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Ups & Downs

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Mark 1:9-15                   TITLE:  Ups & Downs

Our Gospel lesson today is about the baptism and temptation of Jesus.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell about the baptism and temptation of Jesus, but Mark is the only one who runs them together -- baptism and then, immediately, temptation.  Life has its ups and downs -- baptism and temptation.

That's so true to life.  When we see someone being baptized, we might think, "Isn't that nice!  Now he will walk with God and everything will be all right" -- or "Now she will be protected from temptation."  But it doesn't work that way, does it!  In fact, the opposite often seems true.  John Vianney put it this way:

    "The Devil only tempts those souls

    that wish to abandon sin

    and those that are in a state of grace."

    The others belong to him. 

    He has no need to tempt them."

That might overstate it.  The devil has plenty of firepower to tempt sinners while zeroing in on saints.  But he does zero in on saints.  When you have a wonderful religious experience, don't lean back and expect it to last.  Be on guard!  Go on full alert!  Expect a problem around the next corner.  Don't let yourself be surprised.  Nobody can stay on the mountaintop forever.  Life has its ups -- and life has its downs.

When I read this story of Jesus being baptized -- and the Spirit descending on him like a dove -- and the heavens ripped open -- and a voice from heaven saying, "YOU ARE MY SON, THE BELOVED; WITH YOU I AM WELL PLEASED" -- I was not surprised when the next verse said, "And the Spirit IMMEDIATELY drove him out into the wilderness."  Then it goes on to say that Jesus spent the next forty days in the wilderness -- tempted by Satan -- wild beasts his only companions.

That reminded me of the Transfiguration.  You remember that story.  Jesus took his three most trusted disciples up onto a high mountain, where he was transfigured.  His clothes became dazzling white.  Long-dead Moses and Elijah suddenly appeared and started talking with him.  A voice from heaven called out, "THIS IS MY SON, THE BELOVED; LISTEN TO HIM!" 

There were lots of things going on in that story -- but this was one of them:  On that mountain, these three disciples were privileged to see Jesus in all his glory -- to see his full Godliness.  How different from seeing a baby lying in a manger!  How different from seeing a man who perspired as he walked from one village to another.  These disciples were privileged to see Jesus in all his glory -- to see him as God (Mark 9:2-8).  The scriptures warned that no one could look on the face of God and live, but these three disciples looked on Jesus' Godliness -- and lived to tell the tale.

But what happened next?  As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus warned these disciples that he would suffer and be treated with contempt (9:12).

And then, when they reached the bottom of the mountain, they saw a crowd gathered around a boy who was having convulsions -- falling on the ground -- rolling around -- foaming at the mouth.  The boy's father asked Jesus to heal the boy.  He said that Jesus' disciples had tried and failed.  What a mess!  Coming down from the mountaintop experience into that MESS!  Life has its ups, but it also has its downs.

We would expect that sort of ending if we were to go out and get drunk!  We would expect a hangover.  Or, if we were to go on a spending spree, we would expect to experience pain at the end of the month.  But it also happens when we go to the mountaintop.  It happens in our holy moments as well as our unholy moments.  When we come down from the mountaintop to the valley below, we start encountering sick people -- and incompetent bosses -- and customers with short tempers -- and church members arguing over nothing and everything.  

Take marriage, for instance.  There is nothing lovelier than young love.  When you are in love, you notice beautiful sunsets and all sorts of lovely things.  You say, "Look at that!"  It's such a pleasure to have someone to share the beauty with.

And then you get married.  The groom is handsome in his tux -- and the bride is beautiful in her gown -- and the church is full of flowers and ribbons.  Then you go on your honeymoon.  What could be more wonderful than a honeymoon?

And then you return home.  It isn't long before you find yourself with more month than money -- and the bride discovers that her groom wants a night out with the boys -- and the groom discovers that the faucet needs fixing -- and his bride expects him to fix it.  Life has its ups, but it also has its downs.

Thinking of ups and downs reminded me of a man who went through the Navy V12 Program. The Navy selected promising high school students and put them through college to prepare them to become officers.  The Navy sent this man to the University of South Carolina to get an engineering degree.  They crammed four years of work into half that time.  This man never worked so hard.

But then came graduation.  The war had ended, and they were lucky enough to get Admiral Nimitz as their commencement speaker.  Can you imagine that -- Admiral Nimitz -- the hero of the Pacific!  What a sendoff!  I don't know if the grads threw their caps in the air like they do at the academies, but I know that they were happy.

This man went on active duty as an Ensign.  Ensigns are officers, so they outrank lots of people.  They even outrank Navy chiefs, most of whom were on active duty the day that the Ensign was born.  But a wise Ensign will not remind Navy chiefs that he outranks them.  A wise Ensign will keep his mouth shut and his ears open.

This man was an Ensign on a carrier.  One day he happened to notice a cook spitting in the soup.  He rebuked the cook, and the cook became angry.  Then one of the other cooks told him that he had better listen.  He said, "Ensigns are ossifers too."

The cook meant, "This young pup might not look like much, but Congress made him an officer -- so you better listen."

So one day you're hearing Admiral Nimitz talk about your great future, and the next day you are watching some guy spit in the soup -- and ignoring your words even though you have been made an "ossifer !"  Life has its ups -- and life definitely has its downs.

Speaking of ups and downs, we have been through that with the economy, haven't we!  Last year many of our homes were worth twice what it is now.  We've all taken a hit.  Life has its ups -- and life has its downs.

But the thing to remember is that, just as God was there with us in the ups, God is also there with us in the downs.  God was with Jesus at his baptism. That much was clear.  When Jesus was baptized, God's voice boomed from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

But God was with Jesus in the wilderness too.  God wasn't as visible there.  Mark doesn't tell us that God was in the wilderness.  But God was with Jesus in that lonely place.  Yes, there were wild beasts there, but God was there too -- like a father watching from a distance to see how his son was doing -- like a father hoping for the best.

It was a scary place -- that wilderness.  It was a desert.  Mark tells us that there were wild beasts there -- snakes -- lizards -- scorpions.  I read about a soldier in Iraq who adopted a scorpion as a pet.  In that desert land, a scorpion was the best he could do for a pet.

Wild beasts -- snakes -- lizards -- scorpions.  There are wild beasts everywhere.  Some slither.  Some walk on four legs.  Some walk on two. 

But God is everywhere too.  Do you remember what the Psalmist said? 

    "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

    I will fear no evil:

    for thou art with me;

    thy rod and thy staff they comfort me" (Psalm 23:4 KJV).

The Psalmist also said:

    "Where can I go from your spirit?

    Or where can I flee from your presence?

    If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

    If I take the wings of the morning

    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

    even there your hand shall lead me,

    and your right hand shall hold me fast" (Psalm 139:7-10).

Where are you in your journey?  Are you on the mountaintop?  On mountaintops, we sometimes get distracted by the view and forget God. Don't let that happen.  Give God thanks.  Praise God for your mountaintop experience.

Or are you on the flatlands?  Is your life defined by routineness -- neither wonderful nor terrible?  Give God thanks for your routine.  Be thankful that you are neither manic nor depressive.  Be glad that God is with you in the grays of life as well as in the Technicolor of the mountaintop or the black of the night.

Or are you in the wilderness --living among wild beasts?  Is this a difficult time of life for you? 

Wherever you are in your journey, know that God is with you.  Know that he cares.  Don't abandon him when times are good.  Be sure that he won't abandon you when times are tough.  Let him be your guide and stay -- through the ups and through the downs.

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