Emmanuel Church – Sermon for First Sunday In Lent – 21 February 2021
In the Gospel of Mark this morning, we encounter a God of power unleashed in the world. I honor your deeply held view of God. So I caution that the vision of God we share this morning may be challenging for some. Remember. Mark’s gospel is written as the full force of the Roman empire descends upon the people of Jerusalem. It will bring complete destruction on them. Here is a God of power, come to liberate God’s people from the forces of oppression. So, fasten your seatbelt.
In the name of the one, holy and indivisible Trinity, amen.
In preparing to speak with you, I read a sermon by Brian Blount, a scholar of Mark’s Gospel. In his opening words he offers the birth of his newborn daughter as an example of the power of God arriving in our lives. His example is so relevant to our community that I adapt his opening to our conversation this morning.
During our annual meeting, there were so many fond words directed at our Rector, Della+ and her husband, Jere, for their leadership since arriving amongst us two years ago. So true. They have brought energy and wisdom to our worship community. They have integrated so seamlessly within our worship lives. But there is more to be revealed about their transition than their physical relocation from New Haven. Their lives have been transformed by the arrival of Booey, their new Labrador puppy. Now Booey was the subject of extensive planning. Puppy crates were placed in strategic locations. Toys were thoughtfully selected for her arrival. Training books and videos were consulted. Finally, all was prepared. Booey’s new owners were ready to take control.
Then…Booey arrives. An adorable, tail-wagging, eight-pound bundle of love. A bundle of curiosity and energy. And of danger, with razor-sharp puppy teeth and a mind of her own. She is now grown to fifty pounds and counting. Immediately, she is a force for change. Immediately she disrupts and reorders the lives of her owners. Booey is in control. And they love her for it.,
Hear now the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.(Mk1:1)
Power of God
Today we witness the power of God as God descends upon us in the pages of Mark. Today the heavens are torn apart. God bursts forth into our lives in the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. Scholar Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm describes it this way: “The intrusion of God’s spirit descending announces the wonderful and fearful prospect of God’s power alive among us. We now have access to God, but this is a God we cannot tame or control.” Breaking into our lives is the God who speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, the God who laid the foundation of the earth, the God who shut in the sea when it burst from its womb. The God who created and tames the Behemoth and the Leviathan. (Job 38-41)
The divine spirit descends upon Jesus as a dove. The dove is the sign of peace. But make no mistake. Jesus comes not as a peacemaker. Jesus arrives as a force for revolution. Jesus arrives armed with the power of love. With love he will overturn the forces of oppression that rule human lives.
We each live in our own wilderness, vulnerable to the forces of evil that separate us from the love of God. The forces of oppression surround us. Those in Mark’s time live under the mailed fist of their Roman oppressors. Surviving within that code permits no regard for the value of human life. Millions live in slavery. Nowhere in civil discourse is love to be found. The controlling religious code defines those who are accepted. You are received inside if you observe the cultic practices of the religious law. All who live outside the code: the poor, the sick, the unclean, the tax collectors…the women, are considered less than human.
The Baptist arises out of the wilderness, a wild man not to be controlled by the religious code. Immediately, as he baptizes Jesus, the power of God in the Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. Baptized by the Jordan, hear the the echo of the Exodus. God’s people, with divine assistance, are led out of slavery in Egypt to the land beyond the Jordan by Jesus’ namesake, Joshua. Propelled by the Holy Spirit into into this wild and treacherous space, Jesus will face the trials of human life that prevent us from finding the face of God.
Jesus goes into the desert. He fasts. He leaves behind everything else a man needs for bare existence. Through this cruelly hard act, this denial of all comfort, through the solitude and abandonment of the desert, he proclaims this fact: only one thing is necessary, that I be with God, that I find God. Everything else, no matter how great or beautiful must be sacrificed to this ultimate movement of heart and spirit.
Mark does not reveal the three temptations put to him by Satan. You can find those in Matthew and Luke. But you and I recognize the lure of power and wealth and the worship of secularism that Satan offers. Daily they divert us from the presence of God. In rejecting Satan, Jesus claims his wholehearted obedience to God. The power of God is now unleashed in Jesus who goes forth determined to free those enslaved in Mark’s world, and in ours.
