Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
This winter has been so bad that when I was reading Mark’s description of Jesus’s time in the desert, being threatened by wild beasts and tempted by the devil himself, I was thinking, well, at least there was no snow there. Goes to show how all this white stuff, and the stasis it lulls us into, can play tricks on the mind. But the deprivations and general unpleasantness of Jesus’s time in the wilderness weren’t the point. Jesus wasn’t exactly an ascetic; he enjoyed feasts and festivals as much as the next rabbi. And although Mark doesn’t come out and explain why Jesus went to the wilderness, or rather, why the Holy Spirit drove him there, he shows us the reason by connecting the wilderness sojourn to the inauguration of Jesus’s public ministry.
The Gospel writers make repeated references to Jesus’s own spiritual practices. They show him worshipping and teaching in regular services, praying spontaneously in the course of daily life, and intentionally interrupting that life to get away from the crowds and focus on prayer. We would do well to follow his example. But this time feels different. In part because of the sense of confrontation and danger, both corporeal and spiritual. And in part because Mark shows Jesus’s entire ministry as proceeding directly out of his time in the wilderness. His ministry, and quite likely his death, too, for Mark includes the detail that John the Baptist was arrested while Jesus was in the wilderness, foreshadowing Jesus’s own arrest, and thus, his passion.
The season of Lent isn’t about deprivation, it’s not even just about the end of that deprivation, which is penitence. Lent is about renewal, recommitment, and growth, and our preparation for the wonderful things God has in store for us. One way we can prepare is by searching ourselves, honestly, for things that are preventing God’s will from being done in us, and rooting them out. Although John the Baptist actually was a good man and, indeed, a saint, Mark also uses John as a symbol of the old way of doing things, who has to be out of the picture before Jesus can begin to bring the fullness of God’s grace into the world. To go a little further out on a limb, I would also see John as symbolizing human virtue, and its limitations: even though he is a deeply righteous and spiritual person, he is still just a man, unable to accomplish the full breadth and depth of God’s will for himself, let alone for all Creation. Only God can do that, and God has chosen to do so through God’s son, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased.
In any case, our goal is the same: to accept, and even embrace, the glorious new things God is doing for us and for the world. This involves, necessarily, an openness to change, change in ourselves, our circumstances, and our understanding. Human nature makes us fearful and resistant to change, but the deeper our trust in God, the more open to those changes we will be. A life of public and private prayer, corporate worship, and engagement with the Scriptures help us to develop this trust, and the wisdom to discern which changes come from God, and which ones do not. This season of Lent is our annual wake-up call, the Church’s way of shaking things up, and encouraging us to shake up our own lives.
If you haven’t done so already, I urge you to take a little time to think about these things and share those thoughts with God in prayer. God will do big things for us, but we also have to make a small but positive effort to move into God’s ways. It’s as if God has already cleared all the streets and highways of the snow of sin, but to get to them, we have to clear off the cars of our own souls. OK, maybe that was a bit much, but you get my point. We also know that just as some of us aren’t able to do all the manual labor of snow removal ourselves, we can also get help with our spiritual growth. I would be glad to meet with any of you who might want some suggestions or just a different point of view in your spiritual journey, or I could help you find a trained spiritual director or the other resources the church has made available to help her members. Whatever you do, do something, for Jesus carried out his ministry with a sense of urgency appropriate to the imminence of God. Lent and winter and the status quo of our own lives can feel interminable and immovable, but Jesus shows us that God’s change to something better is very near. Get ready now, for God is already on the move.