Mark 1:9-15 – Desert Spirituality

Welcome, friends! We begin the Christian season of Lent through recognizing that the desert is a very necessary part of resisting temptation and becoming strong in faith and patience. Click the videos below and let us together follow Jesus…

Mark 1:9-15, Pastor Tim
Advent Birmingham is a diverse group of musicians who lead worship services in song on Sundays at Cathedral Church of The Advent in Birmingham, Alabama. They also write and record modern hymns of their own and set ancient Christian hymns and songs to modern settings.

Sin is defeated. So, may we become the people we were always meant to be,
by the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Job 6:1-13 – A Response to Suffering

Job by French painter Léon Bonnat, 1880

Oh, that my grief was weighed,
    all of it were lifted in scales;
    for now it is heavier than the sands of the sea;
        therefore, my words are rash.
The Almighty’s arrows are in me;
    my spirit drinks their poison,
    and God’s terrors are arrayed against me.
Does a donkey bray over grass
    or an ox bellow over its fodder?
Is tasteless food eaten without salt,
    or does egg white have taste?
I refuse to touch them;
    they resemble food for the sick.

Oh, that what I’ve requested would come
        and God grant my hope;
    that God be willing to crush me,
    release his hand and cut me off.
I’d still take comfort,
    relieved even though in persistent pain;
        for I’ve not denied the words of the holy one.
What is my strength, that I should hope;
    my end, that my life should drag on?
Is my strength that of rocks,
    my flesh bronze?
I don’t have a helper for myself;
    success has been taken from me. (CEB)

The Old Testament character of Job is famous as the poster boy for suffering, grief, and sorrow. A divine and devilish drama was taking place behind the curtain of this world, of which Job had absolutely no clue about.  All he knew was that he lost everything – his family, his wealth, and his standing before others.  The only thing left was his own life – and he was in such physical pain and emotional agony that he was ready to die.

Yet, the greatest pain of all seems to be the silence of God. Job has no idea, nothing to grab ahold of no earthly sense of why he was going through such intense and terrible suffering. His cries, tears, pleas, and expressions of deep hurt seemingly go un-noticed. Job felt truly alone in his horrible pain of body and spirit.

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Job’s story is as old as time – probably having taken place 4,000 years ago. And here we are, all these millennia later, knowing the story of why Job suffered, as well as the end of the story. But Job himself never knew why he suffered, even when God spoke and restored his health and wealth.

It is so extremely easy and normal to ask the question, “Why!?”  When we are in the throes of emotional pain and our prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling, there is only trust left for us. We do what is unthinkable to others who have never known God – place our complete reliance and hope on the God for whom we know is not really sleeping or off on a vacation. We believe, even know, God is there. For whatever reasons which we might never know this side of heaven, God chooses to remain silent.

The genuineness of faith is not determined by giving the right answers to a theology questionnaire. Genuine faith is made strong through the trials, sufferings, pain, and lack of understanding in this life. We all suffer in some way. How we choose to respond to that suffering, either by cursing God and becoming bitter, or holding to God even tighter and becoming better, is totally up to you and me.

God of all creation, you see and survey all your creatures here on this earth. Sometimes I just do not understand what in the world you are doing or not doing. Yet today I choose to put my faith, hope, and love in you.  I may not know what the heck I am doing, but you always work to accomplish your good purposes, through Jesus Christ, my Savior, along with the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Psalm 102:12-28 – God Hears

But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever;
    your name endures to all generations.
You will rise up and have compassion on Zion,
    for it is time to favor it;
    the appointed time has come.
For your servants hold its stones dear,
    and have pity on its dust.
The nations will fear the name of the Lord,
    and all the kings of the earth your glory.
For the Lord will build up Zion;
    he will appear in his glory.
He will regard the prayer of the destitute,
    and will not despise their prayer.

