Sermon at Grace Community

Sermon for Lent 1 preached at Grace Community, Plano, and translated into Farsi and Arabic

Last time I preached here, I mentioned chess, which, I learned had a very clear Persian connection! I want to start this sermon with another one, though more obscure.  A little more than a century after the death and resurrection of Jesus, there was a disciple of His who died in Adiabene, which was a northern province of Persia. His name was Tatian. He was faithful, though some of ideas were seen by some as extreme, for example about fasting. But he did ask a very reasonable question- why have four Gospels?  Why not take the best accounts, and put them in what seems the most accurate order, so that we have one Gospel, an amalgam of them all? His book was literally called ‘out of four,’ namely the Gospels, so as to be one, since there was one story of one Lord. But it turns out that the worldwide Church, over time, in the era of the Church Fathers, came to a different conclusion, and for good reasons.  Imagine a grandfather, someone remembered fondly by his family. OK, but if his wife, brother, business partner, son, and granddaughter all wrote memoirs, they would have different things to say. And the variations wouldn’t really be around facts, but rather about who he was, which touched on who he was for them!  They would remember the relationships, colored by their own perspectives, not to distort the picture of the patriarch, but to enrich it.  Here we can bring to our aid the title of an introduction to New Testament studies by a famous evangelical Anglican, the late Bishop Stephen Neill: ‘Jesus Through Many Eyes.’ He was one, and his grace the same, but Matthew and John and Peter and Paul describe it from different angles, known to them themselves, and we are richer for it.  When they diverge in a detail or other, the truth of the whole is confirmed, since human memories and perspectives do differ.

Even though the Church rejected Tatian’ project, that doesn’t mean he was entirely wrong.  For we do learn something by comparing accounts, for the smaller contrasts can help us understand what the memories of each are emphasizing.  Something is thrown into relief.  Nowhere is this more clear than in the story of the temptation of Jesus, for today we have heard Mark’s version.  And quite simply, the story as we usually think of it is not there! In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke the devil comes to tempt Jesus in religious, seemingly noble, ways. Save the people! Hasten the coming of the kingdom! Rule the nations justly, in contrast to worldly corruption! But in each case the temptation is not in the goal, but in the ego, the desire for power, as its means. This is similar to Tolkein’s ‘Lord of the Rings.’ The ring of power could vanquish evil, but along the way it turns the heart of the one using it in a corrupt direction.  Jesus turning a stone in to bread, Jesus jumping from the temple height, Jesus surveying the kingdoms of this world atop a mountain- all this profound information is gone. So what is in its place here in Mark?

Simply that Jesus was tempted. The Gospel of Mark is well aware of the demons, who immediately recognize him, just before our reading.  It is the sheer fact of the temptation Mark recounts. This also brings into relief and clarity the where of it. It is in the wilderness. Now in ancient Hebrew culture this was dangerous country, where dangerous creatures, spiritually as well as fleshly, resided. The wilderness is what became of the garden made by God in the beginning.  It is where the wild beasts reside, according Mark. But when Jesus obeys his Father, when he overcomes the temptation, even the desert reverts to being a paradise. The latter is where ‘they kingdom come father’ is said and lived. And that kingdom, and its restoration, are exactly where the whole Gospel story is going. The clash with the evil one will of course have its climax in the passion story, and the beginning of the restoration of paradise in the resurrection. The animals were a peaceable kingdom in the beginning and so they will be at the end.  Here, in the middle, where the Son says Yes to his Father, that peaceable kingdom is found even in the midst of the wilderness. The angels ministering to him, mentioned by Mark, is another proof for ancient people, and indeed for us, of that fact.

Mark’s temptation story is simple, what we call in English ‘bare bones.’ That lets us focus on its import.  Jesus’ victory over evil, begun in the wilderness, complete on the cross, spells the restoration of the point of creation, from the beginning, and the sure promise of paradise at the end. It binds all salvation history in one.  And that leads finally to the question- if the work is complete, what is there for us to do? Look again at Mark’s version of the story, for it is wrapped, as if in a blanket, by the calling of the Church on either side. Before the temptation, we hear the preaching of John- prepare the way. Then we learn of the baptism of Jesus as the Father beloved child. After the temptation comes the calling of the disciples. Straightway they are thrown into the struggle, healing and cleansing. And because Jesus has done these first, we are called to follow, to take up the task of witnessing through these ministries, in obedience. Preaching, baptizing, discipling, healing, that is the shape of the Church life, as it follows in the steps of Jesus, who has already faced all that we do, and more, and prevailed.  Into just this life of blessing and struggle, are summoned this afternoon newer followers.  But in recommitment indeed all of us, who by grace inhabit a wilderness become a paradise, are so called. Amen.

Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.