Psalter Lesson: Psalm 25:1-10
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
Gospel Lesson: Mark 1: 9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 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. Now after John was arrested, 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.”
For all of us who were here this past Wednesday night, we may recall that we, as a community, and we as individuals, have entered into a new season in our church year. We have embarked on a new journey, one that involves self-examination and a journey that is inward focused as we begin to seek what things in our lives may be getting in the way of our relationship with God. During this journey we are to use our maps or our Bibles, our compasses or our spiritual disciplines, and our food for this spiritual journey we will be observing a season of weekly communion. To help you out with the using of your Bibles I included in the bulletin an insert with the Daily Offices from the Book of Common Prayer to maybe help guide you to use your Bibles in your daily reading. You may choose to do all of the readings for that day, or if you want to begin with baby steps try at least choosing one scripture lesson a day. This is a discipline that I myself will be trying to commit to and I invite anyone who would like to join me. Though to continue on with this metaphor of this season of Lent being like that of a journey, we heard today from our Gospel Lesson that as Jesus came up out of the waters of his Baptism, the Spirit drove him immediately out into the wilderness.
Now as we begin to put our own life experiences into this Gospel narrative, we may begin to imagine the wilderness that Jesus entered as one being full of lush trees, and flowing waters, and high mountains, for this is the wilderness that is around us here in Franklin County. However, this was not so. This landscape that I just mentioned is not found in the southern part of Israel where Jesus was believed to have been baptized. Rather, the wilderness that is believed to have been in the area of Jesus’ baptism is shown here in this slide. It is a dry, arid, wilderness that is full of dunes and barrenness. This picture was taken on my way down to Jericho where right outside the city of Jericho is the Monastery of the Mount of Temptation. Now in our Gospel lesson today, there is no dialogue between Satan and Jesus found. It just says that Jesus was drove out into the wilderness where for 40 days he was tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him. However, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, there is a narrative of where Jesus is taken up on a high high mountain and Satan tempts Jesus to bow down and worship him and all the land that could be seen would be given over to Jesus. This is the setting for which that mount was placed. Jesus throughout these forty days continued to be tempted by earthly human desires of what Jesus later calls earthly things. We may remember Jesus telling Peter to Get behind me Satan for your mind is set on earthly things and not that of heavenly things. These 40 days in the wilderness though is the basis of where we come to experience this season of Lent in our church year. For those who are new to observing a church year, this season of Lent is the forty days beginning with Ash Wednesday which was this past Wednesday and we observe this time of 40 days excluding our Sundays as a time of fasting, praying, preparing those who are coming into the Church, and for many it may be relatable to being out in the spiritual wilderness.
As someone who spends quite a bit of time out in the wilderness, I began to ponder about what it is like for me when I am out on a long hike. I began to notice three elements emerge for me as I thought about being out in the wilderness. I thought firstly about the silence, secondly the difficulties you may face, and finally I thought about the formation of self that happens while out in the wilderness.
So let me first deal with the silence of wilderness life. We are in a time where we are continually being bombarded with many different distractions. We have cell phones that keep us continually connected to everyone, we have facebook messages, and twitter. We are being asked to do this job, and that job. We have our televisions constantly on throughout the day, we have movies, and music, and youtube, we have cars zooming past our houses, and airplanes flying through the sky, and if you have Kids well may the good Lord help you to find a quiet moment. But this list can go on and on about the things that we are constantly being bombarded with. But when you are in the wilderness, it can be at times somewhat eerily silent. (Pause) Where a whisper may sound like thunder through a quiet place. (Pause) And as a people who are continually needing the noise of everyday life, we are unsure of what to do in this time of silence. For me, when I am out in the wilderness, this is one of the best parts of the whole journey is the silence. No (ding) you have a new e-mail waiting in your mailbox, no phones that are ringing, no music anywhere but the sweet melodies that the birds may provide. Silence. Time to be still, time to simply be calm, time to know and ponder the great deep mysteries of God’s design in life, love and grace. May you carve out in this time of Lent a period to rest, to meditate, to breathe in the stillness of silence along this journey inward as you seek God’s presence.
