February 18, 2018 — First Sunday in Lent
Rev. Alison Quin
Before Jesus began his ministry, he was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. And just as he came out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart, and the Spirit descended on him like a dove. And he heard the most extraordinary message from God: You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.
It’s extraordinary because he hasn’t done anything yet. But God already loves him and is pleased with him. The core of his identity is that he is a child of God, loved unconditionally. He does not have to do anything to earn God’s love.
But he had no time to savor this moment of grace and intimacy with God—this life-changing experience. Mark tells us that immediately, the Spirit of God drove Jesus out into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan for 40 days.
Mark’s gospel, unlike Matthew and Luke, does not give us any detail about what Jesus’ temptations were. In Matthew and Luke, the devil tempts him to turn stones into bread, to jump off the highest pinnacle and see if God’s angels will catch him, and to worship the devil in exchange for ruling all the kingdoms of the world.
But Mark’s version is open ended and invites us to imagine what he might have wrestled with. The fact that his time in the wilderness immediately follows his experience of God’s voice telling him that he is beloved suggests that maybe he was struggling to accept or trust being God’s beloved. That is part of being human.
Scripture and creation and people of faith tell us that God loves us unconditionally and is pleased with us just for existing. We catch a glimpse of that truth sometimes. A newborn baby, beautiful scenes in nature, falling in love, receiving acts of kindness and other moments of grace give us the sense that we are deeply loved. But we are constantly tempted to doubt it.
Henri Nouwen wrote a wonderful book called Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, in which he argues that the heart of our spiritual journey is to learn to listen to the voice of God telling us that we are God’s beloved children. He writes that “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved”. Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.”
The world is filled with voices that shout other messages: you are not worthy, you are not good, you are not loveable, you will never amount to anything unless you work frantically to prove otherwise.
There were many voices in Jesus’ world telling him that he was of no account, worthless, a nobody. He was from a backwater town in a backwater region of Israel. He was part of an occupied nation, whose inhabitants were despised by the Romans. He was dirt poor—a day laborer, struggling for a subsistence wage. The Greek word tekton which is used to describe Joseph’s occupation most likely meant day laborer rather than a carpenter with his own business.
Perhaps he wrestled with the world’s judgment of him out there in the wilderness, wondering if anyone would listen to him, or follow him, whether he could make any difference at all. “Do I have the courage to set aside those other voices? Do I dare to trust the voice of God telling me I am God’s beloved Son?”
We assume that it was always easy for him to have faith and listen to God’s voice, but surely being truly human means that he struggled sometimes.
I think that Jesus had to make that journey inward and wrestle with those negative voices before he could begin his ministry. He needed to learn to silence the falsehoods of the world and accept the truth of his identity as God’s beloved in order to have good news to bring to the world. When he emerged from the desert, he was able to share the gifts that came from his spiritual struggle. “The kingdom of God has come near, he says. Repent and believe in the good news.”
Notice that for Jesus, repentance does not mean beating your breast and bewailing your sins. It means trusting in the good news of God’s love for you.
We are called to make our own journey inward, to our own wilderness, and learn to set aside the voices that tell us lies about ourselves. The real work of prayer is to become silent and listen to the voice of God telling us good things about ourselves—the truth of our existence—the core of our identity as beloved children of God.
It is analogous to taking a break from the internet and the onslaught of fake news. Fake news is aimed at stirring up fear and division and hostility and it is often successful. Often we are left with the sense that the situation is hopeless. But that is a lie. The truth is that we are not powerless. If we banish fear, and refuse to hate or be divided from each other, there would be no limit on what we accomplish together. We could end mass shootings—we could solve many of the problems that afflict us. The possibility of coming together and working for a more just and humane and peaceful world exists at every moment.
We just have to detach from the world of falsehood and enter silence so that we can hear the truth again—all of us are God’s beloved children, chosen and precious, born to live together and care for one another. All things are possible for God. And if we have even a tiny bit of faith, God will enable us to move mountains.
My prayer for all of us this Lent is that we will take some time in the wilderness—into a silence that allows us to hear God’s voice, and to know ourselves as God’s beloved more deeply than ever. When we have treasure in our own hearts, then we have something to give the world. When we let God love us, then we have love to share with others. And that is what we are here for.
The kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.