I have a friend who is good at working with his hands, especially with wood.  He’s so good with wood, in fact, that his pastor asked him to build a large cross for use during a Lenten program his church is doing called 24 Hours by a United Methodist Minister named Adam Hamilton.  What I love about my friend is that as he began to plan out this work, he began to wonder what it must have taken to build one of these things in the time when they were the torture and execution preference of the Roman government.

He began to research the kinds of tools that would have been used to craft one of these horrible devices, and to see if there were ways he might be able to replicate some of the methods.  He wanted to see how authentic he could make it.  When he told me about this, I told him that he really ought to create a blog to track such a project.  What a journey it must be during the Lenten season to actually build a cross.  Why did I find this project so compelling?

I found it compelling because the cross, the cross that we “lift high” the cross that we “take up,” is one of the central symbols of who we are as Christians.[1]  We may not agree on much with some other groups of Christians, but most every Christian group has a cross somewhere in their church.  And those churches who have completely removed crosses from their sanctuaries because they bum their congregations out too much did so to great cries of concern from brother and sister churches.  But generally, there are crosses everywhere.  There are crosses on my stole.  There are crosses on the altar.  Many of you have crosses hung from your necks. There are crosses all around our church.  We have a cross over the altar that is metal.  The cross in the fellowship hall is wooden. The crosses on my stole are made of thread.

There are crosses everywhere at our church and at most churches.  We bear this cross as a mark of our identity.  We bear the cross as a mark of who we are and whose we are.  The cross is a rich symbol that carries a multitude of meanings within itself.  Many of us bear oil crosses on our forehead at our baptism as a sign of the sealing of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives.  Just a week ago we bore ash crosses on our foreheads as a sign both of our mortality and marking us as ones who have entered into Christ’s death, so that we might have a share in his resurrection.  Crosses are everywhere…and yet…

To see what my friend is doing, slowing down and considering the creation of this cross, I wonder in our multitude of cross, if a large share of those meanings of the cross has been lost on us?  We also experience crosses as ubiquitous.  They are everywhere.  The easy shot to take here would be at rappers who wear large ornate diamond studded crosses, which, compared to the Old Rugged Cross are riddled with irony.  But let’s step back from the easy shot and turn the camera back on ourselves.  It is easy enough to point fingers at other people who wear crosses, but don’t follow through with lives that seem to be Cross and Christ-shaped.  What about us, who wear these crosses around our neck, who set them in our places of gathering and worship, who actually claim to be ones who recognize and embrace this cross as a symbol of our redemption?

Do we grasp fully the depth of what it means to bear the cross?  Do we grasp fully the depth of what it means to wear, to accessorize with the cross.  It is an object that is an instrument of execution and death.  What does it mean to accessorize with an instrument of torture?  If were to translate it into contemporary terms, if we saw someone wearing a little needle or a little electric chair around their necks we would receive that persson bearing such objects as jewelry as at best having a sick sense of humor and at worst having some deep-seated issues.  Why would you wear an instrument of death and execution around your neck?  Why would we lift it high?  One of the first gifts Mary Alex received on the day of her baptism was a little cross around her neck.  Why would we do that?  How are we to handle this?

Perhaps that a cross would be received at a baptism may help us to understand how it comes to be that we wear this object of death, this instrument of pain, around our necks.  Our baptism is the place where we God claims us and grace begins to work in us.  When we respond to that grace, we begin the life of discipleship.  The Gospel lesson today is really about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Jesus begins to describe to the disciples that he must undergo suffering, rejection, and death.  Peter won’t stand for this.  Mark tells us that Peter “pulls Jesus aside,” and tries to rebuke Jesus privately.  As we have seen before, this isn’t the kind of Messiah Peter was looking for.

Yet, to deny this piece of Jesus’ life is to become an adversary, which is what the word and name “Satan” literally means.  And so Jesus rebukes Peter publicly.  Further, Jesus doesn’t just tell the disciples, but he tells the whole crowd exactly what it means to be a follower, to be a disciple.  It is to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him.  When we respond to the grace of our baptism that is the beginning of discipleship, and it is the beginning of we picking up our cross and beginning to follow Jesus.

