*This is a guest sermon by the Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker (Sorry for getting it up so late in the week!)
GOSPEL: Mark 1:9-15
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
“And the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down”
Early in January I took part in a preaching seminar and text study for Lent, led by Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis, professor at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. My sermons and our mid-week Lenten devotions will be informed and inspired by her study which was entitled “Sir, We Wish to See Jesus.”
Here we are, again (still?) in the the season of Lent.
And for the third time since the start of Advent, we are hearing the story of Jesus’ baptism. For the third time in as many months we hear “and just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him”
This gospel of Mark, for as short and succinct as it is – and with its less than satisfactory ending – has so much packed into it. Which is, perhaps, why we keep coming back to the beginning. Back to Jesus’ baptism. Back to pick up on a detail we missed the last two times: the heavens are TORN apart.
Just as Jesus is named and claimed God’s beloved the heavens are torn apart. There is a split. A schism. The Greek word that is used here is “schizo” and the only other time that it is used in Mark’s gospel is the tearing of the temple curtain in Mark 15: “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:37-38).
And usually, talk of splits in churches often cause us to feel uncomfortable and maybe even bring up uncomfortable memories or experiences of splits or other trauma we’ve experienced.
But that is what Mark records at Jesus’ baptism: Just as Jesus comes up out of the water – breathing his first breath as a baptized child of God, the heavens are torn apart.
This part of the story informs so much of what happens next: where God is, where Jesus goes – where we go next – into the wilderness. Not by choice. God’s Spirit drives… compels Jesus… and us there. Or as one seminary professor put it, the Spirit grabs Jesus by the scruff of the neck and tosses him into the wilderness. This wasn’t a weekend camping trip. This is a wilderness experience that will take Jesus from one place to another.
It is Lent after all.
And Lent takes us places. Specifically from one place, from the place of sin and death, to another… to forgiveness through the cross, resurrection, new and abundant life.
Last year, we began Lent in some typical ways: we gathered here, in this place for Ash Wednesday. We confessed our sin before God, and we remembered that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. We began our midweek worship practice of Soup Suppers and gathering for Holden Evening Prayer.
And mid-way through our Lenten discipline, our wilderness journey, the world changed. We were thrust into wilderness. It is the Lentiest Lent that ever Lented we said.
It is now a year later. We have moved through every liturgical season together in and through pandemic. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. New life and new ways of doing and being church together even as we are apart. We have moved from Ashes and dust to new life of Easter. From growing in our faith in the season of Ordinary Time, marking festivals and feasts, and moving into the season of watching and waiting for our Lord to appear. We have celebrated the birth of Emmanuel – God with us – and have been led by the Epiphany star to see and hear and understand God in new ways. And just like that, we’re back to Lent once again… once again thrust by the Spirit back to the wilderness that is Lent… the wilderness that moves us from the mount of Transfiguration to Golgatha; from one way of being to turn us and re-turn us back to God. The wilderness that challenges our assumptions about who God is, and who we are as followers of Jesus (like, why am I STILL in the wilderness?!).
We might be wondering how and where we encounter God in this time and place when the physical place we have long known and trusted to be the place where we encounter God and God’s people, our people, is not available or accessible to us – it might feel like we’ve been wandering the Lenten wilderness for longer than the 4 days between Ash Wednesday and today!
Because We have been in the wilderness… we are IN wilderness.
And like God’s faithful before us, wandering the wilderness is not easy. It does feel at times like we are being torn apart. That our way of life is being torn apart. That we are separated from God… from one another… from the places and people we love… we might even feel torn from ourselves. Because we are being changed in this time too.
On Ash Wednesday we are invited into the discipline of Lent – we confess our sin and remember our own mortality before God, our need for God’s saving grace in our lives and or world because we cannot save ourselves. We acknowledge and ask God to come to us… to be returned to God.
So we really shouldn’t be that surprised when the Spirit drives us out the places where that will happen.
Recently, I heard Bishop Jason reflecting on wilderness journeys asking, “are we wandering in the wilderness or living in the woods?”
Is this a transformative wilderness experience of listening to and for God, and being changed by God or are we simply hanging out in in this particular location?
What does it mean for us, to us, that the heavens are torn apart?
What does it mean that we are torn apart – separated? From God and from one another? That God comes into our messy and messed-up world, into the separations of life and death, rich and poor, religious and ethnic separations, socio-economic and racial barriers. All which separate us from one another and from God.
What does it mean that God tears heaven apart to descend on us – into our world and into our being?
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the beginning of Jesus’ life as a baptized child of God includes the reality of God tearing the world open so that God can come down to be with Jesus as he is driven into the wilderness… so that God can be and WILL be and IS with us as we are driven to the wilderness places.
This might not sound so much like good news.
It’s messy and hard to look at – things being torn apart.
It’s jarring and maybe counterintuitive.
God comes to us, not on our terms, but on God’s terms. God’s Spirit descends into us in baptism and drives us to places we would not go and do not choose for ourselves. God’s terms turn the world upside down and tear the world apart in order to make the world new again.
We can’t go back to the way things were before – we can’t un-see the tear… we can’t un-see the brokenness or simply go back to normal. We simply cannot just patch it back up and have it be the same as before. There will always be a tear. That is the point.
God comes into the world to change the world… to change us.
And that happens in and through Jesus.
Named and claimed in the waters of baptism. “You are my beloved son” – Jesus needs to hear this so that he can do what he is called to do. We need to hear it too! If God is going to tear everything down, we need to hear that we are God’s beloved AND that God’s Spirit descends on us as the Spirit drives us into the wilderness.
We need to hear that we are God’s beloved AND that God’s Spirit is with us here and now in our wilderness wandering. We are not simply living in the woods but being led through wilderness with the Spirit leading and the angels attending even in the midst of wild beasts and temptation that want us to believe we can go back to normal even when we know that’s simply not the case.
So, now what?
What will our ministry look like?
What shape will our faith and the way we live that faith out in the world and in our community and communities of faith look like – not just this Lent, but moving forward? What does it mean to DO ministry, to follow Jesus, to embody Jesus as the Body of Christ in this time and into the future God is leading us towards and in – to?
The promise of Lent – the promise of God in Jesus – is that God comes to us. And that means… that requires breaking barriers… it means and requires the heavens being torn apart. God transcends all those things – places and people – even our selves – to bring the kingdom of God near, to proclaim the good news for all to hear.
That God stops at nothing, not the barriers we place upon ourselves and others to, will tear open the very heavens God created to name us and claim us beloved – God’s own, to descend upon us so that even as we are thrust into places we do not choose for ourselves, we go trusting that we belong to God and that God does not leave us alone in our wilderness wanderings but walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death to new life so that we too can proclaim “the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” believing, even with it’s cracks and tears, that it is good news.
May it be so. AMEN.