Page last updated



by John in Oz
based on Mark 1: 9 - 15

The period of Lent - originally the 40 day period of fasting in preparation for Easter - means different things to different people. It speaks to some still of fasting, of giving things up, of restraint, and other such self sacrificial things. During the early centuries the observance of Lent was very strict - only one meal a day was allowed, and meat and fish and even eggs were absolutely forbidden. In the Eastern churches that still applies today. In many western churches the observing of Lent now centres less round physical fasting and more round abstaining from festivities and instead devoting more time to religious thinking, getting together in study groups and things like that. As far as the Presbyterian Church is concerned, many ignore it altogether. I've never quite known why - we celebrate Easter, and Christmas, and Pentecost but not Lent.

If, as we often do, we say that to practice the Christian faith is to live like Jesus, then Lent poses a problem. There are certain aspects of Jesus' life that are unique to him and reflect experiences that are his and his alone. To be baptised, have the Spirit descend on you, and a voice from heaven patting you on the back - 'with you I am well pleased', then to be driven into some sort of wilderness, tempted by the devil, being with wild animals, angels looking after you - there's not much there that we can remotely try to emulate. None of that can be reproduced in any disciple of Jesus, whether in you or me or anybody else.

Except that in these few verses is the story of a journey. 'Jesus came from Nazareth .. and was baptised by John'. The journey was a short one, measured by miles. But it was momentous. It marked Jesus' acceptance of his vocation as a preacher - 'Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news'.' The journey called him out of the village where his childhood and early manhood had been spent, out of the occupation which had engaged his mind and strength, out of the family group with its comfortable security, and into the larger world of the purposes of God. There is much for us to relate to there.

We're all on journeys. Some of us think we're nearer the end of our journeys than others but that's only a valid opinion if we see the totality of our journeys as being our time here on earth. One of the greatest comforts of the Christian faith is the knowledge that we are here only temporarily, and that our presence on earth is just part of the eternal life that Christ promises. Journeys end at their destination, and like Jesus' our destination is God. But we can't get there without the downs of temptation and wilderness. If it weren't for temptation we wouldn't eat too much, exercise too little, avoid people we ought to be with more, or watch so much TV. Too much is said about the badness of giving in to temptation, and how if we keep giving in we might never reach the end of the road, at least not the right road. But in my book being tempted need not always mean going off the rails. Not all temptation is satanic. You can be tempted to do good, too. But there are those who will gleefully use Jesus' temptation by the devil to remind us of how awful we all are, and to keep on and on reminding us until we begin to believe them and then our awfulness saturates our whole being. The compassionate Jesus could never have meant that to happen. And anyway we're not awful. We are human beings and as such creatures of God. We do wrong, but we do right too. If we claim to be Christian then we acknowledge what we do wrong - we did that at the start of this service - and although that alone might not absolve us, God's forgiveness certainly does.

Jesus' journey begins with his baptism and continues with his ministry. He didn't go straight from one to the other though, and he had to go through the temptation exercise and suffer being driven and thrown into the wilderness before the ministry could be of any use. We have our own wildernesses and the rough rides that every single one of us goes through. And yet we get there in the end. We know we will, because we believe in the ultimate destination.

Lent is about the bumps on the way to that destination. The wildernesses, the temptations, the troughs before the glory. The wilderness times are certainly times of darkness in our lives - times we can't avoid but that we need to go through. These times can help to prepare us for what may lie ahead. That's not easy of course - if you're in the pits you're not likely to rise up out of them simply by trying to believe that you're down there just because of the better times ahead. And yet part of the Christian journey is being in that dark, scary place where there are questions to be asked and dreadful uncertainty you wish would go away. We know that Christ (and his followers) experienced that, and that so will we, maybe quite often.

It is therefore unrealistic to assume that for Christian people all is always light and bright. The perpetually happy smiling Christian person is really a myth. Christianity on its own does not provide blissful happiness 24 hours a day. There is a dark side to all of us, Christian or not. We need to be aware of that, to be in touch with the dark side and face up to it because if we turn our back on it then we hide what is a real and important part of us and we are therefore less than whole. To live in light we have to be aware of the dark, but not consumed by it. It is a great pity that some of the most deeply religious people look very miserable, for if they're as miserable as they look you can't blame others for thinking if that's what faith does to you, why bother. There are darknesses, that's true, but to the Christian they are temporary aberrations not all embracing depressions. Although Lent is traditionally a time for reflection and penance, if during these 40 days we stay totally immersed in our failings and shortcomings and difficulties we could well destroy part of ourselves, and worse still we're likely to be no use at all to anybody else. It is good therefore if we can put our dark bits in the proper Christian context, and see them in the overall light.

