1st Sunday of Lent
St Barbara’s 22.02.15
Hold up dumb-bells
Despite their colour, these are not fashion accessories to dangle from ones ears. Nor, despite their ability to roll, are they a new form of bowling ball.
They have one purpose, to build up, to tone our muscles. Athletes and footballers use these kind of weights to build up their muscles, to get themselves ready, to be fit, so that when the race, when the match comes, they are ready.
Well, as we begin Lent, we have the opportunity to enter into our own gym, a gym to prepare us and develop us spiritually, so that when Easter comes, we are in a position to truly celebrate it.
Our Gospel reading begins with the beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry, coming to be baptised in the Jordan by John the Baptist. As we saw a few weeks ago, Jesus receives extraordinary affirmation from his Father in Heaven. The heavens open, the Spirit descends on him and a voice from heaven declares: “You are my Son whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” It is a wonderful statement of trust, of love, of delight. And so, buoyed up and encouraged, Jesus is now sent by the Spirit into the desert, to be prepared for what lies ahead.
Mark is characteristically brief and to the point in describing the events of the wilderness. Whilst Matthew and Luke describe for us in some depth the nature of the temptations Jesus faced, Mark simply says “Jesus was tempted”.
But what Mark does say, has much to say to us as we enter this time of Lent.
Mark tells us Jesus was in the desert for forty days. Throughout the Old Testament, the number 40 is significant.
• The rain fell for forty days and nights when the world was flooded and Noah and his family were being prepared to begin life again on earth.
• The people of Israel, having escaped slavery in Egypt, wandered in the desert for forty years, being forged into a nation and a people obedient to God, before they entered into the promised land.
• Moses was on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights in the presence of God, before returning to the people with God’s commands.
• For forty days Joshua and Caleb explored the land of Canaan, before coming back to report to the people of Israel.
• For forty days and nights, Elijah journeyed in the wilderness before his encounter with God at Mount Horeb.
Forty was a significant period of preparation, a time God used to prepare people for a significant time ahead.
Indeed Jesus spent 40 days preparing his disciples for their mission between his resurrection and his ascension.
So when Mark tells us that Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, we know that this must have been a significant period of preparation, of encounter with his Father, prior to the beginning of his public ministry.
We cannot underestimate the value and importance of preparing ourselves too, of putting ourself in a place where God can speak to us. For those of us who are set to embark on a new initiative, a new job, a new phase of life, the value in taking time to prepare ourselves spiritually, to seek God’s leading and enabling, is so important. After all, if Jesus needed to do it, how much more us.
When I was rung by the archdeacon and asked if I would be the next vicar here at St Barbara’s, I am so grateful that the next day Sarah and I had planned two days away to celebrate our wedding anniversary. During that time, we were able to pray and seek God’s guidance. That time was so important in helping to shape our response, and we’re so glad we’ve come.
But even if we don’t feel like there is anything new on the horizon, that life feels as though it will continue as it has done, the changing seasons of the Christian year mean that there is preparation to be done for us too. If we are to celebrate Easter with the joy and the meaning it deserves, then we need to prepare ourselves too.
I spoke last week of some of the ways we can listen to Jesus during Lent. And I was greatly encouraged by how many of you chose to participate in our Ash Wednesday services last week. But there are many more ways to mark these next six weeks as a time of spiritual preparation. Do come along to one of the Lent groups, or to our Wednesday morning communion services. Do look to read a whole gospel, or to give a few more minutes to prayer each day.
Let’s follow the example of Jesus and prepare ourselves this Lent.
The second thing that Mark makes very clear is not just that Jesus’ time in the wilderness was a time of preparation, but that it was a time of conflict between good and evil too. Jesus was tempted by Satan. In my previous parish, we used to run a lot of baptism preparation groups, and people would often squirm at some of the promises they would be asked to make in the service, particularly the ones that ask:
Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?
Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil?
Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?
The language feels harsh and maybe somewhat medieval, conjuring up images of red figures with horns and pitchforks. But as we spent time discussing the promises, people became more willing to acknowledge their appropriateness. For it only takes a few moments of reflection on the events of human history or our current affairs to recognise that there is tangible evil in our world. How do we account for the holocaust, carried out in such a coldly methodical and efficient way, that led to the deaths of six million innocent people, unless we acknowledge that there is evil in our world? How do we make sense of the genocides carried out in Rwanda and the Balkans without referring to sin and evil? How do we understand the depths of human depravity people are capable of – the abuse and exploitation of the young and vulnerable, for example – unless we acknowledge there is evil as well as good in the world? And how do we otherwise explain the wrestles within our own natures between doing good and doing wrong?
Jesus faced temptation, confronted evil, in the desert. He also saw its outworking in political corruption and coercion. For Mark’s very next words are: “After John was put in prison…” Why? For daring to criticise and hold to account those in power who were abusing their positions.
It is tempting to believe that living a good life will free us from opposition and conflict, but the example of Jesus, and of saints down the ages, is that living a holy life can often intensify the conflicts, not remove them. Jesus’ opposition to what was wrong, his embracing of the poor and marginalised, his proclamation of the truth, brought him into constant conflict with the authorities of his day, and eventually to his death. The history of the church is marked by the countless number of martyrs who have died, standing up for their faith. And even in the last century, figures such as Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero have been killed living out the gospel.
Living in a world where there is evil as well as good, violence as well as peace, hatred as well as love, challenges each of us to choose each day which side we are on. We need to pray for God’s help, to recognise evil for what it is, to not be seduced by it, and to choose the path of love instead.
As you reflect upon your own life, I wonder where you encounter sin, the breakdown of relationships, deceit and corruption, rebellion against God. At work, at home, in the community, in the events you see on the news. What are we doing to choose life, to follow the way of Christ?
If that feels all too sobering, there is hope.
Deserts can be hard, barren places. I remember driving through the Karoo desert in South Africa. You drive for hours and hours, only seeing the barest of scrub bushes through the shimmering and unrelenting heat of the sun. But, when the rains come, the Karoo turns into one mass of colour, the desert springs to life with some of the most beautiful flowers in the world. The desert is transformed.
For the people of Israel, the desert was a place of hard preparation, but it was also a place of hope. The prophets spoke of how God had first met and married his “bride” – the people of Israel – in the desert, and how it would be there that his relationship with them would be restored. It was why the community of the Dead Sea Scrolls, who were waiting for God’s restoration of Israel, made their base not in Jerusalem, but in the desert.
And it is from the desert that Jesus comes proclaiming the remarkable message of hope: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”
We prepare, in order to celebrate. We wrestle with evil, in the knowledge that the ultimate victory has already been won. The kingdom of God is here. Repent and believe the good news!