Strength in the Wilderness

jesus and the devil iconA sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, February 18, 2018.  The scripture readings are Genesis 9:8-17Psalm 25:1-91 Peter 3:18-22, and Mark 1:9-15

Listen to the sermon HERE.

In today’s Gospel, we see St. Mark’s brevity at work:  Jesus is baptized and then goes into the wilderness.  There he is tempted by Satan, he’s with the “wild beasts,” and he’s helped by angels.  Then he seems to have been strengthened and renewed, so he goes into Galilee, even though he knows John has just been arrested.

In this Gospel, we’re not told what exactly what Jesus is tempted by, though in Matthew and Luke, we’re told that Jesus is tempted by Satan to turn stones into bread, to jump off the height of a pinnacle, and to accept the kingdoms of the world (which seem to be Satan’s to give.)

Every First Sunday in Lent we read one of the Gospel’s version of the temptation of Jesus.  I think the Church wants us to remember and hold on to the fact that Jesus, himself, was tempted, so that whenever we are tempted, we can take some heart that he has been there.  We can pray to Christ to strengthen us, to help us navigate the wild beasts, speak truth to the devil, and receive the help of holy angels.

Whatever the temptations were for Jesus, I think they were probably uniquely suited to him—that’s the way the devil works, by exploiting our weak spots, taking advantage when we’re tired, and exaggerating things when we’re feeling down or challenged.

The Church has sometimes use the language of “virtues” and “sins” as a means of gauging how we’re doing in the spiritual life.  If one could notice one’s behavior, then the devil would have less a chance of slipping in-between, of catching us off guard.

The classic virtues have been thought of as chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

Their counterparts, the classic seven sins, are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth.

It’s the last two that I’ve been wrestling with this week, and the devil has almost gotten me.

When we heard on Wednesday that another shooting had happened—again in a school—and this time with at least 17 people dead—the devil jumped in the middle of that story for me.  Sloth entered in—also called “accidie”—it’s a kind of spiritual boredom, a paralysis, a helplessness that forgets about faith. The sin of sloth makes me want to do what most of our politicians do: say a quick, obligatory prayer, and then try my best to forget.  But that doesn’t work, does it?  Gun violence is not going to be solved with one simple answer, as much as I (or you) might want it to be.

That’s where the sin of “wrath” comes in.  When I’m not in a place of sloth, I’m in a place of anger—blaming everyone who voted for politicians who take gun money, writing off whole groups of people as beyond my patience and God’s mercy— that’s wrath, and it’s of the devil, not of God. Ephesians 4 says, “Be angry, but do not sin.”  That’s the faithful place—to be angry, but to place that anger where it belongs and use it to work, pray, advocate, reason, implore, and convince. Wrath (anger out of control and out of bounds) is the sin.

Jesus was “tempted in the wilderness, was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.” It could be that all of those things happened at the same time, which suggests that the times we live in—while we’re tempted to play dirty, divide, attack, and fall into other sins—if we’re open, God may send angels, or his messengers, to help.

Just as God put the rainbow in the sky to promise to Noah and his family that God would always be faithful to the covenant with God’s people—God has promised us the love of Christ and the power and fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

The Season of Lent invites us to practice age-old, time-testing spiritual disciplines in order to return to God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, and even God’s presence.  In God’s presence, we’ll find answers, we’ll find direction, and we’ll find community.

We can feel like we’re in the wilderness and the wild beasts are certainly present.  But leaning into virtues like diligence, fortitude, kindness, and humility, we may just recognize the angels among us and with their help, see more of God’s kingdom among us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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