January 13, 2002
JESUS AMONG US: SINGLE-MINDED
Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church
In J.R.R. Tolkienıs ³The Lord of the Rings² trilogy, brought to local theaters in the just-released film entitled ³The Fellowship of the Ring,² a Hobbit by the name of Frodo inherits a monumental task. Given the fact that Hobbits are rather unimposing, small-sized, human-like creatures with furry feet, Frodoıs assignment seems to be all the more daunting. He has in his possession a very powerful ring that once belonged to an evil villain named Dark Lord Sauron, and Sauron desperately wants it back. If Sauron can somehow regain this long-lost ring, he can become the unquestionable ruler of all of Middle-earth, the home to people, ents, elves, dwarves, and orcs. Frodoıs unsettling task is to take this enticing ring to Mount Doom in a distant place called Mordor, where it can then be destroyed. Unfortunately, Mordor lies in the heart of the evil Sauronıs territory.
In order to complete his mission, Frodo enlists the support of a few of his Hobbit friends as well as a mysterious human, a dwarf, and several other unusual characters. Gandalf, a powerful wizard, joins them, and their journey to Mount Doom begins. As this ³fellowship,² as they are called, makes their way toward Mount Doom, they encounter a wide assortment of enemiesorcs and demonsand they also must resist the seductive powers of the ring itself. Before long, one member of the fellowship yields to temptation and attempts, unsuccessfully, to swipe the ring from Frodo, and two of the Hobbits are kidnaped by enemy forces. Through it all, Frodo continues his journey in order that he might save Middle-earth from the evil Sauronıs domination. The tension is so evident, so thick that you can almost cut it with a knife. Frodo is on a journey, a mission, but completing it requires extreme dedication and the will to resist those forces that seek to sidetrack him.
As Mark applies the first brush strokes of his depiction of Jesus here in chapter one of his gospel, he presents a similar situation and a similar predicament. Like an initially unimposing Frodo, Jesus simply and suddenly appears on the scene. Jesus is, as David McKenna has described him, ³a man with a common name from a common town (who came) to participate in a common experience.² He is also a man with a calling: to announce that ³...the kingdom of God has come near,² and to encourage his listeners to ³repent, and believe in the good news.² In completing his mission, Jesus journeys with a rather motley crew of Hobbits and dwarfs known otherwise as disciples, and they are constantly bombarded by opposing evil forces. But as Mark clearly informs us later, Jesus will deliver the ring to Mount Doom. He will, regardless of what happens all around him, carry his cross to Mount Calvary and free the world from evilıs domination. But it wonıt be easy.
Mark, it seems to me, lays the groundwork for Jesusı entire journey right here in 1:9-13. In five short verses, he captures both the glory of Jesusı calling as well as the tension surrounding its completion. By succinctly and swiftly recounting Jesusı baptism and temptation, Mark invites us into the very depths of Jesusı soulthe highs and lows, the victories and struggles, the affirmation and opposition. And as the collision between baptism and temptation occurs, we discover a Jesus who knows when to say ³Yes² and when to say ³No.²
Mark first recounts Jesusı baptism. Baptism, as administered by John here in chapter one, involved repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus, of course, hardly needed to do that. The biblical writers repeatedly confirm that Jesus lived a sinless life. Why, then, would he choose to be baptized? At one level, Jesus seeks baptism in order to further identify with the very people whom he is called to save. Jesus, who has come to bear the sins of the world, begins to take on those very sins as he enters the water with the others.
I remember an occasion in the basement of the B.L. Fisher library at Asbury Seminary. I was involved in a major research project for one of my classes, and I had grown weary. ³Why do professors ask us to do so much?² I wondered. ³Iıll never ask my students to work this hard.² Anyway, I left my desk on the upper floor and walked briefly around the library to catch my mental breath and refocus. As I passed one of the private carrels in the basement of the library on what I believe was a Saturday morning, I noticed that very professor laboring over a similar project of his own. At that moment, I sensed a connectedness with him that I hadnıt felt before. He is in this with me, I thought, and that realization provided me with a new source of motivation and encouragement. In his baptism, Jesus is truly ³among us.²
But at another level, Jesusı baptism is a powerful affirmation that, as the final and most difficult stage of his life now approaches, he, in fact, continues to accept the call that his heavenly father has given to him. The obedience that he demonstrated in taking on flesh has not faded away after thirty or so years of actual human lifehunger and thirst and drowsiness and loneliness and headaches and everything else that goes along with being human have not diminished our Lordıs willingness to continue his mission. As Jesus steps into the water, he in essence shouts a resounding ³Yes² to God. ³Iıll do it,² he forcefully declares. ³I am still willing to do what I came to do.²
What an exhilarating moment it must have been. One can sense Jesusı determination and will. The prophets of old had longed for God to break powerfully into human history once again³O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,² Isaiah cried hundreds of years before (64:1). And look what happened as Jesus came up from the water. The heavens tore apart, the Spirit of God came upon him, and his heavenly Father expressed his obvious pleasure.
