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1st Weekend in Lent, March 7 & 8

First Weekend in Lent (B/RCL)

Mark 1:9-15; Genesis 9:8-17

February 21-22, 2015

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ

            One of our church friends gave me a card with a picture of two unicorns in bed.  The lady unicorn is painting her hooves and the gentleman unicorn is reading the paper.  He tells her, “Big storm’s a brewin’.”  She answers, “Then I’m glad we didn’t go on that cruise thing with your whack-job friend Noah.”

            Here’s my Boyd’s Bear Noah, complete with a cubit ruler and 2 chimpanzees, two giraffes and two elephants in the pockets of his carpenter’s apron.   Noah’s Ark is always included in the Bible stories we teach the little ones; it’s the subject of the pretty mural Deb & Genna painted in the playroom downstairs; and it’s a favorite decorating theme for babies’ nurseries.  Obviously the focus is on the cute animals and the quaint ark, and not on the bodies of the drowned draped over the hillsides.  There’s actually a lot of darkness in that story.

            The Old Testament lesson this first weekend in Lent is the end of the Noah story.  After the waters recede and the ark is parked, God makes a promise never to destroy the earth again with a flood.  God wants there to be a visible, comforting reminder of that promise so the people don’t freak out every time there’s a downpour.  So God put a bow in the sky: a rainbow.  Every other place that Hebrew word appears in Hebrew Scripture it means a war bow, as in bow and arrows.  If you don’t mind a mixed metaphor, the rainbow is a reminder that God has buried the hatchet.  Picture the rainbow as an archer’s bow facing harmlessly away from the earth, a colorful peace sign in the sky.

            In the second lesson from 1 Peter we have a reminder that in the ark “…eight persons were saved through water.  And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you….”  (1 Peter 3:20d-21a)  That theme continues in the Gospel, which begins with Jesus’ baptism and continues with his 40 day sojourn in the wilderness.

            Jesus had immersed Himself in the waters of the Jordan, He who was sinless had sought out baptism (a sign of repentance from sin) to identify with us sinners.  When He walked this earth, Our Lord was always in solidarity with us, rather than setting Himself apart from us.  He wasn’t afraid that rubbing elbows with sinners would contaminate Him.  He knew that there would be “reverse contagion,” as Philip Yancey calls it in What’s So Amazing About Grace? .  Our Lord Jesus knew that His purity would clean up our polluted lives.  His wholeness/holiness would mend our brokenness.  His righteousness would cancel out our sin.

            Just a reminder: we’re in the 2nd of our 3 year cycle of readings, which we call the lectionary.  We hear mostly from St. Mark’s Gospel this year.  It is the earliest and the shortest Gospel.  Mark is a man of few words.  His account of what we refer to as the Temptation in the Desert is 2 verses long.  St. Matthew takes 11 verses to tell that story, and St. Luke takes 13.  Here is St. Mark’s shorthand:

And the Spirit immediately drove him 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.  (Mark 1:12-13)

            Even in His time of temptation our Lord was in solidarity with us and paving a path for us.  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews saw that clearly and wrote this:

…[W]e do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.  Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.  (Hebrews 4:15-16)

            The story of the Temptation in the Desert reminds us that Jesus faced trials and temptations like we do.  He wasn’t sinless because He was never tempted or put to the test.  He was sinless because He always chose the Father’s will over His own, others’ good over His own, and because He always let the Spirit lead the way.         

            Of course you noticed that no particular temptations are mentioned in St. Mark’s account of Jesus’ time in the wilderness: there’s no devilish urging to turn stones into bread, to leap from the parapet of the Temple in an Evil Knievel-like display of daring, to worship Satan in exchange for earthly power.  One of the beautiful things about Mark’s brevity is the blank slate it provides us to draw those things, those people, those circumstances that pose the greatest temptations to us.

            When we prayed the confession together on Ash Wednesday evening, or when we prayed it at the beginning of worship today, what hurtful acts, wounding words, unworthy thoughts or selfish omissions came to your mind and heart?  When you kneel or stand before God’s altar, looking honestly into your own heart, what memories make you look down at your feet?  What sins, past or present, one-time or ongoing, humiliate you?  What do you needlessly fear God will not forgive?

            The voice from heaven at our Lord’s baptism told Him,

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)

The Message’s paraphrase of that is:

“You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”

          On Ash Wednesday we were marked with the cross, the sign of God’s love for us.  Once a year the cross is traced in ash.  When we were baptized that same cross was traced in oil (as it is when we are anointed for healing).  Every time we remember our sinfulness, during this Lenten season and throughout our lives, let us also remember that we are “chosen and marked by God’s love.”  That is the heart of the Good News: though we are sinners (because we are sinners!) we have a Savior.

            Our Lord Jesus was not alone in the desert. 

  • The Holy Spirit who had descended upon Him when He was baptized and who then “drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12) must have remained with Him!
  • Satan was there to tempt and stalk Him. (Mark 1:13)
  • “[H]e was with the wild beasts,” (Mark 1:13) which some take to mean the dawning of the day when the lion would lie down with the lamb.
  • “[A]nd the angels waited on him.” (Mark 1:13)  (According to St. Luke, an angel returned again to strengthen Jesus in the midst of His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane – Luke 22:43.)

          We are not alone during our wilderness experiences, during our trials and temptations either.  It is because of the power of the Holy Spirit and the presence of God’s angels that we can hope to resist temptation, and on those occasions that we fall, that we can stand again through forgiveness rather than lying paralyzed in our despair.

          The rainbow in Hebrew thought is the reminder of God’s unconditional promise never to destroy us and our world through another flood.  For the Greeks and Romans, the rainbow was the colorful garment of Iris, a messenger of the gods.  The Greek word for messenger is angelos, the root of our English word angel.  Guess what else?  Iris is depicted not only with a rainbow-colored gown, but also with golden wings, symbolizing the swiftness with which she would convey messages from Mt. Olympus to mortals below.

          Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, all believe in angels.  The concept of the guardian angel, who protects us and who guides us in the holy way God would have us follow, is grounded in Scripture.  For instance, Psalm 91 says:

For he will command his angels concerning you

      to guard you in all your ways.

On their hands they will bear you up,

      so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.  (Psalm 91:11-12)

(You may remember those are words echoed in the hymn On Eagle’s Wings.)  Also, in

St. Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says,

“Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of My Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 18:10)

Martin Luther ends both his morning and his evening blessings (found on pages 1166 and 1167 of our red Evangelical Lutheran Worship books) with this petition:

Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me.  Amen

            Just as the Holy Spirit and the angels upheld Jesus in the wilderness, they are there to strengthen us in the midst of our temptations, too.  We have free will to choose, though: will we fall for Satan or follow Christ?  Will I or won’t I claim and embody the dignity of a child of God? 

            There’s no Office of Spiritual Emergency Management to give us advance warning that temptation is headed our way: “Big storm’s a brewin’.”  Our best preparedness plan is to seek our safety in Christ, daily.  Amen

Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham