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Knee Deep

Mark 1:9-15

February 22, 2015

Sermon preached by Rev. Donald Ng at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco.

Today, “Temptation” can be the name for a particularly rich chocolate dessert. “Temptation” is a packaged weekend getaway to somewhere we’ll be pampered. The idea of maintaining discipline in the face of temptation and that God will help us with his grace when we’re tempted has giving way to temptation that affects our waistline or our entertainment budget or maybe even committing to something immoral and dishonest. Temptation used to be a term for some serious challenge to the wellbeing of our spiritual life.

Today is the First Sunday in Lent after Ash Wednesday this past week. In this season of the year, we focus on the sin that we may have committed as the result of giving into temptation.

We begin with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry—his baptism by John in the Jordan. From the beginning, the church taught that baptism washes away our sin. Baptism changes us and is a sign of our transformation from the propensity to commit sin to a life turned toward Christ and his righteousness.

Yet quite early, the church faced a problem. Even after baptism, the baptized still sinned, still gave into temptation. It seemed disappointing that those who had been adopted into God’s family, those who have had their sins forgiven, still continued in their sin. In a number of places in Paul’s letters he struggles with how it can be that those who have received such a gift from God, signified in baptism, should still “remain in sin,” as Paul put it.

I can still remember vividly as it was yesterday that when I was baptized at my home church in Boston as a youth that I realized the next day, I still had sinful thoughts. I still was tempted to sin. I read Paul’s words like they were mine, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19).

Lent

This was in part the reason for the creation of the church season of Lent. This season of penitence gave an opportunity for the faithful to deal with the perplexing problem of post-baptismal sin. In a sense, the entire 40 days of Lent is an opportunity for each of us to remember your baptism and be thankful as is said in the service of baptism.

Our church has not had a tradition to observe Ash Wednesday. In the 17 years that I have been with you, we have never had an Ash Wednesday service. It may be our loss that we have not fully embraced this aspect of the Christian life. You have seen people with ashes on their foreheads or on the back of their hands. Traditionally, the ashes come from the burning of the palm leaves used last year on Palm Sunday.

Ashes are a biblical sign of repentance and are therefore a fitting way to begin this season of confession, introspection, and repentance. Jonah preached repentance at Nineveh, and when Nineveh responded—the whole population, in sackcloth, sat in ashes (Jon. 3:5-9). At the end of all of his troubles, Job repents before God with dust and ashes (Job 42:6). Jeremiah tells Israel to repent by putting on sackcloth and rolling in ashes (Jer. 6:26). Jesus told the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, Tyre, and Sidon that they would be punished for their unwillingness to put on ashes and turn to God (Mt. 11:21).

Ashes are associated with repentance and mourning because ashes are connected with death. Ashes are signs of how fragile and transitional our lives really are. God tells Adam that he will die: “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” Lent reminds us that life is short. Beside the grave we say the words, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

As Chinese, we never want to talk about death and dying especially in the New Year season that we are in. My Mom would always tell me to go and wash out my mouth. We say, “Here’s a big lisee for you.” But when it comes to the church, we talk about it because if we don’t, we would not be proclaiming the full gospel. We talk about ashes because it’s appropriate in Lent.

Honesty about our sin and our finitude, our mortality and moral frailty, is an awareness that we do almost anything to avoid. We work out, we eat yogurt, we put on makeup, we have these little phrases like, “If anything happens to me…” or “If I die unexpectedly,” in our attempt to avoid the ultimate imposition, which is death. Of course, it is going to happen to you. It happens to all of us!

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There are always less people at church on the First Sunday in Lent than on Easter Sunday. We just don’t like to think that we are dust, and that the dust of our sin stands between us and God.

Lent reminds us, imposes upon us, that unpleasant fact that we expend a great deal of time, money, and effort doing anything to avoid the fact that we are dust. We are fallen, and we can’t get up on our own. There is no way that we can stabilize ourselves by ourselves, and make ourselves always permanent. It’s at Lent is when the church imposes or puts on the ashes on our foreheads so that we might think about our sin.

And so we come to church, and we impose not only ashes on ourselves, but we impose another great truth. Even in our dust, in the ashes that we are, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Christ comes and shares our humanity, including our human pain and our human death. He stands with us, knee-deep in our mortality, dust to dust, ashes to ashes, that he might save us and bring us closer to God.

Sin

Sin is our alienation from God. But God created us, continually cares for us, and reaches out to us. God wants the best for each of us. And how do we respond? We respond to God with rebellion, disobedience, pride-filled arrogance, and a host of other ways in which we attempt to be gods unto ourselves.

And what does God do in response? God would be thoroughly justified in eternally punishing us for our disobedience. And yet God’s response to us, according to scripture, is eternally loving us. And that is the truth that one finds behind today’s gospel.

Jesus is baptized by John in the River Jordan. From the first, followers of Jesus had trouble with this story. You can almost feel some of the discomfort here in Mark’s account of the baptism. John preached a “remission of sins.” Baptism quite naturally represented the forgiveness of sin. We all know that water cleanses.

