Sunday, February 18, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Loudonville, NY
Today is the first Sunday of Lent, which began on Ash Wednesday. Most often we refer to Lent as a journey lasting 40 days, a significant number in the Bible because it signifies a long time of preparation. There are many examples in scripture of the number forty. In our first reading Noah and his family were on the ark for 40 days. With all those animals and no open windows I’m sure it seemed like a lot longer! When Moses was on the mountain with God he waited 40 days to receive the Ten Commandments. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 days on their way to the Promised Land. Jesus was in the desert 40 days and forty nights, and there are many other examples as well. The point is that these spiritual journeys were long. In the course of our entire lives 40 days isn’t really a long time, but it certainly can feel like it, especially when we are facing great challenges. When life is incredibly hard, 40 days can seem like an eternity, especially if there is no end in sight. The significance of this number on these spiritual journeys is just that. Forty represents an amount of time that seems to go on forever.
Journeys can be something we look forward to, like a journey to a new destination for a vacation. We look forward to those journeys with excitement and anticipation. We plan all the things we want to do, and look forward to the adventures that await us. And the time on those journeys seems to fly by. But some journeys we don’t welcome at all, like journeys of grief when a loved one dies, when we experience chronic illness, or poverty. These journeys can take a very long time to get through. And there are moments when a person is tempted to just give up believing that things will ever get better. Hopelessness can set in. And if these journeys of grief and pain are not happening to us, there is a temptation toward apathy. There is a temptation to think that our small actions won’t make an impact so why bother. Temptations on our journeys in life are everywhere. That’s why it’s so important who we take on our journeys with us. Who we travel with makes all the difference in the world.
That’s why our story from Mark’s gospel is so shocking. When Jesus was baptized, he saw the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove, and he heard God speak that he was Beloved. What a wonderful moment! Yet that same Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Mark says that God’s Holy Spirit literally forced him into a place that he did not want to go. It was a journey he wasn’t planning on taking, but he had no choice. And while he was there he faced temptations from Satan, and wild beasts were there. One might begin to question from Mark’s gospel exactly what the Holy Spirit is really like. So often we imagine the Holy Spirit as a gentle dove, the Advocate, the Comforter, the one who brings peace, yet in Mark’s gospel we get an image of the Holy Spirit tossing Jesus out into a place that if he had a choice he wouldn’t want to go. So what’s up with the Holy Spirit? Isn’t the Spirit supposed to be our Advocate?
What is an advocate? It’s one that is on our side. It’s one that supports us, and is with us through our trials. This was not the only trial that Jesus faced, in fact, this was just the beginning. His 40 days in the wilderness was a time of preparation. It was a time of fasting and prayer where Jesus would gain the wisdom and spiritual strength needed to face even more trials and suffering. In his baptism the Holy Spirit drove him right into the wilderness, which is a part of life. Times of wilderness can’t be avoided no matter how hard we may try. The Holy Spirit always leads to life, but the journey of life isn’t always easy. It is filled with evil and wild beasts. The latest school shooting in Florida this past week proves this. Violence is all around us and it may seem like there is nothing we can do but pray, but that is a temptation that even Jesus faced. Prayer is not just taking our concerns to God and waiting for God to act. God acts through us. God acts through humans to be the answer to the prayers we raise up. Just as the Holy Spirit forced Jesus to face the realities of temptation and evil in the wilderness, so the Holy Spirit through our baptism forces us to face the realities of temptation and evil in our world, our wilderness. And more often than not it does feel like a wilderness because there is so much evil that we have to face. But here is the critical point we have to remember. We not only have to face these realities, but we do not face these trials alone any more than Jesus did.
The Holy Spirit is with us on our journey through life. God will give us the strength we need to overcome the wild beasts that we all face. God’s holy angels wait on us too. We are not alone, and we as a community of faith have each other to support and encourage us on our quest. These companions on our journey are what give us the confidence, courage, and strength to do what God is calling us to do- care for all God’s people and all of creation. God is more powerful than evil, yet God needs us to rise up and stand against the evil and injustices we see in our world, in our wilderness.
During these 40 days of Lent, let us remember that though our baptism we have not been called away from this world, but have been called and sent into this world to be agents of change for good, to stand up for those who have no voice, to bring justice to those who are oppressed, and to be the answers to the many prayers that are being lifted up to God for peace and justice. Let us not forget we have powerful companions on our journey through the wilderness. Amen.