I’m not sure I’ve preached very much about angels
In all the years I’ve been fortunate enough to be a preacher.
Sure, maybe about Gabriel, around Christmas
Or even the Angel on the stone, near the tomb, at Easter.
But during the rest of the year, they’re not part of my ordinary repertoire.
If I’m honest with you, its partially because there aren’t as many references
To angels in the New Testament
as some Christian outlet stores like Martel or Hobby Lobby
would have you believe
but its also because I’ve never been quite sure what to do with them.
An angel, traditionally, is a messenger for God.
The word ANGEL itself literally means that:
A celestial being acting as God’s divine intermediary.
On the other hand,
St. Augustine would argue that an Angel is an office, a job,
Its what they do, not what they are.
What they ARE is a spirit, Augustine said
given purpose by God, to go DO something.
I like that. A lot.
It helps me understand, and reframe, what angels might mean for us and for our day.
And just as our contemporary age has struggled to know what to do with
The different cosmology we have with the scriptures—
this world of demons and spirits and Satan, the Tempter
who tests Jesus in the wilderness,
not to mention the angels…
Just as we aren’t quite sure what do to with all of that…
There are good ways in which people of faith
Have sought to understand these cosmic creatures
In modern ways, with faithful reframing.
We understand temptation.
We understand the wilderness.
Evil and the Demonic isn’t foreign to us.
Just take in a movie,
Maybe one of the handful up for best picture this year
And you’ll see temptation running throughout each one.
Spend a few minutes talking with a friend
About how they’re doing
If they’ll let their guard down long enough
And share about how every one of us is carrying something that feels far too heavy
That’s we’d cast away, if only we could…
Just watch the news,
See the depths of human depravity, hurting and sorrow
This week it was coming from
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida
Another mass shooting that is becoming so much more prevalent
Seventeen lives lost
And still only a blip in the 32000 gun related deaths every year in the United States
Accident, Homicide, Suicide, almost 2/3 of them are suicides.
More gun related deaths this year than car crashes
And that isn’t to mention the 80,000 non-fatal gun injuries that often go unspoken
But that leave lasting wounds
110,000 gun related injuries—deaths and non fatal combined
THAT is certainly a wilderness, here in America. That is Demonic.
So, even with the difficulty of knowing what to do with demons, wild beasts
And Satan, we know that these things are certainly evil. We understand that.
We moderns might just be less likely to chock it up to an otherworldly force,
rather than the things that we human beings do to one another
Something that, even so, we might seek deliverance from.
Come quickly, Lord Jesus…
The first Sunday in Lent almost always starts out with the story of Jesus
Being tested and tempted in the wilderness.
So it is this year, with this reading from the Gospel According to Mark.
One reason for this, I think, is that we understand temptation
We get the wilderness.
For as much as we are privileged, and we are
To be living in the wealthiest country on earth
In some of the safest places in the world
We too understand the yearning for the world to be put to right
For the triumph of good, of peace, of righteousness.
But I want us to focus on something a bit different, this First Sunday in Lent.
There were angels in the wilderness, too.
It’s so important for us to remember that.[i]
After the same Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism like a dove,
then turned into a dive bomber and drove him out to the desert,
there were angels in that wilderness.
Along with Satan, the wild beasts and everything else one finds in the desert—
heat that burns your skin,
thirst that makes your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth,
plants crowned with thorns—
there were also angels, angels “who ministered to him.”
It’s important to remember those angels as we hear again this well-known story
for the First Sunday of Lent.
They are easy to overlook.
In fact, they usually are.
Do an internet search for commentaries and sermons on this passage,
and the two themes that surface most often are temptation and repentance.
Angels never seem to make the cut.
Yet Mark remembered them.
In his lean, spare Gospel—
the shortest one of all—
Mark included the angels that Jesus met
in his lonely sojourn on the other side of the Jordan.
In Luke’s version of the same story,
Luke leaves them out entirely.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the angels only show up at the end.
But in Mark, they’re there the whole time, all forty days.
It’s not as if Mark has a thing for angels.
Other than this story about Jesus in the wilderness,
angels seldom show up in Mark’s Gospel.
When they do, they’re simply part of God’s royal court.
They’re not down on earth helping people.
Unlike Luke’s Gospel,
Mark records no encounter between Mary and the angel Gabriel
nor any angelic appearance to shepherds.
Mark leaves out Matthew’s angel
telling Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife
or whispering in his ear to take his family and flee to Egypt.
In Mark, there’s no angel who strengthens Jesus in Gethsemane,
and it’s not clear if it’s an angel the women meet at the empty tomb
or just a young man dressed in white.
So when Mark does include angels helping Jesus in the wilderness,
we need to sit up and take note.
To do so doesn’t disregard the temptations or even the Tempter himself
that Jesus confronted in those forty days.
Nor does it negate Lent’s call to repentance,
to acknowledge our own temptations and to wrestle with our own demons.