My guess is that one of the deepest pains a person can feel is a lingering sense of being rejected by his or her parents. Iıve known many people, and probably you have too, who have invested endless amounts of energy into gaining their parentsı acceptance. I vividly remember a young woman at the collegeshe was in her junior yeartelling me that she never heard her father say, ³I love you.² The absence of those words stuck with her wherever she went. In saying ³yes² to God and his commission, Jesus receives his confirmation and hears the words that everyone longs to hear: ³You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.² Again, what an exhilarating occasion it must have been.
Yet hardly an hour passes and Jesus finds himself drivenpushedby this same spirit into the wilderness. Both because of the very physical nature of the wilderness as well as the various hardships that the people of Israel experienced there over the years, the wilderness was typically seen as a place of difficulty and danger, a place of trials and tests. Itıs terribly hot during the day, and terribly cold at night. There are often few signs of life, and the initial moments of welcomed silence often give way to an overwhelming sense of isolation as one day leads inevitably into the next. Yet this is where Jesus finds himself, just a blink-of-an-eye after leaving the water. From the shores of the Jordan to the heart of the wilderness. From the gathering of John and unnamed Judeans to the company of mysterious and unfriendly wild beasts. From the affirmation of his Father to the treacherous tests of Satan himself. The drop-off is gut-wrenchinga roller-coaster ride of unfathomable proportions.
Mark, as he often does, reduces the experience to its bare bones, but the shift is no less dramatic. Matthew and Luke fill in a few of the details, and they give us a clearer sense of Satanıs approach. As Frodo encounters the enemy in ³The Fellowship of the Ring,² so Jesus becomes the recipient of Satanıs ultimate tests. ³Turn these stones into bread,² Satan suggests. ³Use your God-given power to satisfy your own personal needs.² But Jesus refuses. ³Throw yourself off of the temple,² the enemy continues. ³Provide a visible demonstration for everyone to see just how great you are.² Jesus again turns him down. ³Then bow down and worship me, and I will give you control over all of the world,² Satan desperately concludes. ³Simply fall down before me and you wonıt have to go to all of the trouble of carrying that horrendous cross up that distant mountain.² But again, Jesus declines the offer. The same Jesus who has just said ³Yes² to his Father now says ³No² to his enemy. In fact, by saying ³No² to Satan, Jesus has actually said ³Yes² to God once again.
In Mark 1:9-13, we encounter a Jesus who knows how to say ³Yes² and how to say ³No.² We discover from the start that the Jesus who has come to live among us is single-minded. He wants his earthly life to be a resounding ³Yes² to everything that God asks of him, and an equally determined ³No² to everything that Satan entices him to do. And as you trace the life of Jesus from here on out, you find any number of opportunities for him to waver from this commitment, but he never does. He says ³Yes² when God calls him to minister to someone. He says ³Yes² when his Father invites him to pray alone in the countryside. He says ³Yes² when God requires him to confront the opposition without backing down, and he says ³Yes² when facing his own death.
But this same Jesus is equally adept at saying ³No² to the enemy. He answers ³No² when the leaders in the synagogue literally dare him to walk away from a hurting man. He says ³No² when tempted to be excessively active, recognizing his own need for space and personal renewal. He says ³No² when his thick-headed disciplesthe Hobbits and dwarfs traveling with himfail to catch on and he inevitably experiences the disappointment that might lead him to do something else with his life. And he says ³No² when given the opportunity to reason his way out of the predicament that confronts him as he later stands before Pilate. Through whatever and whoever the enemy seeks to sidetrack Jesus, he repeatedly says ³No² to evil and ³Yes² to God.
