Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 18, 2018
1st Sunday in Lent
Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15
The paraments are purple, again. Did you notice? It seems like only yesterday they were the same liturgical color leading up to Christmas. Maybe you grew up in a tradition that followed the liturgical calendar. That was not the case for me. In fact, I learned about celebrating Advent and using an Advent wreath with candles of purple, pink, and white through my mother-in-law—a life-long Presbyterian.
Many years have passed, and I have celebrated the liturgical calendar from season to season with Kinney and our children and with our church family. Along the way, I have learned a few things—one of which is—there are people in every church who grew up celebrating the church calendar with all its color and rhythm and poetry. And there are those for whom such practices are still quite new. With this in mind, I want to take a few moments this morning to consider the use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons, which became a common practice in the Western church in about the 4th century. Although the colors varied somewhat at first, by the 12th century they were systematized by Pope Innocent III. It will not come as a surprise that the practice of using liturgical colors in worship was rejected by the Reformers after the Reformation. But by the 20th century, many ancient Christian practices—including this one—gained new life in Reformed Churches. I guess it finally dawned on us that we had thrown out the proverbial baby with the bath water; discarding too much of the poetry and heart of our faith story in the process.
The Presbyterian Planning Calendar explains that the liturgical colors of the Christian year are white, purple, red, and green. White is used for the special days or seasons in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, such as Christmas and Easter. Red is the color for Pentecost and is often used for ordination services. Green is used for Ordinary Time—periods that are not marked by a specific festival or season and Purple marks the seasons of penitence and preparation—Advent and Lent.
For most of us, Advent hardly seems like a time for penitence or preparation, though. Oh, we give a nod to the prophets of old and we listen to the yearning of the people of Israel for a Messiah. We even sing Advent hymns like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” But we hardly wait to sing Christmas hymns until Christmas Day and the twelve days following. Rest assured, if I chose only Advent hymns for the Season of Advent, I would hear about it and so would every member of the Worship Committee.
Utilizing the church calendar, though, we recognize Advent and Christmas have come and gone—as has Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord, and Transfiguration of the Lord. Now, by the mark of ashes on our foreheads, we have entered the Season of Lent—a penitential time of 40 days—a time set aside for us to follow the footsteps of Jesus as we journey toward Easter. The time is meant to be self-reflective in nature. We may feel led to give up something that will allow us more time to pray, fast, read Scripture, serve others, make amends…
Every year on the first Sunday of Lent, we gather in worship to hear a reading from one of the gospels about Jesus in the wilderness. The telling from the Gospel of Mark stands out for its brevity. As is his minimalist nature, Mark rushes us through the scene at break-neck speed, which is one reason why we should pay attention to every word because every word counts. So, let’s take a closer look at the intensity of Mark’s account. First, as Jesus comes up out of the water at his baptism, the heavens are torn apart. After the voice calls from the heavens, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. There, for 40 days, Jesus has some extraordinary company: Satan and wild beasts and angels. Only after the time of preparation is complete does Jesus set off to do his Abba Father’s business of proclaiming the good news.
If we want to know more about Jesus’ wilderness time, and of course, we always want to know more, we might look to other gospels to fill in some of the blanks. But maybe we have enough to ponder—even with Mark’s bare-bones story-telling style. For instance, we might consider the sky being torn asunder. Who’s doing the tearing? It appears that it is the Holy One who is doing the tearing—an act that will be repeated later in the gospel when the temple curtain is torn from top to bottom when Jesus dies on the cross. Yes, God is doing the tearing. God is doing a new thing through Jesus for us and our salvation. What wondrous love is this!
Pondering this text further, we might wonder why the Spirit is doing the driving—driving Jesus out into the wilderness. The Spirit does so for a purpose—a divine purpose. I daresay, if we examine our own lives we realize every wilderness brings with it lessons to be learned. In what desert place have we chosen to grow, lately? Well, you see, that’s just it. None of us voluntarily chooses to go to the wilderness. We aren’t eager to struggle. But struggle and temptation and darkness—well, they come to us all at some time or another. Do we trust God to be present in such times? Do we see that even though God does not cause our misery, God is at work in us and through us and around us—even in our darkest hour? What have we learned in the wilderness? What might we learn from Jesus’ time in the wilderness?
One biblical commentator notes that what’s most important in Mark’s telling of the wilderness event is how:
…Jesus is retracing the steps of Israel’s history in order to rewrite her story. Whereas Israel in the wilderness stumbled and wandered for forty years in sin, rebellion, and distrust, longing again for the chains of slavery, Jesus withstands Satan’s tests in the wilderness for forty days. [Then] he announces that the time has been made full, and God’s rule has come near. All of the old obligations to the priests, to the temple, to Herod, and to Rome have been canceled, not only for Jesus, but for all those who repent and follow him into God’s rule.[i]
All the old obligations have been canceled and, in the darkness—whether Jesus’ or ours—we learn we are merely dust. Truly, we need help and it is our Abba Father who comes to our aid. It is God who makes us new. It is God’s Spirit who journeys with us to show us the way and keep our enemies at bay.
What happens to Jesus in the wilderness? Jesus lets go of human things and fully embraces the will and way of his Abba Father. In the wilderness, he struggles physical and spiritually, but he comes forth from the darkness a new man—filled with the Spirit and equipped for the humble revolution he is about to lead.
The lectionary links today’s story with the story of the flood—a story that comes about because of the downfall of the order of things established at creation. The future now belongs to a small group of people, who live under the covenant of the rainbow cast in the sky by God’s own hand. Jesus, too, inaugurates a new day, a new covenant, a new structure. “The way things have always been” will be no more. A new empire is being built right before the eyes of Jesus and his disciples. Out on the horizon, we stand as children of God, as brothers and sisters of Christ. Through the waters of our baptism, we have a new identity and a new mission. We are free. We are filled with the Spirit. We are equipped to make a difference. Are we making a difference?
Lent offers an opportunity to take stock of our lives but, in the words of Rev. Sarah Dylan:
Lent often gets turned into a very domesticated kind of pious self-improvement; I give up something that most respectable people think is a good thing to give up, at least for a time—chocolate, beer, swearing, or some such—drop a few pounds and maybe look a little more like what our culture thinks of as “good,” and other than the purple on the altar Sunday mornings, hardly notice the difference. But if I want to experience this quest fully, I need to note for myself the ways in which the quest we’re on for these forty days is NOT tame or respectable. Jesus left his family and entered the desert with wild animals and angels…and we are striving to follow him.[ii]
Striving to follow Jesus, we have entered the desert of Lent on our own spiritual quest. How will we wander onward? Will we rush through the 40 days ahead as if there is nothing of value to be learned? Will we continue to turn our faces toward anything but God? Or will we tread upon the earth at a different pace…listening…watching…praying…obeying?
Jesus is not alone on his journey. Neither are we. Let us go forth boldly. Moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day, let us be transformed into the likeness of Jesus. Then, when we gather here on Easter morning, with paraments of white marking the occasion of the resurrection of Christ, our Lord—we will have even more to celebrate!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Stanley P. Saunders, Feasting on the Word, 49.
[ii] Rev. Sarah Dylan @sarahlaughed.net, First Sunday in Lent, Year B.