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Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent – February 18, 2024

Mark 1:9-15

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

The wilderness isn’t always a physical place. It isn’t always a burning desert or some place way out in the woods.

Sometimes the wilderness is a medical diagnosis that changes everything and makes the weeks and months ahead look foreboding. Sometimes the wilderness is a struggling marriage that makes your home a challenging place to be rather than a place of comfort and refuge. Sometimes the wilderness is grief over the loss of a loved one, whose absence in your life aches like an amputated limb. Sometimes the wilderness is feeling lost and alone in the world, even when you’re surrounded by people. Sometimes the wilderness is a feeling of bewilderment (there’s a great word). Sometimes it is that feeling of confusion and anxiety and even despair when life feels overwhelming and out of control.

When Jesus entered the wilderness, he was facing more than the elements. For him, the wilderness was not only a physical place. It was a place where a spiritual battle took place. For forty days, Jesus was tempted by Satan. In the other gospels we get the details of what these temptations were: Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread. He was tempted to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple in order to prove that God would rescue him. He was tempted to take hold of all the kingdoms of the world if he would only bow down and worship the evil one. St. Mark, however, doesn’t get specific. Rather than three dramatic battles, Mark describes the temptations as a slow burn. For him, it is enough to say that “he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.” The wilderness wasn’t just a physical place with physical challenges. The wilderness was forty days of spiritual attack.

While it was the Spirit who drove Jesus into the wilderness, God did not leave Jesus out there alone to fend for himself. God equipped Jesus with resources for survival in this wilderness. First of all, when Jesus went out into the wilderness, his hair was still wet from his baptism! He still had God’s voice ringing in his ears, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” Jesus went into the wilderness with a promise. He went into the wilderness with an identity that helped him endure that season of spiritual attack. God also provided him with angels to wait on him in the wilderness. God provides these same resources for wilderness survival to us.

Today is not only the first Sunday in Lent. It is also the commemoration day for Martin Luther, who died on this date, February 18, in 1546. One of the more exciting episodes in Luther’s life was when he was kidnapped by his own prince and taken into protective custody at the Wartburg Castle. He had just been declared an outlaw by the emperor after refusing to recant his teachings at the Diet of Worms. There was a warrant out for his arrest, and a death sentence was a very real possibility if he were to be captured. So, his sympathetic prince kidnapped him and hid him away in the Wartburg Castle.

Luther spent 10 months in protective custody. He used the time productively, translating the Bible into common German, but it was also for Luther a time in the wilderness. It was a season of spiritual attack. He was isolated and alone. His future was uncertain at best. His very life was in danger. Luther began to experience spiritual despair, which he attributed to the devil. He described the evil one as being like a fly buzzing around his head as he tried to do his work, distracting him by tempting him to give in to his fears. At one point, Luther famously threw an ink well at the devil, leaving a stain on the wall that you can still see today.

The way Luther defended himself against these attacks is instructive. He would remind himself over and over again, “I am baptized. I am baptized.” This reminder strengthened him. He used it to shoo the devil away. God gave Luther a promise and an identity which helped him survive in the wilderness. Remembering that he was baptized helped him withstand these temptations to despair.

This is the power of baptism. This is what Peter writes in our epistle reading for today. Just as God used water to save Noah and his family, God uses water to save us. “Baptism now saves you,” Peter writes. Peter describes part of the power of baptism as being “an appeal to God for a good conscience.” It helps put our mind at ease. It is a comfort to us. We too have heard the Father speak to us, saying “You are my son, you are my daughter, my beloved,” and so we too can call on this promise for a good conscience whenever we find ourselves in the wilderness. We too can claim this identity for strength and peace of mind whenever we find ourselves under spiritual attack.

For a long time I didn’t know the date of my baptism. My home congregation gave me a quilt when I was ordained there, and one of the panels has a picture of the church with a line for my birthdate and a line for my baptism date. My birthday was there, but the baptism date line was blank. The church couldn’t find it in their records. My parents weren’t sure. My mom couldn’t find the baptism certificate. I never doubted that I was baptized, but around the time my own kids were baptized and we started celebrating their baptism anniversaries, it bothered me more and more that I didn’t know.

One day, back when we lived in southwestern Washington, I went out to the mailbox and there was a manila envelope. It was addressed to me. The return address was from my mom, who was living in Arizona at the time. I took it into the parsonage and opened it up, and inside was my baptism certificate. A picture of me with my mom and dad beside the font was paperclipped to the side. There was the date, July 18, 1971 – exactly two months after I was born.

This came in the midst of an awful week. I can’t even remember the details, but I remember being super anxious about things that were happening in my congregation at the time. I remember there were stressful things going on in my personal life. And here, out of the blue, came my baptism certificate. I remember standing over my kitchen table, looking at it and weeping. It wasn’t just that now I had the proof, like I wasn’t going to be saved without the paperwork in hand. It wasn’t just the picture, which meant so much to have. It wasn’t just that now, at last, I knew the date and could fill in that blank on my quilt. It was that at that moment I was reassured that I belonged to God. I was – I am – baptized. I have a promise and an identity that was bigger than the evil one who had been buzzing around my head.

Being reminded of our baptism is a powerful resource for surviving in the wilderness. When the evil one is flying around your head, you too can shoo him away by repeating to yourself, “I am baptized! I am baptized!” You can remember who and whose you are. You can remember that God has claimed you and made you his own, that you are his forgiven, beloved child.

Sometimes these resources for wilderness survival come through baptism. Other times they come through people. You see, God sends angels to wait on us too. God sends angels to help strengthen us in the wilderness. In fact, I saw one here just this last Sunday.

One of our members had major surgery to treat breast cancer this week. Last Sunday I watched as one of our other members, who had been through the same surgery herself years ago, went up to her. I couldn’t hear what was said, and it would have been rude to eavesdrop anyway, but I watched from across the narthex as they held each other’s hands. Their eyes were locked in on each other. It looked like the one was putting her strength into the other. There was some nodding and some tears and a hug. And our member with breast cancer walked away standing taller. I mean, she was visibly strengthened by the exchange.

For all the problems and frustrations of church life – and there are many – here is something beautiful about our life together in the church. There are these angel appearances we get to witness, or be part of ourselves – whether we’re on the giving end or the receiving end. This is just one particularly beautiful example. We also have angels ministering to people in the wilderness of addiction through the three addiction recovery groups we host here at OHLC. We have an angel in Pastor Laurie as she ministers to people in the wilderness of grief. We have angels ministering under the banner of Stephen Ministry. We have people who just informally find each other in our congregation and end up ministering to each other in various ways. God continues to send angels as we care for each other when one of us is in the wilderness.

Like our Lord Jesus, after we are baptized – whenever that happens in our lives – we are thrust out into the world and its wildernesses. As soon as the Word is spoken over us, the temptations begin. The evil one starts buzzing around our heads, trying to distract us, trying to get us to give in to our fears, trying to lure us into despair.

But God does not leave us to fend for ourselves. God gives us powerful resources for surviving in the wilderness. In Holy Baptism God has given us a promise we can use to shoo the devil away. God has given us an identity to call on and hold fast to. God sends angels to minister to us, to help us to be strong. Best of all, God sends us his Beloved Son, who meets us in the wilderness to assure us that he has already been there himself, and so we are never alone.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church