“Time on the Bench”
Year B – 1st Sunday of Lent
Based on Mark 1:9-15
For 26 years, John Buchanan has pastored one of the great churches on the North
American continent: Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago, Illinois. The way John begins virtually
every service is with a Call to Worship that goes like this: “Startle us, O God, with your truth,
and open our hearts and minds to your word, that hearing, we may believe, and believing
trust our lives, this day and all the days that lie ahead, to your love in Jesus Christ our
Lord.” For the basketball fans amongst us the last couple of weeks have indeed been all about
being startled. Now I admit, I’m chiefly a college basketball fan, but if you watch Sports Center
on ESPN or even your local news or even if you’re not a basketball fan at all it would be pretty
hard to escape hearing the name Jeremy Lin. Why? Because Jeremy Lin has been doing some
pretty startling things. It seems all he had to do was to get off the bench.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark we find this first Sunday of the Lenten
season is ushered in by the twin stories of Jesus’ baptism and his immediate testing in the
wilderness. These are remarkably disparate events. On the one hand Jesus goes from an all
time high — a moment where the heavens are torn apart and the Holy Spirit, in the guise of a
dove, settles gently on his shoulder. A moment where the voice of God cries out to the world,
"You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." A moment to where the world
seems literally beneath his feet – to, on the other hand, being driven out into the wilderness to
run with the wild animals. Jesus goes from being heralded from the heavens to being banished
to the boondocks.
Now rather than focusing too deeply on the physical challenges posed by wilderness life,
I think it might be helpful to survey Jesus’ metaphorical banishment. In this case the
“wilderness” is biblical shorthand for the outskirts of acceptance. The edge of acceptability.
The place where those who have no place are banished. You know the place. We’ve all spent
time wandering in that wilderness. For some of us it was a childhood of neglect. For some of
us it was an adolescence of abuse. For some of us it might have included personal loss, prison,
alcoholism, failing health or tragedy. For yet others of us it was just a long, hard slog — a trek
that has taken stamina and steadfastness, to keep going – to find the right path and keep on it.
In the last few weeks all those “sloggers” have had reason to celebrate! Why? Because
Jeremy Lin has come in from the wilderness, gotten off the bench and startled the American
consciousness! Some of you, no doubt, are wondering just who is this Jeremy Lin? Well Lin is
a first generation Asian/ American who graduated from high school with a 4.2 GPA, aced the
Math SAT and later graduated with an economics degree from Harvard. He is also the first
NBA player in the history of the league to score at least 20 points a game and have at least 7
assists in his first 5 NBA starts. And the hype has been amazing. “Lin-mania,” “Lin-sanity,”
“Lin-destructability” has descended upon a world of crazed “Lin-phomaniacs.” NBA
Commissioner David Stern when asked if any player besides Michael Jordan has been
responsible for generating as much revenue as Lin, responded, "I haven't done a computation,
but it's fair to say that no player has created the interest and the frenzy in this short period
of time in any sport that I'm aware of like Jeremy Lin has." All this hoopla seems to have
come “suddenly” out of nowhere. But in reality, there is no “suddenly” in Jeremy Lin’s story.
For you see Jeremy Lin is a “wilderness” survivor.
