Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent
February 18, 2024

The oldest books in the New Testament are not the four gospels. In fact, that Gospel According to John is probably one of the last books of the Bible ever written. The first books were the letters of Paul. And of those, First and Second Thessalonians are the oldest—they were probably written just after A.D. 50. Most scholars agree that the first gospel to be written down was Mark, which came at least ten years later.

Now, one of the characteristics of Mark that sets it apart from the other gospels is that it’s shorter—considerably shorter than the other three gospels. And nowhere is this more obvious than here at the beginning, in the first chapter. For example, both Matthew and Luke go through two-and-a-half chapters before they ever get to the baptism of Jesus. But Mark takes less than one chapter—just eight verses, to be exact—before he tells us about Jesus’ baptism.

After that, he moves very quickly from the baptism to the temptation to the beginning of Jesus’ preaching. My first reaction to this might be to complain that the details are missing. Why doesn’t Mark tell us more about the temptation in the wilderness, for example? And what about the conversation between Jesus and John the Baptist? But when Mark leaves out the detail, something else stands out all that much more clearly, and that’s the journey Jesus was on.

In these seven little verses, we see Jesus going from Nazareth to the Jordan (which is in Judea), from the Jordan into the wilderness, and from the wilderness back to Galilee. Every year on the first Sunday of Lent, the appointed gospel reading is one of the three versions of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Matthew and Luke tell a very dramatic and symbolic story, while Mark barely mentions it. But if we speak of the season of Lent as a pilgrimage—and we often refer to it as our Lenten Journey—then Mark’s version is as deeply meaningful the others… and perhaps more so, because in Mark, we more easily recognize that Jesus was on a journey.

I used to think I must have a great sense of direction. In my younger days, I really liked to go places and explore. This is probably one of the main reasons I spent eight years of my life living in other countries. But it was once pointed out to me that, in fact, I have no sense of direction, that no men in my family have any sense of direction. And when I thought about it, I realized that that was true. My father was capable of getting hopelessly lost while driving, and it was a source of great frustration to him. I am just as capable of getting hopelessly lost, but that never bothered me—when I end up someplace I never intended to go, I’ve always just considered it a new place to explore. This is why it never occurred to me that I didn’t know where I was going—I enjoyed where I ended up regardless.

I bring this up, because I might be tempted to assume that Jesus was like me. He liked to wander, to explore, with no strict itinerary. He went from place to place as the wind blew him—ending up on the banks of the Jordan one day and lost in the woods a couple of days later. But, of course, that’s not the way it happened at all. At the age of thirty, Jesus had absorbed knowledge of the scriptures, the traditions of his people, and the morality taught to him by Mary and Joseph. We know from reading Luke that it was no coïncidence that at this very time, John was preaching and baptizing on the banks for the Jordan. And so we must take it as a fact that it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus to get baptized himself.

Mark tells us in no uncertain terms that that same Spirit compelled Jesus to go into the wilderness to be tempted. There are two things I want to talk about here. First of all, the satan of the church is not the satan of the Bible. I know that sounds like a weird thing to say, but it’s very true, so hear me out. For one thing, Satan isn’t mentioned anywhere in the first five books of the Bible—by far the most important books in the Jewish religion. And elsewhere, when Satan is mentioned, it’s not as a proper name. Satan is the satan—which means adversary. And so it is here in Mark 1: literally, He was in the wilderness for forty days being tested (or tempted) by the satan. The later Christian promotion of the satan to a position almost equal to God is very unscriptural. So if you ever wonder why pastors in our tradition don’t talk about Satan nearly as much as pastors in certain other traditions, here’s your answer. It’s because we don’t believe it’s scriptural to do so.

And another point I want to make here concerns the whole idea of temptation. A lot of people don’t like the part of the Lord’s Prayer where we say, “Lead us not into temptation,” because we just don’t think God would do that. But right here in Mark 1 we see that the Holy Spirit did that very thing to Jesus. So let’s let go of the notion that temptation is automatically evil. There’s nothing wrong with having our faith tested. It shows us who we are and what we’re made of. It helps us make the right choices. None of us want to be put to the test—that’s why we pray not to be tested. But it was the Spirit that drove Jesus to be tested, and the result was the beginning of his ministry.

And I think we can safely assume that Jesus didn’t start preaching for no reason. Just as the Spirit led him to the Jordan to be baptized and into the wilderness to be tested, so it was the Holy Spirit who compelled Jesus to take up where John left off, preaching the coming of God’s Reign on earth.

We often talk about people being driven, and when we do, we usually mean it in a positive sense. “John Doe is industrious and wealthy because he’s a driven man.” On the other hand, “Joe Blow is lazy; he has no drive.” To be driven, therefore, is good in the language we speak, and to have no drive is bad—it means a person probably won’t amount to much. And here we see that Jesus was driven—driven by the Spirit to do the will of God, no matter where it took him.

And so today, near the beginning of our Lenten journey, the invitation is clear: Be driven as Jesus was driven, not by the whims of the world around us, but by being attuned to God’s Spirit within and among us. I read a quote recently that I liked so much that I bought the book it came from. It’s called The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo (2020, Red Wheel), and in it he wrote a little verse about Being a Pilgrim, which says:

To journey without being changed
is to be a nomad.
To change without journeying
is to be a chameleon.
To journey and to be transformed
by the journey
is to be a pilgrim.

To me, this defines what it means to make a Lenten journey. For much of our lives, it’s as though we flit from place to place like a Greening with no sense of direction. We go where our whims take us, or we go where the influences of the world or the resources in our bank account or other people send us. And through it all, we fight change, because we are who we are and nothing’s going to change that.

Or we stay still, often treading water or running in place. We change with the times, or let the background noise become our voice, because we’re not even sure who we are.

But to be a person of faith—to be a Christian—is not just to journey, but to be transformed by the journey. We begin our Lenten journey in one place, on Ash Wednesday, and the whole idea is to know that, by the time we reach Easter Sunday, we will not be the same. Where once we mourned our mortality, resigned to our fate, we will someday celebrate immortality, knowing that our future is in the hands of One who loves us and can do great things in and through us. Where once we may have thought that nothing ever changes, we can someday affirm that not only is change possible, but that the world is even now being transformed—which naturally includes us.

So let us be like Jesus—not being buffeted by the winds of change, but being transformed by the winds of the Spirit. That’s what it means to observe a holy Lent. That’s what it takes to approach Easter with an open heart.
—©2024 Sam Greening