Gospel: Mark 1:9-15
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.”
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.
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.”
So here we are in Lent – a time of preparation – preparation for the great emotional roller-coaster of Passiontide and Easter, when we remember Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection – a time to “repent, and believe in the good news”
Like Advent, Lent marks a transition point in the Christian calendar and invites us to look inside ourselves, to renew, to throw out what we don’t like about ourselves – to spring clean. (In old English, Lent means spring). Like the baptism of Christ it marks a new starting point in our spiritual lives.
As we have heard, immediately following his baptism Jesus spent time in the desert – driven there by the Spirit – in preparation for his ministry – where he was tempted by Satan and looked after by angels.
So we have here the association between preparation and temptation, between the wilderness and spirituality, between mission and suffering – this is the essence of Lent, arguably it is the essence of Christianity, especially its monastic traditions.
In the Old Testament the desert was where man met God –we remember Moses finding the burning bush on mount Horeb, “in the backside of the desert” (KJV).
As we prepare ourselves in Lent we should take time to go into our own wilderness – where there is no noise, no structure, no modern distractions – to be alone with God – to be still and listen to what he is saying to us, listening to the Spirit.
Jesus was tempted by Satan – tempted originally meant tested – tested to see whether he was worthy, up to the job.
So in Lent we test ourselves. We know that we are not perfect. Human beings have a strong sense of their own shortcomings (at least the decent ones do) and so we look not just to see whether we are worthy but to make ourselves better.
The Bible tells us that the Israelites were involved in a long-running saga of falling short of the expectations which they were set by God and Moses. As a result the Old Testament is a series of stories of Israel failing, followed by acts of contrition or suffering punishment and then a clean start – we think of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, Noah, the Golden Calf, the destruction of the temple and exile in Babylon, the return to Jerusalem.
The Law of Moses is based on a sense of mankind as flawed – always falling short of God’s expectations – it is full of rules laid down to protect the Israelites from becoming unclean. It also sets out, at length, the procedures required in order to return a sinner to purity.
The way to reach and maintain the requisite purity, or righteousness, was through sacrifice – burnt offerings of animals, flour and oil were made every day and in great numbers on special festivals – the Holy days of God. These procedures are set out in detail first in Leviticus and again in Numbers.
There was even a whole festival dedicated to this purification – the Feast of Atonement in which sacrifices were made to purify the priests, the people, the tabernacle and the holy objects used in worship. Sacrifice (or suffering) removed sin.
Reading this one can’t help but feel sorry for the thousands of innocent creatures slaughtered in this way. These ideas of animal sacrifice to please God and atone for sin seem pretty alien to us now.
But we do retain a strong sense that crime (or sin) can be wiped out by suffering or punishment on the part of the perpetrator – that the sinner can atone for his sin – this is the central plank of Ian McEwan‘s novel, Atonement.
Moreover, we know that by suffering we do actually improve ourselves – the athlete trains hard to win the race, the student studies hard to pass the exam, the careful saver is able to buy the house or car, pay off the mortgage.
We understand that it is important to “sacrifice” pleasure today for greater rewards in the future. That “suffering” can be good for us, that it can be a necessary step towards becoming more like the person that we want to be.
So in Lent we practice the art of self-improvement through suffering – by self-denial we make ourselves nearer to the people we want to be.
In so doing we also align ourselves with Jesus who made the ultimate sacrifice by dying for us on the cross.
For the early Church (who were Jews before they were Christians) it would have been easy to see the death of Jesus as like one of the purificatory temple sacrifices, or the lamb sacrificed at Passover or even the scapegoat used to carry all of their sins at the Feast of Atonement:
[The Chief Priest] shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites— all their sins— and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert (Leviticus 16: 20-22)
For us it is more difficult. We are un-comfortable with the death of an innocent creature as being of benefit to other people.
And yet in some ways we still recognise that this happens: every year at Remembrance-tide we celebrate the lives of those who through their courage and defiance in the face of evil paid the ultimate price for our liberty by dying for us in war
In places throughout the world, the Christian messages of equality and freedom from oppression are still being fought for and considered so dangerous to other people that they can cost you your life – in Afganistan, in Nigeria, in Syria.
Through the sacrifice of Jesus we have an example for all those who put their values before themselves.
Principal among these ideas was that everyone is special, everyone is loved, everyone is worthy of God and that everyone can start again – as for Noah after the flood, the rainbow is a gift for all, reminding us all that there is always the chance to start again.
And so we are back to where we began, making a new start this Lent, testing ourselves against the highest standards and spring cleaning our souls.
Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, we pray that this Lent we may find time to find you. Help us to make space to listen to your voice speaking to us.
Help us in our Lenten observances to discipline ourselves to understand and overcome our weaknesses, to make us more like you, the best that we can be.
Renew and refresh us in the power of your spirit to follow in the footsteps of your son, our lord Jesus Christ, to be great witnesses to your Gospel of love and understanding.
Peter says: “He was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:19).
So let it be with us this Lent – by denying ourselves in the flesh may we be made alive in the spirit.
We ask these things in the name of your son, our saviour, Jesus Christ
Chris Hancock 26th February, 2012