First Sunday in Lent Year B
Out on the Margins, In from the Cold
How do we come in from the cold? How do we warm up and get close to the fire, and the warmth, to the place we want to be? Why do we always -still- feel on the outside, on the margins, in the wilderness?
On Ash Wednesday this week it was so cold I can’t believe anyone was able to make it to worship service and soup supper. It was dangerous to be out there, but the attraction of what was in here, the mark of the ashes, the beginning of a new journey, and a meal shared, was also strong and appealing, and many more than I expected were in attendance.
Jesus and his cousin John are living on the margins, out in the wilderness. Are they consolidating their power and building a church there? Or, were they not invited-in to begin with? Or, do they just not feel invited, feel more comfortable down in the valley at the bottom of the mountain from Mt. Zion, and the glory of the LORD, miles from where the Temple, and present kingdom of the Herodian priesthood, reside?
John baptizes Jesus in the wilderness, in the Jordan River, a re-enactment of the hopeful days when Moses brought God’s people out of slavery into the freedom of the promised land, at virtually that very spot. Jesus came, first of all, from Nazareth of Galilee, it says, that outlying, northerly land of the working poor, farmers and fishers, interlaced with impure foreigners and the influences of Hellenistic-Greek culture.
The main route from Nazareth in Galilee, to Jerusalem in Judea, was along the Jordan River valley, going east and south, just as it is today. So Jesus was – so far, in the very beginning of Mark’s gospel – traversing all around the power center of Judaism geographically, and also on its margins, socially, religiously, and politically.
Suddenly, in his baptism, as he was coming up out of the water, we learn in an astounding turn-around, that Jesus is the very beloved Son of God, God’s anointed and crowning jewel! And so, we might rightly expect that the story would send Jesus upwards now, literally up the final stretch of the road to the capital, and deservedly complete his journey from the margins of Nazareth, and the valley below, to the high mountain above, to the Temple of the LORD.
But, Spoiler Alert! Instead, the Holy Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness, that is, into the surrounding desert! How will Jesus meet the people of his kingdom, shake hands with the rich and famous, kiss babies, and drive in his limo under a rain of confetti – if the Son of God is driven in the opposite direction, yet deeper away from the seat of power, alone into the wilderness?!
Yet, Jesus is not quite alone. There were three other characters there. Can you name them? The wild beasts; the angels, and, that one called Satan. Out in the desert, Jesus demonstrates his power, in another way. He manifests himself as a new Adam, confronting the wild beasts, and the wily snake-like tempter, Satan, which always threaten us on the edges of our society, our neighborhoods, and our world, threatening to tear it down. But this time, Jesus, the new Adam, does not completely lose the battle against evil and temptation, but, attended by God’s messengers and helpers, the angels, Jesus, the Anointed One, is able to push back and claim God’s authority over the ruler of this world, and is clear and ready with his message of God’s realm, to the world.
Where are you on your journey to Jerusalem, your journey to God, in this Lenten season? Lent is our church’s invitation to journey to the cross and resurrection, a journey to confront the powers that tempt us to give-in to the sweet talk of riches that “glitter but are not gold.” The forty days of Lent is the church’s baptismal journey of renewal, and learning again, the power and joy of being saved by the same water and word that Jesus, and everyone after, has been saved in – to find that on the margins, where Jesus and John come from, we are now invited up to the head of the table, the banqueting table of forgiveness, salvation and love, poured out. Are you ready to drink from the cup, and to be washed in the waters?
After Noah and his family travel 40 days through the Great Flood to the safety of dry land, in our Genesis First Reading, God makes a promise, the very first Covenant or promise in the Hebrew Scriptures. As if repenting from the destruction of so many, all who were not on the Ark, both human and animals, God promises to never again destroy the earth like this in a flood. “I have set my bow in the clouds,” God says, “and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” The covenants of God from Noah to Abraham, and beyond, are promises from our living God, who has set the boundaries of the heavens and the earth, but whose interpretation demand faithful revisiting, just as God will, in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
For much of Christian history, we’ve regarded “the Creation” as a brief prelude to the “real” story of human and salvation history. But in the rainbow that shines in our sky, we are invited to remember the continuing covenant, and the two-way relationship we enjoy with our living and loving God. A new covenant based on God’s saving action and our faithful response.
After forty days, when Jesus returns from the wilderness, and after John was arrested for his ministry of baptism, and jailed in Jerusalem, Jesus certainly must be headed there now, wouldn’t you think? Except that he doesn’t! He goes back, instead, to back-water Galilee to announce his prophetic, Son of God message to “Nowheresville” saying: the time is fulfilled, farmers, fishers, and you working poor, parents, traders, and builders, the realm and kingdom of God has come near to you – here I am – repent, and believe in the good news – for I am here, among you! The gospel good news has arrived, says Jesus, renewing the covenant of God, the new covenant, shed and broken for you, on the margins of the more recognized structures of power, working a new thing.
Was Jesus afraid of heading to Jerusalem now that they had just arrested his cousin John? Was he being conscientious, or careful, to avoid arrest, himself? Was Jesus only interested in doing some nice workshops with the powerless people? Help make them feel better, amidst all the corruption taking place in Jerusalem, keep them hopeful, while not stirring things up too much? Or will Jesus redefine the seat of power, and who and what has been anointed by God, redefine and restore those who are on the margins, those out in the cold, the un-invited, the oppressed?
It’s not explicit yet, here in chapter one. But we may remember the next story, which we read just a couple of weeks ago. Jesus’ first encounter with a person, there in Galilee, on the margins, is a man who is demon-possessed. And Jesus dispatches the evil spirit with a word, and saves the man’s life. This is the first evidence we see of what happened out in the desert, past the margins, in Jesus’ risky and dangerous encounter with Satan and the powers of evil, in the kingdom of this world.
Jesus, here in the gospel of Mark, is clear that his opponent, first and foremost, will continue to be Satan, and the power of evil, throughout his ministry; that one he encountered out past the bounds of our societal constructs, lurking, shadowy and unseen, the one who tempts us all. Good people, like you and me, can and do, follow the tempter – some may even offer to lead us there, as well – even those in the very seat of the capital where we expect to find good people who should be doing good things, can at the same time be afraid of the wild beasts and bolster the evil ones grip on the kingdom of this world.
Jesus and John gather their disciples, mostly out in the rural wilderness, on the margins: amongst the demon-possessed, the sick, the hungry, the oppressed; and among the repentant: tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus is manifesting the power of God, by restoring the health of the marginalized, and building up the structures of society under siege by Satan. Jesus doesn’t cut health and Medicaid, or universities, or mental health services, or the children’s child care – as has been proposed this week for the State of Illinois. But Jesus invests in them. Jesus invites those on the margins, inside, and lifted them up, as deserving as anyone else. He protects us from the dangers and wild beasts of the wilderness.
Jesus made a new covenant with us. In the waters of baptism we are made children of God, and at the table we drink of the cup, in remembrance of our salvation, and entrance into the Promised Land. You who are marginalized and forgotten, I will bring you from slavery into freedom! “The time is fulfilled, and kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.”