If you are suddenly diagnosed with a disease that might be fatal or disabling, or if the person closest to you dies even if you were expecting that, or if your home and all your belongings are washed away in floods, or if you think nobody wants your company any more, or if people dear to your heart turn their back on you, or if you're soon to marry but secretly you're not quite sure if it'll work out, or if you lose your job and see no future ahead - any of these things or others like them can cause what at the time might seem permanent and insufferable darkness. But the hope and the strength we need comes at the end of Lent with the glorious resurrection of Easter, after the crucifixion but because of it. We need the Hell, because Christ suffered the ultimate Hell, just for us. But he rose too, and the least we can do in response is to let our lives rise and not allow them to stay stuck in useless and destructive wildernesses.

'And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness'. It is one thing to be thrown into the wilderness as Christ was, but it's quite another, however, to create wildernesses of our own and to walk voluntarily into them as we are prone to doing. We have to be able to distinguish between the two. Our ruthless pursuit of comfort for ourselves might temporarily stave off the wilderness for some of us, but in so doing we can easily create wildernesses for others. I am no fervent environmentalist but I was terribly struck by reading this week of how, by our life styles we have increased the phenomenon of global warming to such an extent that we have pitched people like those of the flooded Mozambique into a special wilderness, probably of our own making. The pitching is not unlike the driving of Jesus to his wilderness, except that it was the Spirit that drove him: in a world dominated by human standards, tragedy is increasingly our responsibility and we can less and less shrug our shoulders and blame God for so-called natural disasters. The article I read argued that the Mozambique tragedy has all the elements of a plot with which we have become horribly familiar in the past few years - and it said this - 'the Mozambique flooding disaster is the result of violent weather impacting on a fragile third world infrastructure, a degraded and impoverished environment and a population living on the economic margins. We saw it in Bangladesh in 1998, when two-thirds of the country was flooded, and in Honduras a few months later, when Hurricane Mitch battered Central America for more than a week. In Mozambique, the images of people stranded on rooftops or trees, the stories of helicopters returning to rescue them only to find that they have vanished, have sketched in an awful new reality, but the text is similar'. The writer goes on to say that our need for comforts that were once never needed - all terrain conquering four wheel drives masquerading as domestic family cars, air conditioning providing temporary comfort in supermarkets, copious leisure of many kinds, each immensely productive of carbon dioxide, the gas that's mainly responsible for climate change - we are hooked on it all.

What I believe the Christian response to arguments like these is that we can use Christ's example to survive the wildernesses into which we are unexpectedly thrown, but we shouldn't dare to use him as justification for the destructive wildernesses of our own making. Our need is to see beyond our own comfy existence now, into that eternal world that is for everybody always, and to limit how we exist even in the smallest way, so that that better world for all gets a chance. That means resisting temptation.

I often come down from my office upstairs into this building during the week in the late afternoon, because it's usually empty then and if the sun is shining the light in here is stunning. Without ever wishing to confuse real religious experience with sentimental or emotional feelings, it is quite possible to be in this atmosphere and think spiritually about what it is we're here for, and to see in the sunlight shining through these windows a sign and a symbol of what it is we are called to be. Any one of these windows can preside one moment over a dark and dull corner of this place, but as soon as it catches the sun and throws it in, that dark area becomes a blazing glory - a quiet, peaceful blazing glory but a blazing glory nevertheless. Try it some time, in any consecrated building, and start by thinking and seeing your own life for what it is - the dark bits, the good bits, pretty ordinary possibly, maybe even dull without much going for it - and then in your mind use the light and the colour of the sun to catch the reflection of the glory of God that's in the face of Jesus Christ, and in the greatness of that light and what it can do, you can realise if you choose to how any life - however inadequate or however fulfilled - can itself become a burning and shining light, with more meaning and greater dignity and much more laughter than it had before. It is a great tragedy to miss an opportunity to see that possibility, and if a stained glass window helps then all to the good.

Maybe what I said at the beginning is a lot of nonsense - it wouldn't be the first time - we can, after all, take on board Jesus' Lenten journey, with its peaks and troughs and temptations and wildernesses. We can be disciples of Christ, because like him we can ride through not just the temptations but the darknesses too. The one essential part of the journey that allows us to do that and which we can all take on board is accepting, as he did, the vocation within the great purposes of God. That means accepting his words 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom has come near; repent, and believe in the good news'. Accepting that allows our lives to be lifted out of near, confining horizons and enclosing boundaries, and set in the much larger framework of the will of God.

This season of Lent provides an opportunity for a tremendous mental and spiritual pilgrimage - the great journey of every disciple's life, yours and mine, a journey that takes us out of the walls of self pre-occupation into the wider realm of service to all God's people.

Happy travelling! Have a good journey.