Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Faith that Saves

Always on the first Sunday of Lent, we hear the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert, and we should see a parallel with ourselves. Lent should be a time when we go into the desert with Jesus, where we learn to purify ourselves of the unholy things of this world so that we can focus more intently on God himself. Jesus went into the desert to be tested, in order to strengthen himself for the mission ahead. Our Lent should strengthen us for the battles of this world. We Christians who are on this earth, who aren't in Purgatory or Heaven, we call ourselves the Church Militant, because the Christian life is indeed a battle.

So in other years, the Gospel might tell us about the individual temptations of the bread, testing God, and worshiping Satan, but this year we have Mark's version, which is the  most basic summary: Jesus was driven into the desert, and he was tempted by Satan. Mark usually isn't one for lengthy explanations, he pushes the story forward at a fast pace. Mark was in Rome when he was writing his Gospel, and he wrote for the Church in Rome, which was being persecuted, so Mark didn't waste time unnecessarily. His friends and fellow Christians were being persecuted and martyred, so as he wrote he needed to get to the meat of the story quickly.

But then what happens after the temptation in the desert? Jesus gets right to work, but not until John the Baptist has been handed over. Now, in the second half of this Gospel passage, there are several words we need to see in the original Greek to understand the full implication, and the first one is here. So we want to look at four specific themes in this gospel: John being arrested, the time of fulfillment, the kingdom of God, and believing in the Gospel.

Our translation we just heard says "After John had been arrested." Ok, fine, but a better translation of what Mark wrote would be after John was "handed over." Mark wanted his persecuted readers to see a continuity, from John the Baptist who was handed over and killed, to Jesus who was handed over and killed, to themselves, who were being handed and over and killed regularly. Mark wanted people to understand that being persecuted was not a sign of rejection by God, but rather a sign that you were following exactly in Jesus' footsteps.

So if we have this reading at the beginning of Lent from a man who wants to prepare his reader for persecution, then we have to consider how strong our faith is, whether or not it would stand up to intense persecution, and whether or not our Lenten disciplines are helping to create in us the faith of the martyrs.

Persecution was not unique to Mark's time in ancient Rome. Recently, as I'm sure you know, in Egypt 21 Christians were kidnapped by ISIS and had their heads sawed off for their faith in Jesus. In our own country, it's becoming increasingly illegal to live your faith in your private life. Stories have surfaced of those who run bakeries and florists, who oppose gay marriage on religious grounds being forced to use their business to support the idea, or subject to legal consequences for discrimination. Intolerance of religious freedom, we like to think that's far from us here in Wyoming, but Senate File 0115 (An analysis of the bill here), working its way through our Legislature in Cheyenne, will create the same unjust laws to Wyoming. My friends, persecution is coming our way. The age of soft, easy Christianity is over. Between the religious zealots on one side and insane definitions of tolerance on the other, there is getting to be very little room for the Christian in this world.

So, is your Lenten penance actually drawing you closer to Christ? In our own country Christians are fighting for their livelihoods, and throughout the world Christians are fighting for their lives. If it came to it, could you engage the fight, or would you knuckle under? Lent is the time for us to make sure we have a faith ready to fight with the Church militant. But I guarantee you, giving up the chocolate you only eat once a week isn't going to do it. These times call for more than that. These times call for a radical dependence on God, and whatever your Lenten discipline is, it should be just hard enough that you have to turn to God to do it. Because when persecutions come, if you are in the habit of relying on your own strength, you will fail. But if you let your whole life be supported by God, you'll have the strength to endure any trial.

This is chronos, NOT kairos
And the strength of God is always available to us. What did Jesus go preaching after John had been handed over? He said, "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand." Now the word for time here is not the ordinary word for time - chronos - like, "Oh, it's half past three, it's the time for fulfillment," but the word here is kairos, God's time. It points out to us that the random events of Jesus's life and the random events of our life are not random.Everything has been prepared for. You have not been born into the best of times or the worst of times by chance, but you were born into exactly the right time for you, and this is the best time for you to learn God's strength and God's love for you.

But where do we find this strength and this love? Our English word "kingdom" suggests a physical place, like the kingdom of God is here but not there, but the Greek word basilean, suggests a rule or a power not bound by place, so it's kind of like the reign of God. God's reign is at hand, God's all encompassing power is at hand. It's not something you have to go out searching for. It's available to you here and now, but learning to rely on this all-encompassing power is a lifelong task.

And relying on this power, letting this power of God become active and real in your life, that's called faith. So Jesus's last command in our gospel today is "Repent, and believe in the gospel." The word here for believe, or to have faith in, pisteo, like the other words we've looked at, is deeper than just "believe." The faith that Jesus is calling us to here is deeper than an acknowledging a truth with our mind or heart, but it is a kind of faith that actually saves you. It's a saving faith. Jesus is calling us to repent of anything that is not of him, and find in him a strength that can actually save us from our sins and from this world.

So as Christians are being handed over to various worldly powers simply for their belief in Christ, we have to remember that we were born into this point in history for a reason. We have to remember that there is a power available in Jesus, power to endure through all of these trials. This power is not bound to a time or place, but is always available to you, as long as you reach out in faith. This faith can save you from all the troubles of the world, and ultimately from death. Lent is a time to begin, or begin again, learning this dependence on God and letting his strength guide your whole life.

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