First Sunday of Lent — February 22, 2015

NOTE: Sermons are aural events; they are meant to be heard, not read. The text below — which was not delivered exactly as written — may include errors not limited to spelling, grammar and punctuation of which the listener might be unaware and with which the preacher is unconcerned (h/t: Rev. Slim Wilson)

Mark 1:9-15

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.”           
Well, the weather totally trashed our observances of Transfiguration and Ash Wednesday, so most of us are beginning Lent at somewhat of a disadvantage. 

It’s a shame, really, because there is a liturgical logic to the days leading up to the observance of Lent.  The transfiguration points us to the glory of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.  Up on the mountaintop, the door between this world and the next cracks open for a moment, and the light reveals the glory of the Son and the love of the Father for Jesus and for us.  It’s a disorienting moment for the disciples, and I’m not sure that they knew what to make of it any better than we do.   But there is no mistaking the reassuring voice of God breaking into the mountaintop scene, proclaiming who Jesus is.  The voice reminds us that Jesus is the beloved one, the Son of God, the One we can listen to and trust.  The voice reminds us that we can’t stay up on that mountain, but we have to follow Jesus down, down, down.  All the way down the mountain toward Jerusalem and right smack dab into the mess that trip will entail all the way until Easter morning.

If transfiguration reminds us who Jesus is, then Ash Wednesday is the day on which we are reminded who we are – human beings, just in case the fact had slipped our minds.  If transfiguration reminds us of Jesus’ divine otherness, Ash Wednesdays reminds us of our human ordinariness.  The words, “You are dust and to dust you will return,” is a shocking yet obvious reminder that our time as creatures on earth is limited.  If you ask me, I think Ash Wednesday is designed to shake us up a little, maybe a lot.  At least it might make us take inventory of the direction in which our lives are going.  The ashes imposed on our foreheads or hands remind us of our mortality and sin, but also give us the assurance of God’s forgiveness and salvation.   Ash Wednesday means time is running out for everyone, but it’s still not too late to turn our lives around.

So we missed transfiguration and Ash Wednesday.  But we still have Lent.  And the season of Lent tells us it’s to get going.  To get closer to God, to close the gap or remove the roadblock between the human and divine.  Which, when you think about it, is a completely futile endeavor since the stumbling block of being merely human is one we cannot change.  And yet we take on the challenge of Lent each year.  Each year, we vow that we will get it together.  To repent.  To change.  To live as if we actually believe what Jesus says.  That the good news that the kingdom of God has come near.           

But, lets be honest.  Most years, Lent doesn’t even leave a mark on us.  Not really.  And I will be the first to admit that I’ve totally failed at living up to Lent.  And I bet you’d admit the same. 

Oh, if we give up chocolate or sugar, we might end up a slightly skinnier version of ourselves.  If we give up social media, we may end up with slightly more rested, less bug-eyed version.  If we give up coffee, we’ll sleep a bit better.  If we participate in a Lenten study, we may adopt a more holy outlook for a few weeks.  I have one friend who gives us swearing every year and she’s certainly much nicer to be around during Lent.  And all of those are good Lenten practices.  All of them can be useful and faithful ways to observe the 40 days stretching ahead of us until Easter.  They are certainly more challenging than limiting our Lenten practice to hitting a different fish fry every Friday.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But will our observance of Lent change us in a way that lasts?  Will we come through this wilderness time not merely improved, but changed in a real way?  Will anyone notice?  Will Lent leave a mark on us?  Does it matter if it doesn’t?

Maybe some brief historical perspective would help.

All of our biblical evidence suggests that the earliest Christians were, to put it mildly, somewhat odd.  The first Christians stuck out like sore thumbs against the backdrop of the Roman Empire.  They just couldn’t help it. They were zealots, certain that Jesus would return any day, and troubling the authorities so much with their strange ways of speaking and living that they often got themselves eaten by lions or executed in other horrible ways. 

After the first Christians figured out that Christ wasn’t coming back anytime soon, they put a wooden cross on the wall and settled back into their comfortable routines.  After the world didn’t end as Jesus said it would, his followers stopped expecting so much from God or themselves.

