Sermon for February 18, 2018
First Sunday in Lent
Texts: Psalm 51:10-15; Mark 1: 9-15
Sermon: "In and Out of the Wilderness"
We get out of bed, stretch a little, and put one foot ahead of the other. It is another day.
But on this day we look around and see a bleak and barren land out there. Even people around us take on a grey tone. We are in the wilderness.
Wilderness can creep up on us or it can happen suddenly -- just putting our feet on the floor and knowing that this is not going to be a good day.
Doubt and fear circle us like wild beasts.
Envy and pride creep into the circle, too.
Maybe the worst is that our faith droops; our knees sag.
Demons: there are just so many of them, and we did not mean to let them into our life; but there they are, ruling the day, taking charge of our hearts.
So that's the bad news -- the depressing reality of sometimes finding ourselves in the wilderness with those pesky beasts.
On the other hand, sometimes it is the wilderness time that God uses to get us straightened out again.
Wilderness is not always all bad.
Consider the Israelites. They needed wilderness time.
They needed the bleak and barren wild world around them to challenge them.
God made their world seem grey and challenging.
God commanded them to find a new and beautiful world by following him.
God wanted them to learn how to live before him, as his people.
Yes, the wilderness, for them, was a time when God for forty years tried to prepare them to be his model people and nation.
We need wilderness time, even when it is painful.
Mark in his Gospel offers a very short but powerful narrative about Jesus' time in the wilderness: Angels were with Jesus throughout the forty days he was there -- angels to protect, to reassure, to encourage him, and to love him.
Even Satan knew of the angels that watched over Jesus. Mark does not include the encounter with Satan that Matthew and Luke include, but in those two gospels, Satan cites Psalm 91, tempting Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the temple:
"For [the Lord] will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways," he quotes. "On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone." (Psalm 91:11-12)
Mark in his Gospel says, simply, that "the angels waited on him" (Mark 1:13).
Once, with a loved one at a big Texas medical center, I watched as procedures were done to prepare my loved one for surgery. Finally, a nurse said, "Now you will have to go. We're taking him into the operating room."
My heart ached. I felt it in my throat. I was alone and afraid. It was serious surgery. Where was my trust? Why did I not have complete faith that all would be well?
I made my way to the elevator to go to the waiting room. The elevator doors opened, and in front of me stood one of my dearest relatives who, unannounced, came to be with me.
She truly was my angel that day, unexpected, encouraging, loving, and kind. She lifted me from despair and self-pity, helping me to put the event in perspective.
The story of the temptation experience as told by Mark is short and a little harsh, abrupt. The Spirit of God DRIVES Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism by John; here are Mark's details for us:
Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness and there was tempted by Satan;
Jesus was with the wild beasts;
Jesus had angels to wait on him.
The one whose name we bear when we call ourselves Christians has modeled for us the perfect human life -- including standing up to Satan even in the midst of hunger and thirst and poverty and deep spiritual need.
The weeks coming up that will take us to Easter and the joyful celebration of the Resurrection are weeks in which we are called to prepare as Jesus prepared in the wilderness for the ministry that then lay before him.
No, we don't have to live in a wilderness state every day for the next forty days. But we might think about God's call to us in these days as a time:
To test our faith, to see where our strengths and weaknesses might lie;
To figure out anew what things tempt us and try to distract us from God's will;
To pray for our hearts to receive God's grace gratefully; and
To renew our covenant with God as his children and his church.
Preparing for Easter might seem premature now on this February Sunday. Easter is weeks away. But now is the time to prepare our hearts to receive the King of kings, the risen Christ, to be ready to feel the joy all over again. Will you prepare with me?
It means facing the world around us that is often hostile and full of wild beasts -- not the ones with claws and fangs but the wild beasts that are subtle forces in the world determined to destroy what we stand for. We are ever with the wild beasts.
Preparing for Easter means we open ourselves to the sometimes surprising, even scary work of the Holy Spirit. We love to speak and sing of the "sweet" Spirit -- but the Spirit is the One who can set us on fire. It is the Spirit who whisks us away into places we had never dreamed of going to become strong in the name of Jesus Christ.
See how the Spirit moves Jesus along on the path God has planned, even the path that places Jesus with the wild beasts:
After his baptism, Jesus came out of the water, the heavens were torn apart, the Spirit descended like a dove upon him, and a voice from above said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." It was a moment filled with the power of God.
And then, the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. There would be no delay, no bypassing the work God sent him to accomplish. God had a plan. Jesus knew what it was and what it meant. It would take him to Jerusalem. It would be a way of ups and downs, some joys along the way but the bitter end on the painful cross.
Dealing with Satan and the wilderness was indeed a test for Jesus. It was a preparation time as he prepared to walk to the place where he would take all the sins of the world on his shoulders.
Being attended by angels in the wilderness was for Jesus a sign of God's grace and assurance. Jesus was assured that the plan conceived from on high was indeed in the hands of his Father, who would see him through the dark days ahead.
You've heard frequently from me for the last few weeks that we will join Jesus on his journey to the cross in Jerusalem. Will you do that? Will you imagine making that walk with Jesus to the cross?
Can we in this coming season of Lent test our own strength against temptation that is all around us? Let's do that together.
What do you see taunting you and luring you into sinful thoughts, actions, or words that are contrary to God's plan for you and for us?
Every day we reach a crossroad where evil and God's way intersect. Will we make the right choices? Can we pledge to take God's way?
Yes, evil surrounds us, circles us. The wild beasts can be scary. Evil also is strangely appealing, tempting us with its sparkling but empty, false promises.
Every day we are with the wild beasts. Let us enter a season of prayer that asks for God's strength to oppose the beasts forcefully, to defeat the evil that lures us away from God.
Friends, let this be a time of examination and preparation for us. During the next six weeks, let's keep these questions before us:
Where do the devil's wild beasts threaten us?
Where do they try to steer us off God's path?
What makes us most afraid of facing a day, looking into the future?
We belong to God. And this is a time to reinforce our resolve to live out that identity -- children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ, God's church in the world. Let us challenge ourselves in daily living to assume that identity by serving in the name of Jesus Christ.
God sent angels to reassure Jesus in the wilderness of his presence. God in his wisdom gives us, too, reassurance of his presence and reaffirmation of the good news.
As he began his ministry, Jesus said simply, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news" (Mark 1:15).
Those words give us all we need to know about what God wants us to do -- repent of our sins, accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, give our lives to him, follow him, serving in gratitude in all the places where he takes us.
When we pray, "Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil," we pray with hopeful hearts. We are certain of that time to come, when God's will in heaven will be done on earth, when all hearts will be cleansed at last of the dark powers of Satan.
God in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit lovingly teaches us the way to be ready for whatever we face in this chaotic time in which we live. We have nothing to fear as we pass through the wilderness times of our lives -- not even the wild beasts let loose by Satan himself. God in Jesus Christ has given us that promise.
Go with confidence into the world, in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.