Lent is the perfect time to begin to consider what it means to reflect on picking up our crosses because it is the season where we intentionally focus on our discipleship in way that we often don’t during the rest of the year.  Lent is the time when we become the most conscious of Jesus’ call to take up our cross because it is the time when we are following him to his cross.  This has been true in the church for a long time. In the early church, those who were preparing to be baptized would be the most focused on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  About the responses they would give and the actions they would take in their baptism.  40 days seems like a long time to wait for a baptism, but in reality it took more like 2 or 3 years of preparation before a person could be baptized and be a part of the church.  Before you could be baptized, you had to learn how to live and act like a Christian.

We tend to think of it in the reverse, with the heart experience leading our changed behaviors.  However, in the early church, changing of one’s behavior was part and parcel of the change they were experiencing in their heart.  So, by the time the Lent before their baptism rolled around, they had already been reflecting on what it means to be a disciple, to take up their cross and follow Christ.  Lent was a deeper, intentional time leading up to their full reception of life in the church and their first admittance to receive Holy Communion.  Lent was a time when they would prepare to answer questions that are pretty close to what we who are baptized have answered ourselves.[2]

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness?”[3]  That’s first question we ask when we are baptizing someone.  In the early church, they would actually have to face the west and renounce “Satan and all his pomp.”  As we join Jesus in the wilderness, we encounter the temptations.  But the temptation isn’t just to do explicitly evil things.  No, the temptations we experience are much more sinister.  After all, Jesus’ rebuke to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” isn’t because Peter is asking Jesus to go out and steal from other people.  No, Peter wants Jesus to be the kind of Messiah that is the conquering the Romans and ruling the world sort of Messiah.  He wants Jesus to take over.  He wants to be part of the people who run things.  He wants to rule the Romans.  It is the kind of dominance we see Satan offer Jesus in the wilderness in the other Gospels.

It’s that kind of dominance that we still tempted with.  The temptation to skip all of that suffering stuff and just get to Easter.  The temptation to try to keep our own security and power in the world by trying o take over things, forcing others to see things our way, as opposed to offering up all the power we think we have to be weak in Jesus, who rules the world by suffering and dying on a cross.  It is that kind of control that Jesus rejects in the wilderness, and it is the kind of control that leads Jesus to see Peter as an adversary.

The next question we ask is, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil?”[4]  The freedom and the power God gives us to resist evil.  This question assumes that we need both freedom and power to resist evil.  The General Rules of the United Methodist Church basically say, “Do no harm,” “Do good,” and “Attend Upon the Ordinances of God.”  In addition to simply feeding people who are hungry, we begin to ask why they are hungry in the first place.  Are there structural things in our society that keep people hungry, that keep them in poverty?

I guarantee you when we begin to resist those structures, not everyone will take kindly to it.  We need freedom and power to resist evil in the world because to do that means not just that we “behave” ourselves, but it actually may mean getting into some trouble.  It will mean bearing a cross and being rejected by many.  It means we will look different.  We will look weird.  We will not fit in.

The third question we ask is, “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior and promise to serve him as your Lord?”[5]  To do this means that we pick up our cross, that we are willing to following Jesus in that cross bearing.  It isn’t just an intellectual assent or an emotional change in our lives, but it is a re-ordering of our lives based on Jesus’ love those who are the “least of these.”  It means that we are willing to resist evil by changing the way that we live in the world.

The final question we ask is, “Will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?”[6]  What does it mean to do that?  Jesus tells us exactly what it means in our Gospel lesson this morning.  Lose our life for the sake of others, and for the sake of the Gospels.  Deny ourselves in favor of others is how we represent Jesus.  In short, that is what it means to be a faithful member of Christ’s Holy Church and be his representative in the world.  We do this because in losing our life we actually find it, rather than being ashamed of this Savior who seems so weak that we have to make him look strong.

