“Discernment” is a word we throw around a lot in the church, most often in regard to ordained ministry. As in “She is in the discernment process” or “I have agreed to be on his discernment committee.” But it is also an essential part of each of our spiritual journeys and our lives as human beings.
In calling ourselves Christians, Children of God, we acknowledge that God has called us, we acknowledge the pulling at our cores: to be more, to be God’s, to live into our calling. And discernment is how we figure out what that looks like. It is the way we ask ourselves, “How do I live as a child of God?”
In today’s gospel we hear a three-part story of Jesus’ call and his response. For Mark, this is the beginning of the story of Jesus.
Part One: he came from Nazareth. We are told that this is where most of Jesus’ life has been lived to this point. His family is there; he has grown up there, been educated in the scriptures there, and has learned his trade there. He probably has gotten sick there, been cared for, been loved, and learned the cruelty of children there. Given our current understanding of developmental psychology and our faith in his full humanity, we can assume that it is there where Jesus gained a sense of self, both as independent and in community.
Jesus is, in this moment, leaving all that behind and coming to John, the baptizer, at the river Jordan. There are a lot of questions left unanswered in Mark’s brevity: What is he seeking there? Why does Jesus need John’s baptism? What drives him so powerfully that he would be willing to leave behind all he had ever known?
We don’t know. Did Jesus know? Or did he just feel the faintest of stirrings, deep within himself and head out to see what God might be doing?
A lot of young people make their way to cities after college. Many don’t know what exactly they will do, or how they will make a living, but they strike out, in hopes that, once there, they will figure it out. On arrival they these cities bustling places, and they scurry about frantically piecing together lives from jobs, relationships, chance encounters, art, food, and folly. Many can’t say exactly why they come except that it has something to do with a search for purpose, for calling. The city is somehow a place for discernment.
For those who have at one time or another taken this leap of faith, the idea of “figuring it out” is an amusing one. As though it were something one did once, and then having “figured it out,” one could spend the rest of life living happily into that.
Instead, there is this constant process of figuring it out, of discerning purpose, calling, vocation, of losing sight, changing, shipwreck, gladness, and discerning again. God doesn’t always make it easy on us, but we follow along, listening for the faint stirrings and inching our way closer to God and to God’s perfect vision for us.
And even when the whisper is a shout and the calling is clear, the means are not always quite so clear. As Jesus is being baptized, he sees the heavens open and the spirit descends like a dove upon him while a voice speaks, “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Now, doesn’t that sound great?
Knowing where this story leads: the healings, the miracles, the teachings and transforming love – as well as eventually the cross and Calvary – it is tempting to assume that suddenly, in this moment, Jesus knows what to do. It is easy to assume that the Spirit has given him “God vision,” and that he can see clearly his Messianic calling.
But was this calling any clearer than the calling for us to be God’s children today? There are countless would-be Episcopalians in this world, let alone would-be Christians. When we hear the message, “You are my beloved. In you I am well pleased,” how often do we sit self-satisfied, doing nothing? Sometimes we need a little push to do anything about it. And sometimes, it’s a push we have to give ourselves and each other.
Then we get to Part Two of today’s reading from Mark: “The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”
As Kermit might say, “Sheesh.”
Unlike other gospel accounts, in which the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert, where Jesus is given agency, Mark picks up the drama. Like a master, this gentle descending dove-like spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. No time for idle self-satisfaction is allowed. God is at work.
As part of a liturgical church, we too are driven into the wilderness with Jesus this Lent. By association we are brought into a time of reflection and discernment, every year for forty days.
Lent is a powerful season in the church year. Some will mock the New Year’s-like resolutions we make and attempts to make ourselves better – things like abstaining from small and large indulgences, or committing acts of repentance. And yet, there is something powerful about a season that calls people to make the connection between lived lives and the calling of God. There is something that makes us want to bridge the false divide between faith and the “real world.”
Discernment is not a singular thing, or something we do all at once; it is a daily calling, a daily wrestling, in much the same way that cutting back on caffeine is done one cup of coffee at a time, or building a stronger family means taking meals as opportunities for real conversation. Discernment is something we do in the midst of life, messily and with countless challenges.
Unlike other gospel accounts, Mark is short on details of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, but all the vital elements are here: the duration, the temptation, the threat of violence, and the sustaining care God provides. Forty days is Biblical shorthand for “a long time.” But even so, forty days is a long time.
For many of us, this kind of retreat into isolation is at least somewhat appealing. Forty days of alone time? Forty days to work on figuring things out? Discerning God’s call in my life? If only I had that kind of time, money, and discipline.
Our wilderness often has a different terrain. Having felt God’s calling, we have to figure it out amidst our over-booked, over-worked modern lives. Our isolation occurs within communities, families, and workplaces. Our temptations are many; we are surrounded by the gods of self and materialism, of exclusivity and pride, of despair and prejudice. The wild beasts wear different masks, but the ministering and sustaining presence of God is no less with us. How will we make use of this time, where we are, to discern how we are to respond to God’s call?
Part Three of today’s gospel reading: “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.’”
For many of us, floundering in the wilderness is a familiar feeling. We are not comfortable with preaching the Kingdom, but this is exactly what we’re called to do as the children of God. We are the bearers of good news, the good news. God’s kingdom is here. No more waiting. The time is fulfilled.
This Lent we are invited to join Jesus in the wilderness for a period of discernment. Take these forty days to listen for God’s calling. Acknowledge your own isolation, name your individual temptations, and challenge the wild beasts. But also, may you see the hand of God sustaining you, and may you recall faithfully that calling of baptism that brought you here in the first place. So when Easter arrives, you may be all the more ready to proclaim with a loud voice the good news of salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ.
So that we may come to Easter having discerned more clearly God’s calling and live more perfectly into his kingdom, consider these words from the Book of Common Prayer: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word.”