In reality, the commitment to say ³Yes² to God and ³No² to Satan is of fundamental importance for all of us. After all, isnıt lifeyour life and minein effect, a constant series of such decisions and choices? Like Jesus, who first agreed to take on human flesh, we, too, are called to make an initial decision to give our lives to God and to follow him throughout all of our days. We are called, in other words, to say ³Yes² to God and ³No² to evil. But once that initial choice to say ³Yes² has been made and God has said to us³You are my child, the Beloved²endless opportunities arise for us to either nurture and cultivate that ³Yes² or to undermine and contradict it.
On a daily basis, for example, God calls ushe woos usto experience him in new and ever deepening ways. He invites us, in effect, to ³hang out² with him more. He calls us to reach out to someone else. He tugs at us so that we stay focused in life. He asks us to keep his kingdom foremost in our minds as we think about where to go, what to do for a living, how to use our resources, and who to spend our time with. He encourages us to see him in everything from babbling brooks to burping babies, and to worship him while mowing the lawn or mopping the floor. God keeps calling us, he keeps following us like ³the hound of heaven,² to use Francis Thompsonıs terminology, not to annoy or condemn us, but to welcome us into his wonderful and life-giving presence. Saying ³Yes² to God, as the Lord Jesus so consistently did, will renew and transform our lives in ways that we can hardly begin to imagine.
But at the same time, our daily lives all too regularly present us with tests that threaten our souls and call our commitment to God into question. Youıve heard those voices, too, havenıt you? For some, such voices are loud and blunt: ³Turn stones into bread. Donıt pay attention to God. He either doesnıt care about you or he doesnıt know what he is talking about. Choose the best paying job and make a name for yourselfdonıt worry about what God might be calling you to do. Why would you give money to someone else in need? Youıve earned it, after all, so enjoy it. Itıs alright to shade your income tax forms a littleits only the government, and they already take more than they deserve. The relationship you are developing with that young man or woman is just fine, and donıt worry about prehistoric values like saving your virginity for marriage or remaining faithful to your spouse. Itıs fun, isnıt it? Donıt feel bad for not getting involved in your church, and this business of needing to pray more is an old wivesı tale. You are strong and healthyyou donıt need to pray, and you certainly donıt need to be involved in any meaningful way with other Christians.²
But for others of us, the voices that seek to pull us away from God are typically softer and more subtle: ³Itıs alright for you to live your life at this frantic, schizophrenic pace. After all, the things that you do are all good things. Your spouse and children will be fine, and you can spend a bit more time in prayer and reflection another day. Donıt worry about inviting that lonely person for a cup of tea or coffee. Itıs just a passing thought, they probably wouldnıt come anyway, and there are plenty of other people who can get in touch with them. God isnıt really calling you into missions or to become a pastor. Try instead to get the highest paying job you can find. Think of it this way. If you get a higher paying job, you will have more money to share with others.² Name your own test. Seemingly endless opportunities to waver and run away from the one who cares about us the most. Saying ³No² in such situations, as the Lord Jesus so consistently did, is a vital part of reaching your ultimate destination. Saying ³No² to Satan, once again, is another way of saying ³Yes² to God.
Over 600 years ago, Thomas à Kempis wrote a little book that has since become a Christian classic: The Imitation of Christ. In it he wrote: ³Two things especially lead to great improvement: the will to drag yourself from the things that will naturally harm you, and the desire to pursue the good things that you need the most.² In essence, à Kempis describes the willingness and commitment to say ³Yes² to God and godly things and ³No² to everything else. Drag yourself away from everything that will harm yousay ³No² to the enemy and do not lose your way. Pursue the things that you need the mostsay ³Yes² to God in every area of life. In ³The Fellowship of the Ring,² Frodo demonstrated a consistent knack of saying ³Yes² and ³No² at the right times, and he pressed on toward his destination. Similarly, Jesus wanted nothing more than to say ³Yes² to his heavenly Father and ³No² to everything that threatened to move him off course. He, too, pressed on, and today he sits at the right hand of God the Father. May God grant each and everyone of us the grace and the courage to say ³Yes² and ³No.²