Certainly, we need to be honest about the trials and temptations
Jesus faced in the wilderness and that we face in our own lives.
We also need to acknowledge the wild beasts that surrounded him in that desert,
just as we need to acknowledge the things that scare the bejeezus out of us.
Lent is a time to do that.
But it’s also a time to remember the angels,
in his wilderness experience and in ours.
To remember, as Mark does,
that they were there for him from the very beginning of his 40-day journey,
just as God had been with his ancestors every day of their 40-year
desert journey in the wilderness.
Just as God promises to be with us in the wild, lonely places of our lives.
Lent can be a time to take stock of our lives,
to come clean about the things that tempt us and the things that scare us.
Part of our Lenten discipline can be to acknowledge,
in the words of the old prayer,
“the harm we have done and the good we have left undone”—
or in the words of Step 10 of every 12-Step program,
“to do a fearless moral inventory.”
But I also invite us to do another Lenten inventory,
an accounting of the angels we have known and loved and who have loved us,
in the wilderness times of our own lives.
To remember, as Mark remembered,
those angels that show up when we’re tired,
thirsty and surrounded by wild beasts–just as they did for Jesus.
Our wilderness angels probably don’t look like we think angels should.
No long white robes, no rustling wings.
Instead they may resemble the middle-school teacher
who believed in us when we couldn’t believe in ourselves.
Or the coach who gave us a chance to play,
even if we weren’t very good.
The spouse who cares for you when you are sick
The parent who put bandaids on your wounds and kissed your forehead
The friend who picked up your kids from school when you just couldn’t.
Maybe one of your angels is a colleague who had your back
during a rough time at work
or a buddy who listened to your fears and grief after a relationship ended.
Sometimes our wilderness angels are the people
who accept our apologies when we’ve hurt them or others,
the people who remind us through that acceptance that,
in the words of William Sloan Coffin,
there “is more grace in God than sin in us.”
And sometimes our angels are simply the people
who are willing to walk with us
into the wilderness and deserts of our own lives.
I’m convinced that God sometimes sends us these people
Helpful spirits to be God’s presence, God’s very love.
They’re there in the midst of every tragedy:
If you watch the videos coming out of Florida this week
And you see how those kids and that community
Is lifting each other up during a time such as this, you see it.
It is part of God’s promise never to leave us abandoned, or alone.
That’s God’s care for us will be everlasting, steadfast.
The Hebrew Scriptures have a special word for this quality of God: Chesed
Often translated as covenantal care, or loving kindness,
Or, as we heard during the call to worship
That call to worship quotes from the 25th Psalm, but you find Chesed
All over the Hebrew scriptures, 248 different times.
It is the quality of God that never gives up on you
That decides that you’re loved and that’s that
That wants you to be the best you can be
And who will keep you accountable to that
But who will love you through thick and through thin
The God who will be with you through your trials
Who will comfort you when you feel sorrow
Who will hold your hand when you are in pain
Who will be there with you at the last.
That is Chesed. God’s unbreakable, steadfast love.
So when you read Mark’s hastily told story
About Jesus and his baptism and his sojourn in the wilderness
Where there is Satan and the wild beasts
That little bit about the angels isn’t a trivial detail:
It’s a reminder that even Jesus wasn’t sent off to face his struggles alone.
It would give Jesus strength, to come out of the wilderness
And to serve God’s mission
Of proclaiming the Kingdom of God
While healing and feeding and ministering to the hurt and the lost.
And not just for Jesus
For you and for me too, my friends
We also know that God showers us with God’s steadfast love
Today, and tomorrow, and forevermore.
This has been a hard week for many of us.
School shootings do that.
The good news today is to remember the angels.
God sent them to serve Jesus, in the wilderness.
God sends people to help us in our need, even today.
Maybe you, maybe God is sending you
To help someone particularly lost, adrift in the wilderness of the day…
One of the angels of my childhood was Fred Rogers
The lovable Presbyterian minister turned child television host
Who helped a generation of children understand God’s presence
Through hard times
We would say: God’s steadfast love, no matter what.
Rogers taught children that their feelings mattered
And that it was ok to be afraid, to worry, to cry.
And he reminded me to not forget to look for the angels too:
“My mother used to say, a long time ago,
whenever there would be any catastrophe
in the movies or on the air[waves],
she would say
‘always look for the helpers,
there will always be helpers, there on the sidelines…’”
My prayer is that God may comfort you in every moment of struggle
May strengthen you in all your weariness
May uplift you when you are down
So that, as you make it through your own temptation
You are ready to return to the service of God
Ready to love your neighbor,
Feed the hungry
Heal the sick
Proclaim the good news
That love is stronger than hate and that death will not win…
Because this world needs angels like you who will do that.
Let it be so.
[i] Elements of this section draw from the work of The Rev. Talitha Arnold in her sermon “Angels in the Wilderness.”
Image: Picture from Couler at Pixabay, found at https://pixabay.com/en/angel-figure-stone-figure-sculpture-3181845/