Sermon - Lent 1, Year B | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |

Repent and believe

After his baptism by John, Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days:

Mark does not tell us any more of what happened in the wilderness before he introduces the mission of Jesus as he bought the good news of the Kingdom of God to the people of Galilee: In ordinary human terms, we can imagine that those forty days in the wilderness before beginning his main work must have been a very significant time of preparation for Jesus. Matthew [4:1-11] and Luke [4:1-12] tell us more than Mark of what happened there, and at this time of the year, the beginning of Lent, we often reflect upon the temptations he suffered then. So the forty weekdays of Lent are marked in Christian tradition as a time of refection, as believers face up to what is wrong in their lives and prepare to celebrate renewal of life at Easter with the resurrection. Following Mark this year I want to emphasise the overall drama of the actions of Jesus rather than what we might learn from the detail of his confrontation with the devil. There is a message for us in the way it happened.

First you might notice how Mark says that Jesus went into the wilderness: Luke says he was led by the Spirit [Luke 4:1] and Matthew that he was led up (or brought out) [Matthew 4:1] to the wilderness, but Mark says he was driven by the Spirit:

Mark typically speaks in a rough voice. Compared with the polished more sophisticated language of Luke, who was called 'the physician', the Greek in which Mark wrote was the unpolished common speech of the market place. There is a straight forward earthy character to way Mark recounts the gospel. I imagine here something too of the impetuous personality of Peter from whom Mark is supposed to have received what he wrote. So instead of a gentle leading of the Spirit, we have here in Mark's Gospel Jesus being driven out into the wilderness. Literally, the word Marked used [ekballei] means 'to throw' or 'to eject': he was thrown out! Mark uses the word most often in reference to casting out demons. It is the same word as when he tell us that Jesus drove the money changers out of the Temple [Mark 11:15]. Why this violet expulsion into the wilderness with the wild animals?

And the Spirit immediately drove him out ... Why 'And'? Why 'immediately'? What had just happened? He had just been baptised and he heard a voice from heaven:

So his true nature as the Son of God was affirmed to him. Does it not make sense that he would have immediately faced temptations about how he would use his special powers? That is what Matthew and Luke tell of his temptations: would he turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger? Would he test God to see if he really would look after him? Would he do a deal with 'the prince of this world' to rule the whole world? We know he chose otherwise, that is to work for others and even to die the death of a criminal, as we said with Paul last week in the ancient song 'he emptied himself and took the form of a servant', 'therefore God has highly exalted him' [Philippians 2:6-11]. That was why he was impelled to go out, away from people, into the wilderness, after he was told You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. It was an urgent necessity to come to terms with what that would mean for him.

Rebellion: the temptation to act like God
Now, do we have to deal with that kind of question? Of course, Jesus was different. Christians believe he really was the Son of God, the Messiah, that he had come from God and was going to return to God as the high and holy one. But I wonder, are we ourselves not tempted to behave as if we too were something like that, entitled to privileges, not bound be the rules, arranging things to suit ourselves. Are we not tempted as Adam and Eve were: you will be like God:

