Jesus and the Spirit
Well, it is hard to believe but we are now in the season of Lent. As you know, Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter. The liturgical color is purple, and the mood of the season is typically somber – though, I hope this season, we may find it more nuanced and layered than that. The theological theme of Lent is repentance and I hope that over the course of the season, we will discover the blessing that is God’s forgiveness.
The first Sunday of Lent, we always hear the story of the temptation of Jesus, which I think reflects this story’s importance in framing this season. The temptation of Jesus is told in three of the four Gospels, and today we hear from Mark, the briefest telling of the three accounts. The other two Gospels elaborate with details about Jesus’ encounter with Satan, with tests and challenges, but we don’t have that kind of story-telling here in Mark. But as we will see in our study of the Gospel of Mark this year, Mark is succinct and to the point. So what we have today is a brief description of Jesus’ baptism, and then immediately following, the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness for a time of trial and temptation. All we know of that forty day period is that Jesus was tempted by Satan, he was surrounded with wild beasts, angels waited on him, and then he returned proclaiming good news. There’s not much to parse when it comes to the temptation story itself. But there is something fascinating about the juxtaposition in Mark of Jesus’ baptism and Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. In studying this text, I have been captivated by the Spirit, which descends upon Jesus in his baptism, then drives him into the wilderness, and remains with him as he proclaims the Good News of the kingdom of God among us. I pray this morning that we can discover the Spirit of God anew.
So, let’s get to it. Our Gospel lesson this morning comes to us from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 1, verses 9-15. Let us listen for God’s Word.
Let us pray: God of Love and God of Life, awaken in us a sense of penitence and wonder. Aware of our human fragility, open our hearts and minds to know the steadfast and powerful strength of your love for the us and for the world. Amen.
Mark 1: 9-15:
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
This past week, we observed Ash Wednesday. Some of you braved the cold and snow Wednesday evening to attend the service here. Our Ash Wednesday service was for me the end of a quite extraordinary day, and I want to share some of my reflections with you. Wednesday morning, during the morning rush-hour, Mallory and I met up with three other Presbyterian pastors from the National Capital Presbytery to offer ashes to anyone traveling through Metro Center. We gathered early in the morning, bundled in puffy coats and hats and scarves and fingerless gloves, stoles, and collars, and we readied ourselves. This was the first time any of us had ever gone out on the street to impose ashes. We had a sign that read “Get your ash over here” and we took turns holding it up high over our heads at the top of the escalator. Along with the representatives of Norwegian Airlines hawking their latest deal of ‘free flight vouchers’, we hollered out morning greetings, as well as reminders that it was Ash Wednesday, and that we had ashes available. We did this so that people coming up out of the train station could have time to think about whether or not they wanted to receive ashes, rather than just seeing 5 women in collars and stoles with vessels of ashes and wonder what we were doing there. For the most part, people smiled and thanked us for being there. Several asked us how long we would be there because they because they would tell co-workers and friends about us. Dozens and dozens received ashes. Sharonette, Joe, Mike, Bryant, Myrtle, Jessica, Nikola and so many more, with our blackened thumbs upon their foreheads – “from dust you came and to dust you shall return.”
Prior to committing to join my colleagues at the Metro station, I spent quite a bit of time pondering the impact of taking ashes out to the streets. [[It didn’t sound like a very Presbyterian thing to do, after all.]] Previously, I had only imposed ashes during worship services, where the service provided important context for the ritual of ash imposition. The experience of rituals in worship was and is very important to me. So, before agreeing to bundle up and head out to the street, I needed to think about what it meant to parse the imposition of ashes from the context of a worship service. And, this reflection took me back to memories of conversations I had with my best friend on the beach in North Carolina back in 2009.
By the summer of 2009, Paige, my best friend, and I, had been in ministry for just about a year. Paige had just spent a year working as a chaplain in a Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit, otherwise known as the NICU, where she still works. I was serving on the pastoral staff at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, and we had both been ordained as teaching elders earlier that year, so practicing ministry was still new for us. Over the summer, we took some vacation time and she came along with my family and me for a vacation at the beach. During that week, we spent a lot of time beach-combing for shells and talking about ministry – talking about baptism, actually.
