Let us pray: Lord God, your ways are holy and good. Help us to learn them and live them. As we begin this season of Lent, we pray that you will speak to us in our hearts and in our minds. Pour out your Spirit upon us in the name of Jesus. Amen.
An old priest in Russia in the days of the Czars was stopped by a Royal guard. Pointing a gun the guard asked gruffly: “What is your name? Why are you here? Where are you going?” The priest looked at the soldier and asked, “How much do they pay you to ask these questions?”The solider replied, “Three kopeks a month.”“I’ll pay you 30 kopeks a month if you will stop me every week and ask me those same questions,” the priest said. Pretty good questions: “What is your name? Why are you here? Where are you going?”Today's readings might make us wonder what season of the church year we are really in. We hear the stuff of rainbows in Genesis, the great signs of baptism in First Peter, the skies opening and the Spirit descending in Mark. The theme is the same: God's Word is shattering the remnants of an old creation and making it all new. Light is coming out of darkness, color is scattered by raindrops, a new life is rising from the waters of baptism, and a Savior stands up, anointed by the Spirit in the waters of the Jordan.This is symbolism of Epiphany, the season we are leaving. We all have been there. Do you remember the joy and wonder of the last beautiful sunset you stopped to watch? Do you remember how reading a good book so transformed your point-of-view that the world would never, ever look the same? Perhaps it was a dinner with someone you loved, or a piece of music you heard that haunted you with its beauty. For some, it was the experience of a fabulous retreat, or a vacation in an exotic place, or maybe a long walk in the woods, or even a swim at the beach. For others it was standing on a lofty mountain. The list is as endless as our own experiences, but we all know these times. They shape our lives; remake them, pushing us around a corner where we bump into joy. These are all epiphanies, just as real, if not more so than the experiences of Noah and his family leaving the ark, of Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River. In these times, God speaks – much in Genesis, making promises and covenants. In Mark's brief Gospel the divine voice immediately gives Jesus identity: "Sonship," a term that places him immediately in the center of God's heart. In the same way, God spoke to us all in Epiphany, the season we are just leaving, and in our own countless experiences where we were met with something greater, more loving, and more compassionate than we can possibly imagine.It is very human for us to want to stay there, to enjoy that sunset forever, to grasp a warm moment and cling to it for the peace it brings, the richness that touches our hearts, minds, and bodies so deeply that words fail us. We want to stay in Epiphany, smiling at the image of the Christ child, rejoicing with Simeon in the temple, marveling at the transfiguration of Jesus. Do you remember what Peter said? To put his reaction into modern words, "Let's build a place to live up here, so we can wake up each morning and admire the view. Let's capture the moment and have it for ourselves right here, forever if we can."Uh oh, here comes the nasty part. Epiphany is over. Lent is here. All faithful Christians should start to think about penance. Suddenly, we are required to get penitential. Surely we've already discussed or at least thought about what we intend to give up for Lent: maybe chocolate or bowling; perhaps that second piece of cake?But this sort of penance is actually not the heart of today's Gospel at all. It is the wilderness experience that is at the heart of these stories. In four short verses, Mark gets straight to the nuts and bolts of the matter: Jesus' "Sonship" is revealed, and immediately he is driven into the wilderness. Both are part of one action by God. They don't make sense separately.In the Genesis story, the wilderness is more implied than discussed. But it is most certainly present. Surely, the once-flooded earth was not a beautiful garden when Noah left the ark. We can only imagine that the ancient storytellers envisioned a wasteland, and a soggy one at that, waiting patiently to be tilled and cultivated, settled and repopulated.The author of First Peter knew what it meant to be baptized in the late first-century church. It meant joining a counter-cultural movement that was at risk of being persecuted. It meant entering a social wilderness where old friendships and ties no longer counted, and social status meant very little. Even family ties were at risk. As distant as this image may seem to us, we are closer to the ancient church than we might think. Christianity is no longer the social center of our culture, and in some ways the Gospel is calling us to become increasingly counter-cultural.The baptism of Jesus and his wilderness temptations bind us to him in important ways. The temptations Jesus faced and conquered are the same ones we face. It has far less to do with eating and drinking too much of the wrong thing at the wrong time. Sin of the kind Jesus encounters and from which he would have us repent is yielding to the temptation to be less than we really are. Sin means adopting a life direction that conflicts with God's call. Jesus was rejecting sin when he chose to be the Messiah God wanted and not the Messiah the world wants. Jesus had to decide who he is going to be. This is a choice all of us face. Will we really be the person God wants us to be?Choosing to be the person God wants us to be is not always easy. Sometimes the choices are very difficult. Now we are oriented towards Lent, entering our own wilderness experiences. As individuals we are immediately challenged to look into our own hearts. Our own epiphanies will begin to transform even our worst attributes into something beautiful.As the corporate Body of Christ, we are called to embrace anew the fresh challenges that await us in the world, carrying the Light of Christ into the world around us, risking our security, and even our strength, hoping to re-ignite the fires of love and justice in human hearts around us.These are admirable callings. Everyday penance is easier. Giving up a golf game is simpler. Saying, "No thank you," to a second helping of dessert takes very little effort by comparison. Attempting to transform ourselves and the world around us; preparing for a life with Christ, which was, in fact, the original intention of Lent; making the old new and the darkness light: this is what it means to enter the wilderness. This is what Lent is all about. We can't escape the wilderness. Even Jesus needed to enter it.So the question of Lent is not what we should give up, but rather what are we going to embrace as a new way to walk, challenging and hopeful? What wilderness lies just over the next hill for us to bravely enter and grow into? It may be as close as the nearest nursing home, a poor neighbor's kitchen, a struggling student's homework, an empty heart waiting to hear a kind word. Or it may be as "far away" as Third World hunger, global corporate greed, or other forms of injustice. We were created for a purpose and we will never know true peace until we have discovered that purpose and made it our own. In their book Bruce & Stan Search for the Meaning of Life, authors Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz interviewed people in major cities around the U. S. about their opinions on the meaning of life. One high-powered executive from Portland, Oregon, remarked with some degree of sadness, “I was having an annual physical. Just when I thought my doctor had finished, the doctor said he had one more question for me. He asked me, ‘Are you doing what you were put on Earth to do?’ I couldn’t give him an answer,” says the executive. “I just cried.” How sad. Not to realize who you are and why you’re here. Listen. There’s someone who wants to help you find your purpose. His name is Jesus of Nazareth. That’s why he came into the world. That’s why he was baptized by John. That’s why he spent time in the wilderness of temptation. That’s why he taught his disciples. That is why he suffered on the cross and then rose from the dead. It is to say to us, “Life matters. You were created by a loving God whose purpose is that you should live abundantly through a right relationship with God and a right relationship with those around you. You are not an accident of the universe.” So, to end with the three questions with which I began (and you won’t have to pay me 30 kopeks): What is my name? Hopefully, it is Christian, follower of Jesus Christ. – I will leave the last two for you to answer. -- Why am I here? – Where am I going?
Let us pray: Lord God, You gave your Son to die for our sins and we give ourselves to you in repentance and faith. Help us to answer the wilderness questions and we trust you not to make life easy, but to make it real, worthwhile and eternal. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.