"Knowing Who You Are"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 1/9/2000
Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-13
To find the answers, we are going to look at one of the primary sources of Christianity, the Gospel of Mark. Even though Mark is the first Gospel to record what happened during Jesus' ministry, it has been the least popular of the four Gospels. There are a number of reasons for this. Mark lacks a lot of information found in the other Gospels.
For example, Mark does not mention anything about the birth of Jesus. If Mark's Gospel had been our only record of Jesus' life, we would not have celebrated Advent or Christmas. Mark's Gospel begins with the baptism of Jesus.
This morning we will concentrate on what followed immediately after Jesus' baptism, an experience that Mark summed up in only two verses: "At once the Spirit made him go into the desert, where he stayed forty days, being tempted by Satan. Wild animals were there also, but angels came and helped him."
Isn't that interesting? Two of the other Gospels provide readers with far more details about Jesus' wilderness experience. They wrote as if they were eyewitnesses. In Mark, for example, there is no mention of the temptations to turn the stones into bread, to worship Satan or to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple. Mark described the unfolding of Jesus' identity formation in the context where he was surrounded by wild animals and angels. We will examine these two images in a few minutes.
Let us pause here to reflect on Mark's mention of Satan. All of us have thoughts about Satan. Some of us have the image frequently captured by artists, an evil-looking, horned creature with a tail, carrying a pitch fork. Others of us may dismiss Satan as a literary device used by early writers to explain the problem of evil. Still others may believe that Satan represents everything that teaches us that we are separated from God.
In the early Hebrew tradition Satan was the being who tested people, a role quite similar to a school teacher or a professor. Being tested academically is no different from being tested spiritually. Nearly every test we take tells us what we can do with what we know. In the context of the Hebrew culture, Satan provided people with a reality check. We grow not because we have the truth; we grow because we continue holding on to that truth during temptations that tell us that it is a waste of time.
For instance, if we believe we are a person of character, how will we know the truth of that unless we have been tested? How will we know we are brave unless we have proven it to ourselves repeatedly by facing obstacles with a confident spirit, even when our comfort zones have been shredded? How will we know we have a strong faith in God unless we have demonstrated such trust time after time while experiencing uncertainty and loss? If you want to read such a Biblical interpretation of Satan, you will find it in the first chapter of Job (1:6-12).
It does not matter what you personally believe about Satan. What matters is our need to pay attention to those urges to be less than God created us to be. We have all experienced those urges inviting us to sabotage ourselves. When the tests come, we must always choose between taking the high road which insures our growth, or the low road which delays our growth.
So many of us put Jesus in a special category as if he were never tempted as we are, as if somehow he never struggled with life issues, and as if he always had the ability to say the right thing at the right time. This simply is not true. Whether he struggled in the wilderness or in the garden, Jesus' loving responses were not as automatic as we may believe.
Jesus experienced such moments of testing each time he verbally crucified the Scribes and Pharisees with his venomous metaphors and labels. Regardless of how we attempt to sugarcoat many of Jesus' responses, his words on more than one occasion hid the spirit of forgiveness that he later demonstrated from the cross. Let us now examine Jesus' experience in more depth.
According to Mark, the Spirit of God filled his mind with thoughts that communicated, "You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you." Jesus obviously did not know how to interpret his experience. It took him nearly six weeks of inner dialogue before he emerged with some tentative answers. We have all known such struggles when faced with defining moments to our character and spirit.
Think about your own life for a moment. Think about your communication skills with the people closest to you. Think about the amount of patience you have when you are around people who consider themselves more important than you. Think about how you feel when you are around beautiful people who know how to get a lot of attention, particularly around promotion time. What are your thoughts when you are surrounded by much younger people who are eager and aggressive, but who also give the appearance of lacking common sense and good judgment?
If any of us can say, "I always behave well in such circumstances," think again. There is a constant pressure on us to evolve or decline, to soar or to spiral, to grow up or plateau. Mark tells us that there are basically two kinds of teachers out there, those who appear as wild animals and those who appear as angels.
Mark also tells us that there will be a voice within us that says, "Now it is your turn to be first! It is your turn to assert yourself! You don't have to take it anymore. It is time for you to set the record straight! Go ahead and just do it. People will respect you. They appreciate fighters. Fight fire with fire. Become like them. Don't let them get away with it! Violence and getting even may be the only language they understand." Have you ever heard that voice?
Everything about our identity depends on two questions: Who is it that you want to be? Are you satisfied with your current definition? When we are preparing to start our day, we ought to tell ourselves, "Today I am going into my wilderness, a place where wild animals live." Be very clear on that. "I am going to be faced with people who appear cruel and insensitive. Some are going to be rude and disrespectful. Who do I want to be in response? Today I am going to be faced with issues that will challenge my integrity. Who do I want to be during those moments?"
