Harbringers of Hope

Read *Mark 1:9-12*

*ln those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he 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.” And 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*.

Today I invite us to paint a picture. Either, you can bring out your oil colours / pastels, or use words to colour your blank canvas. Whether in your mind’s eye, or if you physically bring the brushes and paint the image will serve as an aid for today’s message. Imagine your workspace surrounded in prayer. Prayer is our most powerful tool and has the power to paint our canvas with the colours of hope, love, joy and peace. The image we create is our life journey with God. It is never complete. Today, as we follow the scripture in Mark, our image will consist of broad strokes of temptation, the presence of wild beasts and ministering angels. We will attempt to capture the wilderness scene of our Spirit as we enter the first week of Lent.

Sometimes the hardest place to be is in the wilderness. Daniel Erlander in his publication “Manna and Mercy” calls it “God’s wilderness school”, and the first wanderers took forty years to embrace God’s lessons and graduate to the promised land. Although in Mark’s gospel passage we are reading about Jesus, as disciples we can anticipate following him into our own desert. It is unclear whether the wild beasts which accompany Jesus are helpful or harmful in these surroundings and in this season of introspection, I invite us to explore the wild beasts of our own Lenten wilderness school, to question the presence of hardship and temptation, and to experience the ministering touch of God’s angels.

*Wilderness is the landscape of our canvas*

Every year as we prepare ourself for Holy Week we willingly re-enter the wilderness school. We re-affirm our dependency on God and cement the lessons of faith that are so easily forgotten. By willingly re-entering the space of self-introspection we intentionally attempt to live the Philippians 4 verse: *“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me--put it into practice.”*.

As disciples of Jesus Christ we are light on a mountain and salt of the earth.

We are harbingers of hope, and people of peaceful transformation.

We are the heart of the City, and the only body of Jesus that some may ever encounter.

As disciples, this Lent takes on new meaning as we wear the mantle of Jesus’s love with fear and trepidation due to the Covid hue of our personal wilderness journey of 2021. There is a Covid colour to the temptation landscape that we cannot escape. For some, the temptation to claim immunity from Covid because of special Christian dispensation has been fatal. For others the lure of indispensability has been tragically flaunted, while the offer of a vaccine has been accepted with mixed feelings. These are the broad stokes of Satan’s work on our Covid wilderness canvas, and largely we have been successfully empowered by the Holy Spirit. May we continue to stand strong, overcoming until the end.

*The Rocky journey of Lent*

We continue painting the canvas of our Lenten journey, hued with a Covid colour and currently brushed with broad strokes of Satan’s attempts to defeat us. Our next step it to re-create the presence of wild animals. Lloyd Allen of _Feasting on the word_ uses the phrase in Mark’s gospel to ask if Jesus has the final authority. I quote; _The phrase “he was with the wild beasts” (Mark 1:13b) is ambiguous with danger and promise. Will Jesus fall prey to nature’s ancient violent pattern; or will he lead the angels, the earth, and even the wild beasts in a return to primeval harmony under a restored, peace-making humanity?  The answer is found by those who follow him into present wilderness temptations and come face to face with their own wild natures. Only those who travel the rocky way of Lent through the chaos of Good Friday and the silent void of the grave can hope to see Easter dawn, whose light will reveal a rainbow in the dark western sky behind them._

The Covid pandemic has forced each one of us to confront our own wild natures. If Lent is the wilderness school to which we intentionally enrol, then Covid isolation is the school we unwillingly attend. Covid has been longer than expected, and the effects of social distancing and isolation have taken a toll in a magnitude we have yet to understand. Humanity is created to be in community, social in nature and design. A Covid Lent has made it doubly difficult & twice as obvious that we are wholly dependent of God.

The challenge we all face is that we prepare for the major task of fighting evil’s obvious temptations only to drop our defences when we confront the ‘wild beasts’ of our personal lives. So far in our real or imaginary paintings we have the major brush strokes of Evil’s work. We have the general hue of the Covid wilderness landscape of Lent 2021, and now the task is to identify what beasts are alongside us. Our task is to identify the nature of the beast, and to tame the beast rather than allow the beast to run riot. We are invited to allow the beast to become part of our strength, rather than become our weakness.

*God of Steadfast Mercy and Love*

The second scripture reading today is the Noahic covenant found in *Genesis 9:8-17*

*”Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”* (verses 8-11)

The covenant God makes with creation is not dependant her ability to maintain her end of the bargain, but rather it is God who unilaterally covenants as protector of all creation for eternity.

The same God of the Noahic covenant is God who journeys alongside us in Lent, as we fight temptation and as we fight the wildness within and without. The ministering angels in Mark’s passage are the love of God at work.

Last week my husband was visited by ministering angels at his factory. They came in the unexpected form of the local religious fraternal: men and women of God who look, speak and think differently, but who were united in the common goal of glorifying God. Covid has been difficult, but the miracle of experiencing the love of God at work makes the Lenten wilderness journey worthwhile.

In Conclusion:

I have used words, not paint, to colour my canvas.

In my minds eye I have painted the wilderness of lent as a grey shade, with warning splotches of red Covid splashed all over the picture. I have placed fierce black dogs within the wilderness scene, and I have painted pure white over the bold black strokes of evil temptation. This is the scene of my Lenten wilderness, intimidating but with fear muted by the presence of Jesus. To this canvas I add myself in the centre of the dogs, my hand calming one while simultaneously overcoming my fear of them. The canvas is also filled with angels of God, each bearing the face of friends and neighbours in rainbow colours, the New Covenant.

In today’s message I have used word images to convey the concept of learning from God in difficult circumstances. In Lent 2021 the difficult circumstances are encompassed in a backdrop of fear of contracting Covid19. Satan tempted Jesus with pride, self-glory, and testing God, which are

stumbling blocks to following God. These are the well-known and preached topics of Lent, leading us to discover we cannot sacrifice/ love like Jesus without the help of God. Lent teaches us that we fail miserably when we attempt to live without the empowering of the Holy Spirit.

Lent also brings our internal fears to the foreground. I have likened our insecurities to the wild animals who were with Jesus in Mark’s gospel. It is entirely possible that the long duration of Covid restrictions have intensified our internal fears and has magnified them out of proportion. Personal financial, social, and religious fears threaten to undermine our understanding of the power of the cross and the new covenant. Questions which have the power to destroy today, because of fear for tomorrow.

Questions such as:

Will I or my family or friends get sick from Covid?

Will the vaccine work?

Will we ever get back to Normal?

Will I still have a job?

Will life continue forever this way?

Trusting in Jesus on this rocky road is to follow Jesus into the depths of the darkness of lent, allow the light of Jesus to illuminate our way. Insidious dark fears are just as capable of de-railing disciples of Jesus as the broad strokes of evil. When we overcome our internal dark thoughts, we continue on the journey through Lent and beyond.

Good News:

There are ministering angels. God has surrounded us with people who supernaturally show and share love sacrificially. God is ever-present.

More Good News:

The picture you have created, either in words or in paint, is not finished. If the overall hue is grey or dark, God is working in your life right now to change the colour to a vibrant palette. God has already sent angels of mercy to tend to you. The wild animals are part of the covenanted created order and our life, our eternal picture, is being transformed continually to conform to the likeness of Christ. Not because of our effort, but because of the Love of God the father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.

May we journey through Lent with a firm conviction of God’s transforming Love.

Amen, and Amen.

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