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Lent 1

Sunday, 18 February 2024
Rev Professor Paul Foster

Surely in the twenty-first century Lent is irrelevant. .... Humans need to learn to live in a mode of flourishing existence, not with acts of self-imposed abstinence, nor severe penitence, discipline, and mental self-flagellation.

Lent 1

Mark 1.9-15

Surely in the twenty-first century Lent is irrelevant. It is an out-dated relic of a Medieval piety that has nothing to do with the challenges of modern life. Humans need to learn to live in a mode of flourishing existence, not with acts of self-imposed abstinence, nor severe penitence, discipline, and mental self-flagellation. Just this week, without going into details, I have dealt with a case of extreme self-harm. That was, in many ways, the result of a person being uncomfortable with who they are, and thus trying to shape and beat their body into the form they thought it should be. If our Lenten understanding undergirds acts of self-abuse and self-loathing, then I for one am all for consigning it to the ash heap. However, I wonder if what is wrong with Lent is the more popular misunderstandings, rather than what might be its true purpose and origins.
Nearly every Lent we read a version of the story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, that occurs after his baptism. Both Matthew and Luke preserve a narrative of Jesus overcoming the threefold temptations of the devil, with memorable scriptural phrases such as a person “does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt 4.4). This year, however, we read the Gospel of Mark. In that account the story proceeds rapidly. In three verses Jesus is baptised, in another two he is tempted in the wilderness, then with a further two verses he commences his preaching ministry. There is no time to draw breath between each of these momentous scenes. We move from one life-defining scene to the next at a dizzying pace. At this point, may I share with you one of my dark and hidden secrets? I am a fan of the Lee Child novels. The protagonist is an ex-USA army major in the military police, named Jack Reacher. This central character, Reacher, is a minimalist and a vagrant, typically travelling America on a Greyhound bus, and in successive novels seemingly ending up in the centre of some malevolent situation where his unusual combination of skills is typically required to right a wrong – I am afraid nearly always with a disproportionate amount of violence! While the plot lines are vastly different, the writing style reminds me of the Gospel of Mark. A terse and taunt narrative, where the implications are not spelt out, but readers are left to draw their own conclusions. It is with such brevity and pace that today’s gospel recounts baptism, temptation and beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
When the Jesus of Mark’s gospel arrives for baptism, there is no dialogue between him and Baptist. The only spoken words come from on high, “You are my beloved son, in you I am well pleased.” This momentous declaration of identity surprisingly receives no comment. Before one can absorb its implications, Jesus is cast out into the wilderness by the Spirit. Yes, the Greek verb is that strong. It is the Greek term ἐκβάλλω, “to throw out,” a word used to describe Jesus’ own actions when he casts out demons. Matthew and Luke both change the word to something milder. However, for Mark, Jesus is forced out into the wilderness by the Spirit. It is almost as if Mark wants readers to contemplate the idea that Jesus is possessed by a spirit – albeit a heavenly one. This confrontation between otherworldly forces is a feature of Mark’s account of the ministry of Jesus. Next, we simply find Jesus in the wilderness. There is no mention of fasting, we are only told that during this period of forty days Jesus was tempted by Satan. No details are given. We are not even told that Jesus overcame the temptation – Mark leaves readers to draw that implication. Instead, all Mark states is that Jesus “was with the wild beasts and the angels were ministering to him” (Mk 1.13). Our familiarity with the story and our propensity to fill its gaps with details from Matthew and Luke can obscure the fact that this is a deeply weird narrative. It tells us so little, and only the sparsest details, as we hurtle on to the next scene. The same Spirit that appeared as a dove at the baptism and declared Jesus to be God’s beloved child, now compels him into the wilderness. The figure of Satan appears in the story to act as a tempter – but we are not told why or how. Jesus is with the beasts in the wilderness – is this a scene of pastoral bliss or life-threatening danger? Or is it simply a way of highlighting Jesus’ solitude, drawing attention to the lack of any fellow human beings? Then equally enigmatic is the detail that “the angels were ministering to him.” Mark does not share the details of their ministration. Was it provision of physical sustenance, or spiritual support in the face of Satan’s temptations, or even protection from the beasts? The narrative leaves us to ponder.
Then without answering such questions, Mark hurries on again. There is no note of a return from the wilderness. There is a scholarly debate about where verses 14-15 fit within the scheme of Mark’s macrostructure. Are they the end of his introduction, or do they constitute the beginning of the body of the Gospel. I will give you my opinion, and you have to remember I am a middle of the road, wishy-washy episcopalian! – I think they are transitional, intended to bridge between sections of the gospel. However, they offer a succinct summary of Jesus’ message and they also function as stage directions. Before Jesus commences his own public ministry, John the Baptist is removed from the narratival stage. What is reported in these two verses happens after the arrest of John. The ministries of John and Jesus do not overlap. John’s purpose was simply to act as a preparatory figure. The forerunner’s work is done. When John’s removal from the action, Jesus appears in Galilee after this time of preparation and he begins proclaiming the good news, or the gospel of God. Then, for the first time in Mark’s account, with the Baptist out of picture, Jesus finally speaks. He has not uttered a single word to this point. He makes two declarations. The first is this, that “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mk 1.15a). Jesus declares this to be a decisive moment, a time of epochal change. The long-expected hope for a “coming time” is now announced to be at hand. Does this mean it has arrived? Perhaps not quite yet. Rather, Jesus speaks of its imminent arrival and the implication is that the coming of the kingdom is intimately linked with Jesus’ own mission.
The second declaration tells hearers how they are to wait for this imminent arrival of the kingdom. Passivity is not appropriate, rather preparation is what is needed. People are called to purity and faith. They are to repent – that is to turn away from actions and behaviours that do not align with the kingdom. Furthermore, they are to believe in the truth of the message that Jesus proclaims concerning the coming kingdom. In Mark’s gospel this is both an authoritative and a pressing call. I expect Mark would not just say that there is no time like the present to respond to Jesus’ message, rather he would declare the only possible time to respond is right now – for the kingdom is at hand in this very moment.
What then does Mark teach us about the kingdom of God this Lent. First that we must prepare ourselves for it. Not with acts of self-abasement, but by aligning our lives with kingdom values of urgency and action. The promise is that in the process we will find the wholeness of human existence. Second, that process of turning to the gospel might also entail a turning away from any destructive behaviours that separate us from the reign of God. Third, that it is not about self-loathing and abusing our bodies, but that together we seek the common good for humanity in renewal and recreation in the image of God. And fourth, that this is an urgent matter – there can be no hesitation, no deviation, no repetition, for we have just a minute, a single moment to act – for the kingdom of God is at hand.
So, what then is my message to you this Lent. It is not new, but it needs to be heard with the same urgency that Mark presents it. It is this, “Remember O mortal one you are dust, and to dust you shall return, repent and believe in Gospel,” Amen.

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