First Sunday in Lent

Pastor Anke Deibler

  • Genesis 9:8-17
  • Psalm 25:1-10
  • 1 Peter 3:18-22
  • Mark 1:9-15

Grace be to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

My oldest child has always been afflicted by anxiety. Many different things could spike her anxiety: an unknown situation, a new challenge, a big trip, a large assignment. She would freeze, get red in the face and all over her neck and throat, and retreat.

Last Sunday at our other church,  I met with a family with two teenaged sons. The older son, about 13, also suffers from great anxiety. His mother described his struggle this way:

“He will be in class and there will be a test. He is told he has 20 minutes to finish the test. And he panics. He has this voice in his head telling him, ‘You can’t do this; you’ll never get it done in 20 minutes; this is terrible; you’ll fail.’ This voice drowns out all other voices, and before you know it, 5 minutes have passed and he hasn’t done a thing, and now he really panics.”

Anxiety freezes people, strangles them, literally takes their breath away.

Unfortunately, anxiety has this effect not just in the moment. It has lingering effects. For example, my eldest child is so socially anxious that building relationships is really, really hard. She moved to Baltimore last summer after college and began working at the Baltimore Zoo. Now, she has a magna cum laude degree in English and creative writing. She is extremely talented in anything writing related. But her job search made her so anxious that she grabbed on to the first job that came along. She is working for minimum wage in customer services. Customer services is not a good position for someone with social anxiety. The other day I asked her how many people come to the zoo in winter, and she said: “Too many!”

Her anxiety is strangling her gifts and talents. It is keeping her from finding joy and fulfillment in her work. It is keeping the world from benefitting from her skills.

Moving to Baltimore meant she needed to find a new circle of friends. That is a huge challenge for her. It was hard for her in school when she was surrounded by peers. Now it is even harder because she does not have that built-in environment of young people.

I tried to connect her with the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, which uses our other church for their concerts. In Pennsylvania, our child was part of a rock school and loved it. So it seems a natural fit for her. She went three times. Then her anxiety kicked in. “Oh, I am not sure they like me. I am not sure I belong.” Those negative voices took over and she stopped going.

The result was that on New Year’s Eve, she was sitting all alone in the apartment. My other two daughters had two and three parties to go to. My eldest sat there by herself, feeling depressed and very sorry for herself.

Anxiety. It strangles us in so many ways: in terms of our opportunities to contribute to society and be fulfilled in that, our relationships with other people, our job performance, our joy, our hope, our mental health. The voice of anxiety drowns out all the other voices trying to get through to us.

I was thinking of this when I read today’s gospel. Jesus is being baptized. God’s powerful voice proclaims Jesus to be God’s beloved son. What a moment of affirmation!

Immediately afterwards, Jesus finds himself in the desert, tempted by Satan. For forty long days, Jesus is in the desert, alone, struggling with the temptations of the evil one. Satan is talking into his ear. Satan is trying to drown out the voice of God and instead give Jesus the message of doubt and fear. “Are you really the son of God? Can you really do what God wants you to do? Do you have what it takes?” Satan is trying to cause anxiety, freezing Jesus in his tracks, so that the kingdom work cannot go on.

If Satan had succeeded and anxiety had paralyzed Jesus, he would never have called disciples, would never have preached the kingdom of God, would never have healed people or calmed storms, would never have been able to die on a cross for the love of us.

But Satan didn’t succeed. What made the difference? How was Jesus able to overcome the anxiety? The angels of God waited on him. Satan’s voice was not the only voice talking into his ear. God’s voice was speaking to him, as well. The voice that had called him and affirmed him so powerfully, was still speaking to Jesus in the midst of the temptations, in the midst of the wilderness. Jesus experienced that God does not forsake him, and that gave him power to be resilient, combat anxiety, and begin the ministry God had put before him.

Today we read the end of the story of Noah and his family in the ark. For forty days, they were cooped up in the ark while a huge flood drowned all other life on earth. I imagine this was a time of high anxiety. When all you see around you is water, and life as you knew it disappears, and you have no idea how long this situation will last or what the outcome will be, then yes: you have every reason to be anxious.

The time on the ark did end. God brought Noah and his family out of the ark and into a new, blessed life. And then God made a promise: “I will never do such a thing again. There won’t be another flood. You, my people, will never have to fear me or my wrath again. On the contrary, when you feel like you are drowning in worry, I will be there with you. You are not alone. Look at the rainbow. It is my sign of promise to you: Never again will you face the overwhelming waters of anxiety alone. I am by your side. I will help you and sustain you.”

When fear, anxiety, and worry talk into our ear, threatening to freeze or drown or strangle us, let us hear the other voice, too. Let us hear the voice of God in our baptism that proclaimed us to be God’s beloved children. Let us hold on to the rainbow and the many other signs God gave us, signs of his love and support, signs of his presence with us in challenging times. Let us remember that our God is the creator of the universe; God has real power to help, to strengthen, to comfort, to support.

One place where we are reminded of the voice of God is here, in church. Here we listen to God’s word in scripture, promising us God’s love and help and salvation. Here we eat and drink the word of forgiveness when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Here we share stories, stories of anxious times that we were able to overcome with the help of God.

One of our members is going to share her story with us now.

 

The voice of this world, the voice of doubt, the voice of evil will always talk into our ear, making us anxious, trying to freeze us and take joy and hope out of our lives.

But God is also talking to us, all the time, with a voice of affirmation, a voice of love, a voice of encouragement, a voice of hope. Give that voice more power in your life.

You can even use a visual aid here. Remember the old cartoons where a character would have a little devil on one shoulder tempting him or her into bad decisions, and a little angle on the other side, giving good advice? Imagine that the next time anxiety threatens to overwhelm you. Imagine God’s angel speaking to you, just like it did to Jesus in the wilderness. Say to the little devil: “You are not the only one talking to me. God is bigger than you. God is bigger than this problem before me. I am going to listen to God now.”

Let God’s voice be the dominant voice, especially in time of anxiety. Hold on to the God who steered his chosen ones through a flood, who sustained his Son in the wilderness, and who calls you God’s beloved child. That God is on your side, now and forever. Amen.

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