1st Sunday of Lent
Genesis 9:8–15; 1 Peter 3:18–22; Mark 1:12–15
Reform and Believe
We must admit our sins and seek Jesus’ help to turn away from them.
Piri Thomas wrote a book called Down These Mean Streets.
It describes his conversion from being a convict, a drug addict, and an attempted killer to become an exemplary Christian.
One night, Piri was lying on his cell bunk in prison. Suddenly it occurred to him what a mess he’d made of his life.
He felt an overwhelming desire to pray. But he was sharing the cell with another prisoner called “the thin kid.”
So he waited.
After he thought “the thin kid” was asleep, he climbed out of his bunk, knelt down on the cold concrete, and prayed.
“I told God what was in my heart. . . .
I talked to him plain . . . no big words. . . .
I talked to him of my wants and lacks, of my hopes and disappointments. . . .
I felt like I could even cry . . .
something I hadn’t been able to do for years.”
After Piri finished his prayer, a small voice said, “Amen.”
It was “the thin kid.” “There we were,” Piri said,
“he lying down, head on bended elbows,
and I still on my knees. No one spoke for a long while.
Then the kid whispered, ‘I believe in Dios also.’ ”
The two young men talked a long time. Then Piri climbed back into his bunk. “Good night, Chico,” he said.
“I’m thinking that God is always with us—it’s just that we aren’t with him.”
That story is a beautiful illustration of what Jesus means in today’s gospel when he says, “Turn away from your sins and believe in the Good News!”
Jesus’ instruction contains two points. The first is to “reform” our lives. The second is to “believe in the gospel.” Let’s begin with the first point: the reform of our lives.
To reform” means to recognize the evil in our lives and to turn our back on it. It means to face up to sin in our lives and to turn away from it.
It means to imitate Piri Thomas, who admitted the mess he’d made of his life and decided to do something about it.
All of us can relate to Piri Thomas’s experience. We too are aware of the evil tendencies that occasionally mess up our lives.
we are aware of selfishness that puts our comfort ahead of others’ needs. We are aware of pride that keeps us from admitting our faults. We are aware of laziness that keeps us from helping others.
“To reform” means to face up to these evil tendencies in our lives and to do something about them.
This brings us to the second point of Jesus’ instruction.
Besides reforming our lives, Jesus tells us to “believe in the gospel.”
This means to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that he came to save us. It means to seek out Jesus, especially in the sacrament of Reconciliation, and to receive from him forgiveness and healing.
It means to do what Piri Thomas did after he saw the evil in his life.
He turned to God for help.
He believed in the “good news” that God had sent Jesus into the world to save sinners like himself.
And so the story of Piri Thomas illustrates beautifully the two points of Jesus’ instruction in today’s gospel.
The first point is to “reform” our lives. The second is to “believe in the gospel,” to believe that Jesus came to save us.
Some time ago author Kilian McDonnell made a keen observation about conversion. It came in response to this question: Why are some evangelical preachers so successful in effecting conversions?
For one thing, says McDonnell, they follow Jesus’ instruction in today’s gospel. They get people to admit they are sinners, and they help people turn to Jesus for salvation.
“Many [people] do not recognize Christ, because they do not recognize themselves as sinners. If I am not a sinner, then I have no need of Christ.”
McDonnell concludes, saying:
“No man will celebrate the mystery of Christ in joy if he does not first recognize in sorrow that he is a sinner.”
Today’s gospel invitation touches on both of those important points. It invites us to admit we are sinners, and to turn to Jesus for salvation.
This brings us to a concluding observation. Today’s gospel invitation makes a perfect introduction to Lent.
Down through the centuries, Christians have found the season of Lent to be a time of special grace, especially for reforming one’s life.
If we are looking for a special way to celebrate Lent this year,
we could do no better than to use it as an opportunity to rediscover the power and peace of the sacrament of Reconciliation.
For in this sacrament we do what Jesus invites us to do in today’s gospel. We acknowledge our sinfulness and accept him as our personal savior.
Let’s close by reflecting on a passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It describes Paul’s own experience of his sinfulness and his own acceptance of Jesus as savior.
“I do not understand what I do; for I don’t do
what I would like to do, but instead I do what I hate. . . .
