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March 5, 2006 (Lent I)—“Life in the Real World”

Pastor David Barber

Mark 1:9-15

Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Once again we begin our Lenten journey with the temptation story—this time from the Gospel of Mark. It’s difficult to let Mark’s version stand all by itself because it’s so terse and void of details.

So it’s tempting to invite Matthew and Luke to the party this morning. Both of them are much better at spinning a story and filling in the gaps about what actually happened when Jesus went camping with Satan one day. But let’s try to ignore them and give our full attention to Mark this morning.

One of the neat things about Mark’s version of the story is that in the brevity of 6 verses, we go from his baptism, to temptation, to public ministry. In these brief 6 verses Jesus actually mirrors the experience of Israel after they left Egypt.

Jesus’ baptism is a reminder of Israel at the Red Sea. His 40 days in the wilderness where he was confronted by Satan reminds us of Israel’s 40-year struggle wandering around in the desert, and the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry echoes the entry of Israel into the Promised Land.

What I like about Mark is the way he describes what happened—but also what he fails to say. For instance, at his baptism we’re told that the heavens were torn apart. They were ripped apart—never to be closed again. God has torn down the barriers and is among us—on the loose.

This kind of dynamic, violent language also spills over into the next scene where we’re told that the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. This is no meek and peaceful dove here. It’s more like a hawk with claws and talons, swooping down like a dive-bomber—not to gather us underneath her wings but to scatter us.

What Mark fails to say is that there is no report card on how Jesus did out there in the wilderness. We don’t know if he was a “child left behind” or if he passed his competency test with flying colors. Mark doesn’t tell us.

Of course, this is the way this author often does business. He leaves us hanging. For instance, at the end of his book, following the resurrection, he leaves us with a dangling sentence.

It’s almost as if he says, “What do you think? You decide.” Maybe there’s no neat conclusion because he wants to throw this story back into our laps. Maybe he wants to remind us that the struggle with temptation and ministry is never quite finished for any of us—not even Jesus.

Because of our baptism, you and I are still finishing this story. The head upon which this dove or this hawk lands is the head of every baptized person as they are driven dripping wet from the waters of baptism out into the “real world” where the demons dwell.

We sometimes talk about the leading and the guiding of the Holy Spirit. I wonder how many folks really want to be “Spirit-led”—to say nothing about being “Spirit-driven”—if the Spirit is going to lead us out into some God-forsaken wilderness to do battle with Satan?

On the other hand, I don’t know how we can avoid it. If we’re serious about the call of our baptism and what it means for daily life, I don’t know how we can avoid a confrontation with temptation. Perhaps, we should even welcome such opportunities because we discover the temper of our faith and what is fermenting at the core of our being.

In fact, aren’t we as a congregation providing such an opportunity for Joshua through the internship program? (Webmaster’s note: Turning to Intern Pastor Josh) Some of your classmates might question whether or not Hawaii is truly a wilderness experience. You are, however, 4000 miles away from home, by yourself, in a culture that’s completely different from the Norwegians and the “cheese-heads” of Wisconsin.

There are also a few wild beasts here. Some of these beasts are friendly, and some of these beasts can frighten and devour you. You also have the opportunity to do a little Olympic wrestling with Satan. And that’s a good thing.

In this time of testing, it’s good to know where you will be asked to compromise your faith and your values. You might as well know up front that if you don’t have a clear vision of who you are, everyone else will have one for you, and you can get nibbled away in the process.

One of the strengths of the Lutheran church has been its internship program, and in this time, it has become even more important. We get the chance to nurture, to encourage, and to mold future leaders.

Joshua and his classmates get the opportunity to experiment, to fail, to succeed, to grow into their call, and to discover their strengths and their weaknesses for ministry.

The Spirit’s role in our reading for today leads us back to the book of Deuteronomy where it is God who tests in order to know the people’s hearts. Did they love God with all their heart and soul and with their entire being?

