Living Among the Wild Beasts

Featured

Samuel Clemons (“Mark Twain”) wrote in his autobiography words akin to the Gospel of Mark’s briefest description of Jesus’s 40 days and nights in the wilderness:

“With the going down of the sun my faith failed and the clammy fears gathered about my heart. Those were awful nights, nights of despair, nights charged with the bitterness of death. In my age as in my youth, night brings me many a deep remorse.

None of us is ever quite sane in the night. Our faith fails. The clammy fears gather in our hearts. Despair descends. It is into this primitive night of the soul that Jesus enters when Mark describes Jesus’s wilderness temptation with one line:

“He was with the wild beasts, and angels ministered to him.”

Christ in the Wilderness -Kramskoi

Christ in the Wilderness -Kramskoi

In Mark’s Gospel there is none of the later Gospel’s three temptations. Jesus simply enters that frightening solitude Gerard Manley Hopkins described as a miserable soul “gnawing and feeding on its own miserable self.”

The wild beasts of Mark and of the Hebrew Scripture are symbols representing the violence and arrogance of nations and empires: the lion that threatened David’s sheep; the lion with wings and a bear gnawing insanely on its own ribs in Daniel’s dream; a leopard and a dragon with great iron teeth destroying everything in its way. The beasts of Daniel and the Hebrew Scripture symbolize the deepest threats, threats to human wellbeing and existence itself. In Daniel’s dream, when the Ancient of Days takes his judgment seat and gathers the nations (wild beasts), they are as nothing before him, but “of his kingdom there shall be no end.”

Like Samuel Clemons, with the going down of the sun [our] faith fails and the clammy fears gather about my heart.

In his book Man Before Chaos Dutch philosopher-theologian Willem Zuurdeeg argues that all philosophy and religion is born in a cry. Whether the great philosophies of Plato or Aristotle or Hegel, whether Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity or what we arrogantly describe as ‘primitive’ religions; whether the political philosophy of Western democracy or Islamic theocracy or one or another economic theory – capitalist, socialist, communist, or communitarian – all philosophy and religion is born in a cry for help. It is the primal cry of human vulnerability, our  contingency, our finitude, our mortality. It is the cry for order, protection and meaning in the face of the chaos without and within.

Separated from all social structure and from all the answers that express or muffle the cry, removed from civilization and all distraction – no computers, no video games, no reading material, no play stations, no TV, no artificial noise, nothing unreal to distract him – in the wilderness of time, “he was with the wild beasts.”

“He was with the wild beasts” is a kind of cliff notes for Jesus’ entire life and ministry. He would dwell among the wild beasts – the unruly principalities and powers that defy the ways of justice, love and peace.  He lived and died among the wild beasts that mocked him at his trial – “Hail, King of the Jews!” – stripped him of his clothing, plaited a crown of thorns believing they had seen the end of him. But after the beasts of empire had torn him to shreds, he become for us the crucified-risen King whose love would tame us all.

There are times for each of us when the beasts are all too real, moments when faith falters, nights in the darkness when despair gnaws and paws at us, and hope has all but disappeared.

A young woman sits in the Atlanta airport. She is returning home from a year of study abroad. All flights have been delayed because of a storm. She is anxiously awaiting the final leg of her journey home. But home as she had known it no longer exits. Her mother and father have separated. Her father has entered treatment for alcoholism. She has entered a wilderness not of her own choosing. The beasts are tearing her apart. Her ordered universe has fallen apart.

She goes to the smoking lounge to catch a smoke. A stranger, her father’s age, sits down. He jolts her out of her fog. “Do you have the time?” he asks. As strangers are sometimes wont to do, they begin to talk. Unaware of her circumstances, he tells her that he is a recovering alcoholic, a former heavy drinker whose drinking was destroying his marriage until his wife became pregnant. The impending birth of his daughter snapped him into treatment and sobriety. “I thought I was going to die,” he says, “but it was the beginning of a resurrection, a whole new life.”

The young woman begins to feel a burden lifting. The stranger finishes his cigarette and disappears. She never gets his name.

The loudspeaker announces her flight’s departure. She boards her flight, and as the plane rises through the clouds, she finds herself momentarily sandwiched between two sets of clouds – one below, one above – and the space between is filled with rainbow light, a world whose grandeur and grace exceed all reasons for despair. She is strangely calm in the face of what lies ahead. A sense of peace descends. She is sure that the man has been given to her as a gift. She has been with the wild beasts. An angel has ministered to her.

During these 40 days and nights of Lent we live more consciously with the wild beasts, praying that the angels of our better nature will minister to us in the wilderness of time, dreaming with Daniel and Jesus of the Ancient of Days taking his judgment seat and gathering the nations. They are as nothing before him, but of his kingdom there shall be no end.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 14, 2016.

God of the Profits or God of the Prophets?

October 14, 2012 at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska

Text: Amos 5: 6-7, 10-15, 18-24

This morning I ask you which of the gods we will bow down and serve: the god of the profits, the organizing principle for those who were at ease in prophet Amos’ time, or the God of the Prophets who thundered against excessive profits in the marketplace?