In my opinion, one of the scariest movements today in many Christian circles is one that suggests that Jesus has become too weak and too “feminized.”  Jesus is just not strong enough , and so they want to emphasize what they see as Jesus’ more masculine traits, with paintings in their churches of Jesus whipping the money-changers out of the temple.  The problem with that interpretation is that Jesus doesn’t fit into the categories that we want to create for him and for ourselves.  Jesus’ power is made perfect in weakness, and so ours is.  Jesus conquers the world by saving it with his own weakness.

To bear our cross, to take up our cross, is a paradox now, even as it was in Jesus time.  Even as it is a symbol of government oppression and execution, we also experience it as a sign of Jesus’ victory.  Peter was horrified at what Jesus said because it is a paradox that the one who is the Messiah, this Son of Man the one who came to save Israel and the world would do so by suffering and dying.

In the same way the cross stands as this paradox that we would “lift high” the cross.  That this symbol of death, pain, and torture could become a symbol of love.  A symbol of victory.  A symbol of life.  How powerful is that this instrument of death could become a sign of life and victory?  A stumbling block the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, right?  It is the just the same as the paradox that we find our lives by losing them for the sake of one another and the sake of the Gospel.

It is the same kind of paradox that will allow us later in the service to sing about Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as a “dance.”  Read the word when we sing “Lord the Dance,” later in the service.  It is a very upbeat, even whimsical tune, that folks love to sing, but it is describing in some parts events that are horrible.  Yet, we sing it joyfully because in it we hear the story of our life that comes through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  The difference between wearing a cross around our necks and wearing a little electric chair is that the cross has been transformed by the one who hung upon it, and the one who calls us and helps us to bear our crosses in the world.

[1] Paul C. Shupe, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 68.

[2] “Worship Notes – Calendar,” United Methodist General Board of Discipleship Lectionary Planning Helps, Online:  http://www.gbod.org/site/c.nhLRJ2PMKsG/b.3879973/k.9C35/Lectionary_Planning_Helps_for_Sundays.htm, cited March 4, 2012.

[3] United Methodist Hymnal, “Baptismal Covenant I,” (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), p. 34.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

It was only a couple of months ago that we were reflecting on Jesus’ baptism, and what it means for our own baptism.  Here, in our Gospel lesson today, Mark tells us what happens next.  One might think that after such a powerful event in which Jesus’s identity as God’s beloved Son is revealed, as we see that God is revealed to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that the next logical step would be to immediately rush into public ministry.  Instead, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness.

As we have seen, Mark is his concise in his description.  Within the forty days, there is no grand dialogue between Satan and Jesus.  Instead, Mark only mentions that Jesus was “tempted by Satan” in the wilderness.  The sparse view of the scene we receive also lets us know that “Jesus was with the wild beasts, and angels waited on him.”

Mark gives us so little information, and yet it is clear that something is different before and after the wilderness.  In his Baptism, Jesus’ identity has been revealed and his mission initiated.  After he emerges from the wilderness, Jesus picks up here John, who has been arrested, has left off, proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”[1]  The difference, of course, between John’s proclamation and Jesus’ is that John was pointing to Jesus, but when Jesus says, “the kingdom of God has come near,” he is pointing to himself.

Jesus’ presence, as he emerges from the wilderness finds those he encounters, and us, as the one whom the voice from heaven named as God’s beloved.  It is an encounter with the Kingdom of God because it is found in him and he embodies it by his very life.  And yet, he feels the need to go into the wilderness.  We also find ourselves beckoned there by him.

For many of us, this isn’t how we would have our first experience after baptism and/or join the church. We are part of the community, we have received our baptism, and we are ready to get to work.  And yet, before Jesus begins his public ministry, is driven to the wilderness.  Why would we follow Jesus into the wilderness, besides the obvious that he bids us to follow him wherever he may go? Why walk with Jesus into the wilderness?

