Lent 1B Sermon (2024)

1st Sunday in Lent
Texts: Mark 1:9-15;
Gen 9:8-17; 1 Pet 3:18-22

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 23:30): https://fb.watch/r6qH5cr5rg/


Have you had the experience of loving a book so that you can’t wait for the movie? But then the movie finally arrives, and they had to cut so much out that the experience of the movie falls flat? For our family, this was especially true of the Harry Potter books. We were among those waiting in line at Barnes and Nobles to get the next book right when it came out. But then most of the movies cut so much that we didn’t enjoy them nearly as much as the books.

Some Christians have a similar experience with the Gospel of Mark. They’re more inclined to read Matthew and Luke, which both include everything in Mark but have so much more. The First Sunday in Lent is a case in point. Our Gospel Reading really throws a focus on Mark’s brevity. This First Sunday in Lent calls for the story of Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness for forty days and nights. Matthew and Luke have the full versions, where we see Jesus tempted in three detailed scenarios. Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread, to jump off the pinnacle of the temple and be caught by angels, and to gain lordship over all the kingdoms of the world if he worships Satan. Great scenes! Right? But with Mark you get a dry, two-verse summary, following the baptism scene: “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” (Mark 1:12-13). It’s so short that the lectionary ‘pads’ it with some surrounding verses — verses which the lectionary has to include on other Sundays because Mark’s beginning is so short and compact. Why is Mark so short? Missing so many of our favorite stories and parables. Such as the Sermon on the Mount and our favorite parables — the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Mark also has no birth stories or resurrection appearances. Today we’re faced with his bland account of the temptation in the wilderness.

But many today are also rediscovering Mark, armed with knowledge about the order in which they were written. Mark may be the second book in the New Testament, but it’s the earliest book written. It was the first Gospel! We’re now pretty certain that Matthew and Luke had Mark before them as they wrote their Gospels. That’s why they are longer. And knowing that Mark was written first, it gives us a slightly different perspective. We can appreciate Mark for taking the bold step of writing things down. He was the first to record the basics of who Jesus was.

So these past four weeks in preaching the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, we’ve gotten down to basics, too. It begins with the core Gospel message, which we read a month ago and again today:

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.”

So we’ve talked about how Christians of recent generations have gotten off-center, by focusing the Gospel as being about going to heaven when we die. No, Jesus’ Gospel was more the opposite. It’s more about God’s kingdom coming to earth — like we pray in the Lord’s Prayer — than about human souls going to a heavenly kingdom. Jesus came to launch God’s reign and earth.

So then we’ve talked about God’s reign having a certain politics. How does Mark’s Gospel continue? With healing story after healing story. The politics of God’s reign are all about healing. Ultimately, they are about healing our way of being human so that we can finally be the partners with God which God had planned from the beginning. As we emphasized on Ash Wednesday, “Remember that you are earth and to earth you shall return” captures our deep connection to the earth. God made us to lovingly care for the earth.

But from the beginning of our human story, our sin has taken us far off-track. We’ve behaved much more like the earth was created for us than the other way around. We’ve treated the earth as if we can do anything with it that we like, and now we are reaping the consequences of climate change. It’s interesting that, as we encounter more storms and floods — and then their opposite, droughts and fires — we read this morning about the flood and God promising with the rainbow to never do something like that again. As we face more floods and storms today due to climate change, this isn’t God’s punishment for us. It’s the consequences of our actions. It’s the consequences of our failure to fulfill our God-given purpose of caring for the creation.

Two thousand years ago, God sent Jesus to heal us and to help us get back on track with our God-given purpose: we are created to lovingly care for the earth like God. God’s desire is to see the whole creation come to fulfillment, with all of life flourishing together in harmony. Instead of following God’s desire, we have mostly followed our own desires — fighting about them when they clash.

So what’s Jesus’ first move before launching his mission to heal us for being human in a new and better way? The way we were created to be, in the first place? The Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness to commune with nature for forty days and nights. There, sleeping among the wild animals, Jesus spends time making sure his own mind and spirit are aligned with God’s desires, with the politics of God’s reign. He must make sure he is ready to model being the new human being for us — the so-called “Son of Man,” representing a new generation of being human.

Two thousand years later, how are we doing on being these new human beings? Is it even possible? Haven’t our confirmation teachers sometimes taught us that we really can’t overcome our sin? That we are stuck in our sin until we die? [Stumble to remember T as “total depravity.] That is the way I was taught. How about you? And learning its falsehood has been the key to my repentance, to changing my heart and mind toward seeking Jesus’ new way of being human. Where does one start in doing that?

The same place Jesus does: with a serious prayer life. He began his ministry with forty days and nights of prayer in the beautiful nature of God’s creation. And even after Jesus launches his ministry of healing, Mark tells us how Jesus would still regularly get away to places by himself to pray. How is it that, two thousand years later, we’re not very far in this journey to a new way to be human? One reason is that we haven’t followed Jesus’ serious way of praying, of making sure that his desires are with aligned with God’s. Otherwise, we continue in the sinful way of getting caught up in following the desires of others. The main task of prayer is to align our desires with God’s loving desire, so that we can be the creatures God made us to be. That’s what Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness doing before his ministry even began, and then regularly each day as he found himself journeying to the cross.

Last week I introduced to you the new book by my friend Brian McLaren, titled Life after Doom: Wisdom and Courage for a World Falling Apart. The way in which I would characterize what he is doing in this book is this, “Facing the collapse of human civilization due to climate change and the chaotic politics that have thus far accompanied it, now would be a good time to be human in a new and better way. Now would be a good time to finally achieve our God-given purpose of caring for the earth that Jesus came to launch with the politics of God’s reign. And sure enough, one of the first things in this book is a chapter called “Mind Your Mind” — basically, what Jesus was doing out in the wilderness for forty days before his ministry and then daily throughout his ministry. He spent time aligning his mind and spirit with God’s Spirit — the same Spirit promised to each of us at our baptisms, should we take time each day to open ourselves to it along the way. And opening ourselves to God’s Spirit? There’s no magic trick involved. Just good old fashioned prayer.

But it especially calls for a certain kind of prayer which we lost along the way — what is generally called Contemplation or Silent Prayer. Which means it’s time for me to leave-off here and defer more on this prayer to the Gospel Talk following the Coffee Hour. I hope you can plan on joining us for these opportunities for conversations, questions, and further learning. Folks, we have to spend the extra time to relearn the Gospel Message! To learn this new and better way of being human! I’m not asking forty days in the wilderness. But I think it’s imperative — for the sake not only of the church but of our world — that we put extra time into this. Please stay for the Gospel Talk this morning as I say a bit more about Contemplative Prayer and the crucial task in prayer of aligning our desires with God’s desires.

For now, let’s simply emphasize and celebrate the Good News of becoming human in a new way that prepares us for fighting and winning against even the temptations of Satan. How do we know we can do it? Because Jesus was fully human, like us, and he did it! Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, February 18, 2024

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 23:30): https://fb.watch/r6qH5cr5rg/

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