A sermon offered on the First Sunday in Lent, February 22, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day were Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; and Mark 1:9-15. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
What is Lent all about?
Some say it’s a time when we are supposed to find the presence of God in everyday life. Dr. Jonn Sentamu, the current Archbishop of York, suggested as much in his 2015 Ash Wednesday meditation when he said, “Lent is a time to get to know God better.” Similarly, an interdenominational Lenten devotional refers to Lent as a “journey [on which] you seek – and find – God.”
That’s one way to think about Lent. But that way isn’t working for me this year, especially as I contemplate Mark’s description of Jesus’ baptism and its aftermath. If in our Lenten discipline we are to be, in some way, doing what a Lenten hymn attributed to St. Gregory the Great says — “keep[ing] vigil with our heavenly lord in his temptation and his fast” — then we should pay particular attention to what really was going on there and seek to do during Lent what seems to be going on with Jesus in the wilderness.
Let’s look at Mark’s spare and barebones description of it all again. It’s a short Gospel text, so let’s read it in full one more time:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
OK. It doesn’t seem to me that Jesus needed to look for God! God is always there (which is the promise of the story of the rainbow in today’s Genesis reading) and the presence of God is very apparent in these first few lines of this Gospel story. The Holy Spirit (the Third Person of the Trinity) doesn’t just make a polite visit here; she’s not just gliding in here or fluttering by. No! The heavens, Mark says, were “torn apart” and the Spirit (in the form of a dove) came diving done like some eagle homing in on its prey! And there’s a bit of a mistranslation here, as well; the English translation we read says the Spirit descended “on” Jesus but the Greek makes more sense if we read it as saying that the Spirit came down into Jesus.
This really is an active, even violent description, that Mark has laid out for us. Jesus doesn’t just emerge from the water like someone stepping carefully out of a swimming pool; the Greek is “euthus anabainon” – Jesus “immediately ascended” out of the water; like a whale breaching the surface of the sea. And the Spirit, having torn the heaven’s apart, “katabainon eis auton“, dives down into Jesus. Rapid movement up is met with rapid movement down, a collision of the Son and the Spirit. This dove dove deep into Jesus; Jesus was possessed by the Holy Spirit.
And, of course, God the Father (First Person of the Trinity) is right there as well, fairly shouting, “You’re my son! I love you! I’m please as punch with you!” Jesus doesn’t need to go on any journey to find this God; he doesn’t need any time to get to know this God any better!
So what happens next?
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
Mark continues his energetic, and here overtly violent, description of Jesus’ encounter with the Holy Spirit. There’s a sense here that Jesus is not a willing volunteer; the Spirit is making no polite suggestion that Jesus go spend a few days in the desert so that he can know “the presence of God in everyday life.” No! Jesus is prodded, herded, pushed, forced, driven out into the rough country to cozy up to the wild beasts.
Why? What was he to do out there?
He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
“Peiradzomenos hupo tou satana” reads the Greek: literally, “he was tested by the tempter.” Our English translation eliminates the definite article that is clearly there in the Greek, “the satan,” the tempter, and then capitalizes “satan” thus personalizing this tempter and, in fact, makes us think of the Devil of later Christian poetic mythology. But who else might the tempter have been?
“Sometimes we are devils to ourselves, when we will tempt the frailty of our powers, presuming on their changeful potency,” wrote William Shakespeare in the play Troilus and Cressida (Troilus speaking to Cressida and Aeneas, Act IV, scene 4). “The devil tempts us not — ’tis we tempt him….” wrote George Eliot in her 19th Century novel Felix Holt, the Radical.
Could it be that the temptations Jesus faced were those he put before himself? We certainly put enough temptations in front of ourselves; we are, more often than not, our own tempters. Could it be that Jesus’ tempter was his own human self? Scripture reminds us (and the Lenten preface of our Eucharistic prayer repeats) that in Jesus “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb 4:15) Could it be that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to confront himself, to learn about himself?
If Lent is not a journey to find God, could it be journey to find ourselves? It could indeed! Lent, it has been said, is a period of self-discovery in which we encounter the parts of ourselves we don’t want to discover. If Jesus was made to spend time in the desert to learn about himself, then such self-discovery during this season surely would be, as Gregory’s great Lenten hymn proclaims, a reminder that “though frail we be, in [God’s] own image were we made.” Lent is a time to find ourselves, a time to reorient ourselves to who we are, where we have come from, where we are going, and how we are going to get there. This is surely what those forty days in the desert were for Jesus, as Mark demonstrates when he concludes this brief story with these words:
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.”
At the end of his 40 days with the wild beasts, Jesus knew who he was and what he was about. What can we do, then, to experience a similar self-revelation? How can we reorient ourselves to who we are, where we have come from, where we are going, and how we are to get there?
What we can do is to engage in a Lenten discipline, a rule-of-life for these 40 days. I plan to adopt a program set out several years ago by a famous bishop of Rome. It is known as “the daily decalogue of Pope John XXIII.” I plan to use it as a Lenten spiritual exercise to be renewed and lived out each day. As its name implies, it has ten parts:
- Only for today, I will seek to live the live-long day positively without wishing to solve the problems of my life all at once.
- Only for today, I will take the greatest care of my appearance: I will dress modestly; I will not raise my voice; I will be courteous in my behavior; I will not criticize anyone; I will not claim to improve or to discipline anyone except myself.
- Only for today, I will be happy in the certainty that I was created to be happy, not only in the other world but also in this one.
- Only for today, I will adapt to circumstances, without requiring all circumstances to be adapted to my own wishes.
- Only for today, I will devote 10 minutes of my time to some good reading, remembering that just as food is necessary to the life of the body, so good reading is necessary to the life of the soul.
- Only for today, I will do one good deed and not tell anyone about it.
- Only for today, I will do at least one thing I do not like doing; and if my feelings are hurt, I will make sure that no one notices.
- Only for today, I will make a plan for myself: I may not follow it to the letter, but I will make it. And I will be on guard against two evils: hastiness and indecision.
- Only for today, I will firmly believe, despite appearances, that the good Providence of God cares for me as no one else who exists in this world.
- Only for today, I will have no fears. In particular, I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful and to believe in goodness. Indeed, for 12 hours I can certainly do what might cause me consternation were I to believe I had to do it all my life.
I hope that through this daily wilderness exercise of prayer, fasting, and discipline I will find myself, even those parts of me that I don’t want to discover.
May your Lent, too, be a wilderness time of self-discovery. Remember, you don’t need to look for God; God is always there. This Lent, look for yourself. Amen.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.