Facing Our Fears (2/14/2016)

DesertA sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Text: Exodus 19:16-19; 20:2-3, 18-21; Luke 4:1-13

Two tales from the Wilderness lead to this morning’s Reflection on the Word. They are separated by centuries. They involve different characters and they describe different actions. But, what they have in common is God – the same God who searches and knows hearts and minds, who leads those who will follow in what the psalmist identifies as “the way everlasting.”

I don’t think we can unpack these stories without first having some sense of what we mean by wilderness. The dictionary records that wilderness is “a wild and uncultivated region, as of forest or desert, uninhabited or inhabited only by wild animals; a tract of wasteland; any desolate tract.”

It also lists as a synonym, desert, which connects more directly to our texts. Desert is defined as “a region so arid because of little rainfall that it supports only sparse and widely spaced vegetation or no vegetation at all; any area in which few forms of life can exist because of lack of water, permanent frost, or absence of soil.”

The key common descriptors are wild, uncultivated. Wilderness may appear as a desolate wasteland, a desert, but not necessarily. Wilderness may be as fecund, as full of life, as the chaos from which creation was drawn. We might even argue that God dwells in that chaos, in a dimension beyond our understanding and control. In today’s texts it is clear that God is encountered in the wilderness. The Holy One is experienced in ways quite different from the ordinary patterns of everyday life. This all holds the prospect of being a little bit scary, doesn’t it?

In today’s first story, God graciously offers the children of Israel a homeland, “flowing with milk and honey.” All they need to do is go with God, following Moses, God’s ordained leader, and they would be taken care of. The problems begin when they are confronted with the unknown, when they look out across the wilderness and think maybe they would have been better off in the familiar territory of Egypt, even if it meant slavery. How often do we come up against the unknown, confront chaos, or perceive desolation in some wilderness and say, “Not today, thank you”? We hear the story of the Hebrew people and we recognize it in so many ways as our own. Called to follow, we drag our feet, grumble and resist all the way. Promised land? Way everlasting? Lovely ideas, but what will the journey cost? We’re afraid it will require more than we’re willing to pay. I mean, what if it takes all that we have?

Here they are at the foot of the mountain. God comes close and they’re terrified. Well, who wouldn’t be? You have to be careful what you ask for. You want God to take care of you but then, when God shows up in a sudden storm and you’re out there in the wilderness, you’re not so sure you trust what will happen. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “When it is all over – when the people have witnessed the thunder and the lightning, when they have heard the blast of the trumpet and seen the mountain smoking – every single one of these people who have prayed and prayed to hear the voice of God does a complete about face, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen,’ they say to Moses; ‘but do not let God speak to us, or we will die’” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 47). How can we survive the presence of the Holy One? Our tendency is to choose the familiar over the fearful, no matter how the familiar may enslave and abuse us.

It is tough enough to face our fears in the comfort of our homes; it can feel overwhelming to have to face them while wandering in the wilderness, detached from the familiar, praying that something or someone larger than we will rescue us. In The Chronicles of Narnia, when the rescuer turns out to be a fierce lion, the children are not so sure they want to trust Aslan to lead them through this strange new world. They are afraid. It takes time and practice for them to let the lion lead them to where they need to be. In the same sense, it takes time and practice for the children of Israel to let go of their fear and trust that God and Moses will bring them through. It takes time and practice for us to trust that God will lead us into the way everlasting. It may be that we will need to traverse some frightening wilderness. We may have to learn to walk in the dark.

