Archives for March 2009

We, too, need to see Jesus, 5 Lent (B) – 2009

March 29, 2009

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13 or Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

Phillips Brooks, author of “O little town of Bethlehem,” and briefly Bishop of Massachusetts, was also responsible for one of the masterpieces of American nineteenth-century church architecture: Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Square. Brooks played a very direct role in Trinity’s design. However, there is one feature of Brooks’ design that is visible only to those who preach in Trinity church. Brooks had these words carved on the inside of Trinity’s pulpit: “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

They are, of course, the words that “some Greeks” spoke to Philip when both they and Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem. The Greeks were more than likely non-Jews who were fascinated by Judaism’s antiquity and its profound ethical teaching. They were known as “God-fearers,” and they were numerous in the first century. Many of these “God-fearers” would have converted to Judaism had it not been for the requirement of circumcision. Along with Jesus and his disciples, the “God-fearers” were on their way to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem. But Jesus was also on his way to suffer, die on the cross, and be raised again.

When Philip reported to Jesus that the Greeks had asked to see him, Jesus exclaimed, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” This is a major turning point in John’s gospel. Scholars tell us that John is divided into the “book of signs” and the “book of glory.” In the “book of signs” (the first part of John) Jesus performs seven miracles that John refers to as signs. They begin when Jesus turns water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana and culminate with Jesus’ greatest miracle: raising Lazarus from the dead. Throughout the “book of signs” Jesus makes enigmatic references to his “hour” or “time” and says that it has not yet come. When his mother tells him that the revelers at the wedding feast have run out of wine, he says, “My hour has not yet come.” In John 7:8, Jesus tells his disciples that he will not go to Jerusalem for the Feast of Booths because his “time has not yet fully come.”

But when the Greeks asked to see Jesus, he knew that the hour had come for him to be glorified. As Jesus amplifies his enigmatic comment about the hour of his glorification having come, we realize that Jesus’ idea of glory and our idea of glory are radically different. For Jesus, to be glorified was to embrace the cross, the epitome of suffering:

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. … Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. … And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Because non-Jews such as the Greeks were seeking to meet Jesus, he knew that his mission was no longer restricted to Israel but had become universal. It was time for him to be lifted up – that is, crucified – so that all people could be drawn to him.

For us glory is about having more: more money, more prestige, more power. For Jesus, glory was about giving more, and he demonstrates this throughout John’s gospel, but nowhere more vividly than in the final chapters. Jesus gives himself to his friends by washing their feet. Then he gives himself to the world by dying on the cross.

It is the completion of the great arc of self-emptying that began with the opening verses of John. The cosmic Word by which God spoke creation into being descends from on high and is clothed with flesh, “and we beheld his glory.” The Word Incarnate heals the sick, feeds the multitude, raises the dead, and finally completes his task by dying on the cross, and only then resumes the glory that is rightfully his.

“Sir, we would see Jesus.” Phillips Brooks knew that everyone who steps into a pulpit and presumes to preach the gospel needs to think about those words, because the great temptation of preaching is to give our hearers something other than Jesus. “We would see Jesus,” our listeners plead, and we give them our learning, comments on the day’s news, a witty joke or two, but too often there is little of Jesus in our preaching.

But it is not only preachers who do this. All around us are people who want to see Jesus. Do they see him in us? Do they see the Servant-Lord who washed the feet of his friends? Do they see the prophet who cleansed the Temple? Do they see the healer who made the blind to see? If we are to let people see Jesus in us, then we must go ourselves and sit at his feet, let him heal us, feed upon his body broken for us, and above all stand at the cross and wonder as the Word that spoke out of the void lapses into silence and death.

A few years ago, a rabbi at a large Reform synagogue published an editorial in the local newspaper on Christmas Day. He said, “I like Christmas, and I like Christians. My only problem with both is that they need more Jesus.”

Precisely. Sometimes those who are outside the circle of the church can see and name our problems far better than we can. We all need a lot more Jesus. It’s not only a problem for preachers; it’s a problem for every one of us who are called by the name of Christian.

“Sir, we would see Jesus,” the Greeks said to Philip. We, too, need to see Jesus, so that when others want to see Jesus, they can see him in us. As the old spiritual puts it:

In the morning when I rise,
Give me Jesus.
When I am alone,
Give me Jesus.
When I come to die,
Give me Jesus.
You can have all the world,
But give me Jesus.

