Grace Presbyterian Church
February 21, 2021, Lent 1B (recorded)
Lent Again? Already?
It can’t really be Lent again already, can it?
It’s not hard to feel that way right now. Lent already? It’s true that it falls pretty early this calendar year, but it’s also true that after nearly a year of Covid-induced shutdowns and isolation and mask-wearing and anti-mask-wearing jerkishness and over 400,000 deaths and complete and utter failures and corruption of leadership, not to mention the usual disasters over the course of a year like devastating hurricanes and now winter storms that have frozen several Southern states solid, it can feel like last year’s Lent never ended. How can it be starting again already?
Given the stress of this particular entry into Lent, it might be a good thing that we are in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary, which means that the gospel readings for this year, for the most part, come from the gospel of Mark. That means that for this first Sunday of Lent, which features those scriptures dealing with the temptation of Jesus, we get Mark’s account of that event which, as you can see, is dramatically different from the accounts in Matthew and Luke. And that might be a very good thing in this particular moment.
Matthew takes eleven verses to tell this story, including the account of the three specific temptations to which Jesus was subjected. Luke also includes those three specific temptations (though in a slightly different order), taking thirteen verses to tell the story. Our man Mark, on the other hand, tells it all in two verses, and doesn’t include those bits about turning stones to bread or jumping off the Temple or offering up worship to the unworthy tempter. No, what we get from Mark is this:
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
As the social-media joke goes, that’s it. That’s the tweet. That is, in Mark’s telling, the whole story.
What in the world are we possibly supposed to learn from this, and how does this make Lent any more bearable?
One point to note is that the context in which this account happens makes a striking difference. We heard the account of Jesus’s baptism six weeks ago; here, having it follow directly and even abruptly into the wilderness story is particularly jarring. Jesus has just come up from the waters of the Jordan, the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending like a dove and the voice calling him God’s beloved, when all in an instant – and this is Mark’s description here, not mine – “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness”. Jesus didn’t ask for this.
On the other end of the story, when Jesus comes out of the wilderness, things haved changed, John his baptizer has been arrested, and Jesus returns to his home region. He was earlier described as coming from Nazareth in Galilee, what one scholar described as a “third-rate village in a second-rate province.” Jesus doesn’t just go home to that second-rate province, though; he goes with a mission and a message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Because of the vagaries of Greek verb tenses, the precise rendering of the first half of that sermon can be a little challenging to translate. One might even be best advised to go full vernacular and put a southern spin on it: “It’s time, y’all! Here comes the kingdom of God!” At the minimum that might give us a more definite sense of the urgency of thie message, or for that matter the urgency of pretty much everything about the gospel of Mark and its account of Christ’s words and deeds. (Speaking of which, these are the first words we hear from Jesus in this gospel.)
The two-verse narrative itself does include some tantalizing details of its own. It makes clear that Jesus is being tempted or “tested,” also a good translation of the Greek, and a slightly different thing than being tempted. Temptation, after all, purports to encourage the temptee to choose some desirable thing – bread, or ultimate power, say – over fidelity to God. Testing, on the other hand, is just that; being hard-pressed, challenged, possibly hurt, all to discover what our capacity to answer or finish or endure is. That puts a different spin on what Jesus was facing out in the wilderness, and maybe, if we look at it right, it changes what Lent is or can be for us. We aren’t called to “overcome,” or “triumph” over all this; just endure. Just finish. Remember Paul’s words about how he fought the good fight, completed the race, kept the faith? He never claimed to have won the fight or the race; he simply endured and finished. Maybe that’s a Lenten discipline all its own.
There’s also mentioned the presence of angels, ministering to Jesus all through the forty-day testing, apparently. Whereas other accounts suggests that angels came to Jesus after it was all over, Mark tells us they were there the whole time. Maybe that’s another Lenten lesson for us; no matter how long or how tough or how much of a slog it all becomes, we are not left on our own, cut off from God’s care. That ministering presence is still with us, if we just look and pay attention and don’t get caught up in our own myopic lack of understanding.
Oh, yes, there’s also the bit about the “wild beasts.” Jesus was “with” them, Mark says – not that they were menacing or threatening Jesus; nothing like that is suggested. Simply, “he was with the wild beasts.” Who knows, maybe if we quit abusing and exploiting and destroying our fellow members of creation out of raging greed and reckless indifference, maybe we could be with God’s creation too, with all the comfort and care it has to offer.
But maybe the thorniest text clue is that very first statement – not that Jesus went into the wilderness, but again that “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Again, Jesus didn’t ask for this. It’s not as if he stood there dripping in the water thinking “ok, now I go off into the wilderness and fast for a while…”; no, the Spirit – God, in short – forced Jesus into the wilderness. It was something Jesus had to face, evidently, or else why doe God do this?
There is that line in the old spiritual “Jesus walked this lonesome valley,” the one that follows up that first verse with the point-blank statement “you must go and stand your trial.” It’s appropriate to quibble with the next line, “you must stand it by yourself” – Jesus didn’t have to do that, as we’ve already seen. But there may be something to that first line, and maybe that’s the hardest lesson of Lent. Our life, no matter how much some blasphemous preachers would tell you otherwise, will not be all sweetness and light. Even those of the most penetrating and unshakeable faith will face testing; the unexpected cancer diagnosis, the lost job, the marriage gone to pieces out of nowhere, the child dead all out of time. Our own understanding of faith or God or our calling or our vocation may be tested, hard.
And sometimes that testing may show us that things do indeed need to change. We may need to move on to a new job or vocation. Our life circumstances may need to change. We have already seen members of our own congregation who learned through this extended time of testing in the pandemic that continuing to live on their own was no longer a good option, and they have already moved or are moving to live closer to adult children who can support and care for them. Sometimes testing is meant to provoke a change.
And that may be true for the whole church, maybe even especially the white Protestant portion of the church, in this extended time of testing. We’ve learned how little we’ve truly lived up to God’s call to live as children of God with all of God’s children, instead of just staying cozy with those who look like us and think like us and all that. We’ve been forced to see just how much our relative privilege or power has been built on oppression and suppression and exploitation and outright cruelty towards those not born white. Look at Texas right now and see the latest example of how poorly we have stewarded God’s creation, and how yet again “the least of these” are made to suffer the most, while the privileged escape to Cancun.
Yes, the church is being tested. Some parts of that church, including some of your neighbors, will gladly ignore that testing and continue to exult in the privilege and power that protects and elevates them, no matter who suffers. We had better not be that church, folks. To survive and even thrive on the stoking of hatred and exploiting and abusing of others and destroying of God’s world is blasphemy, pure and simple, and leaves us on the wrong side of that message Jesus proclaimed after coming out of the wilderness. “It’s time, y’all. Here comes the kingdom of God!” And a church that persists in its own comfort and safety is going to find itself on the wrong side of that kingdom. This is where that word “repent” comes in.
So perhaps this past year really has been an extended Lent, and that date on the liturgical calendar last Wednesday is not really changing much about our spiritual circumstance. We have been and are continuing to be tested. But learn from this miniscule story in Mark; we are not left alone in this testing, even in isolation at home. We have a whole creation to be with as well. The testing may well show us it’s time to change directions, as discomfiting as that is. But no matter how the testing goes, we have a good piece of news to proclaim on the other side of it. As much as we don’t like the word “repent,” because that really does mean turning around and not doing that anymore, it is good news that turning around is even possible.
It’s time, y’all. Here comes the kingdom of God!
Are we paying attention? Are we ready to move?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #165, The Glory of These Forty Days; #166, Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days
No, these probably weren’t the “wild beasts” Jesus was with in the wilderness…