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Sermon for February 18 – First Sunday of Easter Preparation

Welcome to this week’s episode, a special rerun from our Speaking of Life archive. We hope you find its timeless message as meaningful today as it was when it was first shared.

Program Transcript

Speaking of Life 3013 | Rainbow’s Promise
Greg Williams

Do you remember the first time you saw a rainbow?

Rainbows are iconic, universal, showing up in legends and stories throughout history. Despite years of pollution and our increasingly busy lives, rainbows still make us stop…and look up.

The first recorded rainbow appears in Genesis 9, just after the flood recedes. Noah walks out into the steaming earth and hears the voice of God:

I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.
Genesis 9:13-15 (NRSV)

This is what is called by theologians “The Noahic Covenant”—one of several agreements that God made with Israel—and by proxy all the world.

And here we see this strange imagery of the rainbow. “I have set my bow…” This word “bow” is the same Hebrew word as the bow of battle. To the original readers, the bow would have been a common sight in battle. It meant war and death.

But for God to “set his bow” meant that war was over, that the struggle was over. This is the sign of the rainbow in the clouds, turned away from us, a bow at rest.

That rest is what we remember when we see it. and it reminds us of all of life. As violent as the storm might be, the rainbow will be there—the power of the thunder and rain turns to beauty and color. That’s all that’s left standing.

The covenant reminds us that a devastation like a flood won’t destroy us again. God will not destroy us and start over; he will work with us and through us to accomplish redemption. He works through each storm in our lives to make beauty and light come through.

Instead of ending history, he works within it. And instead of starting over with humanity, he became one.

He set his bow in the sky. He set his covenant that he will always work with us and within us on our relationship with him. Let’s remember this promise when the storm comes.

I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life

Psalm 25:1-10 • Genesis 9:8-17 • 1 Peter 3:18-22 • Mark 1:9-15
This week, we celebrate the first Sunday of the Lent or Easter Preparation season. This is a time when we examine ourselves, seeking to prune the things that no longer serve us so God can grow new life. The theme for this week is God’s passionate presence. The Psalm speaks about God’s faithfulness and how he actively teaches and leads the humble. In the Genesis passage, we see God, using his own initiative, make a covenant with Noah and his descendants. In 1 Peter, the author describes how Jesus suffered and died for humanity. Finally, the Gospel passage recounts how God tore the heavens in order to make his presence on earth known.

The Heavens are Torn

Mark 1:9-15 NIV

If you ever watched one of the Law & Orders, CSIs, or any other crime drama made in America, the following scenes will be familiar to you. The audience observes someone commit a crime. We will call this person the Crook. The Crook somehow gets away. Maybe there was some kind of chase down an alley with a random fence in the middle of it that the Crook scales like they are some kind of monkey squirrel. Or maybe the Crook runs out into the street and makes it across while the good-looking-even-while-running detective pursuing the Crook gets hit by a car. Don’t worry. Despite being hit by two tons of metal, the detective is never seriously hurt. They just kind of bounce off the windshield. Either one of those two options is usually featured in the story (sometimes both). At any rate, the Crook gets away and hides in some dingy motel room or at an unwitting relative’s house. (Just so you know, Crooks only hide in dirty places. It’s apparently a rule.) Through some nifty police work, the detectives find out where the Crook is hiding and a SWAT team instantly appears outside the door. The armored SWAT team, led by the unarmored detective, proceeds to break the door down. There is a lot of yelling of things like “Police!” and “Freeze!” Mysteriously, the detectives never check to see if the door is unlocked. They just break the whole thing down. There is probably a rule about that as well.

