Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

Text: Mark 1:9-13a
Not long afterward Jesus came from Nazareth in the province of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As soon as Jesus came up out of the water, he saw heaven opening and the Spirit coming down on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you."  At once the Spirit made him go into the desert, where he stayed forty days, being tempted by Satan.

Highs and lows

Have you ever watched the trees at the height of a severe storm? There are those that sway back and forth, bending under the force of wind. The wind howls through their branches shaking them so violently that you are sure that they will be ripped off at any moment. As you watch the tree tops being brutally beaten by the wind, you are quite certain that the tree will be wrecked - leaves stripped off; branches broken and lying on the ground. We fully expect that the whole tree might be ripped right out of the ground and tossed on its side. But somehow, the tree manages to withstand the pulling and jerking of the wind, and when the wind dies down the tree still stands straight and tall.

On the other hand, there are other trees of similar size whose thickest branches come crashing down under the strain of the wind. On one occasion, our family was caught in a storm on a country road and the trees in that particular area did not bend to the wind at all. They simply snapped off or were uprooted. We were never quite sure when the next tree would snap and fall across the road that we were travelling along.

I realize there are botanical explanations why trees respond differently to the wind. But they provide an excellent illustration of life itself and the nature of the Christian faith. All the trees experience the same bough-breaking wind. They are threatened with total destruction or at best to have all their leaves and branches stripped from them. But we notice that while some are destroyed, others come through the storm standing straight and tall with very little damage.

We might also apply this to people. All people face destructive storms and the possibility of being totally flattened is always a reality. But you may have noticed that some people, who experience the worst situations that life can throw at them, come through it all with amazing strength and confidence. Instead of the storm weakening them, shaking them to their very roots, they seem to get through it intact and standing tall and confident.

You come here to church Sunday after Sunday and you sing a few songs/hymns, hear some Bible readings, pray, go to Holy Communion, receive a blessing and go home. Why do you do that? Now only each one of us individually can answer that question.
Maybe your answer to that might be that you recognise what amazing things God has done for you and want to give him honour and praise.
Or maybe your answer will reflect your need to be equipped and strengthened for whatever is happening in your life at this moment.
Or it might be that you donít know why you are here, everything is going well in your life but you just needed to come. It turns out that it is during this hour here that you hear and experience God in such a way that will enable you to deal with a difficult situation or a tragedy unknown to you at the moment but will happen some time in the future.
Whatever your answer, you see a connection between the hour here at church with the rest of your week. I assume that your presence here means that you are taking God and his promises seriously.

But taking God seriously is no piece of cake. Sometimes we feel so inadequate. We let ourselves down so often, let alone disappointing God. Sometimes we really try to make a difference,
to be different,
to change,
but we find ourselves going down the same old paths.
Going through the motions each Sunday, thatís fairly easy, thatís somewhat painless, but letting God be part of each day and each moment that quite another things. In fact, itís really tough. It could well happen that while you are here worshipping you feel as if God has really given you the strength and confidence you need, but when it comes to going back out there and facing it all, then suddenly that strength and confidence vanishes.

This kind of experience is nothing new.

Recall how the disciples felt when they were with Jesus. They felt strong; they felt like there was nothing they couldnít do. They went out on a mission once and came back with glowing reports, "Guess what? We even cast out demons in Jesusí name. This is unbelievable".

Remember Peter in a boat with the disciples. There was a severe storm and the boat is tossed about by the waves. The disciples see Jesus coming towards them walking on the water. How does Peter feel? At first he is afraid, but then he feels strong, like nothing can stop him and he gets out of the boat and starts walking on the water towards Jesus Ė well, for a while at least.

Then comes the Easter weekend. Jesus is dead and his body lies in the tomb. And where are these brave disciples without Jesus? Theyíre very, very quiet. Days later, even after reports of the resurrection, the gospel writers report that they are afraid. They meet together behind locked doors. With Jesus they have so much courage, without him they are a bunch of wimps.

Before Jesus went back to heaven he promised them, "When I leave, I wonít leave you powerless, unequipped, alone. I will send my Spirit - the Comforter, the Helper, the Equipper, the Strong One, the one who brings you to God, who helps you to pray, who reveals the truth about God, who helps, guides and supports you in every aspect of your life. I am going back to heaven, but I will still be here with you through the Spirit". And after Pentecost we see those disciples once again brave, strong, empowered, and ready to make a difference in the world!

