a sermon with the wild beasts

First Sunday in Lent
Texts: Genesis 9:8-17 | Psalm 25:1-10 | 1 Peter 3:18-22 | Mark 1:9-15

Noah and family with the animals | Coptic icon

There’s a syrupy sweet children’s song called Rise and Shine that tells the story of Noah and the animals on the ark. God tells Noah there’s gonna be a “floody” and to get the animals out of the “muddy” and to bring them on by “twosies” and to not forget the “kangaroosies.” The story of Noah and the animals is a great first Bible story to teach kids. It has a happy ending! God creates the rainbow as a sign of God’s love and promise.

There’s this pretty dark side to the Noah story though. God’s rainbow promises to never again destroy the whole earth with a flood, and God says it that way because God has just destroyed the whole earth with a flood. It’s maybe kind of an absurd thing for God to promise. (In fact, God knows God is so likely to forget the promise, God will need a rainbow reminder.)

It’s an absurd thing for God to promise, given that things with humans never seem to get much better. Really, things have gotten so bad on earth. The people are so very far away from God. Corruption and violence and evil fill everything. It is so painful for God; Genesis says God is “grieved to the heart” (Gen 6). The world seems so lost, and so beyond repair. Maybe it would just be easier to start over.

Well, I can relate to God this week. Things are really bad. Seventeen people were killed in the school shooting in Parkland, Florida this week. Many of us feel grieved to the heart by this news, and others feel angry, or numb, or afraid or powerless, or despair.

Students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School gather on Thursday in Parkland, Fla. Fourteen students and three staff members were killed in a shooting at the school on Wednesday.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

And we know that although this shooting is what made the news, this is not the only violence and evil that took place this week. Every single weekend brings news of more deaths in Chicago – people who are killed by all the many and various ways this world-as-it-is deprives humans of what they need to live. Corruption and violence all around… I can relate to the impulse to just start over.

The reformer Martin Luther describes a cosmic battle between God and the evil forces of the world. In his hymn A Mighty Fortress he describes evil as the “old satanic foe sworn to work us woe” who “arms himself to fight” and “on earth has no equal.” The hymn goes on to say that humankind would be doomed, but God shows up to the battle and defeats evil forever.

I typically prefer to speak of God using non-violent imagery, but this week the battle imagery seems apt. There is evil that is destroying human lives. It goes by many names. You can call it lack of will to change, or apathy, or powerlessness. You can call it AR-57 or isolation or untreated illness. You can call it hyper masculinity or white supremacy or Sin with a capital S. It goes by all those names, and more.

It is so important to name that evil, and to sing songs that tell the truth about our battle with evil, because our lives aren’t just all Easter all the time. There is room in our faith for happy Jesus songs with kangaroosies, and there is also room here to name our pain and struggle. The season of Lent that begins this week can help us make that room.

The church always marks the first Sunday in Lent by remembering the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. This major event in Jesus’s life comes right in between Jesus’s baptism and the beginning of public ministry for Jesus. In Mark’s version of the story, we don’t get a lot of details about the temptation itself, but we do learn that Jesus was in the wilderness forty days. That’s the same number of days as it rained in the Noah story, and the same number of days as there are in the season of Lent, and the number of years that Israel wanders in the wilderness. Forty is the number of in-between.

Mark writes simply that Jesus was tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him. Unlike the temptation accounts in Matthew of Luke, which detail Jesus’s conversations with Satan and his series of trials, you get the sense in Mark’s gospel that Jesus is just dwelling there in that desert place. Maybe sitting down, maybe taking a walk. Facing temptation, not alone, surrounded by wild beasts and angels.

“Jesus Christ in Yoga Posture” by Eugene Theodosia Oliver (U.S., c. 1930)

Poet and pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes writes a poem about who these wild beasts might be:

They are in me—
wolves of appetite,
snakes of deceit,
scorpions of anger and will,
vultures of regret,
the lion of my unworthiness
that stalks me unseen.
In this wilderness
I will be with them.
We will see each other.
We will talk.
We will learn to live with each other,
each with our foods and habits,
and none about to go extinct.
They will remain wild,
but I will learn their ways
and become more humbly savvy,
no longer afraid,
never their victim,
free to walk about.
For God, too, is a wild beast.

Whether we’re talking about the wild beasts within us, or the terrifying wildernesses of violence and death around us, what Mark’s gospel has to tell us is that Jesus is all up in that. The divine sits there, or maybe takes a walk, looking evil in the face. Dwelling there a while. Learning what its like to live with those wild beasts. That is the way that Jesus can prepare for what’s next: the ministry that will change the world.

This is the first Sunday of Lent, and we’re invited to go with Jesus into the wilderness of lent, which seems like an absurd way to prepare for Easter. We have six weeks to go to that in-between place and to dwell with the wild beasts. I wonder what it will look like for you to keep that kind of Lent?

“Christ Among the Wild Beasts” by Moretto da Brescia (1498-1554)

For me, it will mean to not cling to easy answers or try to win the debate, to not put a Band-Aid on it or rush to make us feel better. To just tell the honest truth about the wild places and the creatures that live there. And to see what it feels like to hang out there for a while.

That might sound good to you, or if you’re like me it might be terrifying. Probably for you, being in-between in the wilderness will look different than it will look for me. What I can tell you about your Lenten journey, whatever it has in store for you, is this:

When you feel like tearing your clothes out of grief for the world-as-it-is, God knows that feeling. God has promised that when God feels like tearing open the heavens, that tearing open will not be a release of the destroying flood gates, but a tearing open of the heart. Like the tearing open of the heavens at Jesus’s baptism, a tearing that sends the spirit and names us Beloved children of God.

“Landscape with Rainbow” by Henley-on-Thames
(c. 1690)

The god of the cosmos, who has the power to destroy the whole earth with water, chooses to renew our lives with water instead. The God who made the earth and everything in it, has decided to go camping in the wilderness with our demons. God spends time with them, looking them straight in the face.

And God is not in a hurry. We’ve got 40 days. Now is the time for getting ready.

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