Reflection: February 18 — LENT 1

Published on Feb 19th, 2018 by Rev. David Boyd | 0

         In the February 16th Daily Devotional that I receive from The United Church of Christ, our sister denomination in the US, Anthony Robinson wrote about asking for help. When he was younger, he asked his professor at Union Seminary in New York about what the difference was between predominantly black and predominantly white congregations. Jim Forbes was the professor; he went on to the be the minister at Riverside Church in New York, the largest liberal protestant church in the US. Jim, who is an African-American, said to Tony, “In predominantly Caucasian congregations, people believe God needs them; in predominantly African-American churches, people understand that they need God.” [1]  It’s a generalization, of course, but it raises an interesting question about temptation.

         Which brings us to Mark the gospel-writer and today’s story. Mark’s gospel is thought to be the earliest gospel we have. Paul, who started churches in Asia Minor around the Mediterranean, wrote in the 50’s, a mere 20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, but Mark’s gospel is another 15-20 years later. It is brief and to the point; no flowery language or speech. Kind of like Ernest Hemingway.

Mark didn’t have a birth story—doesn’t need it. Even his resurrection depiction of Jesus ended, in the original gospel, with the women running away from the empty tomb afraid. The Church later added another few verses to bring the gospel more in line with Matthew, Luke and John.

         Our story today is case in point of brevity. The first Sunday in Lent is always a story about Jesus’ temptation after his baptism. Matthew and Luke depict this story in 11 verses in Matthew’s case and 13 verses in Luke’s case. John doesn’t have it at all. Mark depicts the temptation of Jesus in 2 verses. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness after his baptism… 40 days he was tempted and the wild beasts and angels ministered to him we are told.

         Why so brief? Karoline Lewis, a professor of preaching in Minneapolis, writes, “Maybe temptation doesn’t matter as much to Mark, or it matters differently. So then, what does matter? In asking that question it appears that I am giving more weight to the baptism of Jesus which is as brief as his temptation. Which wins? If you choose temptation, then you have to read forward in Mark. What tempts Jesus? What tempts us? Yet Jesus’ baptism totally matters for Jesus’ temptation, as you know. God rips apart the heavens. The Spirit descends. The Spirit enters into Jesus. It seems that no resistance of temptation is successful without the presence of God. And therein lies our promise. Not necessarily that we have the power to defend and deflect temptation.” [2]

         Lewis goes on to say that what Mark’s story raises is our temptation to think that God is not present, or that we don’t need God’s presence, or that we think we can survive just fine on our own. Or, as Jim Forbes said, that our focus is helping God. Asking for help ourselves, after all, is a sign of a weakness, a threat of failure, isn’t it?

         Mark invites us, in his brief story of Jesus’ temptation, to show how fragile our self-constructed worlds really are. Not knowing what would happen, Jesus was baptized by John, and the heavens were torn open and the Spirit descended on him and God spoke. Maybe Jesus went to the River Jordan initially to help affirm John: “I’ll just go and be a support to John in what he’s doing with his baptism thing!” And then, boom, the heavens are torn apart—literally—and the Spirit descends. Did Jesus expect this? And then he’s driven out into the desert to further have his world torn apart.

         That’s what the Spirit does. It tears apart our carefully constructed worlds so that the Spirit can get in, so that the words of love that Jesus embodied, are given new flesh in us. Jesus goes into the wilderness only with the affirmation that God is present. He is open; his own being has been torn open so that the Holy Spirit can be present fully in him.

         And isn’t that for us also? We are tempted to think that we can make it without God’s presence. “I’ve got this, God.” “I can make it on my own.” “I’ve read all the self-help books, I can do it!” It seems this is an age-old temptation. Psalm 139 affirms that there is nowhere we can go where God is not: “Where can I flee from your Spirit. If I flee to the outermost parts of the sea, or even make my bed in the place of the dead, even there you will find me.” I don’t know about you, but I fail at this temptation almost daily.

         Listening to Nolan preach on Ash Wednesday was a gift to me because I have to listen—like you—to the same old preacher week in and week out. I don’t know about you, but I have trouble hearing what he is saying and living it out. I have trouble believing in what he says every week and believing that it is true for me! Like that very day, Ash Wednesday, at our monthly Lakeside Village worship, I offered a little homily about love—it was Valentine’s Day—and the fact that no matter what we face, the love of God surrounds us and we can experience this love when we reach out to each other and seek love and help. I didn’t hear what I was saying… or I didn’t let it open me up and allow the Spirit in. But, when I heard another preacher speak later that evening, I realized, this too, is for me. I can do nothing without God and I know that I need to work with God, too. And I need this community. And I need the Holy Spirit to tear me open and remind me that I’ve lived the temptation too long.

         So, this Lent isn’t about listing our temptations like chocolate or dessert or not going to the gym. What we are reminded of in this Lent is that we are tempted to keep the Spirit out, to not let the Spirit tear us open so that we can live fully in God’s presence. With God nothing is impossible, Mary was told. That is our promise, too. This Lent, let us open to God’s Spirit, which often comes in unexpected places and surprising ways to assure us that we, too, are beloved of God.

         Amen.

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[1] See the blog at http://www.ucc.org/daily_devotional_asking_for_help.

[2] See Karoline’s blog at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3537.

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