A sermon preached by Jim Lumsden on Sunday 21 February.
Mark’s Gospel is so concise that it’s clear every word was deliberately chosen. and when I first read today’s gospel passage in preparation for this talk, there were two sentences which stood out to me. “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
Today is the first Sunday in lent. The time in the Christian calendar when, in preparation for Easter, we mirror Jesus’s exile into the wilderness through fasting in various ways. Although it seems to be a bit of dying habit among non-Christians: “giving something up for lent” is still part of popular culture. And people choose to live without sugar, without meat, without alcohol, or many other things for 40 days. The purpose being, as Martin Luther put it, to “bring our flesh into subjection.”. In other words, lent is an opportunity to actively take a stand against the pleasures of the outside world and the control that they exert over us. And, by means of a little self-depravation we might reassert control over our body and mind. And turn ourselves wholly towards Jesus.
On Wednesday the 26th of February 2020, we started, what was in effect, a whole year of lent. None of us expected it, few of us were prepared. Instead of giving up chocolate, We gave up hugs, we gave up seeing our friends and family, we gave up singing together. It was a lent like no other.
And yet, like Jesus in the wilderness, God did not let us face our challenges alone. Early last spring, right when the country first locked down and we were still staggering from the enormity of what we were facing. I remember, one evening, I was in a terrible mood after work and headed out for a run. And as I ran through Iffley village I stopped at the field halfway along church lane and watched the last rays of sunlight disappear over the treeline. There was nobody about, there were no cars, the only noise was birdsong. And as I stood, I watched a single deer push its way from the bushes on the far side of the field, and carefully walk out into the sunlight. I have replayed this scene so many times in my head I almost don’t remember what was real and what is imagined, but what I do know is that that moment shattered my foul mood. In that moment I felt as this lone deer was the vanguard of Creation pushing back against the excesses of humanity. It gave me hope, and I understood that God was turning this situation’s bad, for good.
Do you remember how blue the sky was last spring? How clean the air, how quiet the roads? It did not last for long of course, but for around 40 days we stay at home, steadied ourselves, and God’s creation, the “wild beasts” were with us.
In today’s reading from Genesis God declares the rainbow as the sign of his everlasting covenant. A covenant he establishes not just with humanity, but with the whole natural world. And I’m not implying that Covid was a flood sent to destroy all life on earth, nor that it was sent by God. But like Noah, we have endured natural disaster. And like Jesus, our endurance has been tested.
Back then, God used nature as a sign to remind us of his covenant. To remind us that we can trust in him. And for me, that lone deer was my rainbow.
How did Jesus endure the suffering he faced during those 40 days in the desert? He trusted in His Father. He trusted in God. Scripture said he would not succumb, and so he did not succumb. And yet I wonder whether Jesus muttered the words of Psalm 25 to himself again and again in that desert? Reminding himself to have hope. Reminding himself of God’s ancient mercy and love. His covenant with humanity, of whom Jesus was part. I wonder whether Jesus saw those wild beasts that were with him in the wilderness, and whether they too were his rainbow?
At the conclusion of Jesus’s temptation, the angels come to his aid.So, this lent, I encourage you to pay special attention to the people and the things that have helped you endure, that remind you to trust in God. In your meditations and prayers outpour thanks for the wild animals and angels that tend to you. Look to those things in the world that help you to turn wholly towards Jesus.
For in 40 days we will remember the death of a man who suffered so much and yet trusted so deeply in God that he defied the temptations of the tempter himself. The covenant God made with Noah was sealed with a rainbow, but the covenant Jesus made on the cross was sealed with his blood. An indescribable sacrifice, but also a sign that showed, beyond all doubt, that we can trust in God.