As a neo-natal chaplain, now that she had been ordained, Paige anticipated being asked to baptize babies in the hospital. Our Reformed tradition, though strong in the belief that baptism is an outward symbol of God’s love already within and for us, also strongly places the service of baptism within the context of worship. When we baptize individuals in the church, there are always questions for the congregation, in addition to the questions for the individual being baptized or the parents of child being baptized. Will we, as a community, teach the newly baptized the faith? Will we uphold the parents of the child or will we walk with the adult? The context of the supportive community is vital to our understanding of baptism in the Reformed Tradition, in the Presbyterian Church. So, how, we pondered, would that translate to the hospital room? How would that translate to baptizing a stillborn child? These were some of the questions we wrestled with together as we combed the beach for shells. The shells we collected would later be used as vessels for the water with which she would baptize countless babies throughout her ministry.
Reminiscent of those questions we pondered years ago about baptism, I found myself discerning the importance of imposing ashes on the streets in the days and weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday. Of course, the ritual of ashes is not a sacrament in our tradition as baptism is, but I wondered what would it mean for the church? Who was sending me to do this? What meaning will it have for others? It wasn’t a PR strategy for the church – I wasn’t there to promote Western Presbyterian Church. But, why did I feel compelled to go? And, as the day went by, and my thumb turned deeper shades of black from placing ashes on so many foreheads, I realized something again. I discovered again, as I have so many times before but somehow easily forget, that wrestling with questions like these is certainly an important part of our spiritual lives as people of faith. But it is also important to remember that we as Christians can’t stop there. I discovered anew that there is also something deeply spiritual in the experience of faithful ritual. Taking a risk. Trying something new. Taking another step. Entering into and acknowledging the wilderness. As this season of Lent commences, and as we delve into the Gospel of Mark, I hope that we as a community of faith discover something new about what the ashes and the water and the wilderness say about the presence of God, in addition to our questions and discernment.
On Friday, I was chatting with Paige and we reflected on our Ash Wednesday experiences. I was out on the street – at the Metro station, in line with the Miriam’s Kitchen clients, on campus with students at George Washington University. She was in the NICU. I imposed ashes on persons whose stories I may never learn, on persons from all walks of life. She imposed ashes on a mother and a father who gave birth to a full-term still born child. “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” Then, she baptized their still-born child. “You are my daughter, with whom I am well pleased.” As Paige said, “One ritual is about and for the living and one is about our finitude and mortality – I imparted the one about living onto the dead and the one about our mortality onto the living. Both are about the hope we have in knowing that, with absolute assurance, in life and in death we belong to God.”
What is remarkable about Paige’s story and Mark’s text today is that in life and in death, in baptism and in the wilderness, God is present. Mark’s gospel encourages us to engage our spirituality and shatter our carefully constructed faith worlds. Though the questions we ask and our contemplations are important, Mark’s gospel reminds us that we are freed from the shackles of practicality to make room for spirituality. As Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary describes, “Jesus goes into the wilderness, not with the conviction of success but only because he knows that God has chosen to rip to shreds any boundary, any structure, any ecclesiology, any denomination, any doctrine that would separate him from God. [Jesus] enters the wilderness only with the promise of God’s presence. Not with fighting skills, not with self-help strategies, not with techniques for passing the tests, but only his personal knowledge because of God’s direct words to him that God will be there.” The Gospel of Mark is clear that Jesus was not alone, no matter where Jesus went. God is willing to tear the heavens apart to make known God’s love for God’s beloved children. Come wilderness and come calm, God’s love remains steadfast and evermore – and so it is for us.
Even in the midst of our human fragility, our spiritual beings are intimately intertwined with the presence and love of God. Our spiritual selves can be and are enriched with confidence in the fact that we, quite simply and extraordinarily, belong to God. The Gospel of Mark helps us to remember that God’s love has torn open the heavens and dwells among us and it is not mine, or Paige’s, or John the Baptist’s or even the Church’s to give or to protect. Even in the wilderness, even in temptation, God’s love is here with us and it is for all of us to delight in. And, we are called to share God’s love, to point to God’s love for the world, regardless of whether it is baptism in the font or in the hospital, imposing ashes in church or on the street. Opportunities to share with one another the love of God should be taken as often as possible and shared liberally.
Lent is a threshold experience. This is a season that provides opportunity to step out of our ordinary routines and increase our vigilance for God’s presence among us. Lenten disciplines, Lenten rituals, are outward signs that remind us to re-orient ourselves towards the love God has for us, to live more fully in confidence of the faithful and steadfast presence of God with us. We are most often tempted to think that God is not present with us. This season, come wilderness and come calm, come baptism and come ash, may we resist the temptation of believing God is not with us. May we be confident in God’s love for us and for the world. May we be confident in God’s desire and ability to shatter the earthly confines and break forth new light and life in resurrection. In the midst of our human fragility and mortality, may we be confident in knowing with absolute assurance, that in life and in death we belong to God. May we step out to love God and our neighbors, confident that God is with us.