words of my mouth

First Sunday in Lent

Genesis 9:8-17    Mark 1:9-15

For as far back as I can remember, Lent has been the season when people give up things. As a girl I had plenty of Roman Catholic friends who, without exception, every year gave up chocolate for Lent. As we entered our teenaged years, giving up chocolate was often replaced by giving up smoking. Some brave souls even vowed to give up both of these items for Lent. I can tell you with all certainty that 1) no one ever succeeded in keeping their vow of abstinence and 2) with the same degree of success, or lack thereof, many of these same friends are still giving up chocolate, smoking, or both, for Lent.

We have just left behind us the light and joy of the season of the Epiphany, a time to which we can all relate. Everyone loves light and joy, and we deal with them as adults. For some reason, though, the moment we enter the valley that is Lent, we seem to revert to the most childish of attitudes. “What are you giving up for Lent?”, was the question my friends asked each other, and the answers then, like the answers now, reflected a great lack of spiritual maturity. Lent isn’t here to help us diet or give up smoking. Lent is the time for us to make a spiritual breakthrough, to grow in love and service. Lent is here so we can deepen our relationship with God and with His Son Jesus, our Lord.

God said to Noah, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 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.

Today's readings might make us wonder if this is really the first Sunday in Lent. In Genesis, we hear about rainbows. It’s a fascinating reading, where God promises not to make the mistake of flooding the earth again. How, we wonder, could God have gotten it wrong, could He actually make a mistake? For the early Hebrews, their relationship with God was a learning and growing experience, not only for them, but also for God. After all, God had never had a chosen people before, and as they learned how to worship Him, He learned - -how to be God. After having flooded the world, God decides he will never do such a dreadful thing again.

It’s interesting that the rainbow is the symbol God chooses to seal His promise. In ancient Greek mythology, the rainbow was a negative sign, it meant disaster. Iris, the rainbow, was Juno’s handmaid and messenger. When Juno decided to flood the earth with watery chaos, it was Iris who brought the bad news. The rainbow was thus not to be happily anticipated. But the Hebrew God changes all this, He sets the bow in the sky, and He makes a new covenant with His people – one of light and colour and joy.

In todays’ Gospel from Mark, the skies open and the Spirit descends on Jesus as He stands in the waters of the Jordan after His baptism. He too brings a new covenant, a new testament, to God’s people. What we are meant to see in these readings is that God's Word is shattering the remnants of an old creation and making it all anew. Light is coming out of darkness, color is flowing from a raindrop, a new life is rising from the waters of baptism, and a Savior stands up, anointed by the Spirit in the waters of the Jordan. Like Noah coming to dry land after the flood, Lent is a new beginning.

 “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’"

The Gospel reading begins with a moment in time to be remembered. Those present were so impressed by what they had seen and heard that day, they would tell others who had not been there. The story spread, until finally after being passed on orally, it would become part of a written account in our Gospels. People would remember that day by the river Jordan. Many came to be baptized by John, but on this day a man who was somehow different would ask to be baptized. John seemed reluctant to baptize him, but the man insisted, so John did as he asked. Jesus is baptized, the dove descends, and the voice of God is heard. 

And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

In Mark’s gospel Jesus doesn’t choose to go out into the wilderness after His baptism. The image is harsh. The same Spirit in which we trust and on which we rely, drives Him out, like an animal, into the barren place, the empty wilderness, and there He is tested.

The test involves beating down temptations to follow the ways of the world instead of the pathway to God, temptations to give in to the seductive powers that work against love and grace. And then there is this passage; He was with the wild beasts. This amplifies the difficulty of Jesus’ time in the wilderness and serves as a symbol of the strength of the temptations that confronted him. The Greek word used for “beasts”, remember our English language New Testament is translated from the ancient Greek, refers to animals with a brutal nature – not Isaiah’s image of lambs lying down with lions. For Jesus, being tempted by Satan was as demanding as wild animals threatening to devour him.