In the second tale, Jesus is also drawn to the wilderness. Though the circumstances are different, one might consider that it is the same Holy Spirit that leads Jesus as led the children of Israel. There seems to be something about the wilderness that allows folk to encounter God in a depth and intensity that is not possible in the relative safety of everyday life. For Jesus, this story takes place immediately after one of the high points of his life. And how often is that so, immediately after we have been the mountain top we are plunged into some of the greatest challenges of life? Our spirits, soaring, are sorely tested. Jesus, Luke writes, is “full of the Holy Spirit.” Now I take that to be a good thing. Scripture seems to think it is. I can imagine several other things we might be full of that would be less desirable. But, I wonder how many of us have actually been filled with the Spirit in this way. I can’t help but think that there is also something a little strange about it, a little fearful. It’s exhilarating and scary at the same time. Luke doesn’t say if it was so for Jesus but I wonder.

Anyway, Jesus seems to go willingly with the Spirit into the wilderness on a sort of vision quest, a journey to find a deeper, more intense connection to God. For him, it seems essential to living into his high calling from God. He cannot do the work before him, he cannot walk the road that lies ahead, without God and so he must engage in a spiritual discipline of prayer and fasting to prepare for what is to come. Is it really different for any of us who want to walk God’s way? We need to engage in spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting to get ready for the journey. That is the point of Lent, to prepare for what lies ahead, to know how to survive in the wilderness so we might come to the comfort of home, to learn to walk in the dark as surely as we walk in the light.

These temptations or tests that Jesus faces at the far edge of his wilderness wandering are uniquely his. They pertain to the work and the walk to which God was calling him. Whatever else you make of them, they were real. They represented alternate ways of accomplishing the task, but they were not God’s way. Remember the thunderous voice from the storm-tossed mountain top, ”I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me”? This is one of those places where God is fierce and uncompromising. That can be a frightening thing. Jesus had to confront it, as did the children of Israel, as do we.

As Jesus faced his own tests, wrestled with his own temptations, so must we. This is actually a situation in which the humanity of Jesus meets our own. Richard Vinson argues that, eventually, “power comes out of Jesus to heal others, and this sounds a bit like a holy energy that resides in Jesus. But Jesus claims to be able to cast out demons ‘by the finger of God,’ which is to say that he does it as God’s agent and not by his own spiritual power (11:19).” He continues, “If God wanted Jesus to turn stone into bread, he could, but not otherwise; it is a mistake to think that Jesus, by virtue of being Son of God, had supernatural powers residing in him that were unavailable to ordinary mortals.” As we considered a couple of weeks ago, “According to Luke, Jesus assigned the disciples the same authority and ability to heal and to cast out demons, so it was not innate to Jesus, but a gift of the Spirit” (Richard B. Vinson, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Luke, p. 112).

Now there’s a scary thought, to consider how much more we might do to change the world if we trusted the gifts of God and the Spirit’s ability to work through us. We know that sometimes the first disciples measured up and sometimes they failed miserably. A lot depended on their willingness and capacity to face their fears. Remember how Peter succeeded in walking on water in the midst of the storm till he looked around and let his fears overwhelm him? Couldn’t the same be said of us? Sometime we rise to the occasion and sometimes we look around and let our fears overwhelm us.

“Courage,” Greg read, “which is no more than the management of fear, must be practiced…How do we develop the courage to walk in the dark if we are never asked to practice?…If we believe a bright security light keeps us safer after dark, there is not a statistic in the world with power to persuade us otherwise” (Barbara Brown Taylor, op. cit., pp. 37, 71). And so it is with all our fears. If we do not face them, if we are not open to wilderness wandering, if we do not learn to walk in the dark, if we are not brave enough to say “no” to anything that would separate us from God and walking God’s “way everlasting, then we will experience a kind of living death. Life may seem alright on the surface, but someday we will come to the question, “Is this all there is?” Here is the question at the heart of facing our fears, posed by poet, Mary Oliver, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”). Are you willing to do a little wilderness wandering? Will you take a chance on meeting God in deeper, more intense ways? Are you ready practice a little courage, learn to walk in the dark, take a chance on the Spirit moving mightily in you – and in us? These are questions to take into our Lenten spiritual discipline. These are the same questions Jesus must have asked as he turned his face steadfastly toward Jerusalem. Will we walk with him, all the way, this time?

