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The Good News of Change and Trust

A Sermon on Mark 1:9-15

(for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Jared Verdi on Unsplash.)

Is anyone else exhausted just listening to that gospel? Jesus travelled (several days journey) from Galilee to the Jordan...and when he got there he was baptized...and as soon as he came out of the water the heavens were opened, and the Spirit descended on him and drove him into the wilderness... and he was there for 40 days being tempted by Satan... and then John got arrested, and Jesus went back to Galilee preaching that the kingdom of God was near, so repent and believe the good news! Whew… all that in just 7 verses! It’s … a bit overwhelming.

More than a bit, really. It’s a tremendous amount of disruption and responsibility in rapid succession…

even setting aside the “pandemic-fatigue” lenses through which I see everything at this point, blurred and warped by months of cumulative anxiety and grief, this is still a LOT… Even for Jesus!

Because Jesus was human, like us.

I know that can be hard to remember. Especially in stories like this… where the voice of God speaks audibly to him, and the Spirit of God rends open the heavens to descend on him, and the gospel writer skims over forty days of temptation in the wilderness as though it were no big deal, because, you know, angels waited on him.

But I think it was a big deal. I think Jesus was shaken, and challenged, and changed by the events narrated in these seven verses. I think so because - even though these accounts come at the very beginning of Mark’s gospel - they don’t come at the very beginning of Jesus’ life. We don’t know that much about it, but we do know that Jesus had a whole life before his public ministry. There were about 30 years between the miraculous birth and the heaven-rending baptism. 30 years in which he had a daily routine, and favorite foods, and inside jokes with his family. 30 years in which he learned a skill from his father, and then practiced it with dedication, and took pride in the work of his hands. 30 years in which he went about his daily life in the same ways we do, with the same small joys and irritations… with the same quiet comfort derived from normalcy.

How could it not be a shattering change to step from such a life into a river, and out of the river into the proclamation of a divine identity? Can you imagine how utterly disorienting that must have felt for Jesus?

Perhaps he knew it was coming. The gospels suggest some level of foreknowledge in Jesus, at least once the Spirit’s coming initiated his public ministry. But it was still a radical change. A shift in not only his life but even his identity. He had lived his life as Jesus, son of Joseph, the carpenter. Now he was Jesus, son of God, the Beloved. And with this identity ushering him into a divine calling, he could never go back to his former life.

Instead, he was driven into the desert. After thirty years of normalcy, he was thrust into forty days of deprivation. The Judean wilderness is not a friendly place: baking heat in the day and vast emptiness in the night, dusty air and little water, and only scrub brush and wild animals to break the monotony of jagged rocks. Debie Thomas offers her imagination of the details that don’t make it into Mark’s hurried account of that sojourn, suggesting that “Jesus despaired of that grim place filled with wild beasts. That he experienced each day as a battle of mind, spirit, and body. Maybe the hours stretched into years, and the nights felt endless. Maybe the landscape itself mocked his weary senses, its unvarying bleakness breaking his heart.”[1]

Mark tells us that Jesus was tempted by the Adversary, and whether we read this as a demonic confrontation, or the very real confrontation with the extremity of his own physical, emotional, and spiritual limits… this temptation was not something Jeses could bear alone. No. Not even Jesus could bear the deprivation in his own strength. That’s why the angels waited on him. In the wilderness Jesus confronted his own need. He discovered that he could only survive by trusting the help God sent to get him through.

This humanness of Jesus matters, because it profoundly shapes how we hear the message he brings back to Galilee after his heaven-rending baptism and 40-days of temptation in the wilderness.

“The time is fulfilled,” he says, “and the kingdom of God has come near;

repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15)

Without the context of the stories that come before, this declaration can sound rather “churchy” and theological. It sounds like Jesus is dispassionately announcing the arrival of a foreordained moment on a cosmic timetable, declaring God’s entrance onto the scene with a list of demands for those who want to be part of the program: you must repent and believe.

But this declaration sounds different in the mouth of the One whose world was just turned upside down.

The call to repent sounds different from one who has just made a radical shift in his own life, especially when we hear what he said, as Mark actually reports it: In Greek, metanoéō (μετανοέω) means change your mind; think differently.[2] There can be moral elements to this change, but this so-called “repentance” is not restricted to questions of sin. Jesus was without sin, and yet he underwent a radical change when God’s Spirit called him into his public ministry. His life before had not been evil. He had not rejected God, but God called him to change all the same, to set aside a good life because God was about to do something new in the world and Jesus couldn’t do what needed to be done as a carpenter in Nazareth. In Jesus’s baptism he did not need to be forgiven, but he did need to change. And this change can help us understand what he means when he calls us to repentance.

The call to believe, sounds different too, coming on the heels of Jesus’s time of deprivation and dependance in the desert. He is not calling the people to a doctrine, to assent to an idea in which they “believe.” His command, in Greek, is pisteúō (πιστεύω), put your faith in, entrust yourself to the work of God that has come near.[3] He is calling us to trust God, just as he learned to trust God’s provision through the angels that ministered to him in the extremity of his need. Because an attitude of independence will not serve the work of God’s kingdom. And if even Jesus needed to learn how to lean on God’s provision to overcome his demons and survive his wilderness, such trust is essential for all who would follow his path.

As I pointed out at the beginning of this sermon, Mark covers a LOT of ground in just seven verses, and it feels overwhelming: rapid-fire gospel that seemingly crams three different stories into one short reading.

But maybe they aren’t three different stories. Maybe they are one story of what it looks like and feels like to be part of God’s in-breaking work in the world. It looks like disorienting change..and desperate need...and the good news that change and trust are just what we need when God comes near.

If I’m honest, a lot of the time I wish change and trust weren’t the things God calls us into.

In the middle of a pandemic that has forced so much change on us, it would be easier if God just wanted me to repent of my sin. I don’t want God to decide things that were “perfectly fine” before aren’t serving God’s purposes anymore, so I need to let them go so that God can do something new with me.

And when I already feel stretched to my limits I don’t want to hear that the solution is to stop believing in my limits and just trust that God will provide. I’d rather have a nice clear definition of faith, a list of boxes to check, to feel like there is SOMETHING important over which I have some control. That feels so much safer and more satisfying than a promise that God has it, even when all I see for miles around is wilderness.

But Jesus promises us in this gospel that the message he brings, the message of change and trust, is good news. And for all my whining… I have to take him at his word. Because they aren’t just words. He walked this path. He knows change and trust from the disorienting, desperate inside of the story.

And he came through that story to tell us:

“I have such good news for you! God is near. You don’t have to keep waiting. All you have to do is be willing to change your thinking about what your life is supposed to look like, and trust that God will be with you.

And if that all sounds too hard, know that I will be with you too. Because I have already been there. I have had my whole life changed. I have trusted God to meet my needs. I know what I’m talking about when I tell you this is good news.”

And to that I say, thanks be to God.


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