Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent – February 21, 2021
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
I think most of you, at one point or another, have heard the theme music from “Rocky.” Even if it has been years since you’ve heard it, it probably still evokes scenes from those movies in your mind’s eye. I think all the five or six “Rocky” movies have a workout montage before the big fight where Rocky is in the gym in Philly, or he’s running down the street with his trainer yelling at him from behind on a bicycle, or he’s lifting logs in Siberia before he fights that commie Ivan Drago. He’s sweating and he’s grimacing and he’s struggling. There are cutaway scenes where he is taunted by his opponents. And then there’s the most iconic scene of all – after he has gone through this time of testing, this time of struggle and preparation, he runs up those stairs overlooking the city and lifts up his arms in triumph. He is ready.
Whenever you hear the number forty mentioned in the Bible, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have that theme music from “Rocky” playing in your head. Again and again the number forty is associated with times of testing and trial and struggle for the people of God. Noah was on the ark for forty days and forty nights. The people of Israel were in the wilderness for forty years. Goliath, the Philistine giant and enemy of Israel, taunted the people of Israel for forty days. Moses spent forty days fasting on the mountain before receiving the Ten Commandments. Elijah spent forty days fasting on that same mountain before receiving instructions on how to lead the people of God. These were all times of testing and trial, times of struggling and suffering. They can be seen as spiritual training sessions to make them ready and fit and prepared for whatever God had in store next.
Well, cue the “Rocky” theme for our gospel reading for this morning, because there’s that number again! Jesus had just been baptized, and even before his hair was dry the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness for forty days. He was out there in the heat and the desolation and the dryness. He was out there with the wild animals – the jackals and the snakes, the lions and the leopards. He was out there being tempted by Satan. For forty days (cue the music!) Jesus endured testing and trial and struggle, with the holy angels of God ministering to him, riding their bikes alongside him, providing encouragement and support.
When the forty days was up, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. I like to picture him throwing his hands up in the air in triumph as he says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near!” Jesus was ready. He had sparred with Satan, and now was ready to enter into that ring in which he would defeat him once and for all.
As Jesus came out of the wilderness, he also issued a call to whomever would follow him: “Repent and believe in the good news,” he said.
We have just entered into our own forty-day season of spiritual training called Lent (cue the music!). It is a time in which we are called to the exercises of fasting and giving and prayer. It is a time of testing and struggle for us. But above all, it is a time to repent and believe in the good news.
To repent means to turn around. It means to change your direction. It means to change your mind. More specifically, it means to turn away from sin, to turn around on the self-centered path you’ve been walking and turn back to God. It means to confess your sin, to feel genuine contrition for it, genuine sorrow, genuine regret. We didn’t hear it this year, but one of the traditional readings for the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday comes from the prophet Joel, who tells us that the sacrifice God desires most is a contrite heart. This is part of our spiritual training not just during these forty days, but throughout our lives. As Martin Luther wrote in one of his Ninety-Five theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
But there’s more to repentance than this. Repentance also includes believing in the good news. It means to accept with trust the good news that in Jesus Christ the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near! It is to have faith that Jesus has ultimately defeated those sins we continue to spar with. He first overcame them in the wilderness and then he defeated them more definitively in his death and resurrection. And so even as we strive and spar and sweat, we do so knowing that ultimately Christ Jesus has already won the victory for us, and so we are already forgiven and loved and promised a place in his kingdom forever. As Luther says in the catechism, the greatest sins against God are doubt and despair, and so we are instead invited to believe in the good news, to trust it with all our hearts.
We are now in that forty-day season of striving and struggle and sparring against sin that is Lent, but the wilderness struggles we experience in life aren’t confined to this liturgical season we set aside in February and March. Like our Lord Jesus, we go right from our baptism straight into the wilderness of the world. We spend much of our lives in the wilderness, facing suffering and testing and hardship. It isn’t confined to a season. This has always been the way for Christians. We live under the sign of the cross.
Many of the earliest Christians would be baptized and then not too long afterwards they would be taken into the wilderness of the Roman arena to face wild beasts. They were literally thrown to the lions for the entertainment of pagans. The way they faced those challenges helped spread the Christian faith. They met those challenges with such faith and trust that onlookers had to take this Christ they worshipped more seriously. These early Christians could face that arena and those lions with faith and peace and hope because they knew that the Lord Jesus had already been in that wilderness. He had already been with those wild beasts. He had already overcome that challenge, and he promised to share his victory with them.
No matter what wilderness you might be in today, no matter what sins you are striving against, no matter what lions might be chewing on your leg, this is his promise to you too. He has already walked through every wilderness, every test, every struggle you face. And so you can raise your arms in triumph even now – not because you have conquered sin, death, and the devil, but because Christ Jesus has done it for you.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church