— The Rev. J. Barry Vaughn, Ph.D., has led congregations in Alabama, California, and Pennsylvania. He has preached at Harvard, Oxford, and the Chautauqua Institution, and more than fifty of his sermons have been published. He is a member of the history faculty at the University of Alabama and is rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Reason enough to rejoice, 4 Lent (B) – 2009

March 22, 2009

(RCL) Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

[NOTE TO READER: Laetare is pronounced “lay-TAH-ray.”]

Quick, what is another name for today, the Fourth Sunday in Lent?

Give up? Actually, there are several possible answers to this question, all of them correct, and all of them originating in ecclesiastical history and liturgical practice.

In some quarters, especially among our Roman Catholic friends and neighbors, the Fourth Sunday in Lent is known as Laetare Sunday, from the Latin word meaning “rejoice.” It may at first seem odd to speak of rejoicing in the middle of Lent, a season of penitence and sacrifice. After all, we have put away our alleluias and festive faces for the duration. Yet, in ancient times, the special, or proper, parts of the service on this day began with the single word “rejoice,” reminding worshippers that the Church is more than halfway through its Lenten discipline and well on the way to Easter joy.

“So lighten up a little,” the Church seems to have been saying. For much the same reason, in some Anglican circles this day has become known as Refreshment Sunday.

As if that were not enough, in the United Kingdom this day has been celebrated at least since late medieval times as, of all things, Mothering Sunday, the equivalent of Mother’s Day in North America. No one quite knows why mothers have come to be honored in the middle of Lent. But some scholars speculate that the original Scripture lessons, or readings, on this day made reference to Mary, the Mother of God and the mother of the Church. In any event, if you have British friends, be sure to wish them well today.

There you have it. No matter how you name it, the Fourth Sunday of Lent – more or less the middle point of the season – is special.

Life itself, of course, is made up of middle points and transitions to which we attribute unique and special importance. It is human nature to mark time, to take note of milestones and halfway points. We may remember being halfway through high school or college; halfway through a transition between rectors at Church; or halfway through a project at work. And mothers will certainly remember being halfway through pregnancy, eager for the birth of their child.

Whatever the effort, being halfway through something is special. It can bring either anxiety or a foretaste of accomplishment. Or both.

In our first reading today, we find the ancient Israelites on their journey out of Egypt becoming downright anxious and “impatient on the way.” Their passage or transition has been long and arduous, and it is far from over. “Why,” they challenge Moses, “have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” As if that had been Moses’ purpose all along. They even complain of the food and drink. “We detest this miserable food,” they grumble like spoiled children. Did they perhaps expect gourmet fare in the desert?

The Israelites have forgotten that they are on their way home to the Promised Land. They have lost sight of the purpose and meaning of their journey. The desert and its hardships have robbed them not only of patience, but of perspective and hope as well. Only when the Lord punishes them with a multitude of poisonous serpents do the people come to their senses and repent. Only when those bitten by the serpents look upon the serpent of bronze raised by Moses do they once again come to live. The journey of the Israelites is not over, but it has gained new significance and purpose.

We find ourselves today as a nation in the midst of transformation and crisis. Our banks are failing. Our industries are staggering. People are losing their jobs at record rates. No one knows if the government’s remedies will work. And our minds are filled with anxious questions: Where do we stand? Will it end soon? Or has it just begun?

It would be easy for us to lose hope and to despair, as did the ancient Israelites. Indeed, today, as in ancient times, there seems to be no end of complaint and blame. Some fault the greed of Wall Street and business leaders for our problems. Others cite irresponsible politicians and world leaders. Yet few are willing to look in the mirror. We all feel the bite of our anxieties. Perhaps we too need a bronze serpent to gaze upon. Perhaps we too need to face our fears and learn once again to live.

We may well ask: Is there anything left for us to rejoice about on Laetare Sunday, halfway through this discontented Lenten season?

The season itself suggests that there is.

Lent is, after all, a time of reflection, repentance, and prayer – a time to allow the Lord to turn us around in faith so that we may at last be regenerated in the risen life of Easter. And that has little to do with business cycles or the size of our paycheck.

