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Archive for January, 2021

Where are the angels?

Immediately after his baptism, the Holy Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness for a time of testing. God sent help. Where is the help that God sends us in challenging times like these?

A sermon on Mark 1:12-15 with allusions to 1 Peter 5:7-11

Photo Credit: “mister rogers display – pittsburgh airport”, © 2006 Greg DunlapFlickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Mark tells us that right after Jesus was baptized, right after he received God’s wonderful words of love and assurance, the Holy Spirit drove—not nudged, not urged—DROVE Jesus out into the wilderness to face the enemy, Satan.  The word Satan means adversary, the adversary and enemy of all that is good.  The Spirit immediately compelled Jesus to face the forces of evilhead on.

Matthew and Luke tell us about the conversations Jesus had with the enemy, and the logic Satan tried to use on Jesus in the wilderness in an attempt to turn him away from God’s plans.  But Mark simply gives us a vivid snapshot of the scene: wild beasts threatened Jesus, but angels helped him.

The early church that Mark wrote for knew what it was to feel threatened, to be menaced by destructive forces beyond their control.  It was not easy or safe to be a Christian.  Jesus’ followers fell victim to imprisonment, torture, and even execution for standing up for him.  

Around the time Mark wrote this gospel, the Roman emperor Nero blamed the Christians of Rome for a fire that destroyed much of the city, a fire that some historians suspect Nero set himself so that he could further his political agenda.  Christians suffered greatly because of the evil cohorts of Satan prowling around them like wild beasts.  Some were literally thrown to wild beasts in the arenas of Rome.

Sometimes the world looks like a wilderness full of dreadful beasts, big and small.  Yesterday I saw a photograph of tall fences that have been placed around the U.S. Capitol with razor wire on top for fear of what could happen this week.  It seems a symbol of the times.  All kinds of roaring rhetoric and beastly behavior leaves people broken and afraid and unable to trust one another.   What is all the violence, hatred, and selfishness of the world if it’s not a pack of wild beasts preying on God’s children, ripping the human family apart?  Sin is so terribly and demonstrably real!

Jesus contended with wild beasts in the wilderness and beyond.  Often he cried with pain and frustration, as when he looked out over the city of Jerusalem and lamented, “Oh, if only you knew the things that make for peace, but you can’t see it!”  As when Jesus sweat blood in the that last Thursday night, with horrible dread of the next day, longing for the cup of suffering to pass him by.  Jesus contended with the forces of evil all his life, until those forces nailed him to a cross.

But God was stronger than the beasts.  God sent angels to care for Jesus in the wilderness, just as God had cared for so many others in the wilderness over the centuries, not the least of which were God’s people in that wilderness space between Egypt and the Promised Land.  In the book of Genesis, father Abraham and mother Sarah threw their servant Hagar and her son Ishmael—also Abraham’s son—out into the wilderness where they faced almost certain death. But God spoke to Hagar through an angel, opening her eyes to find water to sustain them.

When the prophet Elijah was exhausted and in total despair in the wilderness, God sent an angel not once, but twice to urge him to eat and drink and take strength for his long journey to the mountain of God, where God renewed his call.

In the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon flew into a fit of rage when three of God’s faithful servants, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego refused to worship the golden statue made in the king’s image.  The king had them thrown into a furnace blazing seven times hotter than normal.  These servants of God were steadfast.  They had decided to stick with God whether they survived or not.  Witnesses reported seeing a fourth figure walking around in the fire with them.

When Daniel himself was thrown by another king’s order into a den of lions, he recounted afterwards how God’s angel shut the lions’ mouths.

The beastly forces of evil still have the power to frighten and to hurt and to kill.  But they are not stronger than God.  God’s love, God’s compassion, God’s providence, God’s justice and righteousness, and God’s resurrecting power are all stronger.  God sent angels to minister to Jesus in the wilderness, and some think the angels even fed him.  Some of the early Greek manuscripts of Luke report that an angel also came to give Jesus strength the night before he died.  In neither case, however, did the angels snatch Jesus away from the danger and magically make everything all right.  They stayed with him to help him.

Where are the angels now?  Where are the helpers in this wilderness?  As I was typing this yesterday my mind flashed back to one of my favorite quotes from Mister Rogers.  As a child when he heard about frightening things in the news, his mother would say to him: “‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood premiered on public television in 1968, another year that was tumultuous for our country.  The program was brand new when Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June, just weeks after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.  Mister Rogers didn’t shy away from talking about it with children.  He taped a segment where Daniel Tiger asks, “What does assassination mean?”  And Lady Aberlin gently explains.  Mister Rogers believed that children need to be listened to carefully at times like these, told the truth, with care of course, and reassured that the grownups who love them are with them.  Mister Rogers certainly conveyed the message of the angels to adults as well as children.

(I’m sorry to report that Mrs. Rogers, Joanne, died on Thursday, January 14.  She was 92.)

Where are the angels in this present wilderness?  Where is God’s help in the middle of the trouble?  So often God’s help comes in ordinary ways, in ordinary events, through ordinary people who are simply trying to do what is just and right and loving, even when that is so very hard, and even when others criticize them.  The cries of the hurting are being heard and heeded.  The hungry are being fed.  Wounds are being bandaged, and injustice is being corrected.

If we look for the helpers, we will find them in those God sends to support and comfort, or to challenge how we see things, or to show us a new avenue of help, a new way to hope that never occurred to us before.

We can look for the helpers, we can see them, and we can be them.  In fact, it is our privilege to do the work of angels, sharing God’s message of love, and tending to people with compassion, just as the angels cared for Jesus when he struggled.

We shouldn’t underestimate the power of small things, of small acts of reaching out.  This past Thursday the clergy group I’m in had a discussion on how to talk to people whose viewpoint is so very different from our own, from whom we feel so distant.  We know we can’t convince them to see things another way.  Someone made the point that we should not underestimate the power of small talk to open the possibility of connection, even talking about the weather, and about everyday aspects of life that we share as fellow human beings.  A little light is still light.

God sends help for people in the wilderness.  That’s why Peter urged the suffering early church, “Cast your cares upon him, for he cares for you.”

The beasts in the wilderness are horrible, and we shed many tears because of it.  But our God is stronger than any beast.  Wild beasts plagued Jesus, but God sent his angels to help.  Our God is stronger than death.  That is the promise of Easter.

Take heart, all you who are hurt, frightened, or bewildered.  Cast all your anxieties on him, for just as he cared for his Son, Jesus, in the wilderness, our God cares for you, powerfully, tenderly, all the time.  AMEN.

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