Monday, February 04, 2008

A confession to begin Lent

I wrote this in our church newsletter. Once again, I share with you.

Pastor’s Perspective
Mark 1: 9-15
40 days

This month we begin Lent. This is the 40 day season when we focus on Jesus’ 40 day sojourn in the wilderness when he confronted temptation by Satan and focused himself for the ministry and message that we would come to call “The Gospel.” In the book of Mark, the Gospel writer describes the Holy Spirit “driving” Jesus into the desert for his confrontation with Satan in company with wild beasts and angels. Mark’s choice of words is in contrast with the other gospel writers. Matthew and Luke have the Spirit more kindly “leading” Jesus into the wilderness. I think Mark captures something here that we often times ignore about the Holy Spirit. We think we are awfully cozy with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit guides and protects us; it comforts and soothes our weary souls. But when do we feel the Spirit “driving” us like a herd of cattle? Mark portrays the image of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descending upon Jesus at his baptism, and then abruptly driving him into the wilderness. I have the image in my mind of the Holy Spirit descending like a dove with the words of a father’s favor, and then morphing into a hawk which flies with outstretched claws pursuing Jesus into isolation at a moment when he could have basked in the awe and reverence of others.
What are the things we feel the Spirit compelling us to do? Where are we being “driven?” The season of Lent is the intentional focus on these themes. It is not a fuzzy, feel good, easy going season of faith. It is a season of preparation, of repentance, fasting, and soul-searching. At the end of the “long night” of Lent is Easter morning, and punctuated throughout the 40 days are the “little Easters” of our Sunday celebrations. But we begin the season with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 6 at 6pm). The ashes are literally made of the dried up palm branches that we waived on Palm Sunday last year. They symbolized our fleeting allegiance to the “King of Kings” when it is easy and Jesus seems exalted and triumphant. Burning those palms reminds us that Jesus was abandoned by his friends and followers in the hours before the cross and that the crowds who shouted “Hosanna” were just as soon shouting “crucify him!” We are like those crowds when we celebrate Jesus when everyone else is doing it, and then forget about him when he is standing for something that isn’t popular. We are those disciples who stand by Jesus when it is easy and then flee from him when he requires us to sacrifice. This is why we mark our foreheads with the ashes of palm branches that were used for hollow exaltation. Too often, our praises and claims of allegiance to Jesus are just for show. This calls for repentance.
But Lent isn’t just a time of self-denial and emptiness. It can be a time of great spiritual renewal and direction. Remember, Jesus was also “waited on by angels,” in the wilderness, according to Mark. Some churches who want to distance themselves from “Christian jargon” and thus appeal to a wider, un-churched audience call the time “40 days of purpose.” I’ve always kind of disliked that terminology, perhaps because I’m a bit of a snob. I think, “365 days in the year, and we are talking about only 40 days of purpose?” But perhaps that slogan is more accurate than I’d like to admit to myself. How many days do I actually live focused on my purpose of being a follower of Christ? How many times have I followed Jesus out into the wilderness to face the wild beasts and Satan? More often than not, I fall into the purposeless routines that feel comfortable and non-threatening, and following Christ is the thing I do for an hour or two on Sundays—if that. More usually, following Christ is probably just a banner, or a family crest, rather than a way of life. More usually, I count discipleship as trying to understand the cross rather than stand under the cross.
So, let us embark on “40 days of purpose.” Let us do our best to grow as disciples and take a “closer walk with thee.” Let us be more disciplined about preparation, repentance, fasting, and soul-searching. Let us wear the ashes of our confession as we come to terms with our hesitance, our hollowness, and our habits. And let the Spirit drive us toward the cross, where we are forgiven for these trespasses.

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