Three Panels of the Story

(Sermon for Sunday, February 26, 2012 || Lent 1B || Mark 1:9-15)

Every year on the First Sunday of Lent, we hear the story from the Gospel that tells about Jesus’ time in the wilderness. We hear this story on this particular Sunday because Jesus’ forty days off by himself, fasting in the arid austerity of the desert, are a model for our own forty-day Lenten journey. Last year, we heard Matthew’s telling of this tale – an eleven-verse treatment, complete with the devil’s three-pronged attack on a famished Jesus. The year before that, we heard Luke’s version, a full thirteen verses that recount the same story as Matthew does. Now, if Matthew and Luke spend on average a dozen verses on this story, then you might be wondering whether you nodded off during the Gospel reading from Mark a few moments ago and missed something. Where was the dialogue between the seductive devil and the stalwart Jesus? Where were the temptations: the bread from the rock, the leap from the temple, the view from the mountain? The answer is that I didn’t read them because they aren’t there. And I can assure you that you didn’t have time to nod off, no matter how sleepy you are.

Never one to spend his words frivolously, Mark gives us a grand total of two verses on Jesus’ time in the wilderness. “And the Spirit immediately drove him 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.” That’s all Mark has to say on the subject. So, to keep you all from feeling gypped by a two-verse Gospel reading, the framers of our lectionary tacked on a few verses before and a few verses after Jesus’ time in the wilderness. And I’m so glad they did.

I’m glad because Mark’s rapid style progresses from scene to scene with such haste that the individual scenes cannot be isolated from one another. Indeed, I don’t think Mark intended for them ever to stand alone. Rather, taken together like the three panels of a comic strip, the three short scenes we read a few minutes ago tell the concise story of our life of faith.

Here’s the first panel: Mark draws Jesus emerging from the waters of the River Jordan. A dove alights on his outstretched arm. A text bubble points out the top of the frame and reads: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This first panel in the story of our life of faith is “relationship.” Jesus hears God’s voice calling him “Son.” And not just son, but a son whom God loves. And not just a son God loves, but a son God loves, in whom God finds delight and joy. This relationship that God has with Jesus is the same relationship that God initiates with each one of us. Each of us is a son or daughter whom God loves and in whom God delights.

I know this can be hard to accept because most of the time we feel way too messy and unkempt for God to want to know us, let alone to delight in us. Our socks have holes in them. We haven’t vacuumed in a while. We ate that pretzel we found between the couch cushions. And that’s just the surface stuff. Why would God want to have anything to do with such untidy people?

But the wonderful thing about this first panel of our story is that Jesus hasn’t done anything yet. We’re less than a dozen verses into Mark’s account of the Gospel. Jesus hasn’t spoken a word or accomplished anything more remarkable than traveling from Nazareth to the Jordan and coming up for air after John dunked him under the water. Before Jesus has time to win or lose God’s favor, God has already staked out a place in their relationship. Likewise, God tossed God’s lot in with us long before we let God see our untidiness. And God’s not going to cut and run just because of our state of disrepair. God’s knowledge of us, love for us, and delight in us do not depend on our worthiness. In fact, they create our worthiness. Because God is in relationship with us, we are worthy to be in relationship with God. This is the first panel of our story.

In the second panel, Mark draws Jesus walking in the desert. At first glance, he seems to be alone. But then you notice the faint outline of an angelic hand holding one of Jesus’ hands as the other fends off Satan. This second panel in the story of our life of faith is “adversity.” Immediately after God affirms God’s relationship with Jesus, Jesus finds himself in the wilderness with the wild beasts and the temptations of Satan. I always assumed that Jesus had to travel quite far to get to the wilderness, but as I thought about this sermon, I changed my mind. I doubt he went very far at all. The wilderness is all around us. We live in the wilderness. Sometimes through our actions and inactions, we contribute to expanding the wilderness. The wilderness exists anywhere that we feel isolated or afraid or tempted or lost. And let’s be honest – we are feeling at least one of those most of the time.

But the adversity, which brings on these feelings, does not make the wilderness a trial or a proving ground. God does not drop us in the desert just to test our endurance. We simply wander into the wilderness, and we get caught there because the wilderness is vast and tangled. But remember the first panel of our story. The relationship God entered into on our behalf does not end at the desert’s edge. When the people of Israel wandered in the desert for forty years after fleeing Egypt, they made a remarkable discovery. Their God was in the desert, too. The adversity of the wilderness is the second panel of our story, but the relationship of the first panel carries through.

When we discover God’s constant presence even in the midst of the wilderness, we are ready to move to the third panel. Mark draws Jesus striding through Galilee proclaiming a message to everyone who will listen and to some who won’t. A text bubble points to Jesus, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” This third panel in the story of our life of faith is “proclamation.” After God has claimed a delight-filled relationship with the beloved Son, and after the Son has wandered in the wilderness, Jesus returns to Galilee with the words of the good news of God on his lips.

Our proclamation of this same good news happens whenever we act on the faith that comes from God’s delighted, loving relationship with us. Our proclamation happens when we come to know, love, and delight in all the messy and unkempt people around us. Our proclamation happens when, even in the midst of the tangled wilderness, we rely on God to show us the path to freedom.

Our life of faith moves from relationship through adversity to proclamation. But this life of faith is not linear; rather, this life is a spiral. As we grow in our faith, we delve more deeply into our side of our relationships with God. As we come ever closer to the God who is always close to us, we can endure greater adversity. And we can proclaim more continuously and more courageously the love and delight God has for all people.

As we enter this holy season of Lent, I invite you to take stock of where you are in this life of faith. Are you nurturing your relationship with God? Or are you wandering through the tangled wilderness of adversity? Or are you reveling in all the ways that you show forth God’s love? Or perhaps, you are living out a little of all three. Wherever you are in this story of the life of faith, trust that God began a relationship with you before you were worthy of one, that God is hacking away at the tangle of wilderness right alongside you, and that God is constantly speaking the words of the good news through your words and deeds into the hearts of those you meet along the way. Thanks be to God.

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