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Thursday, February 23, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-10, I Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15

We’ve just come through the season of light (Epiphany) and are entering the season of darkness (Lent).  We have probably experienced a variety of ways of observing Lent. 

I’m writing this on Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) which is also called Shrove Tuesday.  Shrove is the past tense of Shrive which means “to hear a confession, assign penance, and absolve from sin.”  I associate the day with pancake breakfasts from my days in the eastern U.S.  Of course many connect the day with raucous costumed dancing in the streets a la what happens in New Orleans, sort of a day of unrestrained debauchery and feasting before the constraint of Lent. 

Calling the day Shrove Tuesday, however, connects it with the most traditional understanding of Lent, which begins the next day.  For many, Lent is a season of penance, as well as a season for giving up something.  In reaction to that negativism, some Protestants have viewed it as a season to take on some special giving of one’s self or one’s substance.  Maybe Lent is not just a season for seeing the darkness around us, but for living as light in that darkness.  Are we part of the way God overcomes the darkness with light?

Actually, in the evangelical churches of my childhood, it was as if Lent didn’t exist.  I never heard of it until I was an adult.  We just leapt ahead and began to sing resurrection songs.

I have come to appreciate the ups and downs of the liturgical calendar, the movement from darkness to light.  It seems to affirm the way I experience life.  I’m not always walking on clouds.  It’s good to know that Jesus (in whom I see God) walks with me through the days of darkness.  I resist an easy glossing over of that aspect of life.

Neither, however, do I want to wallow in the darkness.  I believe this week’s readings remind us that darkness need not be a time of despair or hopelessness.  The scripture that has come to me this year (not from the lectionary readings) as a theme for approaching Lent is John 1:5—“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

During Lent we face the darkness (and temptation) and do not let it overcome us.

In the reading from Genesis, the light is a rainbow after a great flood.  (Genesis 9:13)   God speaks to Noah and his sons and says “never again” will something like this happen.  (vs. 15)   Destruction, darkness, despair are not the last word.

In the Psalm the light is God’s mercy and steadfast love.  The Psalmist cries out, “Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.”  (Psalm 25:6)   So often we let the weight of our past burden us down.  We are unable to let go of guilt or hurt or the desire for revenge—the darkness that eats away at our inner being.   The Psalmist prays, “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions, according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!”  (vs. 7)

Notice that in that earlier definition of “shrive” absolution is included.  For those who want to see Lent as a season of penance, awareness of the power of absolution (forgiveness, mercy, steadfast love) needs to be part of it as well.  Darkness (penance) is not the last word for life.

The epistle reading looks back to the story of Noah and ahead to the Gospel lesson which includes Jesus’ baptism.  The writer of I Peter sees the great flood as sort of a baptism for Noah and his sons.  They were carried through the water by the ark, so to speak, and came out to new beginnings.  (I Peter 3:20)   In our baptism, he continues, we too are taken through the water.  The interpretation however puts a twist on that baptism.  It is “not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience.”  (vs. 21)   We might note that he connects it with Jesus’ resurrection and his authority over “angels, authorities, and powers.”  (vs. 21-22)

At the beginning of the Lenten season, my attention is drawn to see that baptism is somehow or other connected with penance and the clearing of conscience.  Most baptisms of that time involved the immersion of adults in the water.  Being under the water can be scary.  It can be a dark place if one goes far enough under, but one comes out and all the darkness has been left behind.  God doesn’t want us to live in guilt and darkness.  They are not God’s final take on life.  The gift God wants us to have is “a good conscience.”  It’s not a phrase that has made it into the central vocabulary of our faith.  It somehow doesn’t seem to have the theological weight we think might be needed for the facing of darkness.  Maybe we need to look at it again.  What hope there is in being able to live with “a good conscience.”  In this season when many are examining their conscience, let us pray that each one of us may have a good conscience.

In the Gospel lesson we are again reminded of Mark’s rush through the early part of Jesus’ life.  Three verses for Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:9-11), in which a voice confirms the identity Mark has declared in verse one: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  A voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  (vs. 11)

Two verses for Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  No description of the three temptations which we associate with that event.  Just this: “ . . . the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts . . .”  (vss. 12-13)   They were days of darkness.  The implication is that Jesus did not go willingly.  He was driven there.  He came face to face with “wild beasts.”  Whether this is literal or figurative, we don’t know.  Scary beasts come at us in our dreams, products of what may be eating away at our conscience.  There were probably real wild animals out there as well.  Either way, we are reminded that fear can unhinge the human spirit and the human will.
There’s so much fear in the wilderness of life we live in these days.  It drives politics and economics and social attitudes.  It is a darkness to be overcome.

So, where’s the light?  Jesus is not alone out there, and neither are we.  It says, “ . . . and the angels waited on him.”  (vs. 13)   They wait on us as well.  We may imagine supernatural beings, and that may be what the writer pictured.  Those who stand with us in moments (or weeks and months) of darkness are angels as well.  There are always those whose light (their friendship and compassion and love) helps overcome the darkness.  There may also be times when we are called upon to be angels of light.  It is together that we live through the darkness and come out on the other side.

The passage from Mark concludes with Jesus short summary of “the good news of God.”  (vs. 14)   “The time is fulfilled,” he says, “and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  (vs. 15)   Penance and repentance are forms of the same word.  Biblically they have little to do with wallowing in the pit.  To repent is to turn around, to repoint the direction of one’s life, to turn away from the darkness toward the light.  Even in terms of conscience, it means turning from the things that mess with one’s mind and toward the place of “good” conscience.  It is a call not just to receive light but to be light.

There are days and seasons of darkness, but darkness is not where we live, nor is it God’s final word.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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