Lent Through the Eyes of Mark
A shocking beginning has an interesting way of disarming us and drawing us into a story. For example, in a time that feels like ages ago, when I read Toni Morrison’s opening line of Beloved – “124 was spiteful” – I knew immediately that I was hooked. I had to know more. I wondered, “What is 124, and why is it spiteful?” I suppose a similar sort of thing happens, almost overdoing it, in the crime scene dramas of television.
The season of Lent begins with a similar shock: “You are dust and to dust you shall return; repent and believe the gospel.” These words might be shocking enough, but the actions that accompany them are at least as disarming. Rarely do I touch the foreheads of people outside my family. Yet, on Ash Wednesday, we begin Lent in a line of people who bow their heads, lift their bangs (if necessary), and receive a gentle yet gritty ashen cross. It’s humbling, intimate, emotional, and a little shocking.
The ashen crosses of Ash Wednesday and the words that accompany them name two lows of our universal human experience: death and sin, or mortality and brokenness. Yet, for some reason, much of our liturgy and our common understanding of the Christian life seems to emphasize the sin part. I don’t know, or haven’t yet learned, why we seem to like to focus on the sin part. I wonder if something in being Protestants, or American Christians, or evangelicals has something to do with it. Or, maybe, ironically, sin seems easier to deal with than death, so we emphasize it, as though we can just work harder, pray longer, and sing louder in order to turn from that sin, thereby treating Lent like a forty-day diet from sin.
Without denying sin or Christ’s calling to repent – to turn away from and make a new start by God’s grace – I’m especially moved each Ash Wednesday by the ashen cross’ call for me, and us, to recognize, even embrace, our mortality, our finitude, our limitedness.
We are dust.
And to dust we shall return.
But we will not return to dust before the Spirit of God blows into the dust, brings us to life, and sails us toward that for which we were created: life in collaborative union with the Three-In-One God for the sake of God’s mission in the world. We may be dust, but we’re God’s dust – dust that God has spoken into existence from nothing out of love and invitation. Praying John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer may have prepared us for these truths: “I am no longer my own, but yours…So be it.”
The Gospel of Mark starts with an equally stark and captivating line: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (1:1, NIV). Mark’s gospel minces no words, shares no genealogies, and gets straight to the point. He doesn’t want to convince us by careful logic, though he is logical. He doesn’t want to bring us along, helping us to fit Jesus into the boxes of our previous faith understandings, though he does show Jesus within God’s history of salvation. Instead, Mark drops us right into the story in order to let Jesus, his words, and especially his actions, speak for themselves. Mark wants to show us Jesus, so that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we’ll be empowered to do that which our ashen crosses ultimately call us to: to live in response to and witness of the great, good news of Jesus.
This Lent, Pastor Seungli and I will be preaching through the Gospel of Mark, ultimately hoping to help Mark reveal the way of Jesus to, with, and among us.
- Let’s worship together. Each Sunday, as outlined in the Missional Mailer you received in the mail, we’ll preach on a section of Mark, picking out a small portion to explore in greater depth.
- Let’s read scripture together. I invite us all to read the Gospel of Mark at least once throughout the season of Lent. You can also do this using N. T. Wright’s Lent for Everyone – Mark, Year Bas a daily devotional (limited copies are available at the church, and it’s also available as a digital book from the bookseller of your choice).
- Let’s study together. On Mondays at 6 and 8:30pm (in-person and online, respectively), I’ll be leading Bible study sessions on Mark.
- Let’s grow in generosity together. Each Lent/Easter, Kearney First UMC invites people to give to Christ through the church specifically for mission partners or specialized ministries. There’s even a way to practice this generosity through a daily coin challenge calendar (you can find it here).
May God lead us, individually and as a church, to encounters with the depth of who Jesus is, so that we may be transformed by his good news life. May God guide us into God’s presence and likeness this Lent. May it be so.