Sermon February 22, 2015 “River of Life” Mark 1: 9-15 by Rev. June Fothergill
Have you had a wilderness time in your life? Have you found God in that wilderness? Not too long ago I went through a severe personal and professional trial. I felt confused, hurt, guilty, frightened and very, very sad. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to me. So I went to the river to pray. The river was near my home and I had made a habit of going there to pray and explore but during that period, how I needed the river! It was where I could express all my emotions without anyone to judge. It was where I could plead and lament and be quiet before God. Its flow reminded me of a greater flow of life and love than my small self and that I was loved and part of something bigger than myself. The river was my holy place to come to grips with my sin and my belovedness, my need to forgive and be forgiven. It was my wilderness.
I find it moving that Jesus was driven by the Spirit – the very spirit that had just said- “you are my beloved” into the wilderness. There Mark tells us cryptically- he was tempted by Satan. Mark doesn’t tell us the specifics – which Luke and Matthew fill in with their later additions to the story. No Mark leaves it open for each of us to imagine that wilderness struggle. To go there ourselves. And to know that whatever our wilderness temptations- Jesus knows. Jesus went through it too. Mark invites us to be with Jesus in the wilderness and to know Jesus is with us in our wilderness times.
What happens in the wilderness and what can be the outcomes?
When Mark speaks of temptations in the wilderness, no doubt his first hearers would have thought of the wanderings and temptations of the Hebrew people in the wilderness after their release from slavery. They struggled to truly trust God. They complained and set up an idol, they worried and horded. Yet, through it all, God kept covenant with them, did not leave them.
When I was driven at the river to deal with my internal wilderness, I wrestled with temptations to retaliate, for I felt attacked, to lie and defend myself, or even to give up. Some of the tears that flowed were of self pity and anger. Yet, that time gave me a chance to look deep for what I really valued and how I wanted to act not based upon my temptations and fears but my faith.
In the wilderness we are invited to face our temptations, the baggage that can keep us from full and healthy relationships with God and others. This self examination is not easy. It is an individual journey of self awareness and growth.
Yet, it can also be a community experience, like the people of Israel. This lent I am offering a class dealing with the Act of Repentance to Indigenous Persons initiated at General Conference of UMC in 2012. This study is an opportunity to listen respectfully to the voices of Native American persons and communities and the historical record of harm. It would a temptation to not engage in this work, to ignore the injuries of the past, to turn a blind eye to suffering today. Yet, we are a people of faith, invited by Christ to trust that facing the temptations of the wilderness, just as he did, will allow us to move forward into deeper faith and action for God. Mark reminds us that in this walk of repentance and struggle in the wilderness, we are not really alone.
For after telling us that Jesus was tempted, Mark summarizes his experience, “he was with the wild beats and the angels waited on him” Although he entered the wilderness alone, he wasn’t really alone. He connected with the natural world God created and he was supported and helped by God’s messengers. In nature and in mystery he experienced God’s presence.
I think that it is this experience of the wonder of nature and the mystery of God that makes the wilderness such a compelling experience. We human beings need such experiences outside in the natural world. They feed our souls. They allow us time to be still, to listen to wonder. I know that all these things are possible in any setting- even a prison cell, but they are terribly much harder! Everyone needs wilderness time, for it truly feeds our souls.
As we look around this morning we see a symbolic river of life in our midst. Let it be a reminder this lent season that God’s presence is with us ready ever to sustain, cleanse and renew us when we come to the waters, when we open our lives to God’s love for us. That’s what I discovered when I went to the river in my distress. God’s healing, forgiving presence allowed me to face my troubles with integrity and humility. I invite us each on this individual journey of faith this lent. Find the time to touch the waters in the midst of your wilderness, to realize a new that God is with you.
This is also a community journey, a search for peace in a violent and hurting world. When Mark says Jesus was with the wild animals, he is alluding to the saying in Isaiah 11, that the wolf will lie down with the lamb, that God will bring peace to our hurting, violent world. That is my prayer for those who are perpetuating violence in our world- that they might encounter the living, loving God in their wilderness
For finally, the wilderness is a place of discovery. From the wilderness Jesus was empowered to go forth to do his ministry- to proclaim and bring the Reign of God to the earth. One of the things that the tradition as it continued in Matthew and Luke says is that Jesus had a choice to make about his ministry, whether or not to go after all the kingdoms of this earth- earthly( frankly violence based) power. He chose a way of peace and compassion, which was also the way of a cross. He chose it because he had experienced the love and presence of the living God. Later, He would die on the mountain but his way of love and live would life on- His resurrected spirit would continue to influence the world.
This ministry he started in Galilee so long ago continues in ministries of compassion for all people, especially those struggling with the wilderness. It continues when we listen to the hearts and treat with dignity the lives all people of all cultures. When we practice Christ’s compassion.
The good news is that compassion is possible! Dacher Keltner, a social psychologist who has done research on compassion had found that “compassion and other positive social emotions are more contagious than negative ones. … Not only are our brains wired to be compassionate but compassion is contagious.” (C. Jones, “Practicing Compassion, Seasons of the Spirit Lent Easter p. 9)
Close with a story of bridges and river and compassion discovered.
Myrtle Creek has as the Umpqua river running beside it. To get to the town you get to cross a beautiful stone bridge. One of our favorite things to do as a family was to go down to the river to play. One fall day all four of us walked to the path that led to the river and then scampered down the narrow brambly trail to the river proper. We walked along the rocks and under the bridge to a place where we could build a raft. That’s want my kids wanted to do. So we tired to build a raft with what we could find along the bank and what we had brought. And we made one – sort of- but when we tried it out- you guessed it- it sank under a person’s weight. So by the end of the day ,as the sun was going down sooner than expected- it was fall- we were wet and cold and facing the journey back up the trail to home. But as we came to the bridge there was a man there , camping in its shelter. He had a little fire burning. He saw us wet and cold and called us over. Under the bridge, beside the river, we shared in his compassion and warmth.