Today is the first Sunday in Lent and each year our gospel reading focuses our attention on Jesus going into the wilderness. While Ash Wednesday may have named and marked us with the reality of our mortality and the fragility of life, it is in the wilderness where we face our mortality, experience the fragility and struggle with how to live with these two realities. As we heard in our gospel reading today, Mark really doesn’t waste time on a lot of details. His style is to quickly move from one encounter to another. With this distinctive economy of words, in only seven verses, Mark describes and covers pivotal moments in Jesus’ ministry: his baptism, his temptation in the wilderness, and his proclamation of the good news of God. When we read the other gospel accounts of these events, we realize just how little Mark tells us, but my sense is that the gospel writer believed he was telling us all we needed to know. And the verses that come before our reading today, we are introduced to John the Baptizer who appeared in the wilderness and spoke of the more powerful one who was to come. And as if on cue, Jesus appears and is baptized by John in the Jordan.

And as Jesus is coming up out of the water, he sees the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending like a dove on him. It has been suggested that this rending of the heavens denotes a barrier that has been torn down and God is on the loose in the world. Then a voice from heaven declares, “You are my Son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased”. Immediately after his baptism, the spirit ‘drives’ or closer to the Greek, ‘throws’ Jesus out into the wilderness. And friends, this is no recreational pleasure camping trip. We get the feeling that Jesus is almost possessed by the Spirit from the text, and there he stays for 40 days with the wild beast, tempted by Satan, but also waited on by angels.

Mark does not narrate any details of Jesus’ testing or describe each temptation as Matthew and Luke do. But Jesus’ wilderness experience is reminiscent of Israel’s 40 years of testing in the wilderness. Jesus returns to Galilee and begins his public ministry after John has been arrested. And Jesus’ message, the good news, is short and clear. Jesus is ready. He is clear about his purpose and he gets right to work. We feel the urgency of Jesus’ mission. The time is here. The fullness of time has arrived. The decision and the decisive moment chosen by God for the inbreaking of God’s reign on earth. This proclamation is followed by the urgent imperative to repent and believe in the good news. Mark’s rapid moving approach draws attention away from the details of the individual events themselves and brings into focus the movement between them. So what can we hear from Mark’s breathless account? We find that one moment builds upon the other in dramatic fashion, in Jesus’s development and preparation for all that is to come. Today as we think about Jesus in the wilderness, we see someone who enters the wilderness with a clear sense of his identity. Someone who leaves the wilderness having confronted and overcome temptation, someone who comes out ready to live out his purpose.

We experience the sense of urgency in Mark’s presentation. The critical time has arrived. God’s reign is breaking in and there is no time to delay. This was the message Mark had for the people of his time, but it is also meant for us as well. Now, the announcement of God’s inbreaking reign may come as challenging news to some of us. It is much more comfortable to think of God safely beyond the heavens benignly looking down on us. But if God is on the loose in Jesus, alive and active in our world, then something may be demanded of us. During the season of Lent, we too go into the wilderness, but with intention, because it is part of the way of Jesus, part of the path of our discipleship. We set out for the wilderness because we choose to confront anything that seeks to separate us from God. Anything that ends up being an obstacle between God and our hearts. We go because we recognize that being in the wilderness puts us in that vulnerable, risky, open place, where it might be easier to hear God’s voice, easier to listen to what God is saying, easier to answer God’s call.

On this first Sunday in Lent, we are also in the middle of Black History month, and taken together, they offer an opportune time to lament racial injustice, to listen for gospel’s call to repent, pray, and act in solidarity with those impacted by systemic and personal racial discrimination. This month is a time to remember and celebrate the stories of black Americans who, despite facing many forms of discrimination, have contributed greatly to the world. We focus on recovering some of the stories of oppressed people and events that have shaped our American life. We do this because for so long the stories of black women and men have been overlooked, under-told, ignored at all, or stolen. This fact, as I have said before, is why the work of this cathedral to include, expand, and represent those stories and those images in this sacred space is so important, as it stands in contrast to the efforts of many across this country, to erase the narratives and culture of my people, those who have the legacy of enslavement in our family lineage. The Now and Forever Windows reflect a new chapter in the cathedral’s life and mission, to work for inclusion and racial justice reconciliation, but they do not relay that the struggle is over. Rather, they invite us with the same urgency as Mark’s gospel into a movement for fairness and justice, asking, ‘Will you join us?’

It is a question each of us must answer from the depths of our hearts. More than 50 years ago, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King wrote his final book* before his assassination urging us to make the choice between chaos and community. “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now”, He wrote, “This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos or community”. The phrase, the ‘fierce urgency of now’ is not only bold but prophetic. It is a call, not just for the 1960s lost in history, but for us today in 2024. As a nation of diverse people, we can no longer deny the reality and the threat of white supremacy and institutional racism in our communities and institutions. The ‘fierce urgency of now’ is not just a call to action, it is also a call to acknowledge truth.

There is no justice without truth. It is no secret that as a culture we struggle with the truth, with the advent and acceptance of alternative facts. But our inability or unwillingness to accept truth is emotionally and spiritually debilitating. The sad reality is that when we fail to accept and acknowledge truth, when we fail to accept diversity and treat each other with equity, we devolve and resort to violence. We see more and more inclined these days toward a preference for violence and revenge over truth and inclusion. We have seen an ever-increasing retreat from truth in this nation, and this distancing from truth detracts from our ability to engage in ways that honor the dignity and integrity of the human person. And the consequence is the division that we are living through, with our inability to engage anyone who differs from us or thinks differently from us. All too often we fail to see people in their true humanness as fellow beloved children of God. The ‘fierce urgency of now’ demands our action as people of faith, as our nation, that too often seems lost in the wilderness, in search of its better version of itself. Our gospel reminds us that the critical time has arrived. God’s reign is breaking in, and there is no time to delay.

Until we are able to see one another as beloved children of God, we will continue to seek deeper and deeper in division. Until we become bridge builders, we will always be separated by difference. And until we build bridges grounded in truth and constructed with respect, love, and justice, we will fail to create any structure that is true, and we will only increase the chaos. Today, my siblings, we stand at the crossroad between chaos and community. The ‘fierce urgency of now’ bids us to choose community. May we use this season of Lent and our time in the wilderness, expecting that we will emerge with a clarity of purpose, refocused and ready to live lives as disciples. To live as Jesus did, loving God and loving neighbor with all our heart. Truly the kingdom of God has come near. Amen.

* Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (First published June 1967)


The Rev. Canon Rosemarie Logan Duncan

Canon for Worship