Welcome to the first Sunday in Lent. Those forty days that lead us to the crucifixion and to Easter. Now being that I am new, I don’t know your traditions. Do you give things up for Lent? I usually try to give something up, but most years it is just like a New Year’s resolution – it doesn’t last long. But this year, I am committed. It is going to happen and none of you can tempt me out of it. It may be extremely cliché, but yes, I have given up sweets for Lent.
Every year, the first Sunday in Lent includes a reading of the temptation story. Today we just heard Mark’s version. And it is quite fitting for those of us who have given something up. We know that feeling of temptation to give in. But notice that in Mark, we don’t just get the temptation story. We also get Jesus’ baptism right before that and his first sermon afterwards.
What I love about the Gospel of Mark is it is so brief in it’s story telling. It gives so few details. But the details given are quite important. For example, did you notice what happens to the heavens when Jesus is baptized? “Just as Jesus was coming up and out of the waters, he saw the heavens torn apart.” The heavens are torn open. Now, I need a volunteer to help me with something. (Volunteer and I tear a shirt in half). Do you see what happens something is torn? When something is torn open, it means you cannot easily put it back together. And to be honest, why would you even want to try. Now, if you read the story of Jesus’ baptism in Matthew or Luke, it simply says the heaven’s open. Isn’t that nice. They just open. Like a door. It’s easy. But anything that is simply opened is just as easily closed again. But not in Mark’s story. In Mark the heaven’s are torn apart. The word in Greek is schizo. Say it with me – schizo. You can hear within the word the sharp, jagged, rough edges that tearing creates. What does that mean? Could it mean the veil between us and God has been torn open, never to be closed again?
But then, once the heaven’s are schizo’d, torn open, Jesus sees the spirit descend. Our text says that it descended on him. Like it is resting on his shoulder. But the Greek word there can also be translated as into. So the spirit of God does not simply rest on Jesus, it goes into him. It possess him. He becomes possessed by the spirit of God. What we learn here is that through out Jesus’ life and death, he is carrying within him the Spirit of God.
Then Jesus hears the words of God, “You are my son. My beloved.” These are claiming words. These are words of affirmation. Words of acceptance. Words that tell Jesus who he is and to whom he belongs. It’s like a parent wrapping there arms around their child and whispering in their ear, “I love you. You will always be my child. No matter what.” They are words that enter into your body and wrap themselves around your heart. They claim you. And that is what it means to be baptized. To be baptized is to hear the promise that God has already claimed you. You have been claimed. You belong. You are loved. You matter.
So Jesus has been claimed by God and possessed by the spirit of God and then what happens? Jesus gets driven into the wilderness, thrown…tossed into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan for 40 days. For 40 days he was tempted. That number forty – it is an important number in scripture. Rain fell for forty days and forty nights in the story of Noah and the ark. Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai when receiving the Ten Commandments from God. The Israelites, how many years were they wandering in the wilderness? Forty. And now Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness for forty days. The ancient Jews were a deeply symbolic people. And numbers for them carried deep spiritual value for them. So it means something here that Jesus was tempted for forty days. Why that number? Why 40 days? It must have been important.
And when you think about it, forty is an important number for us as well. Typically, we have a forty-hour work week. Every week, Ryan Seacrest (or in my day, Casey Kasem) gives us the American Top 40 songs in music. In NFL scouting combine this weekend, we clock how fast someone can run the forty yard dash. And then now we have forty days of Lent.
So why was Jesus in the wilderness for forty days? While we live in a different world than the ancient Jews, there is a meaning to the number forty that we still share with those ancient Jews. Forty is the number of weeks that a woman is pregnant. Now I know, I am living in pregnancy world, so perhaps I am reading my own life into this, as Lauren and I count the weeks up to the number 40. We are currently at 31. But I don’t think so. I don’t think I am reading into this.
Forty is the number of weeks that it takes for you to be birthed into the world. The ancient Jews knew that, I think. So could it be that the number forty, used in scripture, has something to do with being born, or reborn. Maybe it has to do with finding new life in the midst of your current life. One could say that the earth was reborn after the forty days of rain in Noah’s story. For the Israelites, coming out of slavery and wandering in the wilderness for forty years was rebirth for their people. They were going to start again in a new land and under new leadership. They were not going to be an enslaved people anymore. They were set free, birthed into new life.
So then, if that is true, could it be that Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness is a time of gestation and growth, a time of preparation for rebirth into new life. Preparation for his life of ministry that is ahead of him.
And if that is true, then could it be that Jesus’ baptism just before was then a moment of conception? A moment when a seed is planted that then begins to grow? Those words that Jesus hears, “You are my Son, my beloved.” Could those be life-creating words?
So what are we to do with all of this? Forty days in the wilderness for Jesus. Forty days of Lent for us. As we enter the Lenten season of forty days, perhaps you and I are invited to be rebirthed. To let the old ways of life that have become destructive and disorienting fall away and to be rebirthed to live life in a new way. To commit to a new way of being or a new way of relating to the world. And maybe the only way for that to begin to grow within us, to discover a new way of living, is to remember those words spoken to us at our baptism. To recall those life-creating words of God for us. I realize not everyone here is baptized. Which is why it is important to remember that in baptism we hear the promise that God has already claimed you. Which means these life-creating words are for you too. They are for all of us. So hear them again now: you are enough for God. You are valuable. You matter to this world. You have been claimed by God. You belong and you are beloved. Let that sink into you. Let that be a seed that conceives and sprouts new life within you this Lenten season. So that then you too might be rebirthed into this world, deciding to live life differently. And so that then the spirit of God within you may lead you to confront those other voices. Those wilderness and devilish voices that tempt you into believing that you are not loved. That you do not matter. That you are not enough.
Lent is a much deeper season than simply giving up sweets and chocolate. I’m still going to do it but that is not the point. It is a season that leads us to new life through death. New life, rebirth, through hearing the claiming words that you belong to God and you are God’s beloved. Words which then leads to the death of those destructive voices within our lives. New life through death. So what are the parts of your life God is wanting to be reborn? Where is God wanting you to live differently? Where is God wanting to bring life into the world through you? You’ll have to answer those questions yourself. And answering them may feel like entering dark and deep waters for you, but you go well equipped. Because the heavens have been torn open, never to be closed again. And that descending Spirit of God, it has entered into you too.
*I am grateful to Alan Storey (aslowwalk.org) for his sermon on Matthew 4:1-11 on March 13, 2011 and for his insights on the temptation story, which were used in this sermon.