I had a friend in seminary who thought that Lent was foolishness.  He wasn’t from a liturgical tradition, which is certainly fine because not everyone is.  But he would always wonder aloud, “Why are you all spending forty days feelin’ all bad all the time?”  For him Lent was the ultimate bummer.  He wondered why, if we have the joy of Jesus Christ in our lives, should we spend forty days bumming ourselves out?  Perhaps that is not what is happening in Lent.  It may appear that way to those who are not familiar with the practices.

Perhaps it suggests that the joy that comes in the Lord is more than just being happy all the time.  Perhaps it suggests that going out in the wilderness from time to time is part and parcel of being shaped like Jesus.   We find ourselves beckoned to the wilderness, not just because Jesus is there, but because we know that God shows up in the wilderness.  A quick look at the history of God’s people, in the story of Israel as well as the Church we see again and again that God shows up in the wilderness.

Even as the Israelites wander through the desert, God is ahead of them and behind them.  When the early church experienced the wilderness of martyrdom, it was an incredible time of growth in the life of the Church.  So, we find ourselves confronted by a call to the wilderness, even as we find ourselves confronted with the fact that we live in a society consumed with consuming, and things like Lent doesn’t make much money.  A call that finds us being shaped differently.  A call that suggests that to come to waters of baptism, while we receive our new identity there, it is an identity that we will spend the rest of our lives living into.  And so we journey together into the wilderness, preparing for the great feast of Easter.

The first way that we enter into this preparation is we shape ourselves different as a worshiping community.  We still gather together.  We still proclaim the resurrection each time we gather together as church on Sunday.  And yet, we operate differently.  We mark time differently.  For example, that we don’t stop doing Holy Communion during Lent, but you may have noticed on Ash Wednesday, and you will notice the next time we share Communion that we will not sing the Communion responses during Lent.

It is a way to continue to practice, and at the same time it is to recognize Lent as a “lean” time, a time of introspection, of change.  It is a time where we continue our practices, even as we recognize that we are walking with Jesus in the wilderness.  The result of this is that when we gather together on Easter and meet at the table, after we walked with Jesus to the cross, after we have followed Jesus to the grave, and after we emerge with Jesus from the tomb, our song of Christ’s saving body and blood shall again ring out!

Another way that we mark this time differently is by the practice of “burying” our alleluias.  “Alleluia” is a word that is deeply associated with Easter.  Therefore, when we are in Lent, we bury it, we covered it, and we live together knowing that the Allelluia is still there, but we are preparing to shout it on Easter.  We still proclaim the resurrection each week, but we know we are walking with Jesus in the wilderness.  It a time of barrenness.  It is a time of denying ourselves.  Futher, we know that as we mark time differently as a community, we also mark it different individually.

We “give up” things for Lent.”  Not to show how righteous we are.  Not to prove how much we love Jesus.  Rather, we deny ourselves during Lent in order to remind ourselves of our utter dependence on Christ, that we “do not live by bread alone.”  In doing that we open ourselves up to the Spirit’s re-shaping of who we are.  Lent is a time of refining where the dross is burned away in fires of self-denial and the power of the Holy Spirit.

However, when we give up things for Lent, we must be clear that this is not an endurance trial.  Remember, Naaman expected some sort of difficult trial in order to receive healing.  And yet, he only had to wash in the river seven times.  Lenten disciplines are not an endurance trial.  If we just fast, and we don’t replace that time of eating with prayer, then we are undertaking nothing more than a holy diet.  Even more deeply, we are called to reflect on the reality that as we gather together and as we seek individually to observe a Holy Lent that we must also be careful to not let our practices be distorted in such a way as to contribute more deeply to those thoughts and actions that oppress and destroy us.

