Preaching: Pastor Rebecca Henry
Date Presented: Sunday, March 5, 2017
Scripture Reference: Mark 1:9-15
Sermon: Give Up Something Bad for Lent – Give It Up
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and like Advent, it is a season of preparation. Before we can truly and fully celebrate the resurrection of Jesus we have to go through the more solemn, reflective season of Lent to get ready.
As I shared on Wednesday night, the season of Lent first began in the 4th century as a time to prepare those who wanted to be baptized. The 40 days of Lent was a time of serious study and prayer to prepare people for their baptisms on Easter and their new lives with Christ. Only the church recognized that it wasn’t just its newest members who needed this time of preparation, but the entire community. Everyone needed the time to draw closer to God, and to journey with these individuals so they as a community were prepared to welcome them. The community wanted to be prepared spiritually to care for a nurture those whom God had placed in their midst. It was to be a time that echoed the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness praying, fasting, and preparing for his ministry or the 40 days Moses spent fasting in preparation for receiving the 10 Commandments.
Today Lent is still a season of preparation and growing closer to God. In addition to prayer and study, one of the disciplines that many follow during Lent is to give something up. Often it is something like chocolate or ice cream, maybe pop or watching TV, something that you enjoy. The intention is that it will draw you closer to God because every time you think of the chocolate or ice cream you will remember why you’ve given it up. Even for that brief moment your focus, your attention is turned towards God rather than just the enjoyment of a treat. And hopefully it will be a reminder that you love God more than the chocolate or pop. Feeling the struggle even of your sacrifice can help you think about, or reflect on, the sacrifice Jesus made for each one of us. Something seemingly so simple, though not necessarily easy, can indeed keep turning out thoughts towards Jesus.
Only in his book, Giving Up Something Bad for Lent, James Moore invites us to take this familiar Lenten discipline a step further. He invites us to have a little different focus so that our efforts not only have us thinking more about Jesus, but becoming more like Jesus. Moore encourages us to use this Lenten season to give up something truly bad for us, something that keeps us from the life Christ wants for us – like gossip, worry, anger, activities that preoccupy us. What if instead of giving up chocolate or pop this year, we chose to put all our energy and focus into giving up a bad habit so that we could emerge on Easter truly living a new life in Christ, free of anger or worry or gossip? What might God be calling you to give up this Lenten season? What keeps you distracted and pulling away from God? What are the temptations you face?
Today’s reading reminds us we aren’t alone in our struggles. Jesus himself faced temptations. Only in the Gospel of Mark we aren’t told a whole lot about it, just one verse, “He stayed 40 days, begin tempted by Satan. Wild animals were there also, but angels came and helped him.” That’s it. That’s all Mark says, in contrast to Matthew and Luke. They give us details. They tell us that after days of fasting Satan tried to get Jesus to turn rocks into bread to eat, but Jesus refused. He said not to rely on material things like bread, but on God alone. Then Satan tried to tempt Jesus with fame and glory if only Jesus would bow down and worship him. Only again, Jesus refuses, saying only God is to be worshipped. Finally Satan tries to tempt Jesus by throwing himself off the Temple to test God’s care for him. Jesus, however, will not put God to the test. Luke and Matthew tell us all of these ways that Jesus was tempted, but not Mark. Mark gives us no details.
It seems a bit alarming and odd. One might wonder if it doesn’t matter, but Matthew and Luke thought it was important to give the details. Why not Mark? What is he trying to tell us? Maybe for Mark what is important and critical for us to know is not the details of what happened in the wilderness, but what happened after Jesus was in the wilderness. The point of the wilderness experience was to prepare Jesus for what came next; “After John had been put in prison, Jesus went to Galilee and preached the Good News from God. The right time has come,” he said, “and the Kingdom of God is near! Turn away from your sins and believe the Good News!” Jesus got to work. Immediately Jesus starts preaching, drawing attention to the Kingdom of God. The wilderness was helping Jesus get ready for what came next, for his ministry with people. It helped him grow stronger and more attuned to what he needed to be doing. I think Mark leaves out the details because he doesn’t want us to get distracted, to miss the point: it is all about preparing for what comes next, the next step.
That leaves us to ask, what is next for us? What is God calling us to give up to prepare for what is next? What is that personally for you? Is it getting rid of things as you prepare to move to a smaller home? Is that next step mending a relationship, whether it is with a friend, a spouse, a family member? Is that next step taking your faith to a deeper level by attending church regularly, praying regularly, or joining a study? Is it getting ready for a new job or a change in your family?
That next step that God is calling you to make may indeed feel like a big step. It makes these 40 days of preparation all the more critical. The study, the prayers, fasting, self-examination, they all help to open us to hear God guiding us, to hear what that next step is, to get ready for it.
And it isn’t just true for us personally, but as a community of faith. I’ve heard some say they were surprised by how early the announcement was made that I would be moving, but what a gift we have been given. We have this time to prepare for the next step, and not just getting things done and in place for a smooth transition, but in the time you have for prayer and reflection to ask yourselves where is God calling us as a church? What kind of leadership do we need to help us get there? What do we need to be doing to act on what we learned from our mystery guests? What are our next steps?
It can be scary to ask those questions; to face what comes next, what changes it will bring. Sometimes that is when we face the strongest temptations: to do nothing, keep things the same, to not wrestle and explore what more God might be doing and asking of us. Only as an old Gospel song says, “Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin.” In other words, it isn’t our fears and doubts that are the problem, but rather giving into them, letting them control us. That is the sin.
Jesus used those 40 days in the wilderness to get ready for what came next, to prepare for how his life was about to change as he began his public ministry. Let the same be true for us. Let us enter into this Lenten season listening for God, asking what we have to give up, what we have to do to prepare for the next step God is calling us to take individually and as a community. Maybe it starts by reading this litany every day, asking and listening if perhaps there is something here. Whatever it may be that God is asking of us, let us do so in confidence knowing God is leading us to a celebration of new life.