1st Sunday in Lent – 2021b
Old Testament – Genesis 9:8-17
New Testament – Mark 1:9-15
INTRODUCTION: More than 1500 years ago a monk named Evagrius Ponticus decided he’d had enough of city living.
Convinced the desert provided the kind of sparse existence needed to get really close to God, Evagrius set up camp in Egypt with a bunch of other monks about one bus stop from the middle of nowhere. There, away from the hustle and bustle of cities and in the stark environment of the desert, the monks sought the contemplative life in an effort to better commune with God.
Of course, a funny thing happened while in the desert. The monks quickly realized that temptations are hard to avoid even when surrounded by sand.
In fact, intentionally living in community, as Evagrius eventually deduced, actually seemed to heighten the force of temptation. The more the monks sought to live in a community dedicated specifically to God, the more temptations seemed to get in the way.
Well, to address the problem, Evagrius began to compile a list of the various evil thoughts or temptations that can make living in community so difficult. And when he was done, Evagrius had created a list of eight temptations.
Years later, of course, Evagrius’ list of eight temptations would be altered a bit by Pope Gregory the Great, leaving us with what we now know as The Seven Deadly Sins, which are pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust. And to think it all got started because a bunch of monks thought getting away from city living would make it easier to commune with God.
Instead, they learned the harder one tries to live with and for God, the more likely they’re to face temptations along the way.
ONE: Jesus, as we all know, also knew something about spending time in the desert and having to deal with temptations.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, after all, each tell their own version of Jesus’ little trek into the desert and the resulting temptation at the hands of Satan.
While Matthew and Luke provide specifics about the temptations that Jesus must overcome, like, for example, that one about being challenged to turn stones into bread, Mark, as he is prone to be, is brief and to the point.
As Mark tells it, before Jesus has even had a chance to towel off from his baptism by John in the River Jordan, he is suddenly being driven out into the desert by, of all things, God’s Spirit: “And the Spirit,” writes Mark, “immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness.”
From there, Mark’s story continues its quick and vigorous pace. What takes Matthew and Luke over ten verses each to tell, Mark blurts out in just one: “Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
No doubt about it, Mark probably could have benefited from a few creative writing classes. Cause when he gets around to telling a story, he’s like Joe Friday from Dragnet, “Just the facts Ma’am, just the facts.”
But whether it’s Mark’s abrupt version of the story, or Matthew and Luke’s more nuanced accounts, one thing is for sure – it’s clear Jesus was familiar with the temptations that come with trying to live with and for God.
TWO: Of course, as followers of Christ, we too know about temptations, right?
Granted, we don’t live in a drab, poorly lit monastery clinging to the side of some mountain forcing ourselves to follow a set routine everyday while eating boring, tasteless food. But even for folks like us, every day is full of choices, right? Full of choices that either draw us further away from Christ and his call for our lives, or closer and closer.
Years ago, when discussing temptation, the late Peter Gomes put it this way: “The nearer one lives in proximity to God, contrary to our expectations, the greater is the influence of temptation...temptations in some very real sense are the consequences of a life set apart for goodness and God’s will.”
In one of her books, Karen Armstrong provides a helpful reminder that faith is always more than just believing certain things. According to her, the Greek word for faith (pistos) means things like “trust; loyalty; engagement; commitment.”
So in the New Testament, whenever Jesus is telling people to have faith and believe, he is asking them, above all else, to be loyal to him.
“He was asking for commitment,” writes Armstrong. “He wanted disciples who would engage with his mission, give all they had to the poor, feed the hungry, refuse to be hampered by family ties, abandon pride, lay aside their self-importance and sense of entitlement, live like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and trust in the God who was their father.”
And so if we seek to be loyal to Christ, well, we can surely expect to be tempted to drift away and follow another path, right? For so much of what Jesus asks us to do with our lives, the world tends to see as silly and just dangerous.
“Feed the poor,” says Jesus. “The poor should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” shouts back the world.
“Forgive,” says Jesus. “Paybacks are hell and what goes around comes around!” cries the world.
“Die to yourself,” says Jesus. “Get what you can and demand what is rightfully yours,” shoots back the world.
“Live trusting in God’s grace and provision,” says Jesus. “Gotta make your own way in life,” says the world, “Besides, don’t you know that whoever dies with the most toys wins?”
“Be merciful and compassionate,” says Jesus. “Mercy and compassion are for the weak,” declares the world.
THREE: And while we should always be contemplating how well, or poorly, we might be living as disciples, as we slowly make our way to that cross in Jerusalem over the next several weeks, such weighing and measuring of our lives is especially germane, right?
For now? Now is the season for pondering the ways we might not be as loyal to Christ as we need to be. Now is the time for contemplating the ways in which we could live differently than we have been. And now is the time for taking stock of the ways we have sometimes listened more to the world, than to our Lord and Savior.
As I have mentioned before, we call the people who serve on the session for our church “ruling elders” for a very special reason. We don’t, as the name seems to imply, call them “ruling elders” because they somehow have extra power over the rest of us. They are not, as much as they might want to be sometimes, dictators.
No. We call folks who serve on the session “ruling elders” because they are to be continually measuring how well, or not so well, we are living into our collective calling as followers of Jesus Christ. Ruling elders upon being ordained, I once heard someone say, should actually be given yard sticks to remind them of their primary job.
And their primary job is to be constantly measuring, gauging, and assessing just how loyal we are being to Christ. And where we are lax, or have strayed, calling us back to the right path.
“Repentance,” wrote the great author Leo Tolstoy, “is connected with spiritual growth, just as the breaking of the shell is connected with the hatching of the birdling.” With repentance, in other words, also comes the chance for new life.
FOUR: Many of us no doubt remember how in May of 1980 Mount Saint Helens erupted sending a giant cloud of ash a reported 80,000 feet into the atmosphere.
What’s more, a 300 mile per hour shot of lateral hot air full of debris also blew across the landscape, flattening the surrounding countryside and covering it with a thick grey layer of ash.
Covering an area of 230 square miles, the blast also killed an untold number of animals, took the lives of 57 people, and completely wiped out vegetation. Is it any wonder then that just days after the blast the Oregonian newspaper contained a story with lines such as “Death is everywhere,” and “The living are not welcome”?
Understandably so, people wondered how long it would be (if ever) before things would once again start to grow in such barren places. But then one day, not too long after the explosion, a park ranger happened upon a patch of wildflowers and grasses growing vibrantly in the midst of such desolation.
After staring at the patch of flowers and grass for a while and wondering where in the world such life could have come from, the park ranger realized something amazing and even a bit spooky. The patch of grass and flowers had the shape of an elk.
Turns out volcanic ash is full of various minerals and trace elements that are essential for life and because of that it produces some of richest, most fertile soil on all the earth. Combine the mineral rich ash with the organic material left by an elk and life was quickly again returning.
The phenomenon of flowers and other plant life growing in the shadowy outline of assorted animals eventually became a way for scientists to keep track of the number of animals that died in the explosion.
And so today, the area surrounding the Mount Saint Helens is now brimming with new life. While the large crater in the side of the mountain stands as a constant reminder of the devastating force of the blast, both wildlife and vegetation have now returned with what one scientist has labeled “a vengeance.”
Out of the ashes new life has, indeed, risen.
CONCLUSION: And so now that season is upon us once again. That season of reflection, contemplation, and where needed, recommitment.
For repentance, as strange as it might sound, is actually connected to spiritual growth.
For sometimes we grow the most when we simply stop heading in one direction, in order to turn around and move another.
Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.