Sermon for Lent I

Verlee A. Copeland

Mark 1:9-15

God of wilderness and water,

your Son was baptized and tempted as we are.

Guide us through this season,

that we may not avoid struggle,

but open ourselves to blessing,

through the cleansing depths of repentance

and the heaven-rending words of the Spirit. Amen.


 Angels and Beasts

The blizzard of the world

has crossed the threshold

and it has overturned

the order of the soul.

—Leonard Cohen

         The blizzard of this world has indeed turned our world upside down. We sometimes can’t get where we want to go, or it takes longer to get there, or there’s no place to park when we do. One enterprising homeowner simply put out a big sign on top of a drift that said, “Uncle”, the cry of surrender. Others have called pastors like myself to put in a word with God on behalf of besieged New Englanders.

         According to a Boston Globe article this week, “The venerable Andover Newton Theological School announced Wednesday, with tongue firmly in cheek, it would postpone Lent a week because of the record-breaking snow that has been dumped on the region.

“Moving Lent seemed the least we could do,” President Martin Copenhaver said in a light-hearted statement that suggested the school was feeling as snow-dazed as the rest of Massachusetts. “Might it be controversial? Yes, but we are not only the oldest, we are also the boldest seminary in the country. Here we stand. We can do no other.”

 “If the school is moving Lent, the period of penitence that leads up to Easter, does that mean it will have to move Easter?

“It all depends,” Copenhaver said. “We can only respond to what God is doing now. What God will be doing six weeks from now is another matter. We’ll see when we get there.”

For the rest of us, Lent began this past Wednesday with our evening Ash Wednesday worship. Whatever happens with snow, Easter will come in early spring, six short weeks from right now. The crocus, daffodil and tulip will insist on it. Can I get a Hallelujah on that?

We enter this Lenten journey of forty days, not counting Sundays, through a snow-drenched wilderness of faith. It’s easier than we imagine to lose our way. The familiar bearings have become hidden to us. Skiers wander off trail and get lost. Just yesterday another youth was found wandering, thankfully before dark, having skied outside the lines.

There once was a time when mid-west farmers prepared for winter by running a rope out the back door of the house to the barn. Perhaps they learned it from their New England forebears. They all knew stories of people who had wandered off in a whiteout and been frozen to death not far from their own backyards.

The journey of Lent for Jesus and for us becomes a kind of vision quest. God nudges us out into the wilderness to test our resolve to follow God’s way over the way of the world. Jesus becomes our rope to the barn to keep us connected to God and to find our way home to the Kingdom of God on earth as in heaven.

Every time I read the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness prior to the start of his ministry, something new reveals itself. In Mark’s gospel telling of the story, which also appears in Matthew and Luke, the story is so brief we almost miss it. The whole of Jesus’ preparation for the work God prepared him to do is summed up in three parts in just seven little verses. First, we hear in three short verses that Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordon River, and as he emerged from the river dripping wet, a new man, he saw the heavens torn apart, “and the Spirit descended like a dove on him, and a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

           Then the whole season of Lent hinges on just the next two verses: “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.” In the final two verses of the passage, Jesus emerges from the wilderness to learn of the arrest of John, and He says to all who will listen: “‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.’”
           In this Cliff’s Notes version of the gospels, that’s all we get. In the other two gospels, we receive a fuller story of the nature of Jesus’ temptations to be other than who God created him to be, to misuse his power for personal gain and glory, to become a religious, a social or a political Rock Star. He had the talent and the charisma. What it must have taken for him to let go of his ego needs and walk away from the kingdoms of the world for the Kingdom of God at hand.

         It cannot have been easy for him. Jesus was a man, a human being, after all. God could have spared him the temptations, sent him into the world like some superhero with magical powers, but that’s not the way of the Holy, the way the world was made. The same Spirit that descended on him like a dove, proclaiming, “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased”, is the very same Spirit that continues in verse 12, “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”

         We can better understand this at first perplexing move when we imagine the brutal sight of a mother bird pushing her beloved baby out of the nest. The same mother who made the egg and sat on it, and fed the hatchling, with the same hard love nudges it off the cliff so that it can come to trust it’s wings to fly. God tests Jesus before he flies. God nudges us into the wilderness too.

         Would that there was another way. Just the thought of it takes our breath away. If we’ve never been tempted to wander off the path of faithfulness, if we’ve never experienced a general dis-ease that somehow our life is missing the mark, if we’ve never taken a wrong turn and had to fight our way back, then this passage will make no sense to us at all.

