Sermons That Work

We Begin Our Sundays…, Lent 1 (B) – 2003

March 09, 2003

We begin our Sundays in Lent this year with St Mark. On a small canvas with only a few brush-strokes, Mark shows Jesus being baptized in the river Jordan, and then being driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan.

In the mind’s eye we can see the sharp contrasts. In the background are the rushing waters of the Jordan, life returning to the land at the end of the wet season. It is an icon of Creation, a reminder of the Flood, the stuff of baptism. There is a crowd of repentant sinners who have come out from the towns and villages, away from business as usual, to be cleansed by John the Baptist in anticipation of Messiah’s coming. There is Jesus, the Son of God, Emmanuel, God-with-us, the one person in the crowd who does not need to repent but who chooses to stand with the repentant sinners. He is making his first public appearance — as indeed he will make his last, on the Cross — in faithful solidarity with the People of God in all their sin. There is the voice of God, exuberant with uncontainable delight at the action of his Son: “Look! That’s my boy!” And there is the small, fleet-winged dove, the gentle touch of the life-giving Spirit.

Mark does not say all this, of course. Unlike Luke and Matthew, Mark is a man of few words. Yet the background of his picture is thick with allusions and references, signaling life and hope. But the mind’s eye moves on, immediately, as Mark himself says, to the foreground of this picture where the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. The gracious little dove has gone, replaced by the driving Spirit, like the wind that Ezekiel heard in his vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, like the rushing wind we shall hear again at Pentecost. It is the scouring wind of the great Judean desert. The crowds have gone; there is no water here. Jesus is on his own, among wind-carved rocks, in the blazing heat of desert days, in the star-filled cold of wild, bitter nights. The wilderness of Judea was not a place where anyone went voluntarily, and certainly never alone. It was a place of danger and destruction, and if one had to go into the trackless sands it was in order to get from A to B as fast as possible, with dried food and skins of water, in caravans of company. But here is Jesus, alone, with only the wild animals for company, and angels who need neither food nor drink and suffer neither heat nor cold.

Mark does not say all this, either. And yet the foreground of this picture is also rich with allusions. Jesus is in this inhuman place for forty days, says Mark, and the mind’s eye sees the Exodus people of God in their forty-year journey across other deserts, through other wildernesses. The word itself, “wilderness,” is heavy with echoes of long dead prophets such as Isaiah: “Behold, I am about to do a new thing… I will make a way in the wilderness… and wild animals will honor me.” [Is. 43:19-20] In the old Genesis story there were angels in the wilderness for Hagar, too, but she at least had a well. There is no well for Jesus. Yet like Hagar, he has been driven outside and beyond all the social systems that shape and control human nature. A new highway is being built, a new thing is coming to pass, says Isaiah. Jesus is here resisting temptation, resisting Satan. Mark gives us no details of this deliberate encounter.

So this is our context for Lent in the year 2003 of the Western, Christian calendar. The picture surely calls us into a Lent that wants something beyond the quiet, personal pieties of giving up chocolates, or whatever it is that you and I decide to do when we see Ash Wednesday and Lent loom up on the calendar. Mark gives us Jesus and the Spirit in sharp contrasts: the waters of life and the dry wastes of the wilderness, the gentle touch of a dove, the driving force of wind. Television newscasts, our local newspapers, our ISP homepages, give us sharp contrasts, too. We are living with the threat of terrorism at home and the promise of a 21st century-style smart war over in Iraq. We are a nation of overweight children, adolescents, and adults living at a time when increasing numbers of our fellow countrymen, women and children are going hungry or homeless. At every level of the economy, and at every level of government, there are strategies in place that tear holes in our social safety nets, which damage our ability to sustain institutions of health, education, and eldercare. Every preacher reading this, every pastor wrestling with the Gospel these days, is as haunted by these pictures, as anxious for the realities they disclose, as our ancestors in faith were haunted and anxious for a journey through the wilderness of Judea and what that might disclose by way of danger and death.

