St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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Lent 1, 2016

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 Lent has a long history. Eventually, over the years, it started with the observance of Ash Wednesday, so that Jesus’ own forty days in the desert could be re-enacted in Christian practice. By the tenth century, ashes became a part of this lead up to our remembrance of the death of Jesus.
 
That is what pulls this all together: it is the bleak fact of death. We all will return to the dust from which we came. There are those who would say that that is a terrible sentence. Each one of us receives a sentence of Capital punishment; the legal outcome for our breaking God’s law; the fruit of our sin is our death.
 
If we turn our attention to the readings for today, we need to bear in mind that the purpose of the lections through Lent is to prepare the people of God for participation in the paschal feast, our preparation for the wonder of Easter. The readings are either expositions of the meaning of the cross or of our participation in salvation through baptism.
 
In today’s Gospel Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit. According to S Mark he was with the “wild beasts” which do not injure him physically. While in the wilderness Satan attempted to injure his identity and messengers from God ministered to him during the temptations by Satan. This name for the devil is one which comes to us from the Persian Empire. We should know that Satans in the history of the Persian Empire, which at times extended into Palestine, were political agents who went around, in secret, testing the loyalty of the king’s subjects. The temptations offered to Jesus were not so much to sin, but to be unfaithful to his calling and who he is. Pope Benedict XVI suggested that the devil was offering Jesus a different way of being a messiah.
There are several very fitting lessons which can be learned from this Gospel.  First, we must all expect temptation for we are all, as we are taught by the Epistle to the Romans, the adopted children of God.  Normally, temptations come upon us subtly, in unexpected forms, and deceitful ways.  Too often, we have given in before we even realize that we have been tempted.  This happens because the devil is the lover of deception, the spreader of all falsehood, the familiar friend of darkness.  He uses our secret longings and hidden weaknesses to corrupt us.  He waits for the opportune time.
 
Seldom does the devil emerge from the dark, and he does so only when there is no place to hide, as in the wilderness.  The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness because only there, apart from the business and distractions of human society, would the devil be forced to reveal himself clearly as the principal enemy of the light that enlightens every human, that is, the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Light, Jesus himself.
The forty days of Lent are meant to be our wilderness.  This is another lesson. By withdrawing, even if only a little, from our normal way of life, by self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting and self-denial, by reading and meditation upon God's holy Word, we force the devil to reveal himself and attack us openly. So be warned, again, at the beginning of this Lent, that if you are keeping Lent properly, even just a little bit, you can expect Satan to attack you. 
 
Here we discover another lesson: the temptations of the devil are of three kinds, as Jesus' temptations were of three kinds.  All sin arises from three sources: 1) the lust of the flesh, 2) the lust of the eyes, and 3) the pride of life.  Thus, the devil must play upon these, in the hope that we would abandon faith or devote ourselves to worldly ends or test God idly and presumptuously. More often than not it is pride which leads us.
 
Still, such temptation is too hard to bear even normally.  Which one of us would deliberately go into the wilderness or desert alone to confront Satan?  But here is the Good News this Lent: we do not go alone.  This is the last lesson to be learned.  We go in Christ, with Christ in us.  We can overcome the adversary, who prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour, only by the grace of God given us as his adopted children.  It is a very great comfort to realize that the true Son of God has already overcome darkness with his own marvellous light. Isn’t that what we heard in the Gospel of Christmas – the darkness overcame it not. Therefore, trusting in the Holy Spirit, let us go on this journey with Christ into the desert to be tempted. There, by God's grace, we will overcome our sins and arrive with renewed repentance and faith at the Easter Feast.
 
It is worthwhile remembering that the desert is also an image of lostness, if not death. It has its own chaos and dislocation. Dreadful and waterless, the desert can only be survived if we travel through it. To stop is to succumb. So the lesson for us is not to stop. No matter what Lent might be like for you, do not give up. Remember that God’s people, the Hebrews, spent forty reluctant years learning about the desert’s hardship. They learned that only God could be their security and guide; they learned that God alone could be their final food and water. In the same way Jesus spends forty days in the desert. He in turn will become our food, not by multiplying loaves in the desert, but by offering his body and blood as our food and drink for the journey.
 
On Ash Wednesday we were told to remember that dust we are, and unto dust we shall return.  Death awaits us all. Not one of us escapes. No matter how many people surround us we all die alone. Death is a wasteland that does not cease. Life can be a sheer irrational terror if desert is all there is.
 
And yet Lent invites us to enter and walk in that desert. Lent invites us to stare death itself in the face. Lent focuses on this dominant symbol of our terror and asks us to pass through it to the other side.
 
God the incarnate one invites us. Jesus leads us through the desert of godforsakenness to arrive at the land of promise. Lent is about that place to which we will go.
 
Having not sinned himself, Jesus (S Paul reminds us) became our sin and tasted the fruit of death in order to disarm it. As the “chosen one,” the promise of God, he also transforms the great images of death to signs of life.
 
Christ himself walks all the deserts of our lives to be the path through our deserts and serve as food and drink along the way. That is the invitation to us this Lent.
 
May God bless you as you travel.
 
 

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