You can see this and previous sermons along with the Sunday’s prayers and music on our Facebook page, Congregational Church of Northridge-UCC

Where is God in the midst of a tragedy?  Pastor Roger explores this challenging topic.

The Kingdom is Near
January 24, 2021 Mark 1:1-20

I wonder if you’ve ever had a crisis of faith.

I have, and like most people mine came at a time of personal trial.

We may have been believers all our lives,

  • but when the doctor avoids eye contact as he reads our lab results,
  • when our boss asks us to sit down and then closes the door behind her, or
  • when the one for whom we prayed so fervently fails to get better

… well, at those times we can’t help but wonder where God is when we need Him the most.

Or maybe your crisis of faith is now, during our national conflict and raging pandemic.

Frankly, if we don’t have some crisis of faith, then we are just not paying attention.

The Gospel of Mark doesn’t soft-pedal this reality.

In this gospel, in abrupt, almost rapid-fire succession Jesus goes from one tragedy, conflict or disease after another.

And it is in this gospel that we encounter the desperate father pleading with Jesus to heal his son.

Jesus says he has to believe and the father says, (Mark 9:24) I do believe; now help my unbelief.

Mark begins his narrative with God pulling out all the stops at Jesus’ baptism – there was no missing what was happening:

Mark 1:10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open (schizo) and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.

That Greek word schizo means ripped apart or torn asunder.

And in case Jesus wasn’t paying attention, God spoke His anointing from heaven,

Mark 1:11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

No doubt, God had arrived on the scene, so the powers of darkness must have run for their lives, right?

No – as a matter of fact, Jesus immediately finds himself in the wilderness going toe to toe with Satan – something that Matthew and Luke explain in detail.

Jesus withstood Satan’s temptations but didn’t defeat him in the wilderness.

In Luke’s account, the devil simply withdrew for a more opportune time.

As if to make this point, in the very next verse we learn that John the Baptist had been thrown into prison where he will later be beheaded – his life snuffed-out on the whim of Herod’s flirtatious stepdaughter.

It’s in the midst of all these assaults that Jesus proclaims,

Mark 1:15a “The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

By the way, Jesus does not say the Kingdom is here … he says it has come near.

Apparently, there is still opposition, work to be done and attitudes to be changed – and it begins with repenting.

Now, repenting means turning around and going a different way.

I like the Amplified Version of the Bible because it tries to put into English the nuances of Hebrew or Greek that get lost in translation.

Here’s Mark 1:15b (Amp) “…repent [change your inner self—your old way of thinking, regret past sins, live your life in a way that proves repentance]…”

Jesus understood that this kind of life-change doesn’t happen by wishful thinking – it requires commitment, the power of the Holy Spirit and a strong community.

As a matter of fact, what does Jesus do in the very next verse?

He starts to gather his community by calling Simon, Andrew, James and John who were fishermen in Galilee – smelling of fish and looking every bit like the working-class folks that they were.

This would be like God calling Walmart clerks in Shelbyville, Indiana to become disciples.

Here we are, just 20 verses into the gospel and Jesus has been anointed by the Father, confronted by Satan, announced that the Kingdom is near for those who travel life in new ways, and formed a community of ordinary people whom he will instruct about living a kingdom life and confronting sin and evil.

That’s got to be good news for us who may be struggling with our faith, our pasts, and just getting on with life in these difficult times.

Jesus frequently returns to his teaching that one of the essential steps into the Kingdom that is near is forgiveness because holding on to guilt, anger and resentments is corrosive to our spirit.

October 2, 2006 brought a crisis of faith to an Amish community near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

32-year-old Charles Roberts was angry with God because of the loss of his newborn daughter a few months earlier.

He’d wondered if this was punishment for his supposedly molesting two young girls twenty years earlier.

His anger and guilt came to a head when he walked into the one-room school in the Amish hamlet of West Nickle Mines.

After a terrifying half-hour, he released the teacher and the boys and shot the ten remaining girls, killing five and leaving one with severe brain damage – and then taking his own life.

