1st Sunday in Lent
February 22, 2015
Has this ever happened to you? You’ve committed to a new healthy practice – giving up smoking, losing weight, setting aside time to read your Bible and pray every day. You have it all planned; bought the groceries, set aside the proper time and place, enlisted a buddy to walk with you at the times you usually light up, etc. And then the whole world falls apart. Your Mom ends up in the emergency room in Chicago and you have to fly back to be with your family and start making hard health decisions for your parents. Your refrigerator fails and your groceries go bad and you’re eating out for days. You have a special project at work that requires that time you thought would be perfect for prayer. It seems as if the whole world conspires against any change that is healthy and good for you. Or you could say it like – every time you make a commitment to come closer to God and do God’s work, the Devil is at work trying to pull you away from your carefully laid plans. Why? Why is it so hard to make changes for the good?
Today’s story from Mark’s Gospel is kind of like that. You’ve heard this story before, we read it on the celebration of Jesus’ baptism only a few weeks ago. The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is the first reading in Lent every year. I remember when we read from Mark’s Gospel three years ago, and I heard the phrase “he was with the wild beasts” for the first time. Really heard it. As I was imagining you sitting there in your accustomed spots I remember thinking that you all know what it feels like to be in the wilderness with the wild beasts. It’s reassuring to know that Jesus knows about the wilderness, so that we can know he walks with us in our own wilderness.
What catches my ear today is that it is the Spirit that descended into him in his baptism that drives him out into the wilderness. What? Immediately, says the Evangelist. While the other Gospel writers tell us some of the dialogue between Jesus and the Devil, Mark just tells us that he was there for 40 days – the Bible’s way of saying it was a really long time, seemingly endless. Jesus has just heard that he is God’s Beloved, and now he’s out there doing battle with all the forces that want to pull him off-track and send him home. It’s a long struggle, and God sends angels to serve him. I think it’s important for us to know that struggling to be true to the new name and new standing you have been born into is hard work, even for Jesus, but that you can survive it. You can win against those forces that want to drag you back into your old ways. No matter the circumstances that make it hard to be true to the new life that claims you, God’s Spirit is with you, the angels wait on you, as you do battle.
I am in no way even suggesting that the wilderness times or the struggles we have to stand up against the tragedies in our lives are God’s way of testing our faith, or teaching us a lesson, or punishing us for our failures. I do not believe that God works that way. I do believe that God sends the Spirit to strengthen us in our trials and angels to walk side by side with us. Those struggles shape us. They deepen our faith, they teach us that we can trust God’s promise of strength and presence. They teach us to depend on each other, because sometimes the angels that surround us are from our faith community. Their prayers might be the power we need when we feel that our own prayers aren’t strong enough. Their stories of their own battles may give us the courage we need. Sometimes that’s how God shows up for us when we can’t see clearly.
The Gospel tells us that John was arrested before Jesus comes to Galilee to proclaim the good news of God. Perhaps even that was part of the Devil’s attempt to scare Jesus off. Imagine how easy it would have been to say, “Oooops, not a good time.” But instead, it seems to be the trigger for Jesus to stake his claim against all the forces of evil, political, religious, psychological. “The time is fulfilled,” he says, “the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe the good news.”
Today’s Gospel reading is set into two readings that encourage us to see that wilderness and struggle are not the end of the story. After the flood,(Genesis 9:8-17) God’s promise is that the world will never again be destroyed by flood. “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth…I will remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” And in the reading from 1 Peter,(3: 18-22) we see Jesus in heaven, victorious over all the powers and authorities that can claim us and harm us.
Lent is a time to remember that we are flawed, that we are on our way from dust to dust, that God came in Jesus to rescue us from the evil we meet in our own hearts. No matter how hard we try, we cannot be good enough to earn God’s love and forgiveness. All our rightness as God’s people is a gift won through Jesus’ death and resurrection. And all we can give in return is to live in a way that makes God proud of us, loving the way God loves and working to make the world into the one God imagines. And we trust that the power that walked with Jesus in the wilderness to overcome the wiles of Satan is the same power that walks with us every day.