February 18, 2018

Lent 1   February 18, 2018   Ps 25, Genesis 9:8-17, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15 

In the wilderness

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Every year on the first Sunday in Lent, we head for the wilderness… Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels all tell the story of Jesus tempted by Satan forty days in the wilderness. St Matthew and St Luke talk about Jesus fasting for the whole forty days, and describe the temptations offered by Satan.

But St Mark tells the wilderness temptation story in barely two sentences – saying nothing about Jesus fasting – nor giving any description of Jesus’ testing. But Mark does tell us – the same Holy Spirit who descends on Jesus like a dove in his baptism –  now immediately drives him out into the wilderness for forty days, where he’s tempted by Satan. And Mark alone among the gospel writers tells us – Jesus is with the wild animals – and the angels wait on him.

Then with barely a pause – John the baptizer’s arrested – and Jesus is back in Galilee, proclaiming “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is near. Repent! Turn your life around! Believe the good news!

Mark, the gospel writer (the word gospel means good news) has his own sparsely-worded-way-of-telling-the-story. Mark uses words like “immediately,” “right away,” and “at once” so often it can sound as if the whole story’s one-long-run-on-sentence. Which is probably intentional to grab our attention – and get us pondering life’s short span and our need to not wait, but get with Jesus now, while we can… Right away…

But this speeded-up-telling-of-the-story sounds a little extra strange here – as we’re talking about hurrying immediately to be spending forty days with God in the wilderness. An activity which surely demands slowing life down…

Yet St Mark is describing life today. A recent issue of Christian Century magazine has an advertisement from a Trappist monastery that says – Be a monk. For a month. For a year. Suggesting – We’ll work with you around your schedule and whatever amount of time you can make. (And I won’t be surprised if next month the message will be tweaked to say: Be a monk. For an hour. Half a day. While you’re sleeping…) And I’m pretty sure I’d have to be forcibly driven by the  Spirit, like Jesus, to be able to even begin to seriously plan a forty day retreat.

Mark’s gospel tells the story in a bit of a hurry… even when Jesus is on retreat with the angels and wild animals… And we may notice – Mark gives no indication of whether these animals are fierce or friendly. Mark likes to leave those details to our imagination, like a spiritual Rorschach Test. Interpreters over the centuries have imagined it both ways. And probably both fierce and friendly are in play… Mountain lions, bears and wolves can be dangerous. Yet we also have Isaiah’s vision (Isaiah 40, 65) of God’s peaceable kingdom – where the wolf and lion and bear live in divine harmony with cows, sheep and people. The danger is real. The opportunity for grace is even more real.

Likewise the temptations and testings from Satan are real. (The same biblical word means both tempting and testing.) But the presence of God’s angels and God’s Spirit is more real. The battle between God and evil is never a battle between equals. Satan and evil are permitted to do what they do for a season. They will perish. God’s triumph is assured… And even now, God is with us in the wilderness…

And as we go again into the wilderness for the season of Lent, its good to be reminded of God’s covenant with all living creatures in our reading from Genesis. Human behavior was so violent, corrupt and depraved that God pulls the plug and floods the earth… Yet after the flood God says never again. And God sends the rainbow sign in the clouds as a reminder to himself – God reminding God – never again will I let flood waters wipe out creation. And this covenant is for all flesh, all living creatures… Birds, bees, cattle, sheep, wild animals, cats and dogs – fish, whales, and dolphins.

