February 18, 2018
“[Jesus] was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Mark 1:13
Today we have made our way here in wintry conditions so that we can enter the desert. I know. It’s weird to be talking about a desert wilderness when several inches of snow fell last night. But here we are, on the first Sunday of Lent, at the beginning of our own forty-day time, and everything is so…spare.
Lent has begun, and so we have a new setting for our worship service, one that’s a little less elaborate. We won’t be singing or speaking any “alleluias” during Lent. We don’t sing as much during worship. The communion liturgy will be more brief, though its essence is still there.
We’ll have new wording for our various prayers – after the offering, after communion. And as you may have noticed, we have new language for our confession. I think it’s helpful to change our words a bit from season to season because it helps us pay closer attention to what we are actually saying.
I don’t know if it was a trick of my mind, but earlier this week, when I was reviewing today’s bulletin for the first time, I came to this sentence in the confession: “We fail in love, neglect justice, and ignore your truth.” But instead of “we fail in love,” I read it as “we fall in love.” It took me a minute to realize my mistake. Not “we fall in love,” but we “fail in love.”
Falling in love. Failing in love. Both part of the human condition. That was one of the best parts of having Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day converge this year. We’re good at falling in love, but we don’t escape failing at it either. Lent offers us a chance to tell the truth about who we are – the whole truth.
As we follow Jesus into the wilderness this morning, we notice that, typical of Mark’s gospel, there aren’t a whole lot of details to go on. We don’t hear how Satan actually tempts Jesus like we do in Matthew and Luke. There’s no recording of their conversation. We get two sentences about it: “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.”
What do we learn about the wilderness in this brief account?
We learn that the wilderness is a place that Jesus does not choose to go. He is driven there by the Holy Spirit, still wet from his baptismal plunge into the river. His baptism has not prevented him from encountering evil. It has sent him barreling towards it. And maybe this time in the wilderness is good practice for contending with evil. Remember that when Jesus returns from the wilderness, his first act of public ministry will be an exorcism.
The wilderness is also a dangerous place. Those wild beasts are not cute companions or therapy dogs. They are threatening. As the days pass and Jesus grows more weak, I can imagine the wild beasts pacing around him, licking their chops.
And of course the wilderness is a place of temptation. We don’t get the specifics of what Satan offers up, but I bet it was some juicy stuff. The forces of evil are pretty good at figuring out where we are most vulnerable, where we are most easily led astray.
Those forty days are meant, of course, to remind us of the forty days that the Israelites spent wandering the wilderness after their escape from slavery in Egypt. You would think that the people of God would have been so grateful that they would have been praising God day and night and worked to build a communal life in which everyone was safe and loved. And sometimes they did exactly that. But remember that the wilderness was also where the people hoarded manna even when God told them explicitly not to. And the wilderness is the place where they melted down any precious metal they could get their hands on to make idols to worship. The wilderness does not necessarily bring out our best selves.
What do our own wildernesses look like? Sometimes we’re thrown into the wilderness by a crisis – a sudden illness, a divorce, a death, the loss of a job. We find ourselves unsure of what the future holds, and we give in to despair. Or we find ourselves in a wilderness surrounded by temptations that pull us away from what matters. We neglect the relationships that are most important to us.
Sometimes the wilderness looks like seventeen dead teenagers and adults after yet another school shooting.
Our wildernesses may look different, but they share some features with the one to which Jesus was sent for those forty days. We, too, are often forced to go there against our will. We wonder when this season of wandering will be over. We worry that the wild beasts – sometimes in the form of fear, anxiety, depression – will catch up with us and devour us on the spot.
But you know what else is in the wilderness? Angels. In Mark’s story, the angels wait on Jesus. The Greek word is diekonoun. The angels minister to him. They serve him. What a relief that must have been in the midst of suffering and temptation – to have that kind of tender care from those who know best how to offer it.
I don’t know how you imagine angels, but I think they take all kinds of forms in today’s world. For me the angels have included the friends who fed me and took me in when I was too exhausted from the latest round of exams and papers to think straight. Angels are the people who pray for me. Angels are teachers and mentors. Angels are the strangers who say something kind at just the right moment.
