Sunday, February 21, 2021
First Sunday of Lent
Pictures of Jesus Sermon Series
1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

Today marks the first Sunday in Lent, the season of the year where we live with intention to prepare our lives for Easter. It was just a couple of weeks into Lent last year when our world ground to a halt because of the pandemic, which brings up two questions for me. First, has it really been almost a year already? I mean, I can still remember some of my first sermons without you in the sanctuary where we all thought we’d be back to normal in just a couple of weeks. How wrong we were! Second, how can we use Lent this year to become a people living more intentionally and focused on loving others the way Christ loved us? I’ve experienced this, and I know that many have expressed this to me – every day of this pandemic has felt like the movie Groundhog Day. We wake up. We do the same things. We live in our fairly small bubbles. We go to bed. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Still, Lent is a time for a restart, so I hope you’ll make room in your life for those steps towards wholeness in Jesus. I know that I need it, and I suspect that I am not alone in that need.

This Lent we’re going to visit several stories from the gospels that are really crucial to the Jesus story. They are vivid stories, offering us pictures of who Jesus is. Today’s text starts with a breathless sharing of three events in Jesus’ life that precede his public ministry. He’s baptized. He’s tempted. And he launches his ministry. Mark’s gospel wastes no words, and it moves like an action movie. One of Mark’s favorite phrases is kai euthus, which means “and immediately.” Jesus is in constant motion in Mark. It happens twice in our short passage. Overall, it shows up 42 times. That is, almost 6% of Mark’s sentences have Jesus “kai euthusing,” doing something immediately. Jesus is on a mission, and we have to do all we can to hold on tight for this ride.

So, let’s buckle up, and join Jesus on this journey, imagining ourselves in these stories as we read them. We’ll begin with Jesus’ baptism. We know John is baptizing in the wilderness, but it is largely speculation to know exactly where John baptized Jesus. Mark isn’t interested in geography because he doesn’t tell us exactly where this is happening. Still, there are two likely locations. The one I lean towards is on this map. It’s closer to the mouth of the Dead Sea, at the southern end of the Jordan. The other would be closer to the Sea of Galilee in the north, which is the place where tourists go to be baptized today. The southern one makes more sense to me because of John’s ministry in the wilderness and because of where Jesus goes after baptism.

Like a lone wolf, Jesus goes into the wilderness to be baptized by John. Once again, Mark is sparing in the details. Neither Jesus nor John utters a word. We just see Jesus emerge from the water and miracle of the divine and the human collide. Mark writes, that Jesus “saw heaven being torn open.” That’s such a striking image. Heaven torn open. A schism in the sky. Could you imagine what that would look like? But this description is revealing to us that something greater is at play. Brian Blount, who was one of my New Testament professors, preached on the meaning of this event.

“Heaven, the sky, is a firmament in the Bible. It’s a buffer zone. You know what a buffer zone is. It’s a place that one great power uses to separate itself from another great power. It’s like the cage in which we keep tigers locked away in a zoo. That way we can still see them, but we don’t have to fear them because the bars are a buffer between them and us. Well, for human beings, the heavens are like that. The ancient Hebrews believed that no human could look upon God and live. God was too holy, too bright, too powerful. Thank heavens, then, for the heavens. It was the heavens that kept us separate from God, kept us from seeing God face to face. It kept us from being blinded and destroyed by God’s holiness.”[1]

In this moment, in the wilderness, the untamed wildness of God’s glory was on display in Jesus. It’s so important that we don’t tame this Jesus. And we shouldn’t just breeze on by the short sentences. Something spectacular is afoot here, and we barely have the words to describe it. Mark’s language of the heavens being torn open plays another purpose here, however. We’re all of ten verses into Mark’s gospel when he writes of the baptism. Near the end of the gospel, Mark reports that the Temple curtain – the barrier between God and humanity – is torn from top to bottom. It’s the same word. In Jesus’ baptism, Mark is offering us a picture from the very start of what God is up to in Jesus. God is tearing down the barriers between us and God. It’s a dangerous move, but we see in Jesus how God is setting loose a wild kind of love, a love God proclaims exists in the relationship of the Trinity. As the Spirit descends like a dove on Jesus, God speaks, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (1:11).

