This sermon, offered by the Rev. Andy Jones at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin on February 18, 2018, is built around the readings assigned for the First Sunday in Lent in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.
Here is a recording of the sermon
And a transcript of the recording
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Please be seated.
So here it is the first Sunday in Lent, a penitential season, and so it’s probably a good time for me to make a little confession to you all. Every year about this time, as the season of Lent approaches, I, Mother Dorota and I, and clergy all across the country, start to think about and look for ways to make you all uncomfortable in church. We stop saying Alleluia, we take away the flowers, change the words of the liturgy that we’ve been using… We try really hard to make church feel strange and just a little bit unsettling starting on that first Sunday of Lent.
But this past week as I pondered the limited resources that are available to me as I seek fulfill this goal, it occurred to me that we probably didn’t need to do anything special at all to make you all feel like you’re in the wilderness. All you have to do is turn on the television, turn on the radio, and you see things that we use as guideposts, as markers along the way, being obliterated. We see people hurting one another. We see people screaming and shouting at one another and fighting over things that we would never have imagined that people would argue about in the first place. People whom we know and love are falling sick. People whom we know and love have died, just in this past week. And so we are already in the wilderness.
In fact, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that life in this world is life lived in the wilderness, because this world is broken and hurting, and people all over, even we feel lost.
That, I think, can make it really difficult to remember the words that were spoken to Jesus in his baptism and the words that are spoken to us in ours. “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.”
It’s easy, I think, to lose track of those words and that truth with all of the evidence to the contrary that’s thrust upon us every single day. How do we remember we are God’s beloved? I think in Jesus knows full well how difficult it is to keep track of that reality. As he come out of the wilderness and strides purposefully in to the region of the Galilee he is proclaiming “The time is fulfilled. and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”
Jesus was walking in to a world, having just left the wilderness, that was no less broken hurting or lonely than our own. it is the human condition and his people were being oppressed by an invading army. People were being marginalized. People were hurting one another and fighting over details that seemed insignificant in the face of those words – you are my beloved. With you I am well pleased. So he knew that he was called the claim and proclaim the truth of God love.
Listen to what he says. “The time is fulfilled…” so all of our Scriptures, everything written, everything handed down, everything treasured by our people are pointing to this one moment when God will break into the world in a new way and set all things right. We will be restored to right relationship with God and with one another. And all of creation, and all people will be reconciled one to another and to God! That’s what Jesus is proclaiming as he walks into the Galilee!
He’s also saying that “the kingdom of God has come near.” It’s not something far-off, something up in the heavens. It’s not something to experience after you die. The kingdom of heaven is here and now, and we can experience it together, as a community.
Pretty radical things to say. And especially radical in light of all of the evidence to the contrary. How do we cling to those truths? How do we remember those things that have the power to give us the “peace that passes all understanding” when all we have to do is walk out the door and be reminded the world is still a broken, hurting, and a lonely place to be?
Jesus says “…repent, and believe in the good news.” Now the word repent carries a lot of baggage because it gets misused a lot. But what it really means is to turn away from the things that are distorting our nature; that are stealing our joy, and our life. and our love. To turn away from things that alienate us from one another, and from ourselves, and from God, and to turn back to the God who wants us to live life abundantly, joyfully, boldly, and lovingly.
Jesus says turn back to God and believe the good news, believe a better word here is trust. Believe is a verb. Believe means embrace, internalize, accept, know. Trust the good news.
Trust that you are beloved of God and that with you God is well pleased. Trust that the time is fulfilled and God’s promises are coming true. And trust that the kingdom of God is here and now, for you and for me, and for all of us. And do all of that despite all of the evidence to the contrary. Not an easy thing to do. Jesus knew that. Jesus shows us a way to hang on to what is at the core of our being.
Before Jesus strides purposefully into the Galilee proclaiming that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near, Jesus goes into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Now I’m not suggesting that any of us do that. That would be a difficult thing, I think, for any of us to endure.
And I also want to point out that in the other gospel accounts of Jesus is like there’s a lot of detail about what that temptation looked like and the conversation that Jesus had with the tempter. But here in Mark’s gospel it’s very spare, a few short lines, which leaves room for our imaginations. And in fact, I think, leaves room for our own stories. So if we were to step into the wilderness to be tempted what would that look like for us; to be tested, what would that look like for us?
Just a couple of days ago, on Ash Wednesday, we stood in this place and listened to the Invitation to the Observance of the holy Lent, and in that invitation we hear,
“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance…”
We are called during this season to look for the obstacles that we have erected between ourselves and God; the things that keep us from turning back to God; the things which we carry around in our past and in our memories that leave us hiding behind the bushes and sewing clothes out of fig leaves for fear of encountering the God who loves us.
The invitation goes on,
“I invite you to the observance of a holy Lent… by prayer and fasting and self-denial…”
to engage in a conversation with God that’s stripped of its distractions. To find a place to be quiet, to be alone with God, to speak what’s in our own hearts and to listen.
And then finally the observance of a holy Lent
“…through reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”
Going back to those promises. Remembering what God has said to us. Remembering what God has said to us through the person of Jesus Christ, and claiming them as truth.
We are God’s beloved and with us God is well pleased!
This season of Lent is a time for us to resource ourselves. To build ourselves up, to claim those promises for our own, so that when the world tries to counter that truth with evidence to the contrary we can be strong in what we know and what we believe.
This season is a time for us strengthen and fortify ourselves with the truth; time for us to focus on what is holy, and true, and life-giving, and the beautiful, so that when the world floods us with images that aren’t any of those things we have something with which to balance them.
The world can very quickly take away the peace that passes all understanding and this season of Lent is about building ourselves up in that Peace, finding it again and claiming it for our own. I have to tell you that that’s not the end of the story.
This season isn’t so much about us, as it is about the world that would try to steal this peace from us. Jesus hears his identity proclaimed in his baptism, and he goes out into the wilderness, and he successfully resists the temptation. He’s strong in who he is. And he’s also strong in what is called to do.
And so he walks out of the wilderness into a world that would deny everything that he says and is, and begins to proclaim,
“The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.”
All of the peace that we find this season and in one another, and in this place, is preparing us to follow in his footsteps… and to go out those doors into a world that is broken, and hurting, and lost, and proclaim a different narrative in the one year on the evening news; to tell one another, to tell everyone we meet “You are beloved, and we are one. And we can live together, respecting each other’s dignity, recognizing what is holy in one another, and working to serve each other and to serve God here in this place.
The season of Lent, it’s like boot camp! We are being prepared to be sent out. In the process of that we will find a peace that passes all understanding, and then we’re called upon to jeopardize and to risk that by going out that door.
Thanks be to God that we have one another and this place to which we can return; to be strengthened, to be filled, to be taught, to listen, and to teach one another, so that together we can bring those prophecies to realization and fulfillment.
The kingdom of God has come near.