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First Sunday of Lent

First Sunday of Lent
February 21, 2021
Passage: Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
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In typical “Mark fashion,” our Gospel lection this morning gives us a fast-paced progressionof three major experiences in Jesus’ life. Compared to Matthew and Luke, Mark’s accounts of Jesus’ baptism, temptation, and inaugural preaching read more like an outline than a story. For those of us who have read and listened to the other gospel writers, it can be difficult not to read their versions into Mark’s account. There is a temptation to fill in the perceived gaps of Mark’s narrative with details from the other gospel writers. Commentators on the Gospel of Mark, however, offer strong warnings against doing so, lest the integrity of Mark be threatened. If Mark is to stand on its own feet, then we must let the content of Mark alone direct our thinking and reflecting on the significance of these events for our understanding of who Jesus was and is, and the implications this has for our own lives as followers of Christ.

Our passage picks up partway through the introductory unit in Mark’s Gospel. The writer has made explicit that what he writes is the “beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ, Sonmof God” (Mark 1:1). The rest of what is written in his work will bear testimony about this particular Jewish man from Galilee whose vocation it is to bring about the reign of God and to effect the salvation of the world. Jesus’ coming was heralded by John, who was sent to prepare the way of the Lord by preaching repentance and baptism. Like the prophets before him, John’s message and ministry stood as a stark judgment on the religious, social, and political culture of his day. Repentance, for John, was not about confessing individual transgressions but about naming one’s complicity in the oppression perpetuated by the various systems and institutions that governed their common life.[1] John was calling his hearers to renounce the ways of the world and to embrace the ways of God. He understood all of this as the preparation he was sent to make for the coming of One more powerful than he – the One who would baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit.

By submitting to baptism, Jesus makes a public and decisive statement that the values and principles that would undergird his vocation would not be aligned with the oppressive regimes of this world. He renounces all social, religious, and political claims on his identity that would perpetuate the endlessly violent struggle for power and dominance. In the strict sense of the word, Jesus repented – turned away from – the sins of the world. That this was interpreted as an earthshattering moment for Mark is evident in his description of the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending into Jesus as he comes up from the water. The writer uses that verb, tear, only one other time in his Gospel. At Jesus’ death, the veil in the temple that separated the people from God’s presence was torn in two. Mark wants us to understand that in Jesus, all the barriers that kept humankind isolated from God have been demolished.[2] The boundary between heaven and earth has not simply been opened, the way we might open a gate or a door, but ripped apart, suggesting new possibilities of restored relationship.

Accompanying the ripping of the heavens and the descent of the Spirit is a Voice that speaks words of affirmation to Jesus about his identity and vocation. Biblical scholars point out that the content of the words spoken to Jesus is a composite of Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42, both of which Mark intends to color and shape the meaning of Jesus’ identity as the Beloved Son of God and to interpret the goal of his vocation.[3] Psalm 2 describes the corruption of the nations. The psalmist warns them that their laughable plots to extricate themselves from the way of the Lord are ultimately doomed to fail because God has anointed One who will break the oppressive rule of the nations and make them subject to him. The rule of the anointed One, however, will be characterized not by the deceptive and scheming ways of the nations but by divine justice and liberation, personified in the Spirit empowered servant of Isaiah 42. When the Voice speaks, it affirms Jesus’ identity as the Beloved Son of God and also anchors Jesus’ vocation in the
embodiment of justice and righteousness and sets as its goal the liberation of the oppressed and the restoration of God’s people.

Immediately, Jesus’ authority to live into this vocation is challenged. The Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness. Mark is content to leave us wondering about the content of Jesus’ temptations, noting only that Jesus emerged from the ordeal triumphant. Later in Jesus’ ministry, he will encounter some religious leaders who will accuse him of casting out demons by the authority of Satan, the ruler of demons. Jesus will point back to his wilderness experience as proof that he has already proven himself more powerful than Satan and has in fact bound him up (Mark 3:19b-27).[1] In any case, Jesus’ experience in the wilderness steeled his resolve to step fully into his vocation, for upon his return, he begins to proclaim the good news that the reign of God has come near.

