Monday, February 23, 2015

Lent is not about spiritual self-improvement…a sermon on Mark 1:9-15

Credit to Angie van Broekhuizen

Mark 1:9-15

Grace, peace and mercy are yours from the Triune God.  Amen

It’s the first Sunday in Lent. Lent has an undeserved reputation as a season of penance.  If popular culture knows anything about Lent, it is generally limited to “giving things up” such as facebook or chocolate or red meat.  The popular theory about why we crazy Christians give things up for these forty days is that in some way, our menial “suffering” without our morning coffee, is supposed to bring us closer to Christ and his suffering.  Our discomfort is supposed to make us draw closer to God.  A time of attempting to atone for our inescapable humanness.
One year I tried to give up swearing for Lent, it lasted about 6 hours.  I also tried giving up refined sugar, but I found that chocolate has a much louder call to me than the call of obedience to self-denial. Coffee brings me far too much joy to willingly excise it from my life and while I probably shouldn’t spend so much time on social media, I am not willing to give it up either because it is the way I connect with many friends around the globe. About six years ago I dreamed up the brilliant idea of adding something positive to my life during Lent, so that I would become more spiritual or something.  I would spend time doing contemplative prayer or doing yoga or volunteering. I thought I was being more evolved by avoiding the concept of self-denial and trying to embark on some spiritual self-improvement program. My best attempts at self-improvement failed too.  I fall asleep during contemplative prayer, I often start laughing uncontrollably during yoga, and finding time to volunteer regularly with an organization is not as easy as you would think. All I concluded is that I failed at both abstaining from things that I chose to designate as unhelpful and failed at trying to add things to my life that were positive and life-giving. Because truthfully, I am not good at running my own life or drawing closer to God.
It’s kind of unfortunate that the Gospel text for the first Sunday in Lent is about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  It’s unfortunate that it’s so easy to make a parallel between Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness and the forty days of Lent. And it’s really unfortunate that Mark’s Gospel is so brief and lacks the clear commentary of Matthew, the prose of Luke, and the poetry of John’s Gospel. It makes it really tempting for us to want to fill in the details.  It is tempting for us to want to cast ourselves in the role of Jesus.  To see ourselves as wandering through a Lenten wilderness filled with the overwhelming temptations of refined sugar, red meat, and social media. We try to substitute more life-affirming practices that will help stave off the wilderness of loneliness, aging, despair and even death, so that we can emerge triumphant from the wilderness. But in this understanding of the text, and of Lent itself, we are succumbing to the greatest temptation of all, to think that God is not present and that we are alone in this crazy world.
Wilderness in scripture is the place where people just like you and me meet God.  Abraham met God on the mountaintop with Isaac, Moses met God on Mt Sinai, and Jacob wrestled with God alongside a river.  The wilderness genre in scripture tends to follow a particular script: a person goes into the wilderness, they encounter some sort of trial, they have a conversation with God, then they emerge triumphant. With that in mind, this short text from Mark is particularly troubling to us.  Mark’s Gospel doesn’t give us any description of what happens to Jesus in the Wilderness. We only know that Jesus ultimately makes it out because he came to Galilee to continue John the Baptist’s message of repentance after John’s arrest. I am not sure about you, but I’d sure like some dialogue between Jesus and his heavenly father, some sort of spiritual reinforcement.  But we don’t get that. Mark’s short description of Jesus’ time in the wilderness sounds pretty terrible.
It took me about five times of reading through this text and wondering where God was to make the connection between Mark’s description of Jesus’ baptism, in which God’s voice from heaven proclaims, “You are my son” and the fact that the son of God, Jesus, was actually God taking on flesh, living and breathing, and entering into the wilderness.  So if you also had questions about this text, you are in good company. This reading from Mark’s Gospel is not about putting ourselves in the role of Jesus and wondering how we would respond when and if Satan tempts us.  It is about God entering into the darkest places of this world and conquering evil.  It is about the message of, “it has been fulfilled.  It is done.  It is finished.” 
 The temptation to think that we can go it alone without God is far more insidious than a sugar craving that we think we can conquer for 40 days, and then celebrate our self-control by eating a three pound chocolate rabbit on Easter morning. On Ash Wednesday, we were reminded of our mortality, our bondage to sin and self, and our brokenness.  We confessed our deep need for God’s mercy. We were finally given space to admit to who we are, without pretense, without the façade that we so carefully construct to pretend that we are okay.  The season of Lent reminds us of our inescapable humanness.  The truth of Lent devastates our sense of self-sufficiency, our sense of holding it all together, and our sense of saving ourselves. The Gospel is the worst good news ever, because it WILL kill you.  Or at least the carefully constructed image of you that is presented to the world.
We seem almost hardwired to resist God’s presence in our lives. I generally spend time praying when things are going really bad, and tend to attribute the calm and content moments of my life to my own efforts. I am more likely to get mad at God for God’s silence in times of grief and injustice than to give thanks to God when I experience grace and renewal and forgiveness. I’ve spent most of my life trying to prove God’s very existence beyond a shred of doubt, and lacking a confirmation letter delivered by an angelic messenger, it’s pretty easy to default to doubting God’s existence. In the course of all of this self-justification, it is really easy to miss that God is already here.  All of this is what it means to be in sin. Sin is not the things that we do or fail to do, but our self-inflicted separation from God. The season of Lent is about God loving us so much that God would send Jesus to live and die among us for our sake.  Lent is a time of drawing closer to God, because God is already here. It is NOT about our attempting to earn our salvation in time for Easter, through penance and self-discipline.

Lent is kind of hopeful for me. Hope and Lent are not generally two words that go together, so bear with me. I don’t want a God that lives in a palace on a cloud and has never walked among us, because there is no way that I can believe that God is real, and would probably be kind of a jerk.  Just as we are reminded of our own humanness during the season of Lent, we are reminded of God’s taking on flesh and being human, and ultimately doing the most human thing of all, dying. It’s really the most undignified kind of exit for a God who chose to enter the world to save it.  But this is good news, because I need to know that God knows what it means to be human.  I need to know that God knows what it is to suffer. Because it is only then that I can believe that God continues to show up in my own suffering and in the suffering of this world. That is the hope of Lent. Lent is about God entering into the darkest places of this world for our sake, and firmly saying, “Sin, death, and evil have no dominion over me. You are my beloved, and with you I am well-pleased.


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