Mark 1:9-15 New International Version (NIV)
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” 12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted[a] by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. 14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Friends, today we gather in a time of transition. Today is Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, the festival where we rejoice in community by eating pancakes together, or perhaps paczkis, if you’re from the Midwest like me. And tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, a day that traditionally is heavy with contrast to Mardi Gras. Tomorrow we will observe the beginning of Lent by remembering Genesis 3:19’s words that are echoed in Ecclesiastes 3:20: “all go to the same place; all are from dust and all shall return to dust.” Many Christians around the world observe this transition into the season of Lent by attending somber services that remind us of Jesus’ impending journey to the cross. We repent of our sins and clergy follow 7th century Gregory the Great’s practice of marking our foreheads with ashes, saying “You are from dust and to dust you shall return.”
Many people, myself included, attend some kind of Ash Wednesday service and then continue to wear the ashes on our foreheads all day. This is one of the only days out of the year that I am physically marked as an observant Christian, where everyone I encounter sees the ashes on my forehead and goes, “Oh, I know who she is.” This is not a normal occurrence for me. I do not wear headscarves or prayer shawls or whole-body coverings or jewelry that marks me as a member of my religion. Being identified physically is something we experience by virtue of almost every other attribute about us except for our faith: for example, though I do present my gender in very feminine ways, people usually can look at me and understand that I understand myself to be a woman. I have pale skin, and so usually people understand that I move through the world receiving the benefits of my white privilege. Based on what clothes I wear, I’m pretty well marked as a middle-class USAmerican. And there’s a good chance that understanding me as a white Anglo-European-American woman living in the South, people could assume that I am Christian. But it not every day that I am physically marked, physically set apart from the world in a way that explains the faith that I hold dear.
Sometimes it is physical attributes that set us apart and attest to our place in the world. Other times it’s our experiences. Other times it’s values and beliefs. For Christians, we often say or sing, “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” And I dearly hope that is the case, as we seek to live a faith rooted in radical compassion, hospitality, justice and peace. But on this first day of the Lenten season tomorrow, let’s consider what it means to be set apart from the world via a physical mark, if only for one day.
Our Scripture today reminds us of how Jesus was set apart from the world. The author of the gospel of Mark begins his gospel by telling the story of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus went to his cousin John down at the Jordan River and asked for baptism. Then the heavens opened and a dove descended and the voice of God resounded as God called Jesus, “Beloved.” Talk about being set apart—having the sky rent apart and a giant beam of light (which I imagine is what you might see in early 90s Disney movies, or perhaps Star Trek, either one) and a dove coming to land on you–this is not an experience that many people have had 😉 And then, if that weren’t enough to signal–hey, something’s going on here with this guy, immediately following this, Jesus goes into the wilderness to be tempted. He turns from exhortations to seize power, control, and wealth and the gospel writer shifts into recounting Jesus’ travels. Upon finding out his dear cousin John (the voice who had been crying out in the wilderness) had been imprisoned, Jesus took up the mantle of teaching and preaching, calling to us, “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
In this Scripture, we understand Jesus to be beginning his ministry. He is beginning the work that his set-apart-ness has called him to. He has turned from the life he lived prior to now, presumably as a humble working-class carpenter in backwater Judea. He is different now.
And as we stand on the cusp of Ash Wednesday, at the threshold of Lent, this story calls us to figure out how we are different, how we are set apart as we pursue a life of learning from and following the way of Jesus. Jesus is helpful in this task because he gives us examples of what it means to be set apart. He calls us to “repent,” which has a Greek root in the word metanoia meaning to “think after,” or “think again.” The connotation of metanoia is “to turn around.” The question, of course, is “what are we turning from?” and “what are we turning to?”