Jesus himself, in our gospel reading today, gives us the best reason of all for rejoicing. “God so loved the world,” he tells us, “that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

That is the kind of economy we can all believe in – the economy of salvation. So, yes: there is still plenty of room for hope and even joy.

Decades ago an irreverent wit once observed, “God protects fools, children, and the United States of America.” The truth of the matter is that God protects us all – fools as well as the wise; children as well as mothers and fathers; Americans, ancient Israelites, and people of every land and creed. In spite of our fears, complaints, and foolishness, God loves us all without bounds. We need only look to his Son to understand this truth and live.

And that is reason enough to rejoice even today – even in the middle of Lent.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus has completed his interim ministry at Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church in Del Mar, California, and is looking for work.

God’s commandments can free us, 3 Lent (B) – 2009

March 15, 2009

Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

One driver sticks post-it notes all over the dashboard of her car to make sure she remembers each errand. Kitchen calendars fill up with family appointments. Many cell phones now include calendars so their owners can have instant access to appointments that are too numerous to remember.

Chronic stress accompanies an increasing number of Americans who feel busy beyond measure. It’s a common problem for the current generation, even among the retired. People are so overwhelmed that one of the greatest luxuries of the twenty-first century is free time.

Busy-ness intrudes on all of us because we have so many opportunities. And because we want everything – and more. We have become slaves to what we desire, not what we need. We have become possessed by our activities – our getting and spending and doing. Isn’t that part of the malady that infects us during this difficult economic period? Living beyond our means? Materialism and greed? No boundaries to keep us in check?

Obviously, we need to re-set priorities and follow them.

A classic story about a business management consultant is instructive. The CEO of a large company stared failure in the face as he floundered, trying to pull his workforce out of a production tailspin. Swallowing his pride, he called in a consultant and said he would take any and all advice. The consultant asked the CEO to list what he did in the course of a normal week. Once this was done, she told the CEO to rank the list in priority. This took a while, but when it was finished, she told the CEO what he needed to do. “When you come to work, complete item number one before attending to item number two, and complete number two before going to number three. The next day, take out the list and start with number one again and repeat the process. Do the same each and every day. Don’t worry if you fail to reach lower items on your priority list. That’s it.”

The CEO tried it and turned the company around. He lived into his own priorities and his workforce followed.

Emulating this would be a good way for Christians to amplify their Lenten disciplines – setting priorities and following them rigorously. This might free us from the busy-ness and overindulgence that we have fallen subject to – that enslave us. Heeding today’s reading from Exodus would make that task easier.

The Ten Commandments begins with a reminder that it is God who first leads us from that which enslaves us. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, you shall have no other gods before me.”

God’s commandments can free us from the confinement of excessive busy-ness, too much wanting everything and more, obsession with our cravings and desires. God’s commandments lay out boundaries and help us set priorities by God’s standards.

Look at the list in your Prayer Book on pages 317 and 318. This stripped down list of ten priorities provides us with a time-honored but too-often-neglected guide for daily living. The Ten Commandments provide simplicity in the midst of too much complexity and busy-ness that often confounds us.

Furthermore, the Catechism, on pages 847 through 849 in the PrayerBook, helps us even further by grouping the ten into two basic priorities. First is our duty to believe and trust in God. Second is our duty to care for and respect our neighbors.

For the initial priority, simply said, we put God first and putting nothing in God’s place. The Catechism helps us understand deeper meanings of not making idols, not misusing God’s name, and keeping holy the Sabbath day.

We show love for God and obedience to him in “thought, word, and deed.” We set aside special time for reflection on “God’s ways” through worshipping with our fellow believers, and praying and studying about the things of God that are our priority.

For the second priority, simply said, we put our neighbors first. Again, the Catechism expands our understanding of honoring parents and refraining from murder, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, and coveting what is our neighbor’s.

We “love, honor, and help our parents” and others who exercise just authority. It is a partnership, for the sake of God, with those who teach us and lead us into the way of Christ. We respect the created order of humanity by accepting the righteous reality God has made. We honor human life, deplore war, work for peace, rid our hearts of hatred and malice, and seek to become one with what God has created.

We “use all bodily desires as God intended,” remaining faithful in human relationships. We deal with others honestly and fairly, and we work for justice in the world around us and far off. We seek freedom whether it does not exist. We share the precious resources of this planet and do not horde unnecessary surplus when others stand in need.