So they lost their enthusiasm, their zeal.  Little by little, Christians began to get comfortable.  They began to stop standing out so much in a crowd.  They blended in.  They did not make a fuss about injustice.  They did not love boldly.  They did not get arrested or eaten by wild animals for standing up on behalf of poor orphans or widows.  Christians became, in fact, model citizens.  They decided to be nice rather than holy. Somewhere along the line, Christians forgot that the soul of Christ’s ministry is risk and vulnerability.  They began to value the safety of large buildings and state approval.

Eventually, someone suggested it was time to bring the church back to its senses and the Bible offered some clues to how it could do that.

The people of Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness learning what it meant to trust YHWH.

Elijah spent 40 days there until he heard that small still voice of God on the same mountain where Moses spent 40 days listening to God’s giving of the law.

And then, there were the gospel stories about Jesus and the 40 days he spent fasting and praying and being tested in the wilderness.

So the early church engaged in the season of Lent.  40 days.  To remind Christians what it is to open our eyes and see what remains when all the comforts are gone.  To venture out into the wilderness like the people of God had been doing for centuries.  To remember what it is to live by the grace of God alone and not what we can do for ourselves.  After all, even Jesus had to have that time of testing and tribulation.  Lent became a practice for Christians to remember who they are and what their lives are to look like.(1)

I’m not sure even Jesus knew what his life was to be about before he encounters John on the banks of the Jordon.  It seems Jesus discovered more about himself as time went on.  Walking town to town.  Eating with tax collectors.  Healing lepers.  Eating grain on the Sabbath.  Using the wrong fork and knocking over accepted ways of being. Worrying more about being holy and obedient to God, not so worried about being nice.  Not fitting into the religious establishment of Jerusalem but opening people up to what God is doing.

But it all begins in the wilderness for Jesus.  In the desert.  Jesus is out there in the middle of nowhere and, what’s more, it is the Spirit of God who put him there. 

And the thing about wilderness is that all the markers you usually depend upon to tell you where you are and who you are have vanished.  Gone.  Wilderness is disorienting beyond description. 

Jesus was led out into the wilderness to find out what it meant to be Jesus.  And what happened in those 40 days freed him from every thing that would attempt to distract him from his true purpose.  And he learned to trust the Spirit that drove him out there.

I think the sin that dwells within all of us is not so much the propensity to do what is bad or harmful, but a mistrust of God’s promises to us.  The voices we hear every day tell us we cannot or shouldn’t trust God – you may go hungry, you do not have enough, you are not enough.  All of us are naturally insecure in so many ways. 

But even Jesus’ trust in God was something he had to learn.  Our impulse may be to say, wasn’t it enough that Jesus was Jesus?  Wasn’t it enough for him to hear, “You are my beloved Son?”  Wasn’t it enough for him to be baptized?

Jesus had to do the work of Lent just as we do.  Out there in wilderness.  The long days of prayer.  The long days of hunger.  Of feeling lonely.  Of not knowing when it would end or how it would end.  Jesus had to learn what life feels like with no pacifier, no anesthesia, no comfort but God alone.  He had to learn to trust where God was going to lead him, just like we do.  And he had to learn to discern between the voice of God and every other voice that would show him a short cut, an easy way out. 

We are in a wilderness place, brothers and sisters.  I’ve heard the anxiety in your voices.  I’ve seen the fractures in relationships between people in this congregation.  Some of you want to go in one direction.  Some of you want to go in another direction.  Others just want to sit where you are and not move because every path out looks much too dangerous.   And just as it was for the Israelites, out in the wilderness it’s easy to begin blaming one another.  It’s easy to blame people who aren’t here anymore.  It’s easy to blame the people who never showed up to begin with.  Maybe you blame your pastor or the session.  Maybe you blame yourself.  Or maybe you blame God.  Maybe you are just sick of the wilderness and just want to go back.

Or maybe the Spirit drove us out here for a purpose.  Maybe we need to learn something here.  Maybe we need to endure the temptation that tells us to save ourselves by any means necessary.  Maybe we need to trust ourselves less, and depend upon God’s provision once and for all.  Even if we hate everything the angels have to offer us in their bag of tricks.  Even if we’d rather be eaten by a wild beast lion than spend one more minute out here in this dust-filled nightmare. 

