And So It Begins (Again) 02/18/18 (Lent 1)

And So It Begins (Again)
Texts: Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
February 11, 2018 ~ First Sunday of Lent

“And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit of God immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness.” (Mark 1:11-12)

In our text for this morning Jesus is baptized, and that is not a sweet and safe act. There is no pretty Christening gown, white rose, or certificate. There’s no celebratory party afterwards. There is just the sandy Jordan River and Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist with his camel-hair shirt and uncivilized manner.

No, this is no safe and gentle moment, for as soon as Jesus is blessed by the voice of God, he is driven out into the wilderness.

The wilderness: a wild place, untamed by human hands. A lonely place, devoid of human companionship. A demanding place, asking bodies and souls to survive alternating extreme heat and bitter cold, thirst and hunger. A dangerous and violent place, full of wild beasts with claws and talons and teeth.

We know a lot about wilderness, don’t we?

This week my friend Milton wrote a Lenten reflection that included some musings about Dagwood Sandwiches. Do you remember Dagwood Bumstead, from the comics many years ago? He was the husband of Blondie, and he loved the biggest sandwiches you’ve ever seen: layer upon layer, stacked high as can be.

“The layers of life are stacking up heavily on far more than me these days. It is hard not to feel sandwiched between pain and pain, over and over again,” Milton wrote.

That’s how I’m feeling, too. Like the layers of pain and anger and despair and disbelief just keep getting piled higher and higher, and I can’t seem to get out from under them.

Wilderness: a place where the pain gets layered so deep and so high that it can seem that there is no way we can possibly be freed from it.

The wilderness. A lonely place, a demanding place, a dangerous place full of wild animals. We know a lot about the danger of predatory animals, don’t we? A lot of people today are giving in to the wild animals of our nature – aggression, hate, fear, arrogance – baring teeth and talons.

The wilderness. A place of temptation. We know a lot about that too, don’t we? I had thought I’d talk this morning about our personal, private temptations, but then seventeen people were murdered at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

One of the biggest temptations of all, it seems to me, is idolatry. And this morning I’m concerned not so much with personal idolatry as communal idolatry; that is, the gods we have a society have decided to worship together.

Here in America, we have made an idol of guns and gun ownership. And we, the citizens of the United States, through our actions and inactions, have allowed that idolatry to replace our humanity and our common sense. We have allowed the idol of the gun and gun ownership to replace our God.

Here’s something I hadn’t thought much about until this week, and I owe author, speaker, and activist Brian McLaren a debt of thanks for pointing it out.

As Jesus is baptized, he sees the Spirit descending like a dove on him. Now, of course, I know that detail, but I hadn’t really thought it through before. A dove is, as we know, a symbol of peace. Under the metaphorical flag decorated with a dove, Jesus marches out to proclaim the Kingdom of God. Sit up, take note: the symbol of God’s Kingdom is one of peace and reconciliation.

Contrast that with the symbol of Caesar and his kingdom: the eagle. (Sound familiar?) The eagle: a symbol of might and power. A predatory bird with a large, hooked beak for ripping flesh from its prey, strong, muscular legs, and powerful talons. The kingdom of the world is one of war and domination and destruction.

“The time is fulfilled,” Jesus says, “and the Kingdom of God has come near.” Which is to say: the Kingdom of God, under the sign of the dove, is replacing the kingdom of eagles.

God’s Kingdom: a Kingdom of peace and reconciliation. It is here. It is at hand. Even in the wilderness.

No wonder Jesus urges us to “believe the good news.”

And so, once again, we begin our Lenten season. And I’d like to invite us to understand Lent a little differently this year, because although we often miss it, Lent does indeed begin with good news.

Many of us have been taught that Lent is about guilt, that it’s 40 days of self-condemnation and deprivation. But I’d argue that Lent isn’t about guilt at all; it’s about forgiveness. It isn’t about penance; it’s about purpose – our purpose as disciples of Jesus. It isn’t about remorse and guilt; it’s about solidarity with Jesus. The goal of repentance is not to beat us into the ground, or bully us into submission. Repentance is a radical paradigm shift; it’s an invitation to see our lives differently, to see the world differently, to see our relationships differently.

Lent is a chance to ask ourselves: in whose footsteps to we follow?

But this year I feel strongly and urgently that it isn’t enough for us to ask ourselves this question purely in our own private lives. In whose footsteps do we, the people, follow? Which one: the lower-case-gods of our own making, our the upper-case God who made us?

In the footsteps of the NRA, or in the footsteps of the Prince of Peace? In the footsteps of those who would increase military spending while cutting aid to the poor, or in the footsteps of the one who washed the feet of the poor and fed the hungry? In the footsteps of those who would encourage white supremacy and racism, or in the footsteps of the one who welcomed strangers and enemies and offered them healing and compassion? In the footsteps of those who would build walls, or in the footsteps of the one who broke every barrier in order to heal humanity?

Friends, Lent is a time of personal repentance, but it also must be a time of communal repentance. Our nation – which so many would love to claim is a Christian nation – has forgotten who our Lord and Savior is. We, as a people, are marching under the flag emblazoned with an eagle rather than the flag adorned with a dove.

We in this sanctuary this morning are, all of us (as far as I know), citizens of this nation. But we are also citizens of the Kingdom of God. And to truly be citizens of that other Kingdom, that Kingdom of peace and healing and reconciliation, we must align our Sunday selves with our Monday-through-Saturday selves. And we must be better citizens of our secular nation if we want to be better disciples of that other, Godly Kingdom. If we’re not working to create spaces where God’s Kingdom can flourish, then we are letting the kingdom of violence and destruction flourish.

How we do that will be different for each of us. We may not – indeed, we probably do not – all agree on the best methods of doing so. But we cannot, must not, be complacent. Collectively, we are in the wilderness, we have lost so much of our humanity and our souls, but all is not lost.

When we feel overwhelmed or hopeless or despairing, our default reaction often is to do nothing. I know that happens to me more often than I like to admit. But this when we have to remember that we do not act alone. One of my favorite lines of scripture comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “I can do all things through [Christ Jesus] who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)

This, then, is the good news: God’s covenant is everlasting. God’s promise to be our God and keep us as God’s people can never be broken. God’s commitment to our healing and wholeness never falters. God’s promise to strengthen us as we follow in the often difficult steps of Jesus is steadfast and sure.

That’s why God put the rainbow in the sky after the waters of the flood receded: as a reminder that the covenant between God and humanity would never, ever be broken by God again. God would never, ever resort to violence and destruction again. God would always, always choose life and healing and wholeness.

Here’s one more interesting detail from this morning’s scriptures that I never gave much thought to before this week. God says, “When the [rain]bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God will remember. The rainbow is a symbol, a reminder to God.

And our reminder is the one that Jesus gave us: the dove. After all, remember that first there was the flood, then there was the dove who brought the good news of new life and hope for all of humanity, and then there was the rainbow.

No matter how often we get lost in the wilderness, we can always choose to look for rainbows and march under the flag of the dove.

And that is good news, indeed.

Thanks be to God.

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