Series: Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don't Belong To, part 1
If you’re someone who’s here most Sundays, you’ve probably noticed things look and sound a little different today. The rough wooden cross has appeared behind the altar; we’ve offered up our sins with the centuries-old Great Litany; and we’ve changed the liturgical color to a penitential purple. Welcome to Lent, our 40-day journey of repentance as we follow Jesus to the cross.
But if you’re someone who’s not here most Sundays, I wonder what your reaction to all this might be. The things I’ve just said might push some buttons for you. Maybe you’re thinking, “Great. The church I’m staying away from was all about how God expects perfection. I’m tired of church people making me feel beat up.”
Or, if you’re someone who’s not here most Sundays, maybe your reaction is more like this: “What are you all doing? I only came in to recharge my spiritual batteries in this beautiful space. What’s up with all the parading around and that long, dreary prayer at the start?”
So, if you’re a “regular” here, think for a minute: What would you say to those real people’s real concerns? Would you apologize for our ancient pomp and circumstance, and say all this talk about sin doesn’t really matter that much anyway? Or maybe you’d just talk about the weather instead?
Today, we’re starting a five-part preaching series reflecting on Lillian Daniels’ book Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To. We’re going to spend some time through this season of Lent hearing Jesus say some things that might push our buttons or simply sound crazy. And as we do, we’re going to take the book’s point seriously: That Christians in traditions like ours need to have something of value to offer people who’ve been hurt by church or who don’t have much experience of it. In a day when the popular definition of Christianity is a religious institution that’s judgmental, highly political, insisting on interpreting Scripture literally, and constantly after your money – in a day like that, we need to claim our different story, a story of good news.
So, let’s start with that reading we just heard. Each year, as we begin this season of Lent, we hear about Jesus going to the wilderness. What was he doing out there? The only set-up for this story in Mark’s Gospel is something we heard before Christmas: John the Baptist warning people to repent because someone more powerful than John was on his way to bring God’s authority to bear on the world around them. Then we get today’s story. Jesus comes to be baptized by John but with no explanation why. Then the clouds are “torn apart” (1:10), and the Holy Spirit descends like a dove upon him. And the voice of God breaks into the scene, proclaiming Jesus to be The One, God’s own Son, the Beloved.
It sounds like the next step is for Jesus to mobilize the crowd, the new king ready to take on the Romans. But what happens instead? “The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness,” where he was “tempted by Satan” for 40 days (1:12,13). So much for cheering crowds. Now Jesus is alone in the desert, taking on the power of evil.
So, what’s up with that? Why has the Spirit of God driven the Beloved Son out into the wilderness? Well, the story never says why, so it invites us to wrestle with it. Is Jesus struggling with this call, unsure he wants to be The One? Is he uncertain what he’s supposed to do, now that he’s anointed by the Holy Spirit? Maybe. Whatever is going on in Jesus’ mind, the God who loves him as a Son wants him out there in the wilderness, wants him to have a chance to sort through what God’s asking of him. Jesus needed to get lost for a while. You know, sometimes you have to let yourself get lost, or admit that you’re already lost, before you can find your new direction. More on that in a minute.
Well, while he was wrestling with the powers of darkness, so was John the Baptist, in a different way – getting arrested and eventually losing his head. So, with John gone and the wilderness time over, Jesus steps up and begins naming the new reality he’s been sent to proclaim: that it’s time to think differently. It’s time to see God’s power at work in the world, in contrast to the powers that suck our life away. “The time is fulfilled,” he says, “and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (1:15).
Repent and believe in the good news.
Hmmm. I don’t know about you, but when I hear “repent and believe in the good news,” something in me kind of shuts down. Maybe it has to do with the baggage those words carry these days. When I hear “repent,” my lizard brain says, “Nope. Don’t go there. You do a perfectly good job of feeling bad about yourself without any help from overly-convicted preachers.” I grew up in Springfield, Missouri, and we got lots of finger-shaking calls to repentance, implicitly and explicitly, from lots of religious people. Even today, you see billboards try to scare you into loving God: You know, “Repent or burn,” that kind of thing. For my lizard brain, “repent” means slick preachers manipulating people into tearful altar calls. No thanks.