  • Do we need sometimes to come apart from the concerns of daily life and face the question: do we want to be like God, or even to put ourselves in the place of God? I am sure that there is a basic belief today that we ought to be able to do what we like, to work things out to suit ourselves. It is put under the cover of human rights and talk of self actualization; but, however you put it, the motive is very different from that of the humble servant of God who regards life as a trust for which we accountable to our Creator. At the heart of the difference there is belief in God and a willingness to trust in God. The alternative is rebellion against God and trust in ourselves. That rebellion is sin. We should not think of sin in a childish way, as breaking a few petty rules, though there are some things that are wrong. Real sin is the business of grown up men and women, who have the ability to rebel with a serious intention to trust in themselves rather than God. In this we are certainly different from Jesus, who was equal with God, but chose to live as if he were not; while we are not equal to God but often try to live as if we was because people were in rebellion against God that Jesus, after his time in the wilderness, began his public ministry with a call to repentance:
  •  Repent and believe the good news. Why repent? Why was it necessary to repent if they were to believe the good news? Why could they not simply have believed that the Kingdom of God was near? Why not just accept the good gifts of God? Why not go straight into celebrating the good news? There is a cheap and nasty celebration of the goodness of God that sometimes substitutes for Christian worship. True repentance is not very popular. Forgiveness is OK, though many will say, not if you have been hurt too much; and confession in some sense might be allowed; but repentance is more than saying you are sorry, and its not about the virtue of feeling guilty, which is not very virtuous, but about changing your ways. Repentance is about turning around and going in another direction. Fundamentally, it is about recognizing that you have rebelled against God, and turning around and going back to him. That is what Jesus meant when he said, 'Repent' -- 'Turn around, and welcome the Kingdom of God.' 'Be glad it is upon you. Don't run away, but turn around and welcome it' You will not be able to believe the truth about God if you keep going in the wrong direction.
    There is an interesting passage about rebellion against God in the epistle for today. In 1 Peter we read of how Christ suffered for sins ... was put death, but made alive in the Spirit ... and then went to make a proclamation to the spirits who had rebelled against God:  That is very obscure imagery. It reminds us of that part in the Apostles Creed where it is says 'He descended to the dead (or literally to Sheol, the realm of the dead).' There is something similar in Paul's letter to the Ephesians [4:9b] -- he had also descended to the lowest parts of the earth. Many people of that time believed that those who had died were in a dream like state in caverns under the earth. The idea developed that Christ went to bring the good news to them before he rose from the dead. I do not know whether that makes sense to you, though it does often seem that people wonder about the salvation of people who lived before Jesus came on earth, and we do believe that he is Lord of all and his saving grace is available to all. At points like this human imagination is rather limited, but it does make sense that everyone should be given an opportunity to be included. And that extends even to people or spirits who had long ago rebelled against God. We assume that his proclamation to them was the same as his message announcing the coming of the Kingdom when he came into Galilee -- Repent and believe the good news. It would seem that even they could repent, even after death. So there is hope for all who will repent and believe.
    The covenant with all creatures
    Going back to the days of Noah in that obscure saying in 1 Peter also has significance for our understanding of what Jesus did when he was tempted in the wilderness. We read today about the covenant God made with all living creatures after the great flood:  A sinful world had been destroyed by the flood, and only a few survived, but now God promised not to destroy all life in that way again and the rainbow is the sign of that general covenant with all creatures. You do not have to think of the flood as literal history as we understand historical events today, and it is silly to go on archeological searches for the ark. That is not what the story is about. It is a symbol of the destructive consequences of rebellion against God and of the grace of God in saving a faithful remnant and making a promise of live to their descendants. The passage in 1 Peter suggests that the grace of God was later extended through Christ even back to those who had rebelled originally.

    In these days of environmental concerns and sensitivity to the welfare of animals it is worth taking to heart the fact that the covenant of the rainbow includes all creatures. Later God made a special covenant with Abraham to establish relationship with a particular nation: that is what we call the old covenant, or the old testament, with the people of Israel, represented later by the Jews. We believe that when Jesus came he established a new covenant extending beyond the Jews to include the peoples of all nations, and eventually to the whole of creation. We tend to forget the much earlier covenant with creation which God made in his promise to Noah, but it was that very same general covenant which was renewed and fulfilled by the victory of the Messiah over sin and death.

    It is not hard to see how human sinfulness, our rebellion against God, damages creation. Our wilful ways, seeking our own immediate satisfactions despoils the earth. We destroy when we regard the natural world as available to be exploited only for our satisfaction, rather than to see that it all belongs to God and that we are only stewards caring for it on behalf of its Creatot and true owner. When God declared his covenant with all creatures to Noah he did not impose any conditions on those who would take part in it -- not like the law which was given to Moses as part of the later 'old' covenant -- but surely what Adam and Eve had learned remained true, that if you are to benefit from the relationship of God to his creation you will need to remember that he is God. You will need to trust God and work in with his ways in his creation if you are to prosper in it. If you rebel against God and use his creation as if you were God himself and it was all yours to use as you wish, then there will be trouble. That is a very general truth. It applies whether you are talking of polluting the rivers or polluting a marriage or a court of justice. It was because people in general continued to rebel that Jesus came with the message Repent and believe the good news.

    As people still pollute the world in their wilful rebellion it is still necessary to call for repentance. Now in this time of Lent, recalling the forty days Jesus was in the wilderness coming to terms with the temptation to be like God, we can examine our lives, repent and seek renewal. You might remember the covenant of God with all creation and its implications for the environment in which we live and how it is threatened by our economic system. You might remember our tendency to rebel in small personal ways to seek our own satisfaction. However you think of it, sin is a matter of rebellion against God; and we need to turn around and renew our relationship with God. Knowing that we were rebellious, and would find it hard to turn around when we were going the wrong way, God sent his Son after us to bring us back. It is much easier with his help to repent: so repent and believe the good news, the Kingdom of God has come near.
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