Monday, February 23, 2015

Sermon on Mark 1:9-15, for the 1st Sunday in Lent, "Victory in Him!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In relatively short order, in 7 verses, the reading you heard from the Gospel of Mark outlines an important series of events when Jesus first came on the scene publicly, to preach and teach in the land of Israel 2,000 years ago. Jesus’ is baptized in the Jordan River by His cousin John the Baptist. God the Father speaks His approval over Jesus; the Holy Spirit appears at Jesus’ baptism—a miraculous and clear revelation of the Trinity—that God is Three in One—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And after these momentous events, Jesus is immediately propelled into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. And forty days later, John has been thrown into prison, and Jesus carries on the ministry, telling people to turn away from sin, and believe in the gospel—the good news of the kingdom of God. Mark throws a whole lot at us at once, and to unpack what it all means would be beyond our time here. And it’s all surprisingly brief in description, where the other gospels provide much more detail.
But let’s just stop and notice what Mark is emphasizing. What is he trying to get across about Jesus? First of all, at Jesus’ baptism, God Himself spoke aloud His approval, over Jesus His Son. The Baptism of Jesus signals us immediately, who Jesus is, and how He stands with God. He is God’s beloved Son, with whom the Father is well-pleased. There is no guessing about it, from the reader’s perspective, even though His followers through those next three years, struggled to “get it.” Jesus proved to have great patience in unfolding for His disciples who He was. And He did not primarily rely on flashy miracles and actions as a way of proving it. Humility and compassion marked His ministry through and through. But Mark tells us right from the beginning, this is the Son of God.
So Mark wants to highlight God’s approval for Jesus, but then as soon as Jesus is out of the water, the Holy Spirit drives Him out into the wilderness to be tempted. God’s public approval of Jesus at His baptism was not followed by a “red-carpet treatment”, but a forty day long ordeal with temptation by the devil. Jesus was spared no difficulty, but was immediately “put through the wringer”, as they say. The Bible tells us part of the reason why Jesus was tempted this way—it was so that we would have One who stood in our place in every way, even enduring temptation—yet He remained without sin.
So Jesus’ ministry began with struggle and temptation, and all the way to His death on the cross, it remained a struggle—a clash between Him and the devil, and all the spiritual forces that opposed Him. But the ultimate message, the good news, in Mark’s Gospel and in all the New Testament, is that Jesus won that struggle and that He won the battle. He is victorious over the devil and his schemes. Yet the struggle remains very much alive and real for Christians today. Not unlike Jesus, we can count on the fact that if we are baptized into Jesus, and become His disciples—His followers—that we too will enter into a struggle. If we have been marked on our foreheads with the Name of God, for our blessing and for our good—this makes one angry enemy for us out of the devil. And the Bible tells us that he prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. The devil is hungry for our failure, for our isolation from God, for an opportunity to make us fall.
“Temptation” is the word for the devil’s efforts to do that. To trip us up, make us stumble or fall. But you’re more likely to hear the word “temptation” on a commercial, or restaurant menu selling chocolate desserts, than you are likely to hear it describing a real and dangerous struggle between good and evil, right and wrong. You’re more likely to think of Halloween costumes and silly cartoons when you hear the word “devil”—than you are to think of a prowling lion ready to pounce. So this raises some important questions for us—is temptation really a serious struggle between good and evil, that has real and lasting consequences? Or is life a mainly neutral playing field, where the consequences of our actions are only here and now, and not beyond? The Bible’s view, of course, is that temptation is real and serious.
Our reading from James gives some key pointers about temptation. God is never the one who tempts us. God cannot and will not give into evil. But the real source of temptation starts with our own desires. Wrong desires in our heart grow into sin, and sin when fully grown turns into death. God’s Word informs us that sins’ consequences are real and deadly, and that it all starts with something as seemingly harmless as our own desires. We want something that we can’t have, but take it anyway. Or we do wrong to get something that could have been ours by honest and upright effort. But the end result is pain, sadness, broken lives and relationships, and finally, death. Sin brings forth death.
When I think of how the world makes light of temptation, an old popular song comes to mind: “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.” The song seems to suggest that right and wrong are just a matter of how you feel—something totally personal and subjective. We hear that all the time in the TV shows and movies we watch, in the music we listen to, etc. But is it true? The Bible represents an opposite view—that things that I do are not good or bad based on how it makes me feel—but whether or not they violate God’s standard of right and wrong. Not my personal standard or your personal standard, or even society’s standard—but what God’s Word says. And even for people who have no belief in God, that knowledge of right and wrong is written on our hearts. We can’t deny that we know the difference between right and wrong just because we haven’t read the Bible or we don’t know the 10 Commandments. Every person has that basic knowledge of right and wrong. Every person knows that murder, dishonesty, theft, etc are wrong. Only by covering up that knowledge or ignoring it do we convince ourselves otherwise. When people live by the philosophy that you should just do whatever makes you happy, without consideration of others a whole lot of people will end up hurt and wronged. Of course the devil would be totally pleased if we make light of him and of temptation, and don’t keep ourselves on guard. If we let our guard down, that makes us easy prey.
