Lent 1B: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; I Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, February 18, 2018
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
Most of us think about Christmas when we think about the incarnation of God. We like the eight pound, six ounce newborn baby Jesus being held in his mother’s arms. It’s a good image; it brings us peace and comfort and, even better, the fact that he was born in a barn removes us from our own reality that we might enter into a pastoral scene filled with warmth and joy. As we follow through with that image, we associate the incarnation of the divine as one in which God’s assumption of the body is born out of humility and weakness as a poor, defenseless baby who must rely on his parents for comfort and care. This is what many of us believe about the incarnation and it is not wrong, but neither is it complete. In the Nicene Creed we profess that “he [Jesus] came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” And this is where most of us stop thinking incarnationally—we associate Jesus’s birth with his incarnation, but not his life. We get being born a man, or at least we think we do, and we forget experiencing the world as a man is also part of the incarnation.
Mark reminds us that in order for God to become incarnate he has to do more than assume our body, he must also experience what men experience. In Mark’s version of the incarnation, there is no birth narrative—we don’t hear about angels or the Virgin Mary or cattle lowing—Jesus simply shows up right here in verse nine of chapter one. Mark’s theology of incarnation is manifest in the first event Jesus experiences following his baptism—the temptation in the wilderness. Listen closely to how Mark describes this temptation scene, “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” A couple of things might catch your attention here. First, the language of exorcism is reflected in the words “drove him out”. Jesus will “drive out” demons from their human hosts throughout the Gospel of Mark. Second, it is the Spirit itself, the third person of the Trinity, which drives out Jesus into the wilderness. This is so important to our understanding of the incarnation, that we even mention it in the Collect we prayed before we started reading scripture this morning—“Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan…”
We understand incarnation to be more than God assuming the flesh of man because the incarnation of God is not some Mardi Gras costume party in which God dresses up like Jesus nor is it simply the assumption of one man’s body that we name as Jesus Christ. The incarnation is about assuming all of humanity and all of our humanity. The wilderness event illustrates how important incarnation is. The Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. In order for Jesus to be fully incarnate, he cannot simply be born of flesh, he must assume every part of our humanity—body, mind, and soul—and also all of our experiences—suffering, joy, and temptation. If there is no wilderness experience, no temptation, there is no incarnation.
Temptation is part of the nature of being human. I feel pretty sure that most of us, if not all of us, can relate to the experience of temptation. We decide to lose weight, join Weight Watchers, clean out the fridge and stock up on healthy options like vegetables and fish, and just as we are patting ourselves on the back and feeling proud of our efforts, a girl scout rings the doorbell with a one for five sell—buy one box of thin mints and get five free—who could pass up that offer??? Of course we buy them and tell ourselves we will just freeze them for some future use…but eating just one little cookie couldn’t hurt. But now that the sleeve is open, we can’t freeze this particular box and we certainly don’t want to throw out a brand new box of cookies after eating only one—that would be a complete waste of money. I’ll just stick them in the cabinet and parse them out sparingly. And what is sparingly? I mean, is it just one? Surely two or three would be considered sparingly. And by the time you have put this much thought into how many cookies you can or cannot eat to stay true to your new diet, you are exhausted and decide the best course of action is simply to eat the rest of the sleeve so that they can no longer serve as a temptation to you. Of course, that leaves the second sleeve sitting in the box all forlorn looking…and really who will know?
We are easily tempted. We make a commitment and then find it is not so easy to live out our resolve. God knows this—he’s been around from the beginning and seen us succumb to temptation over and over again. We pray “lead us not into temptation” and yet temptation is so much a part of our existence we are simply not aware of all the ways in which it infects our lives. The wilderness of our temptation is more than simply apples in the garden or guns in the classroom; it is indifference and complacency.
This past week we experienced yet another mass shooting in the school house and though our initial response is outrage and grief, social media posts about gun control and mental health, stories of heroism and courage, these will fade in the coming days and weeks and our deep sense of complacency will seep in yet again. I have already preached about mass shootings three times in my career here at St. John’s, this will make four. I wonder how many more times I will have to say something about the nature of God in the face of such tragedies from this pulpit?