In like manner, if we’ve ever made a decision out of our need to be right, if we’ve ever looked out for number one to make sure that we have what we think we deserve, if we’ve ever made a decision to put ourselves in a better light, then we get the wild beasts that yipped at Jesus’ heels. This is perhaps the greatest temptation of all, to think that the world revolves around what we want and need. We only get a pass on that way of thinking up to about age three. After that, we’re expected to grow up and think about somebody beside ourselves.

When Jesus becomes our rope to the barn, selfishness loses and love wins: love for God, love for neighbor, even love for ourselves. When we look out for number one out of greed and need, we can’t truly love anybody or anything. Fear is antithetical to love. Greed and need are driven by fear. You have heard it said, “Perfect love casts out all fear.”  Love that insists on its way is but a shallow imitation of the real deal. Jesus invites us onto a new path through the wilderness, the Way of Love, the Kingdom Path.  We remember the words of Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight (alone), in all ways acknowledge God, and God will make your paths straight.”  With eyes steadied on Jesus, we hold the course, utterly trusting His lead. To do otherwise is to become utterly lost in the storm.

The Lenten journey is as individual as that of Reese Witherspoon in the movie “Wild”, plunging into a wilderness of grief and becoming lost to her former self in order to live. The Lenten journey reveals the path to new life for those willing to trust. This takes courage, and risk.

Such was the case for Sy Safransky, Founder and Editor of the literary journal The Sun. He says, “Years ago, I was trapped in a newspaper job I couldn’t stand. Then I heard Graham Nash sing, ‘Make sure that the things you do, keep us alive.’ The next day I walked to work, quit my job, and kept walking. Better to be a pilgrim without a destination, I figured, than to cross the wrong threshold every day.” Soon afterward, he borrowed fifty dollars and started a magazine that forty years later endures to share stories of our beautiful human heart.

The Lenten journey is personal. It’s about me, and it’s about you, but it is about all of us too, the whole people of God. Theologian Parker Palmer in his work “A Hidden Wholeness” writes: “Today we live in a blizzard of another sort. It swirls around us as economic injustice, ecological ruin, physical and spiritual violence, and their inevitable outcome, war. It swirls within us as fear and frenzy, greed and deceit, and indifference to the suffering of others. We all know stories of people who have wandered off into this madness and been separated from their own souls, losing their moral bearings and even their mortal lives: they make headlines because they take so many innocents down with them.

“The lost ones come from every walk of life: clergy and corporate executives, politicians and people on the street, celebrities and schoolchildren.” Could it be you? Could it be me? Like the disciples at the Last Supper, we cry out indignantly, “Is it I Lord who have betrayed you?” Some of us fear that we, or those we love, will become lost in the storm. Some are lost at this moment and are trying to find the way home. Some are lost without knowing it. And some are using the blizzard as cover while cynically exploiting its chaos for private gain.

“So it is easy to believe the poet’s claim (with which we started today) that “the blizzard of the world” has overturned “the order of the soul,” easy to believe that the soul—that life-giving core of the human self (given as gift from an all-loving God), with all its hunger for truth and justice, love and forgiveness—has lost all power to guide our lives.

“But my own experience of the blizzard, which includes getting lost in it more often than I like to admit, tells me that it is not so. The soul’s order can never be destroyed. It may be obscured by the whiteout. We may forget, or deny, that its guidance is close at hand. And yet we are still in the soul’s backyard, with chance after chance to regain our bearings.” When Jesus called for us to repent, he literally meant that when you’re lost, stop what you’re doing. Resist the temptation to keep going down the road to nowhere. Turn around. Wait for direction.

I think this is what the writer of the gospel meant when he described the testing and the Wild Beasts closing in on Jesus, and then it says, “The angels waited on him.” We struggle, but not alone, we suffer, and then wait expectantly for the healing balm that follows. The Spirit first tests us through the fiercest of storms. And then Jesus equips us to survive the blizzard without losing our way.

         How has the Spirit sustained you when you have lost your way? What has been your rope in the storm that has brought you safely home? What has made it possible for you to resist the temptation to risk yourself and others by playing too hard and too wild outside the pleasant boundaries of your own best life?

         Trust God with your life through the wilderness before you. Hang onto the rope and keep walking. Believe the good news. The Kingdom of God is at hand.