Sunday, February 17, 2013

Lent I, Temptation, and the Desert

I ran across this old sermon from the First Sunday in Lent.  The readings are for Year B of the three-year lectionary, but I think the message holds up regardless of the year.

The Judean desert.

*  *  *

            By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity and submission to the law; by thy baptism, fasting, and temptation, Good Lord deliver us.
 -From The Book of Common Prayer's Great Litany

            This morning’s reading from Mark is one of the few quiet moments in all of the gospel.  In last week’s gospel, the season of Epiphany went out in glory with Jesus transfigured, elevated above Moses and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets.  The voice of God proclaimed to the apostles, “This is my beloved Son; Hear ye him.”

            This week, we begin Lent with the beginning of the story that reaches a climax on the Mountain of the Transfiguration.  Last week’s gospel showed us Jesus as at his height, made known to his friends shortly before his passion and resurrection at Jerusalem make him known to the world.  This week’s gospel shows us an obscure Galilean.

            Mark’s gospel has no account of a child who made a king fear for his throne, of a virgin giving birth, of angels filling the sky with gloria in excelsis deo.  Instead, Mark opens with a man from Nazareth waiting to be baptized by John the prophet who many thought was Elijah returned from heaven.  This Jesus does not seem to merit any notice from John or the crowd.  Mark suggests that it is only Jesus who sees heaven opened and hears the voice of God. 

You are my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.

            In the Synoptic gospels, God speaks only at Jesus’ baptism and the Transfiguration.  The two utterances are similar, but the emphasis makes all the difference.  The Gospel story, from this vision at the Jordan to the Mountain of Transfiguration, is the tale of the transition from “You are my Son, the Beloved,” addressed to Jesus, to “This is my son; hear him” addressed to those who will be his witnesses.

            In Mark’s gospel, we do not know what Jesus knew or when he knew it.  Mark chapter one presents an unexceptional man from a small town in an unsavory province who, unnoticed in a crowd, has a vision of the voice of God. 

            In Matthew and Luke’s gospels, it is the young Mary who is pulled by an angel into the drama of salvation.  Mark puts Jesus into this position.  Jesus sees a vision of heaven opened and is compelled into the wilderness by the spirit.  In the other gospels, Jesus is set up as the son of God well before his baptism.  Matthew has John try to prevent Jesus’ being baptized saying “I need to be baptized by you.” Luke sets this moment up with the information that the Baptist is Jesus’ older cousin, predestined by God to prepare the way for the Christ.  In the Gospel of John, the Baptist sees Jesus at a distance and hails him as the Lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world.  All of the evangelists, except Mark, are uncomfortable with the Messiah that they have set up coming to John for baptism.  The nativity stories in Matthew and Luke and the prologue to John’s gospel all make an anti-climax of this moment when Jesus hears the voice of God.  All take pains to set this moment by the Jordan as a passing of the torch from John to Jesus.  Matthew, Luke, and John give us the divine Christ from verse one.  Mark begins with a human Jesus  who has miles to go before he is transfigured before his friends.

            In Matthew and Luke’s accounts of this story, Jesus next withdraws to the desert for forty days.  During this time, he eats nothing then easily bests Satan in three wonder-filled encounters.  Jesus’ answers to the devils temptations are brilliant, but pat. 

            According to Mark, the spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism suddenly drives him into the desert.  The word here is ekballo:  to drive out, to reject, to depose a king, to force away.  This is the same verb that is used when Jesus fashions a whip from cords and drives the moneychangers out of the temple.  In contrast to Matthew and Luke’s dignified withdrawal to face a challenge whose outcome seems a foregone conclusion, Mark once again portrays Jesus as the one who is acted upon.

            While Mark tells his readers that Jesus is tempted by Satan during these forty days, he makes no mention of trips to the pinnacle of the temple or of Jesus eviscerating rhetoric.  Mark says only that “he was with the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him.”

            In the other three gospels, the reader knows that the man who is baptized by John is the Christ of Glory.  Mark gives us the man Jesus taking the first of many steps toward the mountain of the transfiguration.

`           The creeds speak of a Jesus Christ who was truly divine and yet truly human.  This truly human Jesus of the first chapter of Mark is an apt beginning for Lent, the season of human frailty.  This man from Nazareth who slipped away from the crowd on the banks of the Jordan to spend forty days alone in the wilderness pondering a vision is our model as we come again to our forty days of self-examination.  The Christ of the other gospels is a bit too exalted and conquers a bit too easily to comfort us as we take stock of our humanity.  That august being is the Christ of Easter whose resurrection has opened the way of life.  But this lonely man, alone in the crowd, then alone in the wilds makes our own sufferings, doubts, and insecurities, more honorable adversaries.  This man is the one who makes us feel that in spite of ourselves we may be able to join that glorified Christ in the resurrection life.  This is the man who makes it seem that perhaps we can come to a place where we are bold enough to call God our Father, and believe it.

            We know what it is like to go unnoticed in the crowd, to be alone, to struggle with what it means to be a child of God and how to live out that calling.  Jesus knew all of these things too.

            Over the rest of this season, take time to meditate on this Jesus of Mark, this Jesus of Lent who returns from the wilderness not to glory but to rejection by his home Nazareth.  This Jesus who in next week’s gospel tells his disciples that he must die and receives a rebuke rather than comfort.  He was a man acquainted with grief and sorrow as we are.  A man who, in the words of today’s epistle, suffered for the righteous and the unrighteous alike in order to bring us to God.

            In six weeks, we meet the Christ of the Easter story.  This Jesus of today’s gospel knew about frustration, loneliness, disappointment by family and friends, about the enormous responsibility of being a child of God.  Let this Jesus lead you to and past the tomb where he once lay.  Amen.