February 18, 2018
First Sunday of Lent
Genesis 9:8-17 / Mark 1:9-15
Angels were there too. “The angels waited on him;” they were there with Jesus in the wilderness, during his forty days with Satan and the wild beasts. These few words about the presence of angels have been a lifeline this week—they helped me to recognize the angels that have been showing up for me.
The wild beasts were raging and came from all directions:
More friends received troubling diagnoses;
Another school community, this time in Parkland, FL, was torn apart by senseless violence and loss;
Memories triggered sorrow in the broken places of my heart;
I failed to show up for friends, and spent too much time in my anxious head.
The wilderness experience is real.
And yet, angels kept showing up for me. You may know that the word angel means “messenger”—my own hunch is that angels appear in lots of forms. This week there were kind texts from friends out of the blue; faithful conversations beyond the agenda of committee meetings; patient colleagues in and out of the office; and the joy of a baptism on the horizon. These were glimmers of light during a week of gray skies and rain.
I expect you have your own list of intercessions and confessions, ways you’d fill the white board of prayer in your life. If your heart is tender or your mind full of laments, Lent arrives right on time. This season makes space for the heartache in our lives. These days of repentance and reflection allow for honest acknowledgement of our fears and our failings. The season invites us to bring our whole selves to God. If we are led during Lent into the wilderness of our own hearts, we can trust that we, too, will be cared for by angels.
Of course, grief and darkness are not original to our day. Today’s scriptures both portray times when following God involved seasons of hardship and temptation. God’s frustration with the wickedness of humanity brought on the flood—that part of the story’s not included in the songs children sing in church. But after 40 days of gray skies and steady showers, the rain stopped, and God remembered Noah and all the creatures on the ark. After the destruction God made a promise, a unilateral covenant with all creation for all time. God declared that no matter what, no matter how deeply humanity grieved God’s heart, God would not respond with total destruction ever again. The Creator devised the ultimate safety plan, while acknowledging that the people of God would repeat their depravity, disobedience, and discontent. As a reminder of this gracious vow, God put a bow in the skies, an arc of bright colors after rain. After the storm wiped the slate clean, God proclaimed love for all that breathes, forever. God’s final word to Noah and all the creatures on the ark was a promise of presence, power, and love.
The presence, power, and love of God appear again in Mark’s gospel. Just as Jesus comes out of the water, he sees the heavens rupture and the Spirit descend as a dove. Jesus hears the words of affirmation, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” But he does not get to bask in the glory of God’s devotion for long. Immediately after his baptism, Jesus is sent by the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days. Mark’s account is spare; he does not offer much detail, but he makes sure we know that Jesus was not alone.
And, of course, Mark’s account does not end with the darkness and difficulty of the wilderness. The time set apart in the wilderness prepares Jesus for the beginning of his ministry. The turmoil and temptation he experiences are a passage to proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of God has come near. Just as the angels sustained him, Jesus will remind the people of Galilee that the presence, power, and love of God are near.
Samuel Wells, the vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London, knows something about the power of such reminders. He tells this story about a former parishioner: After hearing Wells speak on the radio, the man called Wells. They had not communicated in twenty years, but as soon as Wells heard the man’s voice, he knew who was on the other end of the line. He remembered the firefighter well; he had attended the church during the early days of Wells’ ministry. Here’s what the caller said:
“Do you remember your first Easter at St. Luke’s?”
“Two weeks before Easter, at the Sunday service, you gave each one of us three nails. You said, ‘Put these somewhere where you’ll be close to them every day. And on Easter morning, bring them back with you and put them in the font and celebrate what those nails really mean.’”
“The truth is, I never brought the nails back.”
“When I took the nails home,” he said, “I knew what I wanted to do. The next day, I took them to the fire station. I picked up my firefighter’s overalls and I sewed each one of them into its own pocket across my chest. And then I gave each one of them a name.
“The first one, the largest one, I called Faith. The second one, the rusty one, I called Courage. And the third one, the twisted, almost broken one, I called Hope. And from then on, for the next 20 years, every time the bell went and we jumped down the chute into the fire tender to go out on a job, I would put my hand on my chest. My hand would cover the pocket with the first nail, and I would say, ‘Be close to me, I need you with me.’ I would move across to the second nail and would say, ‘Give me the strength to do what I need to do today.’ And then I’d find the third, twisted, smaller nail, and I’d say, ‘Help me make it through to live another day.’
“I kept those three nails in my overalls until six years ago when I retired. And when I heard your voice on the radio, I thought it was time to tell you why I never brought them back that Easter Day.”
The nails, first given as a reminder of the passion and pain of Christ, had become tokens of faith, courage, and hope. Each time that firefighter was called to duty, he was grounded in the good news that the kingdom of God was near. He could face the wilderness of his work with the presence, power, and love of God.
The Good News in today’s scriptures is that evil and destruction do not have the final word. God’s power reigns, even over death. But God is present all along the journey, not only in resurrection. God is present in heaviness and grief. God is present in the frightening diagnosis and the rush to surgery. God is present in each parent’s embrace after a tragic shooting. God is present in the forty days of the wilderness and the weeks of rain. God is present whenever we speak the truth about our lives.
As the season of Lent unfolds, and the coming days bring their own highs and lows, remember that God is present with you. The presence, power, and love of God are steadfast. Even after the storm, God paints the skies as a reminder of the depth of God’s love. And angels still show up in the wilderness.
 Wells, Samuel. “A confession about three nails,” The Christian Century. February 16, 2018. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/faith-matters/confession-about-three-nails