Let this be recorded for a generation to come,
    so that a people yet unborn may praise the Lord:
that he looked down from his holy height,
    from heaven the Lord looked at the earth,
to hear the groans of the prisoners,
    to set free those who were doomed to die;
so that the name of the Lord may be declared in Zion,
    and his praise in Jerusalem,
when peoples gather together,
    and kingdoms, to worship the Lord.

He has broken my strength in midcourse;
    he has shortened my days.
“O my God,” I say, “do not take me away
    at the midpoint of my life,
you whose years endure
    throughout all generations.”

Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you endure;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
You change them like clothing, and they pass away;
    but you are the same, and your years have no end.
The children of your servants shall live secure;
    their offspring shall be established in your presence. (NRSV)

When you are destitute and hurting, it is easy to feel alone, as if no one really understands. The healthy, the wealthy, and the powerful do not often take notice of the needy. Whether in chronic pain, constantly dealing with sickness, continually drowning in bills, laboring long hours in obscurity with little pay, or all of them at the same time, there is good news: God specializes in such situations.

Contrary to popular characterizations of the Old Testament, God is merciful, gracious, and kind. The dominant motif is not a God of wrath but a God of steadfast love – a God who makes and keeps promises to people. God’s wrath is reserved for those who have the power and privilege to care for others, but instead, fleeces them of what little they possess.

This was the situation for the psalmist. He had no idea why he was the victim – he just knew he needed God.  So, he turned to the Lord – trusting that God is good for his promises – knowing that God will be attentive to the great needs of his life.

It is interesting there is no wonderful or miraculous answer to the psalmist’s plea to God recorded for us. There is only pain, petition, trust, and hope.

Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, all we have is faith, hope, and love. Yet, and I am just throwing out a notion to consider, if we possess these three virtues, we are the ones who are healthy, rich, and strong.

The Lord’s eyes watch the righteous, and his ears listen to their cries for help.

psalm 34:15, ceb

God is attentive to your prayer. God hears you when you adopt this psalm for yourself and pray it with fervor and flavor. The lack of immediate Divine intervention does not necessarily mean God overlooks a person’s situation. It just means the Lord is planning something supremely spectacular for you. 

To pray in a time of trouble is to dwell in the presence of God. To be in the presence of God is to find an answer to prayer you might not have been looking for to begin with. God hears. God will respond… in the proper time.

O God Almighty, sovereign of all, and the One in whom is my hope: Help!  I pray to you alone.  I know you bend your ear to pay attention, so hear my prayer for mercy in the middle of my hardship.  You are always the same, even though everything and everyone else changes.  Be my rock in a time of trouble; in Jesus, through the enablement of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

All I Want for Christmas Is Faith

Annunciation to Mary by Salvador Dali, 1965

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David.  The virgin’s name was Mary.  The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored!  The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.  But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.  You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.  Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month.  For nothing is impossible with God.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered.  “May it be to me as you have said.”  Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:26-38, NIV)

Most of life is lived in the mundane, even in a time of pandemic. For the most part our everyday lives involve going about our business and dealing with the daily grind. That is because we are common ordinary people. So, we can especially relate to Mary because she is quite plain. 

To put Mary’s life in our contemporary vernacular, at the time of this encounter with the angel, she is of junior high age but has never attended school. She wears mostly clothes from Goodwill, and occasionally can get some from Wal-Mart. She cannot read because girls of her day rarely did. Her parents make all the decisions that affect her life, including the one that she should be married to an older man named Joseph. We do not know if she even liked him. She lives in a small town that most people cannot point to on a map. 

One night, into the bedroom of this young girl comes the brightly beaming divine messenger Gabriel whose name means, “God has shown himself mighty.” Mary stands there in her ratty old flannel nightgown, her life very quickly moving from the ordinary to the extraordinary. The juxtaposition could not be more pronounced:  a mighty angel and a plain teen-ager; a messenger of the Most High God and a girl barely past puberty; a holy angelic light which beams in a simple candlelit bedroom; an awesome power encountering complete vulnerability.

