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A Canoe, a Motorboat and a Helicopter

THE HOLY GOSPEL OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST ACCORDING TO MARKIn 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." MARK 1:9-15

Sermon: The Rev. Dr. Maryann Amor

A storm descends on a small town, and the downpour soon turns into a flood. As the waters rise, the local preacher kneels in prayer on the church porch, surrounded by water. By and by, one of the townsfolk comes up the street in a canoe. "Better get in, Preacher. The waters are rising fast." "No," says the preacher. "I have faith in the Lord. He will save me." Still the waters rise. Now the preacher is up on the balcony, wringing his hands in supplication, when another guy zips up in a motorboat. "Come on, Preacher. We need to get you out of here. The levee's gonna break any minute." Once again, the preacher is unmoved. "I shall remain. The Lord will see me through." After a while the levee breaks, and the flood rushes over the church until only the steeple remains above water. The preacher is up there, clinging to the cross, when a helicopter descends out of the clouds, and a state trooper calls down to him through a megaphone. "Grab the ladder, Preacher. This is your last chance." Once again, the preacher insists the Lord will deliver him. And, predictably, he drowns. A pious man, the preacher goes to heaven. After a while he gets an interview with God, and he asks the Almighty, "Lord, I had unwavering faith in you. Why didn't you deliver me from that flood?" God shakes his head. "What did you want from me? I sent you two boats and a helicopter."

This is a well-known joke and what makes it funny is the preacher and his expectations of God. Clearly, he believes that God will save him in some awesome way…come down from the heavens in power and glory to pluck him to safety, probably lightening bolts, angels, fire, all kinds of amazing signs would be present. But in this joke, that is not how God works…instead God comes to the preacher through the ordinary people who try to save his life. The preacher’s expectations of God cause him to miss God’s saving help.

While this joke might not seem immediately relevant to today’s readings, it actually speaks to one of the messages in our Gospel. The reading from Mark is very short, all the author tells us about Jesus’ temptation in the desert, the focus of Lent 1, is: Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. You might think there is nothing much happening and we should probably look at the same temptation narratives in Matthew and Luke where we get more detail, where Satan speaks to Jesus and we hear of Jesus being tempted to turn a rock to bread or to jump off a high point in the city. But what Mark gives us, even in his brief description are two interesting points…Jesus was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him. And it is here that we find a connection to the preacher in the joke.

The description of wild beasts would have made a lot of sense for Jesus’ followers, living in the Roman world. For them, being Christian was extremely dangerous and difficult. They faced persecution, being viewed with suspicion, society thinking that because of the Eucharist, they were cannibals who drank human blood. When Christian families moved into a Roman community, people actually thought, “There goes this neighborhood!” So, the Christians were, in a sense, constantly surrounded by wild beasts in the form of Roman threat.

Applying this concept to our experiences today, one scholar writes, “Wild beasts run loose in our lives [too]. They even lurk within us. Illnesses and injuries can be every bit as frightening and life threatening as a tiger baring its teeth, as a lion lunging at its prey. Depression eats away people’s will to live. Cancer cells ravage the body. Pain gnaws on the body and the soul.” Like Jesus in the desert and the early Christians, we also face wild beasts, in the from of our own struggles and persecutions.

And as we, with Jesus and the early Christians face our beasts, the Gospel offers us an image of God’s response. Notice how Jesus is not miraculously saved from them beasts, but God sends angels to him to minister to him. God helps him by sending him creatures who address his needs.

Now as we apply this part of the Gospel to our lives, when we think of God saving us, sending angels to us, how do we envision it? Are we like that preacher in the joke expecting God to send miracles, and awesome acts?? If yes, we will find ourselves as the preacher did, facing God and asking, where were you when I needed you, only to have God shake his head and say to us "What did you want from me? I sent you two boats and a helicopter." Like the preacher, when the wild beasts surround us, it’s easy to get so focused on wanting one particular answer to our prayers that we can’t see God’s help when it comes.

So, our call is to avoid being like the preacher and to find those angels in our lives that help us face the wild beasts. Although we don’t know what angels ministered to the early Christians, they must have been there, because we are here today as proof of their ability to persevere through the wilderness. For us, God sends angels in the form of the people, the wonderful people who cross our paths, lend a hand, are just there when we need them…some of them are here with us right now, they are members of our families, our friends, some we haven’t even met yet, we don’t know their names, maybe they haven’t been born.

And this truth is at the heart of the message of Easter that is waiting for us on the other side of Lent. God is stronger than any wild beast that might threaten us, God sends angels to minister to us. No matter how dangerous and difficult our experiences are, whether the wild beasts take the form of Roman persecution, cancer cells, financial hardships, depression, injury…God sends angels. Can we see them? Are we expecting big and awesome?? Or can we see them coming to us in a canoe, a motorboat, and a helicopter?


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