Sunday, 1st March 2009 (First Sunday in Lent). Trinity United Reform Church, Camden Town, and Metropolitan Community Church of North London.
The Baptism of Jesus
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
The Temptation of Jesus
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
As many of you will know, we have just entered the season of Lent. This is characterised in our culture with people giving things up, you've probably heard it at your places of work or study
"Well, yes, I'm giving up chocolate of course"
"Ooooh, no I can't have a biscuit. It's Lent."
And so on and so forth. Lent has become a byword for having a second crack at the resolutions you failed in New Year. And there is certainly some value in that. But what we are reading in the gospel tonight is one of the most significant incidents in Jesus' life from the early part of Mark's gospel. Mark as a gospel-writer has a very bleak outlook; he spends much of his work focussing on the period we call the Passion - that is, the death of Jesus. Some theologians even believe that Mark did not originally include an account of the resurrection. Mark's Jesus, whom we get an insight into here, is introspective and troubled. In just one verse, we hear of a young man perhaps not yet 30 years old being tested in a way that feels so outside our own experience. "He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him." In the wilderness - in some accounts, fasting - living with the wild beasts and keeping Satan at bay. The same story in Matthew's gospel tells us that Satan tested Jesus by challenging him, when hungry, to change rocks into bread and offering him the whole world in exchange for one act of worship. And how many times in our own lives do we feel that we would give up what we hold dear for "an easy life" or a quick fix?
What I find most striking about Jesus' temptation is that it was so well disguised as a test of faith. "Jump off this building," says Satan, "and God will save you". It could so easily sound like an opportunity to show Satan up. To show the awesomeness of God's power - that in Her grace He would save you. Two fingers to Satan, then, when God has shown Her power. But of course we know that train of thought is dangerous. And yet how often do we fall into that very trap ourselves? We let the world tell us what God wants, and what God can do. Those of us who do not identify as straight have heard the world telling us that we shouldn't be LGBT, that we can't be a queer people of God, but we don't hear that in our hearts. We wish God would cure us because that's what the world wants, and when it doesn't happen we get scared and run from God. That is our wilderness, one of many that we inevitably encounter in our lives.
For each of us, these wilderness experiences will be different, and will recur in different ways throughout our lives. Coming out a relationship and having to learn to be yourself again, when you have created your sense of self alongside someone else for many years, forces you to bring your relationship with Christ back into focus and into your life although the world tells you that God has let you down, and that maybe the breakdown of your relationship shows that your lifestyle is hollow and transient. Satan is whispering, "Deny yourself in the name of God – if you loved Her you’d do it" and it is so hard to be strong enough to know that message is not coming from God who loves you as He made you, in Her image. When you have overcome, that in turn equips you to minister to other people and teach them the wonderful joy of relationship with Christ. When you leave a job, and don't know what to do next, it is too easy to wish for wealth and to focus your prayer on material things in life. In these times we can become selfish in our fear and greedy out of the experience of counting pennies. When we have learned the reality, that God will provide what we need and that we must always give to those less well off than ourselves, we always have a widow's mite to give, only then do we understand how to teach others to be generous and live for the sake of the riches of the spirit.
So how do we recreate a wilderness in our own lives during the season of Lent? Do we even come close to understanding the reality of Christ's experience? When we give something up for Lent are we ever truly exposing ourselves to the same sort of temptation? In some ways, yes, I think we are. A clearly thought out Lenten resolution is one that brings us to an understanding of how we are in the world. If we sacrifice the things of the world that take up our thoughts, our time and our devotion, we have more time to think about God, to reflect on Jesus and to consider the sacrifice He eventually made for us. As we approach the time of Jesus' sacrifice, our period of Lenten sacrifice and penitence is coming to an end. We can approach Palm Sunday, and even Easter Saturday with real joy and gratitude as we see our hope fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus and we learn to appreciate anew the things we took for granted before Lent. We need wilderness to learn how to be a people of faith in a world that is real, scary and hard. As Christians we do not believe that God makes life easy. We know that to journey with Christ we need to wait in the wilderness, to walk the via dolorosa and to be ready to give up everything.
When we prepare to give everything up we also need to be prepared for the temptation that will inevitably be part of that. In many traditions, temptation is an inherent part of sacrifice. In Islam, during Ramadan, worshippers often take time to sit and socialise with friends who are eating during daylight. The idea is that this brings home the reality of their sacrifice by reminding them of what they have given up. If we were able to give up the things that we value, without feeling temptation to return to them or without any sense of loss, there is also no achievement. God demands that we be prepared to give up everything for Her. We should be prepared to say, with the disciples, that nothing is more important to us than our covenant with God. Neither relationships, nor work, nor materials. If we feel God calling us to lay something down, that is when the true challenge comes. But with that challenge comes enormous blessing. I was watching a documentary the other day, Around the World in 80 Faiths, in which an Ethiopian coptic priest was discussing the nature of faith in times of need. During this discussion, he said the following;
However little we eat, we are not hungry because we have faith. We can work without food, because we feed on Christ's holy spirit.
During Lent, when we use sacrifice to devote ourselves back to God, we are preparing for a day when we, too, may rely on the holy spirit to nourish us in times of need. So, whatever you do this Lent, make it count. Use these forty days to launch your ministry into the world. Live the Gospel, be God's hands and mouthpiece on Earth and praise Him daily for the blessings that allow you to do so. May God bless you and keep you as we go into this wonderful season.