Lent 1

St Augustine’s Bexhill

21st February 2021

We started the new cycle of readings back in Advent, focusing on the gospel of Mark. This gospel is the shortest gospel of the four, and Mark tends to tell his stories with less detail and more speed. Whilst Matthew, for example has 38 chapters, Mark has only 16 – considerably shorter, even though many of the events recorded by Mark are the same events found in Matthew. Mark is the oldest of the gospels, probably written some 30 years after the death of Jesus. Mark, perhaps eager to finally have Jesus’ teachings recorded, says what he needs to say about events and moves on.


The result is seen clearly in today’s gospel reading. Every Lent, on the first Sunday in Lent, we hear about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, where he is confronted by Satan, who tempts him with power, with quick and easy answers, and testing God instead of being faithful. You know the story. Satan urges Jesus, who has been fasting, to turn stones into bread to eat. But Jesus responds that he relies not on bread but on God. Then Satan urges Jesus to worship him, in exchange for glory on earth – but Jesus responds that God alone is to be worshipped. And finally Satan tempts Jesus to throw himself from the pinnacle of the Temple, to test God’s care for him –but Jesus refuses to put God to the test in this way. Only after these temptations does Satan leave Jesus and Jesus returns from his forty days in the wilderness.


But of course that is not the story we get from Mark. What takes half a page to describe in Matthew and Luke takes two sentences in Mark. “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him.” That’s it. That is the total story Mark has to tell. The passage is so short that the lectionary includes in today’s gospel, at the end, the three sentences describing the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It’s as if the lectionary needed to make the gospel reading today long enough to bother with! So why does Mark short-change us on the details of this story? Does he not think it important?


Jesus’ time in the wilderness for forty days (a period of time often used in the scriptures to indicate a long time) - this forty days is in fact our model for Lent. Like Jesus, we seek to spend a special time – a span of forty days, not counting Sundays – preparing, reflecting, praying, readying ourselves, knowing the hard path that comes, and anticipating the joyous Easter celebration that follows.


But in this hurried world we live in, I don’t want us to rush through these forty days. We are always rushing through things as it is – we always seem to be counting down the time to something – counting the days until birthdays, or until Christmas, or until pay day, or the end of the school term, or until lockdown ends and we can go on holiday again. We’re always waiting for something else to happen. I do not want that to happen with Lent – it should not just be a countdown to Easter. We should not waste the time we have in Lent, miss the opportunity for digging deeper spiritually, skipping over the process of looking inside ourselves, trying to remake ourselves, letting ourselves be remade by God. I don’t want our Lent experience to be worth only two sentences – I don’t want everything we experience in the next few weeks to impact on us only enough to be worth a passing comment. I want more from Lent, for all of us, and I want more from Mark about this time in Jesus’ life, this time when we can see the human Jesus, struggling to make right choices, just like we do.


But we must work with our two sentences, work with what Mark gives us. What is it that Mark is telling us? What does Mark want us to hear in his account of the temptation? Does he mean us to believe that this wilderness time was no big thing for Jesus? And not important for us? That Jesus didn’t get anything important out of his forty days? But perhaps Mark is saying just the opposite. That what happens in the wilderness with Jesus and Satan is important because of what happens after Jesus is in the wilderness. For Mark, the fruits of Jesus’ wilderness experience are evident in the next sentence: after forty days away, Jesus immediately gets to work, beginning to preach and proclaim the good news about the kingdom of God being near. We don’t need the details because we know the conclusion – Jesus’ time in the wilderness sets the tone for his ministry. A ministry that moves non-stop once it begins, as Jesus interacts constantly with people, healing, teaching, loving.


So what of our forty days? How will they prepare us for the joyous celebration of Easter? And what will the fruits of this preparation be?


To begin with, we need to enter the wilderness – not just carry on like we do for the remainder of the year. I know there are good and faithful people here, who come to church Sunday by Sunday – but Lent demands more from us. We need to enter the wilderness, we need to face the temptations of our lives, and we need to examine ourselves.


How do we enter the wilderness? By making time for God. There are many opportunities open to us – we could spend time in studying our faith, either by some spiritual reading, or study of the scriptures, or by taking part in one of the Lent courses on offer through the internet. We can take the opportunity to draw closer to God through our worship – maybe starting the discipline of coming regularly to one of the weekday Masses, or spending time in silent prayer in Church at some point during the week, perhaps onm a Thursday before Mass when the sacrament is exposed, or setting aside specific time each day for prayer at home. If you would like to join in either morning or evening prayer, on one or more days of the week, you could use the Breviary, or perhaps the Church of England’s App for Daily Prayer. We could just withdraw from all that is around us for a set period each week, or each day. We can also go without some of the luxuries of this life – fast, have a meatless day each week, give up that gin and tonic or bottle of wine. Show that we rely on God rather than on bread or rich food and drink.


The temptation of course is to say to oneself, I am wasting my time, I could be doing something more useful. What could be of more benefit than waiting upon God? We do not generally leave ourselves time to be with God, to wait upon him, to listen to him speak or to show himself to us in our busy world. Sometimes, it is only when we are forced by circumstances to give up our so called normal life, such as the pandemic we currently find ourselves in, that we find that God is there with us. Extreme circumstances can bring the most unexpected reactions; even in the wilderness we can find God.


And what about facing the temptations of our lives? I guess none of us would probably want to list every experience we’ve had, every sin we’ve committed, every mistake we’ve made for the rest of the congregation to find out about. No doubt we have all experienced temptation – sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing to overcome the impulses that lead us away from God. No doubt we have all had dark times in our lives, empty times, rock-bottom times when we’ve had to do some serious soul searching, when we have had to decide whether or not we could pull ourselves together, whether or not we were going to walk a path with God or not. These times, difficult and painful, are also valuable. They shape us, and make us who we are. They have their place in our life stories – and probably account for more than just a couple of sentences at that.


But our life stories do not stop there – our life purpose is not bogged down in our darkest days. Instead what we experience in the wilderness sets the tone for the rest of our lives. This is why we need to examine ourselves. It is so tempting to stay put in the dark seasons of our lives – to become overwhelmed by temptations that seem to keep us from moving forward. Perhaps we have mistakes and shortcomings that are keeping us from moving forward. Mark reminds us to just get on with it – to live, to learn, to repent, to be forgiven, and to share the good news that we have found in Jesus Christ.


We need to face our devils. For some this may include the sacrament of reconciliation – penance – confessing our faults to God, through a priest, and receiving in return spiritual direction and the assurance of God’s forgiveness. Fr. Robert and the other clergy here are always available for the sacrament of reconciliation.


The important thing to realise is that our lives are not defined by our life stories so far – it is what is written in the rest of the chapters of our lives that will tell others what we learned and experienced in the desert times. Thus we should not let ourselves get caught up in only our failings and inadequacies in this season of self-reflection, because God has much in store for us.


And so our reflections in the wilderness should include listening to where God would have us go, what he would have us do. By emptying ourselves or worldly cares, we leave space to be filled with a God-given discipleship, shaped by where we have been, but preparing us for where we want to go, and who we are following to get there. This is where the fruits of this experience lay; and where by drawing close to Jesus we will be better able to experience the drama of Holy Week and the wonderful joyous celebration of the resurrection.


So let us make the most of our forty days of Lent, willingly, eagerly, happily, so that when we come out of the wilderness we can get on with the job of proclaiming the Good News, the message of love and grace – the story that is worth all the pages we have left to write.






Acknowledgement: based on a sermon by The Rev. Elizabeth Quick.

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