Sunday, February 26, 2012

Lent: Humble Beginnings

Inspiration for this sermon comes from The Rev. Susan Gamelin. The story behind "Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation" figures prominently in it as well, and I am glad I stumbled upon their story.

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Genesis 9:8-17
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 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. 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.” 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: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 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. 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.” 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.”

1 Peter 3:18-22
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

Mark 1:9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 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. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

This is the first Sunday in Lent, when we begin the humble journey to the Cross with Jesus, and beyond the Cross to the Resurrection.

And make no mistake, this is a humble journey. Sure, Jesus gains amazing amounts of popularity, his fame grows exponentially when he casts out the demon and heals Peter’s mother-in-law in Capernaum, and when he touches and cleanses the leper in Galilee, but where he starts out could hardly have been more humble.

It hasn’t been all that long ago, just the second Sunday in January, when we talked about the baptism of Jesus. We imagined a pastoral scene like in the movies, with Jeffery Hunter playing Jesus and a nice amber backlight to add a holy glow when the dove descended and the violins swelled behind a deep booming voice-of-God with a Shakespearian accent…

But let’s be honest. The Jordan was little more than a creek at this point, hardly deep enough for a good dunking, all brown and muddy. And when Jesus stood up out of that water, gasping for air, looking up to see the heavens ripped asunder and the Holy Spirit flying down on him… well… he’s the only one who saw it.

Everyone else, all those people on the banks waiting their turn with John the Baptist? Lost in their own conversations, perhaps. Updating their FaceBook statuses. Whatever the case, no one else noticed Jesus, or participated in the theophany with him.

And this same Spirit that fell on Jesus like a dove then drove Jesus from the water, drove him! “Hurry, go! Get a move on, dude, hurry! Time’s a wastin’, GO!” But the Spirit did not drive Jesus to address the Great Sanhedrin, or demand an audience with Herod Antipas or Caesar Tiberius, not even compel him to begin preaching the Good News! The Spirit drove Jesus out into the middle of nowhere, and didn’t even give him time to pack a lunch.

Forty days later, after being tempted by Satan, living with wild animals, and being taken care of by angels, finally Jesus began his ministry.

But he doesn’t go to downtown Jerusalem, stand on the top step at the entrance of the Temple, and start shouting. He still doesn’t address the Sanhedrin or demand an audience with Antipas or Tiberius. He goes instead to Galilee. He continues what is still a humble journey.

That’s like a Presidential candidate having the full backing of whichever of the two major parties you want to pick, hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign funds, and deciding to begin his campaign my announcing his candidacy on a 100-watt AM radio station in Waynesboro, Mississippi.

I can imagine Jesus preaching his message, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news,” all the while his voice is drowned out by the cries of the buyers and sellers in the marketplace, by the stomping of the boots of the Roman occupiers, by the raging of other self-styled prophets, calling for the overthrow of those occupiers. Yet speak Jesus does, and slowly people begin to listen. A few fishermen leave their nets. Perhaps he catches an ear here and there in the synagogues. He starts, ever so gradually, to catch on.

It’s almost a disadvantage, our ability to look at these humble beginnings from the doorway of the empty tomb. Knowing how it all ends up, being able to proclaim Christ risen and triumphant, it makes it easy to miss the crunching dirt under Jesus’ sandals as he and his ragtag band of disciples trudge from town to town, crisscrossing Galilee, sweating in the sun’s glare and shivering through the night, day after day just proclaiming “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

From one point of view, it really doesn’t make sense. If Jesus had come to declare the Jubilee – to set the captives free, to proclaim the good news to the poor, to announce the year of the Lord’s favor, why didn’t he blow the ram’s horn? Why didn’t he shout it from the top of the Temple? Why not confront the Sanhedrin with the news, or challenge Herod or Caesar with the facts? If you’re going to upset the status quo, wipe the slate clean, and set everything right, why not just start with the obvious oppressors?

I want to suggest that part of the good news for you and me today is the fact that Jesus started small. In fact, throughout the Gospels, we see time and again that Jesus never sought out the great big things. Rather, his earthly ministry was a collection of great little things. Jesus never started a megachurch or sent out a press release or held a prayer rally or tacked up flyers. He did what needed to be done, all the while remaining constant to his primary message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Jesus started small.

Alexandra Scott was diagnosed with cancer when she was less than a year old. When Alex turned four, she told her parents that she wanted to start a lemonade stand, to raise money to fund cancer research. A small thing, yes, but the very first day, with the help of her big brother Patrick, that little lemonade stand raised over two thousand dollars. Others heard about what she was doing, and they opened up their own lemonade stands, and donated the proceeds to her cause.

Year after year, while carrying on her own fight, Alex opened that lemonade stand. When she died in 2004 at the age of eight, Alex and her friends had raised over a million dollars for cancer research. Today “Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation” carries on her legacy, and has raised more than $50 million, funding more than 200 cutting-edge research projects, providing a travel program to help support families of children receiving treatment, and developing resources to help people everywhere affected by childhood cancer. And all of it was started by a four-year-old girl and a lemonade stand.

Lent is out opportunity to lay aside the noise that surrounds us – marketers shouting at us to buy bigger and better things, politicians screaming that this or that policy is destroying the country, and on and on – and listen for the crunch of Jesus’ sandals in the dirt of that Galilean road, listen for his voice as he speaks the truths of the Kingdom with his travel-worn companions, listen to his words as he stands in the synagogue, as he casts out the demon, as he heals and restores and sets free, as he proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor…

Lent is our opportunity to refocus our priorities, to reset our compass, to redirect our passion and our energies into great small things. We may not be the next Nelson Mandela or Mother Teresa or Billy Graham, but that’s OK. I feel confident in declaring that the world does not need another Nelson Mandela or Mother Teresa or Billy Graham. The world needs you, and the world needs me, doing the great little things to make the Kingdom of God a reality in the lives of the people we touch.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Lent reminds us to never doubt that humble beginnings and small starts are the bricks and mortar of the Kingdom of God. Sometimes the Kingdom of God looks feels a cup of coffee or a warm coat. Sometimes it sounds like a word of encouragement or a thank-you note.

Sometimes the Kingdom of God even looks like a lemonade stand.


  1. John,

    Enjoyed this - I love some of the insights you bring. Like the sea of competing voices (ala life of Brian) each preaching a message - even John the Baptist - although they clearly acknowleged each other.

    Interesting you pointed out the Spirit "drove" him. That word grabbed me as I read also, perhaps like it never has before in countless readings of this passage. Interesting because I don't think we often (if ever) like to think of the Spirit driving us. I'm not going to get into free will and all, but we like to talk about the Spirit "leading us", "prompting us", even "empowering us" - but none of those things sound the same to me as "DROVE"... As often, I have no answers - just questions but I'm OK with that - I've learned to be content with the reality I don't have all the answers anymore and enjoyed exploring a few thoughts with Brandon on that theme in the last week or so.

    I will say this though - and it comes to the illustration of your point with Alex. As you point out - Jesus pretty much did what was in front of him. The Spirit and his own relationship - in tuneness if you will with the will of the Father no doubt helped set his course, but he spent a lot of time in places like Waynesboro Mississippi - places outside the beltway - treating very ordinary folks like they were something special - they were worth his time.

    Finally, your closing comments on Lent concerning "laying aside the noise" reminded me of another good read I've enjoyed so far this lent - Nadia Bolz Webers post on Day 1.

    Cheers my friend.