And we know that Jews from this period routinely practiced ritual washings to purify themselves for certain high moments. Even today, Orthodox Jews practice ritual washing.

So what is Jesus—who has been introduced to us in the first sentence of Mark’s gospel as Messiah and the Son of God—doing participating in a ritual in which sin must be washed away? What sin has he committed or will ever commit for which he needs baptism? Even John the Baptist appears to be puzzled by the appearance of Jesus at the riverbank.

I believe that Mark wants us to see the baptism of Jesus as a foreshadowing, a preview of Jesus’ whole ministry. He will be God’s Son, but he will not act as we expected the Messiah to act. Standing knee-deep in the Jordan water, Jesus stands in solidarity with the sinners he comes to save from sin. He will not save us from on high, merely reaching down to us. He will—in a real sense—get down in the water with us. He will stand shoulder to shoulder with us. He will save us by becoming one of us. Not necessarily one of us in the sense that he is a sinner with us, but rather one of us in the sense that he loves and saves sinners.

Boy Scouts

While I was never a Boy Scout, I heard that one can earn a life saving merit badge in the water. When you see someone having difficulty in the water, don’t get in the water with the person. Throw a life ring or flotation device to them. Reach to them with a long pole or rope. Only as the very last resort do you get in to the water with them.  Why? Because drowning people tend to drown their saviors. A person who is going under the water for the third time becomes desperate, panics, and climbs on top of anything in order to get out of the water. Sometimes they will climb on the top of the person attempting to help them.

This is a parable for today’s lesson. Jesus has come to save us—saves us from ourselves, saves us for God and God’s coming reign. But he will not save us from the safety of the riverbank. Rather, he wades into the water with us. Jesus is not a Boy Scout going for a merit a badge. He risks not only the swirling currents that surround us but he risks saving us. Even knowing that we perishing people tend to destroy our saviors, Jesus risks saving people like us. He gets into the water with us knee deep. In his baptism, he shows the lengths that he will go in order to save us.

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Different from the gospels of Matthew and Luke, where the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is described in details, here in Mark, the writer gives only two verses. This seems to suggest that temptation is a part and parcel of what it means to be human—even as the Son of Man felt it himself. From Mark’s gospel, we move immediately to leave behind temptation to get on with the tasks at hand.

Churches have often dwelled on the issue of sin and temptation in the attempt to encourage people to repentance. Shouldn’t we rehearse our bad deeds, rend our garments, confess our sins with trepidation, and wait anxiously to see whether God is going to strike us down for our failures? Should we not beat ourselves up, even if just a little bit like wearing sackcloth and rolling in ashes, so that just maybe we won’t ever be tempted to do it again, whatever “it” was?

Today, the good news is what if the answer is no? What if we are supposed to speed “immediately” past even the times that we have done wrong, or failed to do what is right—not because they aren’t important, but because they aren’t ultimately important?

The gospels provide us with plenty of opportunity to reflect on sin and temptation, including the invitation to chop off offending hands and pluck out wandering eyes! We have to see those teachings in the context of God’s forgiveness and love. Surely our life’s story is not meant to focus on how bad we are, but on how good God is. Rather than dwelling on the rough places in our faith journey, perhaps we need to do just what Mark has done, to speed on past them. We are forgiven to move forward to do God’s work.

We get these 40 days (actually 36 days left) of Lent—still a lot of days—in which to prepare our hearts and minds for the work of Holy Week and Easter. I don’t mean going out to buy a ham for Easter dinner. We have 40 days to focus on the meaning of Jesus’ life, and the way the people of his time treated him, and the horror of his death and the nearly immeasurable glory and grace of the Resurrection.

We have 40 days or actually 36 days remaining to face the ways we respond to temptation. We have 36 days to think about the way we manage to ignore God in our day-to-day lives. We have 36 days left to confront the wild beasts in our own lives, and 36 days to give thanks for the angels who minister to us.

You know that I can’t make you to do any of this. It’s hard work to confront ourselves. We have a propensity to avoid dealing with sin and temptation. But today I’m asking you to try. We don’t have to go hungry or thirsty. But we do have to be willing to go into the desert of the spirit where Jesus is standing in the waters of our baptism knee-deep.

This story will end after 40 days not in the refreshing water of a life-giving river, but rather on a death on the hill called Calvary. We know the risk Jesus is taking when he wades in the waters of baptism knee-deep to be with us.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, we walk with you during these 40 days of Lent, confronting some hard realities. If it were not for you telling us, we would avoid the truth about ourselves. We have good intentions, but we fail to live as we intend. We want to be courageous and faithful, but when the going gets rough and our faith is put on the line, we’re all cowards.

We have a storehouse of hidden desires, evil intentions, and hurtful thoughts. The only way we would dare to walk this path during Lent, this path of honesty and confession, is from the knowledge that you will be with us. We thank you that you did not leave us alone with our devices, desires, and sinful intent. You came to us, you stood in solidarity with us, you were tempted and you suffered as we are tempted and we must suffer. All this you did for us and our salvation.

We gather to worship this day, and we walk this truthful Lenten way, only because you walk with us. In Christ, we are thankful. Amen.

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