Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Wilderness: Sermon from the First Sunday of Lent 2/22/15

Delivered at Church of Our Saviour, Atlanta GA

First Sunday in Lent 2/22/15

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-9
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15
The Great Litany BCP p.148

Jesus came down from his home in Nazareth to the banks of the Jordan River. He descended down toward the banks, searching for the man named John who was baptizing there. John had been waiting for the one who was greater than him. He baptized with water alone, a baptism of repentance, but he knew there was one who would come after him, and that person would baptize with the Holy Spirit.  Jesus came to John in the wilderness by the water’s edge. He waded into the water with John, and John quickly immersed Jesus in the water. There was a crowd of John’s followers watching him, waiting to greet the newly baptized and teach him about John’s ways.  But just as Jesus was coming out of the water the sky tore apart.  There was a bright vision of what appeared to be a dove, gliding down from the sky and resting on Jesus.  John and his followers knew that this was the Spirit.  Jesus was the one who was greater than John.  He had the Spirit, which he could give to others. But before John and his disciples could speak with Jesus, he went off into the wilderness. The Spirit had cast him into it.

Jesus wandered in the hot desert for forty days. There was little water and little shelter from the heat.  This was a dangerous place, and Jesus had to protect himself from the wild beasts that resided there. Venomous snakes and scorpions could attack his heels. Wild dogs and jackals could strike in the night. He was alone in the sandy terrain, exposed to all. Then Satan came and began to tempt him. All the things of the earth could be his.  He could be a king, a ruler of the earth, with power over all.  Satan could make him rich and popular. Wasn’t that all a man could dream of? But Jesus had a different dream, a different call; one that would make him poor and despised but was also the will of God.  It was a call to proclaim repentance and the kingdom of God.

As he resisted the urging of Satan, angels came down and watched over him. The wild beasts did not attack him, nor did he die of thirst.  He was protected. For while the wilderness was a place of danger, it was also a place where God had protected God’s children.  When the Israelites escaped the bondage of Egypt, God had led them in the wilderness in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  When the Israelites were hungry in the wilderness, God had provided them manna from the clouds. When they were thirsty, the rocks were filled with water.  The wilderness was where God first came to dwell with the Israelites, asking them to build a tabernacle, a tent where God could dwell among them. God had never been closer to them than when they were in the wilderness. While the people of Israel struggled and fought with God, God remained steadfast beside them, leading them slowly and surely to the Promised Land.

And so, Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit, not just to be tempted, but to come closer to the one who had provided in the wilderness. Yes, Jesus was fully divine, but he was also fully human, and he searched for that thin spot where he could find the closest connection to the divinity while in his humanity. This was the wilderness, the place where despite the struggles and because of the struggles, God’s presence was near. And just as his ancestors had spent forty years in the wilderness, learning from God and learning about the struggle to follow God, Jesus spent forty days dwelling with God, learning to resist the tempter. It was a time of struggle and a time of growth.  

And after he had dwelt in the desert for forty days, Jesus came out of the desert and went back to Galilee. He was ready to begin his ministry, having communed with the divine and learned the ways to resist temptation and the forces of evil.  He spoke his message clearly and boldly, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

And now we have come to our own time in the wilderness. For forty days we are called to resist those things that tempt us and look for God who is near in the wilderness. God is near to us today, as close as the very bread we eat and the very wine we drink.  But there are still dangers in going into the wilderness with God.  There are those that can attack us, harm us, or destroy us.  One needs to look no further than Syria to find those who have given their very lives for this faith.  In the wilderness, we may be called to places we don’t really want to go, or to things we would rather not do.  We are tempted to remain where we are comfortable. But God is calling us into the wilderness to resist temptation and to live anew. 

What is it that God is calling you to in this season in the wilderness? Where do you feel the stirring of the Spirit calling you to consider a new way of being? Do you need to repent of unhealthy patterns of living, of apathy, of broken relationships? Do you try to hold onto too much and do not give things over to God? What is it that you want the good Lord to deliver you from?

In this time in the wilderness, open yourself up to the struggle that comes from being in the wilderness. Allow yourself to be real and honest with God. Seek help if you need it. God is calling us into something new. There will be a new ministry and a new birth on Easter morning, but first we need to live into the wilderness and seek the thin spaces between God and us.

This Lenten season, we will be praying the Great Litany to begin our time of worship together. This is a prayer that seeks to bring God into every corner of our lives. We ask God to spare us from all the sinful things that we do and all the fearful things we encounter. We then ask that God might forgive us, strengthen us, and have mercy upon us. In the petitions and requests, I encourage you to find yourself in that great prayer.  In the repetitions of our replies, I encourage you to lift your own petitions up to God.  And in the silence before the reception of communion, I encourage you to ask God into those situations and bring you new life. In your daily life, I encourage you to seek a richer and fuller prayer life. Try new ways of speaking with God. See how God is answering you.

I also encourage you to make a confession if you have not done so before.  It is scary to voice all that you have done to a priest, and you can go to another priest if you would feel more comfortable, but there is something in sharing your sins and receiving forgiveness that is invaluable. It is a time when you can truly be honest and humble before God and seek advice to address your greatest needs. Weights have come off shoulders in the rite of reconciliation. Wounds have been healed. Miracles happen in the confidential confines of confession.

In this season, seek the closeness of God in the wilderness, knowing that struggle does not mean that you have been abandoned, and temptation need not be fulfilled.  And in all things, seek Christ, the bringer of the kingdom of God. Repent, and believe in the good news.

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