“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
Mark 1: 13
I used to dream about what I could own. A van. A home. Lots of tools. I bought lots of lottery tickets. Then one day I saw a poor black woman put $70 into a lottery machine. I saw a demon in her eyes. That very evening, I heard God whisper to me:
“Don’t play, Larry,” God whispered. “You ain’t gonna win.”
The Christian journey begins when we repent of our sin and begin to battle the demons. It’s a personal journey. Make no mistake: It hurts. We suffer. I don’t want to mislead a single person. When we begin to reject the things that we know are wrong, we find ourselves in a fight for our very life. We stumble and fall. Guilt threatens to eat us alive.
A man once lay in a hospital bed in agony, the aftermath of a serious operation. He knew the doctors were doing all they could, but he wondered how he could endure. He wondered if life was over because he couldn’t endure the pain. Then he read some ancient words: “Pain,” the long-ago author had written, “is either an evil to the body… or to the soul. But it is in the power of the soul to maintain its own serenity and tranquility and not to think that pain is an evil... Nothing happens to any man which he is not formed by nature to bear.”[i]
The man pondered those words, then wrote in his own notebook.
“Did you think you could have the good without the evil? Did you think you could have the joy without the sorrow? Sooner or later, regardless of the wit of man, we have pain to face; a reality, a final unescapable, immutable fact of life.”
That night, the man decided to think not about the pain, but rather about tomorrow. About what he would do tomorrow. He began to see in a new light. He accepted the pain and moved on and found himself able to live, to work, to write.
This is the story of all those who really battle the demons.
Biblically, demons live in the wilderness. Satan tempts Jesus there. It’s where Israel became a nation, the place where God formed and shaped his people. They wandered, lost, for 40 years, tempted again and again by the good things of life, sustained only by God. For Mark, it’s the place where the whole countryside and all of Jerusalem come to repent of sin and be baptized. Mark quotes scripture: Prepare the way of the Lord. He describes the Baptist, who says we must repent. We must battle the demons. For each one, the wilderness is a different place. Different demons tempt us. For one, it may be alcohol. For another, greed. For another, sex. For another, the lust for power. For another, the desire to own things. We each must face the demons that whisper to us.
I love the utter simplicity of Mark. He does not elaborate on the story. No long tale of three separate temptations and three responses. No devil on a high mountain or atop the temple. No discussion of bread. No biblical quotations. Mark simply says, “He was tempted by Satan.”
As are we all, at all times, in all places. Who among us is not tempted?
More than anything, though, I love the beauty of Mark’s closing thought in his brief discourse: “…and the angels waited on him.”
Mark reminds us that we never need to face temptation alone. Jesus did not face Satan alone. This battle with the demons, with the struggle to repent, is not just personal. It is also communal. Angels surround us on all sides: self-help groups, drug and alcohol abuse groups, ministers to console us in our suffering, neighbors to sustain us in our moment of need, the church to guide and hold us through the battle. I love that thought, the completeness of it, the joy in it.
When we go into this battle, if we are attentive enough to see them, humble enough to accept their loving help, the angels will wait on us, and we will not be alone.
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. Who are your angels?
“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean…”
Isaiah 1: 16
Years ago, when I went through a special training program at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, the officers would take us out to a thing they called the confidence course. I dreaded those days. It was just a half-mile run. We were expected to make it through in 10 or 15 minutes, and if we failed to do so we had to run it again. We were supposed to shout like maniacs, and everyone had to come through together. If we didn’t, we had to run it again. It doesn’t sound like much: a half-mile, 15 minutes. Any healthy young person can handle that.