“For even though the desire to do good is in me, I am not able to do it. I don’t do the good I want to do; instead, I do the evil that I do not want to do. . . .
“What an unhappy man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is taking me to death?
“Thanks be to God . . . Jesus Christ!” Romans 7:15, 18–19, 24–25
1st Sunday of Lent
Genesis 9:8–15; 1 Peter 3:18–22; Mark 1:12–15
Lent is the ideal time to deepen our repentance and our belief.
In May 1980 Time magazine carried a striking story.
It was entitled “Atheist’s Son Finds God.’’ The story described the conversion of William J. Murray III.
Murray’s name became a household word in 1963,
when he was still a child. In that year, in Baltimore, Maryland, William and his mother, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, went to court to challenge the practice of praying and Bible reading in public schools.
The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and ended in the banning of all prayer and Bible reading in our nation’s public schools.
In the years ahead, when William grew up, he carried his anti-God crusade into print, publishing an atheistic magazine.
But then came William’s conversion.
According to Time magazine, Murray’s conversion was fueled, in part, by his growing conviction that survival on this planet may depend on whether or not we discover and rest our faith on something higher and nobler than ourselves.
If Murray’s conversion to God was triggered by a concern for our planet, his conversion to Jesus Christ was triggered in a slightly different way. He describes it in his book entitled
My Life without God.
Murray had always been a fan of the famous novelist Taylor Caldwell. Just before Christmas 1979, Murray read Caldwell’s Dear and Glorious Physician.
That particular book is a historical novel—that is, partly historical and partly fictional. It’s about a young man named Lucanus, who lived in ancient Roman times.
Lucanus, like William, grew up angry with religion.
That anger turned to love, however, when Lucanus discovered Jesus Christ.
As the novel progresses, Lucanus grows up to be Saint Luke, the author of the Gospel according to Luke.
That story set William to thinking.
One night about a month after Christmas, William had a vivid dream about the Bible. The dream jarred him out of a deep sleep.
The experience was so moving that William got out of bed and drove to an all-night discount store near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. He writes:
“There under a stack of porno magazines . . .
I found a Bible.
I drove back to my apartment and read [the Gospel according to Luke]. There I found . . . Jesus Christ.’’
That night changed William’s life forever.
After his conversion, he wrote a letter to the Baltimore Sun.
He apologized to the people of Baltimore for his part in the Supreme Court ruling that banned the Bible and prayer from American schools. He said in his letter:
“As I now look back over 33 years of life wasted without faith in God, I pray only that I can, with his help, right some of the wrong and evil I caused through my lack of faith.”
That story is a living illustration of what Jesus meant in today’s gospel when he said:
“The right time has come,” he said, “and the Kingdom of God is near! Turn away from your sins and believe the Good News!” Mark 1:15
That’s exactly what William Murray did. He repented his 33 years of atheism, believed in the Gospel, and made Jesus Christ the center of his life.
What William did is what today’s gospel invites us to do on this first Sunday of Lent.
It doesn’t invite us to repent a life of atheism. Nor does it invite us to write an open letter of apology to people.
It does, however, invite us to repent a life that hasn’t always had Jesus at its center. And it does invite us to rediscover a book that hasn’t always held top priority in our lives.
In brief, today’s gospel invites us to make the season of Lent
a time of special personal blessing.
What do we mean by that?
We simply mean that through the centuries the season of Lent has always been a time of special grace for Christians, especially for making changes in their lives.
Jesus is offering that same special grace to each of us during this Lent.
This brings us to the practical question. How do we respond, in a concrete way, to Jesus’ invitation?
There are as many concrete ways to respond as there are Christians. Consider just two ways.
The first way is to do what William Murray did.
Get a copy of the Bible and read the Gospel according to Luke
from start to finish this Lent. You could do this by simply reading a chapter a night.
A second way to respond, in a concrete manner, is to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation at some point during the Lenten season. For in receiving this sacrament we do precisely what Jesus invites us to do in today’s readings. We express, in a concrete way, our repentance and our belief in the Gospel.
That is, we express our sorrow for our sins, and we express our belief that Jesus Christ wishes to forgive them and to help us begin a new life.
This is the invitation the Gospel holds out to us on this first Sunday of Lent. It’s an invitation to do what William Murray did.