His intent had been to molest the girls before killing them, but the quick arrival of police interrupted his plans.

Unfortunately, another mass shooting like this is normally headline news for only a short time, but what sustained people’s attention, confusion and anger was the Amish community’s response.

The day of the shooting, they took food to Charles’ widow, and the next week attended his graveside service where they prayerfully encircled his family.

Charles’ mother Terri said she could feel the love emanating from them.

They also gave Charles’ family money to help with their expenses.

The Amish response confounded many and angered others.

Forgiveness is rooted deep in the Amish psyche as for generations they have followed what they believe is Jesus’ mandate.

But this was no easy task, and if we trivialize or romanticize what they did we may miss the potentials for ourselves because we may feel it is something beyond our ability.

After the shooting, the Amish community understood their responsibility to forgive, but as one of the parents later explained, it took a long time for their feelings to catch up with their intentions.

On the tenth anniversary of the shootings, Linda Fisher, one of the girl’s mother, explained, “It’s not a once and done thing. It is a lifelong process.”

Two of Christ Stoltzfus’ daughters were shot, one was killed, and he had to make the decision to forgive.

You see, forgiveness starts with a decision … not to whitewash what happened, or to ignore our feelings, or to remove the consequences facing the offender … but a decision to believe Jesus’ promise and to begin the journey of letting go.

Forgiveness is to free ourselves from the poison of anger and bitterness.

Forgiveness is to let go of the right to have a perfect yesterday.

He said, “(Forgiveness is) a journey. I still made that immediate choice in principle. But it took me a few years until I could feel that I really meant it inside me, to forgive Charlie.”

At the point when he did find the compassion, he said, “I felt a great weight falling off me. I felt lighter.”

But, he explained, that feeling does not arrive if you forgive merely out of obligation.

And others made clear that this was possible because of their community, together striving to live out Jesus’ commandments and caring for one another along the way.

I keep coming back to the 23rd Psalm where God promises to walk with us through the dark valley.

It’s a valley, not a cul de sac, and God doesn’t always take us on an alternate route around it.

Rather, the Kingdom Jesus proclaims begins here and now as we and God engage in this world with all its beauty and blessings – and, yes – with all of its crises and curses.

Aaron Esh, the parent of a boy who escaped the shooter but spent years psychologically immobilized by the trauma, said the bereaved parents started to look at forgiveness as “the one good thing that can come out of this tragedy.”

Within days of when the community erected a new school building the following April, the Virginia Tech shooting occurred where a gunman killed 32 students, and some of their parents turned to the Amish community for counsel about how to process their loss.

Then in 2012, parents and others from West Nickle Mines were invited to meet with parents and teachers of Sandy Hook Elementary School – and making the bus trip to Connecticut with them was Terri Roberts, the shooter’s mother.

Aaron Esh says, “Terri rode in a bus with us to Sandy Hook and the families and teachers there could not believe that we would even associate with her, let alone that she would come up there with us.”

Terri faithfully makes weekly visits to help care for Rosanna King, whom her son shot in the head leaving her with severe brain damage and seizures.

I hope that none of us ever faces a tragedy like this, but we can learn from people who have gone through extreme situations.

None of the people involved in this tragedy would trivialize how agonizing the process of forgiveness is, but neither would they minimize the gifts of healing that came from it.

This is tough stuff – the kind of stuff Jesus faces with us.

Without forgiveness, it is like trying to drive across town while glued to your rearview mirror.

I spent years replaying a few hurts done to me – and especially ways that I had really messed up in the past.

I don’t know what your playlist might be – some way you were cheated, ways you failed a loved one, addiction, financial irresponsibility, abuse you suffered or caused … all the stuff of life.

Jesus not only wants you to let go so you can move on in your one, precious life, he also wants you to use those painful experiences to learn the process of forgiveness – so that you’re equipped to more easily move through future hurts.

In a small way, may the suffering of the Amish community of Nickel Mines not be wasted on us.

May their example of forgiveness help us to more fully embrace our life.