“Beguiled by Beauty”

Mark 1: 9 – 15Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN

Welcome to the Lenten journey as we begin a new sermon series entitled “Beguiled by Beauty.” This Lenten sermon series is inspired by the video that you just watched and inspired by the book with the same title written by Religion Professor, Wendy Farley. What does it mean exactly to be beguiled by beauty? To be beguiled is to be charmed, enchanted, fascinated. To be beguiled is to be charmed by the wonder and beauty of the Creator and all that She has created. Beauty can be a portal, a gate, an entrance, a doorway in which we can behold the goodness of the Divine.  Not only that, but in the early sixth century, a theologian by the name of Pseudo Dionysius described God as “beguiled by beauty.” That is Divine Goodness fell in love with the beauty of creation and so was compelled to bring it into being. I know this sounds like a bit of time warp, but according Dionysius, God falls in love with the cosmos and then, manifests the cosmos. And if God is as captured by beauty as we are, beauty can be the place where we encounter the Divine. We gaze at God in wonder and awe and God gazes back at us in wonder and awe.

Beauty, then, is a threshold into the Divine way of seeing. Beauty entices us so that something other than our own anxiety gets our attention. Not that our worries seize to exist, but they fade into the background. Beauty can bring healing and wholeness into our fragmented lives.

I think of Mary Oliver, a nature mystic, a praise poet, who had a troubling childhood with an abusive father and a neglectful mother, and Mary said that she barely escaped her childhood. It was nature that saved her. Every morning she would go into the woods between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m. It was a daily discipline. And she would write while she walked. Carrying a notebook with her. Listening deeply to the world. Beguiled by beauty. During one of those early mornings, she wrote a poem entitled, “The Other Kingdoms.” She writes,

Consider the other kingdoms. The trees, for example, with their mellow-sounding titles: oak, aspen, willow. Or the creatures, with their thick fur, their shy and wordless gaze. Their infallible sense of what their lives are meant to be. Thus the world grows rich, grows wild, and you, too, grow rich, grow sweetly wild, as you too were born to be.

Yes, like Mary Oliver, nature can take us to another kingdom where we grow rich and grow sweetly wild as we were born to be …which is exactly why I believe that Jesus went out into nature, into the wilderness to prepare for his ministry. On the first Sunday of Lent, we always read about Jesus going into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. And many preachers on this first Sunday of Lent, focus on Jesus temptations. This year, however, our lectionary text in Mark’s gospel barely mentions the temptations. Matthew and Luke go into great detail about the temptations, but Mark barely mentions the temptations. Rather, his emphasis appears to be on the wilderness. Throughout his Gospel, Mark portrays Jesus as regularly retreating to the wilderness for prayer and restoration. Jesus finds solace in the wild. In Mark, we read that Jesus was with the wild beasts… Jesus is with the wild beasts, portrayed not as foes, but as friends. Here at the very beginning of his ministry, we get a beautiful glimpse of the peaceable kingdom / kindom to come. This is a sign of a new creation. Just as Adam was in the first garden of Eden with the animals so, too, Jesus is the second Adam in a new garden of Eden with the creatures of the earth which invites the question, “Might a sojourn in the wilderness be just what we need too, this Lenten season?”

The liturgical season of Lent is modeled after Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Forty is a significant number in the Bible. It rained for forty days and forty nights; Moses spent 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years. During the season of Lent, we’re invited into our own forty day pilgrimage of reflection, prayer, and preparation.

Just as ancient Israel was strengthened in the wilderness for forty years before entering the promised land, so, too Jesus was strengthened in the wilderness for forty days. In this way, we recognize Jesus as a new personification of Israel, a new shepherd for God’s people, a new Moses ushering former captives into a new freedom, and ultimately into a new promised land of redemption. It all happens in the wilderness, in nature, beguiled by beauty. Israel is transformed in the wilderness. Jesus is transformed in the wilderness. And we, too, can be transformed in the wilderness.

During the season of Lent, I am going to invite us into a contemplative practice each week. This week I want to encourage you to pray with nature. In her book, Wendy Farley writes, “The power of contemplating nature can hardly be exaggerated. Earlier Christians insisted that there were two revelations: the book of Scripture and the book of nature. (Pay attention to how) the sky is an endlessly fascinating object of beauty, dynamism, and contemplation. Follow the journey of Orion, the Big Dipper, the Swan. Notice where the moon is as she dances across the horizons, waxing and waning. Honor the solstice and the equinox which tunes us into the holy rhythms of the heavens…Feel the changing breeze, the blessing of sun (it’s warmth and light) and(the blessing of )the rain (as it nourishes Mother Earth). (Appreciate the) glories of a garden or park. Bring attention to the nose and become aware of countless scents. Bring attention to the ears (as you listen to the bird song). Be aware of the drop of water suspended on a spider’s web or the endless variety of tree trunks twining in a miracle of creativity and wonder. Lie on the moss and let the earth receive your grief, your fatigue, your anxiety” (p. 143 – 145).  

These are tough times and nature can bring healing to our body, soul, and mind. Contemplating nature can reorient how we live our lives. You may not have the gift of forty days in the wilderness like Jesus did, but forty seconds can make a difference. Maybe your child is crying or you’re irritated with a partner / family member, or you’re feeling discouraged by the evening news and you have to take the trash out. As you take the trash out, you look up at the sky and sky is spangled with amazing stars. You can’t spend 40 days looking up at the sky; you can’t spend 40 hour looking up at the sky. You may not even have 40 minutes to look up at the sky, but I bet you can spend forty seconds gazing at the stars and your soul is opened, and you are refreshed. The reward is huge. We reap way more than the effort we put in to that 40 second. Yes, this Lenten season let’s not forget to look up, look out, and pay attention to the gifts of creation…beguiled by beauty. Amen.