But in Scripture, “repent” doesn’t mean, “Be afraid of going to hell.” It also doesn’t mean, “Feel bad about yourself.” In Scripture, “repent” means, “Change your mind” – to think differently about something based on some experience. Now, it does imply you’re turning away from something with regret for having been on the wrong path. It’s not just realizing intellectually that it’s safer to drive 70 than 90 on the highway; it’s regretting that you’ve put yourself and others at risk when you speed. Repenting is changing your mind and acting on it. It doesn’t mean seeing yourself as worthless or stupid or unworthy of love because you made bad choices – just the opposite. Repenting means recognizing that, because you’re human, you are God’s beloved. And God needs for you to be out there spreading love, not barreling down the highway like your life doesn’t matter.
And how about believing? That’s the other thing Jesus calls us to do in this story – “believe in the good news.” Now, if we’re supposed to believe in the good news, does that mean we’re on our way to hell if we don’t think the universe was created in six days, or if we don’t think Noah saved the earth’s biosphere on a boat, or if we don’t think the Nicene Creed is a technical spec sheet for the nature of God? Does believing necessarily mean we have to see theological truths as facts?
You know, if you look at the Greek word for “believe” in this story, it’s not about facts vs. falsehoods. It’s not about whether ancient stories jibe with scientific explanations. The word “believe” is about trust. It’s about where you direct your mind and commit your heart. It’s about claiming God’s narrative as your own and staking your life on it.
And you know, that doesn’t happen with the flip of a switch. I don’t know anyone with life-building, difference-making faith who hasn’t come to it over a long and sometimes painful process. We’ve got to go deep in order to be deeply in relationship, whether it’s with our spouse or our kids or our friends or our God. In her book Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To, Lillian Daniels talks about how a journey looks and feels very different depending on whether you see yourself as a tourist or an adventurer. Now, I love a good tour, but you can’t live there. Real living – living that means something, living that makes a difference in the world – real living isn’t tourism, it’s adventure. Daniels puts it like this:
Tourism is a journey with clear boundaries and limitations. … When you’re a tourist, you approach the trip with a certain set of expectations. I want to see the Taj Mahal and get my picture taken in front of it. … When you’re on an adventure, you have to relinquish your expectations. ... If faith is an adventure journey, you need to accept that you may not know how this trip is going to turn out. (175-176)
I think that’s what Jesus was doing out there in the wilderness for those 40 days. I don’t think he went there as a tourist. I think he was wrestling … maybe with his own demons, maybe with his own uncertainty, but definitely with ours. I think Jesus was out there in the wilderness to see what it’s like to be just as lost as the rest of us.
So, where are you lost? And what if we could be honest about that question – with ourselves, and with each other, and with God? We spend a lot of time and energy not wrestling with the demons at our doors. Maybe you know your family’s life isn’t perfect, but you’re doing everything you can to make sure no one else finds out. Maybe you look at your credit-card statement and feel like you’ve fallen down a well, and no one knows you’re down there. Maybe you look at the news and worry that someone might buy an assault rifle and shoot up the place where your kids or grandkids go to school. Maybe you know just how easy it is for teens to buy drugs, and it kills you that you can’t protect them from it. Maybe you feel like you’re held captive to an outside force yourself – drugs, or alcohol, or food, or gambling, or sex, or any of a hundred other addictions. If any of those situations ring true for you – and if you know, deep down, that you need a source of power greater than yourself – welcome home.
Yes, God wants us to repent – to change our minds and live differently. And God wants us to believe – to trust in a story bigger than our own. And we do that by traveling the long road together, a community of pilgrims walking the path of adventure. That doesn’t mean ignoring the demons in the wilderness – just the opposite. It means spending some time in the wilderness, but not by ourselves. It means being real with each other about how hard it is to struggle with our faults and failings. It means leaning on each other when the world trips us up or beats us down. And though that’s not easy, I think it is healing.
This is the offer Jesus holds out to us: Sure, you’re part of a broken family, the human family, God’s family – but don’t stay stuck in your brokenness. Look at it with your eyes wide open. Take the risk to share it with someone who’s just as broken as you are. Think differently, and see your belovedness, and choose to turn in a new direction.
That’s Lent. And strangely enough, it’s Good News.