Lent 1B; Mark 1:9-15; St. Paul’s, Smithfield, NC 2/18/2018
Jim Melnyk: “Called to be Our True Selves”
Ever heard the phrase, “You are what you eat?” There certainly is some truth behind it – and I can often pretty much tell what I’ve been eating lately by how I’m feeling – and sometimes by how I look. Can you say, “Burgers and fries?” And don’t we teach that very thing in the Church? We come to the holy table to receive the body and blood of Christ, believing that we, indeed, that in that act we become the body of Christ ourselves.
But there’s another comparison out there that also has a ring of truth about it – although we often let it get a bit muddied up. “You are what you do,” or another way of saying it, “Your identity is based on your vocation.” Isn’t that one of the first questions we ever ask anyone? What is it you do? We can see this acted out in the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness – as long as we don’t depend on Mark’s version. Mark’s coverage of the experience takes all of two verses:
“And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] 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” (1:12-13). Mark’s account is so short the framers of the lectionary add the baptism of Jesus and the start of his ministry as bookends to what takes place. But there’s wisdom to the choice of verses surrounding the temptation account.
The baptism of Jesus is all about his identity, while his call to ministry is about vocation. Mark points out that what Jesus does with his life comes out of his identity. It’s the first time in the gospel we hear the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We heard virtually the same message on the mount of Transfiguration last week, didn’t we? It’s no accident that Jesus is declared to be God’s Son – God’s Beloved – before being driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit of God. Mark is telling us that it is absolutely necessary for Jesus to be fully aware of his own identity before he is faced with the temptation to abuse his identity – to abuse his authority – to claim his authority as the Son of God without fully understanding the meaning – the purpose – the direction – of his vocation as the Son of God, and what that means for himself and for the world.
Back in January I attended a celebration of the Holy Eucharist with the staff of the Diocese. We were celebrating the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, with Bishop Sam as our preacher. Sam told us that one thing tying together the baptism of Jesus with his temptation in the wilderness is the way that the Tempter tries to confuse Jesus – attempts to get Jesus to confuse his identity with his vocation in an unhealthy way.
Jesus’ identity is that of Son of God and God’s Beloved. That identity is there before he ever begins to carry out his vocation – his ministry. Of course it’s true that Jesus’ identity and his vocation are connected, but his vocation is informed by his identity and not the other way around. The temptation is for Jesus to think that his identity is only validated when he does his job, and does it well; and the other gospels tell us of his temptation to prove his identity by his actions – to distrust the efficacy of his identity without solid proof to back it up. And isn’t proof of identity what everyone in the gospels seem to seek from Jesus?
Applied in our lives, Bishop Sam says that like Jesus, “Our identity as a beloved child of God is connected to our vocation. We sometimes get confused by this connection and turn it around, and believe and act as though our identity as a beloved child of God is dependent on performing our vocation well. That God is pleased with us only when we perform and meet the expectations of our vocation.”
“In fact it is just the reverse,” says the bishop. “We are loved regardless of how we perform, and our vocation is a gift, a sign of God's love for us, not something we have to measure up to in order to earn God's love. Therefore we have to guard the gift of our vocation…from the temptation to make it into an exercise in proving ourselves, or trying to earn God's love.”
This is, in part, what our Ash Wednesday invitation to a Holy Lent is all about. It’s not about acting holy and therefore somehow manipulating God into being nice to us. It’s about nurturing our baptismal identities in Christ – it’s about feeding our souls so that we might carry out our calling as servants of the Living God. Experiencing a Holy Lent is about our realizing that every time we take a breath – perhaps especially when we pause long enough to take a slow, deep breath – we are actually being filled with the creative, life-giving love of God.
We can imagine each time the Tempter tries to lure Jesus into forsaking his identity as God’s Beloved that Jesus closes his eyes and takes a slow, deep breath. The same creative, life-giving love of God Jesus has known from the time he first became aware of God – that same love fills his lungs in the middle of the wilderness and gives him the strength and courage he needs to remain faithful to who he is. Jesus is able to stand his ground, rejecting the temptations to be someone or something else – rejecting the enticement to leave behind the vocation to which God calls him. Jesus reminds us that how we each live, and move, and have our being in this world is intimately tied to our identity as God’s beloved.
Jesus comes out of his wilderness experience proclaiming “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (1:15). The events of this past Ash Wednesday afternoon in Parkland, Florida remind us that as a nation we have much from which to repent.
Perhaps as God’s beloved our actions will be tied to our identity, and we, as a nation, will rise up and say “Enough” to the almost weekly horror of mass shootings in our schools. Perhaps we will say “Enough” to the need for, and the horror of, regular active shooter lock-down drills practiced by both high school students and kindergartners alike. I find myself asking, “When did it become part of my son’s job description – or any teacher’s job description – to stop a bullet for the students in his care? When did it become normal to worry about our children coming home from school each day?”
Perhaps as a people whose identity is bound by covenant to the God who creates us, who loves us, and who lives within us, we will listen to the stories of the youth in Parkland who are begging the adults of this nation to bring about a transformation of society that allows our children to feel safe without feeling imprisoned by metal detectors and armed guards.
Perhaps, as a people shaped by the love of God made known to us in Christ Jesus, we won’t be swayed by the temptation to believe this is how life has to be – that turning our nation into the OK Corral has become our new normal – that somehow such a reality fits the dream of God for this world.
Today’s gospel calls us each to a place of repentance and action, but only after it reminds us that we are each a beloved child of God; and only after it challenges us to claim our beloved-ness as the central characteristic of who we are, and how we are meant to be in this world. For the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.