When I was in South Sudan, you want to know the one thing that frightened me more than anything else?  It wasn’t the dust or the prospect of disease.  It wasn’t the rats in our rooms or the guys with machine guns.  It wasn’t dangerous roads or the land mines hidden on the side of them.  What frightened me most is that I would come home and be mean to you, saints.  That I would come home and say terrible, thoughtless things like, “Why are you complaining – you with a roof over your head and clean water and reliable electricity and a place to worship on Sunday even if it is running out of money and people?  Who are you with your first world problems when the majority of the world can even begin to conceive of how good you have it?” 

I might have said that if hadn’t learned something much more important while in that difficult and troubled place. 

What I learned instead was that – every wilderness is different, but what we share with every human being on this earth is that sooner or later, we will end up in that disorienting place.  And it leaves a mark that cannot be rubbed off or hidden.  Our wilderness is different from the wilderness of our South Sudanese brothers and sisters.  But what we share is the deep need to know where we are and where we are going.  Guilt isn’t the point. Anger isn’t the point.  Repentence isn’t about feeling bad about what we’ve done, or feeling bad about what we have, but about turning around and submitting to what God wants us to do. 

What was so remarkable about the people I met in South Sudan is that they knew very well they were in the wilderness and spent more time trying to discern the voice of God than finding someone to blame for their predicament, although I could come up with a very long list of villains.   Despite the fact that they had every reason to give up hope, or plot vengeance against their enemies, our partners in South Sudan realized that their time in the wilderness is a gift in the sense of bringing them closer to God. 

Jesus comes out of the wilderness and the first thing he hears is that John has been arrested.  Knowing who he is, knowing the power he commands, Jesus could take on the Roman government and establish God’s kingdom by force.  Jesus could rescue John and avenge his suffering.  But Jesus doesn’t emerge from the wilderness as a zealot ready to smite the human race on behalf of an angry God.   Instead, God’s kingdom comes through the One who goes to the cross so that history’s endless parade of victims can come to an end, and who resurrection will end the reign of death and violence. 

Lent begins for us, as it does for Jesus – by first knowing who we are.  And we are, as Paul tells us, a new creation in Christ through our baptism.  We are a new creation, co-crucified, co-buried, and co-resurrected with Christ, afflicted, then exalted.  Marked for life as God’s beloved.  Created out of dust by a love so deep, so broad, so high that it will sustain even in the wilderness.

In a few minutes we will sing a hymn, “O Love So Deep So Broad So High” with lyrics written by a 15th century priest named Thomas a Kempis.  Kempis also wrote “The Imitation of Christ,” which contains this quote that I find incredibly encouraging : “The Lord bestows his blessings there, where he finds the vessels empty.” 

O love so deep, so broad, so high

how beyond all thought and fantasy,
that God, the Son of God, should take
our mortal form for mortals’ sake!

For us baptized, for us he bore
his holy fast and hungered sore;
for us temptation sharp he knew,
for us the tempter overthrew.

For us he prayed; for us he taught;
for us his daily works he wrought:
by words and signs and actions thus
still seeking not himself, but us.

For us to evil power betrayed,
scourged, mocked, in purple robe arrayed,
he bore the shameful cross and death;
for us gave up his dying breath.

For us he rose from death again;
for us he went on high to reign;
for us he sent his Spirit here
to guide, to strengthen, and to cheer.

All glory to our Lord and God
for love so deep, so high, so broad —
the Trinity, whom we adore
forever and forevermore.

We have to sit with the silence.  The loneliness.  The hunger.  The weakness.  The panic.
It is hard.  It is awful.  It is necessary.  We are empty vessels, worn out with worry. But that emptiness is not a sign that we are doing something wrong.  It is that God shaped space in us that only God can fill.  Nothing else on earth will do.  Not even church.  Not even this church.  If we allow the wilderness to have its way with us, we will fall out of love with everything that separates us from God, anything that isn’t God. 

But God is with us in wilderness.  God provides.  With angels that look an awful lot like the ordinary saints of our lives.  With this table and this holy meal to sustain us.  God has always cared for God’s people.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

1. The historical review of Lent is adapted from Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon, “Lenten Discipline,” in Home By Another Way.