The Odd Season

Lent is an odd season. It goes very much against the grain of our lives. It’s a disruption of our routines, an invitation to try on a different kind of life in order to rediscover what matters most. Our culture can handle Mardi Gras and Easter really well, the parties and the bunnies, but during the weeks of Lent, you and I, we’re on our own. For Ash Wednesday, I bought a small bag of ashes, more than enough for all of us, for $3.82. There’s just not a big market for Lenten products, and so the world of commerce, entertainment, work, and consumption doesn’t know what to make of this odd season. I like that.

Lent begins with ashes smudged on our foreheads and somber words urging us to remember our mortality, “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Remember and return are just two of the many words of this odd season that begin with the syllable “re.” Remember. Return. Repent. The ashes are all that’s left of the palm branches we waived when Jesus came riding into town and we were so excited about God’s reign on earth. The branches went up in flames much like the exuberance of our joy and our commitment to living as God’s people. Ashes is all that’s left, and we use them to trace the symbol of our hope on our foreheads. It’s Lent, time to repent, to rethink our priorities, reconsider our choices, remember our calling, renew our commitments, refocus our attention, reenter the place of truth, refuse the whispers of Satan, return to a baptized life, reclaim our identity as God’s own – in one word, repent.

Lent is an odd season. It goes very much against the grain of our lives. It’s a disruption of our routines, an invitation to slow down and step back and take a closer look and try on something different in order to rediscover what matters most and learn to remain faithful to that vision of life.

My friend Rob told his friends on Wednesday that he wouldn’t be on Twitter and Facebook for forty days. “Call me,” he said, “or better yet, come by and see me.”

My friend Melissa is doing a gasoline fast. “If I can’t get there on foot or on my bicycle, I’m not going,” she told me.

And Amy who talks more and faster than anyone else I know, Amy will sit in silence for twenty minutes in the morning and twenty minutes at night every day for forty days – twenty minutes without talking, without her phone, without tv or radio or her computer, twenty minutes of just Amy and silence. Why? Like you and me, they already have a nagging suspicion that some of their habits and routines are getting in the way of the life God intends for us, and now they embrace the opportunity to try on something different and develop new habits, habits fit for the reign of God on earth.

Do you know the difference between a flute and a stick? Of course, you do, it’s quite obvious. A stick is full of itself, and a flute is a stick that has been emptied of itself for the sake of music. We have a tendency to clutter our lives with junk, drown out the voice of God with noise, block the flow of the Spirit with our oversized egos or our undersized courage. We have a tendency to live like sticks when we’re meant to be flutes. The habits of Lent, disciplines like fasting, praying, and alms giving, create openings for the divine music maker to transform us. Lent is all about getting rid of the stuff that keeps us from being a symphony of praise.

Mark is a great companion for this season. The author of this gospel is a master of brevity and focus. The gospel was written to be read aloud in the assembly, and it takes about 80 quick minutes to do that; don’t try that with John. John invites us to linger, ruminate, and circle, but Mark rushes through the scenes with such speed that the only way to keep up is to keep our eyes on Jesus. Just a quick word statistic to illustrate this: the word ‘immediately’ pops up 41 times in Mark, and only 10 times in all the other New Testament writings combined. If you want to keep up, keep your eyes on Jesus, says the master of focus.

He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Jesus had just come from Nazareth of Galilee and had been baptized by John in the Jordan. He didn’t choose to go away for a while, on some kind of wilderness retreat to consider his mission. No, the Spirit immediately drove him out, no time for leisurely narrative. One moment there’s a heavenly voice calling Jesus Son and Beloved, and before he can draw another breath, the Spirit drives him out, still wet, into the desert.

Wilderness. Forty days. Tempted by Satan. Wild beasts. Angels. Forty days in five quick strokes. It’s like Mark is flashing an image, and an entire movie starts playing in our minds. He plays just two or three chords, and song after song plays in our minds.

I hear wilderness – I see Hebrew slaves on the way to the promised land, Elijah fleeing from the wrath of Jezebel, I hear Isaiah singing of the end of exile. One word, and the scenes start rolling, and songs of redemption and hope are playing.

I hear forty days – and Moses on Mount Sinai comes to mind, Elijah on the way to Mount Horeb; it is as though all Mark has to do is call out a number and the sacred memory of God’s people begins to unfold.

I hear wild beasts – oh they are dangerous and threatening, and Mark’s first audience certainly thought of the wild animals to whom their brothers and sisters were thrown in Rome’s circus during Nero’s persecution; but there’s also the picture of the garden where Adam and Eve simply are with the wild beasts, and there’s Isaiah’s song of peace for all creation where the wolf lives with the lamb and the leopard lies down with the kid. Mark mentions beasts, and memories of peace, a deep longing for peace, and the hope for one to be with us in danger are awakened.

I want to slow down the pace for just a moment. I want to linger a little at the flash of a scene where the angels wait on Jesus. I want to tell you about Elijah, the man of God. He hadn’t been driven into the wilderness by the Spirit of God, but by the fury of Queen Jezebel who wanted him dead. He had fled into the wilderness for his life, but he was also exhausted. He was so exhausted, he wanted to die. He was tired of fighting. He was tired of being the lone voice of resistance in a culture that worshiped idols rather than the living God. “It is enough,” he said, exhausted in body and soul, before he fell asleep under a broom tree.

He woke up when an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” There was a bread baked on hot stones and a jar of water. Elijah ate and drank and went back to sleep, and the angel of the Lord came a second time and waited on him, saying, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”

All Mark has to say is, “And the angels waited on him,” and the story of Elijah comes to life in my mind, reminding me that in the wilderness, Jesus is being nourished for a difficult, demanding journey.

In the middle of it all sit the words, tempted by Satan. In scripture, Satan is the name given to a voice that whispers and argues, makes promises and raises questions with the sole purpose of making us doubt or forget that we are God’s own, created for glory, and beloved. But Satan doesn’t get any airtime here. Jesus emerges from the wilderness with the good news that God’s reign has come near, and he calls us to repent and believe the good news. He calls us to follow him on the way.

On Tuesday, Eboo Patel told us a story about Jesus that isn’t in any of the gospels. It is a story attributed to a muslim, the great Sufi teacher Attar of Nishapur.

As Jesus and his disciples entered a village, some of the villagers began to harass Jesus, shouting unkind words and harsh accusations. But Jesus answered them by bowing down and offering words of blessing. A disciple said to him, “Aren’t you angry with them? How can you bless them?” Jesus answered, “I can only give what I have in my purse.”

Jesus emerged from the wilderness and he lived the compassionate life of one who trusted fully that he was God’s beloved and who recognized even in those who abused him, God’s own beloved children. All he carried in his purse was the currency of God’s reign.

We collect today a special offering for Week of Compassion, our church’s ministry of disaster relief, economic development, and refugee resettlement. We are grateful for the opportunity to give and to give generously to the proclamation of God’s reign in acts of mercy and justice. But the call to live the compassionate life Jesus embodied is about more than money for mission. Jesus frees us to take a good, honest look at ourselves, because we too can only give what we have in our purse. He calls us to make this Lent the spring time of our salvation by rethinking our priorities, reconsidering our choices, remembering our calling, renewing our commitments, refocusing our attention, reentering the place of truth, refusing the whispers of Satan, returning to a baptized life, and reclaiming our identity as God’s own – holy and beloved.