LENT 1, B
Today, we almost begin the Gospel of Mark all over again. First, a few reminders: Mark’s Gospel was the earliest Gospel written, most likely before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE; it is the shortest and the one most like a newspaper report.
The opening 8 verses of the Gospel tell the story of John the Baptiser. Jesus is introduced in verse 9, the beginning of the reading you just heard. So in Mark we hear no birth stories, we don’t know anything about Mary and Joseph, we know nothing of the life of Jesus before this moment. All we know is that Jesus comes from Nazareth to be baptized by John in the Jordan.
Mark is sort of the Hemingway of the Bible. Just look at today’s lesson. In just six sentences he tells us about the baptism of Jesus, about Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness with the wild beasts and angels, and about the beginning of his ministry.
What are we to make of such momentous events told in so little detail and in such a short time frame? What dawned on me this week was that this is a call story – about Jesus being called to his ministry. It is also a story about identity – about Jesus recognizing his own identity and taking his place in the world as that person. It is also a story about transformation – the transformation of Jesus from whatever he was before into the Messiah/prophet/teacher he became.
In one of Marcus Borg’s books I remember a statement he made to the effect that transformation is at the heart of the Christian life. In Convictions he says, “Jesus’s message was not about ‘how to get to heaven.’ It was about the ‘kingdom of God.’ . . That kingdom is not about heaven. IT’s for the earth, as the best known prayer affirms: “your kingdom come on earth.’” (p. 62) He goes on to affirm that Christianity and salvation are about transformation this side of death. ( p.75)
It struck me that this is exactly what today’s Gospel tells us – in particular about the transformation Jesus himself experiences before beginning his ministry. What also struck me is how it resembles the transformation most of us experience in growing up.
His baptism, like our own, is the beginning. It marks our own assent to being a child of God. The spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness reminds me of the basic task of growing up, of separation from family that happens when we go away to school or to work. The wilderness is a place where we are tempted, certainly, but also where we can try out different identities, experiment with being different sorts of people, seeking the path we want to follow going forward.
In days gone by, it was presumed that the result of going through such an “identity crisis” would be setting out on the path to the rest of your life. We generally know now that often people experience more than one such crisis. Maybe they chose the wrong one the first time around.
I remember a young man who lived in our attic for a year while he interned with a Lutheran church in our community. He had always wanted to be a Pastor and his home church had supported him during seminary. Half way through his intern year, after two years of seminary, he found he couldn’t stomach the thought of pastoring a church. Seminary had not prepared him for the reality of Council meetings, committee meetings, negotiating rows between women’s circles, or soothing ruffled feathers amongst the kitchen crew. He loved preaching and pastoral work, but was shocked and upset by the realities of a pastor’s life.
This was a classic identity crisis, one that forced a complete revision of his life plan, and was more painful than most because it was the only plan he had ever had. With the help of the wonderful pastor he was interning with, he eventually gave up seminary. To support himself in the meanwhile he attended bartender’s school, got a job at a Ground Round restaurant and in about 3 months had a management job there. (Evidently it’s not usual for a bartender to be honest – skimming goes with the territory, so they grabbed him quickly!). I don’t know what ultimately happened to him, but he was clearly seeking a new identity.
I think the transformation at the heart of our Christian identity is also one that may happen more than once. We were probably baptized as babies. We said yes to that baptism in confirmation. Then we continued in high school, and many of us, like Marcus Borg, began to have our doubts. Then we go off to school or work – our time in the wilderness, more or less. Certainly some folks retain the religious beliefs and postures of their parents. Others have to work at it to revise or revisit or revitalize their world view. Some leave church forever; some become spiritual but not religious; some return to church with an altered perception of what church means; some return to an old habit and a comfortable place.
Some experience transformation more than once. Then it is easier to see life as a series of such transformations as one grows into their life in Christ. This time of year we approach and experience again the death and resurrection of Jesus – surely the greatest imaginable transformation at the heart of our religion. In her sermon on Ash Wednesday, Sam suggested a whole series of metaphorical understandings of such transformations from death to life. When we ‘give up’ something for Lent it is a small death, but one that is intended to bring new life.
When an addict ‘gives up’ their addiction, they find new life. When someone experiences cancer and then is healed, their life is changed. When a person suffering a mental illness is healed or mended by medication, they find a new life.
The ministry of Jesus can be seen as making possible a whole series of transformations in the lives of others: healing people, eating with sinners, casting out demons, raising people from death. The experience of dying to some part of our lives and rising to new life means changing our identity, whether in small or large ways. There are too many such stories in the bible to even mention.
New life often means reconnecting us to our community, but it also may mean turning our backs on old attachments – think of the disciples leaving their nets and their families, the addict who must give up his old buddies and find new friends, or Jesus himself who no longer sees his family of origin as his family. These changes are difficult and not everyone is willing to make them.
The Christian life is about life-long learning and life-long transformation – and that’s part of the good news. Because we’re not expected to “get it” the first time – surely the disciples didn’t either. Transformation is an on-going process. All we have to do is stay alert and pay attention to the learning that comes our way. Oh, yeah, and be willing to die a little to our old selves so that the new can take root.
Lent is the time to consider what we are ready to let go and what we might want to make new. Are we willing to change? Are we willing to become better disciples in spite of the change that requires? Remember that death, the last great adventure, the last great transformation, cannot be avoided. Lent give us a chance to practice, practice, practice. AMEN