Dr. Anne M. Cameron
March 1, 2009
Lake Highlands Presbyterian Church
The gospel we hear today on the first Sunday of Lent is a story with three parts. The title of the story is "The beginning of Jesus' ministry on earth." Part One: Jesus' baptism; Part Two: Jesus' temptation in the wilderness; and Part Three: Jesus preaches his first sermon.
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."
At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"
This is a dangerous gospel text. Nearly all of them are, only we don't read them very carefully or we don't listen very deeply or we simply don't listen at all after we hear the first few words, "Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan." Oh, we know this one, heard it a thousand times, even did a Bible study on it once. I know it, I don't have to think about that one again.
And yet danger lurks in every turn of this text. There is the danger of our not hearing it or dismissing it. Even when we think we hear it, there is the danger of our not hearing Mark's unique voice because he is so drowned out by the louder voices of Matthew and Luke. Mark has a particular point of view that we need to hear. And so we hush Matthew and Luke and allow Mark to get through, if only for a little while.
Mark doesn't tell us what happened out there in the wilderness. We don't get the devil's three clever questions, or Jesus' even more clever answers. All we really know is, there was real danger. We know the tempting had to be real [Jesus was like us in every way but sin]; we know it had to be serious [wild beasts, Satan and angels]; we suspect there had to be some purpose to it and that Jesus came out of the experience changed somehow, different, perhaps even transformed. And we all know that sort of change can be extremely unnerving, even downright dangerous.
There is danger, too, lurking in Mark's choice of words. In Jesus' baptism there is already the foreshadowing of Jesus' death. When Mark says, "the heavens were being torn open," the verb he uses is the exact same verb he uses at the very end of the gospel, at the moment of Jesus' crucifixion: "the temple curtain was torn in two from top to bottom."1 Split. Torn. Ripped. A violent word for a violent image. The tearing open of the heavens at the beginning and the tearing apart of the curtain at the end, strange bookends to the whole blessed life of Christ.
And then in the wilderness we encounter more danger lurking, echoes of Israel's less-than-ideal past. Forty days in the desert. Forty days of the Great Flood. Israel's forty years lost in the desert, wandering.
There is the final part of this passage. The stage is set with another foreshadowing of Jesus' death. Our translation says John was put into prison, but John is (literally) 'handed over' to the authorities, just as Jesus will be 'handed over' in the Garden of Gethsemane. Same exact word in the Greek. Another bookend moment in Mark.
The death of Jesus lurks just beneath the still waters of baptism and the reassuring glory of the kingdom. And then, like a sword (!), there is the danger of Mark's message.
There is the danger of the power of God in this man Jesus, the dangerous demand that we "repent and believe". It is this final danger we focus on today. It is a danger that in many ways is no different than the danger of baptism or the dangers of temptation, but as we enter into the wilderness of Lent, the danger of repenting calls to us in a particularly insistent way.
"Repent! Repent!" Such an old-fashioned word. Such a church-y word. Such a wild word. A crazy word. A-street-preacher-with-zany-hair-and-a wild-look-in-his-eye-wearing-a-placard-that-says, "The Kingdom of God is near!" kind-of-word. "Repent! Repent!" We never hear that word anymore. It's probably politically incorrect. But. . . it is gospel.
First, what "repent" does not mean. It does not mean, "Say you're sorry". It does not mean, "Ask forgiveness." It does not mean, "I've changed my mind." No, no, no, that's too easy.
"Repent" is to turn painfully away from the fundamentally bad and to turn painfully toward the fundamentally good. "Repent" is to go back home again, to return to God. Repent is an act of total surrender. And it is an imperative in this gospel; it's not a suggestion. We see how danger lurks in Jesus' command to "turn ourselves over to God, body and soul."
This Lenten season I am following the assigned lectionary readings with an eye toward the ideas of Grace and Law. Today was supposed to have been "Law." I planned this sermon series in January and I think I must have been little bit under water when I did. . . Or maybe not. The Spirit moves in strange ways. Perhaps we all need to discover where law is in Jesus' command to "repent."
