Genesis 2: 15 – 17 & 3: 1 – 7 Romans 5 : 12 – 19 Matthew 4 : 1 – 11
This is the 1st Sunday in Lent and it’s a good time to ask three basic questions. What is Lent? How should we observe it? And how does it help our understanding of the Christian Gospel?
1. What is Lent? The word itself means ‘Springtime’ and we can apply it to our Christian lives in two ways: First, a ‘spring-clean’. Traditionally it’s the time of year when the days become longer, the sun shines more brightly into all the corners, and hopefully we feel more active. That’s the theory anyway! And so we notice that our homes could do with a thorough clean and out comes the vacuum cleaner, the dusters, and all the range of modern cleaning aids. It doesn’t take much imagination to transfer this to our Christian lives. We take time to examine the dark corners, the things not done which ought to have been done, and the things done which ought not to have been done, and begin to cleanse our lives and put them in order.
The other side of ‘Springtime’ is, naturally, that we delight to see nature unfolding its glorious blossoms and coming into full flower. It’s the same with our Christian lives. If we address our failings and shortcomings, and indeed our wilful sin, then our spiritual lives will burst into glorious bloom and we will know that wonderful sense of renewal of spiritual life and energy, and we will know the joy and peace that comes from a restored relationship with God.
Traditionally Lent lasts for 40 days leading up to Easter. This is in order that our spiritual lives and practices have been thoroughly serviced and MOT-ed in time to celebrate Easter with all our spiritual engines running well and on full power.
If it seems strange that Lent begins on a Wednesday and ends on Easter Saturday, that’s because our time of self-examination may well include abstinence - including fasting – and outward symbols of repentance. But Sundays are excluded from these practices, because Sunday is always a Feast Day, celebrating the Lord’s resurrection. So, if you count the days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Saturday and leave out the Sundays, the answer will be forty!
If we ask – why forty? The best answer is that Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness as he prepared for his earthly ministry (as we have just read in the Gospel), and that seems an excellent example to follow.
2. How should we observe Lent? There is the outward symbolism and the inner process. Hopefully, the two will integrate and both complement and reinforce each other.
First, the outward symbolism. Traditionally, the pattern has been to try and imitate the model of Jesus and make it a time of fasting. What that means in practice may differ from what was appropriate to the medieval monks, for example, to a suitable practice in our very different lives today. Fasting was a central feature (which took various forms) but that was not just an end in itself, but was accompanied by much prayer. There are people now who find that going without food – or minimum food – for periods of time, increases their concentration and focus. Excellent! Fasting is very much an orthodox Christian practice. Others will find that it simply gives them a migraine, while for others with certain medical conditions, it could seriously damage their health. Everyone must work out what most helps their spiritual concentration and prayer. Many now enforce a bit of discipline on their lives by deciding to abstain from – say - alcohol, meat, chocolate, or their favourite food, whatever that may be.
As well as giving up something we value, it will be helpful (as Anne pointed out in the last Liquid communion service) positively to take on something. In particular, join one of our special Lent courses, carve out more time for prayer, Bible reading with suitable notes and Holy Communion.
But all these should only be outward and visible signs of an inward reality. Are we really putting our spiritual lives in order? Are we taking positive steps to reconcile broken relationships? To put an end to whatever practices that grieve God’s loving heart? To look again at what it means to love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves? Without this, all the outward practice will be a sham. In the Gospels, the Pharisees were good at an outward show of practice with no real depth, and Jesus called them ‘Hypocrites’ – which means play-actors. It’s just theatre.
We each need to consider our personal response, in order that our lives will blossom spiritually so that we can celebrate Easter.
3. How does Lent help our understanding of the Christian Gospel?
In our Gospel reading, we see Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. He has just been baptized by John the Baptist, and as the Holy Spirit descends on him and fills his life with power, his public ministry is launched. He has been commissioned by God to offer the world a new way of living, which will restore our relationship with God and bring about true freedom, love, justice and peace.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul tells us in theological picture language that Jesus is the new Adam, who has come to reverse the effects of our fallen nature.
In our first reading from Genesis chapter 3, we read about the root cause of our present human condition. We are meant to understand that this story of the serpent and the tree of the knowledge and evil, is not so much intended to describe a single event, but to offer a deep insight into the problem that besets us all. We do not trust God sufficiently to obey his laws. In essence, we think we know better what will bring us happiness, success and satisfaction. And so we choose to go our own way in life – and often we then blame God when things go wrong. At some funerals I preside at, the family want to end the service with Frank Sinatra’s song ‘I did it my way’. And I think to myself ‘that is the perfect definition of sin’! I don’t want or intend to live my life under God’s loving guidance and direction. I intend to live it my way.
Jesus goes out into the wilderness to pray through the human problem, God’s solution, and how he is to implement it.
There are various possibilities. Will the world become a better place, and we become better people, if he makes it possible for the whole world to be fed? Well, that would certainly help, but in fact there is enough food in the world to feed everyone, but because of our human condition, we will never share it fairly.
Will Jesus make everyone believe he is God’s full and final messenger and follow him faithfully by throwing himself off the top of the temple – performing a great miracle? No, the sad truth is that Jesus will perform miracle after miracle, and the response of all the religious leaders is simply to ask for yet more and more signs – better evidence – more convincing proof. They have no wish to be convinced.
Will Jesus bring peace to the world through military conflict and magnificent victory establishing a kingdom of love and peace? Sadly, one military victory simply seems to provoke a counter response – another conflict - and world still does not find itself able to live in harmony and peace.
There is an underlying problem to all this. These strategies would address the symptoms not the disease. And the disease, as Jesus sees very clearly, lies in the fallen human heart and will. We all want to do it ‘our way’.
Jesus spells it out to his disciples in Matthew 16: 24 - 16: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me, will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gain the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?”
To get in step with Jesus this Lent means repentance, which means turning your life around, finding the right priorities – if necessary, turning your values upside down. Not my will, Lord, but yours be done.
This led Jesus down to the depths of the cross, where he took upon himself the tragedy of our fallen lives and wilful disobedience, and in his resurrection, brought us the hope of a new life, true freedom and a glorious future.
If we turn our lives to Christ in trust and obedience this Lent, then we shall indeed rejoice this coming Easter in the new life we find, with its true freedom, unlimited, unconditional love, and an eternal future. Whatever practices you adopt this Lent to renew your faith in Christ, may this Spring be for you the way to a glorious new resurrection life.
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NB. No discussion questions this week as we take part in the Lent courses which have their own questions. Please join these.
“Repentance is never the outcome of despair, but rather an act of profound hope. As we make confession of our sins this Lent, we do so not as a grovelling act of self-hatred, but as a response to God’s mercy. So we come home to reality, to the God ‘to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden’. God does not lead us to repentance to condemn us but to set us free from all the destructive and acquisitive instincts that crowd in on our lives and erode our faith and humanity. It is an act of trust – our part in the renewal of all creation.” Angela Tilby, Thought for the day. Radio 4. 5th March.