By the Rev. Darren Miner
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a period of forty days of self-examination and self-discipline in preparation for Easter. The coming of Lent always seems a bit jarring, a time of disorientation and discontinuity. And this discontinuity is reflected in the lectionary itself. For today’s Gospel reading takes place a full eight chapters before last Sunday’s Gospel reading, which featured the Transfiguration of Christ on a mountaintop.
And this disorientation and discontinuity is reflected in our parish life, as well. Fr. David is away from us, recovering from a stroke. And we have to do the best we can to keep on keeping on without our leader. We are experimenting with combining the English- and Cantonese-speaking congregations for joint worship, and we don’t know yet how well this will work out. And finally, there is the fact that the Chinese New Year, a time of family celebration throughout much of Asia, falls right during the first two weeks of Lent, a time the Church has ordained for quiet reflection and repentance. This year, the discontinuity and disruption of Lent just cannot be ignored.
Now, we’re told that Lent is supposed to be a quiet time, a slow time, but this is surely not reflected in the Gospel reading from Mark. Mark rushes us through three important scenes in Jesus’ life in only seven verses.
First, Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist in the river Jordan. Jesus sees the heavens torn apart and the Holy Spirit descend into him. (Notice that I said, “into” not “on.” That’s what the Greek text literally says.) And Jesus hears the voice of his heavenly Father acknowledge him. Unlike other Evangelists, Mark does not mention whether others saw and heard what Jesus saw and heard. In Mark’s hurried account, the descent of the Spirit and the acknowledgement of God the Father seem to be meant only for Jesus, a sign that now is the time to start something new. Jesus is empowered by the Spirit, but even so, he is not immediately sent out to begin his ministry in the world.
Instead, he is cast out into the wilderness to undergo forty days of trial and temptation. Here again, Mark hurries through this episode in Jesus’ life. Matthew and Luke go into great detail about each of the temptations of the Christ. Mark couldn’t care less. He has no time for that. The forty days flash by in a single sentence, and we proceed immediately to the ministry of Christ in the world, to his proclamation of the Kingdom of God.
I would like to say to Mark, “Slow down! You move too fast!” I would like to ask, Why does the Holy Spirit cast Jesus out into the desert to undergo a period of temptation? I could understand why Satan would want this opportunity to derail Jesus, but why did the Holy Spirit want this? Well, none of the Gospels explicitly answers that question, but Matthew and Luke do provide some hints. Each of the temptations that they describe is an attempt to make Jesus into a very different kind of Messiah, a warrior-king who conquers with the sword, instead of a King who conquers by dying on the Cross. In my opinion, Jesus needed to figure this out before he could begin a ministry that would inevitably lead to his suffering and death. Jesus passes the test, and only then is he ready to begin his mission in earnest.
The message that Jesus then proclaims to the world is this: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus’ followers, we are asked here to do precisely two things: repent and believe. A better translation of the Greek might be: “Keep on trying to change the way you think and keep on trusting.” Jesus is not just asking us to say we are sorry for our sins; he is asking much more of us that that. He is asking us to work at changing how we think…about God, about the world, and about ourselves. American culture tells us to put ourselves first. Asian culture says to put our families first. But Jesus asks us again and again to put our God first. He is asking us to reprioritize our entire lives, putting God at the top, our neighbor next, and ourselves last of all. And he is asking us to trust him and to accept this radical reordering of our lives as Good News.
This very Lent, we can make a new start by setting aside some time for quiet reflection amidst the busyness of our lives. We can endeavor to make space in our lives for the Spirit, to call to mind our sins, and to prepare ourselves to be further tested. Now, maybe you can’t devote a full forty days to the tasks of reflection and repentance. Then spend forty minutes! Just do the best you can!
All of us received the Holy Spirit when we were baptized, just as Jesus did. This is a fact. All of us undergo temptation, just as Jesus did. Another fact! But unlike Jesus, we all inevitably give into sin at some point or other. But when we fall, there is a simple remedy: we pick ourselves up, if we can; we dust ourselves off; and we keep journeying down the road to God.
Sometimes, however, we can’t pick ourselves up. Spiritually speaking, “we’ve fallen and we can’t get up.” In those times, we need to ask for help, from God and from the Church. Many people have found it helpful to seek counsel and reassurance from a priest from time to time. And the prayer book has a rite of reconciliation, of sacramental confession, for just such cases. Sometimes, we need some advice. Sometimes, we just need to speak out loud the things that we have kept bottled up. Sometimes, we need help trusting in God’s forgiveness. Those are the times when you might consider coming to a priest and making your confession. In our tradition, sacramental confession is never required, but is always available when you need it.
In summary, our parish life right now is as disrupted as was Jesus’ life when he was being empowered and prepared for his mission to the world. Like Jesus, God is on our side and has given us the gift of the Spirit. But also like Jesus, we are now in the wilderness undergoing trials. Our leader is ill. We’re doing new, untried things at church. And we’re dealing with conflicting priorities in our busy lives. Again, like Jesus, we will be tempted. But since we are not the Son of God, we will give in to some of those temptations, both as individuals and as a community. Let us take some time in the days ahead to sit in quiet and take note of our sins. Let us seek God’s forgiveness through prayer and sacrament. And then fully trusting in God’s mercy, let us endeavor even harder to change our way of thinking and reorder our priorities, as Christ would have us do. Then, come Easter, we will be better prepared to enter into the mystery of the Resurrection and to proclaim the Good News to a world in need. And that, dear people of God, is what the disruptive season of Lent is all about.
© 2015 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.