We do not simply refrain from lying, but we exercise the courage to tell the truth. We are careful “not to mislead others by our silence.” We resist the all-too-human temptation to have what is not ours. We guard against desires that lead us to “envy, greed, and jealousy.” Rather, we look with happiness and thanksgiving at the success of others and what they possess.

In the process of living into these commandments, we continue to expand this view and uncover for ourselves, in the particularities of our lives, the richness of what each means.

The list of Ten Commandments need not complicate our thinking, because each is a part of one whole: duty to and love for God and fellow human beings.

Our Lord Jesus Christ reminds us of this. We recall this teaching in the Penitential Order in our Prayer Book, so appropriate for Lent:

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all they soul, and with all they mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commands hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Here’s the place to grab onto the management consultant’s advice. At the beginning of each day, let’s lay aside or our calendars and day planners and lists of things to do. Rather, let us turn to this top item on our list of priorities, loving God and loving neighbor, and tend to it before we move on to the next thing.

Then maybe our problem of busy-ness, our rush to fulfill so many wants and desires, will cease to make us anxious, and the success of our personal lives will be secured.

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

God has made a choice, one that is unchangeable, 2 Lent (B) – 2009

March 8, 2009

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

Father Abraham had many children.
Many children had Father Abraham.
I am one of them, and so are you.
So let’s just praise the Lord!

Perhaps many of us will think of this old-fashioned summer camp song when we hear these lessons about the promise made to Abraham in his old age. God had made these promises to Abraham before, mostly concerning the land of Canaan as his family’s inheritance. But here God declares the promise again in a slightly different manner: “You will be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” And this time, Sarah is specifically included as well. She is to be the ancestral mother of nations and kings. As the stars in the clear night sky, so shall their descendants be.

We read these words today removed from their context by thousands of years and oceans of water. So much has changed in the world since the days of Abraham that is nearly impossible to describe the difference. However, the promise of God stands firm. The amazing truth is that today we are members of the great progeny of Abraham. Through the waters of baptism, God has adopted us into the covenant as children of Abraham. Though it looks different now than it did in the ancient land of Canaan, we share the faith of Abraham. We are part of the great spiritual heritage of Abraham that is now embodied by more than half of the earth’s human population. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all trace our faith back to the experience of a wandering Aramean.

But since our context is so vastly different, what does Abraham’s experience of the covenant mean for us who are living into this covenant in our day and time? How does Abraham offer a lens through which we can understand our relationship with the living God, known as El Shaddai to Abraham and Sarah?

When we are incorporated into the Body of Christ through the waters of baptism, we become adopted into the family of God. Abraham becomes our foster-father. In the old Celtic traditions, the bonds of fosterage have typically been considered equally as strong as those of natural birth, often even stronger. Historically, there are different kinds of foster parent relationships in Celtic lands. Some are considered temporary, like a kind of extended apprenticeship provided for a child to learn a specific trade. Others are permanent, and the acceptance of the foster child changes her ancestral heritage forever. She is now considered part of the new clan with all of the rights and responsibilities entailed therein.

The bonds of fosterage have been strong primarily because they involve the choice of free will. A commitment is made by the foster parents to embrace the child of another. In families of birth, we are not able to make choices of free will regarding our relationships. No one can choose his or her natural parents nor can parents choose their natural children. (Not yet at least, though this may be changing.)There is a wonderful grace in this, of course, as learning to live in healthy relationships with those placed around us offers great opportunities to grow in Christ-likeness.

But when an intentional choice is made to bring in a child from outside the clan, a commitment is made, and it is something like a covenant. Choosing to live with someone carries a different connotation than an unintentional cohabitation.

For us, our life in Christ begins with a simple act of free will. God has made a choice to bring us into the family of Abraham. God chose. We have been adopted and our relationships are now fundamentally changed forever. The first chapter of John tells us that we love because God first loved us.

The introduction to the liturgy of Holy Baptism in The Book of Common Prayer states this fact with outstanding clarity: “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.” This staggering truth itself is enough to cause us to fall face-down in awe and worship before One who chooses to invest so heavily in us.

Of course, it was this same God who made the original choice thousands of years ago to enter into covenant with Abraham, who could have refused this gracious offer. But Abraham consented to this covenant offer, and for good reason. It would be hard to walk away from such an opportunity. But this covenant also demanded daily choices from Abraham. “Walk before me, and be blameless.”

