The two readings set for today invite us to consider Lent within the framework, first, of the beginning of Jesus’ public earthly ministry, and, second, its triumphant and glorious end.
This Gospel reading from Mark 1: 9-15 tells us how it began. Jesus, aged (we believe) about 30, hears of John’s preaching and baptizing in the River Jordan. He perceives this as his call, goes out to John and is baptized. At that moment the Holy Spirit descends upon him and fills him, and this mighty endowment both signals the start of his ministry and empowers him to carry it out. Jesus receives the clear sign of God’s approval and blessing. That same mighty Holy Spirit then literally drives him out into the desert to confront Satan and the powers that oppose and resist the will of God.
Mark doesn’t say so in so many words, but we are to understand that (in that encounter) Jesus wins a decisive victory, and is so enabled to begin his ministry of teaching, healing and exorcism. He is able to announce that the moment has at long last arrived when God himself is making his appearance on earth to exercise his rule and achieve victory over the powers of sin and evil – that authority being personified in the person of Jesus himself. That is the beginning.
Our Epistle, 1 Peter 3: 18-22 tells us of the final end victory of Jesus’ earthly ministry. This was accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross on Good Friday, his descent to the place of the dead where he preached the good news (the Gospel), his resurrection from the dead in triumph, and finally his ascension into heaven to take his rightful place, and where all spirits, angels, and powers come under his supreme authority.
So there you have the framework – the beginning and the end. We now have some 40 days (or about 6 weeks) to reflect on that journey from the River Jordan to the empty tomb, as Jesus’ decisive ministry on earth is worked out step by step until (at the greatest possible cost to Jesus) final victory is won, and the complete, eternal salvation is forever secured for everyone who trusts in him and embraces that victory personally.
1. EXAMPLES OF THE MIRACLES OF JESUS
If we were to read on in Mark’s Gospel we would find Jesus (so to speak) setting out his stall. He says that the day of God’s coming to earth has arrived, and that this is ‘good news’ for all who hear it and believe. It is also the day of judgment of all the powers of evil and injustice, and everything that militates against our wholeness and well-being. And for those of us caught up and entangled in these webs of evil and destructiveness, it is the good news of forgiveness, healing, hope, freedom and new life.
And to prove that these are not idle words, Mark illustrates with five carefully chosen and distinctively different types of miracle.
First, Jesus encounters a man in a synagogue whose life is being utterly ruined by an evil spirit. Jesus drives the spirit out, and the man walks away free and whole.
Second, Simon Peter’s mother in law is sick with a fever, and Jesus heals her.
Third, a leper - the ultimate outcast in that society – with an incurable disease which was also believed to be contagious – is completely healed and restored to his rightful place in the community.
Fourth, a man suffering from paralysis is completely cured and given new life through the forgiveness of his sins.
Fifth, Levi, who is a tax collector and thus regarded as an outcast both by Jewish society and religion, is called by Jesus to join him, and to be included in his specially chosen followers.
These five very different miracles are intended to encompass and illustrate for the reader both the content of the ‘good news’ that Jesus was proclaiming, and its results in practice. They illustrate the broad scope of the good news. As one commentator (Jeffrey John) sums it up, it is a story of ‘healing, liberation and inclusion’.
2. EXAMPLES OF JESUS’ MIRACLES TODAY
Now these may seem to us rather rarefied examples, usually far removed from our everyday experience in the 21st century. But let’s try re-stating what Jesus was doing in his earthly ministry in a different way.
Jesus was touching the untouchable – those from whom others drew back and shunned. He was releasing those imprisoned in webs of evil, whether by habit, addiction, circumstance, relationship or indeed any way of life which prevented their ability to live truly whole and wholesome lives. Jesus was taking notice of those in society who seemed shrouded in cloaks of invisibility, and whom people just passed by. Jesus was cleansing the unclean so that they could put all the past behind them. Jesus was reaching out to those who were regarded as unreachable. Jesus was observing the outcast and the lonely and inviting them to join the party. Jesus was showing immense and practical love to the unloved and the unlovable. Jesus was healing the sick. Jesus was giving new hope and a new future to those in despair, and drawing close to the inwardly grieving and broken hearted.
If we express it like that, which of us cannot place ourselves somewhere on the list of people Jesus came to heal and save? Which of us does not inwardly long to hear the good news that Jesus came to bring to the world?
And which of us does not discern here a challenge to reach out ourselves, in the name of Jesus, to those around us whom we see to be in need of caring and prayer and love?
3. MIRACLES CAN HAPPEN IN YOUR LIFE
I want to suggest that we use Lent this year to reflect day by day on the ministry of Jesus as he journeys from Galilee to Jerusalem, and ask him to meet us at our particular point of need. Ask him to show you what is the true desire of your heart. Ask him to heal your deep hurt. And if you are praying about a problem that seems to you the most important thing, ask him to show you whether perhaps, underneath that presenting problem, there is something deeper. And if that is addressed or changed or healed, many other good things will flow from it, and move you in the direction of the wholeness of life to which he calls each one of us. Jesus came to confront and defeat all that spoils the wonderful and fruitful life he intends for us. When any of that happens, it is for you - surely – a miracle.
AND, if – in the name of Jesus – you reach out to someone in need with love and prayer and practical help, then you yourself will find you are working a miracle in someone else’s life, and be a bringer of blessing to that person. May God give us eyes and ears to see and to hear and act in Jesus’ name.
Do you believe in miracles? If we will take time, and pay attention, and listen in prayer to what Jesus is saying to us personally, what a miracle could happen in your life. Miracles are not just for people of long-ago. I was reminded recently of a song which says: ‘I believe in miracles – they happen every day’. Jesus told us that he had come to give us life in all its fullness.
Would it not be wonderful to arrive at Easter this year having experienced – in whatever form it may take – a kind of resurrection miracle in our own lives, because Jesus has touched our life with healing and blessing – new hope, new life, and made us a source of blessing to others. You and I are intended to embrace for ourselves the triumphant victory of the Easter resurrection. My prayer is that each one of us will experience a miracle in our lives this Lent. As you come to communion this morning, ask the Lord to do something new and wonderful in your life in the coming days. Surely He will answer.
1. Do you observe Lent in some particular way? Discuss in your group, if you belong to one, or consider prayerfully for yourself. Can you make these coming weeks more spiritually constructive so that – when Easter comes – you will have experienced some kind of spiritual growth and resurrection in your own life. If in a group, compare ideas.
2. You hear people say sometimes: “I feel so much better, it’s like a miracle!” Or “My life has really changed for the better, it’s like a miracle!” Does a miracle need to be ‘supernatural’ in a scientific sense? If Jesus meets you in prayer in a way that is a life-changing experience, would that not be a miracle? Do you think he is willing and able to do this in your life if you ask him? Discuss and share encouraging experiences.
3. The ‘miracles’ that Jesus can work in your life often begin with a small change. And a small change can sometimes set off a chain reaction. Bring the problem(s) you are most aware of (however small) to Jesus in prayer and ask for his help and see what happens! Discuss how you can make this Lent an adventure in prayer and its answer. Keep a note, and share wherever appropriate with those you trust and who pray alongside you.
4. Consider how you can discern better those around you who are perhaps lonely, unloved, in special need of some kind, and how you can reach out to them, probably in some quite simple ways – but ways which may make a difference beyond your imagining.