The text of a sermon, based on Mark 1.9-13, videotaped and shared with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 1st Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2021.
Note: Regarding the sermon title, my apologies to David Allan Coe and Johnny Paycheck, writer and singer, respectively, of the song, “Take This Job and Shove It” (1977).
Jesus is baptized. The heavens are torn apart. A sure-sign of a soon-to-come divine communication. The wait is not long. God’s Spirit descends. God’s voice speaks. Each and both, unambiguous confirmations of the commission of Jesus as God’s servant, God’s beloved Son!
Have you ever felt…believed that you were called to do something other than what you had done, to be someone other than who you had been?
A call beginning outside of you through another’s request or demand, a momentous occasion or urgent circumstance…
A call that felt like you had been plunged into frigid water from which you arose gasping for air, blinking your eyes, breathing in, looking at a new reality…
A call that conferred a new spirit, a new sense of direction.
So, for Jesus. Soaking wet, he steps up on the bank of the River Jordan, determined, destined to follow the Spirit of God. The Spirit who leads Jesus (in the Greek, the word is ekbállei meaning to cast out), shoves Jesus into the wilderness.
Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark, in his typical bare-bones style, tells us nothing of Jesus’ forty-day-and-night fast. Nothing of his conversation with Satan. Nothing of the specific temptations. What matters to Mark is not the particulars, but only that Jesus was coerced by the Spirit to undergo the test of confrontation with everything, without and within, that might possibly defy or deny God. All so to come out of the wilderness with a clarity of vision and a certainty of mission.
This experience of being commissioned and tested is a common element of many biblical stories. Of Abraham and Sarah. Of Moses. Of Ruth. Of Deborah. Of Esther…
And of our stories!
I don’t remember seeing the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending. Or hearing God’s voice. Nevertheless, when my brother died and later, my father, I was called to care for my mother, afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. A commission that, until her death, nearly twenty years later, swelled in the enormity of necessity and difficulty.
I don’t remember torn heavens, descending spirits, or the vox Dei. Nevertheless, I recall, years ago, becoming, being painfully aware of the increasing partisan conflict in the world and in the church, and hearing a call to be open, to engage, with love and respect, “the other” – those who see things differently than I; those with whom I disagree – and to be tested by the inevitable discomfort of such encounters.
Every call, every commission comes with testing. Baptisms we enjoy. The wilderness, not so much. Yet the wilderness is where Lent calls us again to enter and to encounter our wild beasts. For me, my haunting memories of unforgettable mistakes and impulsive inclinations that undermined my highest, most honorable hopes. And my hurt and anger about unmet need and unresolved pain.
I confess that I’d rather try, at least, most of the time, to wear the mask of my polished, practiced persona of good cheer. The mask behind which I seek to hide my spiritual poverty… My sometimes lack of clarity of vision and uncertainty of mission… My sometimes ignorance in answering, “I don’t know”, to those fundamental existential questions: Who are you? What are you doing and why? Where are you going? Yes, I’d rather wear the mask to try to fool you and myself.
But here in Lent, I hear God’s voice calling me and you to a prayerful, purposeful walk into the wilderness of our souls. For there we see ourselves “just as we are without one plea.” The wilderness where we face Satan, all that is within us that defies and denies God, so to know ourselves “just as we are poor, wretched, blind.” The wilderness where we also hope to find not only angels, but our Savior Jesus; the One who accepts us just as we are “though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings and fears within and without.” Thus, the One to whom, in relief and release, we can say, “O Lamb of God, I come.”
Lent is here. (Indeed, given the year 2020 of viral pandemic, economic recession, political polarization, racial turmoil, and natural calamities aplenty, we’ve been in an experiential Lent for months! Thus, to be liturgically precise, the season of Lent is here!) Jesus journeys to Jerusalem. The journey inaugurated following his commissioning at his baptism and his testing in the wilderness. The journey that we, as his followers, are to take, not merely symbolically as we read and reflect on his story, but rather daily, literally. For Jesus’ journey of call and test is that journey we call “life.”
© 2021 PRA
The Baptism of Christ, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770)
The Temptation in the Wilderness, Briton Rivière (1840-1920)
 Matthew 4.1-11
 Luke 4.1-13
 From the hymn, Just as I am (1835); Charlotte Elliott (1789-1871)