February 18- sermon- Betsy Wooster

Sermon Text...


Feb.18, 2024 sermon      To Bow and to Bend              Rev. Betsy Wooster

First Sunday in Lent.



Mark 9: 1-15


9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending to him like a dove. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”


12 And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. 13 Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and was with the wild beasts, and the angels served him.


14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the dominion of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Let us pray: God may the gift of your spirit move among us so that we may turn to you with delight. Amen.




“The time is fulfilled, and the dominion of God has come near.” The season of Lent begins with these words from Jesus, telling us what God had told him at his baptism, that he is God’s beloved son, born to bring God’s startling  good news to the people. Jesus words are claiming that God is now near to them in a new way, through him. This Jesus, walking and teaching among them, a person many of them knew to be Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary and son of his carpenter father, Joseph, is the one at the heart of God’s work on earth. And what is the first thing that Jesus tells the people? Repent. Repent and believe the good news.


What brought Jesus to Galilee with this message, back to the region where he grew up? It begins with his baptism in the Jordan river, when the spirit of God descended from heaven to Jesus and he heard God’s voice speaking from heaven. God said, “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” What happened after the spirit descended upon Jesus with this powerful blessing? The same spirit then drove Jesus straight into the wilderness where Jesus was forced to turn and face the most difficult temptations.

This son of God found that the power he was endowed with was not given to control others, but to love the world and the people in it, revealing the power that God’s love is meant to be. It is meant to show us that the power of love comes from its gentleness, its freedom from conditions, its transformational power to make us new. What kind of wilderness experiences have you had in your life? How have you wrestled with God? Have you ever started the way Jesus did, beginning with the certain loving recognition and blessing of God? Or do we usually find ourselves in a wilderness because we feel lost when battling something difficult? Do you feel certain that God was with you in times of testing as Jesus did? In times when your shame was too great to invite God’s forgiveness as you turned in God’s direction?


It can be hard to know God’s presence and mercy when we feel lost in the wilderness of our trials and our shame. Where is God when we’re in the wilderness? In Bible study on this text last week, when we were discussing what it means that the dominion of God is at hand, a wise person said that God is more powerful than the worst thing we can do. This gives us space to close our eyes, slow our breath, and imagine the spirit of God softly and slowly descending like a dove upon us, saying “I am here, you are my beloved child.” Believe the good news: God is near. To know that you are loved, unconditionally, is one of the most powerful and emboldening feelings we experience.


After returning from the wilderness, Jesus summons those around him with the simplest of calls, “The dominion of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.”  That’s it, Repent and Believe. Now, I want to stop here for a moment, because perhaps like you, I am already thinking that following Jesus and living as he says we must live doesn’t feel like a simple thing to me. It feels monumental. It is complicated. In our modern understanding, the word repent usually comes with the negative connotation that we have done something horribly wrong, with the suggestion that in our shame we must acknowledge our sin and accept that we have been unworthy in some way. A heavy burden. But in the New Testament Greek, the word Repent in this passage means simply to turn in another direction.  Jesus says to the crowds around him, repent and believe the good news. How might we understand what he’s asking us? I believe it is meant to be simple. The first word is “Repent,” meaning turn toward me and I will help you.  Then he says, “Believe,” meaning turn toward me; come close and experience the unending love of God because the dominion of God has come near. Repent and Believe. Turn in a new direction and give your heart to God, no matter the fact that we will make mistakes along the way.



Giving ourselves fully to God does not sound simple. But I believe that this is because we know that following Jesus means we probably need to be less selfish. Less focused on just ourselves and more committed to helping others who need the love of God as much as we do. But the turning itself is not complicated. The act of repentance is a willingness to turn in the direction of love, day by day, season by season, as God’s Spirit draws us close again and again. It takes time.


If any of you remember, or still play the game Othello, it’s that old board game with the round tiles that are white on one side and black on the other, and they keep getting flipped over. You may remember the old ads for the game that went like this: “A minute to learn.  A lifetime to master.” The simple call of faith takes a minute to learn. It’s in the first teaching of Jesus: “Repent and believe the good news.” And, it takes a lifetime to master. So it is with repenting or turning. The concept of turning is simple. We turn toward God when we need help. We turn toward God when our sins are weighing us down. We turn to God with Thanksgiving.


And though the act of turning is simple, the courage to do so takes time. I’m reminded of the Shaker tune titled “Tis a Gift to be Simple” as it has always intrigued me. I’m guessing you know or have heard the song that ends with these words: “To bow and to bend we will not be asham'd, To turn, turn will be our delight,Till by turning, turning we come round right.” As a child, I didn’t really understand what the song meant. I honestly kept wondering what all the turning was about. Why turn around so many times in a row?


And at that tender age I wondered about the bowing and bending, because I couldn’t figure out why anyone would feel ashamed of bowing or bending. Bowing in prayer is what I was taught to do.  And, because I was a child who loved to dance, I figured that turning being delightful must have meant that spinning and dancing was fun and encouraged.

But now I know. Bowing or bending before God to ask for forgiveness can make us acknowledge our shame, but highlighting shame is not God’s goal. It is never God’s goal.


Turning toward God can fill us with joy, should fill us with joy, knowing that we will be lovingly received. Bending our bodies in prayer in an act of repentance does not need to be filled with shame, but rather, filled with the delight of experiencing God’s forgiveness and love. We are not perfect, but we are loved. God has confidence in us. Notice, that Jesus does not give additional requirements. He does not say repent and then announce your sin and be punished for all the ways that you have fallen short. He doesn’t say to walk the plank. He doesn’t say yes, you have failed, but I will try to love you anyway. 

There are no conditions other than turning to the presence of God and following in the way of Jesus. The words that Jesus heard at his baptism just before God drew him to the wilderness were words of love. You are my son. I am proud of you. I love you.  Such words from our parents or elders can transform our understanding of ourselves. Such words give us courage to be truly ourselves. As another person in our Bible study said, Jesus hearing these words from his father may have reinforced his ability to endure the wilderness temptations. Knowing we are loved makes us stronger. The simple message of Jesus is a gift.


The dominion of God has come near. Repent, turn, and believe the good news. It will be our delight! Tis a gift to be simple. Let’s sing it together. Marcia will play it one time through on the piano, and then we’ll join in singing the lyrics on the screen.


“Simple Gifts” by Joseph Brackett

The congregation sings together:

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free

'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we will not be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.