BLESSING, TESTING, REPENTING
Mark 1: 9-15
Editor James E. Adams reminds us that in the short story called “Somebody’s Son,” Richard Pindell describes the homecoming of a runaway boy named David. He wrote to his mother, asking if she thought his father would accept him if he came back home. “If so” he said, “ask him to tie a white cloth to the apple tree in the field next to the house.” As David is on the train going home, he knows that very soon the train will round the bend and the apple tree will be visible. But he is so apprehensive that he turns to a stranger and asks him to watch for the white cloth instead. David does not look. The stranger says in surprise, “Why son, there’s a white cloth tied to practically every branch!” From that short story a Christian band decided to call themselves “100 White Flags” with both the short story and the band referencing the Luke 15 passage about the prodigal son who had hurt and disgraced his father, left for a far country, and wondered if he would be welcomed if he returned home. The story might also remind you of the 1973 song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree” about a man being released from prison, wondering if his love will still welcome him home. He sees a hundred yellow ribbons and has his answer! The yellow ribbon connection, however, goes back much farther. The folk song that has been around more almost 400 years has the title “Round Her Neck She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.” It is said to have even inspired the 1949 John Wayne film “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.” Today on this first Sunday in Lent, I want to suggest that our lives often follow a cycle of “blessing, testing, and repenting.” See if times in your life follow that pattern.
Blessing. American Baptist minister Mryon Madden in his book “The Power to Bless” says that each of us yearns for and seeks a sense of blessing from someone significant. Normally we seek a sense of that pride and pleasure from a mother or a father; if it is not found there, a grandfather or grandmother may offer it; if the soul of the child still does not find a sense of blessing, he or she may look to the church for blessing, offered by a pastor, a teacher, and ultimately by God. In the worst-case scenario, a person starved for the blessing they crave may look “in all the wrong places” and connect with a manipulator or another person who takes him or her down a dark path. I can’t describe how important it is to offer encouragement and affirmation with your words and actions to your children, grandchildren, students, and others: even your spouse. Sometimes especially from your spouse! There are still grown adults in our world looking for, as Shel Silverstein once put it, their “Missing Piece.” Spouses, friends and others: you have the power to bless these hurting adults in your world. The example from Scripture today describes Jesus as a grown man getting his message from above with others around him. He gets his blessing with these words: “You are my beloved Son. I am well pleased with you!” Jesus now had his blessing for the life he would face.
Testing. That’s the next thing Jesus faced. And it is the thing that both blessed and non-blessed persons face every day. In Lent, we pull the shadow side of our lives out and expose them to the light, not to do harm, but to begin acknowledging them and start a journey toward wholeness. If a person has his or her sense of well-being from a parent, a friend, a spouse, or some other significant individual, they are better armed to say “no” to the many temptations they will face. Those who are not as sure about their firm foundation can be tested and tempted more easily by others. In the Prodigal Son story I alluded to from Luke 15, we might imagine that the father especially praised his oldest son, the one by tradition who got his father’s business, land, and 50% of the inheritance no matter how many others sibilings he had. The younger son might never have felt as blessed, or as valued, or as loved. You too may know people who, either in their public life or their private life, are prodigal people: ones who are lost, lashing out at others with pain, or sorrow, or anger. If that is you, or someone you love, there is good news! By the end of the prodigal son story, the father embraced his younger son while his older son smoldered in the sins of envy and covetousness. Those who acknowledge their brokenness and seek reconciliation often find healing. The prodigal son was bitterly tested, going to a far country. We can assume this boy was from a Jewish family because those were the families Jesus knew: can you imagine a Jewish boy not only being around pigs—animals they considered unclean—but also eating pig food to survive? That boy, like many in our world, hit his “personal bottom;” that sent him back to seek blessing and reconnection through the path of repentance.
Repentance. It is the Jewish system of forgiveness and is clearly the basis for our Christian pattern too. When we sin—metaphorically going to a far country or moving down dark paths—the way back is not accomplished by cover-ups. People eventually find out and you spend an exhausting amount of time trying to keep up your secret. Repentance is the enormous act of admitting your wrong choices, putting actions into place that will keep you from old bad habits, and then asking for forgiveness.
Today’s passage from Mark highlights those three points: Blessing in verse 11; being tested, or tempted in verse 13; and then not Jesus’ repentance, but John’s call to repentance in verse 15. Those few verses contain one of life’s most important patterns for wholeness. This is the season where you can know this: First, God loves you more than anyone even in the earth. Get your blessing from God if you have missed it from others. Second, people in life will test you and tempt you. I’m sure they already have. But what happens in those encounters can be changed by the unfailing love of God, and even through the redemptive love of a man or a woman. And finally, dump the baggage from your back that failed tests in your past have loaded on to you, repent; turn around; come back to ones whose arms are wide and whose hearts are glad! God fits that description! Some others do too! These forty days can be a day of new beginnings, for you.
Jeffrey A. Sumner February 22, 2015