What God began with Abraham and Sarah was brought to fruition in our Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing changed in the original covenant, but everything has been fulfilled.

In our reading today from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus begins to prepare his friends for his impending death. This, of course, is not at all what they had in mind. They wanted to follow a winner, be part of a victorious movement that would restore the honor and dignity of their people.

Death at the hands of the chief priests in Jerusalem did not seem to fit this plan. Oh, he spoke also of rising again in three days, but of course they had no idea what this meant. But this death was no tragic ending to his life. In fact, it was the master stroke, the coup d’état that changed the entire landscape of life on this earth. Our Lord chose the cross of his own free will.

In our life here on earth, we can never separate our faith from our works, for how we see the world around us has a direct effect upon how we act. Abraham’s trust in God allowed him to act in faithfulness, to walk before God, and to be blameless.

It is the same with us, particularly during this our Lenten journey. Our actions and our beliefs are closely intertwined. It may be that the next time we stand in church to confess the Nicene Creed, we need to seriously ask ourselves the question: Do I honestly believe this?

Or perhaps our sense of faith is strong, and the problem is that our actions are incongruous with our faith. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves: Why do I act the way I do? If I honestly trust in the living God who “calls into existence the things that do not exist,” why then do I fret with worry and anxiety? If I believe that God has chosen me and will never leave me nor forsake me, why then am I jealous of the success of another?

Whatever we lack, we can be sure of “the unchangeable truth” of God’s Word, Jesus Christ, as our Collect for today says. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. In Christ, our covenant responsibility before God is accompanied by an even greater promise than that received by Abraham: the promise of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God that with our responsibility to walk in holiness comes a never-ending supply of divine grace to transform our lives.

So let us not grow weak in faith when we consider our own frailty and our difficulty in upholding our end of the covenant. During this Lenten season, we must confess our failings, for this covenant relationship with the living God requires complete honesty and transparency. But with the eyes of faith, we know that the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit is ready to fill us, if we choose to walk in this path and open ourselves to God’s love.

God has made a choice, one that is unchangeable. For that we give thanks. Today it is our turn to choose. As it was also in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.

 

— The Rev. Nathan Ferrell lives in Moorestown, New Jersey, in an old Victorian house with his artist-wife, Erin, three children, two dogs, a cat, and a fish. Nate and Erin run a contracting business together, and Nate serves as vicar for two local parishes.

Discernment is not a singular thing, 1 Lent (B) – 2009

March 1, 2009

Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

“Discernment” is a word we throw around a lot in the church, most often in regard to ordained ministry. As in “She is in the discernment process” or “I have agreed to be on his discernment committee.” But it is also an essential part of each of our spiritual journeys and our lives as human beings.

In calling ourselves Christians, Children of God, we acknowledge that God has called us, we acknowledge the pulling at our cores: to be more, to be God’s, to live into our calling. And discernment is how we figure out what that looks like. It is the way we ask ourselves, “How do I live as a child of God?”

In today’s gospel we hear a three-part story of Jesus’ call and his response. For Mark, this is the beginning of the story of Jesus.

Part One: he came from Nazareth. We are told that this is where most of Jesus’ life has been lived to this point. His family is there; he has grown up there, been educated in the scriptures there, and has learned his trade there. He probably has gotten sick there, been cared for, been loved, and learned the cruelty of children there. Given our current understanding of developmental psychology and our faith in his full humanity, we can assume that it is there where Jesus gained a sense of self, both as independent and in community.

Jesus is, in this moment, leaving all that behind and coming to John, the baptizer, at the river Jordan. There are a lot of questions left unanswered in Mark’s brevity: What is he seeking there? Why does Jesus need John’s baptism? What drives him so powerfully that he would be willing to leave behind all he had ever known?

We don’t know. Did Jesus know? Or did he just feel the faintest of stirrings, deep within himself and head out to see what God might be doing?

A lot of young people make their way to cities after college. Many don’t know what exactly they will do, or how they will make a living, but they strike out, in hopes that, once there, they will figure it out. On arrival they these cities bustling places, and they scurry about frantically piecing together lives from jobs, relationships, chance encounters, art, food, and folly. Many can’t say exactly why they come except that it has something to do with a search for purpose, for calling. The city is somehow a place for discernment.

