Sermon for High Mass – 1st Sunday of Lent Sunday 18 February 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Mk 1.12f.
Lent is often caricatured as a time of ‘giving things up’; even people who have no connection to the Christian faith speak, semi-seriously, of giving things up for Lent, just as they wish each other a merry Christmas or a happy Easter. Giving things up is undoubtedly a good piece of spring-cleaning in our lives at this season, but if we were listening to the Gospel there was nothing specifically about abstinence in it. Indeed, despite the barren location, Mark says Jesus was looked after by angels and had animals for company. It seems the Spirit ‘driving’ him into the wilderness was about something other than material self-denial.
So does Mark’s lapidary acount offer any clues about how Lent might be for us? Most straightforwardly, we are told here that Jesus is ‘driven’ by the Spirit into the desert at the beginning of his mission ‘to be tempted’ – or rather, to be ‘put to the test’. Its important to say that, because being ‘put to the test’ in Greek as in English is not necessarily a bad thing; it can mean being given the opportunity to prove oneself – which is what happens here.
The forty days of Jesus’ withdrawal recall the exodus experience of Israel, forty years in the wilderness on the way to the promised land, an experience in which the people were indeed put to the test and often found wanting. Jesus is the recapitulation of the old Israel even as he is, for Matthew the new Moses. But our lectionary’s first reading, the story of Noah’s covenant with God, sealed with a rainbow, is an inspired juxtaposition – a reassurance that God remembers us, and wills our flourishing, not our destruction.
Mark wrote his Gospel for persecuted Christians in Rome, who lived in constant fear of being thrown to the wild beasts. Here Mark tells us that Jesus is with the wild beasts in the wilderness. And he reminds us that Jesus’ innocence does not protect him from conflict, from trial, from suffering, from facing the adversary. Innocence does not dispel conflict; rather, it attracts it. Before going public, the resolve of the innocent one is put to the test.
Mark says that Jesus was tested by someone called ‘Satan’. Satan in Hebrew means an adversary; the Old Testament it was first used of human opponents. In 1 Samuel we read that the Philistines were afraid that the young David would emerge as their satan, their enemy [1 Samuel 29:4]. In 1 Kings, King Solomon delights that there is no longer any satan or misfortune, meaning that he was at rest from his enemies [1 Kings 5:4]. Satan denoted any dangerous opponent. Later it came to mean one who pleads a case against another, an accuser of people before God, the public prosecutor of heaven, as in Job’s story. Finally it came to mean God’s Adversary, a demonic Leader of the Opposition in God’s Kingdom. By the time the New Testament was written, Satan signified the principal spirit of evil involved in a mighty struggle against God, a struggle that would only end in the last days of history.
As we were reminded in today’s Gospel, when Jesus came to be baptized, the Father declared him to be his ‘beloved Son’. Now in the wasteland the Son of God meets the Adversary of God. This time of testing is also a time for clarification. It always helps to know who and what you are up against. Who better than your enemy to help you clarify what you must oppose and what you must defend.
When Jesus emerges from the wilderness he does not leave temptation for ever behind him. The Adversary will appear again in his ministry as when, having just been recognised for who he truly is, Jesus has to tell Peter: “Get behind me, Satan, (Adversary)! Because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s” [Mark 8:33]. As we heard just now, his preaching begins with the Kingdom of God, the message that people should let God rule in their lives. For this to happen they must repent, turn back to him, and believe the Good News. The Good News is not only the message of Jesus about God, but Jesus himself.
We may not instinctively associate Lent with Good News, particularly if it means facing the adversary within and around us; we may see it as a tiresome waiting-room for Easter. But at the beginning of Lent the Church purposefully takes us into the wilderness with Jesus, to face the power that is opposed to the Gospel. The Good News is that we do this with Jesus and in the company of his followers.
It is a vital element of the Good News that by our membership of the Church none of us faces the wilderness alone (for we, ‘who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.’ Rom. 12.5): none of us is abandoned solely to our own resources. We are all tempted; we all fail; we all sin. Sometimes we wonder if there is an exit from the wilderness. All of us need to hear, like Jesus, the voice of the Father that recognises us as his beloved child. When we hear that voice, the call to repent is the call to stay in the company of the one who loves us. The Gospel challenges us to change our minds about the way we think, change our hearts about the Gospel we ignore, and change our ways about habits of sin.
This is a lifetime’s task. Jesus did not overcome Satan in the wilderness: he achieved that only in his death. Lent reminds us of our need to begin again facing the adversary within us. The Good News is that when we do that we take the road that leads us to the Kingdom of God.
I once drove through the astonishingly barren Atacama desert in Chile, said to be the driest place on earth. Some of it, the Valley of the moon is just grey dust. What you notice in the desert is a clarity and sense of proportion in the silence, the dry emptiness and the age-old rocks and sand, some of them gradually reclaiming the efforts of human beings to live there or tame them. The desert is a space in which to listen and wonder, and regain a sense of our relation to God in creation.
This Lent I hope we will all try to spend some time alone, somewhere quiet and apart, trying to recollect ourselves as God remembers us, with love, as his beloved child. Dark and disturbing thoughts may come: we have just heard that they did to Jesus. But God is with us. Be thankful and try to strip away some of the noisy business that interferes with remembering who you are, a child of God. See yourself as a beloved child of God, who is therefore lovable. Learn to love your neighbour afresh. God loves and remembers you: turn to him again, repent and love; learn to become again the self he made you to be.
If you want something to read in the silence, I suggest John Dalrymple’s Simple Prayer. I’m rereading that.