Being Uncomfortable in Lent
Year B, Lent 1
Today is quite a day at St. John’s. We have an interesting combination of both Ash Wednesday and the first Sunday of Lent. If that was not enough, we have the pancake brunch after the 10:30 service with Night’s Welcome training after that. That is a whole lot of stuff crammed into one morning. Mark, the author of our Gospel for today was also known for cramming a lot of stuff into a small space. His Gospel is kind of the like the abridged form of the other Gospels. It was the first written and I imagine Mark being in a hurry, wanting to get it all done before he forgot the really important stuff. Matthew and Luke expanded on what Mark wrote and added material from other sources. Mark’s minimalist approach is well displayed in the Gospel reading for today. There are three big events described in rather sparse detail.
It starts with Jesus being baptized and the heavens being torn apart. After that, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Most people have a family gathering or even a small reception after a baptism. Jesus was pushed into the wilderness by the very same Spirit that descended on him in his baptism. After 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus returned proclaiming the Good News and thus beginning his public ministry. Mark covered all of that in 6 verses, leaving only 2 verses for Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness.
On the first Sunday of Lent the Gospel reading is always the story of the temptation. In three years, we cycle through Matthew, Luke and Mark. Both Matthew and Luke give the preacher a lot more to work with. Those descriptions of Jesus in the wilderness are 11-13 verses as opposed to 2. Those Gospel stories are more familiar because they go into detail about the actual temptations that Satan put in front of Jesus. Mark mentions Satan and the temptation, but that is all he does. He mentions them. The other Gospels go into a lot of detail about how Satan tempted Jesus, how Jesus resisted that temptation and in doing so proved that he was stronger than Satan.
There are some other interesting differences in the way the three Gospels tell this story. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus is in the desert for 40 days fasting before Satan enters the story. Mark never says when Satan entered the story. As a result of that omission, many have concluded that Satan was with Jesus throughout the 40 days. Matthew as well as Mark mentions angels waiting on Jesus. But Matthew says that they did not come until Jesus has been through the 40 days and conquered Satan. In Mark, not only was Satan with him the whole time, but so were the angels.
In some ways, each Gospel reading provides us a slightly different entry into Lent. One of the reasons we use these Gospel readings about Jesus’s time in the wilderness to introduce Lent is because of the reference to 40 days. For that reason, many people have concluded that these 40 days must be a time of suffering and sacrificing. Yet there is no fast in Mark, not explicitly at least. What there is, is the wilderness. While some people really like the great outdoors, that is not what the wilderness is referring to. In other translations of the Bible, the word for wilderness is translated to desert or wasteland. So it is definitely not the kind of place you vacation or rest. It is also harkens back to the 40 years that the Hebrew people wandered in the wilderness. It wasn’t a happy time for them, but it was a necessary time.
The wilderness represents a time when we are moved out of our comfort zone, when we are asked to do something that makes us uncomfortable but prepares us in some way. For Jesus, the wilderness time came right after his baptism, right after this profound moment of clarity about his identity. God had just split heaven apart to tell him that he loved him. Immediately after that, the same spirit that descended on him as a dove pushed him into the wilderness where he confronted Satan. There is something disconcerting about that kind of abruptness. There was no transition…no time to adjust.
Yet isn’t that more true to our experience. We are taught in school that we should use transitions in our writing; but that is not really how life works. Life is not always full of smooth transitions. One moment, all is well in the world. Our job or school is going well. Our relationships are fulfilling. As a result we feel closer to God. When things are going well, when things are comfortable, it is always easier to feel close to God. Then something happens and everything changes so rapidly, it’s like emotional whiplash. We go from our comfy climate controlled home to someplace strange and lonely. We are in the wilderness and that voice which we heard so clearly a moment ago is gone. Suffering is upon us. Pain is upon us and the thing we are missing is God.
At least that is what it feels like. Really what we are missing is all that comforted us before. If we take a step back and look carefully, we might find that while we are still in a difficult place where pain and suffering seems overwhelming…God is still there. The whole time Jesus was tempted by Satan, the angels waited on him. They did not wait until after Jesus defeated Satan. They were with him as he struggled. Jesus was in the desert, but God never deserted him. That is what gave him the strength to make it through those 40 days.
As you experience Lent this year, I ask you to consider what it is that makes you comfortable and what it is that challenges your comfort. Sometimes those things that challenge our comfort are the same things that bring us closer to God, or at least remind us of how very much we need God.
Today, we will go to the pancake brunch with ashes on our forehead. That’s not the way that it is supposed to be. Pancakes comes first, then ashes, then the first Sunday of Lent. Ash Wednesday is supposed to be a day of fasting…after you carbo load on a bunch of pancakes.
That is not the way it happened this year so we need to look at it from a different perspective. The ashes we receive on Ash Wednesday are also supposed to be reminders of our mortality and our vulnerability. So this year, instead of focusing on the fasting and sacrificing, what if we focus on the vulnerability and the discomfort? Instead of giving up something that is bad for you just for the sake of sacrificing, what if we do something that will make us a little uncomfortable? You could volunteer at Night’s Welcome not just for the sake of helping someone less fortunate, but to remind yourself of who the children of God really are. They are God’s beloved just as much as we are . Or- You could talk to someone about God, even though you don’t normally do that. Or-You could pray aloud with your family…and I am not talking about the quick grace you say before meals.
If you want to give something up, that is fine too. But don’t do it because that is what you have always done and you have been trying to lose a few pounds anyways. That is not what Lent is about. I guarantee you that it won’t be that hard to find something uncomfortable that also helps you grow. If you can’t think of anything, come talk to me and I can guarantee we can come up with something really quickly. As we move through the discomfort, remember that the angels wait on you and perhaps in challenging yourself and being a little uncomfortable, you will be an angel for someone who needs one.