Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

Text: Genesis 9:8-17, 1 Peter 3:20b-22, Mark 1:9-15

His presence in the darkest times

We don’t hear about this in our media very often, but persecution of Christians is still very much a fact in more than 50 countries around the world.  From verbal harassment to hostile feelings, attitudes and actions, Christians in areas with severe religious restrictions pay a heavy price for their faith.  Beatings, physical torture, confinement, isolation, rape, severe punishment, imprisonment, slavery, discrimination in education and employment, and even death are just a few examples of the persecution experienced every day. 

It is estimated that somewhere around the world every month 255 Christians are killed, 104 abducted, 160 are detained and imprisoned without trial and 180 women are raped, sexually harassed or forced into marriage.  In some places Christians are considered insane because they abandon the state religion and so are institutionalised.  However, despite the torture, imprisonment and killing, the underground church, that is Christians meeting for worship, Bible study and prayer secretly, is growing at an amazing rate in many places.

This morning as we jumped into our cars, not dressed for the beach or for a picnic in the hills, not with beach gear, eskys or folding chairs but in our Sunday best, there might have been a neighbour who thought we’re a bit weird, but we don’t have the authorities knocking down our door to drag us away to never be heard of again.

I’m mentioning all this because following God’s will, being a member of the Kingdom of God, being a disciple of Christ, is never an easy thing.  Anyone who says that being a Christian is a walk in the park doesn’t have a grasp of the full meaning of how much God’s ways and the ways of the world and even of our own selfish natures so often clash.

It doesn’t happen very often but today there is a common thread that runs through all three readings.  In short, God promises to stand by those he loves.

The reading from the Old Testament tells us of a time when God’s plan for the world was totally forgotten and violence and evil controlled every human heart except for one man and his family.  God decided to act in judgement on the corruption of humanity.

However, God stood by that one man, Noah, and his family, and brought them through the evil and wicked times in which they lived and then a catastrophic flood.  After the flood, God comes down to Noah and does something unusual.  He joins himself in a relationship with humanity and so becomes interconnected with the hope and disappointment, joy and grief that is part of any relationship. 

In some ways it’s like a husband and wife who are bound together in a commitment of love.  When one is happy, they both share the happiness.  When one is distressed both share the unhappiness, when one is upset, the other is affected.  Wherever there is love, the load is shared. And now when God binds himself to humanity, God feels what humanity feels.  God promises his everlasting commitment of faithfulness and love and he shares our human load.  He puts a rainbow in the sky as a sign of his reminder to all of this commitment of love.

We know that this relationship, this bond of love between God and humanity led to God’s own Son giving himself to weakness and vulnerability as he became one of us and died as one of us.  As part of the special bond, or covenant if you like, between God and his people, Jesus shares our sorry, sin, guilt, and shame and as our brother dies in our place for us.  God began this journey with humanity centuries ago, it includes us and God will not give up, as Peter says, until he “calls you to share his eternal glory in union with Christ” (1 Peter 5:10).

In the gospel reading today Jesus is about to start his ministry – a ministry that will bring hardship, suffering, cruelty, misunderstanding, mockery, pain, and a cruel death on a cross.  From the moment of his baptism, the next three years will be hell on earth for Jesus.  As tough as the going will be, Jesus has the reassurance and the promise that he will not be doing this alone.  His Father will share the load.  The voice of his loving Father speaks encouragement from heaven, “Son, I love you very much.  You are my own and you make me so happy. I will never leave” (paraphrase).  

So we come to the First Letter of Peter.  The letter is written to Christians who are enduring all kinds of persecution and suffering because of their faith in Christ. The writer refers to both Noah and Jesus.  Throughout the letter he especially refers to the suffering of Christ and urges them to have the same resolve to endure all things like Jesus did and live Christ-like lives.  If they become disheartened when everything is becoming too hard and being a disciple becomes difficult or they become tired of the insults and threats, or they give into temptation, the writer says, “Remember how much you are loved”. “Christ carried our sins in his body to the cross, so that we might be rid of our sin and free to live God’s way” (1 Peter 2:24).  This is our faith, our hope – Jesus is not a fly-by-night friend, a good-time-friend only. He promises to stick by those he loves whatever happens.  He promises to share the load.  Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28).

