Sermon for February 21, 2021

First Sunday in Lent, Mark 1:9-15

The holy gospel according to Mark. Glory to you, O Lord.

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
    12And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
    14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the dominion of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

I’m struck by the destructive-creative energies explicit or implied in the readings for today.

The flood that destroyed all living things on the face of the earth save for Noah and his family and the animals on the ark is the context for today’s first reading in Genesis. That destruction was the matrix for the promise of a restored creation after the flood, and the covenant between God and Noah and descendants that never again would the world be destroyed by a flood.

The symbol of the covenant is the rainbow, a lovely meteorological effect and lightshow that can often follow destructive, severe weather.

In the passage from 1 Peter, today’s second reading, Jesus’ suffering and death in the flesh are featured prominently along with Christ’s resurrection and this in connection with baptism in connection with the flood – all of this destructive energy resulting in new creation. Even baptism is a drowning, but it’s an ending that births new life in Christ, a major move from a kind of destruction to new creation.

Then there’s the dramatic language in the brief passage from Mark’s Gospel. Listen again to the words and phrases that are full of energy that’s anything but peaceful and calm:

  • “And just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”
  • “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”
  • “He was in the wilderness forty day, tempted by Satan”
  • “And he was with wild beasts.”
  • “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the dominion of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (cf. Mark 1:9-15)

Heavens torn apart; the Spirit driving Jesus out into the wilderness; temptation by Satan; wild beasts; John’s arrest.

Again, sense the weight of these negative, perhaps destructive energies.

They can describe our current circumstances and realities:

  • We, too, find ourselves amidst worlds torn apart, especially now in our beloved country.
  • People in cutthroat competition for limited resources are driven by many and various energies, some quite destructive.
  • The pandemic landscape can seem like a wilderness in our social isolation without the infrastructure of our usual routines.
  • Temptations can abound in our lives in times like these.
  • Some might suggest that Satanic or diabolical, destructive forces are at play in our temptations.
  • Wild beasts of perhaps more metaphorical varieties lurk about. But isn’t also true that the coronavirus is a kind of wild beast?
  • Powers and principalities continue to arrest not just bad actors, but others striving for the good causes of justice.

These are precisely the realities which Jesus entered in his earthly life and ministry to proclaim good news that the dominion of God has come near.

These are precisely the realities where Jesus still enters to find us and to rescue us.

This rescue by Jesus has its dramatic expression in our own baptisms.

Baptismal themes are an undercurrent throughout today’s readings, with the recounting of Jesus’ own baptism in the gospel of Mark, but again also quite notably when the author of 1 Peter connects baptism with the days of Noah and the flood: “God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you – not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” (1 Peter 3:20b-22)

When we are baptized in the name of the Trinity, we are flooded with water. Even if it’s just a sprinkling, it’s still a flood that drowns the old Adam of our sinful state. Coming up out of the water is our rebirth in Christ and into Christ’s body. Baptism is a kind of destruction that leads to new creation.

In the water, with the word and the Spirit, the destructive forces are transformed into creative forces both in our lives and for the life of the world.

Which is to say, the Spirit whose energies drive the creative realities of baptismal regeneration is the same Spirit who drove Jesus into the wilderness and then into ministry in Galilee. That same Spirit drives us also into the wilderness of our days and circumstances for our own share in God’s mission of rescue.

This mission of ours in and for the sake of the world may have the effect of yet again of seeming to tear the heavens apart and may propel us into places that don’t feel safe, places of temptation and wild beasts, perhaps even the risk of arrest.

The mission field can be fraught, but that’s precisely where we are called to echo the words of Jesus’ proclamation in the presence of our neighbors, “The time is fulfilled, and the dominion of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.”

All of this makes for an appropriate way indeed to begin our journey of Lent, our second Lent in this season of prolonged pandemic.

With faces set to Jerusalem, the place of cross and empty tomb, and our eyes fixed on the fonts which make for redemptive flooding, the dynamism of the Spirit’s energies mark our life together and drive us forward for the sake of the world. Amen.

And now for your reflection and holy conversation at home:

  • In what ways perhaps have you known the dynamics of destruction that can lead to new creation in your journey of faith, in your spiritual life?
  • What kinds of wilderness do you find yourselves in?
  • What good news might you proclaim to those whom you find there?