1 Peter 3: 18-22, Mark 1: 9-15 – Lent 1
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
We are at the very beginning of Lent – a time of thinking and reflection. I wonder what your aim is for Lent, will you mark the season in some way? Are you planning to spend some time in self-reflection? Are you giving up something you enjoy? Why do we do this – we cannot justify ourselves before God by acts of penance – whatever they are, rather through these acts we can develop a genuinely (sorry) penitential heart. Such a heart knows itself to be entirely dependent upon God, and that is what I want to think about today.
What we do in lent is contextual – and it is useful to think about our daily life. It has been an interesting week – Shrove Tuesday – Fat Tuesday (Thursday for Christ Church was when we were able to share pancakes together); Valentine’s Day (love) and Ash Wednesday (grief) on the same day… I think that was an interesting juxtaposition – the pure – not romantic love of God is never more needed than when we are reminded of our own mortality. And this as we heard of another gun tragedy in Florida as 17 people were shot by a young man, while they went about their normal school day. The children and adults who were present and survived may well have heard the words – remember you are dust and to dust you shall return – There is no greater reminder of our mortality than the death of someone close to us. These may be some of the young people who will lead America to change their gun laws.
Andrew and I support Medicine San Frontiers, their newsletter arrived this week full of stories of children in Rohingya and Yemen and coping with Plague in Madagascar, which is treatable but only if medical aid reaches people in time. This is our world and the challenges we live and hear of every day.
Our reading this morning from Mark tells of Jesus baptism and the spirit leading him into the wilderness, not as a pious evasion of the challenges of daily life but an essential preparation for those struggles.
One line struck me in the gospel reading: And the Spirit immediately drove him 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.
I have three grandchildren and it is my joy to spend quality time with them – every couple of weeks I go to Birmingham to look after the youngest who is just about 18 months old. I love to spend time in play with him; he is a very responsive child. I usually take a gift, often this is a story book, a few weeks ago we shared Maurice Sendek’s book – Where the Wild Things Are, which I had shared with my children years before; that verse Jesus went among the wild beasts just made me remember the story – do you know it?
Where the Wild Things Are was written by Maurice Sendak: Maurice died in 1983 aged 83. When the book was first published it was banned as psychoanalysts were not happy about the language that was used in describing the situation of this child who had a tantrum and the way he behaved – but children loved it and it has become a classic:
Maurice pens the story of Max a little boy with a big imagination who wears a onesie – wolf suit and, “makes mischief of one kind and another”, so his mother calls him ‘Wild Thing’ and she sends him to bed without his supper to fast and reflect. That night Max imagines a forest growing in his room and an ocean rushing by with a boat to take Max to the place where the wild things are. We read that Max tames the wild things and crowns himself as their king, and then the wild rumpus begins. But when Max has sent the monsters to bed, and everything is quiet, he starts to feel lonely and realises it is time to sail home to the place where someone loves him best of all. And when he gets there he finds his supper is waiting and it is still hot.
Maurice was writing about the passionate nature of children and how children master the various and growing feelings of – danger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy…and manage to get to grips with the realities of their lives…
I thought of Max as I contemplated Jesus going into the desert with the wild things, and wondered about how he felt as he was tempted – we tend to think of the desert story as dry and factual but it must have been a very passionate time as Jesus wrestled with issues of – Testing God, Hunger and the use of Power. What Jesus learned about himself in the desert was crucial to his mission and ministry. We know that Jesus had a brilliant imagination – consider his stories, always inclusive, challenging, political and sometimes shocking.
We are called to follow Jesus and from time to time, dependent upon what life brings, we need to take time out to listen to God and to use our God given imagination to grow our own stories, as important to adults as children to enable us to build our own personal capacity and strength, and to help us make sense of ourselves the context we are living in and our place in the world.
We need an imagination… John Bell writes about the spiritual discipline of imagining – to reclaim our imagination as a Christian resource and imagining as a spiritual exercise. John writes of God as the great imaginer – whose ingenuity is such that no two of us are the same, nor two animals, nor two trees, nor two days. He writes that it is not standardisation and conformity which brings new life to a tired earth but the exercise of prophetic imagination, evident though the Bible, in the dreams of Jacob and Joseph and the visions of Jeremiah and Isaiah which gave to weary folk both a theology of recovery and a visible image of what recovery meant. Jesus the great story teller had a wonderful way with words and it was his imagination that brought them to life.
Rowan Williams writes: To sustain yourself spiritually requires self-awareness – not a continual self -analysis which may stop us doing anything. Rowan says that it is usually only in rather critical situations that we have to turn to conscious and deliberate scrutiny of our deepest motives.
When I was going for my job in Sure Start – leaving behind the community post – I would once again be in a corporate role with a better salary and more ‘kudos’. Was it really the right thing to do? I went away for a week – and spent time walking in the forest in France with my friends and their dog. I needed a bit of distance – I needed to take my intense feelings positive and negative and consider the impact and fall out of my actions – what were my motives? I needed to be me – and do what was right for me, not what was expected or what other people wanted. We sometimes need to take time not to talk but to listen – to be away from the noise and busyness of daily life.
Jesus in the Desert – Jesus was not sent to bed because he was misbehaving – well not so far as we know – he was a thirty-year-old man – young and strong, a skilled artisan… he was going to give this all up, he was being called by God – he heard the call to baptism – and in our reading we heard that the Spirit descended on Jesus and God’s voice was heard – “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased”, God affirmed Jesus just as he was with full confidence, this is before Jesus began his public ministry. Whatever would happen next Jesus knew God was with him, then we read that the Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness where the wild things were. Jesus was going to face himself in the presence of God, he was taking time to learn who he was in the context of the Story of Life. As Lent progresses we will learn more about Jesus journey and the discipline that he was learning. Our lent in the tent series will consider the disciplines of Prayer, Fasting, the Bible and Social Action.
The story Lent begins with the baptism of Jesus – baptism which is an outward sign of our freedom – a removal of barriers in our relationship with God, baptism offers us a clean sheet in God’s eyes and a way forward. Acceptance of us just as we are at its heart. There is no qualification – we belong to God. Lent is a time for affirmation, time to uphold our gifts, skills and talents, alongside the hope that God has for us. We can move forward. We can change things. We are worthy. God can work with and through each of us to make a difference.
But, as well as affirmation, there is the harsh reality, there are wild things. The world where we must be new and can make a difference is a hard world to live in at times.
What does it mean to have the slate wiped clean, to be truly free? ‘We are free to walk the hard road of love and forgiveness.’
We are free to make a difference and be the people God calls us to be. Forgiveness is God’s gift to us, as is baptism – newness every day we breathe.
This lent, take some time to think, when we are in the place of the wild things in our local context and in the world, how do we exercise that freedom? And how do we enable that freedom for everyone so that everyone is able to share in God’s love and freedom?
Sendak, Maurice., Where the Wild Things Are: Harper and Row: (1963)
Williams Rowan., Being Disciples: Essential of The Christian Life: SPCK (2016)
Bell John., States of Bliss and Yearning, The Marks and Means of authentic Christian spirituality. Wild Goose Publications: (1998)