+ A sermon for the First Sunday in Lent (Year B) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on February 21, 2021 +
Text: Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15
Every year on the first Sunday of Lent, we hear this story of, how fresh from the waters of his baptism in the Jordan River, Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days, facing trial and temptation.
The theme of 40 days is common in the Bible.
Jesus’ time in the wilderness is reminiscent of many stories throughout our scripture.
Like the 40 days of rain that covered the earth while Noah, his family, and the animals stayed in the ark.
Or the 40 days Moses spent on Mount Sinai communing with God as the Ten Commandments were revealed.
Or Elijah’s 40-day journey to the same mountain.
Or how we heard just a few weeks ago how the people of Nineveh were given 40 days to repent of their wickedness.
And, joining our ancestors before us, we have now started our own annual 40-day pilgrimage through Lent.
Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness, Mark tells us.
But that’s about all Mark tells us, really.
This story doesn’t have even the sparse details of Matthew or Luke’s gospel which at least tell us about some of Jesus’ time out there.
“Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
40 days summed up in one verse.
But there’s got to be more to the story!
Even just zooming out a little bit from Mark’s bare-bones account, we can piece a few things together.
First, Jesus didn’t choose to go into the wilderness—we’re told that the Spirit literally drove him out there.
Second, Jesus was in the wilderness for a long time!
And third, Jesus wasn’t alone in the wilderness, or at least not really, that there were wild animals and angels who served him.
Theologian Debbie Thomas writes that as strange as it may seem, she actually takes comfort in the idea that Jesus didn’t choose to wander in the wilderness.
“Why? Because it rings true to life,” she writes. “Most of the time, we don’t choose to enter the wilderness. We don’t volunteer for pain, loss, danger, or terror. But the wilderness happens, anyway. Whether it comes to us in the guise of a devastating pandemic, a frightening hospital stay, a broken relationship, a hurting child, or a loss of faith, the wilderness appears, unbidden and unwelcome, at our doorsteps.”
Now none of this means that God is the one causing all this or that we find ourselves in the wilderness because God sent us there, but reminds us that even in the wilderness, God is.
That even in those deserted places, God is working to create holy ground—reworking the most barren, desolate parts of our lives into fountains of resurrection life.
And while it can be easy to chalk up Jesus’ journey to another example of that familiar 40-day Biblical trope, let’s also not forget that 40 days is a long time!
Especially when you’re alone, in the wilderness, without food and water.
So, I guess I’m really wondering what Jesus did during those 40 days.
Did he journey around, getting some good hiking in?
Did he search for shade to keep him cool in the scorching desert?
Did he spend the whole time in silent prayer and contemplation?
We just don’t know.
But we know there’s more to the story.
I wonder if this was a time that Jesus could meditate on that startling proclamation he heard in his baptism—that he was a beloved child of God.
Maybe this identity needed to be tested, explored, so Jesus could more fully understand what it would mean for his life and his ministry.
But 40 days is a long time.
I wonder if Jesus ever had doubts as he wandered in the desert.
Even though he had just literally heard the voice of God tell him that he was God’s beloved Son, how long did his confidence in that identity last?
As the days stretched into weeks, did he ever waver?
Did he ever have stretches when certainty faded to doubt?
When even the Son of God had to remind himself of his own divine identity?
Perhaps that’s where the third element of Mark’s account comes in: the reminder that Jesus was never alone.
That he was in the wilderness with the wild beasts and the angels served him.
Now, for a long time I’ve simply assumed that these wild animals were signs of the danger Jesus faced during those 40 days.
That maybe these beasts were threatening Jesus or slithering from under the rocks or something.
But especially in light of our first reading when we hear of God’s covenant not just with Noah and his family, but all the animals of the earth, I wonder if these wild animals were companions for Jesus in the desert—ever-present reminders of God’s steadfast and abiding promises.
Because in the same breath that tells us of the wild beats, we also hear about those angels that served Jesus during those 40 days—those messengers from God reminding Jesus of God’s love even through the trials of the wilderness.
I wonder how Jesus experienced those angels.
Maybe they came in cooling breezes under a scorching sun?
Or maybe as refreshing water on a parched tongue?
Or maybe in a voice in his head urging perseverance, giving strength to carry on?
However these angels appeared, I am so glad that he had these divine messengers, these reminders that the same Spirit that descended upon him in the Jordan, that drove him into the desert, the same God who named him and claimed him as God’s own beloved Son had not abandoned Jesus in the wilderness, but traveled with him and would bring him through to the other side.
My friends, as we reenter the wilderness of Lent, I am reminded of the wilderness we have all been sojourning through for the past year.