The Gospel reading includes Markís account of Jesusí baptism. Jesus is just about ready to step out and begin something new. He knows what has to be done. He knows that the future will be tough and the road ahead filled with hatred, mockery, pain and dying. He is baptised and the Spirit of God comes down on him accompanied by the reassuring voice of the Father, "You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you". If there were any doubts, any fears, any reticence to step out, uncertainty and anxiety, here at the River Jordan the Father affirms the Son and the Spirit rests on him.

That same Spirit is there for you
- to make you strong
- to give you courage
- to help you make a difference
- to change your attitude to the struggles you are facing,
- to give you faith in the God whose love for you never decreases .
Through the Spirit God says to you,
"Know to whom you belong. Youíre mine! Your baptism is proof of that!
If you are mine then Iím on your side. Iím for you.
When you face a difficult situation itís the two of us facing it together.
You can make a difference because Iím with you and if anyone can make a difference I can!"

This is not only applicable to us as individuals but it also applies to us as a church. Here in this church are a whole lot of people who have the Spirit of God and the affirmation of the Father.

Taking a Sunday School group or giving a Childrenís Talk in church, can be hard and you wonder if you are really getting through.
Leading or helping in Sonzone, or Junior Youth can lead you to ask, "Am I really making a difference in these young lives".
Being a parent can be frustrating and tiring and you question whether you really have what it takes to guide your teen through those difficult growing stages.
You call on someone who is sick, or grieving, or facing family turmoil wanting to make a difference in their lives and you come away puzzled saying to yourself, "I didnít say what I wanted to say. I donít think my visit made any difference to the way that person feels".
Whatever it is we take on in the church, Satan and our own sinfulness are always ready to put us down and to discourage us from keeping on doing what God wants us to do. It also happens that Satan sometimes enlists some of our fellow church members and cause us to question whether our use of our time and talents is really worth it and to devalue what we have been doing.

Itís not hard to become discouraged and disappointed but knowing God says, "You are mine. I love you! Iím with you!" and knowing his Spirit accompanies you Ė makes a heck of a difference.

Thereís another thing that we see in our Gospel reading today from Mark. Jesus receives this affirmation from God the Father and knows the Spirit rests on him, and the very next thing we see is that Spirit made him go into the desert where he stayed forty days, being tempted by Satan.

One moment Jesus is affirmed by the voice of God, feels the presence of the divine surround him as he is baptised, and the next moment he is thrown down into the darkest place where God seems to be absent and there are only questions, doubts and fears.

Have you ever had that experience? Have you ever had a mountain top experience where you feel so close to God, so strong and before you know it you are plunged into a valley which is just so opposite to what it was like before?

This can also happen in the life of a congregation. One minute we are travelling along really well, then a number of set backs and we begin to wonder if we are really making any difference in the life of our community.

Itís interesting to note that it is the Spirit who leads Jesus into the wilderness. There Jesus was tempted and tested by Satan. But was Jesus alone in this dark valley of temptation? No! It should hardly surprise us that the Spirit who lead Jesus into the wilderness was there with him during his times of temptation.
When things are hard for you,
when you canít see light at the end of the tunnel,
when things for us as a church are a struggle,
does God leave us to our own devices? Not on your life. He goes with us into the valley because he wants us to come out better equipped, stronger, even more courageous than before. He affirms and he tests because he wants to change something brittle, something easily bent, something fragile, into something strong and durable and usable in his own hands.

Itís true that sometimes we ask God to make us strong and help us and we want that to happen NOW. But Godís timing and ways are a little different to ours. He shapes and moulds and bends a little and tests, but he never leaves us to our own devices. Some of us have a harder testing than others, but one thing we know about God and that is that he is gracious, loving, wants the best for us.

Be certain that the Holy Spirit never deserts you Ė you might think he has Ė but the promise that Jesus gives is as solid as you can get, "Do not be worried and upset; do not be afraid. The Helper, the Holy Spirit will teach you everything."

If things are tough right now, learn from them. Ask God to teach you. Be open to that. And be sure of his presence with you. Jesus has promised it!

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
5th March, 2006

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