For those who have at one time or another taken this leap of faith, the idea of “figuring it out” is an amusing one. As though it were something one did once, and then having “figured it out,” one could spend the rest of life living happily into that.

Instead, there is this constant process of figuring it out, of discerning purpose, calling, vocation, of losing sight, changing, shipwreck, gladness, and discerning again. God doesn’t always make it easy on us, but we follow along, listening for the faint stirrings and inching our way closer to God and to God’s perfect vision for us.

And even when the whisper is a shout and the calling is clear, the means are not always quite so clear. As Jesus is being baptized, he sees the heavens open and the spirit descends like a dove upon him while a voice speaks, “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Now, doesn’t that sound great?

Knowing where this story leads: the healings, the miracles, the teachings and transforming love – as well as eventually the cross and Calvary – it is tempting to assume that suddenly, in this moment, Jesus knows what to do. It is easy to assume that the Spirit has given him “God vision,” and that he can see clearly his Messianic calling.

But was this calling any clearer than the calling for us to be God’s children today? There are countless would-be Episcopalians in this world, let alone would-be Christians. When we hear the message, “You are my beloved. In you I am well pleased,” how often do we sit self-satisfied, doing nothing? Sometimes we need a little push to do anything about it. And sometimes, it’s a push we have to give ourselves and each other.

Then we get to Part Two of today’s reading from Mark: “The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”

As Kermit might say, “Sheesh.”

Unlike other gospel accounts, in which the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert, where Jesus is given agency, Mark picks up the drama. Like a master, this gentle descending dove-like spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. No time for idle self-satisfaction is allowed. God is at work.

As part of a liturgical church, we too are driven into the wilderness with Jesus this Lent. By association we are brought into a time of reflection and discernment, every year for forty days.

Lent is a powerful season in the church year. Some will mock the New Year’s-like resolutions we make and attempts to make ourselves better – things like abstaining from small and large indulgences, or committing acts of repentance. And yet, there is something powerful about a season that calls people to make the connection between lived lives and the calling of God. There is something that makes us want to bridge the false divide between faith and the “real world.”

Discernment is not a singular thing, or something we do all at once; it is a daily calling, a daily wrestling, in much the same way that cutting back on caffeine is done one cup of coffee at a time, or building a stronger family means taking meals as opportunities for real conversation. Discernment is something we do in the midst of life, messily and with countless challenges.

Unlike other gospel accounts, Mark is short on details of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, but all the vital elements are here: the duration, the temptation, the threat of violence, and the sustaining care God provides. Forty days is Biblical shorthand for “a long time.” But even so, forty days is a long time.

For many of us, this kind of retreat into isolation is at least somewhat appealing. Forty days of alone time? Forty days to work on figuring things out? Discerning God’s call in my life? If only I had that kind of time, money, and discipline.

Our wilderness often has a different terrain. Having felt God’s calling, we have to figure it out amidst our over-booked, over-worked modern lives. Our isolation occurs within communities, families, and workplaces. Our temptations are many; we are surrounded by the gods of self and materialism, of exclusivity and pride, of despair and prejudice. The wild beasts wear different masks, but the ministering and sustaining presence of God is no less with us. How will we make use of this time, where we are, to discern how we are to respond to God’s call?

Part Three of today’s gospel reading: “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.’”

For many of us, floundering in the wilderness is a familiar feeling. We are not comfortable with preaching the Kingdom, but this is exactly what we’re called to do as the children of God. We are the bearers of good news, the good news. God’s kingdom is here. No more waiting. The time is fulfilled.

This Lent we are invited to join Jesus in the wilderness for a period of discernment. Take these forty days to listen for God’s calling. Acknowledge your own isolation, name your individual temptations, and challenge the wild beasts. But also, may you see the hand of God sustaining you, and may you recall faithfully that calling of baptism that brought you here in the first place. So when Easter arrives, you may be all the more ready to proclaim with a loud voice the good news of salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ.

So that we may come to Easter having discerned more clearly God’s calling and live more perfectly into his kingdom, consider these words from the Book of Common Prayer: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

 

— Jason Sierra is the Associate Program Officer for Young Adult and Campus Ministries at the Seattle Regional Office of the Episcopal Church Center. He holds a BA in American Studies from Stanford University and is a priest’s kid (PK) and a visual artist.