A Reflection on the Gospel
for February 22,
The First Sunday in Lent
By David Somerville
“…And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. Mark 1:12.
I remember how in the late wintertime of the year during the nineteen fifties and early sixties, that people would talk to each other about what they were planning to give up for Lent. They would mention the usual things like smoking, chocolate, or even something as ambitious as television! In later decades, thoughts about Lent took other forms — like taking something on, rather than giving something up. I conformed to the prevailing opinion at the time that this trend was a good thing. I sill believe that it is. But that said, perhaps now is an opportune moment to revisit the old idea of giving something up, but with a different twist.
The Gospel for next Sunday is Mark 1:9-15. It seems to suggest another beatitude: “Blessed is the one who knows when the wilderness is here, and how to grow through it”. I believe everybody has a wilderness; it is a part of that sometimes glorious, other times troubled, mystery that is the human soul. Without it we could not be in God’s image. One’s wilderness can be the place or state of being in which we feel abandoned by God; it can also be the only place quiet enough for one to pay attention to God.
When I was a chaplain in the army, I was sent to a soldier. He was in the stockade. The military police report described his involvement with a drunken scuffle the night before. In counseling, the soldier remembered something. He cried to me that when he tried to make peace with his father a few years ago, the father said, “Not interested. After all, everybody knew that you were the biggest mistake I ever made. … And besides which”, the father continued, “You still owe me five hundred dollars”. The father subsequently died.
What the jailed soldier had to deal with was a very real wilderness beast harassing his soul. The monster was not his father. It was the memory of his father. Unfortunately for the soldier, the beast was still very much alive.
The soldier’s wilderness in some ways is like the one I know. It is not a place like the Sinai Wilderness, or Death Valley. It is found nowhere in particular, but in stead, is more a matter of when it is, not where. In my case the when of my wilderness is usually between 2 and about 5 A. M. These hours are my sleepless times that are the territory of those hobgoblins that an old collect in the Book of Common Prayer calls “faithless fears and worldly anxiety”. They disrupt my spiritual well being with their negative energy. They strive, as the hymn, To be a Pilgrim, goes to “beset me round with dismal stories” until I loose all faith in God’s power to bestow hope. It makes it difficult for me to manage moments of anger, and very difficult to resist the urge to make snotty, sarcastic remarks with which I delude myself, thinking that they are proofs of my clever wit. But they are not. Remarks like that are more likely to hurt people, and when they do, they awaken the beasts in the wilderness that belongs to my neighbor. That is a sin for which I must take responsibility.
There are parallels to Mark 1:9-15. They are in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4: 1-13. They are chock full of useful material, and some preachers may draw on them this year. They believe that Mark, the shortest gospel, to be a bit spare. They may have a point. But the one thing about this telling of our Lord’s baptism, and his wilderness testing is that Jesus went into the waters of human nature. Then the heavens were immediately “torn” open. It had not occurred to me that the space-time fabric of the universe could be “torn” like a curtain. But here the Greek word, schizomenous means just that. This word choice suggests something on the order of an emergency — as if the Holy Spirit got a 9-1-1 call. Then Jesus went immediately (euthoos) into the wilderness. I suspect that the baptism of Jesus and his departure to the wilderness are really one event, his full incarnational engagement with humanity.
The First Sunday in Lent, then, brings us the Good News that Jesus has been to our wildernesses, the part of ourselves where we experience the despair of a lonely death in the beastly jaws of our doubts and fears. Where did we get them? The answer is easy — from people like the soldier’s late father. They were not in God’s original master plan of our destinies.
So once again, the final conclusion is Good News. We do in deed need to give up some things for Lent. As we strive to take on the commitments we have to our fellow believers in the Church, then the Holy Spirit will be there for us. We know that — because we saw how the Spirit tore the creation’s fabric with his (or her) urgent descent to the Body of Christ as soon as Jesus plunged into our messy waters. We can therefore go to the wilderness to encounter God without distraction, and without fear. Those are just two of the things to be given up, distraction and fear. When we come to that realization, other things to give up become apparent too – like my inclination, for instance, to make snotty, sarcastic remarks. That is my junk. Other people’s junk may be different. Addictive behaviors that never succeed in relieving anxiety anyway are two fairly common things to give up to say nothing of a third piece of junk, the temptation to tell that occasional little white lie to avoid a painful, but honest confrontation.
When people give up such trouble-making behaviors their vision returns to 20/20. Good vision enables us to see the blessed truth — that our wilderness has a purpose we can live with now because it has an end in the foreseeable future. Moving through our wilderness, in the company of the Holy Spirit, will still present its problems and discomforts to be sure. But they will all eventually yield to our better vision, enabling us to see the entrance to the Kingdom highway of the Promised Land. The basic thing for us pilgrims to remember then is that these are not places on the map, but things in the world of events-in-time, the “when’s” of abundant life.
Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:
- SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/
2 Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/