Is this then why the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness before he began his public ministry? Might we also say that this is one of the reasons for internship—to learn the character of one’s faith and where the wild beasts reside within ourselves and in the lives of others?

This isn’t true just for Joshua. It’s the life experience and story for all of us in whatever path of life we may follow. Every day we arrive within our families, our jobs and businesses, at school, or as citizens in the public arena, dripping wet from our baptism.

We’re thrust out into the wilderness where we’re asked to compromise our faith and the values we hold close to our hearts.

I just visited with a member last week who told me that the title of her doctoral thesis was “Ethics and Spirituality in the Marketplace.” I should have her deliver the sermon this morning because that’s exactly what this text addresses—as well as ethics and spirituality wherever the call of baptism drives us.

I recently read an interesting case study in the book Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins. On December 11, 1995, the Madden Hills textile factory, founded in 1906 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, burned to the ground. Nearly 1,400 employees found themselves unemployed two weeks before Christmas.

The factory owner, Aaron Feuerstein, collected over $100 million from the insurance companies, but to rebuild in Lawrence would cost Feuerstein over $300 million. Although the fire was a terrible accident, it did provide an opportunity to rebuild elsewhere.

  • To remain competitive, should Feuerstein sell any remaining assets and follow his competitors, who have already relocated to two-thirds world countries in the quest for lower wages?
  • Does the company have any ethical obligations to the town of Lawrence, or to its employees?
  • Does Feuerstein owe his employees anything more than what he already paid them in the form of salaries?

What do you think? Well, the owner not only decided to rebuild in Lawrence, but to continue paying his employees their full wages including medical benefits at a cost of 20 million dollars, and he guaranteed employment once the factory was rebuilt.

Feuerstein stated, “I have an equal responsibility to the community. It would have been unconscionable to put 3,00 people on the streets and deliver a death blow to the cities of Lawrence and Methuren. Maybe on paper our company is [now] worth less on Wall Street, but I can tell you it’s [really] worth more.”

In a time when we have so many other narratives where corporations have sucked the life out of its employees and the communities where they’re located, it’s refreshing to read about Aaron Feuerstein. It would be interesting to talk to him about his faith and his values and what part these core components might have played in his decision.

We usually don’t face such huge ethical decisions with such ramifications. Yet, everyday we are tested through countless ordinary situations in the classroom, in the store, at the office, and even in the church where we discover something about the nature of our faith and the call of our baptism.

We are tempted by greed. We are tempted by laziness and apathy in the face of injustice. We are faced with a lack of courage to confront the demons within us and around us.

We are faced with the temptation to lie and deceive, and to cover our rear-end, when the situation calls us to stand up and to speak the truth.

This struggle is never finished for any of us, and usually, there’s never any neat resolution in our confrontation with temptation. It’s a daily process. That’s why Martin Luther encourages us to return to the waters and the promise of our baptism every day.

We need to remind ourselves of who we are and whose we are. We need to remind ourselves of our vocational identity as a child of God. In the waters of Holy Baptism, God claimed us for his very own. We were “sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

When we cling to the promises of Christ in our baptism, we’re given strength in the face of every testing, and we’re empowered to be faithful wherever the demons stare us in the face.

When we fail, God takes the wreckage of our lives unto himself through Jesus Christ. In fact, all too often we find ourselves saying what we were never going to say again.

We find ourselves doing what we know is distasteful in the inner core of our being—and still we do it. We find ourselves failing to speak and to act when the weak and the voiceless need our support.

But in all of this—in our failures, in our sins, in our shortcomings, we are taken up into the arms of our eternal and merciful Lord. We are loved and held with the amazing grace and the spectacular love of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Throughout our own 40 days we are reminded that in the midst of every wilderness where temptation will confront us, there is a love that is too strong to be denied.

We have a Savior that is with us in every form of testing to bring us strength and courage, and to lift us up, to forgive us, and to love us with an everlasting love that will never let us go.


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