For the Love
First United Presbyterian Church
“For the love”
Rev. Amy Morgan
February 18, 2018
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him,
9 "As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you,
10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.
11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth."
12 God said, "This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations:
13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds,
15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.
16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth."
17 God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth."
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,
15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news."
Love is a disruptive force.
As I experienced my first Valentine’s Day here in the Sweetheart City this past week, I couldn’t help but feel the stark contrast between the way love is commercialized for this holiday and the way we actually experience love. Hearts, candy, and flowers, dinner and candlelight, joy and happiness abound in Loveland on Valentine’s Day.
But for most of us most of the time, this is not how love feels. Perhaps that’s why we designate this one day out of the year to try to manufacture this experience of love. It’s an ideal we grasp at for the other 364 days and can only obtain on February 14th.
Love, whether it is romantic, familial, or neighborly, is a disruptive force. It tears our world apart.
Just think about the idioms we have for love. We fall in love. Like falling off a cliff. Or falling on ice and breaking your wrist. It doesn’t make me think of roses and chocolate, unless someone is bringing them to me in the hospital. We say that we’re head over heels in love. That means we are upside-down. Things are not right in our world. In fact, they’re completely messed up. Even sweet, young, tender love is called – a crush. Not pleasant.
As I mused on our scripture reading for this morning, however, I encountered an experience of love that resonates more closely with those other 364 days of the year. Jesus comes “from Nazareth in Galilee,” a third-rate village in a second-class province of Judea and rubs elbows with the big city folk of Jerusalem, the religious elite of Judea, the ones cool enough to follow the rock-star hipster John the Baptist into the waters of the Jordan. What Mark’s gospel is trying to alert us to here is that Jesus could not be more unlovable. He’s a person nobody cares about from a place nobody cares about.
And then, Jesus is baptized, and as he comes up out of the water, the heavens are torn apart, and the voice of God tells him be is loved, he is delightful.
Now, that’s an image of love I can relate to.
To be loved is the greatest of human longings, and when that longing is met, it doesn’t feel sweet and gooey. It feels like something has been torn apart. Everything is up-ended, out of place, totally undone. Love creates chaos. It undoes us and remakes us.
The gospel of Mark uses this verb for tearing apart exactly twice. Here, when the heavens are torn apart. And when Jesus dies on the cross, and the curtain in the temple is torn apart. In both instances, the barrier between heaven and earth, God and humanity, is ruptured. God’s love for the world does that. It destroys anything that would keep us apart.
Perhaps God is the “something” that doesn’t love a wall in Robert Frost’s poem “The Mending Wall,” thwarting the adage “good fences make good neighbors.” What makes good neighbors is love, and love tears the heavens apart to be with us.
And in that love, we fall, we are head over heels, we are crushed. Without our walls, our barriers, our dividing lines between heaven and earth, secular and sacred, you and me, we are in strange and unfamiliar territory. Nothing is as it was, and we don’t yet know what will be. We are in the wilderness.
In the wilderness, there are no walls, no curtains protecting the holy of holies. Love disrupts our neatly ordered existence and pushes us out into a liminal space, a place of transformation.
Mark’s gospel tells us Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness with the wild animals, being tempted by Satan and assisted by angels. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, this temptation period is detailed, and the specific temptations and retorts are described. But Mark, in his sparse account, still offers us plenty of layered meaning.
First, there is the time span of 40, recalling the 40 days the waters of the flood covered the earth before God made a covenant with Noah. It also parallels the Israelites’ 40 years in the wilderness and the 40 days Moses spent on Mt. Sinai receiving the law of God. All of these are periods of liminality, in-betweenness. Something old must end for something new to emerge.
Jesus cannot go back to being a nobody from nowhere. He is the beloved Son of God. But he is not yet certain what that means, how to live into that identity.
Love does that. It thrusts us into a liminal space, a wilderness where we must let go of who we no longer can be – someone who is unlovable – and sort out who we are becoming - a person who is loved.
Being in this space is always a crisis. Parts of our old, unloved self no longer fit with being beloved. We might have to let go of some of the people we pretended to be to try to get people to love us. We might have to let go of some of the things we used to do to try to get people to love us. We might have to give up attitudes about ourselves or others that offered us protection and shelter when we felt unlovable.
