Mother Katherine’s sermon preached Feb. 21, 2021

Posted by on Sun, Feb 21, 2021 in Lent, Sermons

The First Sunday in Lent

February 21, 2021

Lent has begun, starting with Ash Wednesday and continuing on for forty days (minus Sabbath days) until Easter. Our gospel today speaks of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, and we feel invited along with him. Over these Lenten Sundays we notice Jesus sounds different, or rather our gospel readings do — there are no healing scenes, no miracles, no calling of disciples, and we will not hear of him drinking or eating a meal until the Passion reading on Palm Sunday when first he is betrayed at the table and then offers bread and wine to the disciples as his body and blood. What do we hear in these Sundays? We hear tension, confrontation, and we hear Jesus teaching his most powerful truths, and also the most difficult ones. Rarely does anyone tell me they love confrontation or can’t wait to enter into the tension of disagreement, more often I hear of how badly it can go. Jesus shows the way by speaking unvarnished truth, and we’re introduced to his authority to do so at his baptism when the heavens are forever torn apart and the Spirit of God descends into him.

Why is this a big deal? Because for the Jewish people prophesy had ended and would not be restored until the end times. This is not Jesus claiming or trying to convince anyone that God is again speaking, this is both the voice from heaven and a vision of the Spirit telling them! And then Jesus is driven ‘by the Spirit’ into the wilderness. Why not test him right where he is, in front of everyone? I wonder, what is it about ‘the wilderness’? What might be our ‘wilderness’?

Mark gives the most abbreviated version here and skips the three tests by the devil and also skips any mention of how well Jesus does in the face of this testing. Forty wilderness days with beasts and angels and testing would certainly change him. We engage this time as essential and formative, Jesus’ story becomes our story at some level, important enough that a version of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness is told every year on the first Sunday in Lent, clearly our liturgical forebears wanted us to pay attention to it.

This confrontation between Jesus and Satan placed at the start of Mark’s gospel is not only about them, it’s about the Spirit who drove Jesus out there. Is Jesus being portrayed as unwilling to go, I wonder? The Spirit has come into him, filled him, signified his mission, and then the Spirit drives him into the wilderness to battle Satan. The same word for drove out is used later when Jesus drives a demon from someone possessed, when casting out unclean spirits. Is he being strengthened for this work? Wilderness isn’t necessarily a bad place, although the wild beasts make me wary. John came from the wilderness, and it’s where Jesus repeatedly goes to pray. Again I wonder what is it about wilderness? Is it not only a place for testing confrontation, and perhaps also a generative place of strength and discovery of the Spirit within us? It is certainly where we glimpse what God is seeking to do through this Spirit-inhabited Jesus. 

Throughout Lent we will see Jesus in situations of conflict or confrontation, and will do so with Mark, and also with John, Luke, and then back to Mark. More than the others, Mark shows Jesus’ ministry as confronting evil or anything contrary to God’s working within humankind for the good. Jesus fist act in Mark, beyond speaking and calling disciples, is to cast out an unclean spirit from a man in the synagogue, a spirit which screams at Jesus and fights for control of the man. It’s not a lovely liturgical moment or polite extrication, this is loud confrontational restoration of a man possessed. We see Jesus unafraid of the danger as tensions are heightened. 

We are getting a foretaste of the strong spiritual concerns of this gospel, and instead of dealing with political authorities or people who don’t understand, we see Jesus concerned with what oppresses our spirits, chains our bodies, impedes our minds and gifts. The wild beasts of the wilderness? We too are in a spiritual struggle as we navigate our wilderness, hoping to see angels more than bests.

We listen in on the story of a conversation between Noah and God in our Genesis reading. God will set God’s bow in the clouds as a sign of his promise not to flood the earth again. Remember that a bow is a weapon, (it does not say ‘rainbow’) and God is laying down that weapon, even setting it to point away from humankind. It is an enormous sign of their covenant, reassuringly seen whenever it rains. God says, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” Noah knew ‘wilderness’ after 40 days at sea! Wild beasts too — and we hear God’s sign is for both Noah and God. Noah need not fear another such flood, knowing God too will see the bow and remember their frightening forty days of seasick uncertainty and feeling ‘tested’ by an ark full of animals — and God will be faithful to the covenant between them.

Wilderness may be where we’re unwillingly driven, or where we seek solitude and prayerfulness. Is it daunting and scary, or inviting, calming? We know it not as a physical place so much as a spiritual one. The cover of your bulletin has a photograph most of you have seen each year at the entrance to our worship space, so now it is at the entrance to your individual worship spaces. It’s a semi-steep cobblestone road, and it might show the wilderness of Lent to you as it does to me. Is it wet from forty days of rain or from a brief cleansing shower that makes the quiet dawn feel sacred? Are you plodding up the hill because you have to, or starting at the top, enjoying the last colors of sunset as you slowly amble down. God is with us in the Lenten wilderness, it is not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – it is as Jesus’ baptism revealed; the Spirit of God within us as we go, and we go joining into Jesus’ proclamation of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus embodies the in-breaking of God’s kingdom, God’s reign. Like ‘wilderness’ it is no physical or geographic place, rather the beginning of a new time. The tearing open of the heavens at Jesus’ baptism tears open the veil between God and humankind, revealing God’s intention for all creation. “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand.” And it continues to be such a time! Mark conveys an urgency and reach beyond the immediate scene he punctuates. Something has happened and the reverberations have begun. The people of God aren’t being gathered and sent to a distant place of safety or milk and honey, those who hear and heed Jesus’ message see new possibilities, new realities — not elsewhere, but in this newly accessible torn-open relationship with God through God’s Son.

Jesus’ words and actions will show this is about more than our individual spiritual lives, it calls on us to rethink how all of society’s life is carried out, and no facet of this life is exempt from working to live into God’s reign. We may call this ‘good news,’ but not everyone will. It threatens some authorities, structures, privileges, it casts light on our choices, individually and collectively. Theologian William Placher wrote, “What Jesus is beginning is the transformation of this world. That is why those in charge of this world, as it was, ended up killing him.” (On Mark, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible; Louisville, Westminster John Knox, 2010.) We who follow the living Christ must carry on that transformation.

Let us pray.

Holy Spirit, we give thanks for your coming into each of us, and in this faith family. Be ever lively and strong within us in the wilderness; in times of tension, in hard work, in confronting evil and casting it out, and in our solitude and prayers. May we know God’s reign as we walk with Christ, and in times of trial receive the ministrations of angels. Amen.

© 2021 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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