First Lent

First Sunday in Lent

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church ● Albany, California

Stephen Hitchcock ● February 21, 2021

Genesis 9:8-17

Psalm 25:1-9

1 Peter 3:18-22

MARK 1:9-15

It’s been almost exactly one year since I preached my last sermon in the sanctuary of St. Alban’s Church.  You may recall that our deacon, Dani, and I agreed that we’d each preach once a month until we had a new priest. Well, the pandemic certainly changed those plans.

Now we’re saying farewell to Dani, wishing them blessings and best wishes as they begin a new ministry.  Our sadness at Dani’s departure – we will miss Dani’s spirited leadership and those surprising sermons – is offset by gratitude and memories of all their ministry has accomplished: creating Messy Vespers, pitching in to provide pastoral care, organizing Operation Sandwich, leading anti-racism training, and much more.  Thank you, Dani.

Unfortunately, we’re not yet saying farewell to the pandemic and all the isolation and disruption caused by this deadly disease.  So, it is perhaps appropriate that today is the first Sunday in Lent.  The Gospel for this Sunday is an especially useful resource for these difficult days.

The Gospels were written – and we read them today – not just because they are interesting stories about Jesus and his disciples.  They are indeed interesting, and I’m grateful for your patience with my enthusiasm for the literary and historical treasures in these Gospels.

No, the Gospels are meant to be stories about us – stories about our following Jesus today and our life together as present-day disciples.

Thrown Out into the Wilderness

Thus, it makes sense that today we find ourselves with Jesus in the wilderness, a place of desolation and danger.  For those who first heard Jesus, the wilderness was where Moses and the Israelites wandered – and withered – for 40 years after their exodus from Egypt.  Moses himself fasted 40 days at Mount Sinai, and later Elijah fasted 40 days in the wilderness near Mount Horeb.

Today, as then, the wilderness was a place of testing.  “Tempted” is a misleading translation here.  We’re not being tempted to give in to some minor sins.  As with the Israelites in the wilderness, we’re being tested on the Big Sin: will we trust that God hasn’t abandoned us and that God cares deeply for us?

On that front, we certainly have been tried and tested.  Not just by this deadly virus that has kept us isolated and separated from friends and loved one.  But, also by the divisions and disparities that wrack our nation.  And by climate change that threatens the survival of the planet.  And some of us wander in the wilderness of aging brains and bodies, illness and infirmity.

Even though we – like Adam and Eve – have been thrown out of Eden into the dessert, Mark’s Gospel doesn’t leave us there.  Today’s reading invites us – no, insists that we confront three challenges.

The Cosmic Battle with Satan

First is a recuring theme in Mark’s Gospel.  Our wilderness experience isn’t a temporary inconvenience or a chronic problem we can overcome with positive thinking and willpower.  What tested Jesus – and tests us – is Satan, the one who embodies and wields all the forces of evil, including sickness and death.

Mark’s Gospel is the story of the cosmic battle between Jesus and Satan, between life and death.  In the chapters to come, we will see Satan’s demons at work, as Christine reminded us in her reflection.  In Mark 6, Satan’s power makes the seas rage and threatens to drown the disciples.

This demonic force is its most threatening – and personal – right at the center or pivot point in chapter 8.  Jesus has told the disciples for first time that he is going to Jerusalem to be put to death.  When Peter objects, Jesus responds with “Get behind me, Satan.”

Conquering Death by Dying

That brings up the second challenge in today’s reading.  Already in these very early verses, Jesus’ fate is made clear.  In verse 14, John the Baptist is arrested, which should be read “handed over” – the same verb is used to describe what happens to Jesus.  Earlier in our reading, after Jesus is baptized, the heavens are torn open – just as the temple curtain is torn at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.

And we are privy – we’re the audience here because, at this point in Mark’s Gospel, there are no crowds around– to the voice that proclaims, “This my beloved son.”

Remember when we heard that voice and those words?  A week ago Sunday, we celebrated the transfiguration.  In Mark’s Gospel, that mountain top experience, follows right after Jesus’ first predictions about his death.  There, with Moses and Elijah present, the voice from heaven announces, “This my Son, the Beloved.”

In Mark’s Gospel, that confession of Jesus as God’s son is made by a human voice – a Centurion and a Gentile – only after Jesus has died on the cross.

So, mystery of mystery – what the Apostle Paul calls a scandal — Satan is overcome and death is conquered when Jesus loses that cosmic battle, when Jesus is pulled under the waves, when he suffers death.  Jesus gives his life as a ransom so that Satan no longer owns us, evil does not enthrall us.

Raised to New Life

The third challenge we’re given today is trust that our story doesn’t end with the story of Jesus’ death.  That Jesus’ shares our humanity and suffers our fate may be comforting, but it is not GOOD NEWS.

And that is what Jesus proclaims – good news – after he returns from the wilderness and begins his ministry. announcement in the very first sentence of the Gospel, “This is the Good News of the Son of God.”

For Jesus to announce “This is the Good News of the Son of God” was both audacious dangerous. This good news was in sharp contrast and clear conflict with other news. In Jesus’ day and when Mark’s Gospel was written, official heralds were proclaiming the “real” good news that the Roman Emperor – whose kingdom was the entire world he had conquered – was the Son of God.

Today, we are invited to trust that Jesus – who was executed by representatives of that emperor – promises us life in a new kingdom.  One in which demons are cast out, the sick are healed, people are fed in the wilderness, and all people of all persuasions and backgrounds are welcomed.

Living in Resurrection Time – Now

And that kingdom – that way of living – is now.  Jesus says, “The time fulfilled.”  The word for “time” is Kairos, not chronological time, but resurrection time.

It’s resurrection time because Jesus was raised from the dead.  The account of Jesus’ baptism says that Jesus “comes up” out the water.  Throughout Mark’s Gospel, as Jesus reaches out and heals, this rising and lifting up is a repeated refrain.

We, too, rise up – are raised up – out the water of our baptism to new life.  At morning prayers on Thursday, we celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther.  For Luther, at the beginning of each day was resurrection – as we rise up out of sleep, make the baptismal sign of the cross, and begin another day of new life.

That new life is the Spirit that appears at Jesus’ baptism.  The Spirit of the Risen Christ is here today as we gather for worship, as we listen to scriptures, and as we pray together.  And when we are able to gather in person, the Risen Christ will be present as we partake that wilderness mana in the Eucharist.

Surrounded and sustained by this Spirit of new life, we can’t help but care for each other, for God’s creation and creatures, and for all those in need.  Jesus’ story is truly our story, and that’s the good news we are announcing to each other and to the world.  Amen.