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The First Sunday in Lent
February 22, 2015
The Gospel: Mark 1:9-15
Sermon: "Survival Gear"
The Very Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
You might not guess this to look at me, but back in the day, I was a bicycle racer. At my peak, I trained and rode with the Princeton University Cycling team. I didn’t get to compete much by that point anymore though, because I was in the Seminary and nearly all of the races were on Sunday mornings. Now, I could get really cycle geeky here and tell you all about my amazing super bike with its “Campy Grupo”, Eisentraut frame, and silk sew-ups, but only about three of you that I know of would appreciate that. But as good as my equipment was, there was one critical piece of gear that left a lot to be desired. It was my helmet. Actually, it was everybody’s helmets at the time. We all rode with leather helmets. Those helmets would protect you if your head glanced the pavement or the track, but a catastrophic head collision with the ground was nearly always fatal. We all rode with that awareness, and would jokingly refer to our helmets as hairnets and brain buckets; something that would at least keep the broken pieces of our skulls together. Such deaths as occurred with these helmets were considered as an inevitable consequence of the sport. That is, it was considered inevitable, until a cycle crash occurred in which my sister, Barbara, was involved.
Competitive as I was, Barbara was way beyond my league. She was one of 30 women chosen by the Cycling Federation and the American Olympic Committee to train to compete in the Olympics. Ranked in the top five of women nationally, Bell Laboratories approached her one day with a revolutionary helmet design for her to test for them. It was a hard-shell helmet; the very first successful one of its type.
One day, as she was overtaking her competitors in the final dash to the finish line, another cyclist went down in Barbara’s direct path. The crash was unavoidable, and the consequence was the worst possible. As Olympic and Cycling Federation officials looked on, Barbara was thrown from her bike. The spectators at the finish line gasped in horror as she came down directly on the top of her head, not just once, but twice, bouncing and skidding on the top of her helmet until she at last lay sprawled and motionless on the course. Officials and medical personnel dashed to her aid, all the time knowing that it would be to no avail; knowing from experience that they had just witnessed one of those inevitable consequences of the sport. Then, after just a few moments, the spectators and officials alike gasped again, as Barbara was brought to her feet and led walking to the medical tent; having escaped certain death with only a minor concussion. The right gear had saved my sister’s life.
Word spread like wildfire of that accident and its outcome. Within three months, Bell Labs was in full production of its new helmet, so great was the demand. By the end of that year the Cycling Federation was strongly encouraging riders to use one, or one its many new competitors, and eventually came to require them for all riders in every sanctioned meet. Today, we would hardly think of sending someone out on a bike or any other sport without a hardshell helmet. We know that the right gear means survival.
The right gear means survival in our spiritual lives too. In our reading from the Gospel According to Mark this morning, we see Jesus go into the wilderness after his baptism. While there, we see him confronted by what could mean his own inevitable consequence: the destruction of his ministry and life by a collision with temptation. But Jesus carries his own survival gear into this wilderness. It will make all the difference for his life. As we are beginning this season of Lent, with its focus on the recommitting to our own spiritual walks, it would be good for us to have the same survival gear on us as we go forward.
The first piece of Jesus’ survival gear is this: The love of God the Father. As our passage opens, we find Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River by his cousin, John. A voice from heaven breaks through the sound of the rushing water and the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove. “You are my son, the Beloved,” says the voice; “with you I am well pleased” (v. 11).
God, the Father, is the one who gives Jesus his identity, marking him as someone special, someone who has God’s favor. In a very real sense, Jesus begins his ministry equipped and protected with nothing less than the full love of a divine parent. A child who knows that he or she is loved is more likely to take care of himself or herself because their parents have freely and generously expressed their love for them; they know they are valued and therefore, their life has value. They’ll put on that helmet at the parents’ request before jumping on the bike or skis or skateboard because they know that their parents have their best interests and safety at heart. Jesus goes forth into the wilderness with similar knowledge; empowered with the knowledge that he is beloved of God.
As we go out into a world fraught with temptations and potential pitfalls, our first line of defense is to know that God loves us, too; that we are “beloved” because of God’s grace. That knowledge and experience, forged through the day to day relationship we walk in with God, are better predictors of heart, mind and soul protection than any high tech headwear. When we know that God cares for us, we can move take on and survive the hurts and calamities that life throws at us. The love of God is Jesus’ and our first piece of survival gear.
Here’s the other piece of survival gear that Jesus carries: The Protective Power of God’s Word. Mark doesn’t expound much on the temptations that Jesus faced out in the wilderness, but Matthew and Luke do. Foundationally fitted with God’s love, and carrying a full knowledge of Scripture, Jesus is able to effectively protect himself against the temptations that would have destroyed him.
First, Temptation says, “Satisfy your hunger and turn these stones to bread.” Instead, Jesus recalls and declares that everything comes from God and that God will provide all that is needful.
At the pinnacle of the temple Temptation says, “Jump off, and land unharmed. If you’re so great, God’ll protect you.” Again, Jesus stops Temptation in its tracks with the Scriptural knowledge that people who have real power don’t need to show it off, and furthermore are not to use it to suit their own ends.
Then Temptation brings out the big one. “All the kingdoms of the world can be yours, if only you’ll worship me.” But Jesus, pulling from his treasure-trove of studied Scripture, knows that the only life worth living is the one lived with humility, and the only One worth serving is the one and only God.
Knowing the Scriptures is a vital piece of survival gear for you and me too. You all know that I’m an advocate of memorizing key verses of Scripture. Let me be clear though. We are not to memorize Bible passages so as to beat up on other people with quick one-liners used as proof texts. Rather, the purpose of memorizing Bible verses is so that its message and direction is already immediately available within us in that sudden moment when the need for that message and direction is upon us; that moment when a catastrophic collision is about to happen; that moment when Temptation dares us to step off the pathway of Christ.
So, since we’re talking about Temptation specifically, here’s a verse that can be a very helpful part of our survival gear. It’s I Corinthians 10: 13. “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” OK, it’s obvious from the archaic language that I memorized that a lot of years ago. But it sounds just as good or even better actually in a newer translation. So I urge you to look it up and read it there. That’s I Corinthians 10:13. But don’t then leave it there; memorize it so that you can take it with you; so that it will be in you in time of need.
Knowing who he was, what he was about, and what he had to do to accomplish his mission kept Jesus’ mind guarded and heart protected, not only in this wilderness temptation, but throughout his ministry and, ultimately, on the cross where Temptation would again dare him to “come down” and do what others thought a messiah was supposed to do. The protective power of Scripture is Jesus’ and our second piece of survival gear.
Knowing God’s love for us, and carrying our Scriptures in us; that is our survival gear as it was Jesus’. Follow Jesus’ example in using them. That is the best way to be spiritually protected as we walk Christ’s path of life.