a sermon on Mark 1:9-15 and Psalm 25:1-10 for the First Sunday of Lent
preached on February 26, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
If the New York news media is to be believed, all Christians in New York City celebrate Lent because all Christians are Catholics, and all of us are so excited that our archbishop was elevated to cardinal last week! The press coverage of Cardinal Dolan’s new title seemed perfectly timed for the beginning of Lent, really – the archbishop’s return to the city came right in time for Ash Wednesday, so everyone trying to catch a glimpse of him at work in leading worship got to watch the imposition of ashes and all the other strange practices of Ash Wednesday. Suddenly the press had to try to explain these things to a broader audience – while there was surely a significant group of faithful Roman Catholics who understood it all very, very well and a smaller group of Protestants who were familiar with these things, the growing majority knows so very little about matters of religious practice.
I myself found it interesting and a bit instructive, as I grew up in a world where Lent was not celebrated, let alone enforced with the careful guidelines for fasting and abstinence required by the new cardinal. While Christian influences were everywhere and my second-grade public school teacher even led a blessing before we went to lunch, Lent was a very foreign concept in my life of faith. Receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday was not at all part of our tradition – we just had our normal church events on that Wednesday night. Giving up something for this season was not on anyone’s mind in the church where I grew up. And there were even people around me quoting scripture to say that celebrating things like Lent was explicitly forbidden in the New Testament. Now we certainly celebrated Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, but these days were not cast in the careful light of preparation that is the norm when we think about Lent.
I suspect I don’t have to defend Lent to you all in the way that I might to some people back in Mississippi, but nonetheless I think it is important that we begin this season by revisiting one of the stories that inspires us to take this journey and considering some words that can give particular shape to the things we do in these days. This morning’s readings take us first to the pretty familiar story of Jesus spending forty days in the wilderness after his baptism, where he was tempted by Satan, surrounded by wild beasts, and attended by angels. In Matthew and Luke, two later gospels that incorporate some additional source material beyond the earlier gospel of Mark, this story stretches on for several more verses, with much greater detail about the specific temptations and Jesus’ responses to them. But Mark’s story is so simple, consolidated into just two verses, that we have to add several verses around it to make it a complete reading for today!
Yet Mark still tells us that this was an incredibly important time of formation for Jesus along his journey. After being named as God’s Son, the Beloved, Jesus is led out into the wilderness to be shaped and formed into something even greater than he had been. Only after this experience is he ready to step up and proclaim his own message to the people of Galilee when John the Baptist is forced off the scene:
The time is fulfilled,
and the kingdom of God has come near;
repent, and believe in the good news.
While Mark says so little about what happened in these forty days, it is clear that they are incredibly important to his story. Jesus was shaped and formed and prepared for his ministry of teaching and healing by his time in the wilderness. He was given this time apart from the rest of the world to resist temptation and gain the spiritual insight he needed for the days that followed. And he could not have done everything that he did – the teaching, the healing, the living, the calling, the suffering, the dying – without this time to get ready.
And so the forty days of Lent are inspired by these forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, yet I doubt that the point of these days is for us to seek out the exact same kind of temptation that Jesus found along the way! So I find our psalm for today to be very helpful in guiding our own journeys of Lent in these days.
First, this is a season of reorientation, of lifting our lives and hearts and souls to God, of setting aside the temptation to think that we have it all figured out, of moving beyond our shame and uncertainty, of putting our full hope and faith and confidence and trust not in ourselves but in God alone.
Then the psalm reminds us that this is a season of remembrance and transformation, a time to recall God’s mercy and steadfast love. It’s easy to remember the sins of our past and the places where things have gone wrong, yet God’s steadfast love sets that memory aside because of God’s amazing love. For God, the missteps of our past matter far less than the promise of our future. So in these Lenten days, we set aside where we have been and strive to take a new path, not just “giving up” something for forty days but seeking to find and sustain a new way of life for this season and beyond.
Finally, the psalm gives us a guide for our journey during these forty days. It insists that God will show us a path for all of life. It invites us to humility and hope that will give guidance. And it shows that there is a loving and gracious and sure way in these and all days for those who keep God’s covenant and commandments. In this time of reorientation, remembrance, and guidance, the psalm reminds us of God’s promises to transform all of life through this journey of hope, faith, and love.
As I look at these two texts, I see so many words that can describe this journey of Lent for us – temptation, repentance, penitence, remembrance, transformation, reorientation. These are not the easiest words for us to hear, and this is not an easy season. We are not people who like to be challenged to live differently. Even when we want things to change, it is so easy for us to resist what must be done in order to make that change reality. And the promise of reorienting things toward God means that we will have to give up our hold on power and our desire to be in control.
If that is not enough, we know that the journey of these forty days will get harder before it gets easier. The difficult road of Lent will eventually turn toward the darkness of Gethsemane, the pain of Golgotha, and the gloom of the tomb. Yet we also see that there is more ahead on this road than just these things. We walk this road knowing that even with the darkest hours ahead, there is light coming at the end of the journey. Even the gloom of the tomb is transformed by God’s power into the glory of the resurrection.
This can be our story, too. We do not have to obey every Lenten rule perfectly to find this new way. We do not have to suffer and die as Jesus did to know the promise of the resurrection. But we are nonetheless challenged in these forty days just to walk this road with Jesus, trusting that there is something more going on in this season than we can accomplish through giving anything up on our own; looking for signs of transformation and new life as the days lengthen, the winter turns to spring, and new life sprouts up all around us; and deepening our walk of faith as we cast off what gets in the way of us seeing God’s grace at work around us.
So may this Lenten journey be filled with peace, love, and hope, that through our walk in these days we might be prepared for the sorrow and joy that lies ahead for us and that we might be filled with the faith we need for this and every journey we make with one another and with Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.