In baptism, there is an example of this “turning” wherein, if you are from an Anabaptist tradition, you descend into the water to arise into new life in the community of Christ. The Anabaptists of the radical wing of the Protestant reformation called for adult baptism by immersion so that each new member of the congregation could declare their testimony of faith and make a conscious choice to follow Christ in community. Baptists, Mennonites and many others today follow this example by confirming teenagers or adults who share their faith journey with their congregation before getting “dipped.” Baptism for Anabaptists is not about being set apart from the world by being saved from original sin, but about a conscious declaration of awareness that after being immersed in the water, one is immersed in the life of faith in Christ; one is different now, set apart.
Jesus continues this example of what it means to repent, or turn around, with his temptation experience. I have a lovely story Bible written in the 80s by German Lutherans that depicts Jesus in the wilderness looking contemplative. Right behind him, with grasping arms and a gossiping tongue is a figure who looks just like Jesus, but in shadow. The temptation for power, control, greatness and wealth is ever-present in this capitalistic society in which we live, as it was present in different forms during Jesus’ lifetime. Jesus resisted the temptation to power, turning away from it and towards God; after overcoming temptation, he is different now.
Then Jesus begins his ministry proper—he goes into the world and declares that God has come near to the world. Perhaps he experienced this special nearness during his baptism, during the blessing from the heavenly dove, during his temptation and inner struggle to turn towards God’s call on his life. He issues the call to follow him by telling us to “repent.” This call is one to turn from our old lives, what we thought we knew, the power we may have desired and enjoyed, and to set ourselves apart by virtue of our beliefs, our values and our hopes. For this turn, we must ground ourselves in what we know about our true nature, the one of being formed as part of God’s Good Creation.
I shared with you earlier about the Greek root of the word “repent,” which we have considered as “to turn, to think again.” But there is also a Hebrew root of “repent.” It means: “to feel sorrow” and “to RE-turn.” Turning and return, these words weave together into a circle across time and translation. My pastors at Glendale Baptist Church have abandoned the traditional cruciform marking of ashes on folks’ foreheads in favor of drawing a circle, as they say, “Come full circle in the love of God.” This simple alteration of the tradition declares for those who would examine us more closely a different focus of our theology, another echo of Ecclesiastes 3:20: we are from dust, and we shall make a full circle return to the dust; we live time-bound lives that are grounded in the always continuing presence of Emmanuel, God-with-us.
How will you come full circle this Lenten season? What life-limiting habits will you give up? (beyond chocolate) What life-giving practices will you turn to? This season of the church year issues a special invitation to us to consider where we turn when we are confronted with time to reflect on our set-apart-ness. Perhaps we turn inwards, seeking wisdom from our lives and experiences. Perhaps we turn to our bodies, searching for information about the world that only our sensory, tactile selves can give us. Maybe it is to community that we turn this Lent, as we seek to journey with each other as we accompany Jesus to the cross, through death, to resurrection. And maybe, we may choose to turn to God, shoring up our relationship with the Divine Love, dedicating ourselves to listening more deeply and to loving more fully.
“To everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn).” In a way, the words sung by the Byrds again echoing Ecclesiastes as well as finding their place in the puzzle as Jesus turns thrice over, offer assurance. They assure us that no matter what is going on in our lives, people have been here before and will be here again. They assure us of our place in the beloved community of believers, situating us in love and mutual support. They assure us of our grounding in that which is Holy accompanying us throughout all of our twists and all of our turns.
At the beginning of this season that causes us to think again, calls us to turn around, causes us to re-turn to ourselves and to our God, we remember the song that comes full circle. This circle of ashes is not quite about beginning and endings, is not quiet about the fullness of life experiences that one collects over their span of years. It is all of these things that turn, turn, turn together during the circle of life. We turn, turn, turn as we respond to our life situations by reorienting ourselves. We experience love, and are different. We experience loss, and are different. We experience God, and are different. We are in constant orientation and reorientation as we re-think and re-turn over and over again.
To every thing—there is a season. Turn, turn, turn. Amen.
Image from http://www.creativesimplicity.ca/everything-turn-turn-turn/.