Psalm 25:1-10 | Mark 1:9-15
So we enter into the time of Lent; a time best known, in popular culture, at least, as a time to give something up. Now in previous years I’ve done all the standard sorts of Lenten fasts – alcohol, coffee, sweets; so this year I wasn’t sure what to do. But fortunately, on Friday the decision was made for me: this year, I’ve decided to give up caring about how England are doing in the cricket. It’s hard, but at least the lads are doing their best to make it easier for me.
Of course, in modern years, and with an eye to shedding the negative, life-restricting image that the Church too often has, many people have tried to change the emphasis of Lent. It’s quite popular now to talk of taking something up instead of giving something up; to view Lent as an opportunity to build a new, positive dimension in your life; whether that be committing to a time of prayer or reading of the Bible, or a regular act of service, or spending increased time with family and friends, or giving in a more disciplined way to a cause you believe in.
In truth, all of these things: choosing the discipline of going without, or the discipline of taking something up, of reflecting, acting and connecting with the wider world, are just parts of what Lent has traditionally been about.
Lent is a time of getting ready.
But getting ready for what?
Well, one obvious answer, rather suggested by the calendar, is that Lent is about getting ready for Easter. It makes a certain sense – we have advent, a period of getting ready for the great mystery of Christmas, and we have Lent, a period of getting ready for the great mystery of Easter.
And indeed, one of the earliest traditions of a Lenten fast was for those wishing to be baptised into the first century Church. Lent, for them, was an intense period of fasting and study, preparing themselves for the lifechanging commitment that they would make on Easter Sunday.
Perhaps that’s a hint about what sort of getting ready Lent is all about.
Of course, the period of 40 days of lent is an echo of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. Perhaps as you heard the story read today you were stuck, as I was, by how much seemed to be missing from it. Because we all know the story of Jesus’ temptation, right? Turn stones into bread, leap from the top of the Temple, worship satan in return for all the kingdoms of the earth. All of that detail is there in both Matthew and Luke’s account of the temptation.
But all Mark gives us is one sentence: He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
But the story occupies a crucial spot in Mark’s narrative: it stands between the Baptism of Jesus and the start of his ministry.
In the story of the baptism of Jesus we get God declaring who Jesus is: “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased”. Perhaps for Jesus this is the confirmation of what he already knew; perhaps it is the crystallisation of some sense that had been growing in him over the years; perhaps it was a moment of stunning revelation. But whether it was the culmination of a gradual process or a radical shock, it was a declaration of who he was: the child of God, the beloved of God.
And in the verses straight after the temptation, we have the start – and in many ways, the summary – of Jesus’ ministry. He came proclaiming the good news of God: that is – the kingdom of God has come near.
And between the two, lies the wilderness. The wilderness and the temptation took Jesus from God’s declaration of who he was, to his declaration of what he was going to do.
This is the sense of getting ready that we see in the tradition of Lent. Not preparing for a celebration, as we prepare in advent for Christmas, not preparing in any external, organising sort of sense; not getting something ready, but getting ready to act. Just as the time in the wilderness took Jesus from recognition of who he was, as the son of God, to what he was called to do, the time of Lent is intended to take us on a journey from who we are – children of God, called to be God’s family – to what we are called to do.
Of course, for most of us, we’ve been here many times before, we’ve gone through many Lents. We aren’t making that first transition from a recognition of God’s love for us to a commitment to action in response to that love. But each year we take the chance to stop; almost to start again; to remember who we are, the beloved people of God, and to prepare ourselves once again for action.
Those early believers who started the tradition of Lent as a preparation for baptism were reflecting this. Those preparing for baptism were converts, believers – they had already recognised who they were in the eyes of God. Baptism marked their transition into the Church, the body of Christ, and into the mission and work thereof. But between those things, between who they were and what they would become, between their declaration of faith and their commitment to mission, lay a time of preparation, a time of getting ready.
It is this getting ready, this preparation, that we mark in the period of lent. And that is what lies behind all of our Lenten traditions.
We take up committed disciplines of prayer and study because it is in the depth of our relationship with God and our knowledge of the heart of God that we understand how the world was meant to be, understand the end point, the destination, the goal of our mission.
We go without, in part, to bridge the gap between our experience and the experiences of others; to gain just a fraction more understanding of what it is like to live without the luxuries that we take for granted. And we go without, in part, because it makes us stronger, reduces our dependency on stuff, asserts our freedom to enjoy the good things we have without being held captive by them.
And we take positive action; because having seen – at least in part – what the kingdom of God is supposed to look like, and having seen – at least in part – what the world today looks like, we long to do something about it, to be part of Jesus’ proclamation that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near”.
Lent is not an end in itself. Giving something up, or taking something up, is not the point. Being made ready to advance the things of God’s kingdom is the point.
So I don’t know if your tradition is to give something up, or to take up a discipline of prayer or study, or to engage more deeply in acts of service. I would encourage you to do something to mark the time of Lent; to pray, perhaps, for a different friend each day; or to give some time, each week, in service of others; or to read the scriptures more systematically; or to give something up, as an act of self control and solidarity with those who have no choice but to go without.
And I’d encourage you to hold these two thoughts in your mind as you practice whatever discipline it is that you have chosen: “you are God’s child, beloved, with you God is well pleased” and “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has drawn near”. And let this Lent form, once again the connection between who you are, who God has made you, and what you are going to do about it.