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San Williams

February 26, 2012
Mark 1:9-15

02-26-2012 Sermon 1st Sunday in Lent

I don’t pay much attention to the news coming out of Hollywood.  Neither am I up on the current music scene.  Still, like nearly every American, I heard some of the media blitz surrounding Whitney Houston’s untimely death on the very day of the Grammy Awards.  While I didn’t watch her four hour funeral at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, I did take note of the poignant remarks about Houston by Kevin Costner, her co-star in the movie “The Bodyguard.” He remembered Houston as a movie star who was uncertain of her own fame, who still wondered, “Am I good enough?  Am I pretty enough?  Will they like me?”  Then with blunt honesty and theological insight, Costner added: “It was this burden that made her great and the part that caused her to stumble in the end.”

To a greater or lesser degree, do we all share that burden, that fear, that insecurity that keeps telling us we’re not good enough?  A Lutheran pastor remembered a sermon all about God’s grace and how God wants so desperately to draw us into God’s love.  After the service, a young woman said on her way out, “Those were beautiful words, Pastor, but I don’t think you’d say them if you really knew me.”  How many of us, on any given day, wonder the same?  Could God possibly love us if God knew just how broken and at times dark our lives can be?

Well, our Gospel lesson for this first Sunday of Lent calls on us to “repent and believe the good news.”  Unfortunately, the word repent has become crusted over with layers of pious, guilt-ridden connotation.  What if, in place of repent, we use the term refocus.  I’m proposing that before we travel any further in our Lenten journey, we pause and refocus. As we do, the image of ourselves as “never good enough” may fade, giving way to a new self image:  that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters, and that God is pleased with us.

Oddly enough, though, we can begin to refocus our lives only when we shift the attention away from ourselves—our inadequacies, our limitations, our-less-than-robust faith—and refocus our attention on Jesus.  Put another way, we see ourselves anew only when we see ourselves in Christ.

So look first at his baptism.  Mark describes Jesus coming out of the water in language that echoes the prophet Isaiah:  “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him…” And then it happens that at Jesus’ baptism the heavens part, the Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice cries out, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  True, Jesus is unique, but he is unique because he is uniquely for us.  God’s unequivocal affirmation of Jesus as God’s beloved extends to all who through Christ are named as beloved children of God. In his letter to the Romans, Paul uses the idea of adoption to express God’s claim and love for us.  “You have received a spirit of adoption,” he writes.  “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”  Our self-image will always be distorted and blurry until we refocus and see ourselves as God sees us:  as cherished and wholly acceptable.

But if Christ’s baptism helps us refocus on God’s unconditional love for us, Jesus’ time in the wilderness sharpens our perception of God as presente with us even in life’s most challenging times.  Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark provides no details about Jesus’ time in the wilderness.  He says only that he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”  Isn’t it a mystery how one moment Jesus is basking in the divine assurance of God’s pleasure, and the next moment that same divine Spirit literally throws him out into the wilderness?  We don’t know why Jesus suddenly found himself in the wilderness facing hostile powers, but we do know that Jesus’ experience is true to life.  Every person encounters challenges, faces hardship, endures loneliness and suffers loss.

Certainly the first readers of Mark were well acquainted with suffering and hardship.  Whether these first followers of Jesus were being persecuted for their faith or merely caught up in the confusion of the Roman War that destroyed the Temple, suffer they did.  They experienced their own wilderness. Yet at the same time, just as “the angels waited on Jesus,” these early disciples were assured that God does not abandon God’s own in times of trial and testing.  With just a few words, Mark conveys his faith that no time is so dark, no crisis so grave, no danger so frightening that God’s sustaining, hope-giving presence will not be with us.

And look how Mark further emphasizes the irrepressible nature of God’s faithfulness when he tells us that Jesus began proclaiming the good news of God, after John’s arrest.  Here’s the counter intuitive way that God seems to work in the world and in our lives:  It’s often after some disappointment, failure, or crisis that we are able to refocus and claim the new life God yearns to give us.  Consider how often this theme appears in scripture: After the flood came the rainbow sign…after slavery came the exodus…after the death of King Uzziah came Isaiah’s vision and call…after the exile came the return…after John’s arrest, Jesus came proclaiming good news…after Paul threatened violence against the Christians, he experienced his conversion on the Damascus road…after the crucifixion came the resurrection.


Certainly many of us today continue this biblical litany with our own experiences:  After I was laid off my job, I learned to trust in God…after I lost my husband, I discovered inner resources I didn’t know I had…after the cancer diagnosis, I became a more compassionate human being.  Isn’t it a fact borne out by experience that the times we feel most threatened are often the times that our new life in Christ comes most clearly into focus?

Kevin Costner concluded his remarks about Whitney Houston with these words: “Whitney, if you can hear me now, you weren’t just good enough.  Despite your insecurities, ‘You were great.’  Then with his voice cracking, Costner closed his remarks saying, “When you sing before Him, don’t worry. You’ll be good enough.”

I wish Whitney Houston could have heard and trusted in that good news during her life.  I hope all of us can.  Whenever we get down on yourself, feel worthless and fundamentally “not good enough,” it’s time to refocus.  You are a beloved child of God and the God who loves you will stay with you in the wilderness and hold you fast through every test.