This was a tough one to write – I don’t know why. In the end I wrote it the day before I was preaching. I’d prayed that whatever ended up coming out of my mouth would touch at least one person (for good, not for bad!). Thankfully I got more than one positive report on it. I always feel a great sense of honour and some extent pressure, when writing a sermon. I know I can’t please all of the people all of the time, but I do hope to please (or challenge, or uplift, or comfort, or affirm) some of the people, some of the time.
The sermon was based on the Gospel reading which was Mark 1:9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.”
Where am I this Lent?
If you take away nothing else from this sermon today, then I’d like you to take away that little phrase.
Where am I this Lent?
Take a moment just to think about that.
When I was thinking about the Gospel reading for today, an image came to mind of mountains and valleys and it lead me to consider how we all have mountain top and valley deep experiences in our lives.
I wonder whether you’re closer to the mountain or the valley this Lent?
And I wonder what today’s reading could say to you about that?
Where am I this Lent?
The start of the Gospel reading has Jesus, joining with many others and going down to the River Jordan to be baptised. We hear that: “…just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”
Let’s not forget that although Jesus is the Son of God, he is also a regular human being. So what happens next: “…a voice came from heaven…” is not run of the mill. It’s what might be described as a mountaintop experience. Jesus, as with the other people gathered there, has heard John and accepted his message and declared his faith publicly through the act of baptism. Of course where Jesus differs from the rest of the crowd is that he has not sinned. But Jesus wasn’t baptised just for show –he was baptised as an outward sign of his obedience to God. It’s just that God happened also to be his father. And it is when his father speaks and says: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” that this mountaintop experience begins.
So I wonder, in the context of the question Where am I this Lent? Are you there? Are you having your own mountaintop experience? Can you relate to what happens in these three short verses?
Perhaps though when you ask yourself Where am I this Lent? You are a bit more aligned to what happens next.
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”
We have heard the Gospel reading today from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which tells us that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. A quick glance into some other interpretations gives us sent (NIV), pushed (The Message), and made him go (GNV).
All of this gives us the sense that Jesus, divine yet fully human, son of God and son of man, a real person with real emotions, joys and fears, was not necessarily champing at the bit to let go of his mountaintop experience. Now this is purely conjecture, but perhaps Jesus was thinking that this mountaintop experience was the beginning of his ‘mission’. After all, he has heard a voice from heaven saying that he is doing well; he may have felt empowered and equipped and ready to take on the world. Instead, the Spirit – the same one who moments before had landed on Jesus in the form of a dove – tells him to take on not the world, but the wilderness.
So Jesus – possibly still literally wet behind the ears – goes.
We know that Jesus spent a long time in the wilderness. Forty days and forty nights is long enough when you are comfortable and don’t have many challenges. But when you are trying just to survive, when every day is a struggle, and when you don’t know what tomorrow will bring, then forty days and forty nights is a long stretch. We hear that Jesus not only had to contend with wild beasts, but with Satan too.
So is this you? If you were to ask yourself Where am I this Lent? You might not be dealing with actual real live beasts, but perhaps there are things happening to you or to those you care for, that are making you feel like you are in a personal wilderness time. Maybe it does feel like you’re having to struggle with Satan.
Now I want, just briefly, to mention the other three readings given for today. I am of course preaching on the Gospel reading, but the others, in a nutshell are:
The Old Testament reading – Noah, the ark, the rainbow;
The Psalm – God’s steadfast love and faithfulness;
The New Testament reading – references to Noah, to baptism, and salvation.
When all of these readings are taken together, we can identify a very important thread running through them.
In all these readings, God is there. God is there for Noah – and he places a rainbow in the sky as a promise. The psalm talks of God’s everlasting and steadfast love. The NT reading is a letter from Paul, with a reminder to God’s people that God did not abandon Noah, that God is patient, and that God raised Jesus from the dead. All reminders of God’s presence.
If you are asking yourself Where am I this Lent? the answer could be you might be on a mountaintop of joy, or you might be in a valley of despair. You might be one thing one day and another the next, or all kinds of things rolled into one.
If we look again at our Gospel reading, we very easily see at the beginning that God is present, when he speaks to Jesus. It may not seem immediately obvious where God is when Jesus is in the wilderness, as we quite naturally get taken up with wild animals and Satan. But we do hear that when Jesus was in the wilderness, there also were angels who – depending upon the translation we read – waited on him, ministered to him, helped him, took care of him. So even in the wilderness, when Jesus would have felt far from all he knew – the presence of God, through the angels, remained.
So when you ask yourself Where am I this Lent? have a think about how you’re going to feel the presence of God.
Lent is a special time for us as Christians, and as such there are a number of church-led opportunities for you to draw near to God, or to draw nearer than you are right now.
Perhaps you could come to one of the Lent groups, to refresh your knowledge about how the things we do in church draw us nearer to God. Maybe it is that you would prefer to sit and to pray – so you could consider coming to Morning or Evening Prayer. There are also many online and printed resources you can use – because God isn’t limited to a church building – and if you are thinking that you would like to use Lent to become more aware of God’s presence, but are not sure where to start, just ask one of the Ministry Team.
Because wherever you are this Lent, God is near you. Whether you feel God’s presence or not, God is near you. Whether you want God or not, God is near you.
So when you leave this building later today, and go out into the world, and ask yourself Where am I this Lent? Remember that wherever you are, you are always in the presence of God.