The combined seasons of Epiphany and Lent in the church year have come to prompt for me a condensed reflection on the life journey, especially the “faith-life” journey.
It is a short distance in the calendar between Christmas and Easter, but that period seems to contain in a microcosm the whole of the pilgrimage, both personally and historically.
The joyful discovery of a disclosure that becomes the basis of a covenant journey leads to a meaningful partnership and new community of service and reverence.
This mirrors the early stages of discipleship in which Christians experience the liberation of new ways of thinking and doing, as well as the energy of an expanding community of common commitments.
The journey brings its challenges, to be sure, but there is a confidence that rests in the assurance that the one who called us to the journey is also the covenant partner in meeting the challenges.
That confidence nurtures a developing courage that builds on previous experience and strengthens the trust that the calling will lead where it is supposed to. This confidence and trust are the essence of a developing faith.
As we move metaphorically into and through the season of Lent, we begin to see and hear the announcements that this life, its benefits and its fulfillment, will run into resistance and rejection from places and people who do not share the values that have come to be the content of the calling.
Good news is fine as far as it goes, but if it starts being offered to the wrong people, or if it begins to challenge some “deeply held religious beliefs” of influential folks, or if it suggests some different directions for faithful thought and practice, then it is not so good, or well received.
The Lectionary texts for this past Sunday included this shocker from Jesus: “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).
And, by the way, Jesus reveals that this will be true for those who follow (Mark 8:34-35).
Lent brings us to the threshold of a new challenge in the covenant journey. The way forward is uncertain and will not be a replication of familiar terrain.
The faith/confidence that has been building is jolted by this discovery of the stress and rejection that lies ahead, and a choice must be made.
Jesus and his followers can continue to move about the villages of Galilee where people are mostly receptive and grateful, or they can turn toward Jerusalem where the disclosure of the gospel agenda can move to the larger stage.
The natural reaction, it seems, is captured in Peter’s response to Jesus’ announcement, described in the text as “taking him aside and rebuking him for such talk” (Mark 8:32).
We can imagine his desire to preserve things as they are without dealing with the tension that lay ahead.
Jesus’ reply to him suggests that his resistance to the next stage of the journey and its challenges is an expression of Satan’s agenda (Mark 8:33).
A parallel experience can be found in the Exodus liberation.
The journey from bondage into the wilderness and its challenges soon gave way to a yearning for the security of their former place in Egypt – preferred over the uncertainty of what was before them.
These experiences from the covenant testimony of both Israel and the early church, as well as experiences that we all have had in one form or another, offer us insight into faith.
It is the confidence to move into the uncertainty of a “wilderness” – an uncharted future – with the assurance of a covenant promise – “I will be with you” – in spite of the knowledge that acting on the calling of the promise will be met with resistance and rejection.
These experiences are also reminders of the ease with which the desire for certainty and the security of previous structures and ways of thinking can become the primary response to the wilderness ahead.
The Lenten choice for pilgrims, as individuals and communities, seems to be whether to embrace and hold the confidence of the covenant partnership that has brought the journey thus far, or to retreat to the siren call of the subtle form of idolatry that offers the certainty of bondage to ideas and structures that promise security in the face of change.
The idolatry of certainty is appealing, and it expresses itself in various ideologies of rigidified racial, national, social and even religious perspectives that deny and resist the reality of the “new thing” that the God of the covenant is always doing (Isaiah 43:19).
An annual reminder of this Lenten choice may not be often enough.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).