Sermon: "Water and Wilderness"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry V. Ort
Genesis 9.8-17; Psalm 25.1-9; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15
Welcome to Lent! Our gospel reading focuses on Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness. Mark describes the conclusion of Jesus’ baptism as follows: “Just as Jesus 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 down from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1.10-11; NRSV). Mark’s account calls to mind the words of Isaiah, the prophet: ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down’” (Isaiah 64.1; NRSV).
Isaiah expresses hope; Mark notes its realization. But this is not the only image of rending in Mark’s gospel. In Mark 15.37-39, we read: “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (NRSV)! The curtain of the temple separated the Holy of Holies from the congregation. Only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies; even so, this was to occur only once per year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The rending of this curtain symbolized the fact that everyone now has access to God through Jesus Christ. As Osvaldo Vena notes:
The tearing of the heavens (sjizomenous) parallels the tearing of the veil in Mark 15. The Gospel writer is using it to show that the Spirit is available again. The heavens have been ripped open. In 15:38 it is the veil that separated the people from God’s presence which is torn apart (esjizthe). Now the way to God is open for everyone. The purpose of these two verses was to call attention to what was included between them: Jesus’ ministry. The first, 1:10, signals the beginning; the second, 15:38, its end (https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-mark-19-15-5 ).
We should also note, at Jesus’ baptism, God pronounces Jesus to be his Son; at Jesus’ death, a gentile, a Roman centurion says, “Truly, this man was God’s Son!”
As we have previously noted, Middle Eastern culture places great emphasis on honor. When God pronounced Jesus to be his Son, the Beloved, Jesus was greatly honored. When one is honored, one’s natural impulse is to bask in the honor – to take pleasure for a period. Jesus was not granted that luxury. As Mark tells us, “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” (Mark 1.12-13; NRSV).
In Mark’s brief account, we encounter two major biblical motifs: water and wilderness. Let’s consider each more fully.
The Torah begins with these words and this imagery: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1.1-2; NRSV). The phrase “wind from God” is often translated as “Spirit of God.” In ancient times, the seas, for good reason, represented chaos, darkness, and great danger. We still recognize the dangers associated with the sea. William Whiting, an Anglican clergyman, acknowledged these dangers in the hymn, Eternal Father, Strong to Save, which ultimately came to be known as the Navy Hymn:
Eternal Father, strong to save, Whose arm hath bound the restless wave, Who bid'st the mighty ocean deep Its own appointed limits keep; O hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea. O Christ, Whose voice the waters heard And hushed their raging at Thy word, Who walkedst on the foaming deep, And calm amidst its rage didst sleep; O hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea.
Most Holy Spirit, Who didst brood Upon the chaos dark and rude, And bid its angry tumult cease, And give, for wild confusion, peace; O hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea! O Trinity of love and power, Our brethren shield in danger's hour; From rock and tempest, fire and foe, Protect them wheresoe'er they go; Thus evermore shall rise to Thee Glad hymns of praise from land and sea. Amen.
Today’s reading from Genesis sets forth God’s covenant with Noah and his family, with humankind, and every living creature. Some find the Noah saga to be troublesome. How could a loving God destroy all of creation? Yes, there are reasons for questioning the facticity of the account. It helps to remember the Flood account is in the prehistory portion of the Torah. At this time, the ancients saw the rainbow as a weapon of the gods, lighting as the arrows. From this time forth, the bow was to be seen as having been put away, as no longer serving as a symbol of the wrath of the gods. Furthermore, God chose to bring a righteous family through the waters of the flood.
Today’s reading from I Peter 3 recalls God’s patience during the building of Noah’s ark in which eight persons were saved (Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their wives). As we read, Noah’s ark, prefigured baptism, which now saves us “not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (Vss. 21-22; NRSV).
When considering the role of water in our relationship to God, let us not forget the Exodus and the crossing of the Red Sea; let us not forget Moses speaking to the rock such that water gushed forth in the wilderness; let us not forget the parting of the waters of the Jordan; let us not forget Jesus walking on the water and calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee; and let us not forget Jesus’ first miracle wherein he turned water into wine! Water, a miraculous combination of two invisible gasses which combine to form a wet, visible liquid, is essential for our existence.
Having come through the waters, let us now briefly wander in the wilderness. We have already spoken of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness for a period of forty days. The reference to forty days undoubtedly refers to the Israelites having wandered in the wilderness for forty years because of their refusal to obey God’s command, due to their unbelief in their ability, even with God’s aid, of capturing the Promised Land. Let us not forget how Elijah, fleeing Jezebel, and wanting to die, was refreshed in the wilderness before his forty-day journey to Mt. Horeb. Perhaps most importantly, let us not forget how Jesus withdrew to the wilderness to pray.
As Christians, we can expect to encounter our own wilderness experiences. Sometimes we refer to such experiences as the Dark Night of the Soul. These are times when we experience the profound absence of God, times which ultimately strengthen our faith and lead us into a closer relationship with God. When beset by powerful temptations, when we sense the presence of the adversary roaming about to see whom he can devour, we are experiencing the wilderness. But let us not forget, God’s angels are waiting to minister to us if we but call upon the name of the Lord.
We are invited to experience the wilderness during these forty days of Lent. This is a time for us to examine our conscience and the depth of our commitment to Jesus Christ. It is a time for us to recognize the wild beasts which surround us – the beasts of anger, hatred, and disbelief, to name but a few. Lent is a time for us to draw apart to pray. This Lent, as we journey with Jesus to Jerusalem, it is a time for us to ponder the significance of the cross for our own lives and to ask ourselves if we are truly willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus.
Finally, let’s take the Lenten journey together; let’s serve as ministering angels offering each other words of support and encouragement. In doing so, we remember the waters of baptism, we drink of the living water, and we journey further into the love and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.