Lent begins…

LentOur annual observance of Lent begins today with a simple supper and joint service with our friends from Covenant Presbyterian and University AME Zion churches. This is always a meaningful time and I encourage you to participate. If you want to bring some fruit or bread or cheese to share for the supper at 6:30 PM, that would be appreciated but not necessary. The service is at 7:30 PM with music, readings, prayers, activities and the imposition of ashes. Children, youth and families are most welcome

Sunday we will focus on Luke’s account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. After the “mountain top” experience of his baptism, complete with God’s special blessing, it is the Spirit that leads him into the wilderness where he spends time in prayer and contemplation of the journey that lies before him. As we enter into this season of Lent, we are invited by the Spirit to explore whatever counts as wilderness for us. Here we are challenged to pray and contemplate the journey that lies ahead for us as followers of Jesus and the Body of Christ. Part of the Lenten discipline is wilderness survival or, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it in our Lenten study book, “learning to walk in the dark.”

Though it’s a little late for Mardi Gras, we will still have a fun time celebrating Valentine’s Day with a potluck and program after worship on Sunday. The song sings, “Love Makes the World Go Round.” How does that work in our lives? Does love make your world go round? Bring a main dish or salad or dessert to share and stay to find out what love’s got to do with it.

Join us Sunday at 10:00 AM for worship, study and the sharing of community. Bring someone along share in the experiences of the day.

Together, let us strive…to know God’s love!

Pastor Rick

Not by Bread Alone (March 9, 2014)

sermonsTexts: Matthew 4:1-11

“The Loneliest Road in America” is said to be Highway 50 as runs its course across Nevada from Great Basin National Park on the Utah border to Lake Tahoe on the California side.  Truth be told, the stretch of highway from Grand Junction, Colorado, to Sacramento is pretty sparsely inhabited and often appears quite barren.  I can attest to this because that’s the route I drove from Granville, Ohio, to Palo Alto seven and a half years ago.  There is some real wilderness along that route, some of it mountainous, some of it desert.  Across Nevada you’re lucky if there’s a gas station, with maybe a mini-mart, every 80 to 100 miles.  There is beauty both spectacular and haunting in that vast expanse of territory but it is truly a lonesome road.

I don’t know how many of you have traveled that particular way but I’ll bet most of us have had some sort of wilderness experience.  This Lenten journey we’re on is a little crazy at times.  The route rarely follows a straight line, a flat terrain or a six-lane superhighway.  Last week we were up on the mountaintop with Jesus and a few followers, experiencing the awesome power of God’s presence and the blessings of God’s Beloved Child.  Jesus was drawing near to Jerusalem and the end of his earthly ministry.  Today we are suddenly thrown back toward the beginning of Christ’s work.  We are with him alone in the wilderness.  It’s a wild and crazy ride.

So, last week we shared some experiences of being on mountaintops.  I am wondering if any of us have ever found ourselves wandering in the wilderness.  It’s relatively easy to talk about driving the “Loneliest Road in America.”  I imagine it’s more challenging to share our wilderness times with one another.  Still, maybe some of you would be willing to share this morning.

It appears we have a variety of experiences – some lonely, some haunting, some painful, all of them, in some way, instructive.  Sometimes wilderness time is seen as part of a vision quest.  Drawing from Native American and other ancient cultures, a vision quest is a rite of passage from childhood to maturity.  It often involves time alone in nature, away from family, village and tribe.  It is not just a matter of making a “man of a boy.”  An essential aspect of the quest is the search for meaning in life, especially for spiritual guidance and purpose.  This especially makes sense for people who hold the spiritual at the heart of their culture.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that this gospel story reflects some of the significance of a vision quest.  Jesus has just been baptized, that uniquely spiritual experience of cleansing.  As he rises from the water, the very voice of God is heard proclaiming him as God’s own Beloved Child, One in whom God is well pleased.  In his commentary on Matthew, Ben Witherington writes of this text, “We have seen in the baptismal story that the First Evangelist portrays that event as something of a public coronation.”  He notes that the words “‘This is my Beloved Son’ certainly draws on Psalm 2:7, which was spoken to the Davidic king of the day. What would be clear to at least many Jewish Christians who knew some Jewish literature of the period is that the next scene is also about what happens to those about to assume great power or great authority. The king must be tempted or his metal tested before assuming his official duties” (Ben Witherington III, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Matthew, p. 86).

