(sermon 2/21/21 – First Sunday in Lent)
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.”
There are different ways of writing for different purposes. Each way has different expectations, different rules, written or unwritten, different vocabularies, rhythms, meters, based on the type of writing it is. We write one way if we’re writing a journal or diary entry, another way for an online classified ad, another for a real estate listing. One way for writing meant primarily to be read, and another for writing meant primarily to be spoken and heard. One way for a legal pleading, another for a novel and another for a short story. In fact, it can get a bit confusing and counterproductive when we don’t follow those assumptions and rules that guide the different ways we write for different situations: “Now, through Darrow and Holmes, his attorneys, and unto this honorable Court, comes the above-named John Smith, plaintiff herein, who enjoys movies, concerts, pina coladas and quiet walks along the beach…” We mix our writing genres and styles at our peril.
Today, we heard a bit of the beginning of Mark’s gospel. For our own purposes, Mark was pretty much the inventor of the gospel genre of writing. His work was the earliest of the four gospels, so it probably isn’t surprising that stylistically, it’s a bit different than the others. The style of writing a gospel hadn’t yet had time to mature or become more elaborate. Mark’s gospel is more direct, more to the point, than the others that have come down to us. Biblical scholars have noted that Mark didn’t write in an overly sophisticated or formal style of Greek; in fact, they’ve suspected that based on his vocabulary and style, he seems to have been someone much more accustomed to speaking rather than formal writing.
Mark’s gospel tries to drive us, to get us to what he considers the most important part of his story about Jesus – that he’s the Son of God, and the details of his teaching. Because of that, Mark almost rushes through the very beginning of Jesus’ story. In fact, one of the most common words in Mark’s gospel is “immediately” – Jesus and the disciples did this; then they “immediately” went to some other place and did such and such; it happens over and over again in this gospel. Mark also condenses parts of the story he considers less critical in order to get where he thinks it matters most. The other gospels have more details about Jesus’ birth, youth, John the Baptizer, Jesus’ baptism and his temptation in the Wilderness are all teased out in greater detail in other gospels.
We heard today that Mark cuts through all of those things in just a few short sentences, or giving them no mention at all, so he can quickly get us to where his story really begins – Jesus’ teaching ministry. Mark does make one important point in these preliminaries – the pronouncement for God that Jesus is God’s beloved son, the anointed one. As a somewhat interesting sidebar, in the accounts of Jesus’ baptism in other gospels, where the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends “on” Jesus, in Mark’s Greek, the Holy Spirit descends “into” Jesus – and that’s important, in order to establish Jesus’ divinity and identity in a gospel where you don’t have an incarnational birth narrative like Matthew’s or Luke’s. But even at that, the three important points in today’s gospel text – Jesus’ baptism and divine identity; his testing in the wilderness; and with John the Baptizer’s arrest, the fulfillment of time for Jesus’ own ministry to begin – all happen so quickly that you want to say “Now, wait a minute, Mark – slow down!. Let’s consider these things and their importance a bit more slowly.”
Today, the First Sunday in Lent, it’s important for us to at least slow down and consider one of those things – Jesus’ forty days of testing, temptation, and preparation in the wilderness, because it’s a model, a foreshadowing, of our own forty days of Lent, our own preparation that we observe leading up to the joy of Easter. Jesus’ time in the wilderness was a time for him to engage in serious soul searching about his life, his identity, purpose, and his calling from God; set against very real obstacles and temptations of an easier life found in the things of the world. And Lent is intended to be a similar time of soul-searching, identity clarification, and recommitment to God’s claim on us, too.
They say that confession is good for the soul, and I certainly believe that. In that spirit, I’m going to make a confession to you: I have never, ever, successfully given up anything for Lent. Never. No particular food, no special comfort or treat, no practice, no bad habit, no petty vice, and certainly not for want of their actual existence. Many years I haven’t even tried, and the times I have, I’ve failed at it. In fact, the only thing I’ve succeeded at giving up during Lent has been the practice of giving up something for Lent. As I’ve wondered about that perfect, dismal record of failure and why that might be, I think I’ve come to realize that while giving up something like that might be a nice symbol of our desire to repent from worldly pleasures, and turn more toward God, at the end of the day, it’s just that – a symbol. And while Noom might care whether I ate that Hershey’s bar – or, who’s kidding who; they’re small, so let’s just say two of them – I don’t think that ultimately, God does. God has seemed to make pretty clear through the scriptures in both Testaments, and especially through Jesus, that God cares very little about mere outward appearances and symbolic gestures that aren’t tied to something more concrete and meaningful. God is more concerned with the truth of our lives, and the honesty of our faith and our actions.
In my mind, it seems insulting to God to equate the giving up of, say, Big Macs, with the giving up of our biases and prejudices, and working to correct our cultural blind spots that cause other to suffer here in this country and globally. It seems to be a kind of cheap grace to think we’ve pleased God, and proved our devotion, by, say, giving up watching our favorite Netflix series for the next six weeks – especially since we know we’ll just binge-watch all those missed episodes after Easter – with giving up some of our time to help make meals for unsheltered folks, or to collect furniture for a refugee family, or tutor a child at risk of falling behind academically.
And besides, I’ve got to say, haven’t we all given up plenty this past year already without talking about giving up anything more?
Of course, I’m being a little facetious. There are definitely some things that would please God if we gave them up, and not just during Lent but forever. I just mentioned a few of those things. But there are other things, too; maybe not the kind of things that a person might immediately think about being something to give up for Lent. How about finally, once and for all, giving up the self-defeating attitude that you just aren’t good enough, not in God’s eyes or in the eyes of others? That you aren’t this enough or you’re too much of that, or that you just aren’t applying yourself enough and if you just worked at it a bit harder, then, THEN, maybe God would be pleased with you and accept you. There are many people who have given and sacrificed so much of themselves for others that there’s almost nothing left of themselves; I don’t think God wants them to feel like they need to give up even more in order for God to be happy with them. How about giving up for Lent those feelings of inadequacy, insufficiency, unlovability?
I think giving up those things would be very pleasing to God, and they would help to clarify two important realities: first, that God is a God of love and grace; and second, that that love and grace surrounds you, enfolds you, envelopes you, every minute of every day. That God, who knows your flaws and shortcomings better than you know them yourself, and has known them since before you were born, has unilaterally decreed you worthy and lovable. There’s no need for you to live forty days, or forty years, or an entire lifetime, in a self-imposed, self-defined wilderness of self-doubt, self-debasement, and self-punishment.
Maybe the most important thing behind the tradition of giving certain material things up for Lent is the idea of renouncing the claim those things make on your life – letting go of their pull, and the false sense of comfort and security the give us; and trusting ourselves, our comfort, our security, our lives, our everything – to God. Like the child Joyce mentioned, giving up the security and safety of standing on the dock, and trusting enough to just let go, and to jump into the water and their parent’s waiting, loving arms. Ultimately, the child trusts, because the child knows the parent loves them. And that’s a key point, because at its core, the story of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness is one chapter in a love story – a chapter about God’s love for Jesus. And our symbolic Lenten recreation of that same kind of testing and reflection is another chapter in that love story, this time a chapter about God’s love for us. It’s an amazing, wonderful story; it’s the greatest love story of all time, no matter what vocabulary might be used, and no matter what style it’s told in, no matter whether it’s written or spoken.
Thanks be to God.