The Spirit immediately drove (Jesus) out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Mark 1:12f.
I’ve always had a problem with Lent, or at least with the way I have been encouraged to keep it, or by the way I have interpreted that encouragement.
If I’m honest, I’ve always struggled to maintain my spiritual life throughout the whole year – to pray, to read my Bible and to live out my Christian life, loving family and neighbour. Then along comes Lent and we are encouraged to give something pleasurable up, and to do something extra – a book to read, another group to attend, to find more time to pray. It has often felt like “putting the last straw on the camel’s back”! Truth be told, I have always struggled to add more to what I am already struggling to do. And being a sucker for punishment, I’ve always tended to think that if these additional things are so good for me then surely I should be doing them the rest of the year. Does that ring any bells with you? Are you glad when Lent is over and normal service is resumed?
So what is Lent really for? The Spirit immediately drove (Jesus) out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts … With that and just a few other words Mark sums up the brief period between Jesus Baptism and the start of his public Ministry. But they can be taken as a summary of Jesus’ whole life. For a brief period, the Son of God, our Saviour, driven by the Spirit of God comes into this wilderness of a world, confronting Satan, the accuser, or under-miner of all that is good, and is surrounded by the wild beasts, those who cry out, “Crucify!” and nail him to a cross. Those words can also sum up the Christian’s life, living in what can seem a hostile environment to faith; facing the accuser who constantly tells you what a failure you are; and encountering countless other fears and challenges to faith, not least thinking that it was following what you thought was the leading of God’s Spirit that got you into the mess you now found yourself in.
However, I left out what maybe the most important phrase of Mark’s description of what we might call the first Lent: The Spirit immediately drove (Jesus) out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. I’ve come to realise that Lent above all is a time to stop struggling; a time to be still and to listen to and hear those angels, those messengers of God; a time to rest and be fed and sustained by those messengers who wait on you – the heavenly “waiters” for the word can mean “waiting on tables.
Many of us are missing pub lunches and restaurant meals – being waited upon and can hardly wait for them to return. Meanwhile, this Lent why not avail yourselves of God’s waiters? His angels – the word means messengers and they don’t usually come with wings and white robes; when the prophet needed feeding it was the ravens who brought him food – his angels will wait upon you whilst you (with a different meaning of the word) wait upon God.
Lent for me is a time to face up to my weaknesses and to accept yet again that I can’t “pull myself up by my own bootstraps”. Lent is a time to learn yet again that God is loving and compassionate and merciful. The Collect or special prayer for Lent emphasizes this nature of the season: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent …
The words of the prophet Jeremiah are set by the daily lectionary to be read during Lent – and he is a prophet who has many gloomy words to share, who struggles personally with his lot and even argues with God, but amidst all that there are these words that shine out: I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope … I will restore health to you and your wounds will I heal … I will put my law within (you) and I will write it on (your) hearts; and I will be (your) God and (you) shall be my people. (29:11; 30:17; 31:33).
For me Lent is a time not for added struggle, but a time to lay aside things and to allow the angels of God to wait upon us. It is a time to learn afresh that God does indeed love us; a time to learn to love ourselves, to be gentle and compassionate with ourselves. It is this alone that will give us the strength and resources to be led by the Spirit of God back into the world and to live out our Christian lives.
Let us be quiet for a few moments …
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:28-31
whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are, yet without sin:
give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit;
and, as you know our weakness,
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, Amen. Traditional Collect Lent 1