McFarland

First Sunday of Lent February 21, 2021

Readings

First Reading: Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22
Gospel: Mark 1:9-15

Prayer of the Day:
Holy God, heavenly Father, in the waters of the flood you saved the chosen, and in the wilderness of temptation you protected your Son from sin. Renew us in the gift of baptism. May your holy angels be with us, that the wicked foe may have no power over us, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Hymns of the Day

If you don’t have hymnals at home,
lookup the hymns on YouTube or other websites.

O Lord Throughout These Forty Days – ELW #319
I Want Jesus to Walk with Me – ELW #325
Lead Me, Guide Me – ELW #768
Lord Jesus, Think on Me – ELW #599
O, Love, How Deep – ELW #322

Reflection on Mark 1:9-15

by Pastor Kelli Schmit

Today we begin our Lenten journey.  We begin in the wilderness, as we do every First Sunday in Lent.  Last year, on the Third Sunday in Lent, that was the last time we worshiped together in this space.  It is hard to begin this season and not be struck by the fact we are beginning our second pandemic Lent.

Between Lent and the Safer at Home orders, the wilderness was a great metaphor last year.  It captured the uncertainty and isolation many of us were experiencing.  It was a great way to capture our reality, but when the 40 days were over…covid wasn’t.  So while it was a helpful metaphor last year, this year – I gotta be honest – its lost its charm.

As you’ve read in the weekly enews, the Covid Task force is hard at work establishing parameters and guidelines for how we can return to in-person worship.  A number of these disciples have medical expertise and some are working with patients who have the coronavirus.  I trust their voice and their opinion because they see a side of this virus from which I am shielded.  I am incredibly proud of the work of this whole team and how the health, safety, and wellbeing of our members and staff continue to be their collective top priority.

Even with their hard work, we can’t ignore that the pandemic is still a reality and its effects are wearing us all down.  We’re tired of not seeing family members, tired of the hard choices school districts have to make, tired of not participating in the recreational and musical activities we love, tired of hearing the number of hospitalizations and deaths, and we’re tired of not seeing each other in worship.  The leaders here this morning know who sits where and it’s heartbreaking to look out and see empty seats.

Pandemic fatigue is a real thing, my friends, so I was intrigued when Dr. Karoline Lewis said that “Mark is the perfect Gospel for right now.”[1]  Mark is perfect for a pandemic?  Really?  She teaches that Mark “speaks to the insistence of God being with us no matter what, no matter where.”[2]  God rips through every barrier that tries to keep us separated.  God is determined to be with us no matter what, no matter where.

We begin our second pandemic Lent with Jesus being tested in the wilderness.  It is said that “Mark totally under-narrates that story in comparison to Matthew and Luke.”[3]  The devil lays compelling tests in front of Jesus: to turn stones into bread, to throw himself down from the temple with the angels coming to the rescue, to rule all the kingdoms of the world – but these familiar tests are not in Mark.  The details about Jesus fasting, of him being famished, of the devil leaving his presence – these are also not in Mark.  Matthew and Luke take 11 or 13 verses to tell the story whereas Mark gets it done in two.

All these stories have in common is the wilderness setting, the 40-day timeline, and the story that immediately precedes is Jesus’ baptism.  Granted, the Spirit is in all three, but the Spirit leads Jesus in Matthew and Luke, but today, in Mark, the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness.  Mark is also the only one to include the presence of wild beasts.  I think “under-narrates” is a rather accurate description to Mark’s fast paced narrative.

Jesus is baptized and before the waters of the Jordan are even dried off, the Spirit immediately drives him into the wilderness.  He is there with wild beasts, those powerful forces that “mean danger is around,” that “wait until you are weak and can’t protect yourself and then they pounce.”[4]  In this desolate place, the angels wait on him.  In the words of Dr. Karoline Lewis, “the angels represent the presence of God.”[5]  In this place of isolation, desolation, and danger, Jesus is sustained thanks to the Holy Spirit that has filled him, the recently proclaimed promised that was directed to him and only him: “You are my Son,” and the angels, or the presence of God.[6]  Even in the wilderness, the presence of God is with him.

As we begin our second pandemic wilderness journey, Dr. Lewis asks: “What have we been tempted by?  Thinking that God is not here?”[7]  We’re all experiencing fatigue and have entertained the question of God’s presence.  We feel like we’re left to wander, forgotten and abandoned in a place of emptiness and scarcity.  The wild beast of struggling to recognize God’s presence is lurking.  The beast of trying to trust in God’s promises is dangerously close.