Breaking a door down is dramatic (hence the term crime drama). When the detectives break the door down, it sends the message that their need is urgent. They are determined not to allow their quarry to escape and no obstacle will stop them. In real life, police do far more knocking on doors than kicking them down. However, a broken open door is much more compelling and entertaining for the uninvolved observer, which better serves the purposes of the show’s producers. It helps the audience understand the importance of the chase within the context of the story and become more invested in what happens to the characters. We can understand what it means when a detective kicks open a door. However, what does it mean when God breaks down a door? In essence, this is what happened at the baptism of Jesus. We can find the account in Mark 1:9-15:

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:9-15 NIV)

The first appearance of Jesus in Mark’s gospel could seem underwhelming. Matthew and Luke begin their accounts of the life of Jesus with a miraculous virgin birth accompanied by prophecies, angels, wise men, and a genocidal king. In one of the most beautiful writings in scripture, John’s account starts in a time before time. By paralleling the creation narrative, he immediately points to Jesus as Immanuel, God with us. John’s gospel then lines up with Mark’s — a discussion of John the Baptist followed by the baptism of Jesus. However, John includes the Baptizer’s protest, proclaiming his unworthiness to baptize his Lord. Matthew, Luke, and John make Jesus’ first appearance in their gospels auspicious. The audience is given the clear signs that Jesus is special. In Mark 1:9, we first encounter Jesus, a guy from a lowly regarded town, standing in the hot desert, waiting in line like a “normal.” No prophecies. No angels. No lofty prose. Jesus unremarkably receives a baptism that he should not need.

Then everything changed in verse 10. As Jesus came out of the water, the heavens — the boundary between the spiritual world and physical world — were torn open. They were not gently parted. They were not surgically cut. The fabric of space and time was ripped apart so that the frayed edges could not and cannot be mended. The baptism of Jesus not only signaled the official start of Christ’s earthly ministry, but it was a sign of God breaking into our world in a new way. Through the tear, God-the-Spirit entered our reality like a dove and alit on God-the-Son. God-the-Father could not contain his excitement and bellowed his love for Jesus. To Mark’s audience, tearing the heavens feels dramatic. When God tore open the heavens, he sent the message that his need was urgent. He was determined not to let his children escape and no obstacle would stop him. Mark wanted us to understand the importance of this chase within the context of the story and become more invested in what happens to the characters in his gospel.

For Mark, the most important thing he wanted his readers to know about Jesus, right from the start, was that Christ embodied God’s passionate pursuit of humanity. God’s desire for humanity was (and is) not careful and measured. God does not stoically observe us from a distance. God would tear apart heaven itself in order to save, redeem, and restore his children. His love for us has even been described as reckless.

Therefore, we should not wonder what compelled Christ to face the enemy right at the get go. After baptism, Mark says that Christ’s first act was to be led by the Spirit into the desert to prepare himself for ministry by spending time with his Father and to face the accuser of humanity on our behalf. Passionate protective love drove Jesus to face Satan on the enemy’s home turf — the realm of isolation, discomfort, and physical weakness. The Lord wanted to keep his children safe from the schemes of the Devil. Also, Jesus’ victory over the enemy was another way that he demonstrated that God would be present on the earth in a different way. This is part of the “good news” that Jesus started to proclaim at the end of today’s text. Our loving God has drawn near. He has torn the heavens in his zeal. He has confronted the enemy in his passion. The kingdom of God has been established on earth and it will never be stopped.

In this season of Easter Preparation, we make ready our hearts and minds to worship Christ, in whom we have new life, on Easter Sunday. In this season, we try to remove distractions and lean into spiritual practices to make ourselves more available to God. Some in the Christian community will practice abstinence, temporarily depriving themselves from something harmless (i.e. meat on Fridays), to remind ourselves to make room for God. Unfortunately, some see this season as a time of self-punishment in order to make ourselves acceptable to God. Some still see God as stern or distant and make Easter Preparation sad and serious. They believe that God is somehow pleased when we wallow in misery. Instead, it is fitting that we start this season with a reminder of God’s overflowing love for humanity. We prune our lives because we have been accepted and we want the reality of God’s presence to be more and more of our reality. Let our worship of God be motivated by his deep, abiding love for us.

