Let’s begin with a couple of liturgical trivia questions. Today is the first Sunday in Lent. How many days long is Lent? (40 days) This reflects the 40 days Jesus wondered in the wilderness When did Lent begin? (Ash Wednesday – Feb. 14). When does Lent end? (In our tradition … Easter – April 1. Technically Easter Vigil – March 31). Now … a mathematical question. If you add 40 days from Ash Wednesday, Feb. 14, what do you get? Anyone? Anyone? You get March 26. We’re short about six days from Easter. So, what’s the discrepancy?
It is this: The Sundays within the season of Lent don’t count as Lent. If you add on the number of Sundays you get to Easter. On a practical level, it has meant that fasting was not (is not) required on these Sundays. But there is a greater theological significance. One liturgical scholar has referred to these Sundays as “little Easters.” That means that even throughout Lent when we focus on the trial, suffering, and death of Jesus – we never stop proclaiming the empty tomb – the resurrection from the dead. It is always the church’s proclamation. We never pause for a moment, no less 40 days.
So, that is the case this Sunday, this “little Easter.” The account that Mark gives us of Jesus bring driven into the wilderness for 40 days where he was tempted by Satan is definitely a Lenten theme of suffering. But notice, too, that Mark connects it directly to baptism. After Jesus was baptized by John in the river Jordan God’s spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. “Immediately” after his baptism. Mark uses the term “immediately.”
The waters of baptism are reflected, too, in our Old Testament account of God’s covenant with Noah after saving him from the flood. Our epistle from 1st Peter strikes a “little Easter” chord as it connects Noah’s salvation to our own through baptism which initiates our new life in Christ.
So, this is our “little Easter” theme of resurrection and new life. But today is a Sunday “in” the season of Lent – and Lent is traditionally thought of as a season of repentance and penitence. It is thought of as a time for us to take measurements of ourselves to see just how far we’ve fallen short of the glory of God. It is a time of self-contemplation … of taking stock of our own sinfulness. It is a season of confession. We open each of our services with confession and forgiveness. Traditionally lent has been an opportunity for us to “give up something.”
Some have thought of it as giving up something we normally enjoy so that we can “suffer a little bit” just as Christ suffered. Maybe a better way to think of giving up something has been to stop doing a bad thing and replace it with a good thing. Selfishly, it might mean stop eating at McDonald’s and start eating things you get in the produce section at the market. A broader approach might mean to focus on another person you may have treated badly and begin treating that person with the same love and respect your heavenly Father has shown to you.
But, any way we look it at it, it all has to do with the concept of repentance as “being sorry for our sins, confessing our sins, asking forgiveness for our sins, and stopping our sins.”
And … that really is what Lent is all about. But today is a “little Easter” and I’d like to take a “little Easter” approach to thinking about that word “repentance.” Througout the Old Testament repentance has had less to do with giving up bad things as much as it has meant “to turn, or (more accurately) to return.” And the concept of returning came directly from Israel’s exile in Babylon. Being liberated from bondage and returning to the God-given homeland was the essence of salvation itself… being saved from bondage. It is a richer meaning than “stop doing bad things.” When Christians look at this through the prism of baptism we can see that God has liberated us from sin, death, and evil and has set us on a journey back to his kingdom. We need to stay on that road.
But there is an even richer way to understand that word “repent” which has all kinds of connotations for us – and that is a meaning which derives more from the New Testament. The verb has been translated into English as “repent.” But the Greek roots of that word mean this: “to go beyond the mind that we have.” “To go beyond the mind that we have.” What does that mean?
I grew up in a small town in Ohio. In my formative years I came to project my life experience onto everyone else. I assumed that everybody else in everybody else’s towns were also white, lived in nice houses, had a father who was the bread winner, and a mother who cooked, cleaned, and did the laundry. The country club we had swim privileges at did not accept Jews or blacks. I never gave that a second thought. As kids we used the “n” word in the “eeney, meeney, miney, moe” game and didn’t think a thing about it. Women didn’t wear pants suits to church because, well, that just wasn’t done. My sister got sent back upstairs to change once when she came down in a pair.
In short, I had been socialized to a particular place and a particular time. It was an ingrained mindset. Thankfully, I became liberated from that mindset. College, campus pastors, camp counselors, a big sister and others who said new things and modeled a new way of seeing the world helped me to “go beyond the mind that I had.” It wasn’t as if, one Lent, I repented, asked forgiveness, and suddenly began living a new way. It was a gradual process of turning away from things which were not of God’s kingdom and walking toward things that were.
And it wasn’t a repentance I could take full credit for. Other people – some from the world of church and some not –helped me to “go beyond the mind I had.”
All of us have grown inculturated into a particular mindset. There are ways we look at the world and assumptions we make about things which are ingrained in us. They are hardwired into us. Part of our cultural DNA. It’s like we have been computer coded to be and think a particular way. But here is precisely where we are invited to “go beyond the minds we have.”
And here’s the thing; I am still repenting. I’m still “going beyond the mind I have.” And I still can’t take full credit for it. Oh, Lent helps me – through introspection – to live life differently. But there are still others out there who teach me the new way or who model for me the new way of doing and being … the road which leads toward the Kingdom of God and not away from it.
Yes, this Lent, I hope we stop doing bad things. I hope we take stock of our sins. But also, this Lent, I pray that we might be able to repent in the sense of “going beyond the mind that we have.” When I travel I like to go places I have never gone before. “Going beyond the mind we have” is like that. We can think differently. We can act differently. We can be different … we can be the people God made us to be at baptism.
Text: Mark 1:9-15