Get Closer to God   Homily for Lent 1   Feb. 21.2021 Based on Mark 1: 9-15

Hearing the text of Jesus going to the wilderness for forty days right after his baptism is the scripture we hear each first Sunday of Lent.  And this year, we read Mark’s version, which admittedly doesn’t provide us with the detail that we get from either Matthew or Luke’s narrations.  And we’ve heard parts of this same text now for the third time in recent weeks, so what new words can I bring to you about Mark’s introduction of Jesus to his readers?

Well, if Mark’s not big on sharing finer details, we need to look closer at just what he is saying, the words he is using to get his points across.  That reminded me of Chris, a classmate at seminary.  He was one of those quiet types, didn’t speak out much in class, I often wondered if he was even paying attention, because he was always on his computer.   He was a man of few words, and on occasion he would offer a comment or opinion.  And we came to learn that when Chris said something, listen closely, because it was usually something quite profound.  Mark’s gospel I find it kind of like this.  Like many people of few words, often times when they do say something, it behooves us to pay attention to what they’re saying and how they’re saying it, because those few words may well say something insightful.  

Jesus’ baptism comes immediately after John has announced that the one whose coming he was called to proclaim is a super special kind of person, so amazing, in fact, that John doesn’t feel worthy to even be the lowliest of his servants.  John used water for his baptisms, but he will baptism with the Holy Spirit.  In other words, this man will have the power of God.  And yet Jesus, this special man, is from a Nazareth, a rather back-water town, and wants John to baptize him, to be washed clean in the Jordan, even though this is the Son of God, who has no need to repent of any sins!   What does this tell us about this very special man?  He is a humble sort, from humble town, and his coming to John for baptism “signified Jesus’ commitment to John’s cause and expressed his agreement with (John’s) message”.[1]  So John’s message of repentance is definitely something to pay attention to!   

Interestingly, Mark describes Jesus’ baptism from Jesus’ point of view, so this baptism may well have been as much for Jesus’ sake, as for those who witnessed it.   Mark says it was Jesus who saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove as he was coming out of the water. It was Jesus who heard the voice saying to him “You are my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”  This was Jesus’ confirmation of his ministry, of his calling, of his very special identity, as he is infused with the power of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus now knows his time has come. 

What does that mean, to see the heavens torn apart?  Ancient peoples believed that the realm of God was in the heavens, and it was a very separated realm from the earthly one where people lived. The heavens being torn apart by the Holy Spirit of God, means the in-breaking of God into humanity’s realm—the spirit of God coming into the human realm and infusing this man, Jesus.  This is the same Spirit that moved over the waters at the creation, and it’s descending upon Jesus.   “The descent of the Spirit signals that God is now remaking the broken, sin-filled creation.”  [2] Clearly, Mark is telling his readers that without a doubt this man Jesus was filled with the Spirit of the Divine God.  Jesus was a human being, and yet a divine being, all in the same person, the same body, the same man.  The only other time in his gospel that Mark uses the words ‘torn apart’ is at Jesus’ crucifixion, describing the tearing apart of the curtain that separated the very inner sanctum of the temple, where the Jews believed God resided.  The curtain was torn in two from top to bottom, as though through the act of Jesus’ crucifixion, God has released Godself from the place of humanity. 

After his baptism, Jesus is escorted by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, for forty days.  There’s that number forty again, a symbolic number signifying a time of change pending, often a time of trial or testing, something new was in process, waiting to come to be.  Like the forty days of rain in the flood story we heard in our Old Testament reading, or Elijah’s forty days in the wilderness, which we talked about last week.  Forty days in the wilderness.  That’s why Lent is forty days long.   Lent is an opportunity to make a change, to develop a closer relationship with God.  It’s a given period of time to reflect on those aspects of our own lives that are maybe not so godly, the things in our lives that draw us away from God.  So, Lent can be a time for our own spiritual strengthening.   And how can we do that?  It starts with being intentional about it.  It requires discipline to make a change to how we do things.  I don’t know about you, but this being stuck at home for months has created routines that are by now feeling like they’re set in stone, and some are not so positive!  So take this time of Lent to be intentional about taking time—time for God.  Maybe that Lenten calendar I sent out will be helpful.  Set aside time to read your bible, a good study bible is instructive, because it comes with explanations helping to make more sense of confusing passages.  Take time for prayer—even ten minutes a day is a good way to start. Some people like to pray while walking, some people are better sitting quietly after lighting a candle, others find praying with the prayer book, or a daily prayer guide helpful.   There are many meditation apps and books available if you’ve been looking for a reason to start a meditation practice.  We’ll be starting a Lenten bible study via zoom next week, so stay tuned for more info about that.  These forty days of Lent are an opportunity to strengthen our relationship with God, with Christ.  And like every relationship, if you want it to be a close relationship, it benefits from quality time spent with the other! 

So, Mark doesn’t elaborate on what trials Jesus encounters in his forty days, but tells us that it was the Spirit that sent him there, the same Spirit that filled him with the power of God.  Forty days, a long and difficult time of testing by Satan,  so we know that this was a time of preparation for his ministry, spiritual tests to overcome and strengthen Jesus’ own spirit, which Jesus willingly undergoes.  There were genuine physical risks involved as well, as the mention of wild beasts tells us.  Yes he was the Son of God, but also lived in a physical body, so the risk was real.   Mark tells us angels waited on him, God was there with him in his time of trial.   God does not abandon Jesus, God’s spirit-infused Son to his own considerable devices.  Jesus accepted the ministrations of the angels.

In his time of testing and challenge, God was with Jesus.  And we know Jesus often withdrew to a time of prayer in his three years of ministry.  Even Jesus needed God!   God didn’t expect Jesus to go it alone, nor does God expect us to go it alone.  God so loves the creatures of God’s creation that God came to earth in the man Jesus, to teach, to heal, to show God’s people the way of God’s Kingdom.  We are not abandoned in our own times of trial, of testing, of challenge.  God is with us, strengthening us, ministering to us, and God uses all kinds of means, ways and people to do just that.  We are God’s beloved ones!  You too are God’s beloved daughter or son!

Mark’s message of the Good News of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God was written down, was recorded for all time to help us understand and believe in the message of salvation Jesus the Christ brings.   The last few lines of our gospel passage for today are essentially the crux of Mark’s gospel.  And it’s pretty simple.  Jesus reiterates the message that John was preaching:   ‘The time has come … The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’ (Mk 1.15 NLT)  The kingdom of God most certainly was near, it was literally right in front of them, in the person of Jesus no less!   And while the person of Jesus is not with us, the Spirit of Christ is always present to us.  Repent and believe the good news!   So, turn your lives around, ask for forgiveness of those things that are less than godly in your lives, those things that create rifts in our relationship with our Creator—that’s what repent means.  And look to the life of Jesus, God incarnate,  to show us how to live God’s way; a way of unending love, of healing, of understanding and compassion, by believing in the Good News of Jesus the Christ and God’s saving grace.  Amen.

The Rev’d JoAnn Todd, Rector

The Regional Ministry of Hope.

[1] The Oxford Bible Commentary, John Baron & John Muddman, editors. (Oxford University Press: New York, NY 2017) 888

[2] Stanley P. Saunders in Exegitacl Perspective for Mark 1: 9-15 in Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol 2.  (WJK Press: Louisville, KY 2008) 49