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.

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