It’s an invitation to seek forgiveness for our sins and to begin a new life with Jesus at its center.
Let’s close with a prayer:
Lord, the season of Lent is a season of invitation.
It’s a season when you invite us to open our hearts to the special grace that you traditionally give at this time.
It’s a season when you invite us to look closely at our lives to see what needs to be changed or what needs to be improved upon.
Give us the light to see ourselves as you yourself see us.
Above all, however, give us the courage to change ourselves as you yourself would want us to change.
1st Sunday of Lent
Genesis 9:8–15, 1 Peter 3:18–22, Mark 1:12–15
Season of grace
The Kingdom of God is near.
After John had been put into prison, Jesus went to Galilee and preached the Good News from God.
“The right time has come,” he said,
“and the Kingdom of God is near! Turn away from your sins and believe the Good News!” Mark 1:14–15
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a short story called “Earth’s Holocaust.” As you read it, you must keep in mind that he wrote it in the mid 1800s when the world was incredibly simpler than it is today.
I don’t know all the details of the story, but it goes something like this.
The people of the world decide to take matters into their own hands to secure world peace for their children.
They collect everything linked to violence—guns, swords, canons, even books—and throw them onto a huge bonfire.
As the flames roar higher and brighter, the people begin to celebrate: clapping, singing, and dancing.
But then something happens. A speaker gets the attention of the crowd and he warns them, saying:
“There is one thing more we must burn. It is a more dangerous threat to peace than all the other things we have thrown on the fire.”
“What is it?” they shout. “What is it? Tell us! For God’s sake tell us! We must burn it for the good of our children.”
The man says:
“We must burn the human heart. For unless we find a way to put love and respect back into the human heart, all the things we are burning now will soon resurrect again from the fire.”
Edwin Feulner, president of a Washington institute,
recalled the story after the Littleton, Colorado, shootings years ago, saying:
“The story’s lesson is crystal clear. Goodness is a necessary cornerstone of any free, self-governing society.”
His point is that goodness and virtue are essential in a nation like ours.
Unfortunately, however, they can’t be legislated or imposed from without. They must come freely from within. They must come from the human heart.
That doesn’t mean that we should not do everything humanly possible to rid our world of violence—as the people in Hawthorne’s story were trying to do.
It simply means something more is needed.
What is it?
It is the same thing that the man in Hawthorne’s story
was saying we needed. We need a change of heart in society today.
We must take to heart the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel.
Saint Mark writes:
Jesus preached the Good News from God [saying] . . .
“The Kingdom of God is near! Turn away from your sins
and believe in the Good News.” Mark 1:15
We need to reattach ourselves to the spiritual roots that made our nation great.
The great French statesman Alexis de Tocqueville admired America greatly. He was convinced that America held the secret for all governments of the future to go.
And so, in the mid 1800s he traveled to America to learn the secret of her genius and greatness.
In his last campaign speech in Boston, President Eisenhower revealed the secret that de Tocqueville discovered.
The French statesman wrote:
I sought for the genius and greatness of America . . .in her fertile fields and boundless forests—and it was not there.. . .
[I sought for it] in her rich mines and her vast world commerce—and it was not there. . . .
[I sought for it] in her democratic Congress and matchless Constitution—and it was not there.
Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power.
America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good America will cease to be great.
Idon’t know about you, but I think those words are turning out to be truly prophetic for this moment in our history.
If there is one message that our nation needs to hear and take to heart right now, it is the message of de Tocqueville.
If there is one message that resonates with the words of Jesus’ message in the Gospel reading for this first Sunday of Lent,
it is this message of de Tocqueville.
What Jesus said to the people of his day, Jesus is saying even more so to the people of our day:
“The Kingdom of God is near! Turn away from your sins and believe the Good News!” Mark 1:15
The first step in heeding the message of Jesus and de Tocqueville is to begin with ourselves.
It is to take to heart the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel and to begin to put them to work beginning this first Sunday of Lent.
Traditionally, the season of Lent is a season of special grace.
It’s a season when Jesus invites us to look into our hearts and rediscover the secret of our greatness.
It’s a season when Jesus calls us to return to the roots of our greatness.
It’s a season when Jesus graces us to new resolve and new determination to become the kind of persons our Father in heaven created us to be.