The problem was that it wasn’t flat. Or straight. Or dry. To go that half-mile, you had to crawl through mud and water beneath tangled barbed wire. You had to go hand over hand on a rope. You had to climb up large hanging nets to get to the base of a steep ridge that you could then run almost to the end of the course. But right there, within sight of the end, you found yourself standing atop a cliff about 15 feet high. The first time I ran the course, I stopped dead in my tracks. An officer waiting there looked me in the eye and shouted a command. Jump! There was no other way down. You had to jump. I don’t know how they planned that drop. No one was ever permanently hurt. No broken bones. No tears or strains too terrible to heal. It was just high enough to scare everyone who stood there. No one jumped without pausing a moment to see the fear in his heart.
The people who planned that course didn’t want us to learn that we could travel half a mile in 15 minutes. They wanted us to know we could move through pain and fear and come out wiser and stronger.
Walter Brueggeman, a great Old Testament scholar, sums up Isaiah neatly when he says this: “The theme of judgment is massive and pervasive.”
No one can read Isaiah without discovering judgment. Judgment exists and is terrible. The land will be laid waste. But judgment for the sake of punishment, as retribution, is not God’s purpose. It is, rather, repentance, refinement, purification.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean.
Remove the evil of your doing from before my eyes;
Cease to do evil, learn to do good;
Seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
Defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Isaiah contains two thoughts that can carry us through this difficult and painful process of cleansing. First, in the beginning, after every forceful condemnation, one finds a call to repent. Second, and more important, Isaiah promises newness and restoration. Just as the lips of Isaiah must be burned clean, so must Israel be burned clean. God will not turn away from this difficult work because God intends to create humans who will love.
Isaiah understood the fundamental message that God will create a world where the least and the last and the lost will take first place and where true disciples gladly bring light to others. But our little reading doesn’t tell the whole story. It leaves out the hard part. God tells Isaiah to prophesy to the people so their ears may be stopped up, their eyes may be shut, that they may not see or hear his cries and change their minds. Prophesy until all the cities lie waste without a single inhabitant and the land is desolate. God intends to make the tree into a stump. The stump, God says, will be a holy seed.
Why would God want this? Why would God want to block their ears, shut their eyes, and lock their minds so that they might refuse to repent? It’s the toughest message in the Bible: The only path to resurrection lies through death. What exists must die so that what will be can live.
God wants us to come out together on the other side, burned clean, made whole and strong, confident in doing what God wants, able to love with all our hearts.
Believe me, it’s just like that confidence course. God will burn away all that stands between us and prayer, all that separates us from effective mission, all that keeps us from fully loving God and neighbor.
God wants us to come out together in the end.
Reflect on God’s persistence for 10 minutes. What must God burn away to get to your disciple’s heart?
“So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
Exodus 3: 10
When I showed up as pastor for my first Sunday at my first church, I met one of the most courageous people I ever knew.
Mrs. Eva Teets, the church organist, was thin and worn, gray and stooped under the weight of congestive heart failure, and yet she seemed to have almost indomitable will. She was not a virtuoso. Indeed, my first thought was, boy, do we need an organist. Eva, sometime in the distant past, had six piano lessons. They didn’t extend to playing the organ. She never really learned the parts that involved the left hand or foot pedals.
``I just make it up as I go,'' she once told me.
Organs are kind of complicated, even the little one at my church. They have pedals, banks of keys, all kinds of valves and buttons. Eva never did learn what they all did. She carried around a piece of paper with one setting marked down. A real organist showed it to her one day, and it worked for her. She kept a copy because children liked to poke the buttons on the organ, and she needed some way to get back to home base.
It was all kind of like driving from New York to San Francisco in first gear.
Eva's playing, if compared to a trip, might have included some side trips, where she got off the interstate. Every now and then in the middle of a hymn, she would pull off for a detour into uncharted territory. Singing hymns became an adventure.
But as the months passed, and as Eva played, good weather and bad, good health and bad, often hurting, coughing, and now struggling with throat cancer, I came to see the extent of her gift. If I could only give a fraction as much.
Eva was unpretentious, and she didn't have much use for pretentious people. She knew how bad her music was.