Of the trials and temptations we have faced, of the pandemic wanderings that have stretched far longer than 40 days.
As we approach the one year anniversary, I know I’m not alone in feeling the weariness of these past months, unsure if I can last through Lent let alone through the end of the pandemic.
But I wonder if we can learn something from Jesus’ wilderness wanderings.
First, we know all too well that we did not choose this wilderness experience!
None of us decided that a pandemic would be a great excuse to spend a year inside our homes, unable to see our family and friends.
Which doesn’t mean that God caused this disease—as I’ve said before, God did not cause this—but perhaps we are invited to see where God is working in the midst of this time, prompting us to grow and adapt to new technologies, inviting us to collaborate with once distant partners, making connections where they did not exist before, working within us and around us to coax out hope and life from these barren times.
And we certainly know that this is a long journey—longer than many of us expected and we haven’t yet reached the end.
But perhaps we can also use this time to grow in our own God-given identities—the truth that was proclaimed in each of our baptisms that we, too, are beloved children of God.
To allow this truth to infiltrate our whole lives as we care for our neighbors, check in on our church family, help each other find vaccines appointments or pick up groceries, and continue to wear our masks.
But most of all, Jesus’ wanderings remind us that even in this wilderness, we are never alone.
That, like Jesus, the angels and wild beasts come among us in many and various ways to remind us of God’s abiding presence and everlasting love for us.
And I don’t just mean all the influx of pets that have been adopted during the past year—though those animals certainly do declare God’s love for us—I mean the multitude of ways, big and small, that God comes to you these days, reminds you that you are never alone, and whispers in your ear and calls you beloved.
As far as I can tell, one of these angels has been on the loose in my own West Seattle neighborhood recently.
There have now been two separate articles in the Seattle Times this month alone describing the work of a mysterious figure named “M.”
M has apparently taken it upon themselves to write 400 anonymous notes of kindness on their typewriter and leave them in various spots around West Seattle.
One recipient told the Times that he was having a crummy day—that the pandemic and the gloomy winter had combined to really dampen his mood. But when he found the note stapled to the telephone pole, he read these words from an unknown stranger, “I want to make your day just a little better if it has been a rough one today. Those days are just the worst…So, my friend, shake off the bad and know your next day will be better. -M”
That first recipient said he immediately felt so much better and his day improved.
Then he posted a picture of the note on Facebook and brightened the days of many friends, too.
No one knows who M is, but it sure seems to me that they are filling that angelic role, the divine messenger that brings little bits of grace into the lives of their neighbors, that reminds us all that we are not alone, and together we’ll make it through this.
I wonder how we will remember this time when we’ve come through to the other side.
Years down the road, how will we look back?
Surely we’ll have more to say about these long months than a single verse, right?
I hope so.
I hope there’s more to our story, too.
I hope we will be able to fill volumes recounting our time with the wild beasts and mysterious encounters with angels.
Of places we’ve glimpsed God traveling with us in our long wilderness wanderings.
Of the times we’ve heard that whisper in our ear speaking words full of grace and hope and love.
Of the times we doubted, sure, but also the times when we have been confident in our identity as beloved children of God, the same God who is journeying with us and bringing us into the new life of resurrection on the other side.
And as we go forward, journeying deeper into this wilderness—together—let me offer this blessing for the journey from Jan Richardson:
If you would enter“Beloved is Where we Begin,” by Jan Richardson
into the wilderness,
do not begin
without a blessing.
Do not leave
who you are:
named by the One
who has traveled this path
Do not go
without letting it echo
in your ears,
and if you find
it is hard
to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what
this journey is for
I cannot promise
this blessing will free you
from the scorching
or the fall
of the night.
But I can tell you
that on this path
there will be help.
I can tell you
that on this way
there will be rest.
I can tell you
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
whisper our name:
 Thomas, Debbie. “Beasts and Angels” Journeys with Jesus, February 14, 2021 (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2924-beasts-and-angels)
 Brodeur, Nicole, “Need a boost? Be on the lookout for ‘Notes of Kindness’ in Seattle from a mysterious writer named ‘M’”. Seattle Times, February 2, 2021 (https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/need-a-boost-today-be-on-the-lookout-for-notes-of-kindness-in-seattle-from-a-mysterious-writer-named-m/); Brodeur, Nicole, “More ‘Notes of Kindness’ showing up in West Seattle just where — and when — they’re needed”. Seattle Times, February 18, 2021 (https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/more-notes-of-kindness-showing-up-just-where-and-when-theyre-needed/)
 Brodeur, February 2, 2021
 Richardson, Jan, “Beloved is Where we Begin,” Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons