Friday, February 20, 2015

Into the Wilderness of Lent (The 1st Sunday in Lent, 22 February 2015)

RCL Lent 1B
22 February 2015

Saint Faith's Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus text:  Mark 1.9-15
         I grew up where the mountains of the Front Range of the Rockies meet the expanse of the Great Plains.  Ours was, and still is, a dry land, a wilderness that did not, and does not, reward carelessness with gentleness.  One thoughtless toss of a match can ignite a fire which can destroy hundreds if not thousands of hectares of land as well as kill people and animals.  Failing to pay attention to the clouds building in the west and in the south can lead to drowning in a dry gulch when the rains cause a flash flood that comes upon you in seconds.

         In those days both city kids and country kids learned how to live in this wilderness.  We learned how to seek plants that harboured water in their stems and to discern the signs of water below the surface of the soil.  We learned how to build shelters to keep us warm and dry and to build fires that would stay within the limits of the pits we dug.  We learned how to conserve food and water.  Our land might be dry, might be dangerous, but it was ours and we belonged to this land.

         For most twenty-first century North Americans 'wilderness' conjures up images on postcards and foreign places beyond the reach of urban civilization.  The wilderness is a place few of us go to, whether willingly or unwillingly.  Some of us may even think of the wilderness as a dangerous and life-denying place where human beings do not belong and where we ought not to go.  This widespread ignorance and fear of  the wilderness prevents us from understanding Jesus' own wilderness experience and from understanding the potential that the wilderness of Lent offers us.

         In the Hebrew scriptures 'wilderness' is a symbol for a dependence upon God that has the potential to transform those who will brave the journey.  The wilderness of Sinai was the furnace that transformed the ore we know as the Hebrews into the metal we call the people of Israel.  In the wilderness the Hebrews received the Torah which guided them through the years of glory and the years of exile.  In the wilderness a confederation of tribes claiming common descent from Abraham were hammered by Moses into the people of the covenant with the Holy One.  In the wilderness the people learned the benefits and the costs of being chosen by the God whose name is not a noun but a verb, a God of action, a God who is not tamed by temples or sacrifices or formal religious structures.

         When Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness west of the Jordan and east of Jerusalem, he entered a place where hunger and thirst were ever present, a place where lawless people preyed on unsuspecting travellers, but most importantly a place where God shaped Jesus into the agent God needed.  In the wilderness Jesus listened for the voice of God and pondered what shape the future was to take.  In the wilderness Jesus came to know the truth that sets us free:  "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."  (Mark 1.15)

         God's future is also our present.  The reign of God is both a future promise and a present reality.  If we look for the signs of that reign, then our lives will be transformed.  This is the good news Jesus proclaimed to our ancestors in the faith.  This is the good news we share with our families, friends and neighbours.  But this is a message that we learn in the wilderness.

         You and I now stand on the border of a wilderness called Lent.  We've been here many times before.  Sometimes we have skirted its edges, reluctant to step into a land that challenges our assumptions about what it means to be a human being living in an affluent and comfortable city on Canada's Pacific coast.  Sometimes we have looked at this wilderness as if it were a picture postcard made up of images from popular stereotypes:  children cheerfully giving up broccoli and brussels sprouts in anticipation of chocolate Easter eggs and adults making futile promises to lose weight or to quit smoking.  Perhaps we understand how dangerous a time Lent can be.  What would our lives be like if we truly believed that the time is fulfilled and that the kingdom of God is all around us, not just a future hope but a present reality?  What would our lives be like if we truly repented, in other words, if we looked at the world through God's eyes, and believed that the life of justice, mercy and humility Jesus proclaims can actually be lived in the here and now?

         But there is only one way to find out how our lives could be different and that is to follow Jesus into the wilderness to hear the voice of God and to discern the shape of the future.

         As I look back on my life as a boy and a teenager growing up in a wilderness of plains and mountains, I remember that a series of words that guided all of us who wanted to live with the land:  Wait.  Watch.  Ponder.  Breathe.  Then act.

         Wait.  The forty days of Lent are a time to set aside rushing about and getting caught up in the busy-ness of life in the city.  Make an appointment for yourself each day.
         Watch.  When you keep your appointment with yourself, use the time to watch your life.  Look for rhythms in your day and in your week that give you life and those rhythms that drain life from you. 
         Ponder.  This is a time to ponder how you can strengthen the rhythms that give you life and to ponder how you can set aside the rhythms that drain that life from you.
         Breathe.  Waiting, watching and pondering is work.  Make sure that the time you set aside for yourself does not bleed immediately into more activity.  Breathe and give thanks for the waiting.  Breath and give thanks for the watching.  Breathe and give thanks for the pondering.
         Then act.  Choose one thing that you learned in this time.  Put it into action.  Perhaps you've chosen to read the Bible more.  Begin with reading the lessons for the coming Sunday; they're printed in today's bulletin.  As you read them, identify what words or phrases speak to you and why you think these words or phrases have caught your attention.  Whatever you choose, be content with small steps, realistic steps, life-giving steps. 

         And one more thing.  I know for certain that wilderness journeys are best undertaken in the company of others.  Whether we find a partner to read the Scriptures with or a guide who can help us pray or colleagues who can help us reflect on a shared ministry, the wilderness is not a place to be alone.  Even Jesus had the wild beasts and the angels to accompany him in his sojourn into the desert of Judea.

         So don't be afraid to enter the wilderness of Lent.  In the wilderness of Lent we discover who and whose we are.  In the wilderness of Lent city slickers are transformed into savvy nomads who look for the signs of God's life in the most unexpected places and find what they are looking for.  Amen.

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