Sermon Lent I, 21 February 2021, the Vicar
There are elemental factors with which we must deal before we look at Mark’s telling of Jesus’s time in the wilderness.
Some years ago, rather baldly, one of the children, said, “Look what you have done to the planet, that we will have to manage!” It was a sobering moment. Aged about 12, and with a lifespan of at least another 80 years she had been shown the predictions of weather patterns, flooding, winter and summer extremes, the erosion of fertile lands, and the rise in sea waters, and knew that before her was a life of climate uncertainty and foreboding. I don’t blame the school for scaremongering when the scientific modelling has become incontrovertible. That was long before the current crisis, in some measure environmental, as well as health-related.
The urgency of discussion about global action to prevent unnecessary interference with the natural order, through reduction of emissions is in the consciousness of most now, and action to see a fundamental change is a spur and inspiration.
The sequence of the early chapters of Genesis, which sees the beauty and balance of creation at its outset corrupted by human selfishness and murder, shows the immediate consequence of sin to be death. The flood, which Noah’s ark and its precious cargo of specimens of all living things, just escapes. It is the scouring, the cleansing of that death-wish. The rainbow, we read of in today’s lesson sets a seal of promise that nothing like this will be repeated. But Noah’s own intemperate reaction is to make wine and become drunk himself, an acid postscript to an otherwise sobering story. For all the cleansing and the rainbow, the death-wish of humanity still remains. As the G7 meet, and as America re-enters the Paris Climate accord, and as Cop-26 is being prepared for later this year, God-willing in Glasgow, may the world’s sober attention be trained on all that is possible. We are doing our best, following an environmental audit to see if we can be carbon neutral by 2030, with efforts to harness the very best insulation and energy technologies. The forty days and nights of rain, were followed by 150 days of gradual ebbing of the great flood, then 40 days more before a raven was released, then another 7 and a dove.
Jesus’ 40 days and nights in the wilderness echo some of this symbolism. Two things underlie this imagery. Jesus goes from his baptism. He is revealed there as the Beloved Son, and then driven into the wilderness. As usual Mark does not mess about in telling us the sequence of events. But each word is loaded with symbolism. The prophets underlined that Israel in the wilderness, after its passing through the Red Sea, became God’s beloved own. The sense of being driven into the wilderness, which the Greek suggests, highlights the driving back of the sea, and the escape of the Children of Israel, the impulsion into their desert wanderings.
I mentioned the elements at the start, the threat of destruction of the world as we know it. Sea and desert, driving forces, all combine to cast Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness as a recapitulation of two key moments of promise and salvation, the flood and the desert wanderings.
But before the sentence even ends, Mark says, “he was there in the wilderness 40 days, tempted of Satan”. Unlike in Matthew and Luke there is no diabolical dialogue. Instead, Mark says almost charmingly, “and was with the wild beasts, and angels ministered to him.” Whatever testing Satan tried is brushed off. Jesus, as the Beloved is vanquisher before he even starts his ministry. The wild beasts are no threat, if he was able to dismiss Satan. Jesus is hailed as the Beloved three times. Twice by his Father, at his baptism and then in chapter 9 at the Transfiguration, and then again in the parable of the wicked tenants, Jesus tells of the coming of the beloved son, whom they kill. It is the precious, beloved connection between Father and Son, which is the source of the unending victory.
This Lenten journey is in companionship with the Beloved Son, whose relationship with his Father is above all division. Their bond invites, sustains and repels all evil intent. This journey with them is dynamic, a driving force of nature. It recalls seasons when the elements might overwhelm, flood and desert but in fact it takes us to the primal season of balance and harmony. Eden.
The Orthodox liturgy at the start of Lent prays in the voice of Adam restored to Eden:
The Lord my creator took me as the dust of the earth and formed me into a living being, breathing into me the breath of life. He honoured me, setting me as ruler upon earth over all things visible and made me companion of the angels. Satan the deceiver, using the serpent enticed me by food, separated me from the glory of God, and gave me over to the lowest depths of the earth. As master and compassionate, call me back again…. bring me to paradise again.
By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity and Circumcision; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation, Good Lord, deliver us.
By thine Agony and Bloody Sweat; by thy Cross and Passion;
by thy precious Death and Burial; by thy glorious Resurrection and Ascension, and by the coming of the Holy Ghost, Good Lord, deliver us.
In all time of our tribulation; in all time of our prosperity;
in the hour of death, and in the day of judgment, Good Lord, deliver us.