1st Sunday of Lent
FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT
Genesis 9:8-15 | 1 Peter 3:18-22 | Mark 1:12-15
Grant, almighty God, through the yearly observances of Holy Lent, that we may grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ and by worthy conduct pursue their effects. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
TODAY we begin the season of Lent, and for a very long time, until 50 years ago, there was one set of readings that was always repeated during this season. It seemed to me that those readings were a classic explanation of the basic principles we were being asked to live by, if we wanted to believe in the God who calls us to life. Now that we have added two other sets of readings, they don’t always seem to have the same impact. But they have some subtle ways of adding to those main five or six readings, and let me just remind you of those readings. The first one is like the one in today’s reading about the temptation of Jesus in the desert, and then there are the words of the event called the Transfiguration, when this Jesus, who was successful in overcoming the temptation of the devil, became a light to the world, someone who could enlighten the people. The next gospel was the one when he meets a woman at the well. Although rabbis weren’t supposed to talk to women, he talked to her, and he felt comfortable with who she was. And he told her things about herself that she wondered how he could know, and there was never any judgment in him. So it’s clear that this enlightenment, this truth that he asks us to live by is about connection, union, communion with one another, and then it underscores that by saying God came most especially to heal the blind. The story of the blind man is so fascinating, because it’s about a man who’s been gifted and a community of men, leaders and religious leaders who couldn’t see anything right in front of them. He couldn’t believe that he could actually see because of Jesus, and all the man kept saying was, “Look, I can see. I don't know what your problem is.” And then there’s the glorious one of the love of God overpowering all darkness and raising us out of a place of death, the raising of Lazarus.
It’s all about a subtle way — actually not so subtle — of helping us imagine what it is we’re asked to surrender when we’re asked to be a man or a woman of faith. It’s not necessarily a surrender to a set of rules and laws proclaimed for us by an institution. That’s sometimes what it feels like, but it’s rather the most amazing invitation on the part of our God to draw us into a relationship with him that leads us through a process that ultimately brings us to a knowledge of who he is and who we are and what we’re here for. That’s called the truth and love.
Let’s go back to the image of that first — I’ll go to the gospel in this set of readings and go over, once again, what it was that Jesus did when he was tempted by the devil. How did he respond? What did he reveal about himself? Well, the first temptation, as you remember, was to turn these stones into bread because Jesus was hungry, yet the devil came along and said, “Really, you are gifted. You’re an amazing man. You can use your gifts, your powers to satisfy your needs. It’s a very healthy and wonderful way to live.” Jesus said, “No. I’m not really interested in using who I am and all my energies to take care of what my needs are, what I want from the world. I just want one thing. I just want the truth. I want to hang on and ponder and wonder about every word that comes from the mouth of God, the source of all truth. I want to be a man of truth.”
The second temptation is, “Well, all right. If you’re going to work with God, then you better test him, because you never know if he’s really going to come through. So let’s do a test right now. Jump off the parapet of the temple, and if an angel catches you, then you’ll know that God is there, helping you and guiding you and protecting you.” I love Jesus’ answer. He just said, “No, I’m not going to tempt him.” Tempt him? Tempt him into maybe doing something that’s not good for you? I’m not sure what that means, but I know how I pray often and how you pray often, saying, “Please, God, not this, not this, but that. I want this. I don’t want that.” And if you do that in order to say, “Prove to me that you love me,” then God might be tempted in a kind of human way to give you something that’s not really good for you, but he won’t. So he’s never going to tempt him. He’s going to trust in everything as it unfolds.
The last temptation is, “Look, the world is a wonderful place, and yeah, it is filled with lies and people using people, but it’s worth it, because you become really so powerful, so important, so famous, so successful. Buy into the lies. Come on. You can do it better than most.” And he said something so terrifying. He just said, “Well, no. I don’t want to be a part of that world, because that’s not the world my father created. That’s a world of lies and evil. No, thank you.” Very simple. Jesus is the man who trusts in God to lead him to the truth, which frees him from all the lies the world is trying to seduce us into.
We know that Jesus is the new Adam, and so we go back to Adam, and we realize that sin entered the world through a lie spoken by the serpent, who said, “If you really want to please God, then be God. Be like God. Determine what you need. Decide what’s best for you. Make choices that will always be something you choose, and it works out, because you know best what’s best for you.” It’s all that autonomy from God, autonomy from the truth. You become the truth. So we move from a place of lies to the place of the truth in this new kingdom.
