Lent isn’t only a time to wrestle with our demons and the devil out in the world, but also a time to encounter spiritual good and to be served by angels.
Vicar Lauren Mildahl
The First Sunday of Lent, year B
Texts: Mark 1:9-15, Genesis 9:8-17
God’s beloved children, grace to you and peace in the name of the Father, and of the ☩ Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We start in the wilderness.
Like every year in our lectionary, the first Sunday of Lent begins in the wilderness, with the “Temptation of Jesus.” Mark’s account is by far the shortest and it leaves out almost all of the details that we hear in the other synoptic gospels. But, still, as we begin our forty days of this liturgical season, we hear again of Jesus and his forty days in the wilderness, with the devil and the wild beasts.
This reading and this season of Lent invite us to turn our attention to our own wildernesses: those areas of our own lives where we might be feeling a little lost. Where we are face to face with the spiritual evil that hurts us or tempts us. Where the wild beasts within our hearts still roam. It can be a scary place to go. Spiritual practices can help – giving something up or taking something on, and it helps that we are going together. But still, it’s hard.
Which is, I suppose, what I love about Lent. I like that it’s hard.
The Rite of Confession that we are including in our liturgy this season is hard. It’s hard to name my faults, my own faults, my own most grievous faults. But, you know, when the water is a bit too hot and the scrub brush is a little too stiff and the soap is a little bit too harsh, that’s when I feel the cleanest. There are blessings – perspective and clarity – out in the wilderness. Perhaps that’s why the Spirit drove Jesus there.
But I can also fall for the trap that, I think, our lectionary falls into.
In the other years, when we hear this story, we only hear about the wilderness. We hear the fuller account of the Devil and the specific temptations offered to Jesus and it means we begin our Lenten season, narrowly focused on this cosmic boxing match. We can fixate so much on the blow by blow, and Jesus’ one-two knockout at the bell – until that’s what Lent becomes too: a struggle, a contest, a wrestling match where there must be a winner and a loser. The conflict with spiritual evil becomes the entire focus – and it seems like a close match.
And so the stakes are raised and, with them, guilt.
Shoot! I forgot and ate that chocolate bar I was supposed to be fasting from.
Shoot! I wanted to pray twice a day, but I was too busy.
Dang it! I was going to resist the devil today, but I was just too tired.
I guess spiritual evil wins this time. It can feel hopeless. Like losing.
But the nice thing about Mark’s account, because it is so short, is that we actually get to hear it in context.
And when we do that, we see that spiritual evil is completely outnumbered by spiritual good! Because I lied to you. We don’t actually start in the wilderness.
We actually begin in the water.
This year, we begin with Jesus’ baptism, and with the voice from heaven – spiritual good – speaking with a parent’s pride: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The Holy Spirit descends like a dove – spiritual good flying into the world. Angels come to Jesus’ aid – spiritual good helping and providing. And it ends with the proclamation of spiritual good drawing near – the reign of God – the good news – the gospel.
The water, the voice, the dove, the angels, and the gospel – by my count there is five times more spiritual good in this short passage than there is spiritual evil!
And, realizing that can change how we view Lent.
What if it isn’t just a time to wrestle with our demons and the devil out in the world – but also time to be drenched with spiritual good and to be served by angels?!
Like a lot of modern people, I find it a little hard to talk about angels and demons. I certainly believe in spiritual activity – good and evil. But, for me, most everything that angels are said to do, I understand as part of how the Holy Spirit is active in the world. Protecting, speaking, healing, helping – those are all comfortably within the realm of the third person of the Trinity for me.
I guess, in my theology, I just don’t need angels? Is one way of putting it.
And I’ve never thought about Lent as an opportunity to meet an angel.
But who am I to dictate how the Holy Spirit will accomplish her deeds? If she wants to use angels, she will use angels! Because it is undeniable that for the people of the Bible, and for a lot of people today, angels are a major part of their experience of Christian life. I heard some beautiful stories this week about encounters with angels from some of you in this congregation. And I expect that if we polled this room we’d hear many more.
And just because I’ve never seen anything that I would describe as angel, I certainly know about close calls, near accidents, and help that arrived just when I needed it. I know about words of comfort and encouragement, calling me a beloved child just when I was at my lowest. I know about the energy of creativity, the hope of restoration, the bliss of intimacy, and the call of justice. I know what has been good for my spirit. I know spiritual good. So, I guess, I do know about angels.
And I know about rainbows.
After every storm, spiritual good materializes. Painted in the sky for us, we see the reminder of the first covenant God ever made with creation. A reminder made of arching colors, that God has promised to stick it out with us no matter what. Even when we face the pounding rain and raging wind of spiritual evil. Even when it seems hopeless. When we need the reminder the most.
Rainbows appear after storms. And angels arrive in the wilderness.
Spiritual good is all around us.
There’s a gentleman who has visited our church recently, who might be here today, who sits in the back. And one Sunday as he sat among the choir members waiting to process, he looked at me with rapture and said “I’m surrounded by angels!”
At first I thought, “Aww, that’s nice, but no, we’re just people.”
But maybe he was onto something. Because when we join the dance of the Trinity, when we walk in the way of God, when love draws us to one another, spiritual good flows through us. We join the ranks of angels – protecting, speaking, healing, helping, we become angels for each other. You all are surrounded by angels. The ones you cannot see and the ones you can.
You are surrounded by spiritual good. Five to one, it’s no contest.
And through your Lenten spiritual practices, whatever they are – through fasting and prayer, through volunteering and giving, through silence and singing, through deep intentional tending of your own personal wilderness and through your angelic service in love to those around you – spiritual good grows even more.
The wilderness is still there. But as we face it together this Lent, remember that you are soaked in the same spiritual good that drenched Jesus in our text today.
Like Jesus, you carry your baptism with you into the wilderness – for those of you who are baptized. And if you aren’t baptized, you can be! Lent was traditionally a time of preparation for baptism on Easter, we’d love to accompany you on that journey.
And, like Jesus, all of you carry the assurance that you are also God’s child, that God loves you and speaks with parental pride about you! And God is well pleased!
The Holy Spirit flies to you, and keeps you under her wings.
The gospel is proclaimed by you and for you: Jesus, God-With-Us, has been to the wilderness and will be there with you every step of the way.
And angels surround you.
In the name of the Father, of the ☩ Son, and of the Holy Spirit.