Annunciation by Mexican painter Angel Zárraga (1886-1946)

Mary, compared to Gabriel, is defenseless, fragile, and overwhelmed. She is in way over her head. That is why we can relate to her. We can get our human arms around Mary. She is like us. She has faced life with little power to make it turn out the way she planned. Forces beyond her have rearranged her life and altered it forever. She is the Matron Saint of the Ordinary. We can totally understand why Mary responds the way she does.

Mary’s initial reaction was to be “greatly troubled.”  She was disturbed and shaking in her hand-me-down slippers. The angel confidently told Mary that she had found favor with God. In other words, Mary was literally “graced” by God. The situation was not that Mary had some extreme spirituality, but that God simply chose her to be the mother of Jesus. And Mary needed to come to grips with what was happening to her.  This was well beyond anything she could have expected.  Becoming pregnant with the Savior of the world was not even remotely on her radar. 

Mary immediately sensed the crazy disconnect between what was being told to her and who she was. After all, she was a plain ordinary girl from the hick town of Nazareth and was being told that she would raise a king.  Maybe somebody in heaven screwed up. Maybe Gabriel got the wrong girl. Maybe his Google map sent Gabriel on a wild goose chase. Relating to Mary, we can totally understand that she would question how in the world all this was going to happen.  Not only is Mary ordinary and far from royalty, but she is also very much a virgin.  Nothing about any of this made any sense.

But the angel let Mary know that God specializes in the impossible. English translators chose to phrase the original rendering of Gabriel’s words as “for nothing is impossible with God.” I rather prefer the more literal translation which is “for there is nothing outside of God’s power.” To me, that is beautiful. There is nowhere we can go, no place on earth, no situation whatsoever that is beyond God’s ability and reach to affect divine power.

We do not always get straightforward answers to our questions about God, but Mary asked a question and got a straight answer: She really can be pregnant with Jesus because the Holy Spirit will come upon her, will overshadow her with power. If the story were to end there it would be a great story. But to me the most astonishing part of the narrative is Mary’s response to what was happening to her.

Mary believed the message and submitted herself completely to God’s will. I think we would completely understand if Mary simply said in her ordinary way that she was not prepared for this. We would totally “get it” if Mary pushed back on what the angel said to her. We could relate if Mary just dismissed the angel’s presence, like Scrooge in the Christmas Carol, as if Gabriel were just “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

Yet, Mary not only believed; she also humbly submitted herself to what was happening. And this is what I believe we need to relate to most about Mary – not her being just a plain ordinary person in a non-descript village but stepping up to the calling she received. We, too, have received a calling in our lives. We, too, have been given the power of the Holy Spirit.  We, too, are ordinary people who have been given a very extraordinary task. 

Our response today can be the same as Mary: “I am the Lord’s servant; may it be to me as you have said.” The Church is pregnant with possibilities because of the Holy Spirit. We know the end of Mary’s story. She gave birth to Jesus. She raised him in her plain ordinary way. She watched him grow up. She saw him embark on his ministry to proclaim the kingdom of God has become near. Mary did not always understand what Jesus said or what he was doing. And she experienced every mother’s nightmare in seeing her beloved son killed in a terribly gruesome manner right in front of her eyes. 

Yet, just as the Holy Spirit was with the birth of Jesus, so the Spirit was with Jesus at his resurrection from the dead. Jesus lived an ordinary life in a very extraordinary way. Furthermore, today Jesus invites us to do the same. Because Christ accomplished his mission of saving people from their sins and establishing a kingdom that will never end, he has given us the same Holy Spirit to follow him forever and call other people to follow him, too. 

To trust and obey is God’s only way to live into the life of Jesus. The Christian life may often be difficult, but it is not complicated. It is rather simple, just like Mary. Mary responded to God’s revelation with faith, choosing to fully participate in what God was doing. “I am the Lord’s servant” is our confession, as well. Along with Mary we declare, “May it be to me as you have said.”