A Prayer for the First Sunday in Lent
It’s Lent again. (Or is it Lent still? It’s hard to know these days.)
It is a time for fasting, and so, we pray, reveal to us the things we hold on to too tightly and the things that have a hold on us in turn. Make us mindful of all the ways and things we consume. Remind us that it is emptiness that drives us into taking and wanting more than we need. Give us the wisdom to be satisfied.
It is a time for confession, and so, we pray, reveal to us the things that lurk in the dark corners of our own hearts. Open the doors we always keep shut when company comes over and pull out the overstuffed junk drawer. With the light of your love, illuminate all the cobwebs and the clutter of our lives. Remind us that we are only as sick as our secrets. Give us the courage to be honest about who we are so that we might become who we were made to be.
It is a time for giving up, and so, we pray, reveal to us the things that have weighed us down. Help us see the baggage we’ve carried for so long we’ve forgotten when we first picked it up. Remind us that you offer us abundance, not scarcity; lightness, not burden; and spaciousness, not restriction. Give us the joy of living in your freedom.
Giving Up… For the Good
Mark 1:9-15 [NRSV]
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 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.”
It’s the first Sunday in Lent, but it feels a little like the fiftieth Sunday in Lent. If Lent is supposed a time of giving things up and making sacrifices and taking on new practices and walking through a wilderness of hardship and unknowns, then we’ve all been living in a sort of extended Lent for the last year.
We’ve given up gathering, singing, praying, and eating together in person. We’ve given up passing offering plates and communion trays to one another. We’ve given up things like going to concerts, sitting down to eat in crowded restaurants, gathering with extended family and large groups of friends, and even huddling around hospital beds or holding one another in times of sorrow. We’ve taken on the practices of masking, hand washing, and being thoughtful about where we go and who we see and what we do. We’ve taken on following the numbers, reading the articles, keeping up with changing guidelines, grieving as the death toll rises, and now waiting and hoping for vaccine appointments and some sense of normalcy.
It’s been hard. It’s been painful. And I hope you know that it’s okay to admit that it’s been hard and that it has hurt. I know we are all more than ready for it to just be over. So, if the prospect of another Lent makes you feel exhausted, you aren’t alone.
This year, throughout the Lenten season, we’ll be talking about giving up. That isn’t unusual, of course, we usually talk about giving something up for Lent. We might fast from certain foods—giving up coffee or meat or chocolate or alcohol. We might fast from certain actions—giving up watching TV or scrolling social media or shopping for non-essentials or swearing. That kind of fasting can certainly help us grow. It exercises our spiritual muscles when we have to be intentional about stepping outside of our familiar habits. So if you are being led to a traditional Lenten fast, of course, I encourage you to engage with that.
But if it feels like too much to give up one more thing that might bring you a little joy or provide a little comfort after a year of giving up so many things, Lent is still for you. Because Lent isn’t really about giving up little treats or even trying to break habits. Lent is really about giving up the things that keep us from the abundant life Christ has promised us. It’s about giving up the things that keep us from being who we were created to be. It’s about giving up… for the good. Unfortunately, that’s harder to do, but fortunately, it’s not a task we have to take on alone.
We begin this Lenten journey the way we usually do: with the story of Jesus in the wilderness. This year we read from the gospel of Mark. Mark’s gospel is famously the sparsest, and it starts here. We don’t get the annunciation or the nativity. There are no singing angels or stars in the sky or magi. Instead, Mark begins Jesus’s story not with birth but with baptism.
For Mark, this moment is the one that says something essential about who Jesus is and whose he is. Jesus rises from the waters of the Jordan River, and while the water is still dripping from his hair, the heavens are torn open and the Spirit descends on him, and God announces to everyone listening, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus is God’s son, and God loves him, and God is delighted with him. Jesus’s identity and belonging are affirmed. Last week we talked about mountaintop experiences: surely this was one. And it’s in that context that Jesus immediately goes into the wilderness.