The temptations laid before the Christ are unique to one who would be king.  At the same time his responses are those of one who would be human.  That is, the devil tempts him to display his royal lineage, his divinity, in flashy form but Jesus clings to his humanity in faithfulness to what God has asked of him.   It is important for us to see and remember that these temptations were very real to Jesus and represented a critical test of his willingness to take on the task that God had laid before him.  The vision quest, the wilderness wandering, may be a royal road but, in this case, it will lead to a crown like none other.  It will lead to a crown of thorns and a mocking proclamation of kingship.  Yet, Jesus insists on walking this road because it’s God’s road, the way to God’s kingdom.

In this story Jesus is both tested by God and tempted by the devil.  Part of the vision quest, part of the royal road, part of the spiritual journey is to pass the tests that are laid before the one who would rule.  We’re not always comfortable with the notion that God tests anyone – Christ or us.  Yet here it is, according to Matthew.  God needs to know that Jesus will be faithful before God entrusts him with the kingdom.  The relationship is dependent on faithfulness and mutual trust.  God offers steadfast love and trusts his Beloved will come through.  But the test must be real.  That is just the way God is with humans.  God needs to know we will come through at the same time God trusts that we will.  There is something here about grace.

Anyway, as soon as Christ is anointed in baptism, he is led by the spirit into the wilderness to begin his time of testing.  Forty days and forty nights he is out there alone, fasting, living off the land, getting by as best he can.  It’s a long time.  One writer wonders if it isn’t the aching days of lonely boredom as they drag by that isn’t the greatest test (Janet H. Hunt, “Gifts for the Wilderness,” 3-1-2014, dancingwiththeword.com).  Can you imagine what it must have been like on day 9, day 17, day 24, day 33?  Barbara Brown Taylor writes of wilderness time, in a place “so big, so quiet, so empty that you cannot help noticing how small and perishable you are.”  She says, “You remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. You wish you had someone to distract you from that fact, or at least someone to talk to about it. Anyone but the devil, that is” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels, quoted in Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Choices to Live By,” 3-9-2014, ucc.org/worship/samuel).  Look at the picture in the center of your bulletin.  It seems to me that this artist has captured some of the strain that Jesus must have been under.  At the end of his time, Jesus was exhausted, parched and famished.

I don’t know about you but I get cranky if I forego a meal.  And God forbid I miss my morning coffee.  Part of the ritual of purification for Christ was this desert fast.  Fasting may have been familiar to him but now, when he is at his most vulnerable, the Tempter appears.  Well, isn’t that always the way – when we’re stripped of resources, weakest, defenses down, that the Devil turns up.  “If you’ll just give me what I want, everything will be alright,” he smirks, lifting his pitchfork and twirling his tail.  You can fill in the blank for what it is that the Devil might offer you in return for yourself.  Faust exchanges his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures.  Jabez Stone gives up his soul for seven years of prosperity.  It takes the powerful persuasion of Daniel Webster to win it back.  Literature and folklore are filled with these tales.  Sometimes the protagonist overcomes the tempter, sometimes there is champion who rescues, sometimes Satan wins.

But in Matthew’s tale we are dealing with a different reality and a different order of being.  Here we have Jesus of Nazareth, wrestling with what it means to be the Son of God, One chosen and beloved by the Creator of the universe.  What does it mean for this Child of God to be faithful to his Heavenly Parent?  What would it mean for him to reign with God in God’s kingdom?  The time of testing becomes a time of temptation when the very vulnerable Jesus is confronted by really real powers that be. What are those temptations and why are they so significant?

