Water, Water Everywhere (Even in the Desert)

Sermon delivered on Lent 1B, Sunday, February 22, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you would prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 9.8-17; Psalm 25.1-9; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

On Ash Wednesday you recall that I urged us to believe the gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, instead of believing in good advice as sadly many Christians do. News, you recall, is about something that has happened and as a result everything changes, either for good or ill. We saw that in the case of the gospel, the Good News is that God has returned to his good but sin-corrupted world to defeat evil, sin, and death on the cross and usher in the beginning of God’s promised new world with the resurrection of Jesus. As a result, we no longer have to live in fear or worry that God has abandoned us. And so this morning I want to continue to work out this theme of why the Good News of Jesus is so critical for us as Christians as we enter this season of Lent (and beyond). Specifically, I want us to examine this theme through the lens of our lessons this morning to see how they can further instruct us.

The first thing we notice in our readings is the presence of mysterious and unseen dark powers and forces actively at work in God’s world to corrupt it and God’s creatures. We don’t like to talk about this dimension of reality much these days because we are afraid that we will be labeled as some kind of weirdo losers who are ignorant or “prescientific” or superstitious or worse. After all, we really have no way to directly observe or measure these forces other than what our bones tell us and so we’ve been told to discount them. But we shouldn’t because as our readings warn us, they are real and they are often the real power behind the human agents of evil. Peter talks about Jesus making proclamation to the spirits in prison. Who are those spirits and where is this prison? More about that in a moment. Mark talks about the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days where he is tempted by Satan himself, with the wilderness, of course, being a common biblical metaphor to describe all that is desolate and evil and threatening to God’s people (think Exodus). And while the writer of Genesis does not mention the dark powers and principalities explicitly, the context of the story of God making a covenant with Noah and his descendants certainly does. The whole reason God brought a flood to destroy the inhabitants of earth in the first place is because of the increasingly wicked behavior of his image-bearing creatures as outlined in Genesis 4.1-6.8 as well as the mysterious wicked angels we read about in Genesis 6.2ff who took human wives for themselves and mated with them. All this helped corrupt God’s good world and its creatures so badly that God looked at the evil humans had done to his world and was grieved to his heart that he had made his image-bearing creatures in the first place, probably the most terrifying statement in all Scripture.

All this should make us stop during this Lenten season and reflect soberly on evil. When we dismiss the reality of the dark powers in our world and their influence on us, it makes it much easier for those powers to operate in God’s world to corrupt and sicken us, and to use us as their unwitting agents to commit evil. This, combined with the innate human wickedness that led to the flood, should remind us that our own sin and rebellion also help to corrupt and defile God’s good world as well as ourselves. As I have said before, every time we sin it makes us sick.

So far there’s not much Good News to be had here. It’s news all right, but not of the good kind. And we get that. We look at the world around us with its wondrous beauty and see all kinds of evil being perpetrated. We look at our own bodies as we grow older and more infirm and realize that growing old isn’t for the faint of heart. We know in our bones that things should not be this way but we also know that we do not have it in our own power to fix it.

Having been confronted about the reality of evil, the corrupt nature of the human heart, and the effect each has on God’s good world (and us), we are now ready to look at the Good News found in our lessons this morning. We see it first in Genesis. While God regretted that he had created humans, the good news is that he did not destroy our race entirely and in our OT lesson we see God graciously making a covenant with Noah to never again judge the world with a flood. Despite human wickedness and rebellion against him, despite being grieved to his heart over us, God remained faithful to his creation and the human creatures he made to rule over his good world. Notice too that in making the covenant with Noah, God did not require anything from humans. The promise stemmed from the very heart and love of God. Think carefully about this amazing love and faithfulness of God during the 40 days of Lent. It will do your heart good.

The psalmist also recognized the wondrous love of God for his sinful and rebellious creatures. In our lesson this morning from one of my favorite psalms, David almost desperately relies on the love, mercy, and faithfulness of God to forgive his sins and rebellion against God so that David could find healing and hope and freedom to live as a truly human being. The good news is that God acts decisively in David’s life (and ours) to make known his love for and forgiveness of David (and us) so that David’s life (and ours) will be changed forever.