The thing about broken down doors is that they are no longer useable. Once a door has been kicked in, a new door must be hung. When God tore open the heavens, he never repaired the breach. The heavens will remain torn until he makes a new heaven and a new earth. In that day, there will be no more need for the sun because God’s presence will light up all creation. Until that day, God continues to be present here with us. His passionate presence should fill us with joy and hope. This is good news worth sharing. This is the Gospel by which we should live.

Into the Wilderness w/ Brad Turnage W3

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February 18—First Sunday of Easter Prep/Lent
Mark 1:9-15, “Into the Wilderness”

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Program Transcript

Into the Wilderness w/ Brad Turnage W3

Anthony: Let’s move to our next pericope of the month. It’s Mark 1:9-15. It is the Revised Common Lectionary passage for the first Sunday of Easter Prep / Lenten Season, which is February 18.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him. 11 And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tested by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him. 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

So, Brad, if you were preaching this text, what would you say? How would you herald the gospel?

Brad: I think you have to at least, first, start with the Trinity, right? If I’m not mistaken, I think this is the only place in Scripture where we actually see the three persons of the Trinity interacting together in this way. The Spirit descends on the Son like a dove and the Father proclaims, You are my son.

And you have those three persons of the Trinity all interacting with one another. And whenever you can point to the Trinity, you have to do it. Because I think the Trinity shows us—I talk about this a lot with the students that I work with, good luck trying to understand the Trinity. And even more luck trying to talk about it because you can’t talk about the Trinity without stumbling into some heresy, here or there, just because it is so mysterious, and it’s so out of our kind of context of what we can understand.

But even though we can’t fully understand it, we can learn from it. And the most important thing I think we learned from the Trinity is that God is relational. And that’s crazy. That’s crazy that God is not only relational, but that he invites us into that relationship. And so, we see a Father who deeply loves his Son, and that love is flowing through the Holy spirit.

And I don’t understand it, but I know that God has said I’m included in it. And I’m so thankful that that same Spirit is a part of my life that helps me love the Father in Christ. You could build a sermon around that easily. I could talk for so long about that.

But I think I could also build a sermon—I might focus on the way that Jesus is sent into the wilderness before he begins his public ministry. It reminds us of those times in the Old Testament that the wilderness was used to prepare somebody for God’s work. Jacob goes into the wilderness and wrestles with God and then Israel is born.

Moses meets God in the wilderness before freeing the Israelites. And David wrote so many of his psalms fleeing from Saul in the wilderness. So, there’s something about the wilderness in Scripture that allows for God to show up in a meaningful way. I would probably focus in on that, on the wilderness.

Anthony: As I’m thinking about your thoughts and trying to process what I’m hearing, I agree. If the Trinity is there, point out the Trinity! And this is where [Karl] Barth is so helpful to me. He gives us a language of talking about Trinitarian action. And he says we can’t comprehend it. All we can do is apprehend, get glimpses. And I appreciate the fact that you said we’re going to dabble in heresy here or there, not intentionally, but we will, because it’s a mystery! And Lord, fill us with wonder again. Sometimes we just make Christianity so flat.

So that leads us, as you said talking about the wilderness—and I do want to go there because … why? Okay, so Jesus hears these affirming words of the Father, these words that express the truth of his love. And the Spirit takes him to the wilderness right away? Come on, man, can’t we just ease into this before we go there.

So, tell us more about the wilderness because so much, as you’ve already pointed out, of Scripture we see happening in the wilderness. There’s a metaphor that maybe we don’t want to talk about and realize. What else would you say about it?

Brad: Anthony, there’s no easing somebody into the wilderness, even if you would have said, all right, Jesus, you have a week, go to REI [Recreational Equipment, Inc – an American retail store], get yourself some gear. It’s still going to be tough. It’s the wilderness.

Plus, Jesus doesn’t get eased in anything. He shows up in a manger. That’s his moment of coming into this world. In some ways, Jesus going into the wilderness was this picture of him coming into our world, God in the flesh, this light in the darkness. But I do think it’s important to understand why Jesus, as he begins his public ministry, begins it with this time of struggle and this journey into the wilderness and this fasting.