During this pandemic, pretty much every part of life is different, and that much seismic change is exhausting.  It has been a year, but it’s not really easier.  Sure, mask wearing and social distancing is not new anymore, but the fact that a trip to the grocery store still requires so much energy and thought reveals that just because it’s familiar doesn’t necessarily mean it’s gotten easier.  We would love to go to shopping, visit friends, hug family members, and sing next to one another in worship without the wild beast of “Am I going to get them sick?  Am I going to be exposed and bring it home to my family?” being present.

Dear friends, this is exhausting, and when we cannot experience God’s presence in ways that are reliable and tried-and-true, it’s hard to muster the energy to try something new.  And it is into this exact place of fatigue, danger, loneliness, and unknowns – of a wilderness filled with wild beasts – it is into this place that God’s presence comes to be with us.

This is not the first time Mark has taken us to the wilderness.  His Gospel begins with the words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”  There’s a quote from Isaiah and then we’re immediately introduced to John the baptizer who is where?  In the wilderness.  The gospel begins in the wilderness.  The introduction to the good news of Jesus is in the wilderness.  Dr. Lewis points out that Mark begins his story not in the Jerusalem or the great temple but in the wilderness, a place of fatigue, danger, loneliness, and unknowns.[8]  This tells us that even in the wilderness, the good news is there, the presence of God is there.  Jesus was in the wilderness and the angels – the presence of God – was with him and helped him.

The good news of Jesus wasn’t unveiled in a place of familiarity or one of our choosing, not even in the preferred location of the temple, but in the wilderness surrounded by wild beasts and uncertainty.  When we are surrounded by unknowns, when there are more questions than answers, when the ground is shifting beneath our feat, we can find stability by clinging to what we do know.

We do know that God promises to be with us, even when it doesn’t feel like it.  God promises to be with us, even when that presence is difficult to recognize.  God promises that the Spirit will stir us and help us experience the divine’s presence in new places and new ways.  God promises to gift us with a community with whom we can struggle, other wilderness disciples who are also trying to figure this out, and with whom we can take turns being strong and feeling tired.  God also promises that when familiar ways are unsafe, God promises the courage to try new ways of being with God, the permission to be kind to ourselves when it is difficult, and the endurance to keep going.  As we continue on our wilderness journey, we can cling to the promise that God has spoken to each and every one of us: “You are my beloved child.  You are so beloved by me.”

As Dr. Lewis said, Mark’s Gospel reveals that God is determined to be with us, no matter what, no matter where.  So whether we are tired of wandering in the wilderness, facing wild beasts, or worshipping in ways that aren’t familiar and that are definitely not preferred, God is insistent on being with us.

God ripped through the heavens over the Jordan to be with us.  God tore through the temple curtain on a Friday afternoon to show that nothing could keep God from being with us.  Of course God can get past these walls on Marsh Road and move through Facebook, Zoom, drive-in worship, or whatever platform we may use to reach us and be with us.  There is no technological barrier or emotional limitation we can place on God that would be even remotely successful.  The power and finality of death didn’t stand a chance against the strength and determination of God’s love, so there is no wild beast, location, media platform, fear, fatigue, or difficulty that could even slow God down.  God is shredding any barrier that would even try to keep us apart.

The Third Sunday in Lent last year was the last time we worshipped together in this space, but because God is bigger than any platform or limitation, it was not the last time we worshipped together and it definitely was not the last time God was with us, no matter the wilderness setting.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

[1] Karoline Lewis, “2021 Lenten Lectionary Study Featuring Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis” (Lecture, Zoom, February 8, 2021).
[2] Lewis.
[3] Matt Skinner from: Working Preacher, “Brainwave 770: First Sunday in Lent (B) – Feb. 21, 2021 (2),” Feb 17, 2021, video, 32:00, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a8O2vdu2ymo.
[4] Lewis.
[5] Lewis.
[6] Lewis.
[7] Lewis.
[8] Lewis.

Let Us Pray

God of everlasting faithfulness, thank you for your commitment to your creation.  Give us the endurance to continue in this time of global pandemic.  Reveal to us ways we can support others in this time of struggle.  Through it all, help us cling to the promise of your unending presence with us.  Whether your presence is easy to spot or more challenging to recognize, you are always with us – you never leave us.  In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.