Sermon offered February 25, 2012
at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, New York, NY
Lent 1B: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul;
my God, I put my trust in you; . . .
Let integrity and uprightness preserve me,
for my hope has been in you. Amen
The Gospel according the Mark has a distinctive urgency about it. Did you hear how immediate and fast moving the action was in the short snippet that we just heard. The reading was only seven verses long and in that short span of scripture, we have the telling of three major events: Jesus’ baptism, his temptation in the wilderness, and the beginning of his ministry in proclaiming the good news.
In addition to the fast paced action, there is a dynamic sense of drama in these verses:
In the baptism scene “The heavens are torn apart” . . . and then in stark contract, the Spirit descends on Jesus ever so gently – like a dove.
Jesus’ identity is distinctly unveiled as the voice from heaven announces “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” . . . and then immediately the same Spirit which had gently descended like a dove – drives him into the wilderness where he wrestles with Satan – where Jesus’ identity is tested.
And while Jesus is in the wilderness with the wild beasts – at the same time, the angels wait on him.
In the end Jesus emerges from the wilderness strong in his identity. And then, triumphant over the challenges Satan that throws at him, Jesus begins living into his identity – his mission – his purpose – – by proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.
For each of us, the quest for our true identity – our mission – our purpose is probably the most important spiritual discipline we can take up. Our identity forms the very essence of who we are and how we live. And so what shapes out identity is of primary importance.
For Jesus, his identity and worth were not formed by the desire for power and control – or by human voices of approval and disapproval – or by his successes and achievements. He received his identity, worth and meaning from beyond himself – his identity came in response to the Divine voice of his Father – the voice he heard in a vision at this baptism – the voice that echoed within: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
And Jesus wilderness experience didn’t rob him of his identity – in fact he emerged from his testing in the wilderness strengthened in his identity – knowing who he was and the truth he needed to live out.
Jesus’ identity was affirmed at his baptism; Jesus’ identity was tested and strengthened in the wilderness. So it is for each of us: we receive our identity at our baptism – baptism being “the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.” And what is required of us at baptism? The Book of Common Prayer says that we must renounce Satan, repent of our sins and accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior.
Just a word about repentance here: In today’s gospel, Jesus commands us to repent and believe in the good news. The Greek word for repentance is metanoia. Although metanoia is translated as repentance, it literally means to “change your mind.”
According to Fr. Thomas Keating, the guru of Christian contemplative prayer, metanoia means “to change the direction you are looking for happiness.” In Fr. Keating’s terminology, because of our naked human condition we seek our identity in three misguided desires: the desire for power and control, the desire for esteem and affection (or human approval) and the desire for earthly security. These desires feed a false sense of identity and will never bring us true happiness.
Our true identity lies in repentance – changing the direction we look to find happiness – and realigning ourselves with God in our baptismal identity. And to do that we have to be willing to see our selves as new creatures in Christ – as Paul wrote: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ. . .”
Finding our true identity can happen only when we are willing to be honest about who we are – when we are willing to look at ourselves in a mirror in the light of the Gospel – when we are willing to see ourselves and others as Christ sees, allowing ourselves the space to be true, and allowing others the space to be themselves.
This means honoring our baptismal vow to respect the dignity of every human being — a vow that includes respecting our own dignity – loving ourselves, our true selves – loving the self-identity we so often hide.
The great gift of repentance is freedom. And the freedom to claim our baptismal identity in Jesus comes only when He is the sole object of our desire. Only then are we totally free to live into our true identities . . .
The good news of the Gospel today is that “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near.” God’s transformative, redeeming work is happening now all around us and deep within us. Jesus’ call to us is to “repent and believe in the good news.” It is a call to let go of anything that is not of Christ, a call to cling to Jesus alone.
In each of us there is a divine spark of God infused wisdom – a true identity waiting to be discovered and lived. This is the focus of the Wednesday night gatherings here at St. Clement’s that will continue throughout Lent. Bill Frick and I will facilitate these gatherings – we’ll be sharing our personal spiritual stories, the lessons and blessings of our lives that are shaping our spiritual identities – and we’ll be eager to hear about your experiences of faith as well, as the Holy Spirit leads in our discussions.
As we begin our Lenten journey, let’s remember the truth of our baptism: we are claimed, we are chosen as God’s beloved – and we are empowered to discover our true identity – our mission – our purpose in Jesus Christ. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”
Let us pray: O God be with us in the wilderness of this life, lead us to discover ourselves in you, and continue to transform us in your likeness . . . in Jesus’ name . . . Amen.