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This Way Lies Death

This Way Lies Death
Published by Josh Hosler on Sun, Feb 21, 2021 12:32 PM

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The First Sunday in Lent (Year B), February 21, 2021
Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

Many years ago I had a boss named Walter who was fond of observing, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Walter usually said it when an employee’s previously unknown talent began to shine through, meaning that this person would now receive more responsibility and, consequently, more to worry about. “No good deed goes unpunished.” I feel honored that Walter said it to me more than once. It was the mark of a good mentor, and indeed, Walter was pastoral as well as challenging.

Well, today we hear again about Jesus’ baptism, which is funny, because we just heard that story a month and a half ago. Then we had several weeks of stories about Jesus’ work—his preaching, teaching, and healing. Now, as Lent begins, we’ve skipped back again to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. We are reminded that before Jesus did all those amazing things, there was a moment when John the Baptist and the others around him first recognized the importance of Jesus’ identity.

But there’s a different emphasis this time around. For one thing, last week we heard the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration on the mountaintop, and a booming voice calling out, “This is my son, the Beloved—listen to him!” Skip back to the beginning and notice: today also we hear a booming voice from heaven announcing, “You are my Son, the Beloved: with you I am well pleased.” And what’s the next thing that happens? Right after the goodness in Jesus is commended, the Holy Spirit drives him out into the wilderness.

Jesus shows up, Jesus is honored, and then Jesus suffers. No good deed goes unpunished.

Last week I saw a post on Facebook from a clergy colleague. This being Lent, a time for spiritual growth, he was inviting people to reflect on the question, “What has helped you grow in the past?” Here’s a list of the first few responses:

  • The things I most wish had never happened.
  • Adversity, whether great or small.
  • Being called up short suddenly and unexpectedly.

There were also some more upbeat responses:

  • Music.
  • Love.
  • Seeing the love in others.
  • Daily devotionals, and trying to live them out.

This small collection of people observed that we grow when things happen to us, difficult things and wonderful things. Only one person mentioned work we ourselves might put toward growth: the work of daily prayer and reflection, and the actions we choose to take as a result. Both things are important: the things that happen to us, which we don’t choose, and the practices that we do choose. But the most recognizable changes in our lives happen because of situations we didn’t choose.

Jesuit writer Anthony DeMello put it this way: “Change that is real is change that is not willed.”

I wonder whether Jesus had any idea, as John dunked him underwater, of what awaited him? That he would go from very wet to very dry? From a crowd of people to absolute solitude? From safety to danger? From support and love and joy to desolation and incessant temptation to do wrong?

Mark doesn’t go into detail about the specific temptations Jesus suffered, so I won’t either at this time. But I will say that I think this passage only makes sense if Jesus really was in danger of giving in to awful temptations, perhaps to fame and glory, or power and might, or safety and security. If there was no chance Jesus would succumb to these things, the story isn’t any help to us, either. It’s under duress that we are most tempted.

It’s under duress that we are most likely to figure out who God has made us to be.

We all go through suffering. We would never choose it; suffering just happens to us. And it changes us. Grief changes us. Trauma changes us. Sometimes these things damage us permanently. But sometimes they also fine-tune us. Our own personal collection of experiences—change that we did not will—wears off our rough edges and gives us wisdom.

When we gather and pray together, it’s not just to make our difficult lives more bearable, but also so that we can find ways to share the burden with others. Sometimes we just need people to carry our pain with us. At other times we find that we have the energy to help carry other people’s pain, energy that comes from wisdom, wisdom born of suffering.

And from the First Letter of Peter today, we hear a theological claim—and perhaps even snippets of an early hymn—about how Jesus’ baptism, suffering, death, and resurrection all fit together. The claim is that when Jesus died, he went “to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey.” Throughout Christian history, this passage has been used to assure us that even those who came before Jesus’ time are within the reach of his saving embrace. Even those who were so wicked in the mythical time when Noah was building his ark are ultimately saved. This reference to the flood then gets repurposed as a reference to baptism—being saved from water and through water. The effect of Jesus on the world transcends space and time.

And that effect comes through Jesus’ suffering—eventually on the cross, but first in the wilderness, hungry, lonely, under assault. This way lies death—and all the growth that comes through death.

So as Lent begins, we prepare ourselves for such a journey. We repent of our sins. We ask for God’s help. Today at the time of our prayers, we will chant together the oldest prayer we have that was composed in English, the Great Litany. The Great Litany was compiled from several other ancient litanies dating as far back as the fourth century. To the end of the Great Litany we will add the Supplication, another set of chanted prayers specifically for use during a time of national anxiety or disaster. We certainly have both of those right now. In Lent we humble ourselves, bending the knees of our hearts at least, if not our literal knees. I will kneel for the Great Litany, and I invite you to do so as well if your knees still do that.

Sometimes when trying to find the right words to say to you, I go not only to commentaries and preaching guides and footnotes, but also to my own previous sermons. And this week I stumbled onto one I preached way back in September 2018, when we were just beginning to get to know one another. It was a sermon about who Jesus is, something that we Christians are constantly trying to phrase in new and more helpful ways. I want to close by commending these words to you again this Lent, with the experience of a global pandemic and quarantine now giving them new depth.

Jesus is the one who shows me both the easy path and the right path, heads down the right path ahead of me, and beckons me to follow. That way lies death: the death of my ego, the death of my assumptions, the death of anything that might come between me and the way of Love. As I walk with Jesus, he says, “Don’t fret those times you gave in to temptation. I get it. I’ve been there, too. But you’re walking with me now, and this road never ends.”

And as we walk that road, I exercise my legs for going and my lungs for telling, and my heart for loving gets healthier and stronger. And I look around and see that we’re not alone on this road, Jesus and I: how could we be? The narrow door I struggled to fit through led to a path that has widened to a super highway, and all sorts of people are on it with us: heroes and scoundrels, saints and sinners, all going together through various deaths and resurrections. We’re all carrying our crosses, and we’re singing all the walking songs: happy songs, sad songs, comic and tragic songs. Where are we all going? We can’t see very far ahead to know. But as we walk, Jesus patiently whispers to me, “Love. It’ll hurt you. It might even kill you. But love anyway. Because trust me—nothing else works.”