1st Sunday of Lent
(1 Peter 3: 18-end, Mark 1: 9-15)
May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be always acceptable and pleasing in your sight, O Lord my rock and my redeemer.
Welcome to the first Sunday in Lent. It seems like only yesterday we were celebrating Jesus’ birth at Christmas time and now we are entering those forty days that lead us to the crucifixion and ultimately Jesus’ resurrection on Easter morning. Suddenly we are having to decide whether we give something up for Lent or indeed take something up. I think after walking nearly fifty miles in the last three days on our pilgrimage to Canterbury I might give up walking! But the question is, do we give up the usual things like chocolate or alcohol or Facebook? Something we do maybe without really thinking about and has become routine, giving it up year on year. Maybe then we should take something up? Perhaps writing and posting a letter of thanks to those who have been significant in our lives. Maybe calling on the neighbours around us we rarely see, just to say hello and reminding ourselves we live in a community. Lent can be a dilemma.
A couple of years ago I could not decide what to give up or indeed take on for Lent. I had just become Chairman of our local foodbank in Sevenoaks and it made me think. Each week we handed over bags of food to our families, but I had not really thought about what that bag meant. Did what we gave out provide sensible meals for our families? Did it provide adequate meals for our larger families? I decided then to take a bag each week and use it as my only source of food. It was a humbling experience. I learnt to combine certain tins together and then have the same meal three nights on the trot because of the quantity it made. I also learnt that tinned frankfurter sausages can be added to anything!! The experience enabled me to give back to the recipients by producing recipe cards and making sure the contents of the bags ‘worked’. That things could be put together in recognisable meals. I must add it was not an easy experience. I was still having to cook normally for the family and the temptation to take a sneaky roast potato or two when cooking them a roast dinner was hard to resist.
Every year, the first Sunday in Lent includes a reading of the temptation story from the different Gospels. Today we have just heard Mark’s version where Jesus is driven into the wilderness and tempted by Satan for forty days and forty nights. We do not hear, as we do in Matthew and Luke, the nature of the temptations. Just that Jesus was tempted for forty days and forty nights. In Mark’s gospel we don’t just get the temptation story either. We also get Jesus’ baptism right before temptation and his first sermon straight afterwards.
What I like about the Gospel of Mark is that it is so brief in its story telling. It gives us so few details. Yet, the details given are quite important. For example, did you notice what happens to the heavens when Jesus is baptized? “Just as Jesus was coming up and out of the waters, he saw the heaven’s torn apart.” The heavens are torn open. When something is torn open, it means you cannot easily put it back together.The edges are jagged and do not fit neatly together again. If you read the story of Jesus’ baptism in Matthew or Luke, it simply says the heaven’s open.They just open. Like a door. But surely anything that is simply opened is just as easily closed again. So, what is Mark trying to say I wonder by telling us the heavens are torn apart? Could it mean the veil between us and God has been torn open, never to be closed again?
Once the heavens are torn open, Jesus sees the spirit descend on him. Like it is resting on his shoulder. But the Greek word on can also be translated as into. So, the spirit of God does not simply rest on Jesus, it goes right into him. It fills him if you like. He becomes totally filled by the spirit of God and, throughout his life and death, Jesus is carrying within him the Spirit of God.
Then Jesus hears the words of God, ‘You are my son, The Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’(v11) These are claiming words. Words of affirmation. Words of acceptance. Words that tell Jesus who he is and to whom he belongs. It’s like a parent wrapping their arms around their child and whispering in their ear, “I love you. You will always be my child, no matter what.” They are words that enter into your body and wrap themselves around your heart. They claim you. To be baptized is to hear the promise that God has already claimed you. You belong. You are loved. You matter.
Jesus has been claimed by God and filled by the spirit of God. Then what happens? He gets driven into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan for 40 days. That number forty – it is an important number in scripture. Rain fell for forty days and forty nights in the story of Noah and the ark. Moses spent forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai when receiving the Ten Commandments from God. The Israelites, spent forty years wandering in the wilderness. And now Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness for forty days. The ancient Jews were a deeply symbolic people and numbers carried deep spiritual value for them. So, it means something here that Jesus was tempted for forty days. That is why Mark in his few details of his telling of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, states he was there for forty days.
And when you think about it, forty is an important number for us as well. Forty is the number of days we observe in Lent. Forty is also the number of weeks that it takes for a baby, in normal circumstances, to be born into the world after conception.
So, I wonder here whether the number forty, used in the context of Mark’s writing, has something to do with being born, or rebirthed. Does it have something to do with finding new life amongst your current life. In a way you could say that the earth was reborn after the forty days of rain in Noah’s story. For the Israelites, coming out of slavery and wandering in the wilderness for forty years, was rebirth for their people. They were going to start again in a new land and under new leadership. They were not going to be an enslaved people anymore. They were set free, born into a new life.
Could it be that Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness was actually a time of gestation and growth, a time of preparation for rebirth into new life. Preparation for his life of ministry that is ahead of him. And if that is true, could it be that Jesus’ baptism just before that was then a moment of conception? Those words that Jesus hears, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’(v11) Could those be life-creating words?
So, what are we to do with all of this? Forty days in the wilderness for Jesus. Forty days of Lent for us. As we enter this Lenten season of forty days, perhaps you and I are invited to be rebirthed. That is to let the old ways of life that have become destructive and disorienting to us fall away, and for us to be rebirthed to live life in a new way. To commit to a new way of being or a new way of relating to the world. To give up for Lent something different that will be challenging or to take up something that might just make a difference to us or others.
Maybe the only way for that to begin to grow within us, to discover a new way of living, is to remember those words spoken to us at our baptisms. To recall those life-creating words of God that He has already claimed us. Those life creating words are for all of us. They mean you are valuable and you matter to this world. You have been claimed by God and you are beloved. Let that sink into you. Let that be a seed that conceives and sprouts new life within you this Lenten season. So that then you too might be rebirthed into this world, deciding to live life differently.
Lent is a much deeper season than simply giving up chocolate, alcohol or Facebook. It is a season that leads us, I believe, through the wilderness to new life. New life, rebirth, through hearing the claiming words that you belong to God and you are God’s beloved. Words which then lead to the death of those destructive powers within our lives.
So, what are the parts of your life God is wanting to be reborn? How is God wanting you to live differently? Where is God wanting to bring life into the world through you? You’ll have to answer those questions for yourself. And answering them may feel like entering dark and deep waters for you, but you go well equipped. Well-equipped because the heavens have been torn open, never to be closed again. And that descending Spirit of God, it has entered into you too.