Because "repent" sounds a lot more like a legal word than a word of grace. "Repent" means we have to acknowledge how far we have turned from God's grace and how far we have to go to get back to God. "Repent" gives us a high bar, a goal, a construct under which our lives may indeed be transformed. And so, in that sense, "repent" can be likened to 'law.' The law helps us know what to turn to and what to turn away from. The law is a vehicle by which we are transformed.
In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky tells the story of an old Russian monk named Zossima. It is a story of repentance. Zossima recounts what happened to him when he was a young officer in the army. Zossima had been in love. When he was away for a few months, the young woman he loved married another man. When Zossima came back, he did what every upstanding man did at the time: he challenged the other man to a duel. Many years later, he remembers the event:
“It was the end of June, and our meeting was to take place at seven o'clock the next day on the outskirts of town-and then something happened that in very truth was the turning-point of my life. In the evening, returning home in a savage and brutal humor, I flew into a rage with my orderly Afanasy, and gave him two blows in the face with all my might, so that it was covered with blood. He had not long been in my service and I had struck him before, but never with such ferocious cruelty. And, believe me, though it's forty years ago, I recall it now with shame and pain. I went to bed and slept for about three hours; when I waked up the day was breaking. I got up-I did not want to sleep any more-I went to the window-opened it, it looked out upon the garden; I saw the sun rising; it was warm and beautiful, the birds were singing.
What's the meaning of it, I thought. I feel in my heart as it were something vile and shameful. Is it because I am going to shed blood? No, . . .it's not that. Can it be that I'm afraid of death. . . ? No, that's not it, that's not it at all.... And all at once I knew what it was; it was because I had beaten Afanasy the evening before. . .What a crime! It was as though a sharp dagger had pierced me right through, I stood as if I were struck dumb, while the sun was shining, the leaves were rejoicing and the birds were trilling the praise of God. . .
And I ran back alone, straight to Afanasy's little room. "Afanasy," I said, "I gave you two blows on the face yesterday. Forgive me."
He started as though he were frightened, and looked at me, and I saw that it was not enough, and on the spot, in my full officer's uniform, I dropped at his feet and bowed my head to the ground.
"Forgive me," I said. Then he was completely aghast. "Your honor. . . sir, what are you doing? Am I worth it?"
Zossima goes on to describe the duel, in which he never even fired at his opponent and was himself only grazed by a bullet.
I turned to my adversary. "Forgive me, young fool that I am, sir," I said, "for my unprovoked insult to you and for forcing you to fire at me. . ."
"Upon my word," cried my adversary, annoyed, "if you did not want to fight why did you not let me alone?"
"Yesterday I was a fool, today I know better," I answered him. . . 2
Yes, danger lurks at every turn, but when we repent, when we surrender ourselves to the mystery of Christ in us, when we allow ourselves to be shaped and formed by the law which keeps us, we will be changed and astounded in the very gladness of it. . . We will be able to look back on the story that was our life and say with joy, "Yesterday I was a fool; today I know better. . ."
In the dangerous returning to God we may find ourselves down on our knees, begging forgiveness of the spouse we have shamed with the blows of our tongue, of the son we have blasted with the weapons of our words, of the friend we have killed with the pride of our position. We may just find ourselves turning in the pistols we have relied on for so long, turning in guns for plowshares, swords for pruning hooks. We may lower our shields long enough to glimpse goodness in one who had once been our adversary, to grant another chance, to see someone in an entirely new light.
Or if we don't have these particular sins upon our hearts, there are others lurking, others which eat away at the glorious possibilities that only here, only now, we may begin to see differently, the scales fallen from our eyes, as we enter into a holy Lent, a repentant and transforming Lent.
Danger lurks at every turn, my friends, but so does law and so does grace, and so does, thanks be to God. . . God.