Of course we will use the penitential season of Lent as we always do. We will strengthen the bonds that join the faith we hold to the life we live. Some of us will indeed welcome the private disciplines of fasting and prayer, and we may choose to give up computer games, or desserts, as the outward and visible indication of the interior struggles we have with the spirits that drive us through business as usual. All these things can bring us closer to God in Christ, through the power of the Spirit. Many of us will take time in Lent to volunteer some extra work in the community or at the church; some of us will take Lent as an opportunity to set aside our usual reading, and pick up some biblical, devotional, inspirational literature instead. These Lenten choices, too, can shape and focus the mind’s vision on the kingdom of God in Christ, and nudge us deeper into the transfiguring power of the Spirit. Some congregations will celebrate the quiet rituals of Stations of the Cross on Friday evenings; others will have Lent Programs and meatless Lent Suppers one evening in the week. These activities can — and do, every year — help to focus our intellects and spirits on the good news of God in Christ: Jesus facing down Satan in the wilderness today, Jesus conquering the principalities and powers of evil and death on Good Friday. We can derive comfort from the fact that he was tempted in every way, as we are.

But this is Lent 2003, and if ever there was a year in which to re-think, re-imagine and re-do our Lenten disciplines, this surely is it. Our beloved Lenten disciplines work for us privately, personally, individually. But they tempt us, even as so many of our favorite Lenten hymns and gospel songs tempt us, to remain captured and captivated by the personal and individual dimensions of our faith in Christ. Mark’s is a Gospel of few words. He tells us very little of his vision of God’s new Kingdom and new Covenant that has come to be in Christ. But all through his Gospel, Mark shows Jesus resisting the political and religious authorities of the day, just as he resists Satan here in today’s reading. And by the same token, Mark’s Gospel shows Jesus standing in solidarity with those who are outside and beyond the normative social structures: the poor, women, the sick and the possessed — just as he stood in Jordan’s waters with the repentant sinners of the Baptist’s movement.

Resistance and solidarity are thematic in this Gospel, keynotes for the mission and survival of Mark’s church. To go through Lent with Mark is to put behind us business as usual, and step outside the social framework that normally shapes and forms our public profile as church-in-society. Lent with Mark is a time for putting our minds to work on understanding the truly formidable issues that drive our domestic and foreign policies, and then giving public voice and action to our informed convictions about justice and peace. By all means, let’s do Stations on Friday nights, and eat small bowls of lentil soup. But let us sit down together with pens and computers and write letters to civic, state, and nationally elected officials about the importance of God’s justice in terms of city, state, and national budgets. In this way we work on solidarity with all those whose lives are being damaged by expedient political priorities.

And yes, let us by all means foster and train our inner spiritual lives by fasting, by giving up this or giving up that. But let us also discipline ourselves to protest and resist the notion that the strategies of war are ever the answer to foreign policy dilemmas. The peace of God is not simply a slogan for old liberals and appeasers. The peace of God is not simply the absence of terrorism and war. Peace is a way of life in the Kingdom of Heaven. It involves diplomacy; it involves long, awkward, patient, and persistent sitting at tables, talking and negotiating, building trust and showing humble solidarity. So let our Lenten discipline involve sending e-mails, writing letters, making phone calls to our civic, state, and national leaders. It is a time for proclaiming our faith by begging and insisting that they need to play for time, strengthen diplomatic efforts, and invent new and improved ways to negotiate peace. It is a time to let our elected representatives know that we believe it is possible and even urgent to “love your enemies; do good to them who hate you.” This does not have to be a time of war.

Mark simply leaves Jesus in the wilderness, just as his Gospel originally left Jesus dead on the Cross. Mark knew, you see, just as Jesus knew, that the wilderness is where we are called to make straight in the desert a highway for our God. May we all find this Lent to be the wilderness in which, like our ancestors in faith, we may find God is still doing his New Thing: for justice, for peace. AMEN.

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Christopher Sikkema