People who are virtually the same today as they were six or ten years ago, are harvesting exactly what they have sown. They are frozen in their growth. They are predictable. There are no surprises about them. If our twelve year old still acted as a six-year- old, we would waste no time getting them to a counselor. Living in these older bodies, however, creates the illusion that we are grown up. Graying hair communicates maturity. Yet many of us know that our responses to life have not changed in years. We cannot break the cycle. But we can! We can!
We need to understand that everyday opportunities come to fine-tune ourselves. Such opportunities come in many forms. Every disappointment is an opportunity for us to adjust our life-skills. On this there are no age limits. But no, what frequently happens to us is that we get caught up in what is fair and what is not. We begin comparing ourselves with others. We begin to elevate the thoughts and opinions of others above our own.
Perhaps we work with colleagues who are "60 percenters". We ask ourselves, "Why am I striving so hard to do a good job? Nobody else is. Besides, they are not paying me enough." Never decide on your value by what you are paid! Jesus had no place to lay his head and no one has been more valuable to humanity than he. Everyday is our wilderness and that wilderness is filled with beasts and angels.
There was a time when Jesus went into the temple courtyard and overturned the tables of the money changers. One Gospel claims that he did so wielding a whip. Do not think for a moment that such an outburst did not make Jesus ask, "What am I doing?" After that episode, he may have had to spend some time alone. Maybe he talked to himself as many of us do. "Is this who I want to be? Do I want to teach people how easily violence can be justified?"
How do we know what Jesus thought? We do not know, but those money changers were in the temple area the very next day. It was a century-old practice that did not stop because Jesus had acted on his aggressive feelings about it. What we do know is that there is no record of Jesus acting that way again. Perhaps during this stage in his growth, he still needed to learn how to turn the other cheek even when he had strong, value-based attitudes about what others were doing.
In time, he would learn how to forgive those who spit on him, who beat him, and who drove nails into his hands and feet. There are wild animals that will confront us. And there will always be that voice that speaks to us enticingly during some of our most vulnerable moments, testing us, wanting to know if we can walk the talk, wanting to know what we can do with what we know.
The issue of who we are has nothing to do with what is fair and what is not, or what is just and what is not. When such moments occur, they are opportunities for us to practice being who God created us to be. Remember, not all emotions serve us. We can be disagreeable, argumentative, and bitter. And we may be perfectly justified in having those feelings, but indulging in such emotions will short-circuit our ability to radiate kindness, tolerance, forgiveness, and joy. We successfully hide the loving spirit that is our true identity.
In conclusion, let us not forget those angels in our wilderness. Who are they? They are not winged-creatures with halos. They wear many disguises. Anyone who wants to see them will find them everywhere. Sometimes they look like parents. They can look like friends, teachers and colleagues. They reveal their identity by the way they live. That is how they patiently guide us. They wait until we are ready to take our next steps.
Angels support us even when we are behaving poorly. They love us just as we are. They offer alternatives to us. They challenge our thinking. They open doors for us. Their gifts to us are the ones that matter. And they want no recognition or praise. The greatest gift we can give to an angel is to become a more improved version of who we were a year ago.
Jesus was tested in every way as we are. Even when it would have been "most human" and appropriate to teach the "eye-for-an-eye" message, by the age of 33 he chose only to radiate love in all circumstances. Not only did he teach us that we are like him, he also trusted us with his work. He siad, "Follow me." This morning, who is it that you want to become? In the midst of life's tests, are you growing into the being God created you to be?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We thank you, God, that all that surrounds us has the ability to nurture us. Frustrated and angry people often show us what the loss of patience will produce. Those who hold narrow points of view teach us the result of having minds that are closed. Detours and barriers to our goals offer us the opportunity to display our faith and trust. Thank you, God, for Jesus Christ, who taught the inner-directed power of discipleship. Help us to understand that darkness gives purpose to the people of light. In times of confusion, enable us to remember that such moments provide the stage for our love to become useful. As we learn how we can demonstrate our faith better, may our confidence strengthen our resolve to remain healers. The world has enough judges and critics. Enable us, O God, to become facilitators of peace. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Gracious and loving God, thank you for providing us with many sources of inspiration. We thank you for the angels who surround us when we come here. They sit with us in our pews. They shake our hands. They help us laugh and enable us to reveal who we are. They help melt away our shyness and reticence. They give us the gift of acceptance.
We thank you for your word that comes to us in many forms. It may be buried in a prayer, a hymn, or a Scripture passage. It may come through a sermon illustration. Yet when it touches our spirit, we are made aware that you are reaching out with thoughts that say, "You are my beloved creation, in whom I am well pleased."
We pray that as our spirits continue to learn and grow, that each of us will take our turn to smile and speak, to ask the question that helps another self-disclose, or to invite someone to our circle or committee meeting. We confess that we do not know each other as we could and should, so we ask that you give us the moment of inspiration causing us to break the ice with our words and our extended hands. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray...