Monday, February 23, 2015

repent and believe

St. Thomas’, Whitemarsh
Lent 1, Year B, 2015

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

We find ourselves today revisiting Jesus’ baptism by his cousin John the Baptist, followed by Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. In Luke’s version Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, just as one would lead or guide an animal (Luke 4:1). In Matthew’s version the word for the Holy Spirit’s action conjures up the image of a ship setting sail, as if the Holy Spirit calmly launches Jesus into his mission (Matt 4:1). Not so in Mark’s Gospel; the Holy Spirit is much more aggressive. Jesus is “driven out”, chased by the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:12). The exact translation is that Jesus is led “forth…with a force which he cannot resist” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). 

What happens in Jesus’ wilderness adventure? Matthew and Luke describe in great detail the interesting exchange between Jesus and the devil (Matt 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). Mark’s Gospel, however, doesn't linger very long on most events in Jesus’ life, and this encounter is no exception. All we know is that for 40 days Jesus is in the wilderness tempted by Satan, in the company of wild beasts and served by angels (Mark 1:13). 

Why is Mark silent on the triumph of Jesus over Satan? In the other gospels we see clearly Jesus’ cleverness, knowledge of Scripture, and obedience, but Mark barely even mentions what happens! You would think that this story would be encouraging, especially to early Christians who are being persecuted for their faith. Maybe why we don't have much information on Jesus’ temptation is because Mark is emphasizing Jesus’ humility. Mark's Jesus doesn't overplay the part. What happens with Satan is between Jesus and God; we don’t need to know what kinds of things tempt Jesus. 

Last year I showed a video to my youth group that illustrated Jesus’ temptation, and the artist had an interesting interpretation of Satan. Instead of drawing the typical red guy with a pitchfork, Satan looks just like Jesus. The artist is suggesting that instead of being tempted by another being, Jesus is facing his inner fears, doubts, and anxiety. Sometimes our inner thoughts can be much fiercer—and meaner—than the people we face in real life.

Whatever actually happens in the wilderness, Jesus returns, seeming to have worked out his mission. And then he begins to broadcast the good news of God, the Gospel, and we hear his words for the first time. Author Richard Owen Roberts notes that “[t]he first word in the Gospel is not love. It is not even grace. The first word of the Gospel is repent.” The first thing Jesus urges us to do in Mark’s Gospel is to repent and only then are we able to believe the good news (Mark 1:15). 

To repent doesn't just mean to mumble we are sorry and then go right back to what we were doing. To repent means that we change our way of thinking and acting. To truly repent means to recognize that we are traveling the wrong way and need to change direction, to reorient ourselves and “return to the Lord” (Joel 2:12).

Our relationship with God has to start with repentance, with acknowledging our need for God. When we repent we take a good look at ourselves and make an honest accounting of where our actions (or inaction) have led us astray and damaged our relationship with God. One of the prayers in the back of the Book of Common Prayer reads, “[w]e thank you…for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.” (BCP 836). God doesn't need uswe need God. But the incredible thing is that God wants us, desires to be in relationship with us. And when we take a wrong turn and stray off the path, God calls us to return. 

Sin is choosing our will instead of God’s; sin distorts our relationship with God and other people (BCP 848). Some sins are pretty obvious: adultery, murder, greed. Others are more subtle: gossip, rationalization, overworking. When we sin we are taking or avoiding actions that express to God that we think our way of doing things is better.  

Keep in mind that God doesn't expect us to do things perfectly; it’s about doing them intentionally and when we inevitably fail, recognizing how much we need God. This is why we have an entire season devoted to repentance. At the end of these 40 days we will be more aware of our shortcomings and our desperate need for God—and only then will we be able to truly appreciate God’s loving sacrifice in Christ’s death and resurrection. 

The Good News that Jesus comes to proclaim is that for some reason God has chosen to be in relationship with us, and because of God’s unending love and faithfulness—not our own—we have been forgiven and freed from our sin.

God is waiting for us. “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). 

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Jesus' temptation in the wilderness (Mark 12-13)
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