Angels aren’t wimpy. They have to be made of strong stuff to keep ministering to people in the wilderness. They strengthen us to stand up to evil. For me this week the angels have included the kids of Parkland, Florida, who have called us to account and said, “Look, you’re the adults. Figure something out. Do something to protect us.”
That’s what we’re called to do as baptized people. To figure something out. To address the evil in the world in the ways that God has equipped us to do. It’s part of what we promise in the baptismal service: to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.
So here we are in the wilderness, surrounded by both the wild beasts and the angels. It is not a safe place, but we are not alone as we wander through it.
I love today’s psalm [Psalm 25]. Like so many of the psalms, it’s an honest plea to God for what the speaker most needs. I especially love verse 7: “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love, remember me.”
We fall in love. We fail at love. Both are true. That’s what the wilderness teaches us. But God does not look at us and see all of the wrongs we’ve ever done. God does not see us as a summation of our sin. God looks at us and sees…us. God remembers us – beloved children created for a life that includes both brokenness and beauty. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. I woke up this morning with those words running through my head on a continuous loop. I turned them over again and again in my mind. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. It’s just one sentence, but it holds so much truth – about the fragile stuff of which we’re made, about how our stories in this life always end. Most of the time we do whatever we can to avoid thinking about it, but at least once a year we gather together and say it out loud. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Lately I’ve heard several interviews with Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School and author of a new book called Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved.[i] Kate was diagnosed at age 35 with incurable stage-4 colon cancer. She’s had some intense treatments that have kept her alive – chemotherapy and some experimental immunotherapy – but the “incurable” part remains true. She’s at the point where she has some scans every few months that reveal whether she’s been given another two or three months to live.
Kate is married and has a young son. She can’t bear the thought of her child growing up without her.
One interviewer asked Kate if her prayers have changed since her diagnosis.
Here’s what Kate said:
I think maybe [they have] because I think I don’t have the luxury of being too sophisticated anymore. I mean, you just get infected with this urgency that comes with facing your death. And so I pray for very basic things. Please, God, make me kind and open to the pain of the world. Please, God, heal me. Make me less of a dink and help me be a good mom and a wife. I mean, just really basic stuff as opposed to maybe the more layered prayers that I was raised with or learned in theological school, which always have long…phrases like ever-loving and ever-living God…
I think Kate has a lot to teach us, starting with the simplicity of these prayers. Please, God, make me kind and open to the pain of the world. Please, God, heal me.
Big ideas in simple sentences. There’s something powerful about that. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Please, God, heal me.
I heard someone say recently that all Christians need to know at least one verse for how to confess their sins.[ii] We sometimes think that our confession has to be elaborate, and certainly on days like Ash Wednesday, we tend to use more words rather than fewer to name our sinfulness. We did it just a few minutes ago. But from day to day and week to week, maybe less is more.
Here’s where a reading like Psalm 51 can be helpful. It’s known as a penitential psalm, a psalm that expresses sorrow for one’s sin and cries out for the mercy that only God can give.
Take, for example, verse 1 of the psalm: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.” That’s a sentence we can write on our bathroom mirrors, put on a post-it note in our planners, add to the Notes app in our phones. Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.
Or what about verse 10: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” A simple plea for a big thing – the chance to begin again from a new place.
Whatever words we use, we do not confess because we’re some sort of super-Christians who are going after the Olympic gold medal for repentance. We confess because we trust in God’s steadfast love. We confess because we know that God’s mercy will not fail us, even when we have failed ourselves and those around us.
Lent invites us to a season of simplicity in which we try to strip away all but the essentials. Sometimes even our faith life can have extra layers that get in our way.
So in the days ahead let us hold fast to simple declarations offered in simple ways:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Please, God, heal me.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.
We speak, and we listen. Listen as God calls to us again and again, saying, “Return to me with your whole heart.” Listen as God, who is gracious and merciful and abounding in steadfast love, reaches out with the gifts of forgiveness and new life. Listen for the chance to start again. Amen.