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Entering Lent

temptationsMark 1:9-13
Introduction to the reading
Mark’s Gospel is simple and straightforward. Lent has begun.

Listen again to Verses 12 and 13: And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

These two sentences say almost everything there needs to be said about a Lenten experience – and maybe also about life.

And the Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness.

Mark does not elaborate on Jesus’ baptism: no conversation with John the Baptist, as in Matthew; no long preamble about John’s work, as in Luke; no testimony from the Baptist himself, as in John. Simply this: the same Holy Spirit that descended upon him just two verses before now drives him into forty days of hell.

So what did the baptism accomplish? What did it do for him? What does baptism do for us?

  • Baptism establishes and confirms our identity. We are beloved children of God.
  • Baptism cleanses from sin. One might argue that Jesus did not need that; the sinless one did not need forgiveness nor did he need to repent. But we do, and since Jesus takes on humanness, he undergoes this purpose of baptism as well. There is a parallel here with infant baptism. It sounds harsh and unfair to label a new baby a sinner and yet, all human beings have sinfulness in their nature. Baptism offers a kind of protection, then, which says that sin does not define us; God’s love defines us. “Baptism is the sign and seal of God’s eternal covenant of grace with us.”
  • On a larger scale, baptism, through the symbolism of water, reaffirms God’s covenant with humankind. God claims us as his own; we belong to God. As the baptismal liturgy says: “Water cleanses; purifies; refreshes; and sustains.”

Jesus’ life, and our lives, are Holy Spirit driven, no matter what happens.

He was in the wilderness forty days… Think of all the descriptors for ‘wilderness’: empty, dry, barren, lifeless, very hot or very cold, all the opposites of the baptismal imagery. And alone; Jesus is apparently alone - no supportive community and what is worse, a sense that God is absent also. A “Godforsaken” place we might call it.

At one time or another, each one of us might find –probably will find - ourselves in a wilderness place. A friend or a loved one dies; you lose a job, have an accident, move away from family. Or you hear a dire word from a doctor: the cat scan shows…the blood work indicates… Or you experience some other spiritual desert place where you feel totally alone because of discouragement or doubt; depression or anxiety; anger turning to rage with no outlet. A terrible, horrible wilderness place, where you are alone with your imagination that runs wildly to the worst possible scenario.

…tempted by Satan... This little phrase speaks volumes. Satan, or evil, is a reality in the world and the wilderness is its major dwelling place. Mark does not tell us how Jesus was tempted, or tested (same basic Greek verb), how Satan tried to lure him into sinfulness. We do understand that the temptations lasted for the whole time he was there and so the phrase points to a long struggle. Jesus prevailed.
In Jesus’ time the reality of evil was often expressed as “being possessed” by demons, which Jesus many times exorcised. But during his ministry, Jesus pointed out other evils as well: perversion of sacred space, the temple; the love of money and neglect of the poor; pride; infidelity to God and to the covenant.

Do not similar evils raise their demonic heads in our own time? Are we not also “possessed”? The rich becoming richer on the backs of the less well-off; ostracizing immigrants instead of welcoming; failing to limit access to guns, leading to the violent murders we saw this past Wednesday in Florida.

…he was with the wild beasts… feral, untamed, threatening, dangerous, frightening…symbolic of powers hostile to God, evil made particular even if not specifically named.

What might be the wild beasts in our time? Think of all the issues that consume our attention: social and economic injustice; abuse of the earth, its resources and beauty; guns; health care; ethics, truth, respect, honesty, appreciation of diversity … war and threats of war; peace.

We cannot seem to address these issues without meanness and animosity, as if we were all enemies. We demonize those who see things differently than we do. The wild beasts prowl our communities, circle around our conversations. Evil takes hold.

If only we could remember the promises of baptism, see ourselves as beloved children of God. Perhaps then we could face these issues with a spirit of reconciliation, consensus and generosity for the common good.

Which leads to the final phrase: the angels waited on him. The angels ministered to him. God does not leave the scene. God is not absent. The angels, messengers from God, are there all the time.
And who are the angels for us?

They are the friends who bring you meals, who drive you to medical appointments, who make soup and bread, who look after your children when you’re sick. They are the ones who help out with money, who help you navigate the health care system, who go to court. They are the ones teach, defend, nurse in our communities. They are the ones who protest injustice, call out for civil rights, write letters to the editor and make demands of legislators on behalf of the common good. They are the ones who help us sing in right to the faces of wild beasts. They are the ones who simply sit with you and pray. The angels are the ones who demonstrate how very much God loves you.

There are angels all around, for this world is holy ground and our lives are Holy Spirit driven, no matter what happens.

We have now entered into the forty-day season of Lent, remembering that Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness, that place of deprivation, evils, and wild beasts – but also of angels. The angels can help us call to mind a different image of wilderness – a positive place of retreat, of intentionally finding a time to pray, to meditate and to listen for the holy voice.
This is good news, for the reality is that we spend a good deal of time otherwise – lost, alone, angry, anxious, tempted, wrestling with good and evil. So in Lent we have this designated time on the calendar to spend forty days not alone but with the One who has been there before us.

And to remember that our lives are Holy Spirit driven, no matter what happens.

Amen and amen.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
February 18, 2018

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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