Some will say that’s too simple.

Amos didn’t think so. Isaiah didn’t think so. Micah didn’t think so. Jeremiah didn’t think so. Jesus didn’t think so. Mohandas Gandhi didn’t think so.  We’ve heard from Amos and from Jesus.  Here’s what Gandhi called the Seven Deadly Sins of Society. The first sin on Gandhi’s list is

  • “Wealth without Work,” and the last is
  • “Worship without Sacrifice.”

Less than one month before we go to the polls to cast our votes for candidates for public office, I put before you from this pulpit the question of which God you will serve.

Will you commit yourself, or re-commit yourself, to the God of the biblical prophets, or will you line up your life and your values behind the god who thinks there’s no problem with wealth without work, worship without sacrifice?

I have never been more troubled in my life than I am today. It’s not because belong to a political party. It’s not that I want my team to win and the other team to lose. It’s because I believe in the God of the Prophets. I wake up every morning to scripture. And what do the scriptures say?

There were two sets of scripture that informed Jesus’ life. The Torah (also referred to as “The Law”) and the Hebrew prophets. “All the Law and the prophets are summed up in this: You shall love the Lord your God…and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus put the Voice of the prophets in the center of Jewish faith and life. Often he sounds like Amos.

We celebrate the Beatitudes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or the Sermon on the Plain. We read in Luke’s Gospel:

“He lifted up his eyes on his disciples and said,

  • ‘Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
  • ‘Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.
  • ’Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.”

And our hearts rejoice. Because some of us, like Jesus’ first disciples, live in poverty; some of us know what it is to be hungry. Some of us are weeping now, wondering when we will laugh again.

Jesus consoles us. And these words of consolation are lifted up in the churches, as they should be.

But you can’t stop reading there if you want to follow Jesus. For in the very next lines of Jesus’ Sermon to his disciples, he echoes the thundering voice of the prophet Amos and his Woes:

  • “’But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation.
  • “’Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger.
  • “’Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.’”?

Jesus is calling it like it is. He is describing the revolution of economics, political power, and redistribution of wealth that is the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is an economy – God’s economy. The economy preached by the biblical prophets and Jesus. The world of our best dreams where no stomach is empty, no one goes hungry; no one goes without health care. No one lives on the street under the viaduct, or in a car. No longer will those who have laugh at or pass by those who don’t.

The message of Jesus does console. It comforts the afflicted. But it also afflicts the comfortable. It causes trouble. It makes waves. It speaks the truth. It cuts through the lies that keep the privileged privileged.  It calls us to take responsibility in the here and now – to implement in the most practical ways the summary of the Law and Prophets. The over-riding question for the Christian is HOW to love my neighbor as myself? How to live now in the economy of God as the protest of hope and love within the economy of greed, disparity. How to live NOW as those whose worship DOES mean sacrifice.

A businessman notorious for his ruthless pursuit of profits once announced to Mark Twain that before he died, he meant to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. “I will climb Mount Sinai,” said the ruthless profiteer, “and I will read the Ten Commandments out loud from the top of Mount Sinai.”

“I have a better idea,” said Twain, with a twinkle in his eye. “You don’t have to go to the Holy Land. You could stay home in Boston and keep the commandments.”

Earlier in his life, Samuel Clemens (who became known as Mark Twin) had been a young reporter in Virginia City.  He was walking along the street one day with a cigar box under his arm when a wealthy lady acquaintance said to him scornfully, “You promised me that you would give up smoking.”

“Madam,” he said, “this box does not contain cigars. I’m just moving.

Today we are asked to make a decision of stewardship. In three weeks we will make other decisions in the voting booth. As we consider these decisions, remember Amos yourself which God of the Prophets/Profits your decisions will honor. Will your action bear witness to the economy of greed and extravagance, the world of Gandhi’s Seven Deadly Sins?

  • Wealth without Work
  • Pleasure without Conscience
  • Science without Humanity
  • Knowledge without Character
  • Politics without Principle
  • Commerce without Morality
  • Worship without Sacrifice

Or will your decisions proclaim with Jesus the different Kingdom for which every heart longs to celebrate?

In conclusion, a writer named Ted Kooser invites you to think of yourself as a Daddy Longlegs.  You know the Daddy Longlegs, those strange creatures with those tiny little brown bodies like a small brown pill, walking across the floor on those eight long legs.

“Here, on fine long legs springy as steel,

A life rides, sealed in a small brown pill

That skims along over the basement floor

Wrapped up in a single obsession.

Eight legs reach out like the master ribs

Of a web in which some thought is caught

Dead center in its own small world,

A thought so far from the touch of things

That we can only guess at it.

If mine, it would be the secret dream

Of walking alone across the floor of my life

With an easy grace, and love enough

To live on at the center of myself.

You don’t have to go to the Holy Land to read the commandments from Mt. Sinai. Walking on your eight long legs across the floor of your life, you can walk with an easy grace, and with love enough to live on at the center of yourself…You can make love real today right here in Minnesota.