe with all my heart that now is the time, that God’s kingdom is coming here. I truly believe with all my heart that amazing things can happen here, that there is potential, beyond our wildest dreams, for the new life of the kingdom to come here! Otherwise, I wouldn’t have accepted the call to be your pastor, nor would I continue to challenge you to be more than you are. And my annual reports would be bland and filled with meaningless platitudes.

Now if that’s the kind of pastor you want, you best let me know now, before we waste any more of eachother’s time. Because let me tell you, there are plenty of pastors out there that can deliver that to you, there are plenty of pastors out there that would be happy to just collect their paycheck, and not rock the boat, and just keep things status quo—but that’s not me, that’s not who I am. Otherwise, now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! And how do we prepare for that? Well, let me step out of the way and allow Jesus to continue with his first directive, “Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” Let that sink in for a minute.

The one that we call Lord and savior, just used the word “change” and “good news” in the same sentence! How in the world do you explain that! And you think changing our carpet or paint or coffee is challenging? Jesus goes right for the jugular and says change your hearts! Change your very lives! And then has the audacity to call that good news! And just so we’re clear, the phrase “good news” is also translated “gospel.” For all of you looking for the gospel every Sunday, well there it is, in all it’s glory! The directive to change your hearts and lives is what Jesus calls the gospel. How can that be?

Fertilized Human Egg
Let’s return to that number 40. I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t want to be walking around looking like that! Nor would I still want to be a baby, or a teenager! Dear Lord, you couldn’t pay me enough to go back to high school! Yuk! But transformation and change isn’t supposed to stop when we become an adult. The transformations and changes that we go through throughout our lives, are necessary and also what make us who we are today. And change can be uncomfortable at best—painful, hurtful at worse.

For you see, good news doesn’t always sound like good news. Gospel doesn’t always feel like gospel. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t. If the gospel doesn’t sound like good news to you then that might just mean it’s striking a chord in you. And I’m begging you to not turn away from it, but listen even closer to it. Because our temptation is this, to believe that if something is uncomfortable, then is must be wrong. Our temptation is to believe that if something doesn’t sound nice, then it must be wrong.

Our temptation is to believe that if something doesn’t feel good, then it must be wrong—and that we should stay away from such things. And when we fall to those temptations, the enemy wins. Because we stay right where we are, no change, no movement, but feeling very safe and secure. However, when we open ourselves up to the good news of change, to the gospel of change, we come out on the other end of our 40, renewed, reinvigorated, reborn, transformed, changed, and ready to tackle the world with Christ our savior. Thanks be to God. Amen.