Sunday 26th February 2023

Gen 2.15-17; 3.1-7; Rom 5.12-19; Mk 1.9-13

Welcome to the season of spiritual austerity!  ‘Lent’ is a word that can conjure up somewhat negative associations of discipline and self-examination!  It’s often accompanied by the dreaded question: what are you giving up?  I remember a rather dour Church of Scotland colleague being asked what he was giving up for Lent: “Nothing, (he grumbled) we Scots know how to be miserable all year round.”

Of course a period of abstinence can be a catalyst for reflection. The spiritual riches of monasticism stemmed from the material poverty of the Desert Fathers.  More metaphorically a wilderness experience, whether planned or unwelcome, can be a period of enlightenment.  Rabbi Lionel Blue commented that ‘your successes make you happy but your failures make you wise’.  That explains the rather harsh hope of my Theological College Principal that some of us might experience a modicum of deferred success…

Such necessity for deep learning is present even in the life of Jesus.  Consider the phrase used by the evangelist Mark after the baptism of Jesus: ‘At once the Spirit drove him into the wilderness’.  The Greek verb is ‘Ekbellai  = expelled’.  Why??  Why such a severe outcome following a public event where the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus and the Father declared him as his Son?  One might have expected a preaching tour, with Jesus making the most of his new-found celebrity status.  But no: he was driven into the Judean wilderness.

You might ask the same question – Why?? - at times when you are seemingly ‘cast out’ or simply, ‘cast down’ with problems of work, health or relationships?  In my service as a military chaplain I was always struck by the way in which deployments, often to fairly austere environments, could lay bare what was most important for our servicemen / women.  Rather like black and white photos that somehow capture character and definition better than colour, clear separation from what is familiar can enable sharper focus for what is most valuable in life.  Away from the usual securities and ease, dreams and regrets can be clarified, true desires uncovered, important relationships reinforced.

I need to emphasise, of course, that many wildernesses are not of God’s making: the fearfulness of natural disasters, the tragedy of untimely loss, the conflicts of humanity that inflicts destruction on nations and individuals. These reflect our fallen world, where like Adam and Eve and without the transforming love of God, we are somehow constrained from being the people we were created to be.  The Russian dissident Solzhenitsyn understood the human condition, observing that ‘the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being’.  So we inhabit a beautiful yet complicated and mixed up, physical and spiritual world that groans with longing for liberation from its bondage to decay.  The reason why we say “Thanks be to God” after hearing the words of Scripture and “Praise to you O Christ” after the Gospel, is because Jesus entered this wilderness, as the Word made Flesh.  It is because he embraced this brokeness, supremely on the cross, that we can receive, as St Paul explains in our second reading, ‘the abundance of God’s grace – justification, righteousness and life’.

So we come back to this specific wilderness experience for Jesus, which was not just geographical but also spiritual.  It was an important period of formation, consolidating his Identity and preparing him for the challenges ahead.  So it is for us: we need times of testing, like Lent, where our identity is reinforced and our discipleship forged.

Beware that the desert is not an easy place. Jesus was attacked when weak – isolated from others, tired and hungry. How is your self-knowledge?  When are you most vulnerable? Obvious times could be tiredness and hunger, loneliness, but perhaps you can think of other occasions when your guard is down. Matthew and Luke suggest that Jesus’ temptations focussed on basic needs -  “Make this stone become bread” – pride: “If you are the Son of God…” – how often do we want to assert or prove ourselves – and power: “I will give you all the kingdoms of the earth…”. The temptation might seems innocuous, just some crumbs to keep you going, just a little look, just a … each time appealing to basic physiological/emotional needs and testing your resolve, but before you know it, a short-term fix can leave us in long-term servitude.

So what can help us in these times?  Possibly most important is the knowledge that God never leaves us.  The Holy Spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness but did not leave him comfortless.  Angels attended him.  Whatever our circumstances, we remain children of the father and, as Christians, co-heirs with Christ; we are also members of his family that crosses all languages, cultures and ages.  Secondly, Jesus knew the scriptures.  Three times he responded: “It is written”.  Verses from Deuteronomy written in the context of the Shema, the most imp prayer in Judaism, said morning and evening in Jewish families: ‘Shema Israel’Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength’.   Jesus’ life was founded on this prayer, immersed as he was in the Jewish scriptures.  If you want to study the Scriptures this Lent then join our Tuesday evening group – talk to Sally or me after this service.  And finally, remember that our sole boast is in the Word made Flesh.  It was a great privilege to make the sign of the cross on people’s foreheads on Ash Wednesday in this Cathedral as they streamed forward to identify with Christ, to know that we have been loved to death by our Saviour, to offer him our weaknesses and to let his love, the love of the Word made Flesh, transform us. 

M Theresa: ‘Know the Word of God, Love the Word of God, Live the Word of God, Give the Word of God, and the Word of God will make you holy’.