The Lenten Mark
Text: Mark 9:2-9
Poised at the doorstep of the season of Lent, you and I are invited to listen to Jesus. Not to the sanitized Jesus of our collective wishful thinking or the angelic Jesus portrayed in Renaissance paintings or the cuddly Jesus who sings lullabies to us like our favorite grandparent and always comforts us and never challenges us.
No, Mark invites us to listen to the Jesus who interrupts our well-ordered routines without so much as an “excuse me,” confronts our addictive consumer-mania, and shouts over and tears down our most intricately engineered walls of racism and sexism and economic class. The Jesus we listen to in Mark touches those who others would never touch, welcomes a woman into an all boy’s gathering, jumps into a boat headed to enemy country, Gentile country, and climbs up a cross that will eventually kill him.
Each year, when the church is poised at the doorstep of Lent, we listen to Jesus atop the Mount of Transfiguration. He has left the cheering crowds down below and has hiked an unnamed mountain with three companions.
I love Transfiguration Sunday because it is just so bizarre. As hard as scholars and saints have tried to tame it, it still runs wild. Over the centuries, church and society have learned how to tame Easter. It has become the story of American optimism celebrating that “you can’t keep a good man down.” We have found a way to make a buck on Easter, between bunnies and baskets filled with brightly colored eggs and a religious reason to buy new clothes. Transfiguration Sunday, though, remains untamed, downright bizarre, the perfect story to lead us into Lent.
When Mark tells us who Jesus is taking with him on his mountain trek, immediately we should see a red flag waving. Most of us have grown up with Peter, James, and John pictured as the elite, inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. In a wonderful little commentary on Mark’s Gospel, Sharyn Dowd invites us to think of these three musketeers in another way. She writes: “Jesus selects only Peter, James, and John to accompany him, not because they are his favorites, but because in this Gospel they are singled out as having special difficulty understanding the point he [Jesus] has just made” (Reading Mark, p. 89).
To make an odd story even odder, once Jesus and this threesome reach the mountaintop, he is transfigured before their eyes. Then, they are joined by the lawgiver Moses and the prophet Elijah. Amid a futile attempt to be helpful, Peter finds himself enveloped in a cloud and he and his colleagues hear these divine words about Jesus: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” The only problem with these clear instructions from God is that Jesus has not spoken a word. In fact, atop the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus is remarkably and uncharacteristically silent.
So, what do the divine words from the clouds, “Listen to him” mean? In Mark’s Gospel, one “listens” to Jesus with ears, but also with eyes and hearts and feet. “Listen” can just as easily be read in Mark as “pay attention.” The divine voice shouts through the clouds “Pay attention” to Jesus, to what he says – and, even more importantly, to what he does and to the company he keeps. Poised at the doorstep of Lent, Mark invites us to listen to Jesus even when he is not speaking a word.
Too often today, Lent is largely ignored or trivialized, becoming the religious equivalent of New Year’s when we resolve to give up a few pounds or spend fewer hours before the TV or to do something just as silly.
“Listen to him!” “Pay attention!” What does that even mean? One concrete way to “pay attention” to Jesus is to come here on Wednesday at 11 a.m. and “listen” to Jesus as you and I walk into the holy season of Lent. If you do, though, be prepared, because when you walk out of this sanctuary on Wednesday, you will not do so transfigured into glowing white like Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, no, you will do so smudged with Lenten ash spread across your forehead. Try to wash off that ash later Wednesday night and you will learn that even with the best soap and the toughest bleach that the Lenten mark just won’t wash off.
The Lenten mark can be an annoying one, because it burns at the most inopportune times. It burns whenever you and I treat church as a hiding place, a safe gated community where we can duck out from the storms of life, where we can avoid those who are needy and always want something from us, where we can keep the company we want to keep. The Lenten mark burns hot with the reminder of William Temple, the late Archbishop of Canterbury. Temple said that the church exists to move out whenever it is tempted to stay in.
The Lenten mark also burns with a fierce fire of clarity. In those times when we treat Jesus as a magic charmer who will protect us from harm rather than as the wounded Savior who will lead us to defend others from harm, it is the Lenten mark that burns off the fog of fantasy and foolish theology.
If you “listen” to Jesus all the way down from the Mount of Transfiguration until he climbs up the painful Mount of Golgotha, you will notice just how intensely the Lenten mark can burn. It burns as his words of wisdom and acts of compassion are rarely met with celebration and delight but almost always are met with duplicitous words and insidious acts of evil. If you keep “listening” to Jesus beyond the darkest day of the year, Good Friday, until the third day following, the day when even death could not hold him, you might find your heart burning with the truth that sets us all free.
The Lenten mark is not simply a smudge on our foreheads, it is a call of prayer to the community. In Lent, we pray, not telling God what we need God to do for us but we pray listening for what God is asking us to do for others. So, starting this Ash Wednesday and continuing through every Sunday of Lent here at Cove, I will ask that you and I become an intentional community of prayer.
If you worship in person at Cove, I ask that you use the blank piece of paper on your pew to write down an anonymous request for prayer for you or for someone or something else. After you do, please put this piece of paper in one of the offering plates as you leave today. Next Sunday, someone will pick up your prayer request and will pray that request throughout the Lenten season.
If you worship with us on-line, please send me a prayer request whenever you hear this sermon and I will make your request anonymous and invite our on-line community of worship to pray that request throughout Lent.
On Ash Wednesday while most of society will be celebrating a festive Valentine’s Day, I invite you to gather here as a community of prayer to receive the Lenten mark as together we “listen to Jesus.” Surely, we who wear the Lenten mark can do no less.