TITLE: Our Home Already SCRIPTURE: Mark 1:9-15
A couple of years ago, the New York Times had an article about a man named Antoine Yates. Yates lived in a public housing project in the city. As a boy, he showed concern for animals, and tried to nurse injured animals back to health. His interest in animals grew, and he began to have more and more exotic pets. Finally, he somehow acquired a tiger that he named Ming. As Ming grew, Yates' mother grew more and more alarmed. When she couldn't get her son to get rid of his tiger, she moved to Philadelphia.
Ming grew to 400 pounds. At some point, Yates realized that he could no longer live in the apartment with his tiger, so he moved down the hall. He continued to feed his tiger by opening the door just a little bit and throwing meat through the crack. Finally, someone called the police, and they managed to tranquilize Ming and remove him from the apartment.
The police cited Yates, who had to appear in court. He did so with one arm in a sling and limping -- injuries inflicted earlier by Ming. Reporters quoted him as saying, "I never feared him at all. He was like my brother. He was my best friend. He's my only friend, really."
That last sentence got my attention. "He's my only friend, really." That's how people often feel about the self-destructive behaviors that tempt them -- that trap them -- alcohol, drugs, pornography, ice cream, credit cards, whatever -- they enjoy nothing quite as much as time spent with those friends. But those aren't friends at all -- they are destroyers. Friends build you up, but tempters tear you down. That's how you can tell the difference.
Early in the Old Testament, God's people experience a series of three events.
First, they are set free from slavery in Egypt and pass through the waters of the sea on dry ground.
Then they spend a generation traveling through the desert, falling prey to various temptations.
Finally, they enter the promised land.
This three-part story is a long one, and it occupies many chapters throughout several books of the Bible.
Early in Mark's Gospel, the same story is told, but in a new way. Here the subject is not God's people, but the one who represents them: Jesus.
Just as Israel has its Red Sea baptism, so Jesus is baptized in the waters of the Jordan.
Just as they spend forty years in the desert, so he is driven to remain in the wilderness forty days, struggling with temptation.
Just as they encounter the promised land, so Jesus announces that God's kingdom is at hand, and invites his listeners to enter it through repentance and belief.
The original story is the history of a generation, and occupies many chapters in several books of the Bible. The Jesus version recounts the experience of one person. It is told with breathtaking brevity in only a few verses of Mark's Gospel.
But these verses do more than tell the Exodus story in a new way. They also call up and transform stories even older, the sagas found in Genesis.
Consider! When Jesus is baptized, a voice from heaven addresses him as "my Son, the Beloved." This connects him with a series of beloved sons in Genesis, and suggests that what happens to them will, in a new and surprising way, happen to him.
In Genesis, we meet Isaac, the beloved son of Sarah. What happens to him? His father takes him on a journey to a mountaintop where he is to be offered in sacrifice. Isaac looks death in the face. He survives, but he is different. He returns to his people to be for them the servant of God.
Then comes Jacob, the beloved son of Rebecca. Remember what happens to him? His life is in danger, he seeks safety in exile, then later returns to make peace with his estranged brother and become the father of a great nation. He wrestles with God's angel, and receives a new name. No longer Jacob, now he is Israel.
Finally, we meet Joseph, the beloved son of Rachel. His father's favorite, he's thrown into a pit by his brothers, sold into slavery, consigned to a dungeon, and believed by his family to be dead. Yet he rises to become the viceroy of Egypt, and an agent of deliverance for his family.
When Jesus hears the heavenly voice, naming him as the beloved Son, then these old stories become alive in a new way. They will find their fulfillment in him.
We might choose to stop here content with noting a comparison and connection between these Old Testament adventures and the life of Jesus. But the Bible's momentum takes us further. For what we have considered up to now is not simply about Old Testament figures and Jesus; it is also about us. The patterns we recognize in their stories wait to be discovered in our stories. For their stories reveal, not only what God did in times past, but also ways that God is at work today.
Jesus is the new Isaac. Taken to his appointment with the cross, he does more than look into the face of death. He tastes death, drains its bitter cup to the bottom, and yet returns from the far side of death as God's servant to his people, the embodiment of an indestructible hope.
Jesus is the new Jacob. In the Garden of Agony, he wrestles with God. At ultimate risk to himself, he reaches out to those who are estranged, and restores broken relationships. From him comes forth a progeny past counting, a great nation.
Jesus is the new Joseph. Rejected and mistreated by his own, he descends to the lowest place, the grave, the abode of departed spirits, yet rises to a glory unexpected and past imagining to become the source of eternal salvation for all who put their trust in him.
Jesus fulfills these ancient stories, and we are the beneficiaries. He brings us hope because of his acceptance of death. He restores our broken relationships, and counts us among his progeny. He promises us a resurrection like his own, and a share in his glory.
Isaac and Jacob and Joseph--they know what it is to suffer, and their suffering finds its redemption in him. We too know what it is to suffer. We come close to death of one kind or another, we experience alienation and exile, we too are cast down, and we find that in Christ our redemption appears, that seats await us next to Isaac and Jacob and Joseph as the welcome guests of Jesus--not hereafter only, but even now.
Ours is also the ancient journey of Israel: up from bondage in Egypt, across the wilderness with its manifold temptations, and rejoicing to enter the land of promise.
Israel's own performance is decidedly mixed. They answer God's compassion by their repeated rebellion. Of the generation that left Egypt, only two -- Joshua and Caleb -- survive to enter the promised land. All the others who do so were born during the wilderness wanderings.
But somehow this infidelity and stubbornness is redeemed when Jesus is baptized, when he enters the wilderness, when he struggles with temptation successfully, when he announces his own promised land: the kingdom of God within us and among us.
So there is hope for us as well. Like ancient Israel, we have gone through the Red Sea water, like Jesus we have plunged in Jordan's muddy stream. This is what it means for us to be baptized.
We too pass through our wilderness time, and though we prove disloyal like ancient Israel, Christ's wilderness obedience somehow redeems us as well as them. Christ is able to make sense of our lives; we are not shut out of the kingdom. Our struggle to live as Christians in this world, this wilderness, does not prove to be in vain.
And like ancient Israel, we also enter the promised land--at our death certainly, when we pass over the final Jordan, but now as well, whenever we hear the Good News, and recognize the kingdom at hand, and the divine Word finds lodging in our hearts and our community.
Sooner or later, people decide that their lives are part of some great story, some glorious adventure, or they decide that their lives are small, sad, and lacking in connection with anything large and purposeful. Sooner or later, each of us decides whether we will die by inches, or whether, regardless of circumstances, we will stand in witness to something outrageously larger than ourselves.
The Old Testament, the New Testament, the Christian community, the sacraments, the church year, the lives of saints--these things and the entire apparatus of the Christian religion are there to remind us that our personal stories are not small, but find their significance safe within the vast sweep of the story of God and his people, a story that shines with its brightest clarity in the Gospel of Christ.
So Lent is simply this: a part of that story which every year reminds us that we are not wanderers in a wasteland, but instead we trek through the wilderness as people God has claimed for his own.
Through the wilderness we go, singing songs of repentance and triumph, in company with patriarchs and matriarchs, prophets and apostles and martyrs, for we follow Jesus on his journey to the cross at Jerusalem and beyond. We are on our way to the promised land, that place where milk and honey flow, the kingdom of God, which is our home already.
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