``If you can get somebody better,'' she would say, looking up at me with a dare in her eyes, ``I'll step down tomorrow.''
Since we didn't have anybody better, she gave and gave and gave. She brought us music through her pain. A little old lady's wisdom, her ministry.
Eva had a lot of real gifts. She had scaffolding and tools that she made available for any and all church building projects. She was the only member of the congregation with a bona fide meat saw, and we used it for every turkey dinner. She taught Sunday school and got along so well with the kids that some of them, when they were finally promoted, went a couple of weeks to study under the minister, then asked to be demoted back to where they could learn something.
But the ministry I will never forget is the ministry where she was least comfortable -- her music.
The ancient Hebrews believed God lived and acted in this world. They believed God was here, present, with them. Too often, we modern people see God as an almighty figure far off in heaven. But Moses was a Hebrew. He knew God could be present, so even wilderness could be a sanctuary where he must remove his sandals. God tells Moses, a shepherd, to return to Egypt to confront a king. Moses responds, as do we all, who am I to do this?
We know we are weak, helpless, incapable of doing the things God would have us do. And the message, poetic, biblical, beautiful, is this: God is here. Don’t worry, God says. I’ll help. I’ll be with you.
Eva Teets was proud, full of the pride of someone who has never been rich, who has prevailed through many challenges and the pain of life. She was proud of what she had done with her life. And justifiably so.
Then one day, God said, Eva, I see you're a good person. You're giving a lot. But I want you to give more. I want you to give up your pride and do something that won’t make you proud. And Eva swallowed her pride, sat at an organ, and played. The music went off key and sometimes off the page, and Eva knew it was bad. She played until she was too sick to play anymore.
It was the most beautiful music I’ll ever hear.
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. What impossible job does God have for you?
“In the year that King Uzziah died…”
Isaiah 6: 1
We read right over the opening words of Isaiah 6. We don’t think much about them. They mark time, we say, and tell us when this happened.
But think about it. Uzziah was king for 52 years. He became king when he was 16. He led the armies that destroyed the enemies of his father, the Philistines and the Ammonites. He fortified Jerusalem and kept his nation safe for more than five decades. Imagine the public works he completed. Imagine, if you can, the disappearance of the figure that stood more than any other for safety and security and peace and prosperity.
John Kennedy was president less than four years. Martin Luther King was prominent for 14. Adolph Hitler held power less than 13 years.
In the year that Uzziah died, the world changed forever, so the simple phrase is not just a calendar marker. It prepares us for the idea of change even greater than the death of the king. It was the year Isaiah saw the Lord.
Have you ever seen the Lord? Have you ever experienced God in a uniquely personal way? Can you recall a moment when you felt overwhelmed by God’s presence? Can you behold God and live as before? Will nothing be different?
I remember a night long ago at the Abbey of Gesthemane just outside Bardstown, Ky. I had gone there not knowing what to expect. The abbey is a beautiful place, surrounded by those strange hills that the Kentucky folk call knobs. The monks engraved a small sign over the door: “Greet all who enter as though they were Christ.” The monks seldom speak, but each word is meaningful. They don’t tell you what to do. They give you literature that explains the eight or nine opportunities to worship each day, tell you when and where meals are served, explain that silence is mandatory, show you the library, and then leave you to your prayer. The silence is powerful, and so are the liturgies. The day begins in the dark, at 3 a.m. One rises and hears the quiet sound of feet moving in the dark toward the chapel, and there the psalms rise up, touching your very soul.
After several days, one becomes aware of the presence of God, and I will never forget the moment in the middle of a night when I felt pulled from my room to the dining hall where a great carved statue of Christ stands. I knelt there at the foot of the statue and cried, for I knew I was not worthy of such love. I understood Isaiah’s cry, “Oh woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among an unclean people!”