The interesting thing about Adam and Eve, in terms of where their minds were and how they were operating in the world, they were in charge, and they were, I’m sure, making decisions most of us make every day as to what’s best and what’s right. But they had two sons, Cain and Abel, the first two human beings who lived on this earth. The relationship between Cain, a farmer and Abel, a shepherd, changed when they were asked to present to God the best of what each of them did; in other words, a way of saying, “God, do you like my work? Am I in your favor?” God didn’t say anything negative about whatever it was that Cain offered. When Abel offered a little lamb, it was as if God's his heart went out to him, and he said, “I love what you’re offering me.” The thought of Cain or Abel being more than he was, greater than he was, so inflamed him that he murdered his brother, Abel. It’s so interesting that the first sign of sin in the world is based on what the serpent invited Adam and Eve into is murder, the destruction of life, and if you think about it, all sin is somehow robbing people of life, and the ultimate sin is to persuade someone that they should not live the life that God has called him or her to live, to live the life maybe you decide is best for them or for you to live the life you think is best for you and not to live the life that God is calling you to. It destroys the core of who you are.
So in this cycle B, what we’re looking at in this set of readings is seeing very much that this new kingdom has within it a new covenant. The covenant is a powerful story of God looking at the world at one time and seeing nothing but evil in men's and women’s hearts. Just say they were so filled with themselves and their own egos and their own decisions about how to live that they were constantly in battle with their true selves and with each other, and it was miserable, and they were miserable. And God looked at them and said, “This makes me so sad.” He was grieving for the pain that these people were inflicting on themselves and each other, and he said, “I’ve got to stop it. I don't know how to change it. I have to stop it, so I’ll destroy everyone.”
Then there’s an interesting line in the Scriptures. It says, “But God found favor in someone.” He meant Noah and his family of eight. We don’t know why exactly, other than he was a righteous man, but somehow God must have been looking into the heart of Noah and his offspring, saying, “These people understand that they need to depend upon me. They can’t act autonomously.” And so he was a righteous man. He walked with God. He was open to God guiding him and teaching him. Let’s just say the others wouldn’t have looked beyond their ego for what to do.
It’s interesting that it was proven by Noah that he was trusting in God, because what he did was build this gigantic ship in the desert practically, and everyone jeered and laughed at him and said, “This is ridiculous.” And he believed that God meant what he said, that he was telling the truth, that there would be a great flood, and there was. All that ego-crazy consciousness was destroyed in the flood. What’s so fascinating to me is that Peter, in the second reading, says, “Well, you know what that was like? It’s like baptism.” Well, baptism is what? It’s a participation in the dying and rising as Christ did. And what do we die for? Not our physical life, but an ego-driven life, life that is in my control, and I feel responsible for controlling it, and I feel responsible for controlling everybody around me. I decide. I make things happen. Many people who are called deists are people who believe in God, but then God sort of said, “Okay, I created this world. Now it’s up to you to work it out.” So they don’t turn to God for any kind of help. They just say, “Okay, I’ve got this thing, this body, this spirit. I’ve got this spiritual being inside my body, and I’m on my own. I’m on my own.” And we know what that turns out to be: a world of separation, isolation, violence and destruction. It’s like the world we see around us, but there’s another world around us that we must be conscious of, and that’s what this season is inviting us into.
How do we become conscious of the world that isn’t acting out all this violence, separation and isolation from each other? That world is available to us, and we’re promised that it’s in the gospel, which is good news. It’s wonderful news. There’s a way to find wholeness and unity in this world. It’s here, right in front of us, but we choose a lie instead, because somehow the lie seems to make more sense, and it feeds something in us. It feeds the part of us that loves to be in control and wants to make decisions, and even, in a way, religion has encouraged us to be in control of our lives. “Control your passions. Control your instincts. Be in charge, and you decide what is best to do. And ask someone who they should be, and then you take that, if they seem to have wisdom, and then you force yourself into that. That’s a caricature of what it is, because the truth is, it’s this God who wants to dwell with you, in you, part of you and slowly and gently pull you out of a disposition of control, which means you stop judging, and you stop blaming, and you stop forcing things. And you find a new spirit of suffering, accepting, giving in, wondering, pondering, meditating, contemplating this whole thing and wondering, “What is it that is happening to me? What are these things that are happening around me, and what are they trying to say to me about who am I? Who am I?” A spiritual being called to live in the truth. Where do we find the truth? In the church? Yes, but more especially and more potently, I could say, in a relationship with God who speaks and reveals and teaches you on a one-to-one basis. That’s what Jesus is modeling for us. That’s the new kingdom. The kingdom of God inside you is the kingdom we’re called to live in. It’s a kingdom of unity, of peace and of oneness, and it has such a resonance of life that, just like Jesus, who walked the earth and kept healing the people who were blind and unable to do things that God called them to — just his presence, his consciousness of what was real and true changed them, and that’s the same thing we’re engaged in as we live in this place called the kingdom of God.
Father, your life within us is a mystery. Everything, it seems, about you is hidden from the mind, from logic, and we have to go somewhere else to find the truth that you are, that you call us to live in. We need our hearts to enable us to do that, so bless us with your presence in our hearts as we reach out for the truth of who we are and what we’re called to be and most especially that we can be a source, a powerful source of awakening in people this challenge that you’ve given us, the challenge to live in the truth of who we are and to somehow not be afraid to be different from what we thought we were and who others want us to be, but to be truly ourselves. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.