Sermon February 15, 2015
Mark 1:9-15, Genesis 9:8-17
Lent has arrived. Every year this season begins with the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. I know that many would prefer that we just skip this season altogether. Lent is not known as a time that builds up our self-esteem telling us “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and darn it, people like me.” But if you see this as a negative, groveling, miserable season, I think you have missed the purpose of Lent. Watch how this plays out…Jesus has just come out of the water of baptism when he hears God say, “You are my beloved son. With you I am well pleased.” In the very next verse, he is driven into the wilderness where he was tempted. The scripture says, “he was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him.” Most of us would never choose to leave the comfort of life, as we know it. Note that it doesn’t say that Jesus willingly or happily skipped into the wilderness. He is driven there and encounters some difficult stuff, but he also experiences grace there. Jesus was with the wild beasts. Perhaps he encountered some of the wild places in himself. Perhaps he discovered that beasts are not the enemy. What about these angels that waited on him? I have never known quite what to do with them, but I’ve always thought they sounded lovely.
I think part of our discomfort with this season is it takes us into places that are unfamiliar and that makes us feel insecure. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. This week in the book group we read a chapter called The Practice of Getting Lost. We told stories of getting lost and some of those stories included people who took care of us and helped us find our way – perhaps those are angels. It is scary being lost. It is scary knowing that we cannot save ourselves. It is scary when we don’t know who will be there for us.
One of my favorite poems is called Lost. It was written by David Wagoner.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
I don’t think this season is about trying to get lost, though Barbara Brown Taylor says it’s not a bad spiritual practice. I think it has more to do with acknowledging the ways we are lost. It has to do with taking stock, getting our bearings, and knowing who we are in relation to God. The wilderness is a good place to do those things. Remote places tend to heighten our awareness. But there are also lessons to be learned by exploring our inner terrain. Frederick Buechner talked about Lent in this way:
“In many cultures there is an ancient custom of giving a tenth of each year’s income to some holy use. For Christians, to observe the forty days of Lent is do the same thing with roughly a tenth of each year’s days. After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.
If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn’t, which side would get your money and why?
When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?
If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less?
Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?
Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for? If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?
To hear yourself try to answer questions like these is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all, but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.” (Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized, pp.74-75)
This process takes us not only more deeply into ourselves, but also into our relationship with God. It will likely cause us to acknowledge our own dependence on God. The twelve-step movement has brought our need for God into everyday awareness. I think that may be where the Genesis text speaks to us today. It seems like a sweet story on first glance – here is God giving a rainbow to Noah. We like rainbows. They come as a gift and we often stop to take them in because they surprise us with their beauty. But this story reminds us that the rainbow comes after a great flood destroyed everything. The rainbow is a sign of God’s covenant – God’s intention to stay in relationship with us no matter what.
One of my seminary professors said that the Old Testament is the story of God learning to be God. That makes sense to me. God creates people and it goes badly from the beginning. They are killing each other, casting each other out, lying, cheating, and stealing. What a disappointment! What temptation for God to walk away from everyone. If this is what being God is like, perhaps I’ll just resign from the job! But something happens over and over to invite God back into relationship. This covenant is God’s way of saying, “I will not give up on you. No matter what you do, I am going to be your God.” It becomes clear to God that to stay in relationship, God must make this promise.
Both of these texts show us devastation and new beginnings. Jesus walks out of the wilderness confident and empowered to begin the difficult work of being God incarnate.
In this season, we encounter the weakness and vulnerability of God and we move closer to Jesus difficult last days. We have the opportunity to encounter our own weakness and vulnerability and recognize that God is with us in those places. We are offered a rainbow to remind us that God stays in relationship with us no matter what. So much of our suffering has to do with amnesia – we forget who we are. The rainbow comes as a reminder that we belong to God and God has chosen to belong to us. God chooses to be with us in every moment of our life – when we are lost, when we are struggling, when we are alone – and promises to bring us home.
I hope you will take advantage of this season. For the next six weeks, we have the opportunity to ask hard questions about ourselves and to look for the ways that God is present. Keep your eyes open for rainbows to remind you that God never gives up on us. Know that getting lost may ultimately lead you to the place of great freedom and hope. Don’t give up, the wild beasts and angels are there for you too.