However, he doesn’t just go. He doesn’t wander off into the wilderness by accident of his own volition. It wasn’t some kind of post-baptism retreat he’d had planned. Instead, the Spirit descends on him, and the next thing we know, Jesus is being driven—compelled, forced, plunged—into the wilderness by the Spirit that had descended on him like a dove just moments ago. Although our English translation drops the ball a little here, because the Greek is quite clear that the Spirit descended in him like a dove. The Spirit doesn’t perch on his shoulder a moment then flutter away the first time she’s started. The Spirit is within him now. And he’s going to need the Spirit.
None of us volunteer for global pandemics or health crises or the deaths of loved ones or the dissolution of relationships or dark nights of the soul. We don’t schedule things like pain or loss or fear or doubt. But we are all driven into them at different times in our lives, sometimes by God’s own Spirit within us.
If the Spirit is driving us in those experiences, the question naturally arises for us whether this means that God causes bad things to happen. But I don’t believe that. We live in a world that is beautiful and broken, full of lush forests and fertile prairies and also deserts. It is a world that is filled with wonder and terror, love and grief, order and chaos, joy and despair, pleasure and pain, life and death.
The miracle is that God shows up to guide us in all those places. God doesn’t cause those things out of some sadistic desire to see us suffer, but God shows up in the suffering. And the story of Christ tells us that God shows up not to watch us from the sidelines, but to join us, to actually suffer alongside us. And when we allow those experiences to soften us instead of harden us, even deserts can be transformed into places of life, even wildernesses can become holy, and even temptation can teach us and shape us.
Wildernesses are always a place of temptation because when we are in the midst of grief or danger or suffering, we too tend to hear the voices Job heard, offering us the easy way out—to just curse God and die. In other words, to deny who we are and whose we are and give in to despair.
This passage begins with Jesus’s baptism but just a few verses after that beautiful affirmation, Jesus is tempted. I don’t know about you, but I find it sort of oddly comforting that Jesus could have this beautiful, life-altering moment of transcendence and then immediately be tempted to forget. Because I am tempted to forget too. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark doesn’t go into specifics about the temptation. But we don’t have to know the exact details, do we? We are familiar enough with temptation since we experience it most days. And at the root of temptation is always the question of what kind of people we are going to be.
Frederick Buechner wrote, “After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness, where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.” What does it mean to be ourselves? Will we be people who seek the easy way out of discomfort? Will we be people who are selfish or generous? Will we be people who seek personal power or the kingdom of God? Will we hold onto the knowledge that we too are beloved children of God, or will we try to find our worth elsewhere? These questions tend to come into sharper focus when we are in the wildernesses of our lives.
Maybe you have a story that starts here too, with a moment of joy and belonging followed by days that stretch into weeks that sometimes even stretch into years of a wilderness you didn’t choose. Take heart: the Spirit hasn’t left you. The Spirit is still within you, guiding you even here. Take comfort: you are not alone. Mark writes, “and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Debi Thomas notes, “Even in the grimmest places, God abides, and somehow, without reason or explanation, help comes. Rest comes. Solace comes. Granted, our angels don't always appear in the forms we prefer, but they come.” If there are wild beasts around, look around, there are angels there too to help sustain you.
And so this Lent, I invite you to journey with us as we practice giving up. For you, that might mean giving up something through fasting. It might mean giving up time in prayer or acts of service. Or it might mean giving up something less tangible, like the illusion that you are in control or okay or that you can keep pressing through. Maybe you need to rest. Take it easy. Grieve what you have lost. Maybe you need to allow angels to wait on you.
My hope is that during these forty days whatever you give up feels less like an added burden and more like a burden lifted. I hope we are able to shed some of the protective layers we’ve built up along the way so that our journey is one into the core of who we are and whose we are. You are God’s child, whom God delights in and cherishes. And you are Beloved. You are so deeply loved. May everything you do in these next forty days, and in the days and months ahead, take its shape from that.