Crucified between the sky and the earth
By Charles Qualls
A friend of mine who is a pastor now tells the story from his football days at a small community college in Kansas. One Wednesday night, he was walking into the building after a workout just as a worship service held in the basement of his dorm was letting out. He noticed the smudges of ash on the foreheads of everyone he met. The smudges were in the shape of a cross, all of them.
He asked his roommate, “What’s the deal with the smudge?” His roommate had been to the service and explained to him that this was Ash Wednesday. The beginning of Lent. This was the sign of the cross on their foreheads, marking the beginning of a time of awareness. He says that was the single moment that caused him to ponder his faith more deeply. Even more, it was the impetus for him becoming serious about practicing his faith. Going back to church.
He says, “I know it sounds silly. But I wanted that smudge. I wanted to be there to do what those people who were taking their faith seriously were doing.” He adds, “The next year at that time, I was down in the little chapel in the basement with them and I received the ashes on my forehead.”
In Mark 1: 9-15, I wonder what caused Jesus to say, “I’m going to go down to the Jordan. This is it. I’m going to go out there where all the other people are going and see what John is talking about there near the river.”
Have you ever pondered the possibilities? Maybe he didn’t have it all fixed in his soul just yet. Maybe there as he came up out of the waters, having just responded to a beckoning out into the wilderness and to be baptized, maybe that’s when he heard his own call to ministry. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Maybe that’s where something started to come together for Jesus.
Christian thinker Parker Palmer has said, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” Something in Jesus responded to what he heard. I wonder what that “something” was? Before you dismiss it too easily, too flippantly, as his divine nature or the prompting of the Holy Spirit, let’s journey with him a little further. Because his story is our story. We’d better get to know it a little better.
Do you know who you are? In baptism, you are the beloved of God without anything that you have to do to earn God’s love and affirmation. You are lifted up out of the water, and God’s love touches your life. Then, in our story the Spirit drives Jesus into the desert. God’s spirit leads us too. The angels took care of him. Mark does not give us the details of the temptation. We only know from Mark that Jesus was in a difficult spot and the angels attended to him. Even in our wilderness moments, God attends us, too.
This is not an easy journey for us to take! It’d be easier if I just left all of us alone, starting with me. But God expects us to journey intently. Henry Creel, a pastor older than me observed recently, “Sometimes you are in the wilderness and find God, and sometimes you are in the wilderness and find yourself.”
I wonder what keeps us from hearing this affirmation that we are God’s beloved? What makes us wonder, like my friend Kevin, why we might be ineligible to get the smudge? In his wilderness time Jesus met up with his temptation and faced it down with a strength and resolve that could only come from God. In being lifted up to live like Christ, we’ll need a similar strength and resolve. That can only come from God.
Fred Craddock says, “I’m crucified between the sky of what I intend to be and the earth of my performance.” So it is with us, in our imperfection. Our greatest chance is to stand alongside other believers as we journey through life. During this season of Lent, it is especially important to take the steps of this journey. Then, like Jesus, we accept the unmerited grace of a God who has loved us for our entire lives.
THE REV. DR. CHARLES QUALLS is the pastor of Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 757-562-5135.