Weekly Preaching: February 21, 2021

February 17th, 2021

Lent begins. How do we help our people, in this season, to distinguish the theological time of ashes, repentance, grief over sin, and fasting from the larger cultural mood of a pandemic, distancing, and grief over lost travel, visits, etc.? Do we use the feel of the season to segue into a desired attitude of Lent? Are people eager for the old Robert Schuller quip that LENT should be “Let’s Eliminate Negative Thinking”? This week’s texts intrigue, as all speak of immense hope coming out of a time of extreme lack and struggle.

Genesis 9:8-17. What was the “mood” after the flood? God promises never again to flood the earth – but does a worldwide pandemic count just a little? The flood itself, and the covenant God makes here, remind us that God’s redemption isn’t merely human souls but all creatures, all of creation. St. Francis understood our kinship with his brothers and sisters, the birds, fish, wolves, cattle, flowers, and trees, and sang it in his Canticle and enacted it by preaching to creatures.

The rainbow is an opening, I suspect, to talk about signs. Many religious people love signs – but they see signs that maybe are suspect as divine in origin – and then we miss the signs that really may be signs from God. Seeing a rainbow is a lovely reminder of God’s ultimate mercy. So are the trees, flowers, and birds, as Jesus pointed out in the Sermon on the Mount. Too many “signs” people claim to notice are a bit self-indulgent, or what Bruce Waltke calls “hunches.” You hear plenty of these from your people, a mere chance or coincidence that folks anoint as God’s doing. No need to chide or mock them for this. Society teaches this kind of bland theology.

1 Peter 3:18-22. Hmm, Jesus went to and proclaimed to “the spirits in prison.” Is this a clue regarding “He descended into Hell”? What was Jesus doing between Good Friday and Easter Sunday? This dogma makes so much sense of so many things, from pre-Jesus inhabitants of earth to those in remote regions who’ve never heard of Jesus – or even those who reject Jesus for darn good reasons, like mean, abusive, or merely dull representatives of Jesus. Robertson Davies wryly suggested in one of his novels that hell must have “visible branch establishments, and I have visited quite a few of them.” Jesus’ whole mission was to visit and make proclamation to spirits in prison. So many things shackle us. No wonder in the Eucharistic liturgy, we say Jesus came “to release the captives.” That would be us, you, me, the people I cringe over as they are captive to lousy thinking or crass ideologies – and frankly, everybody. Thank goodness.

Mark 1:9-15. Most of us will fixate on the Gospel text for Lent 1. Notice in Mark it’s direct, second-person speech: not “this is my beloved,” but “You are my beloved.” I like that. Personal, allowing the preacher to invite people to be Jesus’ Body and hear God say, “You – yes, You! – are my beloved.” This whole category of being Beloved: Henri Nouwen wrote an entire book on what this vision of your identity can do to relieve agonies and instill joy and hope. 

Notice the vivid "the heavens were ripped apart" (which the Greek literally means). Donald Juel reflected on this and observed that "what is opened may be closed again; what is torn apart cannot easily return to its former state." Remember the roof being ripped open in Mark 2 when the paralytic was lowered from above!

But not for long, and not so folks can relax into the easy chair of being the Beloved. The Spirit “immediately” (Mark’s Jesus is always in a big hurry, so urgent!) “drove him out into the wilderness.” We have our drivenness. The wilderness could be parsed as the challenges we all face. The pandemic season might feel like a wilderness. But it’s a place, a zone, a time of testing. Jesus was driven, but he chose to let himself be driven. What would it mean for us, and our people, to see ourselves as driven into a time of testing, purifying the self, shedding other crutches, and relying for a time only on God? Fasting, yes. Shutting off gadgets, yes. In preaching, I like to suggest “Could be this, could be that, could be another thing” – or all of the above. Let people pick up on what resonates or hurry off to discover their own thing to jettison for Lent.

Old church hands might have their interest piqued in that Mark doesn’t do the three boxing rounds of temptation with the devil we find in Matthew and Luke. Here, he’s “with the wild beasts.” It sounds scary, maybe scarier than verbal jousting with the devil. Leap off the temple? Easy to say no to that one. But a couple of jackals growling and drooling behind me, or some predator bird swooping down and pressing its talons into the back of my head? I bet your hurting people who aren’t in denial totally get this scenario. The only way to survive such assaults of doubts or self-recrimination or anxiety or grief or a restless night is the recollection of the Baptism, being Beloved. When attacked by the devil, Martin Luther calmly resisted by saying, “I am baptized.”

And then there’s this: “The angels waited on him.” The verb “wait” is always theologically suggestive. We “wait” on the Lord, as in it takes time, watching, expecting, not there yet, but coming. Did the angels wait on him in this way? We also “wait” on the Lord, as in the way a waiter waits on a table, serving, hosting, helping. What waiting service did the angels provide to Jesus? Not food: he was fasting! Wiping his brow? Words or even better (since they were angels) songs, choral anthems of encouragement and inspiration? American piety has way too much sentimentality around angels. But here they are, waiting on our Lord.

This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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