01 March 2009

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent: "God Is Loose In The World"

I’m not so certain I like the background for this week’s Power Point show. It seems to me that this picture isn’t really what the gospel is describing. I’d prefer something more like this:

When I was a kid, I loved Sesame Street, like most of us. But there was one little skit that terrified me. Grover Monster would come in to demostrate near and far. At first it was cool - Grover is near, Grover is far, no problem. But toward the end of the thing, Grover went waaaaaaaaaaaay far back, until you could barely see his tiny little head, and he shouted “Far!” in this little tiny voice you could barely hear. Then he started running, and for me this was where it got scary. Grover bouncing gleefully toward the front of the television screen, as if eventually he’d just jump through the screen and land in my lap and scream, “NEAR!!!!”

Grover jumping out of the TV screen. The wild rumpus of Maurice Sendak. Jesus driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, where wild things dance with glee, and Jesus returning to proclaim the good news: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom is drawn near!” There is something unrestrained here, something wild and free and joyful to which we do grave insult if we try to tame, restrain or minimize it to where we can handle it safely.

In her book Teaching A Stone To Talk, Anne Lamott said,

Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, making up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies hats and straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.

This is the kind of power we’re approaching when we come here in worship. I firmly believe that to approach God is to approach a truly unrestrained Being, One for whom there are no limits, no preconditions and absolutely no means of predicting what is to come next. This text from Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus is indeed God’s intruding presence in the world, breaking into the predictable and controllable to “grasp the world by its corners and shake us loose,” as the psalmist says. So let’s take some time this morning to look at what is happening in this short, powerful stretch of verses from this short, powerful gospel.

As Jesus was being baptized, the gospel tells us that the heavens were “torn apart, and the Spirit [descended] on Jesus like a dove.” Mark is the only gospel that uses the words, “torn apart.” Schizomai is the Greek word here - it’s the same root that gives us schizophrenia and schism. What Mark is saying is very clear: the heavens were shattered, ripped open, torn asunder. God did not open a door into the world - this is God ripping into reality as eagerly as my Ainsley ripped into her Christmas presents last December. Jesus is God eagerly coming into the world, anxious to get about the work of redemption, even knowing that it will be hard, it will be long, it will be painful.

Next, “the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” This verse almost needs an entire sermon on each word, but since we don’t have that kind of time, I’m going to look at just a few of them.

The word immediately happens a lot in the first chapter of Mark; things start happening fast when God rips into the world! Again, we see that God is not constrained by expectation or behavior - God is in a hurry to be about the work of redemption, and there is no time to lose. Drove tells us more of the same. Jesus wasn’t invited into the wilderness, drawn, even called like we believe we are called in our respective vocations: Jesus was driven to the wilderness, beyond human habitation, where the wild rumpus starts.

Let’s talk a bit about the fact that Jesus is driven into the wilderness. What do you immediately assume when you hear about Jesus going away from ‘civilization’ to where the wild things are? [most likely something about prayer, escape, testing even] All of that is likely true in some way - but what if this were nothing more than God beginning the redemption of the world in the wilderness? Scripture tells us time and time again that the world is broken, not just humanity, and Revelation makes it clear that in time a new heavens and a new earth will be created. What if Jesus in the wilderness with the wild beasts is the beginning of creation’s redemption, the outpoured bounty of God’s love for ALL of God’s creation?

Finally, though, Jesus returns to Galilee, where things really start to happen. The good news is proclaimed: time has been fulfilled and the reign of God is breaking into the world. This is bad news for those of us who like the idea of running the show, and from here on out Jesus will be opposed by the mighty and powerful in Mark’s gospel. Jewish faith at the time believed that God’s dwelling on earth was in the Holy of Holies, the very deepest, darkest sanctuary in the Temple, separated from humanity by space, distance and a thick curtain that blocked off all light and most sound. Once a year a priest was elected to carry an offering into the Holy of Holies; otherwise, God’s presence rested undisturbed in the sanctuary - and also safely separated from daily life. When Jesus proclaimed that the kingship of God has drawn near, he told the people that God was no longer quiet, no longer willing to remain safely behind closed doors and drawn curtains. It’s one thing to believe that God is present in the Temple in Jerusalem, silently brooding - what Jesus proclaimed was a living, active God, uncontrolled, intruding on the world and remaking it through the words and deeds of Jesus himself.

In the Gospel of Mark, these themes of immediacy, intrusion and conflict are everywhere. When C.S. Lewis wrote the character of Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, he drew on Mark more than any other gospel. Remember what Mr. Beaver said about Aslan in The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe? “No, [Aslan] is not safe; but he is good.” Jesus is God loose in the world, a force of redemption and love that will not be comfortable or secure for anyone who encounters him. It is this uncontrollable, fierce aspect of Jesus that will trouble the authorities of his day. It is this intrusion into the world that will enrage the powers of the world when they think they are in control. It is this powerful, unapologetic love that will eventually make the powers-that-be decide that Jesus’ death is the only solution left that allows them to remain in power. And when Jesus dies on the cross, when he utters a final cry and breathes his last, the gospel of Mark tells us “the curtain of the Temple was torn [apart], from top to bottom.” Schizesthe is the word Mark used: the same word that described how the heavens were “torn apart” when Jesus was baptized. The death of Jesus did not prevent God breaking into the world - the death of Jesus tore apart the last barrier between God and the world, forever.

What does this mean for us? It means that even today, God is loose in the world. God continues to intrude, to remake, to lovingly break into the world in fierce, creative joy and passion. Is this comfortable for us? Far from it. Sometimes it can be as terrifying as watching Grover bounding towards you on your television screen, as primal as the wild rumpus. But make no mistake about it, friends: God is indeed loose in the world, and the reign of God continues to draw near. The good news is that God is loose in the world for you, to bring you life and joy beyond your wildest dreams. So God draws NEAR!!!!! and the wild rumpus goes on. Come on - join the dance. Amen.


  1. Ah, let the wild rumpus start!

  2. Beautiful! I love the children's lit you pulled in--this works from the youngest to oldest members. Blessings.