Todays readings for the First Sunday in Lent Genesis 9:8-17 Psalm 25:1-10 1 Peter 3:18-22 Mark 1:9-15
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton.
So in these early weeks of the year, through Epiphany or the season of revelation and now at the beginning of Lent, or Season of preparation for the passion, cross and resurrection and ascension, we are dwelling, abiding, in Mark Chapter 1. It strikes me that in this first chapter we have everything we need for salvation. And our Psalm today is the fitting response to this chapter, written perhaps a thousand years before but it is the right and fitting response to the God who is revealed in this chapter of Mark.
Last week we sojourned with Peter, James and John up on the mountain of transfiguration. And while we were there we heard God’s words of love and enlightenment. Today we are sitting with Jesus in the beginning of his story, or at least as close to the beginning as Mark takes us.
In six verses Mark brings us three of the most important events in Jesus’ life.
The first, which of course we have already discussed early in Epiphany, is the baptism of Jesus. When we looked at it earlier we were seeing it from the perspective of revelation, but today I want us to think about it from a slightly different angle. Because, as well as revealing who Jesus is and also something about God, this baptism is the beginning of the end. There is a passage in Joel, chapter 2, which Peter quotes on the day of Pentecost. It goes like this,
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
Peter uses this to reference the amazing event that was taking place, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Here at Jesus’ baptism we have that same event, except that here the Holy Spirit is being poured “into” Jesus, in particular anointing. This is an irruption of God. God is breaking through into the world and into Jesus. It is the fulfilment, at least the beginning of the fulfilment of the prophesy from Joel and as Joel indicates it signals the beginning of the end times. I find it interesting that the end times, the eschaton, is pointed to here by a display of love. We think of all apocalyptic events as terrifying eruptions but here the irruption of God is all about love- Jesus the anointed is well pleasing to God the Father.
And immediately, Mark’s favourite word, Jesus is driven out into the wilderness. Indeed the Greek actually says that he was chucked out into the wilderness, by the HS for forty days. Now, we are just beginning the forty days of Lent, counting down from Ash Wednesday. We have quanitified the wilderness experience and year by year try to share it with Jesus. I feel quite certain that when Mark was writing the Gospel the forty days was a reference, not to a sequence of weeks but rather to an experience like Noah’s with forty days and nights of rain which secluded him in the ark, or Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness- a period of separation in order to become something, both different and the same. I wonder if this Lent, rather than ticking off the Sundays we could see it as a period of wilderness experience, a time of stepping aside from the world. On Ash Wednesday I called those of you who attended the services to a fast from wanting things, a fast from consumerism and a turning towards God that embraced generosity to others. That is a wilderness experience in our society which is consumption based. We know that we live in the last days and we need to behave like inhabitants of the Kingdom of God. This wilderness experience isn’t in order that we might get to heaven when we die, but like Jesus, to be people who live in the Kingdom of God, right now.
And in the wilderness Jesus is tested. I am reminded of Psalm 95, ‘when your ancestors tested me, and put me to proof though they had seen my works. For forty years I loathed that generation and said, “they are a people who do err in their hearts for they have not known my ways,” of whom I have sworn in my wrath, “they shall not enter my rest.” This wilderness thing is a time of testing, and the test is largely, I suspect, about how we perceive God. If we don’t know God, we err in our hearts, in other words if we don’t love God, we don’t make the most of the wilderness experience. If, however, we like Jesus are living by the Holy Spirit who has taken us into the place in the first place, we are able to survive, and even thrive through our testing by Satan.
Evil, Satan, or whatever you name it, is the impulse towards putting your self first, I think. All evil in our world comes through people who think that they are the most important and must have what they want. I have been trying to think of a scenario in which the evil does not stem from putting yourself first. When you put yourself first, you are making yourself equivalent to God. This is the sin of eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, because we think that now we are God, which makes us able to judge ourselves more important than others. The reality in God’s world is that we are all the same, there are no insiders and outsiders. One of our great temptations is to see ourselves as the most important.
Mark doesn’t go into the temptations or testing that Jesus experiences, rather he leaves that a blank space for our own imaginations to supply the things that would be tests for us. This is a space that seems, I think, more terrifying than either Matthew or Luke where the temptations or testing is spelt out. It’s like knowing what’s in the exam paper- you still have to write the essays or supply the answers, but you have some idea of the parameters. Mark’s unnamed testing is truly terrifying.
I am very interested that Mark says that Jesus was with the wild beasts, and the words imply that they were the animals that were not domesticated, not that they were savage. Does Mark mean that they were a threat to Jesus or conversely that Jesus inhabited the place with them, living in harmony with them? Was Jesus living in a relationship with nature rather than struggling against it? The other picture we have is of the angels serving Jesus. Jesus, who will say that he came not to be served but to serve, is served by the angels or messengers of God. This wilderness that Jesus experiences sounds some how to me like paradise. Jesus leaves behind the complexities of his world and lives in harmony with the wild things, in the company of angels. Utopia unlimited.
But Jesus can’t stay in the wilderness for ever, he comes out and immediately begins to proclaim the Kingdom of God. He has gone to the margins, however to do it. He doesn’t go into Jerusalem to start at the temple. Jesus goes to the people in the provinces and calls them to repentance. Repentance is turning around and rethinking our lives, because the Kingdom of God, and it’s source, that is God God’s-self has come near. And Jesus says it is good news. Why? Because the irruption of God is to tell them that God loves them, that they can be in relationship with God. Surely there is no better news. The Good News of the Kingdom of God also has implications in terms of justice and righteousness, which is good news for those who are treated unjustly, and those who require mercy.
The psalmist knew this, indeed God’s people had always known it, but the good news of the kingdom is now going out the margins. This is good news for everyone.
So these three events in Jesus’ life, baptism, the wilderness testing and then the commencement of his ministry are the key notes for the whole of Jesus’ life. For us this can be very good news depending on how we see ourselves placed with God. If we repent and turn from a self-centredness to an other centred life, caring for God’s precious children, we are able to say, in the words of the Psalmist.
“To you, O Lord do I lift up my soul, O my God, in you I trust. Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord and of your steadfast love for they have been from of old.”