Sunday, February 18, 2024

First Sunday in Lent
“Moving Along” Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (Malachi 4:1-6, NRSVUE)

Gospel Reading (Mark 1:9-15, NRSVUE)

Working with the Gospels during this time of this church year can be challenging and disorienting. I say this because we’ve already read from Matthew, John, and Mark in just seven weeks. And when we do manage to focus on Mark (which is this year’s chosen gospel) for any length of time, important dates in the church calendar lead us to bounce around a lot.

The story from Mark that we heard last week, the Transfiguration of Jesus (which we celebrate on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday), takes place in chapter nine. Today’s story, which speaks (albeit briefly) about the temptation of Jesus, is one we that read a week later on the first Sunday in Lent, even though the latter appears eight chapters before than the former.

This narrative whiplash is exacerbated by the fact that we already read some of today’s story — the part about Jesus’s baptism and the dove descending from the sky and God telling Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” — about a month ago when we celebrated Christ’s Baptism.

Because this is the first Sunday in Lent, the forty-day long season that commemorates, among other things, Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness, and since Mark is the gospel we’re looking at this year, we end up reading Mark’s version of that event today. Unfortunately, though, Mark doesn’t give us very much to go on: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him,” the end. That’s all that Mark tells us. 

So maybe the baptism story gets repeated this week because it would be way too short of a short reading without it; or maybe it’s here to provide some kind of context for what led up to (and followed) Jesus’s wilderness journey. I don’t know – people make all sorts of choices that I don’t necessarily understand.

The one thing we can say with certainty, though, is that there’s a lot going on in Mark’s first fifteen verses. We’re only about a third of the way through the book’s first chapter and, in that short span, we meet John the Baptist who then baptizes Jesus, who immediately goes into the desert to be tempted by Satan; then John gets arrested and Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted already.

To put Mark’s breakneck pace in some persepctive, Matthew takes two full chapters to get us to the same point in the story, and another two chapters to tell us what Mark says in six verses today. For some reason, Mark seems to be in a really big hurry right out of the chute. So, what’s the rush?

It’s a point I’ve made here before, but I’ll make it again: Storytellers make all sorts of choices when they tell a story — what to include and what not to include, whether to recount events in chronological order or, say, in what they see as the order of importance — and the gospel writers are storytellers. This is essential to keep in mind as we continue our journey through Mark’s version of Jesus’s story (or, really, as we restart our journey through Mark’s version of Jesus’s story, since we’re once again, right back at the beginning of it).

This is a particularly good time for us to consider how the gospel story actually gets told by Mark and the others, as our recent readings during the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany give us some interesting points of comparison.

In Mark, there’s no long description of Jesus’s family tree, no story of the Magi paying their visit, and no escape into Egypt like there is in Matthew. There’s neither an account of Jesus’s birth and the events leading up to it, nor any mention whatsoever of Jesus as a child and none of Jesus’s geneology, as there is in Luke.

In fact, as Mark’s Gospel gets underway, Jesus is already in his thirties. The question that follows from all of this is why Mark chooses to begin his version of Jesus’s story the way that he does. And one way of answering this question is to say that Mark seems to view history and tradition a bit differently than the other gospel writers do. 

For example, you might read the beginning of Matthew, with its “account of the geneology of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham,” with it’s list of fourteen generations of Jesus’s ancestors — people with names like Zerubbabel and Jeconiah — and lose consciousness halfway through out of sheer boredom, but the first sentence tells you what you really need to know: Jesus can trace his ancestry on a straight line through David back to Abraham; in other words, Jesus, by virtue of his family’s history, arrives in the world with unquestionable credibility as God’s annonited one, the great Messiah whose arrival is anticpated in the Hebrew Scriptures. And so most of Matthew’s first chapter is evidence submitted in support of that bold assertion. Luke does something similar, but actually traces Jesus’s roots all the way back to Adam.

In the early chapters of their gospels, both Matthew and Luke go through an awful lot of trouble to describe events surrounding Jesus’s birth, infancy and childhood and to link these events to the fulfilment of First Testament prophecies about the Messiah — their strategy is to lean heavily on history and tradition to explain why Jesus matters. And that’s one way of doing it, I suppose. But Mark goes about it quite differently.

You might read the beginning of Mark’s Gospel and conclude that, since we’ve hit the ground running without accounting for the majority of Jesus’s life (let alone his ancestry), that Mark doesn’t care about history and tradition, but that would be unfair and untrue. I say this because these early verses of Mark are filled with references that situate Jesus’s story squarely in the context of the much longer story of God’s covenant with the people.

Today’s first reading from Malachi — the last book of the Hebrew Scriptures in our version of the Bible — isn’t the appointed text for today, but I paired it with the one from Mark to emphasize this point.

Among the words attributed to God at the end of that book (which was written more than five hundred years before Jesus’s birth) are these: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” Said differently, a prophet will presage the Messiah’s arrival.

God’s opening words in Mark (which are borrowed from the prophet Isaiah) pick up right where Malachi leaves off: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness.”

In a nutshell, Mark is telling us that John is the new Elijah, sent to herald the arrival of Jesus, the new Messiah (which implies the preexistence of an old Elijah and an old Messiah). The point is that John doesn’t just show up out of thin air and neither does Jesus; Mark drops us into a story that’s already in progress.

Mark’s allusions to the broader arc of the biblical narrative at the beginning of his gospel don’t end there: Jesus’s forty day journey echos not only the length of Noah’s voyage through the flood, but also Moses’s forty year-long journey through the desert. The temptation of Jesus by Satan harkens back to what poor Job went through, and the companionshipthat  Jesus has from the wild beasts out there in the wilderness sounds an awful lot like Adam’s experience in the Garden of Eden — and all of these connections are made in just fifteen verses.

You see, history does matter to Mark, he just chooses to express that more concisely than Matthew and Luke do; and Mark does this because there are other aspects of Jesus’s story that he wants to focus on more — that he wants us to focus on more.

As I mentioned last week, Mark talks way more than the other Gospel writers do about Jesus miracles — his healings and casting out of demons. Think about these deeds whatever you will — the point is that Mark spends a relatively large amount of time explaining what Jesus does, and a relatively small amount of time recounting whence Jesus came, which pretty much tells you what Mark thought was more important. 

Look, there’s no right way or wrong way to tell this story — or any story for that matter; there’s just an author’s priorities and choices — and the effects that necessarily follow from those choices.

And the questions for us, as authors of our church’s story in our place and time are pretty much the same as they were for the writers of the gospels, and for followers of Christ everywhere in every age: How will our chapter in  the broader story of the relationship of God and God’s people read? What are we going to emphasize more: Where we’ve been or where we’re headed next? Who are we trying to reach with the story we’re telling? And with whom will that story actually resonate?

History matters, tradition matters. Where we’ve been always colors where we are and where we’re going;

who we were always impacts who are and who we’re becoming;

what we’ve done always informs what we’re doing and what we’ll do.

But which aspect of our community’s life should receive the greatest share of attention — our past or our future? How are we going balance them?

There’s no right choice, there’s no wrong choice; there’s just choices; there’s just different ways of going about the task of writing our story — and, of course, consequences; because there’s always consequences to the choices we make.

So, how do you think the next part of our story should go?