When Tomorrow Looks Beastly

Have you ever had a day like this? A day that kinda started at the bottom and worked its way down from there. A day when you said to yourself, something like, "One down, thirty nine more like this to go!" Well if you have, it might help to know God knows. Jesus knows. Oh, the baptism is a grand, grand day. How could you ever feel better or closer to God? The heavens themselves open. The dove of the Spirit comes swooping down to light on your very own shoulder. You have the absolute voice of God speak to your ear and to your heart and to the ages, saying, "You belong to me! With you, I am pleased, well pleased!" But then there's the next day, this day. Out into the wilderness. Facing the beasts. The testing time. The tempting time. The time of trial in the face of trouble. You know. God knows. Jesus knows. Now we could probably deal-with-it if it were only today. But tomorrow looks no better. Nor the next 39 and countin'. 'Feels like as far as the eye can see. So what are we to do when tomorrow looks… beastly, beastly indeed?

It helps us to see the beasts for what they are, just like Jesus did. They are real and they are strong. But we are stronger, as we cling to our faith in God alone. Oh, the beasts in our wilderness come without regard to whatever we hold dear and holy. They are no respecters of our faith. They'll draw near to claw and gnaw at us, even within hours of the times we feel God nearest. (Immediately after Jesus' baptism, Mark says. It's no different with us. Maybe we are the most at peril when we feel the holiest.) Now you and I know these beasts are not lions and tigers and bears. Maybe some of these were in the wilderness with Jesus, but none are described in any of the gospels as the Lord's attackers. No, his are very much like ours. The hungers of the heart, as of the stomach. The desire for the spectacular, the great proof, the sign that we are loved. And of course, the temptation to compromise, to make a deal with the devil, literally or symbolically. To get what we'd like of what the world has to offer. We too are tempted with bread from stone, with throwing ourselves from the temple wall to see that God will catch us up, with trading our spiritual health for the things and privileges of this world.

What are our beasts, yours and mine? What tries your faith?… 'Tempts us away from God?… For one, stuff does. Things. Possessions. The right now versus the eternal. Mostly, our stomachs don't growl like Jesus' in the wilderness (that place where people and souls get lost). But the admen growl across the net, the networks and the newest magazines. They snarl like the evil Scar in the Lion King, "Stick with me and you'll never go hungry." They come in the mail when you open the Christmas bills on the charge card. The beasts. Nobody asks us to hurdle off the highest wall like Jesus, so others will flock to us like miracle workers. But on the flip side, we ask for miracles from God. Here's another tempting beast. "Lord, if you love me…." We trade on the spectacular and the unlikely to make bargains with God. "Lord, if you'll just…, I'll always…, I'll never…." (If all the folks who've told me in 35 years in hospitals, "Rev., if God gets me well I'll never miss," showed up on Sunday, the parking lot would look like Easter every week.) Satan himself, Old Scratch sidles up to us as to Jesus, like a panther in the dark and says, "I'll give you all this if you'll just compromise your faith, your ethics, your morals and worship me." What a beast, this one! And so often it's a wolf dressed in sheep's clothing. If you doubt it, listen to the arguments over "Slots, Act II" this year. Lawmakers, lawyers, executives and experts will screech and scratch. But nary a one will offer other than Jesus got 2000 years ago. No matter how sleek the beast, the pitch is pretty much the same as way back then. "I'll give you all this if you'll just bow down and worship me. It's all right. Compromise, just a little. And look at all you can gain. Life will be so much less, well, taxing." The beasts will not remind us that such public policy puts the cost of what benefits us all squarely on the backs of the poorest. The most gullible, the most desperate. The most addicted to gambling, and the least able to pay. The same moral Christians who would not dream of asking their elder grandma to pay for their meal at the restaurant, or the guy in the unemployment line to buy their kid pencils or a calculator for school, will be talked into doing exactly this and more if they are not prepared to recognize what is sinfully beastly in what they are assured is merely eminently practical. No matter the beasts, private or public, how we overcome them is always a matter of what we hold onto, just like Jesus.

When tomorrow looks beastly, it will help to meet it with a knowing faith, in the way of Christ himself. Mark says the least about the beasts that set upon our Lord in the wilds. And nothing about exactly how he dealt with them. The other gospels tell us more. They tell us Jesus clung to God because he had a grasp on God's Word. He could quote it. It was written on his mind. If you and I cannot do the same, then we have some obvious work to do. While living in faith, it's necessary to read the Operator's Manual! Yes, this is a clichĂ©, especially from the pulpit. But that doesn't make it less true or less necessary. Second, The Word was written on Jesus' heart. If somebody asked you the most important Bible verse and forbade you to quote John 3: 16, what would you say? Here was Jesus' choice. "All you heart, all your mind, all your soul, all your strength"… that's how we are to love God. Nothing else first, or equal. And our neighbors as ourselves. God's word on the mind and the heart. That's how to cope with the beasts. But with the Lord, there is more. God's Word on the will. I believe that what Jesus learned in the desert that was indispensable was this. You and I can overcome the beasts if we can overcome ourselves. If we can surrender our will to God's. That's the thing. And it is the thing that sustains Jesus all the way to the cross. And it wins us from it. I have come to love a line we sing in Contemporary Worship. The speaker, the singer, if you will, is Jesus. And this is what he sings. "So surrender to me like I surrendered for you." No matter the beasts you wrestle in the wilderness, real and powerful though they are, God in Christ is more real, more powerful. Surrender to him, as he surrenders for you, and you just might be delivered by what you'll see next.

Here's the thing. Keep your eye out for angels. In the name of Jesus they are bound to come. And they will help you with what comes next! Mark says this marvelous thing. The angels came to minister to Jesus. Mark doesn't say during or after the struggle. Matthew suggests at the end. Maybe both are so. I remind you angels are messengers from Heaven. Wings or no. I ask you, what do you believe? What are you willing to stake your life and your soul on? That God comes to us in the midst of our struggles? That he offers messages and messengers to help us, protect us, redeem us along the way? Anybody here ever had that experience? [Hands up, a witness if offered] And to be sure, Heaven sends the angels to salve our wounds, body and soul at the last. How do I know? Because when we've had a dust up, sometimes Beverly comes to me and offers to make it better. And I am healed, whether I deserve it or not. (Anybody else here know the feeling?) Because some saint among you lifts me up when others have sought to lay me low. And all for Jesus' sake. Because somebody speaks up and tells me I've got it wrong, or I'm doin' it wrong, for God's sake, and then they show me how to be and do better, and the beasts let up on me and go their way. Because sometimes a Martin Luther King comes along, or a Nelson Mandela, or a Lech Walesa. They are not perfect like Jesus. They are never our savior as he was. But they sound a lot like Jesus, at least when they say as King once did, "We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer," until Godly right triumphs over human might. It is the promise of the prophet played out in our day before our eyes. Sometimes by others' stripes, we too are healed. Angels come among us, and we often begin to entertain them unawares. But still, they minister to us. And they strengthen us, and send us back from the wild places, the desert places, the ungodly places we sometimes must get through, it seems. And they deliver us, ready, willing and able to walk with the Lord, and to minister to his children all. So by all means, friends, keep an eye out for angels, this very week to come!
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(Spoken doubling back to the pulpit, after 1st releasing) For a little practical help with all this, we offer a special spiritual resource this week. There are Beastly Boxes in the narthex and elsewhere around the church. Jot down the things, the circumstances, the relationships that are the beasts you wrestle. (No names needed, God will know.) We'll assign these to our prayer chain and prayer partners. And like angels, they will minister to you with words and hopes and petitions that'll bring Heaven itself to your side.

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