The Journey Begins

February 18, 2024

    Series: February 2024

    Speaker: Bethany Nelson


    Today's Sermon


    "The Journey Begins"

    Psalm 25:1-10
    To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! Good and upright is the Lord; therefore God instructs sinners in the way. God leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble God’s way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep God’s covenant and God’s decrees.

    Mark 1:9-15
    In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
    And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
    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.”

    I was at a Superbowl gathering last Sunday, and shortly after the final play of the game, one of the women turned to me and said, “You better have an extra inspirational message next Sunday, because people are going to need it after this!” To which I rather flippantly responded, “Well, it will be the first Sunday in Lent.  That’s basically the most depressing Sunday of the entire year.”

    I was kind of joking, but not really. The season of Lent does have a reputation for not being the most fun season in the Christian calendar. This is the time for self-reflection – especially reflection about how we have sinned … how we have not lived as God calls us to live. It is the time for repentance – to turn away from that which separates us from God. For some people, it is the time to give up something – chocolate, meat, social media - whatever it may be.  My son is upset because his Catholic school announced that they will not be serving meat at Friday lunches throughout Lent.  Gee whiz, what a terrible season this is, and we have only just begun.  Easter is so far away!

    All of that being said, I actually like the season of Lent. Because the main purpose of Lent is to draw closer to God. Who could argue with that? Yes, let’s spend some time reflecting on where we have gone wrong, so we can do better in the future and more fully live into the beloved children of God that we all are.  Yes, let’s spend some time repenting – turning toward that which will bring us nearer to God.  If you want to give up something, I hope you give it up not to punish yourself, but to enable yourself to focus more fully on God. That is what this season is about … sorting through all of the noise to reconnect with the center of our faith – God, Jesus, Spirit.

    So how do we do that? The lectionary – the suggested scripture text for this first Sunday in Lent - points us to the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. When I read this passage, I feel a bit like I’m in “The Sound of Music” movie.  “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.  When you read, you begin with A, B, C.  When you sing, you begin with Do, Re, Me.”  Let’s look at the text –

    Do – Jesus is baptized.

    Re – Jesus is tempted.

    Me – Jesus proclaims the good news of God.

    Easy and straightforward, right? Just like Do, Re, Me.

    Well … not so fast.  If you’ve ever studied solfege, which is the fancy name for “Do, Re, Me,” you’ll know that it is anything but simple.  There are hand motions.  You also have to remember which syllable goes with each note. It gets complicated quickly! Similarly, this passage from Mark is deceptively simple.  It’s also deceptively short.  Just 7 verses.  This same story arc in Matthew and Luke takes 22 and 17 verses, respectively. So what happens in this very short story? First, Jesus is baptized. This is the first time in Mark’s Gospel that we realize Jesus is someone very special. The heavens tear apart, the Spirit descends, God claims Jesus as God’s beloved son. God is with Jesus here at the very beginning of the story.

    Then Jesus is immediately driven into the wilderness. Mark’s version gives almost no details, but we do know that angels wait on him. Jesus was not alone in the wilderness. God was there with him.

    Finally, Jesus begins his public ministry, proclaiming that the kingdom of God has come near. Notice that the first thing Jesus wants the people to know is that God is not just with him, God is with everyone.  The kingdom of God is at hand.

    It is not an accident that this is the passage with which we begin Lent.  Lent, which can often seem like a rather lonely journey. We are encouraged to look at hard truths about how we are living our lives and make the difficult but necessary changes. We are encouraged to let go of those things standing in the way of our relationship with God ... even when we may not want to let go. But we do not make this Lenten journey on our own. We make this journey with God.

    Where do we begin the journey? Let’s start at the very beginning. We are called to that same Do, Re, Me that Jesus did.

    We start with Do – Knowing that God claims each of us as a beloved child. Do you trust in your belovedness? Do you recognize God’s unconditional and abundant love for you always? The Lenten journey begins in love.

    Re – We resist or repent from temptation. Life is filled with temptation. How are we turning from temptation and turning toward God?  That is repentance.

    Me – We are called to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God. We do this in all kinds of ways, big and small. We love our neighbor. We work for justice. We pray for our enemies. The list goes on and on.

    This is neither easy nor simple. When I was reading up on the quote from Pope Francis on the bulletin cover, one commentator wrote, “In this poignant call to action, Pope Francis invites us to reflect deeply during the season of Lent. It’s not merely a time for ritualistic observance, but an opportunity to transform our hearts and lives.” Another commentator writes, “Lent is not just leading us from a chocolate to a temporary non-chocolate existence for seven weeks. It calls us, rather, to envision a kind of holy disruption grounded in the longing for God to set things right.”

    I think of the story of Katherine Ann Power, who was an accomplice in a bank robbery in 1970 in Massachusetts where another person in her crew ended up tragically shooting and killing a police officer.  Power went into hiding and fashioned a whole new life in Oregon as a restaurant owner, wife and mother, and – by all accounts – an upstanding community member. Twenty-three years later, in 1993, she turned herself in to the authorities. Why? “Because,” as she says, “I had to reclaim my past in order to live with full authenticity in this moment - in openness and truth instead of hiddenness and shame.” She served several years in prison and then rebuilt her life yet again. Power recently wrote a book titled, “Surrender: My Journey from Guerrilla to Grandmother.” In it, she credits her spiritual development for allowing her “to see myself both as a person who had done something so destructive and as someone socially and spiritually redeemable.”[i]

    Lent is an opportunity to transform our hearts and lives. Lent is a holy disruption. Lent is a reminder that we are very human and make bad decisions … and we are always redeemable. Now, we likely don’t have stories quite as dramatic as Katherine Power’s, but certainly we all have parts of our lives that could use some transformation and some holy disruption. Thank goodness we do not have to do that alone. For me, Lent is not just about remembering that God is with us, but remembering how much we need God. I need redeeming. I need God to journey with me.

    I hear this need in the Psalmist’s voice in the passage we heard this morning. “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth.” Make me, teach me, lead me. I cannot do this alone, O God. I need you. It is with this humility that those of us who gathered for our Ash Wednesday service last week received the ashes on our foreheads and hands. We always begin the season of Lent with ashes. In the ashes, we remember that we were created from the dust of the earth. We were breathed into life by God and seen as wonderful and good in God’s sight. In the ashes, we recognize that we are not God. We are mortals who make mistakes and bad decisions, who sin, and who very much need God. In the ashes we remember that our God is a God of abundant love and forgiveness.

    Our Ash Wednesday service was at 9:30 in the morning, and I realize that was not a convenient time for many of you to be here at the church. So this morning, we are going to offer an opportunity for you to receive ashes if you would like to do so. We always have a time of silent reflection following the sermon, but that time will be significantly longer this morning. You will have several minutes to reflect on the transformation that you would like to see in your life this Lenten season. Reflect on what repentance will look like for you.  Reflect on the ways in which you will bring the kingdom of God near.  Reflect on your need for God in your life and how you will embrace God’s redeeming love and forgiveness.  And if you so desire, you are invited to come to the front to receive the ashes as you begin this Lenten journey.