Promises, Promises

Date: March 01, 2009
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
Guest Preacher:

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Promises, Promises
Gen. 9:8-17; Mark 1:21-28
Rev. Laurie Vischer
March 1, 2009

A long time ago, I was hoping for a commitment from someone. I was in graduate school and had been dating a fellow student. We had seemed to come to a turning point in our relationship. I was anticipating what he was about to say. I'd always waited to hear the words. But what he said was carefully chosen, and measured:
“I’m thinking thoughts of falling in love with you.”
The disappointment tasted like metal.

Promises are scary. We avoid disappointment. It seems that many people are afraid of commitment. Rather than obligating ourselves with promises in romantic relationships, in friendships, in employment and membership in institutions, like the church, we are cautious. With children, I’ve been careful not to make promises I can’t keep. Only to realize that even the things not promised become expectations that can be disappointed.
Promises are hard.

This week, on Ash Wednesday, we began the time of the forty days of Lent, leading up to Easter. This year, when deciding upon what to “give up” for Lent, I noticed I've only attempted that which I thought possible. Not anything too challenging–for fear of failure. We resist making commitments we may break, don't we?

Friends, hear this good news, we are God’s beloved, and God is committed to us!
We belong to God and are God’s own, forever. Now is the time to live–with trust–in that.

Mark Searle wrote that “Lenten penance may be more effective if we fail in our resolutions than if we succeed, for its purpose is not to confirm in us our sense of virtue but to bring home to us our radical need of salvation.”

What if our practice this Lent was to quit striving for perfection? What if instead of fearing failure, we gave more deeply of ourselves, and then leaned into God's love?
Hear now our reading from Mark 1:9-15.
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And having come up out of the water, immediately Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased. And the Spirit immediately drove him 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. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (NRSV)
Did you notice in this reading that as soon as Jesus made the commitment in baptism, he was immediately tested? In our experience, baptism is usually followed by handshakes, hugs , coffee and cookies after worship. Jesus' baptism was immediately followed by forty days in the wilderness where he was tempted.
The story of the temptation is also found in Matthew and Luke. But those accounts emphasize the conflict between Jesus and Satan. Mark doesn’t give us many details. Mark’s tradition does emphasize that Jesus lacked all human companionship. He was with the wild beasts and angels. And though he was tested, after forty days, he was then ready to proclaim the gospel. One insight from this reading is that the more of ourselves we commit to the holy, the more difficult the way becomes.

Someone recently told me that when she had committed to coming to our every third Saturday healing service, she discovered Satan didn’t want her there. Just as she was ready to leave for the service, obstacles cropped up: a flat tire, lost keys, the pressure of time. Promises are scary.

Jesus’ time in the wilderness with the wild animals, so briefly presented in Mark, leaves us with questions. Are the wild animals, like Satan, a threat to Jesus? Or is Jesus’ time with the creatures of the wilderness more like the messianic vision of the lion lying down with the lamb? This passage, paired with the reading from Genesis, also reminds us of the promise God made to Noah. That covenant involves all people and all birds and animals and the earth itself. The promise is independent of the faith community and never needs to be renewed. It stands forever. We are (along with rest of Creation), God's own.

Some of you may be familiar with the Church of Our Savior in Washington, D.C. Elizabeth O'Connor, in her book, Call To Commitment explains the how that community was formed out of a deep sense of calling to Christ. The first nine members of the church made promises in October, 1947. Among those promises were these:

". . .I unreservedly and with abandon commit my life and destiny to Christ, promising to give Christ a practical priority in all the affairs of life. I will seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s Righteousness. . .
I commit myself, regardless of the expenditures of time, energy and money, to becoming an informed, mature, Christian.
I believe that God is the total owner of my life and resources. I give God the throne in relation to the material aspect of my life. God is the owner. I am the Ower. . ."

God is the owner. We are the owers. That's the message from Genesis.
And it's the Good News that Jesus proclaims.
Promises are hard. But God promised to love us, first.

There was a pious man who used to get up regularly at a prayer meeting in his church to pray:
“Use me, O Lord, use me–in some advisory capacity!”
Yes, maybe we'd rather keep our distance from the wild unknown of God's love.
But that's the temptation we need to resist.
Yesterday, Jessica Maxwell and Jane Kurtz, two authors from our Westminster community gave a wonderful workshop on writing. Jane noted: “We need to teach our children that it’s not just the easy things that are fun. Hard things are fun.” Following Jesus is the hard thing, but we don't do it alone.
(From the Communion Table)
The founder of the Salvation Army, General William Booth, was asked the secret of his devout Christian life. He answered:
“I told the Lord that he could have all that there is of William Booth.”

What if today, we committed ourselves--unreservedly and with abandon --to Christ? What would our lives and the world be like, then?

“Just as I am, thou will receive, will welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve; because thy promise I believe, O Lamb of God, I come, I come. . .”
At this table we are all invited to come. We come to Lent and to this Communion offering ourselves, our imperfections, our fears, our loneliness and our hungers. In receiving the Bread of Life, we taste forgiveness. We taste possibility and joy.
Come to God's Table. Taste and see, for the Lord is good!