Later in this First Letter of Peter we read, “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7). Be confident, when you are at your lowest, most depressed, thoroughly harassed and helpless, when you hardly feel worthy of the love of Jesus, because that’s just when he cares for you the deepest.  As someone who is bound to you in a special relationship, he knows what is going on in your life and how battered you are feeling.  Be strong in the knowledge that as bad as things are, we are not in this alone.  We said it in the psalm earlier in the service this morning, “In you, my God, I trust, … I look to the Lord for help at all times, and he rescues me from danger.” (Psalm 25:2a, 15).

In the end, First Peter underscores the importance of our baptism. In the ordinary water of our baptism, God covenants himself to each of us in a personal way.  He joins us in our life. He embraces us. He encounters us in the very ordinary matters of every day – the struggles, the boredom, the questioning, the pain, the grief, the torments, the doubting and the temptations.  That’s where he meets us.  Down in the darkest valleys where we wouldn’t expect to find him – that’s where he is ready to embrace us and remind us that he is our loving brother and shepherd.

Just as the heavenly Father met Jesus in the undignified muddy waters of the Jordan saying, “Son, I love you very much.  You are my own and you make me so happy. I will never leave you”, in the same way, our heavenly Father meets us in the muck and mire we find ourselves in and says to us, “My child, I love you very much.  You are my own and you make me so happy. I will never leave you”.

Friends, this is where our Christian faith, our trust and hope in God our Saviour really comes into its own.  Yes, we might have those moments when we experience the closeness of God, our faith and trust in God is soaring, our courage is such we could wrestle a lion.  No doubt you’ve had those times just as I have, but those moments are dwarfed by the number of times we have been down in the valleys where we have struggled against temptation, doubt, physical pain, emotional upsets, questioned God’s plan for our lives.  It’s just then we don’t ‘feel’ God is near.  The experience of God’s closeness that we once had, seems a distant memory, if we remember it at all.

But the truth is that no matter what is going on, God has covenanted himself to us and promised himself to us through the life, death and resurrection of his Son.  He is not going to let go of us that easily.  We might think he has left us in the lurch, but because of what Jesus has done for you, you are God’s, he has given you a new life which will last forever.  He wants you to enjoy that eternal life and he won’t let you go now.  He will refresh and strengthen you.  He is the “Shepherd and Keeper of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25).

C.S. Lewis wrote a little book after his wife’s death exposing the raw edges of grief and asking, “Where is God?”  He goes on to say that it’s easy to find God when we’re happy; we readily turn to him with praise and gratitude when we feel welcomed into his open arms.  He goes on, “But go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find?  A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside.  After the silence.  You may as well turn away.  The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become” (A Grief Observed).  Remember this man is looking for God through the bitter tears of grief, and he can’t see God’s closeness.  Lewis is not alone in these kinds of situations. Moses, Gideon, Joseph in the Old Testament, Jonah, David, and writers of the Psalms, even Jesus felt this distance from God in their time of greatest need.  Maybe you’ve been confused by God’s lack of action in your life.

However, when we don’t feel God’s presence and he seems so far from what is happening at this very moment, it is just then God is close to us and our pain. 
God is always our loving Father and never abandons us. 
Jesus gave his life for us and will not give up on us now. 
The Holy Spirit always reminds us of God’s constant faithfulness and love even if at times our circumstances and feelings drown out what the Spirit is saying to us.

We have now entered the season of Lent and this is a great time to reflect on the unique relationship between our God and us. 
Consider what it is that prevents you from trusting the love of God;
trusting the commitment he made to you at your baptism,
believing those promises he has made to you – promises like, “Come to me when you are weary and worn down and I will renew you and strengthen you” (Matthew 11:28 (paraphrase).
Maybe it’s time to repent of our failure to live in the hope and strength of the new life that has been given to us and,
rejoice in the love and grace of God that will stand by us all during this life.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy

18th February 2018

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