Does the Universe Want You Around?

Feb. 21, Does the Universe Want You Around?

Text: Mark 1:9-15

Mark, the gospel writer, tells us that the Holy Spirit “drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness.” There he was tempted by Satan. He was in the company of wild beasts. Angles showed up to take care of him.

What a charged tableau this is. It almost feels like a screenshot from a video game. Mark packs all this energy and contestation—this fasting, battling, fearing and angelic ministering—into two sentences.

This scene is presented to us every year at the beginning of the season of Lent. Lent is a time for critical self-reflection. It is a time for prayer and a time for fasting. Lent is a time to gain perspective on things we might hold overly dear. Lent is a time for battling our own demons.

In the ancient church, maybe even during the time of the apostles, Christians fasted and prayed during the leadup to Easter. The length of the fast varied from place to place, but the basic idea was a widespread part of Christian practice. It was in the fourth century that this period of 40 days preceding Easter and excluding Sundays came to be the norm.   

This year, in our own context, those planning our Lenten worship realized that many of us feel as though we have been in the wilderness for a lot longer than forty days. We too have been alone with temptation, alone with our shadow selves, or simply, simply alone.

So maybe this year, of all years, it’s helpful for us to look at what precedes Jesus’s wilderness temptation. Maybe that’s a better place for us to begin our Lenten observance.

In the wilderness Jesus met the evil one. He was tested. He got through it. He found new life. The difficult season prepared him for his life’s work. But something preceded that season of testing.

Here, once again, is how Mark describes it (vv. 9-11):

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.”

We have to hear that last line again: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Here, once more, slightly broadened: “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  

Now notice something: at this point in his life Jesus had done very little. He is not yet the super-hero, teacher, worker of miracles. He has not yet welcomed outsiders, praised children, consorted with the sinful or enlightened any disciples. At his point it’s not clear what Jesus has done to earn this divine assessment. And yet it’s precisely here that God says, “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

There is an important little phrase that occurs many times in the New Testament. The phrase is short, but it’s actually central to the entire theology of the New Testament. It’s these words: “in Christ.” “In Christ,” this simple phrase occurs almost 100 times in the letters of New Testament. It says something quite significant about the way ancient Christians understood the connection between Jesus and themselves.

Paul uses the phrase this way in Romans 6: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Early Christian believed that when Jesus did something we were there too. Just as the head of state embodies an entire nation, in Jesus’ body the entire human race is present. When Jesus battles the satanic temptation, we are there. We are in Christ. And in Christ we hear God’s words directed to us: “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Now that is good preparation for the trials of the wilderness. Whatever happens, whatever the forces of evil and death send our way: The Creator says, “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

If you’ve ever played a sport you might have a sense of how this works. Coaches are constantly reminding participants to get into an “athletic stance.” You set your feet apart, you get your butt low, your hands are out in front of your body. You’re prepared . . . to move in any direction or to get pushed around.  You don’t know precisely what you’re preparing for—that’s the point of the athletic stance.

Absorbing the truth that we are children of God, that we are loved by God, that God is pleased, even delighted with us—absorbing that truth puts you in an athletic stance. It prepares you to wrestle with your shadow self. It prepares you to walk in the places stalked by fear. The deep truth here is that regardless where we come out in the great Canadian competition for getting ahead—we are beloved.

This past week the folks at NASA landed another rover on Mars. It’s more sophisticated than the earlier robotic explorers. The mission is to see if there ever was life on that planet, even microbial life. Looking for life beyond Earth has been a long running project. Billions of dollars have been spent, and I think it’s a fascinating question. We theologians sometimes joke about the passage from John 10 where Jesus says that he has “other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” Maybe Jesus went to Mars or some other solar system after finishing up on this planet.

The possibility of other forms of life in the universe is a fun question, but the more serious one is probably whether or not the universe cares about our individual life. Does the universe want us around? Rocks and chickadees probably don’t care about the answer to this question, but we do. If all that there is to our lives is showing up, being disappointed and saying a bunch of painful goodbyes, it’s understandable that we might start to wonder about the point of going on. You know, none of us chose to be born. If the wilderness is just the wilderness, if suffering isn’t a trial but is just pain, if temptation isn’t temptation but just natural inclination, if evil isn’t evil but just another way of being—what’s the point of resisting.    

The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is famous for saying that “existence precedes essence.” I love this line. It is so disturbing. It comes from a lecture Brother Jean-Paul gave shortly after the end of World War II. In the postwar mess he was reflecting on the experience of being human when believing in God seemed absurd. In his view, we simply show up. We find ourselves existing and it’s up to us to decide what it means. He believed there was no pre-existing framework for our lives, no foundation, no essence to humanity.

So, from that perspective, Does the universe want us around?

Well, no. We can’t depend on being wanted by the universe. We can’t look there for encouragement. We could write all kinds of ingenious computer code and task the new Mars rover with looking for answers and we will never get a note back saying, “Yes, earthlings, the universe values you all. Your stint in the wilderness has meaning.” That’s not going to happen. I think Brother Jean-Paul is right about that.

And you know what, I don’t think the biblical writers would quibble with that either. Does the universe want us around? Probable not. The universe is a cold place. It probably doesn’t want anything. It probably doesn’t give a hoot about me or you or our time in the metaphorical wilderness.

But this isn’t the end of the matter. As we see here in Mark chapter 1, there is something else to consider. It is the voice that breaks through the cold emptiness, that vibrates the whole universe. It is the voice as strange and as delightful as a descending dove. It rings out, “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” At the very core of the story that we affirm about the world and ourselves is this truth: you are each loved by God, and with you God is well pleased.

Here’s my encouragement today: meditate on that line, chew it like a piece of gum, walk with it like a step counter. Even if you can’t quite believe that it is true: chew on it, walk with it, absorb it. Find your athletic stance.

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