Good morning Christians, seekers, and friends!
How are you doing this first Sunday in Lent? This time I ask this not as a nice segue way into my sermon – be nice to the people Ruth Anne so they’ll want to listen—but because in my experience, in the average Christian year, we seem to really “like” Lent a lot and actually seem to have an easier time thinking about and living into the spiritual disciplines and ascetic principles of Lent rather than living into the good news rejoicing to which Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost call us. In our cultural religion, we like to feel guilty about stuff. We are never as happy eating a cookie as the Cookie Monster is. But we’ve all probably eaten a few, right? So, it’s like the guilt allows us a ‘free pass.” We may still do something, but at least we know enough to feel bad about it. In the same way, we like our Lent to be a time of repentance and amendment of life—as long as our Lents are not too Lenty. Jad reminded me that last year at this time I talked about Lent 2020 possibly being the Lentiest Lent ever, and yet it would seem that that was not necessarily true. As so, as we begin this season of Lent 2021, we may not be feeling the same desire for ‘giving up’ something in Lent this year. Why exactly would we want to do that when we feel like we’ve had to give up so much else in the last year?
In my experience, our community is not made up of faint-hearted or self-pitying folks, we, for the most part know we are the lucky ones in this pandemic, and that our experience, as stultifying as it might sometimes seem, is a gift of our privilege not everyone has. Anyone who has mentioned any sense of loss or sadness or discouragement has couched their expressions of grief and vulnerability within this context. “I know I shouldn’t feel this way…. but I do.”
So today I want you to hear that it is okay to feel what you feel. Or to quote from Demi Lovato’s song from the Sunday Forum’s proposed Pandemic playlist, “It’s is okay, not to be okay.” In fact, in terms of observing the season of Lent, it might not a bad place to start. After all, we began the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday with the sobering words –“Remember that you are but dust and to dust you shall return.” Or as the so-called ‘realists’ might prefer to put it “Life is –insert here – [short, hard, bleep], then you die.”
Yet, here is the thing: For we Christians, that cultural phrase is not our truth. Life may be short, and life may be hard at times, but that is not the end of our story. There is so, so much more.
As I approached this week’s gospel, I read a commentary by Osvaldo Vena, a New Testament scholar, which hit me as entirely new and fresh. Which is important this week because, if some of you are thinking to yourselves, “Didn’t we just hear this gospel a few weeks ago?” The answer would be, “Yes.” We not only heard this gospel a few weeks ago…you heard me preach about it a few weeks ago too. Anyway, this text is always an interesting one to exegete – which is theologian speak for interpret—because it is problematic on a couple of levels. The first is why would Jesus, God’s Son, need to baptized by John as he is the ‘’greater” of the two? And the second is why would Jesus, God’s Son without sin, need to receive John’s baptism for repentance of sin? That this section of Mark was difficult for early Christians to understand as well is evidenced by the greater clarification of context and content offered by the other 2 Synoptic gospels. Both Luke and Matthew clarify John’s role as the forerunner to Jesus and in Matthew’s account, the gospel writer actually addresses these questions:
When Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
Professor Veda guides our attention to the too-often-overlooked solid framework in which Mark places his story. As I may have mentioned last time, baptism was a new John the Baptist thing. Jewish folks had long gone through rites of purification, but John’s baptism was different. And so, for the believers and followers of John “their repentance and confession pertain to social sins, not innate, personal ones, for which they [ already] had a recourse through the Temple rites. [For those who sought out John’s baptism] it was [their …admission and acknowledgement] that they had somehow participated in a system of oppression and that now they were ready to change in preparation for God’s reign.”
They knew that they were not living into their promise and potential as God’s chosen people in their promised land. This was evidenced by that fact that in Jesus’ time, not only were God’s people scattered and their land divided and occupied, but they believed that prophecy had ceased with the last prophets. The heavens had “closed,” as it were, and there was no direct communication from God to humankind any more. They believed that prophecy would only be restored at the ‘end-times.’
Mark speaks to this by structuring this opening passage which contains Jesus’ baptism, temptation and the beginning of his ministry within this context right away:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God as it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
At the ending of this introductory section we read: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” In other words, John came to prepare the way for the coming of God’s kingdom and Jesus brings this Kingdom of God into being.
This importance of and reason behind Jesus’ baptism and ministry is further illustrated in Mark by the book-ending of Jesus’ ministry with the tearing open of the heavens as Jesus comes out of the water and the voice from heaven affirms him as God’s son at his baptism, with the tearing of the Temple veil which occurs at Jesus’ death in Mark 15. The Gospel writer is using this parallel to show that the Spirit, which the people of God believed had long ago ceased to speak– once again is present and speaks. The heavens have been ripped open and the temple veil that separated the people from God’s presence is torn apart. Through Jesus the way to God is open for everyone.
So, as we begin this Lent, I want to say it again: “It is okay not to be okay.” If you aren’t feeling like you know what to do or give up during this one heck of a Lenty Lent, remember that we walk this journey together through the next forty days, we are not walking alone. We walk with Jesus and we walk with the Spirit who has been with us and will remain within us always. And what we are walking towards is the Kingdom of God that John came to herald and that Jesus began. A Holy Lent isn’t an exercise in self-flagellation and unconstructive and unacted upon guilt. A Holy Lent is about continuing to believe in and work toward those things which continue to build up Christ’s body, the Church, and God’s Kingdom. It is only when we admit that we are not okay, that we can truly pray to God for change. It is only when we admit that we are not okay, that we collectively begin to ask why… and then get to our important Good News work of asking, “Where does it hurt?” and “What can we do to help?” Jesus proclaims this week: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” Feeling guilty and small and powerless is not repentance. Repentance is turning around and doing something new… And believing in the good news is the antibody to feeling small and powerless. Christians, seekers, and friends… believing in the Good News means we can do difficult things – that all things are possible through the God who loves us and who continues to speak to us today.