Tearing down the barrier between two people, tearing down the wall between neighbors, tearing apart the boundary between God and humanity, leaves us with uncertainty about where we end and the other begins. We are vulnerable, pervious, unprotected. Our whole sense of self, our autonomy, is in jeopardy.
In this wilderness, Jesus, we are told, is “with the wild beasts.” Throughout scripture, wild beasts are a classic apocalyptic reference. We find four great beasts in Daniel’s apocalyptic vision, and John’s Revelation describes a great beast and the misery it inflicts on the world. In both instances, these beasts serve as metaphors for unjust empires and rulers.
So when Mark tells us Jesus was in the wilderness with the wild animals, the implication is that Jesus has begun to wrangle with the powers and principalities, the oppressive social systems, that dominate this world. There are no barriers to separate these wild beasts, these earthly powers, from the destructive force of love.
In the wilderness we are driven into by love, we must contend with the dissonance between the values of the one who loves us, the values of the commonwealth of heaven, and the values of empire, the powers and rulers that have governed our lives, established walls and barriers to God’s love in this world. It is an unsettling and dangerous journey, traversing a wilderness filled with these wild beasts.
Not only must Jesus contend with these wild beasts in the wilderness, but he must also be tempted by Satan. At this point in the Jewish tradition, Satan was not a devil with a pitchfork, or even a fallen angel. Satan was understood to be a member of the heavenly council, a sort of prosecuting attorney on behalf of God. God would dispatch Satan from the heavenly courtroom to test the faithfulness, assess the depth of trust, of folks like Job and, here, Jesus.
God does not leave him completely on his own as he struggles with wild beasts and faces the temptations of Satan. He is waited upon by angels, heavenly beings who do God’s bidding. They support Jesus through this time of trial.
Jesus emerges from his wilderness journey with a message: “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe in the good news.” Love has destroyed the barrier between heaven and earth, God and humanity. That is good news. And that good news has consequences.
In Greek, the word translated as repent means, literally, to change one’s mind. This term has taken on over the centuries feelings of remorse and sorrow and guilt. But all we must do to traverse the wilderness is change our minds. It’s as simple as that. And, as you probably know if you’ve ever changed your mind about anything, it’s incredibly difficult.
The destructive force of love, and the wilderness chaos it creates, changes us. That’s what Jesus experienced at his baptism.
And that is our experience as well. Each of us, in our baptism, is named as a beloved child of God. We may not experience this at the time, especially if we were baptized as young children. But each and every year, in this season of Lent, we are invited to recall that force of God’s love that tore apart the heavens to be with us. We are invited into the borderless, wilderness journey that love precipitates. And we are invited, through that journey, to be changed, to change our minds, to repent.
What must change in this wilderness is different for each one of us. That is why Lent is also a time of self-examination and reflection. A time for each of us, individually, to consider, if there is no barrier between me and God, no wall between me and my neighbor, how does that change me? What patterns of behavior, like the yearly mending of the wall, must change? What patterns of thought, like caring more about tradition than friendship, must change?
Change is not easy. We must contend with wild animals, conflicting values. We must be tried and tested in order to change.
But this is what love requires. Not candy and chocolates and candlelight. Change.
Change, repentance, is what we need, as individuals, and as a community, and as a nation. This is what we need so that we can emerge from the wilderness to experience and witness to the good news of God’s reign in this world, the good news that God’s love has destroyed anything that would separate us from God and from one another.
I cannot finish without addressing the tragedy that took place in a Florida high school this week. No matter what your political persuasion or your opinion about guns, we are all heartbroken. We are all horrified, once again. We are all exhausted and frustrated and angry.
I will not offer from this pulpit, my policy recommendations or specifics on what changes are needed. But I will lift up how this tragedy, and all the others like it, tear us apart. Because we love our children. We love our fellow citizens. We love humanity. The wild beasts that allow this cycle of violence to continue, whatever you identify those worldly powers to be, must be dealt with. We must change our minds, we must repent, we must be transformed as a nation, for the love of God and the love of humanity. To do nothing, to change nothing, is to deny that God’s kingdom has come near. To do nothing, to change nothing, is to mend the wall between God and humanity, between us and our fellow humans. Whatever you think the solution is, do something about it. If you think there is no solution, repent, and change.
God has torn apart the heavens for the love of us. May this love send us into a wilderness journey that will change us so that we can be believers and bearers of good news in a world that desperately needs to hear it. Amen.