First Sunday in Lent

First Sunday in Lent

Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

I think in the past year we have had our fill of wearing masks. I personally have a new appreciation for surgeons and other professionals that have to wear them regularly even when we’re not in a pandemic. I’m in no way promoting not wearing masks, because it has been proven crucial for other people’s health we are around, but doesn’t it make part of communicating more difficult? I mean your speech seems muffled, I feel like I have a raised voice everytime I speak with one on; if you’re a lip reader, well forget about it; I still smile at people in public, although I know they can’t see me; don’t get me started on the drippy nose, with nowhere for it to go but in my mask, or if you have to sneeze and you are frantically trying to rip it off so that doesn’t stay in your mask. It has just made life harder.

But what if I told you that although wearing a facemask may still be new to us, mask wearing in general is not. Well I ran across an article that explains it nicely.

Photographer Libby Oliver has a portrait series called “Soft Shells” which explores people’s personalities through the clothes and accessories they wear. Instead asking them to pick out their favorite outfit and then taking their picture, Libby asks subjects to collect every piece of clothing they own and then photographs them underneath their huge pile of clothes! Instead of glamorous pictures of each person you gaze upon what looks like a heap of laundry. In all the photographs the person’s identity is completely covered up.

Libby’s photographs ask us to decide whether the things we own make up essential parts of our personalities or cover them up. She likes playing with the idea that we sometimes use the things we own as masks under which we hide our insecurities from the rest of the world. In a statement from the artist, Libby says that her series “Soft Shells” speaks to human vulnerability, trust, and power. Clothes can be excellent at communicating which brands we trust, or showing others our own influence or power. Libby’s art is a stark reminder that, if we are not careful, our identities get covered up or lost underneath the things we buy. Instead of being confident in who we are created to be, we hide our vulnerable selves under layers and layers of products.

Now to our texts. Think you’ve heard some of these verses recently? You would be correct. It’s not that many weeks ago that we celebrated the Baptism of our Lord, including verses 9-11, and the Third Sunday after the Epiphany included verses 14-15. That leaves only two verses we haven’t heard, and these short verses cover 40 days in the wilderness and the temptation of Jesus by Satan. Seriously, two versuses, I know Mark isn’t much of a detailed storyteller, but wow!.

This week, as we begin the season of Lent and set our feet on the path towards the cross, this text has a moment that becomes a promise. The text reminds us of this, pointing back to the promise God gave to Noah in Genesis, “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” Then as Jesus rises out of the flood of the Jordan, a voice comes from heaven and declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you, I am well pleased.”

I usually think of the Bible as a recording of God’s interactions with God’s people from several inspired human perspectives. But every so often in Scripture we are presented with descriptions of God’s interior life, emotions, thoughts and even surprise. Both passages this week include God setting up a sign in the sky to communicate an emotion-laden message to Jesus and to Godself.

The Genesis passage describes God’s covenant with Noah, his family and all animal life on earth. God promised to never again wipe out all life by a flood and set a bow in the sky as a reminder of this covenant. The rainbow, contrary to many children’s Bible, isn’t a sign primarily for the people, but for God. God specifically said the sign was to be a reminder to God not to violate what was promised to all animal and human life. God was the cause and recipient of the rainbow promise.

As Jesus was coming up out of the Jordan River after being baptized by his relative John, he saw heaven split open and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove. He heard a voice saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:10-11). In this telling, the voice was only for Jesus. A public vision of heaven opening and the Spirit descending upon a man would have done wonders for winning Jesus acclaim and followers, but that wasn’t the goal yet.

The goal of the heavenly vision and voice seems to have been an encouragement to Jesus. Immediately (as is usually the case in Mark’s rushed narrative) after his baptism, he was driven out to the wilderness to be tempted. The temptation didn’t begin immediately, but only after surviving 40 days in the wilderness, which was a challenge enough on its own. Jesus was in store for a tough time, but he had God’s words ringing in his ears: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God was concerned with Jesus’ emotional experience, he was fully human after all, and wanted to make sure that during the difficult period of temptation and near-starvation, Jesus knew that God loved him. This sign wasn’t primarily for the people, but to speak emotional encouragement for the difficult times ahead

Friends, if God intentionally sets up reminders and signs to prevent Godself and Jesus from being overwhelmed with negative emotions, certainly we humans who are the image-bearers of God also ought to think about remembering our identity as beloved children of God before difficult times come. Times have been tough recently. We will be overwhelmed with anger, fear and doubt—that is normal. Even God’s emotional life is a roller coaster! What signs can we set up for ourselves and how can we listen for the divine voice before we struggle so that, in the midst of difficulties, we do not falter?

So, where are you this Lent? However you are engaging this Lenten journey, remember you are not alone. Jesus is in the wilderness with you, and so are your brothers and sisters in Christ. If the darkness closes in and you feel lost and losig all hope, don’t put on a mask and say that everything is “fine.” 

I pray that God will remind you of the covenant made with Noah—that never again would total destruction be visited upon the earth. In your darkest moments when the rain is pouring down and all hope seems to have fled, I pray that you will look up and behold a rainbow. In those moments, I pray that the words of God will come back to you and you will remember that you are loved.

This is a dated reference but an appropriate one, years ago on the TV series M*A*S*H the unit’s priest  tried to talk with a wounded soldier who had been severely traumatized by what he witnessed on the front lines of the war. But when this soldier discovers that the good Father had never been anywhere close to where the fighting of the war was taking place, he concludes they just cannot talk. The soldier had no interest in hearing the pious platitudes of one who had no idea what he was talking about. Later in the episode, after the unit priest does come under enemy fire and is forced to perform an emergency medical procedure on a soldier even as shells are exploding all around him, the soldier welcomes the Father after all. Now they have a common frame of reference, now they can talk. Now the unit priest gets it.

Jesus could not say the kingdom was near until he had been to the front lines, until he had engaged the evil of this world head on in the wilderness. Because then when he spoke words of hope and promise, everyone could know that these were not the sunny predictions of some starry-eyed but finally unrealistic optimist. No, this was someone who had engaged the jagged edges of real life in a fallen world and had emerged victorious. The features to this world that make us need the coming of God’s kingdom will not thwart the advent of that same kingdom. The post-wilderness Jesus was living proof.

On Ash Wed I mentioned saying “I give up” and mentioned some things I was giving up. Well maybe I’ll try adding masks to that list. Maybe it’s ok not to be “fine” all the time, or not to mask ourselves with our possessions and just be. To realize that God knows that we will have hard times and that God will be with us in that time. So let’s put the masks down, except facemaks…keep them on, and let us be truthful with God and maybe each other also.

God invites to take down our masks and to see the world from the margins of society. Every liberating movement has started by shedding our masks and stop hiding behind “I’m fine” or “things have gotten better.”, including the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the more recent ones such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.

We should accept our responsibility in social sins such as racism, homophobia, classism, etc., from which we need to repent. That’s what happens when we stop hiding behind our masks of privilege and realize things are wrong with our world. We begin to realize that Jesus was in the dessert for 40 days, but many people in our world (in our own country) have lived there their entire lives. We, as children of God, can do something about it but our masks have to go away….for good!