Our gospel reading for today is a perfect example of the brevity of Mark. In just seven verses we have the equivalent of three separate stories in either Matthew or Luke. For example, it takes Matthew eleven verses to describe the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, it takes Luke thirteen. But Mark manages to condense the story into a mere two verses. He also begins the story a little differently. Mark tells us that the Holy Spirit “drove him out into the wilderness.” Not a suggestion or an inspiration, there was no choice for Jesus as he is literally “thrown out” into the wilderness.
We know the wilderness represents a place of solitude and desolation, a place where one’s ability to survive is tested. In addition to the inhospitable place, Jesus must also endure the presence of Satan himself, who tempts him. He is with wild beasts, although Mark, typically, does not elaborate as to whether that is a good or a bad thing. One would think it might be kind of scary, but if we consider the effect Jesus had on demons, it is possible the wild animals were more in awe of him than he was afraid of them. Where are the actual temptations, so vividly described by both Matthew and Luke, temptations which Jesus resisted and responded to by quoting scripture. Mark leaves the details of the temptations up to our imagination. Perhaps Mark is inviting us into the story – what temptations would be the most difficult for us to resist?
If this gospel sounds very familiar, that is because we have heard the story of his baptism twice and verses 14 and 15 three times in the past weeks. We also heard the words spoken at his baptism paraphrased in last week’s story of The Transfiguration – “this is my Son, the beloved,” followed by the command “listen to him!” Perhaps these things bear repeating – the unambiguous identification of Jesus as the Son of God, the unambiguous power of the Holy Spirit – the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit descended like a dove on him, a blessing which turned into an imperative as the same Spirit drove him out into the wilderness for forty days of testing.
The most important part of the message forms the nucleus of the gospel “The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” This is the clarion call of Lent – the Kairos moment has arrived, the kingdom of God is near, repent and turn our lives around, have faith in God’s promises. Lent is not meant to be a bleak, dreary season that we must endure in order to appreciate Easter. Lent provides us with an opportunity to focus on the message echoed throughout scripture, the story of God acting in human history, offering salvation and eternal life.
The theme from Hebrew scripture for Lent this year is covenant – the deepest and most unique concept in the Hebrew religious tradition. In scripture, covenant is a free promise on God’s part. God’s covenant is unilateral, it does not depend on the response of human beings. God has chosen Israel and will never abandon God’s people, even though Israel does not always deserve the promise. The Israelites are the first chosen people of God. We often describe ourselves as God’s chosen people, and the very thought should bring us to our knees in gratitude for this gift that we do not deserve, just as it did for those who were faithful in Hebrew scripture. Through the history of the covenants God made with the people we can see Israel’s growing understanding of God’s promise to them. We are also challenged to see what the covenants say to us today.
The first covenant God made with the people is described in our reading from
Genesis, in what we refer to as the flood story. Although there is a flood story in every major ancient religion, the story in Genesis ends with a specific promise, a covenant God makes with Noah, his family members, and the creatures, the survivors of the great flood. God gives the promise that divine wrath will never again destroy creation as the result of human sin. That does not mean human sinfulness will not bring chaos to the world, humanity is all too capable of that. It means that God will not destroy creation, that there is no direct correlation between human sin and divine punishment.
The symbol of God’s promise is the rainbow, which has been widely co-opted and sentimentalized in our culture. For the ancient people, the rainbow symbolized God’s weapon – the bow used with arrows for hunting and warfare – that had been put aside. It is turned upside down in the sky, created out of all the colors in the spectrum. It is the promise that God will never be the adversary of humankind. The sign of the rainbow is seen in the heavens, it has nothing to do with reciprocity on earth but is a simple promise of mercy and compassion for all.
Interestingly, this covenant is not limited to the people of Israel. It predates Abraham and Sarah and the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel who will come after them. This promise is with all of humankind – male and female, young and old, of all ethnicities, races and sexual identities. In recent weeks I have heard Ronald Reagan, Jr. in a commercial, which he always ends with “lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.” When I heard it on the radio on Tuesday immediately after our conference Bible study, I wondered if he realizes that God’s promise symbolized by the rainbow extends to him as well. Probably not, but it does.
We will learn about more covenants made between God and God’s people in our lessons from Hebrew scripture in the coming weeks. The covenantal promise is extended to us through the promise of baptism, which we are reminded of in our gospel by the baptism of Jesus. In baptism we promise to live among God’s people; hear the word of God and share in the Eucharist; proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; serve all people, following the example of Jesus; and strive for justice and peace in all the earth. In turn we receive the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, the spirit of wisdom and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in God’s presence. We are given the free and unconditional gift of God’s grace.
Lent reminds us that we have to end with the old in order to begin something new. The waters subsided, and God made a new covenant with humankind to never again destroy the world by flood. Before Lent begins, we put away the word that describes our joyful celebration of other seasons in the church year, events that remind us that God came in the person of Jesus to bring light into a world of darkness, and to fulfill God’s unconditional promise of love through his ministry, his death and his resurrection. Lent gives us the opportunity to embrace change, to repent and turn away from our old habits, to renew our covenant with God and accept the gift of God’s grace. At Easter, the celebration will resume once again. Amen.