In an attempt to answer this, Ben Witherington encourages us to “Notice that the temptations Jesus faces are those that only the Son of God might or could face—temptations to misuse the miraculous power God had given him to be a royal ruler in various selfish and self-protective ways. But,” he writes, “if Jesus had turned stones into bread, thrown himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, or worshiped the devil…in order to feed himself, prove himself to the crowds, or gain his kingdom without dying for it, he would no longer have been the obedient Son of God who models godly behavior for his followers.  He would have acted in a selfish way that should not be emulated and would not have been wise.”  Did you catch that part about modeling godly behavior for his followers?  That’s us friends, you and me.  Witherington continues,  “…Jesus is portrayed here as not taking shortcuts to glory, but rather following the hard and long path of obedience, living by God’s word and resisting temptation as we must by relying on that word” (op cit. p. 86).   Are we up for that journey, that hard, long path of obedience?

This is a powerful story but it is not our story, is it?  We are not blessed with Christ’s “super powers,” are we?  Nor would we be likely to exercise Christ’s restraint if we were, right?  Well, who is to say, except we ourselves as we embark on our own vision quests, wilderness wandering, Lenten journeys?  To what may God be calling you or me or us?  What powers are we being offered as beloved children of God and beloved community of faith?  How are we being tested on measuring up to the call?  Where are being tempted to turn our backs or take deadly shortcuts?  Maybe Jesus had more and different resources than we; still, we are gifted by God.  As Jesus said to the Tempter so long ago, we do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from God.  Are we listening?  Will we follow?  As with Christ, in this Lenten season, will we journey toward more light, more love, more life for ourselves, for our beloved community, for all those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, whether they know it or not?  God helping us, Christ leading us, the Spirit empowering us, may it be so.  Amen.

Pastor Rick: December 5

banjo.fwWhat a lovely beginning we have had for the Advent season.  Thanks to everyone who has contributed in action and in spirit.  It seems that we are on the right road of preparation for the holy coming.  I urge you to participate in all the activities of the season as much as possible at the same time I encourage you to take time to prepare.  Both John and Jesus spend time alone in the wilderness as they prepare for the work to which God has called them.  We may not find ourselves in the wilderness per se, but some down time in all the crush of holiday madness may be just what God is calling us to – time to sit quietly, to consider what is to come, to pray that we may be ready, to search for wisdom and understanding, to contemplate the light that is coming into the world and how it is manifest in hope, peace, joy and love.

Sunday we will spend time with John the Baptist and his forebears  John’s is that alarming voice, crying in the wilderness for us to make ready the road to salvation, urging all who will listen to turn from the seduction of empire to the promise of God’s righteous reign.  In this process, we will also look again at Zechariah’s song, the “Benedictus,” which was the focus of our work with Jennifer Davidson last month.  What did we learn in those sessions that we might bring to our worship this Sunday?  How might all these ancient words of blessing and comfort, prophecy and hope help us prepare for God’s touch on our lives this Advent?

As part of your time of preparation, I strongly encourage you to join us for Friday night’s contemplative service in the astonishing beauty of our worship space.  I find this to be a holy, healing time and trust that you might, too.  The services are simple and brief, scripture, songs, prayer and silence.

Sunday, we will keep our caroling and chili supper at 4:00 PM, so we will also continue our sessions in Adult Spiritual Formation on the theme “Prepare the Way.”  This Sunday we will consider preparation for Christ’s coming – in our faith community.  What is it for which we hope in this season and how might its realization make a difference in us and around us?

This is a wonderful time to invite a family member, friend, colleague, neighbor or stranger to join us in worship, sharing and learning.  See you Sunday at 10:00 AM and at the other events of the season.

May God bless us and keep us on the way,

Pastor Rick