I don’t believe the Bible was written just to tell us what happened a long time ago far away. It was written to show what God wishes for us, what life might have in store for us, to tell us who God is, and to explain who we are and who we can become. The story of Isaiah isn’t just about Isaiah and God, but also about you and me! For it to become about me and you, though, we must use our imaginations. We must imagine the moment we might encounter the awesome wholeness and majesty of God. The moment we will be changed.
I remember another moment like that.
I sat beside a pond as a young boy, some weeks after my father abandoned my family, and watched a sunrise lighting the shadows. The birds sang. The clouds slowly turned pink, then white. The fish bit, and I caught six. Then I sat in the stillness and saw the majesty of God’s world and knew, as I had never known in church, that God would care for us, that my father’s absence was not all there was.
My world changed forever.
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. How might God wish to change you forever?
“On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram…”
Genesis 15: 18
Bruce was 19 when he got a scholarship for a year of college in Hong Kong. He jumped at the chance because he was young, hadn’t seen much of the world, and he wanted to see it all. He went without knowing what he would find.
He found the most difficult year of his life.
At the time, Hong Kong was ruled by England and had evolved into one of the world’s greatest trading centers. Some of the wealthiest people in the world lived there, and most of the students were sons or daughters of those rich people. They spoke Cantonese. The professors, on the other hand, were largely refugees from Red China. They were poor, and they spoke mostly Mandarin.
Here was young Bruce, middle-class, English-speaking, not rich, not poor, surrounded by people unlike any he had ever known. Their beliefs and culture differed and, atop all that, his course work was difficult.
Bruce had never seen poverty like that that in Hong Kong, where refugees poured in so fast that authorities could only ship them to camps to await deportation. One day the police came to the dormitory high up on one of the hills in Hong Kong and told the students to stay inside. Then they began a sweep through the city, beginning at the coastline and working uphill, driving orphans ahead of them. Thousands of these children lived on the streets, fending for themselves, and the police wanted to put them in a camp. Inevitably, some found their way to the dorm, where some students, deeply moved, gave them food. These children, some as young as two or three years old, lived by their wits on the street. In many ways, they were wild creatures.
Bruce helped two half-starved girls. They weren’t sisters, but the elder, a seven-year-old, cared for the younger, who was four. Without a word being said, the two moved into a little cubbyhole beneath the stairs, and Bruce continued to feed them.
Eventually, of course, the police went away, but the little girls didn't.
Months later, Bruce knew he had to do something. His year was coming to an end. He was single, not yet through school, no job, and he was responsible for a seven-year-old and a four-year-old. He had fed them for months. He called his parents, and you can imagine the conversation. He had checked into things and discovered he could not take the girls out of Hong Kong.
“Mom, dad,” he said. “I’d like you to adopt two little girls.”
It was either that or a refugee camp.
The year changed Bruce. After his parents finally agreed, Bruce began dealing with administrative realities. One of those involved physical exams, and that became the deal-breaker. Both girls had advanced tuberculosis. They would not be allowed to leave. Bruce dropped out of school, got a job, and cared for them until they died. Then he became a minister.
Bruce told me the story in a seminary class at his church, the largest Presbyterian church in Grosse Pointe Farms, one of the richest suburbs of Detroit. Bruce, now the senior pastor there, was president of the seminary I attended, an expert on iconography, had served in various leadership positions with the World Council of Churches, and had, indeed, seen much of the world.
Whenever I read of Abram’s conversation with God, I think about Bruce and the orphans. Here were two beings who couldn’t even imagine this person who was helping them. They were receiving a great gift from above. Abram must have felt like that when God offered a relationship and made promises beyond imagination.
Abram’s deal with God grew into a deal with Israel. You will be my people, and I will be your God. That kind of deal changes things. It changes who you are. What you do. It changes the direction of a life.
It’s a big deal!
Reflect 10 minutes on God’s deal with Abram. What is God’s deal with you?
[i] .[Light from Many Lamps, Lillian Eichler Watson, ed. ( New York: Simon and Schuster, 1951), 95.]