First Sunday in the Midst of Lent
TEXT: Mark 1:9-15
And 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 from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1:10-11)
Jesus heard that voice, and everything changed for him. Jesus heard that voice, and it was—for him—a new beginning.
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Mark 1:12-13)
The same Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism like a dove, then turned into a swarm of bees that drove him out to the desert.
Well, the Bible doesn’t mention a swarm of bees. I made that part up. But the Bible does day that there were angels in that wilderness. Yes. There were angels in the wilderness. It’s important to remember that. Along with Satan, the wild beasts and every other unpleasant thing about the desert: heat that burns your skin; thirst that makes your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth; plants covered with thorns … besides all of that, there were also angels “who waited on him” … angels … who ministered to him.
It’s important to remember those angels, because they are easy to overlook. In fact, they usually are overlooked. In commentaries on this passage, the two themes that surface most often are temptation and repentance. Angels are rarely mentioned.
Yet Mark does mention them. In his lean, spare gospel—the shortest one of all—Mark includes the angels that tended to Jesus in his lonely sojourn on the far side of the Jordan.
You know, when Luke tells this story, he leaves them out completely. In Matthew’s gospel, the angels only show up at the end. But in Mark, they are there for the whole time—all 40 days.
Now, it’s not as though Mark has a thing for angels. He doesn’t. Unlike Luke’s gospel, Mark records no encounter between Mary and the angel Gabriel. Neither does he mention a “multitude of the heavenly host” appearing to the shepherds, “praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven’ …” Matthew tells us about an angel visiting Joseph, telling him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. But Mark does not.
In Mark, no angel strengthens Jesus in Gethsemane. And when Mark describes Easter morning—which signals another new beginning—it’s unclear whether it’s an angel the women meet at the empty tomb … or just a young man dressed in white.
Truth to tell, apart from this story about Jesus in the wilderness, angels rarely appear in Mark’s Gospel. And when they do, they’re simply part of God’s royal court. They are not on earth helping people. Except here. Here, we find these emissaries from God’s royal court walking with Jesus through the desert. In Mark, God’s kingdom comes into the wilderness.
So when Mark talks about angels ministering to Jesus, we should pay attention. Not to downplay the temptations (or even the Tempter himself) that confronted Jesus throughout those 40 days. Nor to negate the Lenten call to repentance—the call to begin again. No. We need to be honest about the trials and temptations Jesus faced, and that we face! We need to acknowledge the wild beasts that surrounded him in that desert, just as we need to acknowledge the things that scare the heck out of us, here and now. Lent is a time to do all of that.
But it’s also a time when we should remember the angels. The angels who appeared to Jesus in his wilderness experience—and who appear in ours. We should remember—as Mark does—that the angels were there for Jesus from the very beginning of his 40-day journey, just as God had been with his ancestors for the duration of their 40-year trek toward a new beginning. Just as God promises to be with us in the wild and frightening places of our lives.
Yeah. Wild and frightening places. New beginnings often feel like that, don’t they? One moment, you’re having this ecstatic, Jordan River experience … and the next, you’re in the desert, facing reality. Coming to terms with what this new beginning means.
New beginnings. That’s what the season of Lent is all about. It’s not simply about giving up cigarettes or chocolate or fried chicken or TV—or whatever—for 40 days, just to show we can do it. Or just because we think we have to do it, and then pick up our old bad habits again, afterward. No. I think Lent is supposed to be about discovering that we can rely upon God. Rely upon God to supply everything we really need. I think Lent is about discovering that the Lord has power to save us from our worst fears; that God can and will give us power to overcome our fears, and our weaknesses.
Lent is about trusting God to send angels to walk with us through whatever wilderness we must traverse on the way to our new beginning. More than that, however … when angels show up, they offer us a glimpse of that new beginning. Because, when the angels show up, God’s kingdom shows up, too. Even in the wilderness.
On a website called “Day One,” a Presbyterian minister named Christopher Henry speaks to that. He writes:
… even out here in the wilderness, there are times when God’s presence is unmistakable. Moments when the extraordinary breaks through the thin veneer of the ordinary and blinds us with its brilliance, when angels outnumber wild beasts. Those moments come when we face the fear of the wilderness and gather the courage and the strength to take the next step, moments when the kingdom comes near.
