Psalm 25:1-10

Mark 1:9-15

A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

Rowan Williams, in the book that is guiding our Cathedral community through Lent, writes this of Lent:

Layers removed: it’s another image for what Lent and Passiontide are all about. We try to let some kind of sharp, cleansing wind blow through the fog of idleness and selfishness, so that the landscape of our spirits stands more clearly. Not that it’s always a pretty sight … but it’s only when the vague drifting muddle of the way we usually think about ourselves is blown away by the Spirit that we see the underlying contours – the deep needs, the ingrained resistances, the aching hopes and loves.[1]

Layers removed.

I guess this is what Jesus experienced at his baptism and then in his time in the wilderness. We are in Mark’s Gospel and we know the accounts will be brief. No detail of the three temptations with which the Satan challenges Jesus as in Matthew and Luke’s Gospel. Just two sentences on which to ponder Jesus’ forty days of that cleansing wind of which Rowan Williams writes.

The Spirit immediately drives him out into the wilderness. He is in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he is with the wild beasts; and the angels wait on him.

The writers of the lectionary which guides our readings each Sunday clearly think that two sentences is not enough for a gospel reading and so we have the story of Jesus’ baptism and the story of Jesus proclamation of the coming of the kingdom as well.

Layers removed.

These words might well describe what Jesus experienced at his baptism too. We don’t know how clearly he saw his identity. We know from Luke’s Gospel that at the age of twelve he knew himself deeply at home in his Father’s house learning from the rabbis. And then there is a great gap in the story. Until now.

Just as Jesus comes up out of the water, he sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice comes from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Through what one writer described as a “gracious gash in the universe”[2] the spirit descends on Jesus, into Jesus, and he knows who he is. God’s Beloved Son. The one with whom God is well pleased.

But knowing this is not enough. Jesus is a human being who must walk the earth in full knowledge of human frailty. There is no time to bask in the joy of God’s words to him, in the Spirit’s blessing. Immediately – it is always immediately in Mark’s Gospel, remember – the Spirit drives him into the wilderness. Immediately the truth of being fully human is inflicted on him. The temptation by Satan. The wild beasts and, yet, the presence, also, of the angels. He is not alone here. And neither, when we ponder our Lent, are we.

Did Jesus also find himself exposed to the sharp, cleansing wind of which Rowan Williams writes? Did he know the vague drifting muddle of the way we usually think about ourselves being blown away by the Spirit? Did he find exposed – the deep needs, the ingrained resistances, the aching hopes and loves? And then, as the angels waited on him did he, in a way that none of us could manage, breathe deeply, and turning towards God, stay utterly true to his vocation? He had to experience this wilderness though. He had to know what we know. How could he accompany us in our Lent otherwise?

What of us, then? How might we allow the sharp cleansing wind to blow through our fogs of idleness and selfishness? Harsh words, really, but we would expect no less than the truth from Rowan Williams.

We are encouraged in Lent to think of giving up things and taking other things on. So let’s wonder about that. What is it that gets in the way of God? What do we think makes us worthwhile, makes us beloved, that is not of God? It’s probably not chocolate, nor even a good red wine. Though there’s nothing wrong with giving those up if this helps us to reflect. We are encouraged to ponder prayer and fasting and almsgiving as our Lenten practice, after all. What do we love that is not God, or given us by God to love? What are our golden calves, the things we worship that are not God? Might we notice and put them to one side for this Lenten time, our forty days?

And what might we take up? How might we allow the sharp, cleansing wind blow through the fog of idleness and selfishness, so that the landscape of our spirits stands more clearly? It sounds painful, sounds like the wild beasts, but the angels are with us too. The spirit will not put us through what we cannot bear. And mightn’t it be a relief? To look with God at this vague drifting muddle of the way we usually think about ourselves. Because we surely know, if we’re honest, don’t we? We surely know about the muddle? About the sins. About the ways of being that we just would love to break and yet never quite manage grow out of. We surely know. Mightn’t the cleansing wind, the spirit that descends on us through the gracious gash in the universe, actually be a relief? Do you mean you know, God, what I’m really like? And you’re still here longing to keep company with my deep needs, my ingrained resistances, my aching hopes and loves? Longing to forgive me and set me free?

Our psalm encourages us to ponder in God’s company:

Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
   teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
   for you are the God of my salvation;
   for you I wait all day long.

Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love,
   for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
   according to your steadfast love remember me,
   for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!

Does our psalm guide us in our calling this Lent? Are we to spend time pondering in God’s company? Remembering our sins and then hearing God’s forgiveness, being mindful of God’s mercy and steadfast love, as the psalm puts it. Asking God to teach us God’s paths. To lead us in God’s truth.

I guess, in the end, what God longs for is a little time, a little of our time. Each day in Lent if we can manage it. Ten minutes, perhaps, or more. Each Lenten day. In our favourite place, with our favourite words of scripture or poetry. Or silently gazing at a tree or an icon or the waves of the sea. Sitting or walking, it doesn’t matter. I think what God longs for is a little of our time. And we’ll find ourselves changed by that. Prayer, I sometimes think, is like waves on a rock. Only after days and weeks and years of the waves rolling in over a rock will the rock be changed, its contours shaped by the movement of the sea. Prayer is like that, I think. And, so, what God longs for is a little of our time.

And we’ll find we sense the company of one who looks kindly upon us. The one who promised a rainbow in the sky and never to give up on us again. The presence of the one who sees all our sins, yes, and all our struggles, and all our hopes, and … all the ways in which we bless. Yes, we’ll find ourselves in the presence of one who looks kindly upon us.

And so we’ll finish our thoughts this First Sunday in Lent, with some gentler words, I think.
Michael Mayne, the former Dean of Westminster Abbey, spoke of Lent in this way.

On Ash Wednesday some of us have ash placed on our foreheads – [though we did things a little differently this year] – with the words: ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return …Yet Lent is not a bleak, forbidding time, but a very positive and optimistic remembering of who and what we truly are. ‘Dust’, yes, but dust that dreams of glory. Dust that has been claimed by God. Dust that has a deep aching sense both of its mortality and of its reaching after the God glimpsed in Jesus whom one day we shall see face to face. Lent is a time for remembering where our true home lies, and for setting our face once again in that direction[3].

[1] Rowan Williams Candles in the Dark p5.

[2] J. Marcus, quoted in John Shea Eating with the Bridegroom p79.

[3] Michael Mayne Dust that Dreams of Glory p.7