Lent 1 (B)
Christ Church Cathedral
18 February 2018
Turning to life
On the first Sunday of Lent you might have been expecting to hear the Gospel story of Jesus being tested by the devil during a 40 day sojourn in the wilderness.
The classic Lent hymn, “forty days and forty nights”, captures that traditional spirit of extended hardship and trials.
But this is the Year of Mark, so we get just the summary description in 1:12–13:
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
The more developed version of this tradition is found in Matthew and Luke, but that is not what we have been served by the lectionary for this year as we start Lent.
Instead, from the Gospel of Mark we are offered a very different but very important memory about the public activity of Jesus.
This week’s passage offers us three snippets:
- Baptism of Jesus by John (vss 9–11)
- Jesus being tested in the wilderness: driven out by the Spirit of God to the place ‘where the wild things are’ (vss 12–13)
- Jesus beginning his mission (vss 14–15)
It is that final summary that I want us to focus on today.
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.”
I believe this brief statement offers us immense spiritual wisdom as individuals and as a faith community on this day when we have our annual general meeting.
This summary, and especially vs 15, is one of the pivotal texts for my understanding of Jesus, for my understanding of my own faith, and therefore for my understanding of the mission we share as a faith community.
Correctly, understood, this verse invites us to see everything from a different angle.
Motivation (it’s time … God is among us)
Mark captures the essence of Jesus’ message in this verse as he begins with the key concept of the reign of God. In the Greek text of Mark’s Gospel this is expressed as the basileia tou theou. In English Bibles since at least 1611, this has been translated as the ‘kingdom of God’ although Jesus’ listeners would probably have understood it as the ‘empire of God’.
In the Greek-speaking eastern end of the Roman Empire, basileia was the word for empire.
At the time when King James was commissioning his Authorised Version of the Bible, they had a problem with the ancient meaning of this phrase. Spain had an empire, but England was a kingdom. So Jesus came to speak to Englishmen at least about the kingdom of God, rather than God’s empire.
God’s reign is what we pray for each time we say the Lord’s Prayer: your kingdom come …
God’s reign means things on earth happening the way God wants them to be, and not the way the Emperor wants them to be.
Jesus was saying—and acting as if—God’s re-ordering of human affairs was already starting to happen. The kingdom is here. God’s reign is already happening. It starts here. With us. Right now.
Of course, people who speak and act like that soon find that tyrants taken them out, and that would happen to Jesus within a very short time.
Remember, he was killed not because he upset the Temple priests but because he unsettled the Romans.
If we never say or do anything to upset the ways things are around here, I wonder if we have really understood this key element of Jesus’ own self-understanding?
To recycle an old proverb:
Jesus came to comfort the disturbed,
and to disturb the comfortable.
Can our mission, as individuals and as a church, be any different from that?
Turn to life
The second part of Mark’s snappy three part summary is that those who heard Jesus were called upon to repent.
Ah, you say, now that sounds like Lent!
But think again, and think more deeply.
The concept at the heart of repentance is turning.
We mostly have heard about this as people tell us to turn away from sin, turn away from temptation, and to turn away from evil.
But it may be better to think of this word as an invitation to turn towards God, to turn towards love, to turn towards life.
These alternatives invite us to think about our central understanding of ourselves, and of life. Do we mostly think about ourselves as sinners who need to turn away from evil, or as beloved children who can choose to embrace life and turn towards God?
To put in another way, does “repent” make us feel bad about ourselves or good about ourselves? Does this word put us down, or set us free?
I hope you will hear Jesus speaking about repentance as an invitation to become more truly who we already are, and to turn consciously and intentionally towards life, to embrace love, and to claim our true human dignity as beloved children of God.
This Lent I am encouraging you to think about spiritual fitness options rather than pleasures that need to be set aside.
Turning to life, rather than turning away from death.
The final part of Jesus’ mission message was for people to believe the good news.
That is not a demand that we believe the Nicene Creed or embrace the Thirty Nine Articles. It is not even a requirement that we believe in the Bible. None of that has any part in the mission and message of Jesus.
As we read through the Gospels we do not find Jesus questioning people about their beliefs or berating them for their sins. He never asked people about their synagogue attendance or their offering envelopes. And he does not grill them about their relationship status.
What we do find Jesus often doing is affirming the deep faith (trust) that a particular person seems to have: ‘because of your trust what you have asked will be granted …’
This kind of existential trust in the goodness of God and in the reality of God’s reign right here and right now is what changes their lives:
The blind see
The lame walk
The deaf hear
The sick are healed
The dead are raised.
When we turn towards life—and when we trust in the goodness of God’s love which is at the very heart of our universe—then a new day dawns. God’s kingdom arrives among us. The old emperor is dethroned.
May that be your experience this Lent.
And may that be our experience in the year that lies ahead of us as a Parish.
Turn to life, embrace love, discover God.