Then Christopher Henry tells this story:
Several years ago, I was attending a Sunday afternoon book club in a small town in North Carolina. The participants in the club were the pastors and lay leaders of local congregations—Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, and Presbyterians. That day we found ourselves sharing personal stories of faith formation. How did you become a Christian? Where did your faith journey begin?
One by one, members of the group described how we had been raised by loving and faithful parents who brought us to Sunday school and church, told us the stories of Jesus, and helped us to grow in maturity of faith. Each story sounded something like that, until there was only one person left to speak.
As tears formed in her eyes, she said, “I am a Christian because the Christian church saved my life.”
Suddenly, the chatty group fell silent.
She described how she had been abandoned by her parents as an infant. Sent to a foster home, she was neglected and abused for the first six years of her life. At age seven, she was adopted by a local family. Not knowing what to expect, she spent the first night wide-awake in her new bed, afraid and anxious.
The next morning, a Sunday, the family got up early, had breakfast, and got into the car.
“It was my first time at church and I had no idea what to expect. We walked into the Sunday school classroom, and the teacher’s face lit up.”
“Welcome, Janet, we’ve been waiting for you.”
“Then she read the Bible story for the day. I will never forget the feeling. Jesus says to his disciples, ‘Let the little children come to me. Do not stop them.’
“I knew, knew with all of my heart, that he was talking to me. I knew that I was home. I am a Christian because of that moment. A new beginning, the kingdom in the midst of the wilderness.” *
Angels do come to us. They do minister to us. Even during the figurative wilderness of Lent. The Lenten season is a time to take stock of our lives, to come clean about the things that tempt us and the things that scare us. Part of the Lenten discipline involves owning up to—as an old prayer says—“the harm we have done and the good we have left undone.” Or, in the words of Step Four of every 12-Step program, making “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
That’s worth doing. But today, I want to invite you to do another kind of Lenten inventory: an accounting of the angels you have known and loved—and who have loved you—in the desert places of your own lives. Today, I invite you to acknowledge—as Mark did—those angels who show up for us … when we are tired … when we are thirsty … when we are surrounded by wild beasts. Those angels who have brought the kingdom of God to us in the wilderness—just like they did for Jesus.
Now, your wilderness angels may not look the way you think angels should. They may not have long white robes, or rustling wings. Instead, maybe your angels look like … the Junior High School teacher who believed in you when you did not believe in yourself. Or the coach who gave you a chance to play, even though you were not very good. Or maybe one of your angels is a colleague who had your back during a rough time at work. Or a friend who listened to you pour out your heart after your marriage disintegrated.
Sometimes our wilderness angels are the ones who accept our apologies after we’ve hurt them. Sometimes they are the ones who just accept us as we are, reminding us that there “is more grace in God than sin in us”—and that in God’s kingdom there is always the chance to start over, and find a new beginning.
Lent begins with Jesus’ 40-day journey into the wilderness. Our Lenten pilgrimage, also, can feel like a sojourn in the desert. It can be an arduous journey filled with fearsome things, as we come face-to-face with our own failings and phobias. Through Lent—if we take it seriously—we revisit the times we’ve let those fearsome things get the better of us.
Yeah. Lent is a desert. It’s a place where the wild beasts of despair or regret encircle us. And we can find ourselves there at any time of year. Because, sometimes, the desert comes looking for us. Sometimes, misfortune seeks us out. Or bereavement does. Or a health crisis. Or a job loss. Or even the challenge to do the right thing, although that will cost us everything. Even though it may drag us—kicking and screaming—into a new beginning. Even in such a time—even in such a wilderness—do not forget about the angels! Mark didn’t. And neither should we.
“Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”
Even in the badlands, according to Mark, the angels got the last word. May that be true for us, also, as we journey through the wilderness of Lent. Thanks be to God for the angels who have been with us in the dry, desert times of our lives. May the recollection of them empower us to be, likewise, bearers of grace and bearers of courage in this world.
We can be angels for others, my friends. We can usher in a new beginning. Let’s not miss the chance to do it.
* The Rev. Christopher Henry is senior pastor of Shallowford Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA. Quotation is from: http://day1.org/3552-where_to_begin