I wonder how beloved Jesus felt when he is whisked off into the wilderness by the Spirit right after the baptism. Many times, I have gone to post-baptism parties where we share good food and celebrate God’s goodness to a child expressed in baptism. Not so with Jesus. Kai euthus Mark writes. Immediately the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. No time for a party. The Spirit sends Jesus out.

Well, that’s not putting it exactly right. The Spirit ekballos Jesus. That is, the Spirit casts Jesus out into the wilderness. It’s the same word that the gospel writers use for Jesus “casting out” demons from people. It’s a forceful word. The demons weren’t making plans to leave and find a new home. They are sent without their consent. So, too, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. For forty days. Being tempted by Satan. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark gives us a picture of Jesus under duress for forty days. I’m no survivalist, but I could not imagine what it would be like to go for forty days in the Judean wilderness under assault by Satan, but it certainly would shape a person. Just as the Jesus casts out demons, so the Spirit does to Jesus. I know a lot of our church likes to camp. This is no camping trip to Ludington State Park. Just take a look at the Judean wilderness. It’s barren. The water is salt water or scarce. The terrain is treacherous. There are dangers lurking everywhere.

Throughout the Scripture, the wilderness is a place of testing. It’s a place where it is an open question about whether or not people can make it apart from God’s help. Yet, “God is present in the wilderness….The discovery of this presence and this providence, however, grows out of struggle and testing.”[2] Perhaps that’s what these verses are about. For Jesus to experience truly what it’s like to be human – to have some sense of separation from the God who loves him – he needed to be tested in the wilderness.

This Lent we’re going to go through a series of texts that we’re treating as pictures. Each text is a vivid image of who Jesus is and what he’s up to. Every week we’d like to invite you to engage with the text as an image. Perhaps this will be a new way for you, but I invite you into this practice as you learn a new way to imagine engaging with the story of Jesus. Every week I’d like you to ask yourself, “How do I picture Jesus? What does this story look like to me?” Then sketch or paint what is in your imagination. It’s a new way for you and for us to understand what the Scripture might just look like to our congregation. It will be beautiful. Perhaps confusing. Perhaps challenging. What does Jesus look like to you today in this text? I invite you to send in your pictures of Jesus to us. Depending on what we receive, perhaps we’ll find a way to work them into worship on a weekly basis. How fun will that be? I think it will be great!

Each week we’ll give you an artist’s picture of Jesus. This week we have a painting called “Christ in the Wilderness – Driven by the Spirit.” It’s by Stanley Spencer. He’s a British painter who was active in the early 20th century. Later in his career he set out to create 40 paintings, one for each day Christ was in the wilderness. Like many of our Lenten practices, Spencer was not able to complete his work, yet what he gave us is remarkable. It’s an image of Jesus holding onto what’s around him for dear life. He is both determined and in danger. He’s both holding on for life and moving with a purpose. His strength and resolve are clear. As you study this painting, what do you see? His grip on the trees around him? His billowing clothing? His gaze fixed ahead, not on the ground? His utter solitude?

Jesus in the wilderness nestles right between two mountaintop moments – his baptism and the launch of his ministry. I am reminded that God is just as much with Jesus on the mountaintop as in the wilderness. God is with us in every part of life. It may be easier to notice God with us in the great moments, but it is so helpful to know that God is with us in the struggle too, particularly as we’ve been muddling through the challenges of this pandemic for a year now.

Today’s bulletin quote comes from Anne Frank’s diary from when she was hiding from the Nazis. Let me share that quote with you once again. “I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness; I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too. I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that people and tranquility will return once more.” As I go back to the painting of Jesus in the wilderness, I notice the light that is clearly coming from the direction Jesus is facing. When Jesus looks ahead, he sees that things will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end. Jesus sees the dividing line between heaven and earth ripping from top to bottom and his purpose becoming clear, steeling him in the wilderness.

He moves on from the wilderness, heading north back to Galilee. He is the same and yet, somehow, strengthened for his mission. For the first time in Mark’s gospel, Jesus opens his mouth and speaks. “This time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news.”

Like Jesus, may our time in the wilderness grant us the resolve to be a people through whom heaven and earth meet, through whom the Kingdom of God enters and emboldens with love, for God is with us even here and now.

[1] Brian Blount and Gary Charles. Preaching Mark in Two Voices. 29.

[2] Lamar Williamson. Mark. Interpretation Series. 37.