[This sermon was given at Perinton Presbyterian Church, Fairport NY, on the first Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2021. The text is Mark 1:9-15. It can be seen in the worship service of that day, now on the Perinton page on FaceBook.]
What movie best fits this pandemic? Someone suggested “Groundhog Day.” It was showing on some cable movie network three weeks ago on February 2, Groundhog Day, so I watched it again. I hadn’t seen it from beginning to end in some years. It really does have the right feel for now. This TV weather forecaster, played memorably by Bill Murray, is sent to Punxsutawney PA to cover the story of whether this groundhog sees his shadow or not, which determines whether we get six more weeks of winter or an early spring. That’s not much of a storyline, but it gets interesting when the weather guy starts reliving February 2, day after day after day. He is caught in one day repeating itself and he doesn’t know why or how to end it. It takes a while, but he eventually figures out what to do with that day that keeps recurring. He learns to live in the now.
This has been a month of gray days and snow flurries. Day after day, there has been much sameness. I like to watch the drama of the phases of the moon. I have hardly seen the moon in a month. How we love it when the clouds part and we see the sun again. In Jesus’ baptism, the heavens tear open. The word Mark uses is graphic: the root word is schism. “The Message” says “the sky split open.” The picture is not a gentle little incision, but a dramatic tearing open. The way children might open birthday gifts: grab and rip. My granddaughter just turned one. She and her parents are living in Cambodia. Our daughter has been sending us brief videos of her opening gifts. She usually tears some wrapping paper and puts it in her mouth.
The sky is ripped open, the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove, God’s voice affirms his identity: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Then that same Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. My question, which Mark doesn’t answer directly, is this: as Jesus goes into the wilderness, does the sky neatly heal or remain torn open? What do you think? I get a clue from two things Mark tells about Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days: “He was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Jesus was with wild beasts, but there is no hint that they attacked him. He was with wild beasts and it didn’t seem to bother him or them. God’s angels were working. Here is another word picture. Literally, Mark says, “the messengers were deaconing him.” Ministry was happening in that wilderness. Ministry is always happening in our wildernesses. Always. That tear in the sky stays open over our wildernesses. We are not alone in our wildernesses.
Lent is a wilderness season. These 40 days are designed to help us appreciate the journey Jesus took, even to walk alongside him. I am not always drawn to wilderness experiences, like in the deep freeze of winter. An hour of the National Geographic channel can satisfy me. But whenever I have been in a wilderness, I have known a sense of awe. In a wilderness I realize my own smallness and powerlessness. I appreciate the raw power of nature in a wilderness. The pandemic has been a year-long wilderness. Now we are in Lent, which is a call to be attentive to our wilderness. As Laura noted from Mary Oliver’s poem last week, Lent is a time to “pay attention, be astonished, then to tell.”
Jesus emerges from that wilderness ready to serve. He makes his first big announcement: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The kingdom of God becomes Jesus’ dominant theme. The phrase occurs about 140 times in the gospels. We have some work to do here, because what Jesus is describing is not like the kingdoms we picture. Two kingdoms probably come to mind readily.
The first, the United Kingdom, is being chronicled in a hit Netflix series called “The Crown.” While fictionalized, it tells about real people. Queen Elizabeth’s four children are a strange lot, marked by divorces, marital unfaithfulness, some shady friendships, and incredible wealth. One son has been withdrawn from the public. One of her grandsons—my favorite because how could I not like someone called Prince Harry?—has walked away from some of the perks of royalty to live with his American mixed race wife in California. This United Kingdom is hardly united. Scotland is in disagreement about Brexit and Barbados officially left the fold last year. Since 1939, 62 countries have left the British Empire. The British royal family might be called dysfunctional, but it fascinates us.
Then there is the Magic Kingdom, which seems altogether functional. I grew up with the original Disneyland in southern California and that was a charmed part of my childhood. All of our relatives from the Midwest and east started visiting us in the late 1950s for one reason: they wanted us to take them to Disneyland. We reluctantly obliged them. You could blindfold me in the center of the Magic Kingdom and name a ride and I could take you there.
When we picture kingdoms, we likely think castles and palaces, enchanting stories, and the perks of royalty. Jesus brings none of that. He comes among us a poor Palestinian Jew. Trained as a carpenter, he is now a humble preacher, without his own Leer jet, limo, and bodyguards. He wears no crown (though he will wear a crown on the Friday Lent is leading us to), has no gold bling, or any palaces or castles. In fact, he never owns a home. Our king comes in poverty and humility. Obviously, Jesus is talking about something else, something radically different than the two kingdoms we know best. We might search for another word. The New Testament Greek word translated kingdom is actually a feminine noun. Think about that (queendom?). A better translation is the realm of God or the reign of God. The essence of the New Testament teaching is that the realm of God is wherever Jesus is present. It’s that simple: no castles, no palaces, no jewels; where Jesus is present, the reign of God has arrived, the realm of God is happening.
And it is now. Not yesterday and not tomorrow. The reign of God is happening now. It is not waiting for heaven in some far off day: it is now. The Apostle Paul writes: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2.) The New Testament has two words that translate into our word time. One means the march of time, like chronology. That word is chronos, from which we get chronology, chronic, and chronometer. It is what a watch, clock, or calendar does for us; mark the movement of time. The second word (kairos) means something momentous, like an interruption to the flow of seconds, minutes, and hours. It is an emphatic now. It is that word that Jesus uses when he says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near….” It is that word that Paul uses when he writes, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” Jesus is announcing that the reign of God is present now. When people live only in chronos, they merely exist. When we live in the second sense (kairos), God’s momentous time, we truly come to life.
A friend of mine is a chaplain at a caring facility in Brighton. In her prayer letter last Tuesday, she wrote, “I am working from home today on my virtual Ash Wednesday service which I will broadcast twice tomorrow at the facility. Things remain challenging at work; we have lost 27 residents to Covid since the beginning of December and to quote one staff member last week ‘it feels like we are hanging on by a thread.’” Aren’t we all hanging by a thread? Some of us know it better than others, but it is true of all of us.
A country song made popular by Tim McGraw deals with a person facing news that their life might be ending sooner than once expected has this haunting refrain:
“And I loved deeper/And I spoke sweeter; And I watched an eagle as it was flying/And he said ‘Someday I hope you get the chance/To live like you were dying.’”
Is the tear in the sky still open? Emphatically yes. Jesus is working through that opening, bridging the waters that once divided:
- God and humanity,
- heaven and earth,
- life and death.
Jesus still comes to us, proclaiming the good news of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the reign of God is right here, right now.” There is an opening in the skies.Now! Right here and right now. Right here. Right now!