“Forged in the Wilderness” : A Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent – February 21, 2021

Preached Online to All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 21 February, 2021.

Readings for this Sunday: Genesis 9.8-17, Psalm 25.1-9, 1 Peter 3.18-22, Mark 1.9-15

“He 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

This Friday evening, Joy and I were doing one of those pandemic things that many of you will know all too well, the Zoom visit with friends.    Now two of our friends are Catholic, and they were talking about how they were going to observe Lent.   However, another couple in our group are totally uninterested in religion, so they asked “What’s the story with Lent?  Why do you have to give up stuff you like, and why is it forty days?”

One of the occupational hazards of being a priest is that these sorts of questions are always referred to me, and I confess that I was really just looking forward to a chat and a gin and tonic.  Well, I said, forty is one of those significant numbers in scripture, Moses led the Israelites in the wilderness for forty years, the early church saw Jesus as a new Moses who would save God’s people, Jesus was tested for forty days in the wilderness, Lent is forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter and it’s a traditional time to fast like Jesus and think about our faith, our mortality, and our dependence on Jesus.   I confess, I sound more articulate today, typing it out, than I was on Friday.

I think if there was one thing I wish I had explained better, it would be Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and how (or even if) it explains Lent.  I don’t think it has anything much to do with “Jesus suffered for forty days, so we can give up chocolate to honour his sacrifice”, which is how I’ve sometimes heard it explained.   What I want to do today is think about how the  season of Lent helps us understand who Jesus is, what he does, and why we follow him, and I think today’s gospel reading is a good place to dig into that.

Now it may seem as if we’ve been stuck in the opening chapter of Mark for weeks now.  We heard the baptism story a few weeks ago, and you may be wondering why we’re going back to it today.  There are three events in today’s gospel:

1) Jesus is baptized and identified as God’s son

2) Jesus is tempted in the desert

3) Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God

Mark doesn’t tell us why (1) or (2) are necessary.  They just happen.  Mark’s whirlwind storytelling style is to throw events at us and leave us to make sense of them as best as we can, but they all seem connected.

A few weeks ago I spoke about the baptism of Jesus – I talked abut how Jesus shows God still engaged in God’s work of creation – that Jesus’ baptism in the Spirit shows us a new way of being in which we can be God’s children by adoption, to be God’s beloved sons and daughters.   Fair enough, but why is Jesus then immediately sent to the wilderness?  In Mark’s telling, the Spirit “drives” (the Greek word is ekballo, which can mean “to thrust” or “expel”) Jesus into the wilderness – it’s an urgent verb which suggests a crisis or an emergency.

So what is this all about?  If it is a test, why does Jesus have to be tested?  Is God not sure of his ability?   Considering that the voice from heaven has already named Jesus as “my Son, the Beloved” (Mk 1.11), I don’t think Jesus has anything left to prove.   Rather, I think Jesus goes to the wilderness to confront something.   The wilderness as Mark describes it is a place of spiritual extremes – angels are there, but so is Satan , and the beasts are wild, suggesting something that is untamed and even deadly.  Mark suggests that Jesus must go to the wilderness to confront something.

Typically, Mark doesn’t say anything about how that confrontation went.  There is no climactic, Hollywood style battle.   Sometime after these forty days, Jesus replaces John the Baptist, who has been God’s messenger, and announces the coming of the kingdom of God and the need to repent and put trust in the good news.   Next, to show us what  the kingdom of God, we see Jesus curing people and driving out victims (Mk 1.21-34), and the demons screaming with the knowledge that Jesus has come to destroy them (1.24).  The kingdom of God is thus revealed as healing, life, and freedom from the things that oppress the people of God.  Mark does not make the connection explicitly, but it seems that the confrontation between Jesus and Satan in the wilderness prepares Jesus to face sin and death.   If Jesus is tested, then, it’s not see if he is sinful, but more like being tested in the way that a weapon is tested.

And what a curious weapon God forges in the wilderness.  Demons fear him, even his disciples fear him when they see him transfigured, but whole towns bring him their sick.   Jesus’ power will be shown in acts of compassion and healing.   Just as angels served him in the desert, so will serve others.  As Jesus says “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mk 10.45).  Here is the lesson of Mark, that Jesus goes into the desert to confront Satan to show God’s love for us.  Jesus demonstrates the Father’s love by rescuing us from sin and death, by taking our place on the cross.  God tried to defeat sin with raw power once, and that didn’t work so well.

Our first lesson reminded us of the Flood story in Genesis, which, whatever you think about it’s historicity, is a story about the problem of evil and how God ultimately chooses to address it.   In promising never to destroy the people God has made, God decides to find some other way to deal the evil things that offend his perfect sense of justice.  God’s decision to save Noah, his family, and their descendants is, if you like, a parable showing that God commits to seeing his great project of creation through to a happy end and a grand conclusion.   God, who has the power to create and destroy the earth, resolves instead to save humanity because the whole story of scripture tells us that God is, first and foremost, love.  Hence my reference last Sunday to CS Lewis’ allegory of Jesus as Aslan the Lion, powerful and dangerous, but loving.  In the Flood, God tried to use power to get rid of sin and evil and it nearly destroyed humanity.  Now, God will use love instead.  That’s why the journey of Lent leads to the cross, because to save us, God must give himself in our place.  That’s how love works.

Lent has traditionally been a somber time in which the faithful are urged to reflect on our sins and to express our penitence in acts of sacrifice and austerity.  I do believe that there are times when penitence is appropriate, especially as we approach Good Friday, but I think that this Lent of 2021 is different.   For a year now we’ve been slogging our way through the pandemic, living with fear and isolation.  Austerity is our daily lot.  Lent has become a way of life.  Maybe this isn’t the year that we think so much on what we give up.

I think instead that this Lent we dedicate ourselves to gratitude.  We can be thankful for the online visits and phone checks that have made us grateful for friends, family, and church.   We can be thankful for the little rituals that give our days and our lives meaning – if you look forward to a morning coffee, a baked treat, an evening drink – why give this up for Lent?  Savour them and be grateful for them! We can be thankful that we are less busy, leaving us with more time for stillness, more time to listen for God’s voice that speaks most clearly in silent moments.   Finally, we can dedicate each day of Lent to gratitude to Jesus, in whom we see the Father’s power and compassion.  Above all, let’s be grateful that we have such a mighty saviour, who goes to the cross because his love for us is the greatest thing in the cosmos.