Sermon of the Week:
Again & Again: God Meets Us
First Sunday in Lent
Keywords: Angels, Temptation, Baptism, Chesed, Mr. Rogers. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
Again and Again, God Meets Us.
That’s the sermon theme for this first Sunday in Lent,
The first sermon in a new sermon series, Again and Again.
I’m grateful to call Denise Anderson a colleague and a friend.
She was co-moderator of the 222nd General Assembly of our denomination
And works as the Coordinator for Racial and Intercultural Justice
With the Presbyterian Mission Agency now.
I’m mainly following her suggestions, exploring these Lenten stories
With an eye to God’s persistent, maybe even relentless grace.
Again and Again, God meets us.
Here’s how Denise talks about this passage before us this morning.[i]
My personal story is, though my family wasn’t very “churchy”
I somehow came to religion in my teens.
I came to my denomination in seminary
After learning more about the Reformed tradition.
Reformed theology emphasizes God’s initiative
Which is consistent with my own experience.
I can’t tell you if I ever really found God.
It was God who found me,
And kept finding me throughout my life.
Whether I was observant or indifferent about my faith,
God was always close by.
Mark’s Gospel (Denise Continues)
Serves as source material for both Matthew and Luke…
It’s the shortest and most perfunctory of all four Gospels.
In just seven verses, we learn of three significant events
In the life of Jesus
As he began his ministry.
The first is his baptism,
Where God claims him as God’s beloved son.
The second is his experience in the wilderness,
Where God sends angels to attend to him as he faces the Accuser.
Lastly, after John the Baptist’s arrest,
Jesus begins proclaiming God’s proximity and reign while calling for repentance.
The common thread in each account (Denise says)
Is God’s closeness.
In pivotal moments, God is extraordinarily present with Jesus
And those around him,
And for good reason.
In the Black church,
We sing of how God picks us up,
Turns us around,
And places our feet “on solid ground.”
God’s proximity informs our trajectory.
God approaches us to claim, equip, and send us to do God’s will.
Again and Again, God meets us where we are,
But doesn’t leave us there.
We shift from sinking sand to solid ground,
Navel-gazing to community,
Personal pietism to justice for all,
And away from behaviors, both personal and systemic,
That frustrate God’s vision for the world.
I particularly appreciate Rev. Anderson’s insight,
That Mark wants us to connect Jesus’ baptism with the temptation.
God met Jesus at the water before he is tempted in the wilderness.
Mark is so quick in his telling of the story,
that we need to take care not to blink and miss it…
if you are looking at what GOD is doing here, in the first chapter of Mark,
Jesus shows up on scene, God is there, blessing, empowering, supporting
This is my son, the Beloved…
And then, too, when he is pushed out into the wilderness,
God sends Angels to care for him, to minister to him.
God meets us where we are.
God met Jesus where he was, and stuck with him.
God’s covenant with all of creation…the rainbow in the heavens,
Reminds us that God meets us where we are…
Those Angels are easy to skim over, too.
The wild beasts might grab your attention,
So you just might let the Angels go unnoticed…
We have a bible study that meets every Friday morning,
by zoom, these days.
(If you want more info about it let me know and we’d love to have you).
It has been a chance for people to check in with each other
And we do that first, and then get to the bible study.
This week, one of the members really wanted to know about the Angels.
We had talked about those pesky demons just a few weeks before that,
And here Mark talks about Angels.
What is that all about, anyway.
I confess, I wasn’t ready for that question yet,
But I have been thinking about it since.
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.
One reason for that is that there really aren’t all that many references
to Angels in the New Testament.
Certainly not as many as Hallmark or Martel or even Hobby Lobby,
Bless their heart,
Would have you believe…
They’d love to sell you an angel figurine or nicknack.
But, if I’m honest,
its also because I’ve never been quite sure what to say about 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.
To share God’s story, God’s news.
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, the different worldview
we find in the scriptures—
this world of demons and spirits and Satan, the Tempter
the being 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 better understand these cosmic creatures
In modern ways, with faithful reframing.
I mean, we understand temptation.
We understand the wilderness.
Evil and the Demonic isn’t foreign to us.
Just take in a movie,
And you’ll likely see temptation running through there somewhere.
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
Something That we’d cast away, if only we could…
Just watch the news,
See the depths of human hurt and sorrow.
This week it was coming from Texas,
Stories of millions of people facing harsh, unexpected weather
No water or heat or electricity.
This week was the anniversary of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting,
As some of my friends reminded me when thinking about Valentine’s day,
The anniversary of that horrible event.
And while gun violence hasn’t been a headline story,
there’ve been other things going on…
I looked it up:
2020 was one of the deadliest years for gun violence on record,
With more that 41,000 people gun related deaths.[ii]
Accident, Homicide, Suicide, more than 2/3 of them are suicides.
Far 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
120,000 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 word.
We can translate it for our contemporary age.
We moderns might be less likely to chock it up to some otherworldly force, though–
which might allow us to excuse it, to absolve ourselves from it–
rather than see it as something 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.
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 it is also important to not forget
That there were angels in the wilderness, too.
It’s so important for us to remember that.[iii]
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 anything 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.”
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 Jesus’ 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 band-aids 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.
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, most often, Steadfast Love.
It is a popular word, Chesed.
You’ll find it 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 year for all of us.
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, again and again.
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.
May it be so.
[i] Commentary from “Again & Again: A Lenten Refrain” for the First Sunday in Lent, from A Sanctified Art. (Sanctifiedart.org).
[iii] 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/