First Sunday of Lent

Here are Bishop Emma’s sermon notes for the first Sunday of Lent:

Mark 1:9-15

On this first Sunday of Lent we traditionally focus on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, as a model for our own overcoming of temptations, whatever those might be.

Sometimes on the first Sunday of Lent, the lectionary reading is from Matthew or Luke, where we have a much longer account, with details of the three temptations Jesus faced and how he dealt with each one.

But this year it is Mark, with its short and stark description of Jesus, the wilderness, the wild beasts, and the angels.

Right at the start of his ministry, Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. This is part of his training for ministry to come, an intense time, a time of endurance, of isolation. It’s no coincidence that the word ‘quarantine’ literally means ’40 days’.

Satan’s intention was to tempt Jesus away from the mission that God had given him, to question his identity as the Son of God, and to try to divert him with offers of quick and glittering success rather than the hard task of saving the world that he had been sent by God to fulfil. So, this was ‘quarantine’ for Jesus - alone in the wilderness with the trainer from Hell. Literally!

In the Bible, the wilderness has always been a place of encounter with God. God’s people Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Elijah spent 40 days in the wilderness and had there his most profound encounter with God.

We have become familiar with our own kind of “testing in the wilderness” experience over the past year due to the suffering and restrictions of the Covid pandemic. Although not comparable with Jesus’s desert temptations, “isolation” has been a very real concept for many - not being able to access all the things that bring us comfort, enjoyment, consolation, life. In the Biblical narrative the wilderness was alien and inhospitable to humans, the opposite of the sort of place where you would want to settle down or stay for any length of time. “When will this all end?” is a cry we have heard so often during the lockdown period.

But this wilderness, we’re told by Mark, although hostile to human habitation was home to other kinds of creatures - wild beasts. Mark says of Jesus that he was “with the wild animals.”

Anyone who has read the children’s book Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak knows that it’s often tricky to tell whether the beasts are on your side or not. They are wild and untameable. These were not pets, of course, but Jesus doesn’t seem to be threatened by them.

Perhaps the wild beasts show us that mission in God’s Kingdom will never be safe or predictable. There may be a rumpus. But the wild beasts can become your friends if like Jesus (and Max), you are not afraid.

Also, in the wilderness, Jesus encounters angels who minister to him, as they did to Elijah when he fled to the wilderness. Even this place, devoid of comfort and all the things most necessary for human life, is not without God’s provision.

So, I wonder what this short and sharp description of Jesus facing temptation in the wilderness might offer to us in the way of comfort and direction this Lent? Lent is a wilderness season - a time when we are confronted with our own weaknesses but invited also to spend focussed time - alone and together - reflecting on who we are, deepening our walk with God, hearing his voice of affirmation calling us into the walk of discipleship, ministry and mission he has for each of us.

This is a time when we as the Church in Cumbria are reflecting on, and launching, our refreshed God for All vision: a vision “to release the whole people of God for the whole mission of God for the transformation of Cumbria in Jesus’s name”. Under that overarching vision sit 4 simple themes - to follow daily, speak boldly, care deeply, and tread gently.

What might Jesus’s testing in the wilderness show us about each of these?

Firstly, we might notice that it was only after this time in the wilderness that Jesus began his mission of announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God. My prayer through this whole Covid pandemic has been that out of this time of severe testing God might bring something new and fruitful; a new sense of purpose, a fresh sense of vocation after the stripping away. I pray that might be true of us as a diocese, as a Church of England, as a whole church of many different denominations. As we emerge from this wilderness experience, we may be tempted to head off in all sorts of different directions that may be tempting, but are not God’s will for us. And so, we need a clear sense of vision to know how and where God is calling us to minister for him in the weeks and months ahead. That may be true of us as individuals too. What is God bringing out of this time of trial for you in terms of a new sense of direction, calling, ministry? Perhaps a new call to “follow daily” in everyday life?

Secondly, Jesus’s time of testing in the wilderness might cause us to examine our relationship to the wild beasts, whether that’s the metaphorical wild beasts that stand in the way of our being able to fulfil something for God - perhaps the wild beasts of fear, or cynicism, or apathy.

How can we learn to tame our fears, to make friends with the things that scare us most, so we can be as free as Jesus was to live out his mission the world? And how might Jesus being with the wild beasts cause us to think about the way we are with God’s creation in the natural world? The bible tells us he was with the beasts in the same way he was with his disciples. Perhaps God’s creation is more of a partner in mission than we ever allow ourselves to realise. As we seek to “tread gently” in the world this Lent, perhaps we might see the natural world as a significant part of that.

And thirdly, perhaps we will find reassurance that even in the most difficult times, God sent his angels to “care deeply” for Jesus, and he does for us too. This Lent I pray that we might each and as mission communities and churches become more and more aware of God’s day by day provision for us - the unobtrusive ministry of the angels. We are never alone. As a whole people of God, we are called to echo the care God has for us in our care for each other, to “care deeply” for each other and for the communities in which he places us. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves, whose angel can I be today?

And from that point of quarantine, after his testing in the wilderness, after his choosing to follow God, not the temptations of Satan, Jesus bursts back on to the scene, fulfilling his mission, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom, speaking boldly, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

That is what we are called to do too, to “speak boldly” of all that God has shown and taught us. To speak boldly about the coming of his kingdom, a kingdom of justice, peace, wholeness and flourishing for all people and the created world. Over this coming Lent let us pray that God would open our eyes and enlarge our hearts to see the possibilities of proclaiming in the power of the Holy Spirit, the good news of his Kingdom.