Jeremy Lin was a great basketball player for years. He captained his high school team to
the California state championship with a record of 32 and 1 while being named first team all
state – but still the college recruiters didn’t come. His “dream” school, Stanford, paid him no
attention whatsoever. So Jeremy Lin began sending homemade videotapes of his game exploits
to a slew of colleges. But the only school that offered him a scholarship was a Division II
school, Palo Alto. Now Ivy league schools don’t offer basketball scholarships, but with his
alternatives limited, Jeremy Lin finally “settled” on a college hardly renowned for its
professional athletes: Harvard University. As a Harvard basketball player — isn’t that kind of
like being a Jamaican bobsledder? — Lin was harassed for his lack of muscle mass and his
Asian-American roots. But, again, his play, on the court was outstanding. By his Junior year
he was first team All Ivy League and the NCAA reports “was the only NCAA Division one
men’s basketball player who ranked in the top ten in his conference in scoring, rebounding,
assists, steals, blocked shots, field goal percentage, free throw percentage and three point
Now it might be noted that Harvard economics grads typically don’t suffer too many
hardships after obtaining their degrees. But coasting into a high paying Wall Street job wasn’t
on Jeremy Lin’s agenda. He wanted to play basketball, but the unfortunate reality was and is
that Harvard graduates have never been overly prized by the NBA. Still, Lin refused to give up
on his dream. He pestered the Golden State Warriors to sign him – and they did – but then they
assigned him to the basketball minor leagues, the D League, until finally dumping him in favor
of others who they thought had more potential. Then Lin was picked up by the Houston
Rockets, only to be “waived” again in favor of some new flavor. In the midst of the NBA
lock-out Lin was finally picked up by the New York Knicks. The Knicks proceeded to park him
on the bench until injuries and absences gave him an “in.”
Suddenly Jeremy Lin, the guy who had been sitting on the bench became the star of the
New York Knicks team. But let’s be clear – there was nothing “sudden” about this star moment
for Jeremy Lin. Lin had spent decades perfecting his skills, practicing his craft, sacrificing for
his advancement. He worked long hours, practiced and persevered, put up with harassment,
labored at the jobs we all take to make ends meet, slept on friends’ couches, and kept on going.
Jeremy Lin is now being lauded as some kind of amazing superstar. He is called
Super-Lin-tendo. His story is dubbed Lin-derella. But in reality Jeremy Lin is a ditch digger.
He has made his mark by continually working, chipping away at that which blocks his path, by
getting on with what he had to do, despite what others told him. Jeremy Lin is a wilderness
My friends the wilderness is a real and raw place. In today’s gospel reading Jesus is
driven into the wilderness. In effect he too was on life’s “bench.” And just like Jesus and
Jeremy Lin there are a host of people who are there as well. People who are struggling with
their own reality. People who are put down and told, “You’re not good enough,” or “You can’t
do it,” or “You can’t get out,” or “You’ll never make it.” But people who day by day, take the
challenges that they are given and strive to forge a new reality for their life. Who knows?
Those people could be one of us. It might even be you or me.
The Greek word ποµον is translated as either endurance or perseverance and
scripture is clear on its benefits. Romans 5:4 assures us that “endurance produces character,
and character produces hope.” Certainly, it is central to today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel
to understand the necessity and importance to persevere or endure. Certainly each of us is
called to spend some time on life’s bench away from the good times and the highlight reels,
struggling to overcome temptation, dealing with life’s challenges and molding ourselves in
Christ’s image. But this week as I read and meditated on today’s gospel passage it occurred to
me that there is something more to be gleaned here.
When Jesus emerged from the wilderness it wasn’t a sudden thing. His first public
speaking gig resulted in his being run out of town and it occurs to me to wonder, if we had lived
in those times would we have been one of the one’s who gave Jesus a real chance to see what he
could say and do? Perhaps Lent is also a season to remember that there are a lot of Jeremy
Lin’s in our world. People who just want a chance to prove what they can do, but who because,
of a variety of circumstances are never given the chance to get off life’s bench.
All too often I think that when we come to the season of Lent we tend to focus
exclusively on ourselves – and make no mistake about it introspection is a vital part of what we
are called to do this season. But I think that there is also the danger that when we focus so much
on our own temptations, on our own struggles, on our own time on the bench that we just might
miss the chance to help somebody else off of it. Obviously, I don’t know who that might be in
your life. For those of you who are in school maybe it’s the chance to see that there are others
beside your own clique that have gifts and importance – maybe you should look for a chance to
include them. For those of you who are employers maybe it’s the chance to give someone a
chance to show what they can do. For those of you who make decisions about the lives of
others perhaps it’s the chance to err on the side of compassion, love and giving someone a
chance. In the final analysis none of us know if there really is a star stuck on the bench. None
of us know who might end up “startling” us. But as Jeremy Lin and Jesus Christ remind us –
always be assured that there will be those who do.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.