Mark 9:9-15 NRSV
9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. 11 Then they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” 12 He said to them, “Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? 13 But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.”
14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15 When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him.
Several of us posted our experiences of Ash Wednesday on Facebook. Jorge and Adriana even posted selfies with their ashes. And one of the most common comments on those posts was something like, “I didn’t know that Christians did ashes.” Other comments to posts about Lent and Ash Wednesday were more basic. “What’s Lent?” And I received an email on Thursday morning from a member who said they had never experienced receiving ashes before, and were still trying to process the impact it had on them.
It occurred to me that maybe everyone here isn’t as familiar with this season and its practices as I thought they were. So, on this first Sunday in Lent, a short lesson on “What is Lent?”
Lent is a 46 day period of fasting and prayer, beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter. It is a reflection of the time Jesus spent in the wilderness preparing for his ministry. Lenten practices have changed in the last couple millennia. In the first few centuries, people who were seeking baptism would spend these 40 days learning what it means to be a Christian, so that they could be baptized on Resurrection Day, Easter. In the Middle Ages, the entire 40 days of Lent were fast days, which meant no meat, no sugars, no fats, no parties, no celebrations of any kind, and all kinds of self denial were common - wearing scratchy clothes next to your skin, or kneeling on rice or pebbles to pray. (Sidebar - the entire season is 46 days long, but only 40 are days when we fast or whatever, because Sundays don’t count. Every Sunday we celebrate the Resurrection, and share the feast of love, so there is no fasting on that day.) After the Reformation 500 years ago, these practices underwent some changes in the Protestant traditions, but Lent is still considered a period of self denial, hence, questions about “what are you giving up for Lent?” and answers like, “Chocolate.” Today some Christian traditions don’t observe Lent at all, while others do. We do. On Ash Wednesday, many of us came here and received a blessing - a cross on our foreheads of ashes made from burning palms used on Palm Sunday - and a reminder, that we came from dust, and to dust we will return. Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are mortal. But it also reminds us that our death will be a temporary thing, leading to eternal life with Christ. During the last week in Lent our emotions will be like yo-yos. We will shout Halleluia as Jesus makes his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. We will share hope of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday. We will mourn his passion and death on Good Friday. And then, Easter, and a great celebration! And all the purple goes away, and we drape everything in white and fill the sanctuary with glorious flowers.
But first, we must get through Lent, through self denial and grief and suffering.
The cross you see here is a symbol of what we will experience in the next six weeks. As we watch throughout the Lenten season, we will see that as it draws closer to the center of the stage, as Christ’s passion and death draw nearer to us, it will become less lovely. By Good Friday, all the flowers will be gone. Lent is much more than just six weeks without chocolate, or alcohol, or pasta. Lent is a time of preparation and purification as we walk alongside Jesus on his journey to the cross and beyond.
And now - back to the Bible. If you were here last Sunday, you might have noticed that this passage begins with the very same line that ended last week’s, “As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. “ And they wouldn’t, because they were pretty good at doing what Jesus asked of them. But they had questions. They didn’t understand. Jesus knew that his cousin, John, the Baptizer, was Elijah returned, to make prepare the way for him. But they didn’t. After all, they’d just seen Elijah, along with Moses, and they were pretty sure they hadn’t seen him before. So how could he be the Messiah if Elijah had to come first . . . it was probably a fairly circular moment for them. All would become clear later, but right now all they had were questions, and a requirement to remain silent about what they had just experienced. So they down the mountain and it was business as usual. There was a crowd, there were lawyers arguing with the other disciples, and as soon as Jesus was spotted, he was surrounded by people.
I wonder what it was like later that evening, when the crowds had gone. Wonder if the other disciples asked how it went up on the mountain, and if Peter, James and John were all, “You know, same old, same old. Prayers, some conversation. Nothing unusual at all.” Or maybe just changing the subject real quick. Cause you know, they weren’t allowed to tell anyone what they had experienced. Not even the other disciples.
Jesus did that a lot. He’d do something amazing and then say, “Don’t tell anyone. Don’t tell anyone I healed you. Don’t tell anyone that I was just having a conversation with Moses and Elijah. Don’t tell anyone that you know who I am.” Dunno why. I mean, obviously in this case, the disciples were pretty much still dazed and confused by what they had experienced. You could tell by their questions that they didn’t really understand who Jesus is, or the role John played. Even if they did tell people, they didn’t have enough information for their story to make any sense even to themselves, never mind trying to explain it to someone else. It won’t be until after the resurrection and beyond, in those 40 days after Easter when Jesus takes his disciples away to teach them everything they need to know that they will begin to really understand. And even after that, not until Pentecost when the Holy Spirit comes to them, will they have the words and the full knowledge they need to carry the Good News in Jerusalem and around the known world. So it makes sense Jesus wouldn’t want them to tell anyone, not until they are able to fully comprehend what they have seen and heard.
It’s not like he wanted them to be greedy with their knowledge, and keep it to themselves. He just wanted to make sure that they had all the knowledge they needed before they gave it away.
Greed is about more than money and stuff, you know. It’s also about time and caring. Greed can be seen in an unwillingness to share who you are and what you’ve experienced, with people who really need to hear those stories. There might good reasons to keep silence, or to hold yourself back from others. We’ve seen that with the #Metoo movement, that women and men have held their silence for years, decades even, refusing even to warn others about abusers and rapists, out of fear, or even in some cases out of a sort of warped sense that everyone has to go through what they went through, like a twisted rite of passage or something. I understand that. I do. It’s self protection. But we are now seeing an upsurge in generosity of spirit, a willingness to stand up for what is right that is spreading, so that maybe, some day, no one needs to fear that a more powerful person will be able to take advantage of them without any concern for consequences. Generosity of spirit is as important as generosity of money, and stuff, and time.
This congregation is particularly generous, and not just with your money and your stuff. You do so much for each other and for our city. I can’t keep begin to keep track of what all you all are involved in. I am so proud of you all. And I know there are some of you who give more than you can afford, who give so much of your time and spirit that you are exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally. And I believe that you think if you stop doing everything you do, even for a minute, that you are being greedy.
But know this. Self care is not greed. Self care is taking the time and effort needed to make sure you have what you need to continue to serve generously. Self care is being generous to oneself, and it is necessary. Jesus did that. He regularly wandered off into the wilderness to pray, regroup, re-charge and re-energize. He took time away by himself, or with just a few close friends, so that he could come back and face those giant crowds who overwhelmed him with their awe, with their needs and desires, and with their arguments. He even told his disciples not to share what they knew, as wonderful and amazing as that news was, so that they wouldn’t be overwhelmed by trying to answer questions that were impossible for them to answer. And, just in case you have forgotten - even God took a day off.
The Good News today, my brothers and sisters, is that Jesus did not tell us not to tell anyone. On the contrary - we, who are blessed with the knowledge that Jesus is the Messiah, we who have been taught to know God’s grace, mercy, and love are supposed to go and tell everyone, so that Christ’s great kingdom can come to earth. So let us stand and sing, for We have a story to tell the nations!