Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

Sermon by Mother Kathleen Liles

February 18, 2024: The First Sunday in Lent – Year B

Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9;

1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15


Whenever we recite the Litany of Penitence, I think, Well, welcome to Lent!

On the evening news – and in social media – we can hear a lot about all we struggle with as a society. But the petitions in the litany force us to think about particular ways we misbehave.

Some people might think of the litany as a call to arms. It reminds us that Lent has arrived and it is time to do some spiritual warfare. Maybe that image speaks to you and you are ready to engage in the battle. Or perhaps you are like me. I prefer to think of the litany as a reminder that company is coming.

For me, Lent is a time for a spiritual housecleaning before Easter arrives. Not unlike dusting, mopping and sweeping, it is not necessarily pleasant work, but it pays dividends. The exhortation for Ash Wednesday found in the Book of Common Prayer calls us to a time of self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial, and reading and meditating on God’s holy word. That sounds like a lot of work. Yet, contrary to expectation, this kind of work can result in refreshment and renewal.

Taking stock of our lives can get us back on track, help us find things we have misplaced, and assist us with setting priorities. Stopping for reflection helps us to see how we may have wandered off-course. Perhaps it even helps us remember moments of grace in our life that we had skimmed over – or overlooked entirely – because we were just so busy.

Lenten prayer and reflection can simply give us a chance to begin again, like a freshly cleaned house, with everything in order. This is important work, since God desires us to be renewed rather than overcome by guilt. God is not interested in us wallowing in guilt during Lent. Guilt is not edifying, and it is not what Lent is about. Rather, Lent is about drawing closer to God.

Scripture tells us of a God who desires to be known and loved, a God who goes to considerable lengths to renew promises to those who do wrong; to provide sustenance to those who turn away; and to comfort those who stray. Scripture tells us of a God who promises never to leave us as we are, a God who wants us to change, to develop, and to grow, maturing into those who can return love for love. You may have heard that kind of divine longing and fidelity in the story of Noah.

Following the flood – a divine house cleaning if there was one – God grieves and promises never again to turn his wrath against creation. He sets his bow, a symbol of war-making and vengeance, to rest in the clouds, as a reminder of his love and faithfulness.

We hear in Genesis:

When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.

I once heard a preacher suggest that we are trying God’s patience these days with our appalling behavior and that God must looking at a rainbow in order to be reminded of this promise. But the rainbow says God has infinite patience and life is a gift that is ordered and secured by a God who is faithful even when we are not. That is important to remember: God is faithful, even when we are not.

Early Christians reflected on this ancient story of the flood and eventually came to see it as a sign, not of God’s vengeance, but rather God’s gift of redemption.

In today’s epistle, Peter suggests the great flood prefigured God’s desire to save us as he had saved Noah. Water became the sign not of punishment, but of new life. Now we are to understand it is the water of baptism that cleanses us and draws us into a deeper covenant with our maker.

Water has a starring role in Mark’s gospel today as well, as we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan. Mark tells us that the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert to confront his own time of testing. We read,

…he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Wild beasts were as dangerous then as they are now, so in this story we see a hint of the redeemed creation. Where everybody is getting along – so different from our present world. As Woody Allen once famously said, The lion will lie down with the lamb, but lamb won’t get much sleep.

But scripture shows us God’s intention for us. In the waters of the Jordan, the Son of God is revealed as the one who will reverse the story of sinful humanity. In him, even in the wilderness – even in our sinful world – we may think once more of Eden when all creation lived in harmony.

And that is what we are meant to do in Lent – to realize that we can find peace even when life is hard, for we meet God in the struggle. We encounter hardships, it does not mean God is absent, God struggles with us.

This season of Lent invites us to pause and reflect on our faults and frailties rather than ignore them or pretend they are not there, in order to do a good house cleaning. Our disciplined reflection – through worship, prayer, and study – is meant to open our eyes to the ways we have wandered so that we can turn back to God, the source of our true life, the source of our hope, our light in the darkness, until we enter the fullness of his presence, where he lives and reigns, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.