Lent: from fasting to feasting

Texts: Mark 1:9-15 (Jesus’ baptism, temptation and mission); Mark 14:12-25 (Jesus’ Last Supper)

How do we mark the season of Lent? Do we fast and seek forgiveness for our sins? Do we treat it as just another six weeks of winter — something to be endured until the first shoots of spring finally arrive?

Last week, Bev started an email conversation with those who have volunteered to lead “Sharing a Story” in the six Sunday services in Lent. In response, I outlined a worship plan for the season.

This year, the church’s Lectionary focuses on the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the earliest and shortest of the four gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, and it is my favourite. But after next Sunday, the Lectionary abandons Mark for most of the next few months. So I have decided to abandon the Lectionary.

We are going to focus on readings from Mark all through Lent. Today we heard the assigned reading from Mark on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. To this, I added Mark’s account of the Last Supper from the day before Jesus’ crucifixion. Next week, we go back to the middle of Mark where Jesus calls his friends to follow him to Jerusalem and the fate awaiting them there.

On the following three Sundays, we will hear the rest of Mark’s account of Jesus’ time in and around Jerusalem. I hope that this will prepare us for Palm Sunday and Holy Week with their stories of Jesus’ entry into the city, his trials and execution on Good Friday, and the discovery of his empty tomb on the First Easter.

The good news that the reign of God is at hand strikes me most clearly in Mark. In reflecting on Mark’s account of Jesus in Jerusalem for the next six weeks, I hope that we can remember how new life in Christ is present in difficult journeys like Lent as much as in the season of Easter that follows it.

The call Jesus makes to his friends to take up their cross and follow him to the capital city Jerusalem is a wake-up call. Jesus models for us a new life of courage and compassion on the journey even before his death and resurrection on Easter.

New life can be found in owning up to our fears, ignorance and powerlessness perhaps even more than in our knowledge and success. For this reason, Lent, with its stories of disciples who are afraid, who misunderstand, and who deny or betray Jesus speaks to me as powerfully as Easter.

Eternal life is a blessing that we stumble upon when, with God’s Grace, we accept reality with all its joys and pains. The trouble is, we have so many difficulties in knowing just what is going on.

I like the fact that Janice calls the church’s weekly e-newsletter “What’s the Buzz?” This is the title of one of the songs from the 1970 musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.” In the song, Jesus’ friends want to know what on earth is going on as they get closer to Jerusalem. And so they sing, “What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s a happening,” to which Jesus replies:

“Why should you want to know? Don’t you mind about the future; don’t you try to think ahead. Save tomorrow for tomorrow; think about today instead . . . Why are you obsessed with fighting times and fates you can’t defy? If you knew the path we’re riding, you’d understand it less than I.”

The song captures both the burning curiosity and incurable ignorance of the disciples, traits with which I can relate.

The best I can often achieve seems to be acceptance of my ignorance and powerlessness. Despite a lot of learning; despite a constant scan of the news media; despite many passionate conversations with friends and colleagues; and despite an insatiable curiosity to understand, I often don’t seem to know what is going on in my life, in the church, or in the world.

This ignorance feels like a Lenten place to me. In Lent, Jesus calls us to leave what we know – in the case of his first disciples, their life and ministry in Galilee – and risk everything in a journey to the big city with its corrupt elites.

God’s Grace can connect us to reality, but not always to an understanding of that reality or the power to change it. Families often have secrets that can’t be named. News reports are often distorted by greed, political agendas, and sensationalism. Our hopes to learn from historical, cultural or scientific reports are sometimes undercut by our distractions and addictions.

It is also becoming rarer for us to share a common discourse. The spread of social media and vast stores of digital files of text, music and video available on-demand has fragmented our cultural landscape.

Many of us no longer read newspapers or watch broadcast news. We rely on Twitter, Facebook and other social feeds to know what is important or newsworthy. The days are gone when a whole continent tuned into the same TV show at the same time, perhaps with a few exceptions like tonight’s Oscar telecast or the Super Bowl.

And even when we think we know what is happening in our family, neighbourhood, or world, there is often not much we can do about it.

The question of what will happen to us at the end of our Lenten journey seems unanswerable. The first disciples didn’t know. We don’t know today.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ friends followed him. And despite skepticism, ignorance and powerlessness, we try to follow him today. Accepting our lack of knowledge or power often leads to grief. But the joy of the new life found in the wide open space beyond our struggles to know are more than worth the pain involved.

We walk with Jesus despite all the unknowns and the dangers. And sometimes we taste the freedom that Jesus models for us on this journey.

These days, we often worry about how few people show up for worship services. But at other times, I am amazed that so many of us do show up given how thin the gruel might sometimes appear at this or any church.

This thought came to my mind when I was part of a sharing circle of men at the United Church retreat centre Five Oaks two weeks ago. Often I was bored by the person with the talking stone and wished they would speak less. But then, a speaker’s tone of voice might change, new emotions would surface, and amazing stories of pain or joy would be offered. In those moments, we glimpsed the sacred again. We were put in touch with each other and God by the gift of a person who only a minute earlier had seemed to me little more than an annoyance.

Sometimes we have to sit through a lot of unsatisfying meals to finally taste food and drink that reminds us of the joy, hope and love that are here for us in this crazy life. It is a joy that can be ours even when we remain ignorant or powerless.

At the communion table, we are given just a morsel of bread and drop of wine. Nevertheless, it usually feels like a feast to me.

Lent has just begun, and Easter might still seem a long way off. But in a minute we will come to the table again to remember the story of God revealed by Christ. At the Table, with this motley crew of fellow pilgrims, may we taste again the blessed truth that God is in us and we are in God. Jesus is with us on the road, even when if it sometimes seems difficult.

In the middle of this season of fasting, let us feast on new life in Christ.

We are not alone. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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