And in Mark we see the Lord himself announcing the Good News that the time to repent had come because the kingdom of God was breaking into the midst of God’s people Israel to free them (and ultimately the entire world) from their captivity to sin and evil. And as all the gospels make clear, Jesus showed what happens when the kingdom of God breaks in on earth as in heaven. People are healed of all kinds of illness and released from all kinds of slavery. Relationships are healed and restored. Forgiveness is offered to one and all who have the good sense to accept it. The dead are raised and justice is restored. This is what happens when the kingdom of God breaks through to confront the evil and sin that corrupt and destroy us. This is why believing must always accompany repentance. If we don’t really believe that in Jesus God has broken the power of evil decisively, freed us from our slavery to sin and death, and ushered in the beginning of his new creation, there is little reason for us to change our lives and pattern them after Jesus with his cross and suffering, which both our Lord and Peter call us to do.

But of course the ultimate victory over evil, sin, and death was accomplished with Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was on the cross that Jesus, the very embodiment of God, allowed all the forces of evil, both spiritual and human, to do their worst to him. And when they did, an astonishing thing happened. It wasn’t Jesus who was defeated. It was the powers who found themselves defeated because they no longer had any real power over us. In Jesus’ death, our sin and the evil behind it was also condemned so that God would not have to condemn us. And in Jesus’ resurrection, the power of death, the ultimate enemy, was broken and will be fully destroyed when our Lord comes again to finish his rescue operation of us and his world (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.20-26). This was the proclamation Jesus made to the spirits in prison that Peter talks about in our epistle lesson. They are the dark powers behind all the evil that corrupts our world. And after his resurrection, Jesus made the definitive announcement to them that by his death they had been judged and their power broken (thus their imprisonment), thanks be to God! He could do this because as Peter reminds us, Jesus is now Lord of all.

To believe this, of course, takes great faith on our part because while the powers are defeated they are not yet vanquished. But that is part of what it means to grow up as Christians. We must first learn to develop eyes to see as best we can the reality of heaven and earth, much the way Jesus saw the heavenly reality open up to him at his baptism, and then have the faith to access this power in and through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Think about it. Jesus’ didn’t run from the wilderness. In fact, the Spirit drove him into it where he was desperately tempted. But Jesus didn’t face his temptations alone. He did so in the power of the Spirit and because he knew he had the help of angels to assist him in his fight against Satan. None of this made Jesus’ struggle with Satan any easier. But it gave him the power he needed to prevail. God grant us the grace and mercy to avail ourselves of this same help as we confront the evil in our world and ourselves with eyes wide open, and focus this Lenten season on putting to death the body of sin that weighs us down and keeps us from enjoying God’s peace and reconciliation that is ours in and through the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ shed for us.

This repentance and turning from our ways to God’s can be tricky business and it involves us dying. This is hard to do and we will possibly face scorn and ridicule from others when they see us turning away from our old self and turning toward Christ. But we can take heart because Jesus has overcome the forces that hate us and want to destroy us, and he is now Lord of the cosmos to help us in our struggle against evil. Suffering is indeed hard and nobody likes it. But the whole point of our epistle lesson is that it is better to suffer for doing good than for doing bad. You won’t believe this one second if you don’t believe in the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But if you do, well that’s an entirely different story!

And if we really do believe the Good News that Scripture proclaims but wonder just how God can possibly love us and want to include us in his kingdom to the point where we begin to lose heart, let us pay attention to Mark’s and Peter’s focus on baptism. By the waters of baptism we are brought into God’s family and made Jesus’ people. So listen closely to the voice Jesus heard at his baptism because what God said to Jesus he says to us, precisely because we are Jesus’ people: You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased. Let that really sink in. Believe it. Rejoice in it because strictly on our own merit none of us would ever hear God say he is well pleased with us. But we are not our own. We are the Lord’s. And because we are, this is our present status and future hope. This is why we must embrace the Good News—because it is a life-changer when we finally believe it. Our faith and trust in Christ opens us to the power and presence of the Spirit so that we truly can live as people of power, even when we are weak.

Whatever it is you need to turn away from or confront this Lent, whatever it is you are working on, remember God’s words to you as you do. You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased. Let God’s love for you made manifest in Jesus and the Spirit strengthen you and encourage you as you do the hard work of dying to yourself. Yes, the work is hard. But the reward is so much more fantastic. God’s kingdom has come, ushered in by God himself in Jesus Christ. Evil and sin are defeated, even if they are not yet fully banished. Jesus is with us now in the Spirit to help and guide us, and life, wholeness, healing, health, and happiness are our future, all because of God’s great love for us made known in Jesus our Lord. That, folks, is Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.