And I don’t know to what extent Jesus needed to be prepared for his public ministry. And I’m certainly not going to try to figure that one out. But a journey that’s going to end in a cross might as well start in the wilderness, I think. Mark doesn’t give us much here, just that Jesus was tested by Satan.

In Matthew and Luke, we get a glimpse of just how Jesus was being tempted. I think it all has to do with how Jesus will use his power to fix the world. Robert Capon, who you mentioned earlier, talks about right-handed versus left-handed power. And right-handed power is the power to control, to coerce, the power to force. It’s what we think about as power in the world we live in.

But left-handed power is mysterious. It doesn’t look like power. It’s the power of forgiveness, power of patience, endurance, letting go. And ultimately, this is the power that we see used by God and Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection. I think the temptation of Jesus was the temptation to do a fix-up job on our broken world, to use his power to make a bad world good.

But it was never that way. It was always going to be his death and resurrection that would bring about his kingdom. The world doesn’t need to be made better. It needs to be resurrected. And it’s the same for us. It’s the mystery that is revealed to the disciples and hidden in the parables. This mystery of we find life and death, and we’re not going to find it anywhere else.

And so, I think that this temptation, even at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry as he goes into the wilderness, as he’s tempted, it feels upside down. It feels backwards. But again, God’s kingdom shows us that power doesn’t look like power, that the way that God is working in the world is not going to be the way that we expect.

And Jesus going into the wilderness is a little picture of that.

Anthony: I have no doubt that there are those in our listening audience who feel like they’re in the wilderness right now. And we all are. Living in an evil age, it is wilderness. But for those that are exceptionally feeling that right now, what would you say to them? How would you encourage them?

Brad: I actually think that those of us that feel like we’re living in the wilderness maybe have this blessing because it’s a reminder that we actually need. I worry about the people that don’t need God, or at least that’s the way they see their lives. There’s a gift of being in the wilderness and that is that if eventually we are reminded that the only hope we have is through someone else, then we can find that person.

I would say to those people, yeah, you’re in the wilderness, but you’re not alone. Christ is with you. And in fact, that is where James talks about when you’re—what does he say? That this testing brings about endurance. And I can’t remember exactly what he says in that first part of James, but the wilderness will change you.

And it will make you somebody that’s more like God, and more like Jesus Christ, the light of the world and who he’s called you to be, as well. And if you’re in the wilderness, maybe it’s because God is making you into somebody that can be the light of the world.

And that starts with trusting that he’s with you right there. But it’s hard. It is hard.

Anthony: And maybe in another podcast, if we can get you back here and we talk about this passage of scripture, again. We’ll talk about the Spirit leading Jesus out. There are those Christians who think that God does things to them to teach them, to grow them up, to mature them in Christ, to reveal his presence. God’s a good God. He’s faithful, and he’s kind. Anyway, I’d love to have that conversation at some point. How deterministic is he?

Brad: Yeah, I know. The one thing we do know is that God’s just really good at reconciling and resurrecting. So, I think we experienced God in those moments, and it feels [like] God made me go through this. But God’s just going to go ahead and resurrect anything that will die if we let go. And if we’re in that place and we really do let go and give ourselves away to Christ, that’s where we’ll find the resurrection. Because you can’t resurrect what isn’t dead! I think that’s why it feels like oh, God made me go through this so that I would experience this. But I don’t know I’m not going to try to figure out understanding all that.

Anthony: But you can’t resurrect what isn’t dead. Let’s remember that.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • The first sentence about the appearance of Jesus in Mark’s gospel is underwhelming. Do you think that Mark was trying to make a point about Christ? If so, what do you think he was trying to say?
  • In your own words, what do you think it means that God tore the heavens at Jesus’ baptism?
  • What are some things we can do during Easter Preparation to remind us of God’s passionate presence with us?

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