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Sermon: Lent

Date Preached: Sunday 26th February 2012

Bible reading: Mark Chapter 1 verses 9-18

It’s so good to be together as we begin this season of Lent. It’s a great opportunity to take just a few precious moments to think about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, a journey that starts with his baptism and a period of temptation in the wilderness.  

And there is much food for thought there as we prepare our hearts and minds to once more live through the events of Holy Week and Easter.

So (turning to our reading from Mark) the whole of the Christian gospel could be summed up in what we read: that when the living God looks at us, indeed at every baptized and believing Christian, he says to us what he said to Jesus on that day. He sees us, not as we are in ourselves, but as we are in Jesus Christ. Now I know that it sometimes seems inconceivable, especially to those who have never experienced this kind of unconditional support or regard from their earthly parents, but it’s still true: God looks at us – you, me - and says, ‘You are my dear, dear child; I’m delighted with you.’

Now you might well want to try the ascetic standing in water, only eating herbs - thing like Dewi Ddyfrwr (Dewi Saint), but instead, can I suggest that you try reading that sentence slowly, with your own name at the start, and use this time of Lent to reflect quietly on God saying that to you, both at your baptism, and every day since.

How this is all made possible and comes about of course entails the whole story of Jesus’ ministry, particularly his death and resurrection to fully explain – but for the moment, this is what the Christian gospel, the good news, is all about. And it is good news – that we are loved - unconditionally

And it’s true for one simple but very profound reason: that Jesus is the Messiah, and that the Messiah represents his people. What is true of him is true of those that belong to him. (Now then) What does “Messiah” mean (?) = ‘the anointed one’ – it’s “Christ” in Greek – and this story from the beginning of Mark’s gospel tells how Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit, and was marked out as God’s Son. Although the early Christians realized quite quickly that Jesus was God’s son in an even deeper sense, they clung onto his ‘messiahship’ for dear life. It was precisely because Jesus was, and is, the Messiah that God said to them, and to us today, the same thing he said to Jesus at his baptism. And without that tender word from God – without that sense of relationship with a loving parent who dotes on us, all people often hear in expressions of religion; and indeed all we sometimes get from our years of sitting on hard pews (at least in terms of the main message we can develop in our minds) is

of doors being slammed,

being told to be quiet –

of us not really being good enough - not quite making the mark, or coming up to scratch.

of vicars and church folks getting cross about stuff

And while Lent is about self-examination, if its net result is to estrange us from ‘Such Love’, then quite honestly we need to being doing something different this year.

Mark tells this story in quite solemn language, echoing that of the Old Testament: “In those days, Jesus came…and saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove…”

It’s not like Jesus saw a little door ajar miles up in the sky. ‘Heaven’ in the Bible often means God’s dimension behind and alongside ordinary reality. It’s more as though an invisible curtain, right in front of us, was suddenly ripped open, so that instead of the trees and flowers and buildings, (or in Jesus’ case the river, sandy desert and crowds) we are standing in the presence of a different reality altogether. Like Peter, James and John thinking about their mountain top transfiguration experience as they descend into the dark valley below.

A good deal of Christian faith is a matter of learning to live by this different reality.  C.S. Lewis famously said
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else

Sometimes, at decisive and climactic moments, the curtain gets drawn back and we get a glimpse of what’s really going on; but most of the time we walk by faith, not by sight.

So what Mark is saying to us is that when we look at this story, this whole life of Jesus; when we consider the Christian message, we need to learn to see and hear in it all the heavenly vision, the heavenly voice. And learn to hear these words addressed to ourselves – fantastic though that might seem.

Let these words of love and affirmation change us – from being mere church goers (ot journeyman priests) to being precious disciples walking with Jesus every day and learning from him;

let them mould us from having our Christianity as a bit of an adjunct – (you know) kind of ‘bolted on’ somehow - to being the central driving feature of our lives;

and let it make us somebody new – the people we know God’s always wanted us to be – which (I know for me) involves letting go of  the moorings of all the familiar things I pride myself about yourself (and which to be honest, I’ve always known need shifting – and would love to change – and even yesterday I had a strop on that I feel utterly ashamed about – despite Wales’ fantastic win – just had  to get that in somewhere 

(Or am I just talking about myself and all my own horribly familiar little ways, my idiosyncrasies – that over the years have become entrenched, and unhelpful...tediously samey!)

Just maybe this Lent I’ll allow the Holy Spirit a foothold to press home some of those things I’ve resisted letting go of – because that’s what it’s all about – not just going easy on chocolate and wine - although that too!) – but seriously wanting to be shaped just a little bit more like Jesus.

Any early Christian reading this passage would also believe their own baptism into Jesus the Messiah – their own heart commitment to him was the moment when, for them – and progressively through the years – the curtain had been drawn back to hear these words of love being spoken to them. And one of the challenges is to find ways in today’s church, of bringing this reality to life and teaching about what it means – which is why we’ve asked Dai Woolridge to come on friday.

When we understand this, we too will be equipped, as Jesus was, to be ‘sent out into the desert.

The road Jesus must tread, precisely because he is God’s dearly beloved son, is the road that leads through dry and dusty paths, through temptation and apparent failure – and all of us - at one time or another end up in desert places going through difficult times (don’t we?). 

But if we start our own Lenten journey imagining that God is a bully, an angry threatening parent ready to yell at us, slam the door on us, or kick us out into the street because we haven’t quite come up to scratch or made the grade – then we’ll fail at the first hint of temptation; we’ll turn back at the first glimpse of pressure.

So ‘dearly beloved’ as we begin Lent, this passage seems to be a good reminder that Jesus came not only to announce the good news that the kingdom was near but also to do battle with the forces of chaos that have been seeking to unravel God's cosmos ever since sin came onto the scene. There’s a kind of holy inevitability to Jesus' being violently impelled into the wilderness. Yes, Jesus is God's beloved Son but precisely BECAUSE this was so, he had to go into the place of death and face Satan, wild ferocious animals, and everything else about this world that makes it a fallen, dangerous place.

Indeed, its only because he engaged with the chaos of the wilderness that he’s then able to say - in Eugene Peterson’s  ‘The Message’ version: - "Time's up! God's kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Message." 

Perhaps a good Lenten reminder that - in imitation of our Lord - we also should feel the Spirit leading us into places of great brokenness, chaos, and hurt. Where else is Jesus' healing touch needed more – and where else do we hear such words of love?

And then. like Jesus, we can call out as we travel with words similar to those that Jesus proclaims.

Because we have the assurance that it is through those Holy Week events that we are assured of God’s ultimate and complete love for us, our shepherd leading us - and can know the reality of God’s transforming presence and hope in our lives as we trust him.

Amen

       
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