The flip side of a journey through the wilderness is it typically brings with it a time of difficulty. I remember on one such occasion as I was hiking through the Northern VA part of the Appalachian Trail, we came to a place on the map that we had intended to stay the night because there was a supposed natural spring nearby. My wife, and my friend’s wife began to set up camp while Ethan and I had decided to go and search for this Spring. After about ½ hour to ¾ of an hour later, Ethan and I came to the unlucky conclusion that this spring on the map had dried up. This brought about a difficult situation for us as we were in the wilderness and the land had not provided our needs for us. These types of difficulties are a part of the wilderness life. Throughout the scriptures there are many examples of being in the wilderness, being in the hard dry arid lands. Moses and the story of the Exodus is often a story that comes to mind when I think of a people having difficulty in the wilderness. Actually at one point in their journey they had so much difficulty they began to complain and bicker to Moses, WHY HAVE YOU BROUGHT US OUT HERE TO DIE! At least while we were in slavery back in Egypt we had food and water! I only wished on that such night I had the powers given to Moses to have hit a stone and water flow forth from it. But I suppose the mile and half hike to the ocal 7-11 down the road worked just as well on that such occasion. But Wilderness life, the Lenten season brings about spiritual difficulties. They bring with them temptations. Satan does not wish for you to return to God and will do all things possible to keep you in sin. Jesus in his period of being in the wilderness was faced with many difficulties, one of which was while fasting for 40 days Satan was there tempting him with making bread out of stones to eat. These difficulties are not necessarily bad things, although we may at the time look at them to be the worst things in life. I sometimes correlate my experience of Seminary to be a journey through wilderness for myself. I remember one specific day during my first year in Seminary I had had enough. I was not fit to be in a Master’s program, I was not smart enough, I did not write well enough, and I simply was not cut out for this type of work. I walked out of class in tears and spent some time up on the hill in prayer and crying out to God why had he brought me to such a place. But it was through those difficult moments that we are often most shaped and formed. It is through our most difficult times that we come to have the largest revelations and most meaningful events happen in our lives. And so may you in this season of Lent instead of looking for the quick fix, may you head into difficult times of temptations to give up on your spiritual disciples or whatever difficulty is thrown your way and embrace them, and ask yourself how may I grow spiritually from this experience?
This brings me to my last point. In our Psalter lesson, the Psalmist sought to learn God’s ways, not in a time of comfort, but in and amidst those difficulties. The Psalmist lifts up his soul to God and asks, “Do not let my enemies exult over me.” If I may I will translate that using the language from this past Wednesday night. It could read, “O God, do not let my sins take over who you have made me to be, let me return to you O Lord”. This Psalmist continues “Make me to know your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.” The Psalmist is crying out from the heart to know God, to learn the ways of God. Is this not what the season of Lent is all about: turning away from that which is evil and placing ourselves before God and examining those things that are in our life that have come in the way? And when was the last time that you spent a whole day waiting for God and spent time in his Word and teachings. Since we are talking about teaching moments, let me take this opportunity to teach you a little bit about the form of this Psalm. This psalm is not laid out in some grand theological scheme, but rather is a simple acrostic poem. You know where you start with the first letter of the alphabet and you start each line with the next letter. Well that is exactly the way Psalm 25 is written. It starts with the Hebrew letter Alef, and the next verse begins with Beit, and continues gimel, dalet, he, vav, zayin, chet, tet, yod, kaf, lamed, mem, nun, samek, ayin, pe, tsade, resh, resh, sin, tav. The only two letters missing is it left out Qof and used Resh twice, and left out Sheen. Hence the reason there are 23 letters in the Hebrew language and only 22 verses. Even beyond that knowledge, the Hebrew letters of the Psalms initial, middle, and final lines spell out the Hebrew word ‘alaf, which mean learn. This psalmist, who so desires to learn the ways of God has even used a literary device that places learning as part of the beginning, the middle and the end. How true to life does this Psalm speaks to wilderness life. It is about being formed, and not in the easy times do we learn, but through the difficult times do we seek the Lord’s ways and teachings. And so let me close this time with this simple blessing. May you also, through the observance of this Holy Lent be faced with challenges that may force you to seek to learn the ways of God. For “all the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.”