A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on the first Sunday in Lent, February 26, 2012
Sermon for Lent I (B)
February 26, 2012
Christ Church, Andover
Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9 ; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
We began our service today with The Great Litany (which may be the first time it has ever been done here at Christ Church) – and a very long litany it is of our sins and shortcomings, all the ways we have fallen short of God’s desire for us, all the things that cause us to stumble. We have beseeched the good Lord to hear us and help us, to deliver us from sin, from disasters and violence, from temptations and all those things that would separate us from the love of God, and finally to bring us to everlasting salvation.
This First Sunday in Lent is a traditional time for singing the Great Litany as we begin to live into these forty days of preparation for Easter.
The journey of Lent begins this year as always with Jesus in the wilderness. The story begins with that big emotional high of his baptism, when the spirit descended on him like a dove, and he hears those wonderfully affirming words from God saying “You are my Son, my Beloved one, with you I am well pleased.” From this, we are told, the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan for forty days, and where he was with the wild beasts.
Talk about an emotional rollercoaster! The high of God’s affirming voice – “You are my Son, my Beloved One; with you I am well pleased” – out into the wilderness, alone, for forty days, with the wild beasts, tempted by Satan.
The Gospel of Mark, unlike Matthew and Luke, gives us no details whatsoever about what happened during these forty days. We don’t know anything about the nature of Jesus’ temptations here in Mark. We can only guess at what it would have been like to be out there with wild beasts, alone; and finally, to be waited on by angels, as he was in the end.
And so, we are left to fill in the blanks for ourselves. The story invites us to impose our own stories, our own wilderness experiences, onto it. What do we imagine that it feels like to be in a wilderness? We all have our own wilderness experiences, don’t we?
· Depression, addictions – talk about battling with demons!
· Family problems, illness or death of a loved one, perhaps for some even the birth of a new baby that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and lost in a surreal new landscape
· Mid-life crises, unemployment, financial problems, debt
· Maybe it’s just worrying about kids, or a free-floating anxiety about the state of the world that takes you into your wilderness place.
· You fill in the blanks. These are all modern day wilderness experiences.
Even though spare in its details, Mark’s account of Jesus’ wilderness experience is bracketed by experiences of deep consolation – the mountaintop experience that preceded it, and the tenderness at the end of his ordeal as we see angels ministering to him. The forty days in between? All we know is that he was tempted by Satan, and that there were wild beasts. And we know that Jesus came through his ordeal prepared for all that he would face in his life and his ministry.
Jesus’ wilderness experience has been the inspiration, and the pattern, for the quests of spiritual seekers throughout time. In the fourth and fifth centuries, there was a unique movement of people fleeing the pressures and chaos of their then modern lives and going into the deserts of Egypt and Syria to find a deeper and richer experience of God. They were Christians who were fleeing persecution under the emperor Decius, but they stayed and many more kept joining them even after the persecutions subsided. Something was going on out there in the desert.
They were a unique breed of individuals. Something about the solitude and hostility of the desert environment called them. But ironically, what happened was the formation of a unique and new kind of community – a network of people who learned at a very deep level, and are still teaching us today, what it means to be in relationship and to live in community. People from the nearby populated areas began to go out to be taught by them and to hear their sage advice. The desert fathers and mothers, as they came to be known, learned through their very focused experience of isolation and austerity what it truly meant to be in relationship and how important right relationships were to their salvation. They learned that pursuing the spiritual life could never be done in the abstract – simply by closing oneself off from “the real world.” The spiritual life was not something ethereal and separated from the physical realities of life, but intimately entwined and connected to and mediated by the most human of relationships, with all their frustrations and challenges.
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a book a few years ago about the desert fathers and mothers called Where God Happens, in which he makes this point so clearly. The subtitle for it is Discovering Christ in one another. The desert experience of these ancient folk, he says, shows us that “relation with eternal truth and love doesn’t happen without mending our relations with Tom, Dick and Harriet.” Tom, Dick, and Harriet might, in fact, be the means of our knowing Christ.
I often hear people talk about their hunger for “a more spiritual life.” The desire is real, and the instincts are good. But we also must be clear about what it is that we’re really looking for when we say we want “a more spiritual life.” If we think we can cultivate “a sensitive and rewarding relationship with eternal truth and love,” somehow apart from the realities of daily life – as though the spiritual life is something separate from where we live every day, we are likely to be disappointed.
Sometimes we even approach Lent as a time when maybe, for once, we can rise above it all, take in a big deep breath of the Spirit and be lifted to another plane where none of this daily stuff will affect us any longer, or where relationships will somehow suddenly right themselves because we have achieved this detached spiritual state. Well, even if the desert fathers and mothers began as escapists trying to flee the realities of life, they learned over time that Christ was to be found not in the absence of the other, but in the presence of the other, and that right relationships with the other were precisely the means of their salvation.
The desert monastics cultivated above all an ethic of what it was to be neighbors in community with one another. One of the most famous of them, Anthony, said: “Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we win our brother, we win God. If we cause our brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ.” Rowan Williams writes that “gaining the brother or sister and winning God are linked. It is not getting [the brother or sister] signed up to something or getting them on your side. It is opening doors for them to healing and to wholeness. Insofar as you open such doors for another, you gain God, in the sense that you become a place where God happens for someone else.”
Yes, even our wildernesses – desolate as they may be – are finally about relationships, who we are in relationship with God and with one another. The key to understanding and living life is in how we are with the other, our neighbor – be it our spouse or child or parent, a fellow church member or co-worker or unbelieving neighbor – who we are for them in making it possible for them also to know Christ through us.
Mark’s picture of Jesus in the wilderness didn’t need a lot of details to get across its real point – and that is that we never go through our wildernesses alone. Jesus is there with us, facing temptation right alongside us, facing the wild beasts, and finally being ministered to by angels.
Wildernesses, temptations, wild beasts – we all face them in one form or another. We began our service to the strains of medieval chant. I think of music in another mode, too, when I think of the journey through the wilderness. The Spirituals were born out of the four hundred year wilderness experience of slavery in America, music often sung out in the fields under the hot scorching sun, or just under the breath of a discouraged and downtrodden soul. It still carries with it the power to touch something deep inside and remind us that we are not alone.
Sing this one with me if you know it:
I want Jesus to walk with me.
I want Jesus to walk with me.
All along my pilgrim journey,
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.
Whether it’s the forty days of Lent – or that larger life experience for which it stands – whether it’s life’s little challenges or the big ones – let Jesus walk it with you. You are not alone. And there are angels just waiting to minister to you.
 Trinity News, c. 2006, p. 10.