One of the biggest concerns that I’ve seen raised, and I think this person is right, is that Lenten disciples, such as fasting, are a time-honored holy tradition, yet they can also carry with it some potential hazards.  About a year ago I read a blog entry from one of my favorite professors in seminary, who raise a very important question, which is, as your pastor, as a I call us to this season of self-emptying, could I be contributing to your oppression and destruction?[2]  I thought of this particularly about women, some of whom have been told from an “early age to bite their tongue and offer their food.”[3]

Lent is about becoming more human, not less human.  Christian virtue is about moving towards a mean.[4]  Lent is about embracing Christ as the beginning and end of our lives. Perhaps, for some of you among us, men and women both, there are things that we need to give up or take on to become more human.  And that might not always mean stopping eating.  For some of us, it may mean to begin eating.  This same professor in seminary speaks of a time when she recommended that a young woman with body image issues bake herself cookies every day during Lent.  For this woman, such a discipline became a time of healing, even though we might at first glance consider her actions a sign of indulgence.

Or perhaps we find ourselves in Lent giving up our own sense of entitlement.  I have two friends that I am planning on paying close attention to this Lenten season.  One fellow pastor has committed to live using only the equivalent amount of money that she would get from food stamps.  That’s $30 a week, by the way.  The other is a guy I went to seminary with who gave up his house for Lent and has resolved to live as a homeless person during Lent.[5]  Giving up the things that separate ourselves from Christ and from one another.  This is to become more human.

Even as I fast myself at different times, even as I recommend fasting to others, I also wonder about the places that my recommendations might do damage.  What does it do to a group of people, who see television commercials, constantly telling them “DON’T EAT!” to say, “For Lent, don’t eat”?[6]  The worse thing I could do as your pastor is to baptize that message without qualification.  Perhaps the fast to which some of us are called is to fast from doing things that destroy us.  From running ourselves ragged.  Perhaps our fast must be from busyness.   Perhaps it is for those who have felt unable to speak for one reason or another to give voice to the pain that is within them.

The question before us as we begin this Lenten journey, as we follow Jesus to the cross, to the tomb, and to the resurrection, is “What do I need to give up to become more human?”  More human in the way God intended us to be.  Human in the way that Jesus makes possible because he himself became like us and draws us into his perfect body.  What are thing things we need to give up to become more human?

Additionally, one of the pieces of Lent that is often left out is almsgiving.  When we give up something that costs money, we aren’t called to just pocket it that money.  That would be “holy budgeting.”  Instead, the money that we save from our fast should be given to those in need.  So, one of the challenges that we have before us during this Lenten season is that if we do give up something during this season, is to save that money, and to contribute it towards the Stop Hunger Now Event that will be happening on March 24 at Mount Hermon UMC.  Even as we see that we do not live on bread alone, we also have the opportunity to provide bread to those who lack it.

When we come to the waters, and we are baptized, we put on a new identity, and identity that we spend the rest of our lives living into as we walk into it with Jesus.   Jesus calls us into the wilderness because it is a place where we are transformed.[7]  It is a place where our identity becomes shaped more deeply to look more like Jesus.  It is a place where we find ourselves looking inside…turning around…to repent literally means to “turn around”…and walking with Jesus.  It is a time where we intentionally walk into the wilderness with Jesus. T

here are times in our lives we can name where we’ve been in the wilderness without asking for it, and those are often times of transformation as well.  But during Lent, as we choose to walk in the wilderness, what are the things we need to give up to become more human.  As we walk with Jesus in the wilderness, and dig a hole and bury our Alleluias there, we wait for those seeds to blossom at the resurrection.  As we live as a people who walk in the wilderness, all the time knowing, feeling that tension building up inside ourselves, that excitement about Easter, where are the places that Christ needs to make you more human during this Lenten season?

[1] Marilyn McCord Adams, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 46.

[2] Amy Laura Hall, “Eating Chocolate for Lent,” J. Kameron Carter’s Blog, Online: http://jkameroncarter.com/?p=1003, cited February 26, 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gavin Rodgers, Forty Days of Haven, Online:  http://www.40daysofhaven.com, cited February 26, 2012.

[6] Hall, “Eating,” http://jkameroncarter.com/?p=1003.

[7] Adams, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting, p. 46.