A sermon for the first Sunday of Lent, February 18, 2018
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.
Our lectionary is on a three-year cycle, and in the other two years, the first Sunday of Lent’s gospel reading is the temptations of Jesus from Matthew or Luke. This year we have the Gospel of Mark and the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness go past so quickly that you hardly notice them. Rather than going into the depth of the experience of the temptations and the values and message of Jesus within them, Mark shows how these things are connected together—Jesus coming from Galilee, his Baptism by John, the heavenly voice confirming Jesus as the son of God, the temptation in the wilderness, the arrest of John and Jesus proclamation of the kingdom of God. In seven verses Mark sweeps through all these things and shows how they are connected.
They are connected as the essential background of Jesus’ ministry. John the Baptist’s call for repentance was the context for Jesus’ appearance. It was John’s arrest by the soldiers of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, that was the occasion of the beginning of Jesus proclaiming of the Good News. Later in the Gospel, Mark tells the story of the why and how of John’s arrest and execution. This Herod was corrupt, cruel and selfish. Though he was a Jewish ruler of a Jewish principality, he was the client of a foreign power. John had pointed out his sexual immoralities and, more importantly, how he was unfaithful to his people, acting against the best interest of the people of Galilee and Judea. This was entwined with John’s preaching to the crowds about their repentance. It was not just the leaders who had to be held accountable to God, but everyone. Repentance was necessary—not feeling bad, but changing their lives; choosing each day to live in God’s justice. That was the messenger, preparing the Lord’s way, crying in the wilderness. And Jesus was in the wilderness, being formed in truth and served by angels.
John was taken into custody by the soldiers of Herod Antipas. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near: repent and believe in the good news.” It is the first Sunday of Lent and we begin that journey with Jesus, the journey which ends with his arrest by the religious police and the Roman soldiers; his execution on Calvary. His message to the people in Galilee is the same as John’s was, down by the Jordan on the eastern edge of Judea: Repent, the Kingdom of God is here. What is that Kingdom? We know some of it: Jesus was a healer, he cast out demons, he taught people hope, character, and faithfulness. He embodied God’s mercy and that was his teaching. Entering the Kingdom of the most merciful God is easy—you just rejoice in God’s mercy, live as God’s merciful children.
Of course, to be God’s merciful children… To even think about being joined to God’s mercy… If you look around at what happened this week down in Florida, what happens every day in our country, even here… To claim to have anything to do with God’s mercy takes change, it takes repentance: a restructuring of ourselves and the way we operate…getting our priorities right. The safety and well-being of young people has to be a higher priority than things of this world: prosperity or success or making political points; or having the things we want. It takes courage to repent, because it means living in a new way. Repentance is the opposite of taking refuge in a world of fear and anger and blame. The Kingdom of God that Jesus brings is not the self-indulgent world of Herod Antipas, but the generous world of Jesus, who brought life and hope to others and didn’t avoid the very real risk to his own person. All through this coming season of Lent, we will see that Jesus’ loving actions, his teaching and his prayers all lined up in perfect accord. For our prayers or our thoughts to have any meaning, they must align with our repentance, and amendment of life. That is to say prayers and action are one. If a person thinks that they can toss in some prayers to make others feel better while planning or doing actions that contradict those prayers, that is blasphemy.
So we look at all the gun violence in this country, punctuated by mass shootings of children and an epidemic of gun suicides. It can look hopeless, practically and politically. Fifty years ago, when I was a teenager, there was another epidemic that everybody thought was hopeless: automobile fatalities. It had reached the rate of five and a half fatalities for every 100 million vehicle miles travelled. Now it is just over 1 per 100 million miles. There are actually more than 15 thousand fewer traffic fatalities this year than 50 years ago while the country’s population is more than 50% larger. How did this happen? What caused the reduction of this epidemic? It wasn’t one simple solution, and it took years. A national commitment was made to reduce traffic fatalities. Different things were done: roadways and guard rails were improved, seatbelts and eventually airbags were required in cars. Cars were made structurally safer. Laws against drunk driving were toughened and enforced more stringently. Laws were changed, and some people didn’t like them.
When I was 14 in 1968, I got my driver’s license in Idaho. We were very proud of that and thought it was our God-given right. Of course, I got in two accidents before I was 16. The age for driving was raised in states like Idaho, much to the consternation of teenagers, and some parents who found it convenient to have the kids drive themselves and do errands. It took a lot of changes to reduce traffic fatalities. They are not entirely eliminated and still a tragedy when they occur, but they are no longer an increasing epidemic, we don’t assume that somebody we know will be killed in a car crash.
To address gun violence takes national repentance and a national priority for safety, for less gun violence. It requires good faith in looking for solutions from all parties, it takes some inconvenience and adjusting of expectations, and an orientation toward safety in all respects of gun ownership, handling and use. Guns can be made safer, and particularly dangerous weapons can be gradually eliminated. They aren’t needed any more than a .50 caliber machine gun or a rocket launcher. Guns are tools and our culture should develop in the direction of not having them be tools for killing people, least of all, high school students and teachers.
Immediately after his baptism the spirit led Jesus into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan. He was tended by the angels of God. He came to his home country of Galilee calling for repentance and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. He went among them, casting out demons and healing them.