A sermon on Mark 1.9-15 by Garry Deverell, 9 March 2003
And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus 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.
You can imagine how it was with Jesus. All his life he’d had that sense that God’s hand was on his life. On waking in the morning as a young boy, perhaps he’d turn his head to face the warmth of the rising sun, and there—as with that sense one gets of having just missed a train—would sense the breezy residue of a retreating angel. Later in the day, while talking with his father at the carpenter’s bench, perhaps he’d be calculating a simple angle when suddenly the world would turn in on itself and become silent as he suddenly sees, for the first time, the infinite beauty and symmetry of that pattern before him. For a moment he disappears into rapt vision, as if into the very mind of God, only to return again, blinking and smiling, to his rough workbench and the concerned gaze of his father. Imagine, then, that time much later in his life, when the young Jesus strode out to encounter his wild cousin, the Baptist, by the river Jordan. In his heart he feels uncertain about what is before him, and yet he knows by now that God has been with him always. Imagine the sheer rapture of that baptismal moment, when the Spirit descends tangibly and confers upon him an identity and a vocation which he had been waiting for all his life, and yet, in this moment of glorious epiphany, is such a complete and utter surprise that he can barely believe it is true. Indeed, so mind-blowing is the designation—“You are my Son, the Beloved”—that Jesus immediately descends into a kind of panicked confusion and self-doubt. Leaving a bewildered John by the riverside, he runs off into the desert, driven as if by the Spirit of God himself, there to begin the long and painful journey towards a wholehearted owning of God’s will and way for himself.
Mark tells us that Jesus spent forty days and forty nights in that wilderness, that place of wavering between the will for life and the will for death. There he battled the satanic impulse to put aside the vocation and destiny God had given him. There he battled the base and animal-like instincts of the many fears that rose within him: the fear of ceding his will into the hands of God, the fear of ridicule and misunderstanding, the fear of being hurt or even killed as the prophets had been, the fear of failing utterly in this great task God had given him. This desert pilgrimage of Jesus is a familiar one for Christians. For it is a pilgrimage we are all of us called to walk, in a profound imitation of Christ, during the season of Lent.
Now, let’s pause there for a moment. Before we go on, I want to clear up a couple of serious misunderstandings about Lent. First, Lent is not simply a period of time which begins today, and ends at Easter, then to be forgotten until next year. NO! Like Advent, and Easter, and all of the seasons of the Christian year, Lent is always with us. It is a dangerous and difficult moment in the divine becoming which breaks into our ordinary and human becoming. It is a summoning and a command which could arrive into the midst your life and mine at any time. At ANY time. Even on Christmas Day. Lent is the experience of struggle, of doubt, and of the trial before God. Lent is the call to count the cost of being a disciple. Lent is the time of decision. And a second point follows on from this. Lent is certainly not about putting aside one’s bad habits or addictions for a time, only to take them up again when Easter arrives. I was visiting some friends the other day who proudly announced that they were giving up the ‘Holy Trinity’ for Lent. Coffee, chocolate and alcohol, that is. Of course, I felt the need to tell them what I’m telling you now. That the “purging” of Lent is supposed to cut far more deeply than these temporary fasts. Like Jesus in the wilderness, Lent calls us to give up all that would keep us from the destiny and vocation to which God calls us. We are called to make a permanent fast from the attitudes and behaviours that would maim or destroy our own lives, or the lives of others. Like the love of status. Or the power-surge that comes in putting someone else down. Or the greed that refuses to share what God has given us with our poorest neighbours. Or that addiction to victimhood or self-protection that many of us are so found of. Lent is about fasting, certainly! But the fasting should press deep, deep down, into the places where our most secretly insatiable appetites are, there to starve them of their horrible power over all that is good, and noble and true in us, so that God may come to live in their place.
But let’s return to where we were. Lent comes upon us in the midst of our lives—and often, very often, it comes at a time of great confidence and certainty, at a high point of our spiritual life, as it did for Jesus at his baptism. That is how it is with Christians. In our baptism, God tells us the secret of who we are, and what we are to do. In baptism we are adopted as God’s sons and daughters, and receive the command to go and do as Christ did—heal the sick, cast out demons, and preach that the kingdom of God is near. It can be a glorious and intoxicating moment, even if it is received later in life in some kind of “confirmation” or reaffirmation of a baptism we no longer remember. But having received that vocation and mission, isn’t it so often the case that we immediately begin to question whether or not we’re up to it? We become aware of how very much we love the old way of the life, the life we’re supposed to be giving away. We become aware, as if under the very light of revelation, that the life of discipleship means denying those impulses—putting them to death with Jesus on the cross—and we wonder about our resolve to do so. “What if I can’t do it?” we say to ourselves. “What if I’m a fraud, full of the sound and appearance of Christian devotion, but silent and devoid of every spiritual virtue on the inside, where it counts?” These are difficult questions to answer, but they are questions which every Christian must answer if they are to persevere in the journey with Jesus. For in answering them we come face to face with the self we really are, rather than the self we would wish ourselves to be. Lent can be a dark night filled with tears and mourning and loss. But I assure you it is worth it, for joy comes in the morning.
Joy comes in the morning. Not because we are able to conquer our appetites and addictions by the power of a superior will. No, the night of Lent is designed by God to break down precisely that pretension. What Jesus learned, we learn too. That while we are called and designated “sons and daughters of God,” it is not in our power to live those identities out in their fullness. In Lent we learn that doing so depends entirely upon the grace and encouragement of God. Entirely and wholly. In Lent we learn what baptism actually means in life, rather than just in ceremony—that it is only by relinquishing our own power that the power of God may come to visit us. As Christ died, so we too must die. And it is God, and God alone, who can raise us to live the life intended for us. That is why Mark, in his story of Christ, speaks of the angels who came to minister to Jesus. Having faced the questions of Satan, and the lusts of his animal nature, Christ is utterly broken. But God does not abandon him, and God will not abandon us. God sends ministering spirits our way, oftentimes in the form of friends or mentors, who encourage and declare to us the word of God’s mercy and peace.
In the Lenten season, whenever it arrives, you are invited to walk in Christ’s steps. To follow him into the wilderness to learn the true meaning of baptism. To deny the appetites and desires of your false self, the self that is passing away, so that you can take up your cross to follow Christ wherever he would lead. For life, life worth living, comes only in being willing to die to the worst kind of living. Goodness comes only by the turning from evil. And it is only by joining yourself to Christ in his death that you will experience, also, the joy his resurrection. This is the promise of the Lord. And I witness today that it is true.