Text: Mark 1:9-15
It is the first Sunday in Lent and there are certain tropes, certain stock phrases, that are so much a part of this season that they’re almost unavoidable. We have to say something about this “Lenten journey,” maybe in conjunction with the phrase “throughout these forty days.” There’s probably going to be plenty of references to the cross, which can be combined with elements of the aforementioned stock phrases to create compound familiar sayings like “our Lenten journey to the cross” or even “throughout our forty day Lenten journey to the cross.”
The preacher’s job, finding ways to present a familiar message in a new and refreshing way, isn’t made any easier this year as we work out of the gospel of Mark. We’ve already heard the first three verses of this passage, ending with “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It was the assigned reading for the Baptism of our Lord on January 11. We heard another variation on the theme just last week on Transfiguration Sunday when the disciples hear the voice from heaven announcing to them what Jesus hears at his baptism, “this is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” I don’t have a lot more to squeeze out of those verses that I haven’t already shared with you.
To make matters worse, Mark is the shortest of the four gospels and tends to avoid the narrative flourishes of the other three. Therefore you’ll notice that in this morning’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness Satan doesn’t command Jesus to turn the stones into bread, or take him to the highest pinnacle to offer him rulership of the world. We’re merely told that the Spirit drove him into the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts while angels waited on him. Less and less to work with.
There is some logic though to the way the lectionary, the set of readings from the Old and New Testaments we hear each week, is put together; and I want to share a little of that logic with you as a way of orienting you to the season of Lent – let’s call it a roadmap for your “Lenten journey throughout these forty days.” As your bulletin notes on the front cover, this year the five Sundays in Lent correspond to five of the covenants God made with the people of Israel. Each of these five pieces of Old Testament literature is paired with scripture from the New Testament that interprets those promises in light of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus – which we understand as God’s covenant with us.
- So this week we hear God’s covenant made with Noah, whom God carried safely to new life across the waters that brought death to the rest of the world.
- Next week we hear God’s promise to Abraham and Sara to make a great nation of their family, and that God’s promises to them were made good not because of Abraham’s righteousness – but because of his faith.
- The following week we hear the Ten Commandments, the covenant God made with the people as they were being delivered from the slavery of Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land; though Paul will caution us in his letter to the Corinthians that we aren’t saved by the wisdom of the law, but by the foolishness of the cross.
- The fourth week we witness God’s promise to heal God’s people in a scene that powerfully foreshadows the healing power of the cross. Moses is instructed to make a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole, to lift it high so that anyone stung by the desert snakes could look at this symbol of death and find new life.
- And the final week we hear from the prophet Jeremiah that a new covenant is coming when God will stop writing the law on stone tablets and will start writing on each our hearts, in personal and intimate terms that will make it clear that we are all God’s people.
Five weeks of covenants, promises from God to the people – from God to us – shared as reminders that, though we journey in the wilderness, we are accompanied by a God who has and will continue to travel with us, heal us and save us.
This Old Testament focus on covenants helps us understand what Mark is doing in the gospel passage as well. Mark sees Jesus as the one who retraces the footsteps of Israel, who gathers up all those promises and makes them available to the whole world by taking them into himself and offering himself for others. So even in these short few verses we can make out subtle references to the story of the Israelites. The words Jesus hears as he emerges from the river Jordan, “you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased” are drawn from the prophet Isaiah and the Psalms. Jesus leaves the waters of the Jordan and is immediately in the wilderness, as if he had crossed through the waters of the Red Sea with Moses and the people and now compresses their forty years of wandering into his forty days of temptation. What Mark sees in Jesus is the whole history of Israel beings swept up into the person of Jesus, so that when he returns from the wilderness to announce “the time is fulfilled, and the reign of God has come near” we understand that this time means all of time, and the reign that has come near means the fulfillment of all the promises God has made time and time again.
And that, my friends, is a roadmap to the season of Lent – your own personal Fodor’s or Lonely Planet travel guide. Like a well-written travel guide, I hope you have a better sense of what you’re about to see, and a little context to help you make sense of it. Of course, reading a travel guide is nothing at all like taking the trip. Sometimes on my day off I like to go to Kopi Café in Andersonville and pick out one of the travel guides in their bookstore to browse while I eat my bowl of soup, but I never feel like I’ve been to Egypt afterwards. Just that I’d like to go.
That’s what I hope for you. You’ve been through a few Lents in your life. You have heard these stories before. You know that this season of repentance and renewal, of baptismal preparation for new membership and new life, leads to a week that ends with the cross. You know the emotional ups and downs that are a part of this undertaking. You are seasoned travelers and – while we are all on this journey together, the experience you will have is your own. Maybe you can approach it like that – like a travel seminar. Keep a journal. Record your observations, discoveries and questions. Talk to your fellow travelers, and listen to how they make sense of this experience. Look for images, snapshots that capture in their details the meaning of the whole. That way, when we reach the end of this “forty day Lenten journey to the cross” and arrive at the Easter Vigil to hear the stories of the salvation history, perhaps we will have stories of our own to share; travelogues of the way that God has kept God’s promises to us, insights into the meaning of our own baptism, a new appreciation for membership in a body that includes every living person, stories about temptations and the ways that God fed and tended to us along the way.