I walked into the Parish Hall yesterday, and I swear I could still smell pancakes! Or maybe it was the sausage. It was a faint smell, but still evocative. It brought back memories of Tuesday night, when we gathered to mark the end of Epiphany with celebration. There were celebrations in many parts of the world Tuesday night: Mardi Gras, Carnival. They were enjoying more than just pancakes! But come Wednesday morning, the crowds had all gone home to sleep it off.
On Wednesday we gathered in a much more solemn atmosphere, kneeling. We sought God’s forgiveness for the wrongs we have done, and for the good we have left undone. We put dirt on our faces to remember that we are but dust and to dust we shall return.
The mood in our worship this morning has changed as well. Two months ago our parish was adorned with the symbols of Christmas. A month ago, we were enjoying the more relaxed pace of Epiphany. But now, we have no manger scene, no Magi. The joy of Christmas and the light of Epiphany have faded like the whiff of by-gone pancakes, and have been replaced with shadows, fasting, and self-examination. There are no flowers, just ashes.
Last Sunday we heard about Jesus, transfigured on the mountain in bright and shining glory, but this Sunday we hear of Jesus, hungry, alone and being tempted by Satan.
The action in Mark is fast-paced, as we have already seen. In just these seven verses this morning, Jesus is baptized, and then tempted in the desert for forty days. Meanwhile John the Baptist is arrested, and Jesus takes over for him, proclaiming the good news of God’s reign. All in just seven verses.
In the accounts of both Matthew and Luke, we hear much more fleshed-out versions of all these events. It is there that we hear the details of Satan’s tempting Jesus, including such memorable quotations as, “Man shall not live by bread alone,” and “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.”
Now, temptation is something we often joke about these days. We often give things up for Lent, sharing in part, I suppose, with Jesus’ temptations. We deny our appetites, for chocolate, for alcohol, for shopping, even for the Internet! And yet, Jesus seems to be wrestling with something far greater in the wilderness, so much so that the scripture tells us, “the angels ministered to him.”
Mark’s gospel is about action and power and both are on display here. Jesus is prepared for his ministry by being anointed by God in his baptism and then immediately is tempted by Satan. It is then that he goes forth, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. Was God testing his mettle? In just these few verses, I believe we see a brief glimpse of both the power and the humility of Jesus. From the height of his baptism, endorsed by God, to this lonely struggle in the wilderness against Satan, Jesus captures the life journey we all must face. We do have mountain top experiences, but we are often also driven into the wilderness.
The rhythm of the Church Year has brought our path once again to a wilderness time. Lent is a season when those times we spend in the wilderness come into fuller focus. Many of us have been driven into the wilderness of loss, or depression, unemployment, or even uncertainty. What happens when we don’t feel like celebrating? In the wilderness we too are tempted, maybe not as dramatically as Jesus, and yet we are often faced with life-changing choices.
It must strike the culture around us as a bit strange that we intentionally engage in a time of penitence and fasting. Our grocery stores are filled to bursting, and yet we choose to fast. There is no shortage of entertainment, and yet we choose to deny ourselves some of these pleasures. Prohibition ended 80 years ago, and yet this time of year we might choose to walk past our favorite bar instead of going in. This self-denial, this fasting, not only reminds us of the power habits can have in our lives, but it also reminds us that we are vulnerable and all too mortal. Jesus identifies with us in this moment of temptation.
So where is the good news this morning, a question you may ask again before Lent is done? I hear in this account of the life and early ministry of Jesus hope, hope that we too will emerge from the wilderness. I see purpose in the suffering he went through, because Jesus returns to find his own context has changed. John has been arrested, and the mission is now his, to announce the coming of God’s reign.
I find good news as well this morning in the story of Noah. While Jesus had been in the wilderness for forty days, Noah and his family had themselves been riding atop the flooded earth for forty days, a wilderness experience of a different kind. I do like the fact that they both had animals with them. Imagine the despair and hopelessness that must have plagued the thoughts of Noah and his family, and yet, God heard their prayers and saw their need.
The scene from Genesis this morning finds the passengers of the ark standing before God, having just made a sacrifice in thanksgiving for their deliverance from the flood. God establishes a covenant with Noah and his family, his descendants, and yes all living things, including those animals. God would never again destroy the earth with a flood. Instead God placed a rainbow in the sky as a sign of peace, as a warrior might hang up his war bow. No more war against the human race. Soon God would establish a covenant with Abraham and create a people, called by God’s name.
Lent is a time when we as the people of God are invited to walk, once again, the valley of the shadow of death. We do not walk it alone, though it may feel that way at times. God is with us. As you may know, the theme of our Lenten journey as a congregation is “Images of God.” I would encourage you during the coming weeks to consider what images stay with you from our readings each Sunday. Have you seen God, or evidences of God’s presence or God’s promises? Today it might be that rainbow, or Jesus fasting in the wilderness, or Jesus emerging from the wilderness. There is no right answer. The texts will speak to each of us differently. Our images will be diverse as well.
Look for signs of hope in the wilderness. Angels may minister to you. You may see that rainbow before our time in Lent is done. Regardless, let us steel our nerve for the journey ahead. We know that Jesus has walked this path before us. He walks before us now, and we must choose to follow him. Amen.