Wednesday, March 4, 2009

First Sunday in Lent (Series B: Mark 1:9-15)

“And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this first Sunday in Lent is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, Baptism forms the core and essence of our Christian life. It constructs a framework for the rest of our lives, it provides to us the gifts that sustain us every step of the way. For in those waters, God claimed you as His own, He came to you who could not come to Him. He saw you in your sinful state and acted to rescue you, even if you were only a few days old. We may not have been able to see it with our fallen eyes, but on that day what Jesus saw in our text for today happened again. “And when He came up out of the water, immediately He saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove.” Just think about it- the heavens were literally torn open in your Baptism, and there the Holy Spirit came to you, to work faith in your heart and forgive your sins. “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’” The Father spoke these words to Jesus at His Baptism, and He spoke them to you at your baptism. For the sake of His Son, who cleansed you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, God the Father now says to you, “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased!”

Baptism acts as an anchor, an assurance throughout our lives that God loves us and has claimed us as His own. We need this anchor and assurance because our lives conform to that of Christ. “The Spirit immediately drove Him out into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And He was there with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to Him.” Jesus was cast out from His Baptism, from the beautiful words of His Father, directly into the wilderness. The wilderness is a place of isolation, of danger, of hunger and thirst, it is a place where one feels completely and utterly alone. That is ironic, because Jesus had company in the wilderness- Satan himself came to do battle with our Lord, to use the isolation of the wilderness to make Jesus abandon the mission for which He became man.

Our lives dimly mirror that of Christ, and so we too were cast away from our Baptism and into the wilderness. We left the font, where God declared us His beloved child, where the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit worked faith in our hearts, and were literally flung into a world that has little use for God or His promises. The wilderness of this world is a place of danger, it is a place of evil, it is a place of temptation. “And He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.” Just as Satan used the wilderness to tempt our Lord, so he used the wilderness to tempt us. He wants us to feel isolated, alone and separated from God. That is ultimately His goal- to separate us from God, to tear us away from the one who claimed us in the waters of Baptism. He tempts us to separate us from others and then from God. You know how he does this. He uses your thoughts and actions to drive wedges between you and others. He wants to see you isolated, and He delights in seeing groups of people in disunity. Disunity in families, disunity in churches are his special projects. We have here at Zion a group of people working together to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and oh, how Satan works! He drives wedges between Church and School, between boards, between members on boards, between every member of this community. Every time that we point the finger and refer to ‘they’ we have given into his temptation, we have isolated ourselves from one another. And while Satan is the one tempting, we have no one to blame but ourselves, as James says in our Epistle lesson: “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” And that is the end of our isolation, of our disunity, that is all that we deserve.

But the wilderness is not only a place of isolation and temptation, it is also the place of redemption. At Zion I am teaching a class on the Minor Prophets. As we walk through these fascinating little books, it is amazing to see how often the prophets of God mention the Exodus. The bringing out of Israel from bondage in Egypt was truly the salvivic event in all of the Old Testament. There God acted with a mighty and outstretched arm to deliver His chosen people from slavery. He humbled Egypt and her gods, then destroyed Pharaoh’s army with the crushing weight of the Red Sea waters. God acted to save His people, and He acted with power and might. He then preserved His people on a forty year journey through the wilderness, a journey that pointed forward to Jesus. “The Spirit immediately drove Him into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.” Jesus triumphed over Satan during His forty day stay in the wilderness, just as God preserved His people during their forty year journey. But following Christ’s triumph, something amazing happened: “And He was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to Him.” For this Jesus was not simply a guy who God declared His Son at His Baptism, He was no mere man. But Jesus was true God and true man, God in the flesh come to His fallen creation to restore it. The wild animals recognized what sinful man refused to acknowledge- this man in the wilderness was more than a man, it was Yahweh Himself come to save! And He would save through a new Exodus. Isaiah describes this new Exodus in chapter forty three of his prophecy: “Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings forth chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: ‘Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.’” In Christ God is doing a ‘new thing,’ and the angels and wild beasts recognize it and fall down in worship.

We prayed earlier in the Collect: “You led Your ancient people through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide the people of Your Church that following our Savior we may walk through the wilderness of this world toward the glory of the world to come.” Christ has come to lead all of fallen humanity out of the wilderness of sin and into the promised land of heavenly glory. But He could only do this by submitting to the wilderness for us. Only by triumphing where the first Adam failed could He deliver us, and He did so in the desert at the very beginning of His ministry, setting the stage for the ultimate victory to come, a victory that would be accomplished by being bound. In our Old Testament lesson for today, Abraham is tested by God, who tells Him, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains.” The same God who would declare to Jesus that “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased,” first ordered Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son. Abraham dutifully obeyed, taking his son to the mountain and binding him for sacrifice. And you notice that Isaac did not protest, he did not struggle, but instead allowed himself to be bound. “Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here am I.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know you fear God.’” My friends, God stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son, but He did not halt the sacrifice of Christ. God did not withhold the knife, but instead poured all of His wrath upon His only begotten Son. He did this because Christ willingly and obediently bore all of the sins of the world to that cross. Your sin, my sin, our sin of falling into temptation, of isolating ourselves from God and dividing from others, each and every one of those sins were paid for on Calvary’s cross. Christ showed the same obedience that Isaac did, willingly taking this burden on and then shedding His blood for all people. And when the moment came God did what He prevented Abraham from doing. His Son was sacrificed for us all, because only by paying for our sins with His blood could Jesus defeat Satan, only then, in seeming defeat, could the lord of darkness be ultimately defeated. Jesus entered the wilderness to crush Satan, and He left with the victory.

And now, because of His shed blood and death, Jesus leads us through this wilderness of sin. Satan is defeated, but the dog still barks- he still threatens, he still attempts to isolate and divide people. We cannot fight Satan’s attempts to isolate and divide by simply ignoring differences or pretending they don’t matter, but by turning to His Word, the only sure defense and bond of unity we have. Just as Jesus taught us, we turn the Word of God against each and every one of Satan’s temptations. And this Word gives us confidence in God’s gracious protection and deliverance. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus shows us that we are not alone, but instead that He is beside us in every temptation, giving us the strength to stand up under it. Luther teaches us in the explanation to the sixth petition of that great prayer: “God tempts no one. We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. Although we are attacked by these things, we pray that we may finally overcome them and win the victory.” We win the victory when for the sake of Christ we are delivered from the wilderness of this world to eternal life with Him in the new heavens and new earth. May our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ bring us through this wilderness until by means of His shed blood we dwell with Him in eternal glory forever, Amen.

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