As shocking as this must seem for us, that the Holy Spirit would drive Jesus out into such an extraordinary and painful situation, it can also be a source of comfort and strength. In each of our lives, trials will come, there will be sorrows, and the tendency we have is to wonder why. We ask God why “bad” things happen. We are puzzled, because we the baptized have forgotten that once Jesus was baptized, God sent Him, His own beloved Son out into an empty place. We haven’t remembered that though He’s alone, Jesus is comforted, in the form of angels, by the same Spirit that announced Him as God’s beloved and that required His 40-day test in a dark place of ultimate danger. We have forgotten that when He accepted His trial, the angels waited on Him; the Holy Spirit comforted and strengthened Him, and in our times of trial it will do the same for us if we allow it.

Evil can enter our lives when hard decisions need to be made, and we encounter it most strongly in those areas where we are weakest, in our desire to serve ourselves first, through greed, excessive pride, divisiveness and prejudice, gluttony of food and material possessions, the desire to control others, cowardice, faithlessness and many other forms of selfishness that draw us away from God.

These temptations that we fight are destructive. Satan’s beasts find a way to poison and harm what is good and loving in the world and in our lives. The evil that works in us is our enemy, seeking to grab hold of us to work against God and against our brothers and sisters whom we hurt when we give in to such powers. The evil also works against us individually, eating us from the inside out, like a cancer.

The temptations that Jesus met in the wilderness are also our temptations, drawing us to a selfishness that prevents us from showing love and respect to others, pressing us to manipulate the world into the form that we want rather than that which God intends.

It is Lent, a time when we are meant to consider and confront the temptations in our lives, the “wild beasts” that assail us. We are called to resist, as Jesus did, the lures and seductions of the world. We do this by staying connected to God through the power of the scriptures and prayer, and through repenting our sins. We are called to love, but so often, because we are human, we fail. Lent is a good time to ask God, and those we have hurt, for forgiveness. And God will forgive us. This is how we defeat evil and overcome temptation.

We defeat the “beasts”, as Jesus did, by staying connected to God. And we don’t do it alone. As the angels waited on Jesus in his wilderness experience, we are supported and sustained by the Holy Spirit. Not only do we have the Spirit, but we have God’s beloved disciples in our midst, our brothers and sisters in Christ, who minister to us and help us face down the beasts of our lives as they face down theirs.

We have left the season of Epiphany, the season of light. It is very human for us to want to stay in the light filled moments, to enjoy the sunset forever, to grasp a warm moment and cling to it for the peace it brings, the prosperity that touches our hearts, minds, and bodies so deeply that words fail us. We want to stay in Epiphany, smiling at the image of the Christ child, rejoicing with Simeon in the temple, marveling at the transfiguration of Jesus. But the light fades, and we must following Jesus back down the mountain and into the valley. Lent is here. It is time to think about the shadowlands, and about penance. 

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." 

In all our lives, times will come when we are driven by the Spirit into desolate places, places where we feel the pinch of depravation, the sting of loss. How we journey through such place depends on our willingness to be humble, our acceptance of the trial, our reliance on the Holy Spirit and the support of loved ones, and our trust in our Lord.

Lent is different from those trials that come unbidden. In Lent we have an opportunity to voluntarily surrender those things which we hold so dear; food in great quantity, new clothes, shopping sprees, pleasure trips, and the self-indulgence of bad moods, fretting, worrying, and complaining. Lent is not a time to give up chocolate, but to give up the world, to experience the shadowlands and travel through them with Jesus. It is a time for us to shatter the attachments we have to worldly things, to grow in the Spirit, to experience the wilderness with Jesus, and to resolutely, willingly, set our feet next to His on the road that leads to Calvary and to salvation.

Let us pray:

Lord Jesus, as hard as it is to fast, to give up things we like and enjoy, it is even harder for us to open ourselves to those in need, to do the work You give us, to spread Your love. Fasting can be a self-contained and pious exercise, a minor inconvenience we can feel good about, especially when it’s over. But we know You are calling us to something more. Help us to respond with courage. Help us to keep a good and holy Lent. For Your love and mercy’s sake. Amen

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