Jesus goes forth from the wilderness throughout Galilee and regions beyond to teach, heal and preach the Good News. None but the evil spirits understand his message. Not his disciples, not even his family who think him insane. He is welcomed only by the outsiders, those who press upon him urgently to learn and be healed. His acts challenge the religious establishment to its very foundation and lead to his execution. The truth of his message will be revealed. But only on the cross, ironically in the mockery of his executioners, who address him as Son of God.
Journey of Lent
Today we enter the forty day wilderness of Lent. As we enter our forty days, we transition from the Feast of Christmas through the celebration of Epiphany to the Fast of Lent. We now turn inward from weeks of feasting and celebration and enter the inward personal journey of fasting and prayer. Across these forty days we travel with Jesus towards the cross on Good Friday. The ashes we receive on Ash Wednesday are the burnt remains of those palms from last year. The sober reminder that from dust we came and to dust we shall return. On our journey to the cross, Lent commands us to stop. Our hope is found only in the resurrected Christ. Today, Jesus commands our attention: “The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent and believe in the good news.” (Mk 1:15)
This is the challenge of Lent. The temptations we face are no less than Satan offers. Temptations are always alluring. They arrive tied up in attractive packages that disguise Satan’s purpose. They hide the cost of separating ourselves from God. Lent is the gift of time to put aside the busy-ness of life and prayerfully ask: where is God in my life? If not, why not? How do I find my way back to God?
We do not travel alone through the wilderness of Lent. Through our prayers of renewal and search for God in our life, we walk with the Holy Spirit. God offers us hope, as he offered Noah in the symbol of the rainbow in our reading from Genesis this morning. God tells Noah, in time of hurt, when the clouds come over the earth: look up, see my bow in the sky. There you will see the reminder of hope and salvation for all humankind. On our forty-day journey, the rainbow is our Holy Spirit, God’s reminder of God’s timeless commitment to us.
We do not travel alone through our wilderness. Consider the experience of Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer. In their many years of exploration Shackleton and his expedition never reach their goal. But on their final escape from deep Antarctica, their ship Endurance frozen in pack ice, he comes into his greatest achievement. After months of drifting on sheets of ice and a final 36 hours trekking out the frozen wilderness, Shackleton’s expedition “suffered, starved, groveled…yet triumphed.” Yes, triumphed, as he writes, “we had seen God in his splendours. I know that during that wracking march of thirty-six hours over unnamed mountains and glaciers, it seemed to me that there was another person with us. Providence guided us.” As with Jesus, driven onwards towards triumph on the cross, God sends the angels to wait upon Shackleton. We do not travel alone. We are ministered to by the Holy Spirit.
Lent is the time to renew our faith in the power of God. We have much to be thankful for during the year of personal darkness that is upon us. We have been torn from community with friends and family. Many have lost their livelihood. We have lost those dear to us from this deadly virus. We feel abandoned, we feel alone. We ask ourselves: “where is God in all this?”
We do not travel alone. We are ministered to by a cloud of witnesses in the nurses, doctors and all who keep us safe and supplied. We, too, are ministered to by God’s angels as we endure our time of trial. Amen
This is a sermon delivered to the congregation of Emmanuel Church, Newport, RI on February 21, 2021. I am indebted to the following for their insights into the lectionary for First Sunday in Lent: Brian K. Blount, “God on the Loose,” in Preaching Mark in Two Voices, Westminster John Knox Press (2002); Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm, Preaching the Gospel of Mark, Westminster John Knox Press (2008); Donald Senior, Matthew, Abington Press (1998); Warren Carter, Mark (Wisdom Commentary Series), Liturgical Press (2019); Karl Rahner The Great Church Year; accessed on line at www.edgeofenclosure.org, Soulwork Toward Sunday: Self Guided Retreat – Lent I (Year B). Shackleton commentary drawn from: Sir Ernest Shackleton, South! The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition, 1914-1917, Chapter X,
The Project Gutenberg eBook, Public Domain
Roger C. Bullard, February 21, 2021
 Blount,“God on the Loose“ in Preaching Mark in Two Voices, (p.28)
 Ottoni Wilhelm, Preaching the Gospel of Mark (Kindle version) p.28
 Warren Carter, Mark (Wisdom Commentary Series) Liturgical Press. (Loc 1674) Kindle Edition.
 Karl Rahner (1904-1984), The Great Church Year
 Senior, Matthew, p.58
 Sir Ernest Shackleton, South! The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition, 1914-1917, Chapter X, The Project Gutenberg eBook, Public Domain