A Lenten Triptych

Lent 1, February 22, 2015

Mark 1:9-15

Here we are again, the first Sunday of Lent.  Confronted once more with the annual opportunity to rethink and renew our faith, to cut through some of the clutter in our lives and get back to the bedrock of our relationship with God.

Where to begin? One good way is suggested by today’s gospel reading: to begin our Lenten journey by reflecting on the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, and looking there for clues to point our way.

Now in our three year lectionary cycle, we are in year B, when we read from the gospel of Mark. And that means hearing the gospel in Mark’s unique voice, told with his particular style and emphases. One characteristic of that style you may notice is the sense of breathless urgency in Mark’s story-telling.  Again and again he begins a story with the words “And immediately . . .” Nowhere more so than in today’s story. If you expected to hear the familiar story of the Devil’s three temptations, you would be disappointed. Mark offers us only the bare-bones outline, rushing from baptism to temptation to the beginning of Jesus’s preaching without a pause. No detail, no colour, no dialogue. But what we do get, what we can perhaps learn from Mark’s outline, is a stronger sense of how these three scenes fit together. What Mark is offering us is a triptych – one of those old painted panels they set up behind the altars of medieval cathedrals, showing three different Biblical scene, inviting us to meditate on each one in turn, but also on how they fit together. Mark is offering us this morning a Lenten triptych.

First side panel, on the left: Jesus at the river Jordan, being baptised by John. Of course we reflected on this scene just a few weeks ago, at the beginning of January – the first Sunday after Epiphany is always Baptism of Christ. John’s baptism, we remember, was a baptism for the repentance of sins, a ritual cleansing that invited people to repent and make a new start. All very appropriate to the Lenten season.  Except, as we saw, Jesus does not leave John’s baptism as he found it. What was originally a ritual of repentance becomes something very different when Jesus touches it with his gracious presence. When Jesus emerges from the waters, the heavens are opened, the Spirit descends as a dove, and a voice proclaims: “you are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased”.

Last Wednesday evening, at our Ash Wednesday service, I suggested that the cross of ashes could be a sign that oriented our Lenten reflection: that we could go through Lent imagining that invisible cross on our forehead, repeating to ourselves the solemn words “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”, and letting this awareness of our own mortality put our lives into perspective, teaching us repentance, and gratitude, and hope. Well that is one approach to Lent. But the first panel of Mark’s Lenten triptych suggests a very different approach. It suggests that the phrase we take into Lent might be “you are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased”; that we meditate on this truth, that we hold it up alongside our lives and see how it changes our perspective, and offers us repentance and renewal.

The centre panel: the temptation in the desert. Here, surely, we are on familiar Lenten ground, Jesus fasting, 40 days and 40 nights, an example to us to embrace our own self-denial in Lent.  Yes, fine, except that there is one more important piece that we mustn’t lose sight of : what the point of this self-denial was for Jesus. And here I have been immensely helped by a discussion of this passage I came across last year by the New Testament scholar Ched Myers. Myers points out that, while Jesus’s withdrawal into the wilderness may seem radical and strange to first-world Christians, it is totally natural and comprehensible to indigenous peoples across the world. People whose culture is closer to the land understand immediately what Jesus is doing. It is a Spirit quest, something everyone might undertake as an adolescent, or at some other critical juncture in life. Withdrawing into the wilderness, fasting, praying, and waiting for a vision or insight or sign that will confirm your identity and give you a clear direction to take. That, surely, is exactly what Jesus is doing – having heard these powerful words at his baptism, conferring upon him his identity as the Son of God, he withdraws into the wilderness to make sense of this, and to find the direction he is to go.

Jesus’s Spirit quest, was, not surprisingly, a very Jewish Spirit quest. Because the wilderness he withdraws into is not just a wild place, it is also the birthplace of his people.  “Out of Egypt I have called my Son” says the prophet Isaiah: God called his people out of Egypt to be his children, his chosen people, and led them into the wilderness. The wilderness was that honeymoon time, when they were close to God, when they were formed as a people and found their own identity and their own mission. Jesus is going back to relive that time – 40 days and nights for the 40 years in the wilderness – to reconnect with his people’s original identity and mission, before they went astray. Mark passes over the three temptations in his account, and so will I, except to mention that Myers points out beautifully how each of the temptations Jesus faces and passes is a temptation that the people have faced and failed. Jesus faces those tests, one after the other, and passes them, so as to reclaim for his people their true identity.

I think it gives us an important clue to our own Lenten practice. The fasting and self-denial that Jesus models are good, but they are not an end in themselves, but a means to a more important end – that of reclaiming his identity and mission. So how about thinking about Lent – your Lent – as a Spirit quest. A time when we fast from the things that distract us; a time when we seek solitude and nature; a time when we cut out time from our busy lives to reflect on who we are as God’s beloved children. Perhaps it is a time to return to that honeymoon period in our faith: think back to a time when your faith seemed new and fresh and full of promise; when what it told you about yourself – that you are God’s beloved child – was exciting and filled with endless possibilities.  And then, perhaps, remembering that, we can confront and rethink some of the compromises we have made along the way.

Third panel: Jesus returns to Galilee, and begins his ministry. And that ministry is first of all one of proclaiming the good news, and his message is: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’  At the core of the message, another good Lenten word “Repent”.  That’s what we are supposed to be doing, isn’t it?  Yes, it is. However, sometimes things do get lost in translation when we read the Bible.  And probably nowhere more so than with this little word “repent”. In the Christian tradition, “repent” has come to mean an emotional state, a feeling of remorse and guilt.  And so, to some of us, it can sound like Jesus’s good news is: “Repent, and feel guilty about your lives”.  That’s what Lent is all about, isn’t it?

Guilt no doubt has its place, but it is highly overrated as a measure of the spiritual life. And it is not what the word repent means in the NT. Here we really have to look at the Greek. The word Mark uses is “metanoiete”. Meta is a common Greek suffix – as you know from the word metamorphosis, it often means “change”. And noite refers to thinking. So the NT word repent really means, quite literally, “change your way of thinking”. It is not about guilt, it is much more positive and forward-looking. It is about focussing on who we are called to be, not on our failings.

Jesus has returned from the wilderness, from revisiting his people’s honeymoon time with God. He returns with a renewed sense of his own calling, and of the identity and calling of his people. He returns to a people whose identity as God’s chosen people has been compromised in a hundred ways: politically, economically, socially, religiously, personally. A people who have lost the vision that they have been called to be different, called to be a sign among the nations of justice, and equality, and compassion, and integrity. He comes with the invitation to them to change their thinking, to reorient themselves on their true identity as children of God, to confront the compromises they have made – consciously and unconsciously – and to change their lives to reflect who they truly are.

And that is precisely his Lenten challenge to us: to change our thinking, to remember who we are called to be, to confront the hundred compromises we have made, to reorient ourselves on the vision he offers us of what it means to be human, to let it change our lives.

And so I invite and encourage you to observe a Holy Lent, through fasting, prayer, alms-giving, acts of kindness and generosity, through whatever the Spirit is leading you towards. But especially, in all of this, to reflect anew on who we are as God’s beloved children; to reclaim for ourselves that original vision of our faith; to let it change the way we think about ourselves and the world; and in this way to let it change us.