If that philosophy of life is all about being turned inside on yourself—living the way your feelings steer you—Jesus’ points us to a totally different way of life. Life turned outside ourselves, to focus on Jesus and the needs of others. One of Jesus’ primary teachings sums up this outward-turning perspective—“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Following Jesus isn’t a matter of a “philosophy of life”—as though you had to be an intellectual to understand it. Rather Jesus says He is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Following Him is walking the path after our Leader. He is the Way. It’s putting our trust in the One whom God approves. To follow Jesus is to trust the One who has walked our road, who stared down the temptations of the devil and didn’t cave in. Jesus’ struggle against temptation began in the wilderness, but lasted till the cross. But after Jesus died, He emerged from His tomb alive again—declaring His victory over death. Following Jesus is not a philosophy of life—it is the Way to Life. He is the Life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him.  
Day by day we live in the midst of very real struggles and temptations. I don’t need to tell you that life is not always easy. We face good and bad choices all the time, and we face situations all the time where there is a temptation to do evil. Moreover our children also face those choices and we have to help teach them to make good ones. Temptation might not even look that bad at first—it might even make us happy in the short run. But the Bible warns us that the outcome of sin is finally death.
So how are we going to win that day by day struggle against temptation? Is God keeping score, checking your batting average, and only those with the best scores get in? Is it all on you? The Good News—the Christian Gospel is this—that the victory over sin, over temptation, over the devil—that victory is in Jesus Christ! He has won the victory for us. He has conquered these things. Not so that we can merely sit on the sidelines and cheer, and never engage in the battle, but that we can enter the battle, enter the struggle between right and wrong, confident of victory, not because of us or our strength, but because that victory is already in Jesus’ hands. In Jesus’ nail-pierced hands that bear a permanent reminder of His love for you.
The Good News is that the victory that we have is through Jesus Christ our Lord. Anything that depends on my efforts, on your efforts, and our incomplete and tattered score of successes and failures—anything that depends on that is bound to fail. But Jesus’ record is sterling. It is perfect. He endured to the end; faithful even to His death, and God raised Him from the dead, showing that God is greater even than death. The Good News is that everything depends on Him. Our salvation, our hope, our future rests on Jesus and Him alone. There is nothing we can take credit for or do that will earn our way into God’s favor. But Jesus has done all for us.
And He calls us into the fray, calls us into life to venture bold and great things for the cause of good, and for the good of our neighbor. And for all the struggles and failures that you will experience along the way, you need to hear again these words. The first words of Jesus’ public teaching that Mark’s short account records: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.” In Jesus, God’s kingdom is at hand. Turn away from sin, and believe in the good news that Jesus is our total victory over sin and temptation. Put your trust in Him and follow! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      Mark is the shortest of the Gospels in the New Testament, and is known for his fast-paced and condensed narrative. Read Mark 1:9-15. What events of Jesus’ early ministry are compressed into these 7 verses? When Jesus is baptized, how is the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, revealed? How is the Trinity present in our baptism? Matthew 28:18-20
2.      God spoke His approval over Jesus at His baptism. When else did God speak His approval over Jesus? Mark 9:2-9. Where did God send Jesus after this announcement of approval? Mark 1:12-13. Why did God want Jesus to endure temptation? Hebrews 4:14-16. Read Matthew 4:1-11 for a longer account of how Jesus faced the temptation of the devil.
3.      The Christian’s victory over sin comes not by our individual “scorecard” of battles won, but by the victory of Jesus Christ. In baptism we share in Christ’s crucifixion, but also His resurrection (Rom. 6). What can we anticipate facing as Christians, when we follow Jesus? Mark 8:34-38. How does being joined with Christ make the devil our enemy? 1 Peter 5:6-11. Who fights for us and holds the victory?
4.      How do we minimize or “pooh-pooh” temptation today? Or the devil? How are good and evil clearly present today, and how can you tell the difference between them?
5.      Does the Bible take a serious view of temptation? James 1:12-15. What are the seemingly “small beginnings” of sin? Cf. Matthew 5:22, 28; 15:17-19.
6.      To follow Jesus is to place our trust in the One who has conquered all for us, and in Him we have full victory—even though we wait for the full glory of His kingdom to be unveiled. When we struggle with personal temptation we look to Him for His strength and victory. How does this change your confidence and resolve as you face the challenges of life? How does it prepare you to “take up your cross” and follow Jesus?

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