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The Reverend Kathleen Killian

Lent 1B/24

Genesis 9:8-17

Psalm 25:1-9

1 Peter 3:18-22

Mark 1:9-15

February 18th 2024


A Covenantal Lent 

For the first three Sundays in Lent, our Old Testament readings focus on divine covenant. While each is unique, taken together, they speak to God’s deep desire to be in sacred relationship with his people. This morning we hear of God’s covenant with Noah, Noah’s descendants, and every living creature of all flesh; meaning that God established relationship with every kind of animal of the earth; every person of every race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, faith, or no faith. God promises to remember his covenant, and makes the rainbow as a sign of divine commitment to all of humanity and the whole of creation.

But let us remember that this covenant came about only after a great primordial flood had washed away nearly everyone and everything because of human sin and wickedness. After forty days and forty nights, the waters receded and a new creation would come into being. The story of Noah and the Arc prefigures baptism; as in the baptismal waters a person is washed clean of sin and sacramentally drowned, dying with Christ to arise to new life in Christ. Sealed by the Holy Spirit, a divine covenant is made. Our epistle reading also connects the experience of Noah and the flood to the saving waters of baptism. 

To be in covenant with God to surrender to transformative change; to death and rebirth.  Sometimes God’s growth happens slowly, sometimes suddenly, amidst friend and foe, trial and triumph. But it always requires a great deal of humility and trust; as our psalmist prays: To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you. Lifting up one’s soul to God is a prayerful gesture of openness, and expresses a quite intimate and personal dependence on the Holy. 

The psalmist seeks to remember his covenantal relationship, and implores God to remember God’s own promise: remember your everlasting love and compassion O Lord. He also seeks to learn and repeatedly solicits God’s teaching: Lead me in your truth and teach me. Show me your ways. Guide me in doing right. Teach me your paths; for all the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness, to those who keep his covenant. And so we must ask on this first Sunday of Lent:

Do we remember our covenant? Do we seek to learn from God? Are we teachable?

In our gospel passage, Mark briefly narrates Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan—an act or showing of divine covenant; forty days in the wilderness—a private time of personal testing; and then Jesus’ public proclamation of the good news of the kingdom of God. From river to desert, from quenched and drenched to sun baked and parched, God’s Son, the Beloved is unceremoniously pushed out of the proverbial nest, and we along with him into the first full week of Lent and its “wilderness” of disciplines and temptations. 

Biblical wilderness is always a place where illusions of self-sufficiency are stripped away; a far country of testing and restoration, patience and urgency.  Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark gives no specifics as to the temptations of Jesus, other than that he was tempted by Satan. There is no dialogue with the devil or mention of Jesus fasting or praying. Yet Mark is redolent in imagery and meaning: in two terse verses we encounter the urgency of the Spirit, Satan, wild beasts and angels, and the forty days. In scripture, the number 40 marks the necessary and initiatory span of time that leads to change and transformation, and is thus indicative of a significant process. 

Jesus allowed himself to be tested, and for forty days. If we are serious about following him through Lent, will we also allow ourselves to be tested? To struggle with temptation? For forty days? Maybe just a week. Maybe a whole lifetime. Jesus’s temptations were unique to him, as are our temptations specific to each of us; perhaps one is more tempted to pride while another to lust or greed. But all of us are tempted and tested by evil forces, name it Satan, the devil, or demons. 

The ordinary and often subtle work of evil is to afflict us by influencing the choices we make through lies and deception, distraction, and discouragement or despair. To say we have no temptation is akin to saying we have no sin (John 8:7-11). Thus we prayed first thing this morning: Come quickly O Lord to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save.

God once said to me, learn to suffer well. Truly, our covenant and relationship with God does not mean we are entitled to escape trial and suffering, any more than Jesus was. Christ also suffered for sins once for all . . . in order to bring you to God (1 Peter). Life is not so much a choice between suffering and not suffering, but of what order and at what level do we struggle and make meaning of our pain; all can be offered and transformed in the fire of divine love. 

While we can turn outward to our daily lives and the world to confront wild beasts and encounter angels, most importantly during Lent, we are meant to turn inward and make an inner journey of conversion, where in our own hearts we also confront wild beasts and encounter angels. The season of Lent is our own forty days in both the desert, and the arc; waiting for the stormy waters to recede and the Son to rise, and being prepared to enter into the paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter. As we make our pilgrimage through the desert to the cross and tomb: 

Is there anything in your life you would like to have end? Or, is there something you would like to have the courage to begin?

In a few moments when you come forward to receive communion and blessing, come bearing something within your heart that you know does not belong in your relationship with God; something that is hindering its growth. Lifting up your soul, offer to God a sin, a humiliation, a fear, and in exchange, receive the new life of Christ in the body and blood of Jesus. 

What is in need of healing today? What grace do you want to ask for this Lent? 

In our gospel, Jesus says: repent, and believe in the good news. Yet isn’t it just all too easy to believe in the bad news? Even as disciples, we often believe more in the bad than the good; in world news rather than kingdom news. But this is what Jesus tells us, dares us to do; repent and believe in the good news, for the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. 

During this season of Lent, what “good news” is God encouraging you to believe? 

There’s an old Irish saying, that a good beginning is half the work. I have found this to be true in my own life, and not just because I’m Irish! So as we set off to journey through these forty days, let us make a good beginning, that with the help of God’s merciful and steadfast love, our faith may flourish, and our covenant with Christ be strengthened anew.