To understand the content of the good news that Jesus begins to proclaim after his baptism and wilderness experience, Mark intends his hearers to pay attention to the things Jesus says and does in all that follows. Jesus heals the sick, offers restoration to the marginalized, feeds the hungry, casts out demons – in everything he does, he challenges the oppressive obligations of religious and political life and offers liberation to the variety of folks burdened by their weight. In all of this, Mark is highlighting that the proclamation of the nearness of God’s reign is not simply a stump-speech Jesus offers on his preaching tour. Rather, he is suggesting that the present coming of the reign of God is tangible in every touch that brings healing, in every invitation that restores dignity, in every meal shared in hospitality, in every exorcism that expels demonic control.

Last Wednesday, we were invited to the observance of a Holy Lent. Traditionally, this is a season of preparation and renewal, of self examination and fasting, of reading and studying God’s word with intentional devotion. Regardless of where one finds themselves in the baptismal preparation or renewal spectrum, this is a season in which we are called to carefully consider the covenant of our baptism. Mark’s gospel reading today helps to expose the lie that baptism is a simple rite of cleansing – there is a pattern in Mark’s urgent narrative that invites a particular kind of reflection on the shape of the life that Jesus proclaims and offers. God has broken into history in a new way, destroying the barriers that keep God’s presence at bay and opening the way to renewed and restored relationship. There is a new world order that God is establishing in the world and it began in the coming of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, whose life and ministry show us an alternative way from the violent and corrupted schemes of the world. Like other Gospel writers, Mark holds a tension between a realized and future understanding of the inbreaking of God’s reign in our world. He points to Jesus and the promised fulfillment of salvation and clearly understands that the new creation God is establishing has already begun in the person and work of this one who was named the Beloved Son of God. For Mark, Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom brought about by the Chosen One of God through the embodiment of justice and reconciliation is both already being born in Christ and yet the complete fulfillment of this vision is still unfolding for him. We exist in a time in which the fullness of God’s reign is not yet here, and yet continues to be made manifest in every embodied refusal to submit to the oppressive and death-dealing ways of the world. Lent is a time of intense self-examination where we are bid to name and confess the ways that our lives contribute to the distortion of God’s reign in the world. Doing this as individuals is an important practice to maintain in our life of discipleship, but more importantly, Mark’s narrative invites us to recognize the social and institutional nature of sin in the world and to begin to name the ways that social and political structures privilege some while condemning others to a life of misery, violence, and injustice. To be sure, we need to be able to name our own complicity in those systems if we are to embrace the new life that God offers us, but Mark’s invitation is one that moves us beyond the personal and the private.

We find ourselves this Lent in a time of transition. We have called a committee who will be responsible to articulate our parish’s identity and our dreams of who we are becoming. They will give voice to the groaning of the Spirit discerned in our community, naming the ways that we have discerned God’s movement and activity within our common life together in the context of this particular place and time. This is a season that lends itself well to the task of self-examination as a community of God’s people. What are the ways of the world that we must refuse in this time and place? How is God affirming our identity as beloved children of God?

There are many ways that we might try to discern and answer those questions. If we look at what is happening in our little corner of the world, we might find a starting point for this task of examining our common life together. Just as John came as a prophet to renounce the violent power structures of his day, his witness and call to repentance bids us to discover and name the sins of our world. Over the last seven years we have experienced a heightened awareness of the violent power of white supremacy and the increasing persistence of the cries of the oppressed to dismantle the root of racial oppression. As a Diocese, we adopted a covenant to root out racism and pledged to using that covenant as a basis for self-examination, lament, and renewed commitment to see in each person “a living expression of God that must be respected, preserved, and never dishonored.”[4]

As part of our collective Lenten journey, I invite you to read the covenant, to meditate on the laments, to name the ways that our own failures have contributed to the injustices named. As we discover those areas that we have failed to live according to the rule of God, let us also renew our commitment to stand as an example of an alternative way, a way that is guided by the principles of justice and reconciliation and love. And may we find in the process of this repentance that the God who calls us into this new life is indeed mighty to save!

[1] Meyers, Ched. Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Orbis Books,

[2] Placher, William C. Mark. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

[3] Guelich, Robert A. Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 1-8:26. Thomas Nelson, 1989.

[4] “Anti-Racism Covenant.”