To understand our roots of complacency regarding mass shootings such as these we must dig deeper into the issues surrounding violence in America. It is not just about the brokenness of our mental health systems nor is it simply an issue of gun control. I am tired of those arguments because they are distracting and perpetuating the lie that the answer to violence and mass shootings lies in Washington D. C.
Mark doesn’t tell us this but in both Matthew and Luke, Jesus faces three temptations in the wilderness: turn stone into bread, in other words, provide for yourself so that you will not have to rely on anyone else; jump off the pinnacle of this tower so that the angels will be forced to catch you—you don’t need mankind, you are protected by God and you need only him; be the master of all kingdoms because I can give you power to control all others. These temptations do more than speak to the ability of God to refuse Satan; they speak to the nature of God and his desire to be in relationship with us. God wants us to rely on him and models that by relying on us; he wants us to desire him and models that by refusing to desire only himself; he wants us to be in full relationship, choosing God as he chose us and so he will not wrest control and power over us but continues to offer us freedom and choice. The temptations of God are about how God wants to be in relationship with us and how we are called to be in relationship with him and one another.
That relationship is about interdependence, a call to partnership with God to do his work of redemption in this world. Complacency is not now and never will be a part of that call. There is no creative or redemptive energy associated with complacency and the temptation to live as such is to be static, to be indifferent. God is love and the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. It is accepting the world at face value without attempting to understand that the truth of our reality might be a bit deeper and somewhat hidden from us.
Glennon Doyle writes about one of her son’s teachers on her blog, Momastery.com. She had gone to meet the teacher because she was having trouble helping her son with his math homework and wanted a little tutoring. In the course of their conversation, Glennon discovered that every Friday afternoon, the teacher would have the pupils of her class write down who they would like to sit next too at school the next week. She also had them nominate, by private ballot, one student whom they believed to be an exceptional classroom citizen each week. After the children left for the day, she then studied those slips of paper looking for patterns. She wanted to know who wasn’t being requested by anyone else, who never got nominated, and who might have had a million friends last week but none this week. The teacher was really not concerned with seating charts and exceptional citizens; she was trying to identify the children who might fall through the cracks, the ones who might be bullied, and even those who might be the bully. The little slips of paper were safe ways for the children to tell her the truth about their social development and for her to intervene in un-assumptive and non-threatening ways with the social structure of her classroom. When Glennon heard what the teacher was doing on Fridays, she asked her how long she had been using this system. The reply, “Every single Friday afternoon since Columbine.”
All violence begins with disconnection. We are outwardly violent when we are inwardly lonely and have no words or ability to express our loneliness and grief to another. We do whatever it takes to be noticed and when we are not being noticed, we can resort to destructive methods of attention seeking. Why is indifference the opposite of love? Because it does not care, it does not notice, it does not connect. Indifference does not expend the creative and redemptive energy God pours into each of us to make a difference in this world. Instead it says there is no solution to this problem and it maintains the status quo of violence and discord. It separates us from one another and affords us only a narrow, self-centered view of the world. The wilderness of indifference is the temptation we Christians face today. Satan need not be active in our lives, he only need to utter false promises that mass shootings won’t happen in our community and spread the lie that it is easier to say nothing than to speak our convictions.
It is not simply Glennon’s son’s teacher who can partner with God by refusing to be indifferent to the social lives of her students; each of us is called to look deeper into the structures of our world. When we recognize the wilderness of our indifference, we too can begin to find ways in which to love one another—family, friend, and stranger alike; we can identify the ones who are left out, the lonely, the neglected, the one who is different and doesn’t seem to fit in and we can make space for them. This is God’s call to us because this is exactly what incarnation is. The incarnation is not simply the assumption of our humanity—body, mind, soul, and experiences—it is the making of space for us in the divine. God comes down to earth and is made man so that he might bring man back up into the divine with him through Jesus Christ. That is our call—to make space for God, to make space for one another especially and because the other is so different from ourselves.