And the wilderness is where God gives this wild blessing and bookmarks it with the rainbow sign, in the first book of the bible. And in the last book of the bible, Revelation (4-5), the rainbow sign again is on display, now in heaven, around the throne of God, and “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea…” join in singing praises to God and to the Lamb – praises and blessings forever… The covenant God has made on earth is confirmed forever now in heaven…

And though it can seem like very strange territory… The wilderness is a familiar biblical setting. Wilderness is where Israel puts God to the test repeatedly after God brings Israel out from slavery in Egypt. Wilderness is also where God tests Israel in return, all the way to the promised land. God and Israel test each other, forty years in the wilderness… Like a married couple, deeply in love yet very troubled in the relationship… Undergoing many a near-divorce… Only to be drawn back together again… by the love of God…

The wilderness is the place of testing and temptation. The wilderness is also the place of blessing. The prophets Isaiah and Hosea speak of God calling Israel back into the wilderness, wooing Israel to repent and again be a faithful partner for God. It will all be worth it, Isaiah says (51:3): “For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.”

The wilderness of temptation and testing will become like the garden of Eden – filled with glad joyful songs of praise and thanksgiving.

And… Good news! We don’t have to travel far to be in the Holy Land. We don’t have to become monks in a monastery, nuns in a cloister, even for a day or a month to enter the wilderness with Jesus… (Though I have been thinking rather wistfully… about taking a week or two… for a spiritual retreat… some day…) And again… We don’t have to venture out afar to find wilderness.

For all manner of wilderness has come to us. Urban wilderness. Suburban wilderness. Political wilderness. Cultural wilderness…

The specifics of wilderness, temptation and testing will vary from wilderness to wilderness. We may be tempted by sugar-coated demons of materialism… We may be tempted to join in the sound and fury of endless recriminations… Blaming others, blaming anyone but ourselves… We may be tempted to repay violence with violence…hatred with hatred… apathy with apathy… And beneath any and all symptoms of spiritual illness…we can usually find… the indifference and hardness of heart Mother Teresa speaks of (in our Thought for the Week) – the conditions Christ calls us to repent of most urgently…

And real repentance – real transformation – is something we can really only do… As we come to believe, as Teresa tells us to believe – that Jesus wants most of all our love – and the chance to love us… (The ultimate temptation of Satan the deceiver is the temptation to stop loving.)

In the wilderness we should fully expect to encounter testing and temptation. Yet even in the darkest wilderness – when we’re in relationship with Jesus – the angels of God are with us. Speaking to us – often in a still-small-voice like the voice Elijah heard in the wilderness on the mountain (1 Kings 19). Speaking to us also through human messengers, reminding us of the word of God. Angels and messengers of God, speaking words of hope and healing…Speaking helping words…

And yes, we need wilderness testing – just like ball players need Spring training. Without testing we become spiritually flabby, and forget our roles as people of God made in the image of God – forget our roles as arms and legs, hands and feet of Jesus, together in the body of Christ…

We need time – and plenty of time – for all the spiritual practices Jesus teaches. Prayer. Fasting, meaning abstaining from whatever hinders our relationship with God. Generous giving. Gracious forgiving. Above all, long practice in the love of God and neighbor. Taking up the gentle cross of Jesus… in the traditional Lenten practices… that help to bring us into renewal of life…

And of course…  the world needs to hear the good news of Jesus here and now…all the more… In this dark age when school shootings are no surprise… and we can be all-but-certain neither Congress nor the President nor we ourselves in our own strength will be able to say what needs to be said… and do what needs to be done…

Yet again, if we are in relationship with Jesus Christ we know… God is able. We know…We ourselves are not able apart from Jesus… But with Jesus all things are possible…

So I invite us to join together in prayer –

Holy and gracious Lord, we pray – Send your Spirit anew… Do whatever is necessary, Lord God – to get us going, and keep us going…rightly doing all the faith-renewing-hope-restoring-time-with-God-practices we so desperately need… And help us, dear God –  in all our homes and workplaces and neighborhoods – to proclaim your good news humbly, yet boldly – speaking the truth in love – and letting it be known –

The time is fulfilled. God’s peaceable kingdom is at hand. Repent – turn to God. Believe the Good News.

 Jesus is here. Jesus is able. Jesus is willing.

May we trust in him always….and follow wherever he leads. Giving him all thanks and praise…. always and forever.

Thanks be to God. 

Amen.