Sermon: Sunday February 2015
The Venerable David Newman, Archdeacon of Loughborough
You may have heard the story of the three friends who used to drink together in a local pub. The landlord got to know them, and always lined up three drinks as soon as one came into the pub. One day one came in without the others, but took the usual three drinks – because he told the landlord ‘My two friends have moved away, but we have agreed to remember each other by going out wherever we are and buying three drinks as we have always done.’ However, the day came when he went into the pub and only ordered two drinks. The landlord was very worried but didn’t like to say anything, but when it happened again the following week, he couldn’t resist asking, ‘Has something happened to one of your friends?’ ‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘It’s just that its Lent, and I’ve given up beer for Lent.’
I like that story because it reminds us that Lent is more than just giving things up – it’s the season of preparation for Easter. As we enter into that season, we can learn a lot from seeing Jesus’ time of preparation for his public ministry as told by Mark in the beginning of his gospel. Today’s reading shows three parts to that – the baptism of Jesus, where his core identity is affirmed; then that character is tested in the wilderness; and finally the significance of the moment is discerned.
Mark begins the account of Jesus’ baptism very matter of factly (v.9). That’s how it is for most of us. Baptism just happens. Here, though, the significance of it is dramatised in action. The heavens are torn apart – just as at the end of the gospel the curtain of the temple separating people from the Holy Place of God’s presence would be torn in two – the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove, and he hears God’s word of grace (v.11). What a powerful demonstration that in Jesus Christ a new connectedness with God was opening up for humanity, a new partnership of heaven and earth. The words are sheer grace, coming as they do right at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. We could understand them coming after the temptations, or when he’s been out in ministry for a bit and got some preaching and healing and deliverance under his belt. Then God says, ‘Well done my boy, I’m really pleased with you – keep up the good work.’ But no – at this point he hasn’t done anything, and yet the voice from heaven says, ‘You’re my beloved Son.’ Those I believe are words we all need as our core identity and yet find it hard to hold on to.
Henri Nouwen writes about this in his book Life of the Beloved: ‘Though the experience of being the Beloved has never been completely absent from my life, I never claimed it as my core truth. I kept running around it in large or small circles, always looking for someone or something able to convince me of my Belovedness. It was as if I kept refusing to hear the voice that speaks from the very depth of my being and says: “You are my beloved, on you my favour rests.” That voice has always been there, but it seems that I was much more eager to listen to other louder voices saying: “prove that you are worth something; do something relevant, spectacular or powerful, and then you will earn the love you so desire.” Meanwhile the soft gentle voice that speaks in the silence and solitude of my heart remained unheard or at least unconvincing.’
Tonight Hollywood will be giving out the Oscars and in our celebrity, image-conscious society, it’s so easy to hear that the rewards only go to the successful, the glamorous, the beautiful, the witty or intelligent. There is a huge tendency for self-rejection if we don’t think we match up. How important it is to make this identity in Christ central to our self understanding, just as it was for Jesus. I am the son / daughter he loves; with me he is well pleased.
What follows is a bit of a shock. The Spirit sent, or more literally drove, Jesus into the wilderness. Mark does not give us details. He very simply makes the point that the wilderness where Jesus was tempted by Satan is where he was sent by the Spirit; if the Christian life is founded on grace, it is continued with disciplined obedience. We are shocked today at young jihadists going off to the Middle East to fight in the cause of their religion, and it is of course a misplaced obedience. But it reminds us that perhaps particularly young people have a capacity and yearning to give everything in unconditional commitment, and the call is there in the gospel and Christian tradition too. I love the bit in the Rule of St Benedict which describes how aspirants to the monastery are to be received – I wonder how the newcomer to the Lent Group, or the Alpha course would react to being told ‘Wait outside patiently for a few days.’ After hearing his core identity affirmed at his baptism Jesus is given this rigorous testing in the wilderness, and Mark concludes – he was with the wild animals and angels attended him. In my experience, the Spirit takes us into some of the wild and dangerous places of life, maybe especially within our own souls, and we have to face our mixed motivations, the fear or pride that can control us as well as the bruises we receive from others; yet, like for Jesus, they can be the meeting place of angels – God’s messengers, where his grace is encountered more deeply.
After baptism in the Jordan, and testing in the desert, Jesus discerns the significance of the moment (v.15). Jesus returns to announce that ‘The time has come,’ and it is as if we have jumped on a roller coaster and are off on an exhilarating if not a little hair-raising ride. From now Mark speeds along at a breathtaking pace – characterised by the frequent use of words like ‘at once’, ‘immediately’, ‘without delay’, ‘as soon as’. It can suggest that the Christian life as modelled by Jesus is just busy, busy, busy – but that would be not the whole picture. The opening of the gospel has already reminded us in a subtle way that God does not work in a hurry. It is almost funny the way Mark at the beginning of this chapter quotes Malachi, and Isaiah’s prophecy of the messenger who would prepare the way, and continues: ‘And so John the Baptist appeared’, omitting to say four or five hundred years later! God is not in a hurry. Yet there are important seasons, and moments of opportunity. At a particular moment of chronological time – ‘after John was arrested’ – Jesus announces, ‘The time has come,’ using the Greek word kairos which carries the sense of moment, or opportunity. And I think that much of Mark’s breathless pace is about emphasising this season of opportunity. The kairos is God’s timing, but it happens within chronos, and we need to be able to organise chronos in terms of our priorities and goals to realise the opportunities God gives us.
We could do worse than in this season of Lent than to observe the preparation of Jesus for his ministry, renewing our sense of being a child of God and enjoying his grace; letting the Spirit lead us into testing disciplines that will strengthen our character; and discerning God’s priorities for our lives and making sure everything else fits around those.
© The Venerable David Newman