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A Radical Lent

February 18, 2018

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Preached by Canon Mark Collinson using Mark 1.9-15 at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 18th February 2018, the first Sunday of Lent.

The beginning of the gospel of Mark is located in the wilderness of the Judean desert. Mark mentions the wilderness a number of times. First he quotes the prophet Isaiah, a voice of one crying in the wilderness, saying ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’.

Then John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, offering a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This was a radical departure for Jews, because normally you would only find repentance for sins by going to offer a sacifice in the Temple in Jerusalem. So John the Baptist, by living out Isaiah’s prophecy, has set a cat amongst the proverbial pidgeons.

Then, at the start of today’s gospel reading, Jesus walks onto the wilderness stage. He goes to John, and endorses this radical departure from accepted Jewish practice, and receives John’s baptism, in the river Jordan. As Jesus comes up out of the water, the gospel writer Mark records Jesus seeing heaven torn open, the spirit of God descending on Jesus like a dove, and a voice from heaven saying, ‘You are my Son, with you I am well pleased.’

Then Mark uses really interesting language to describe what happens next. He says the Spirit of God sends Jesus into the wilderness; in fact, the verb is much stronger than that. Mark says the Spirit threw Jesus out into the wilderness. And there Jesus remained for forty days, being tempted by the Satan. Other gospel writers add that Jesus fasted for forty days and they give details of the way Jesus was tempted. Mark records that he was with the wild animals and angels tended to him.

Then, after John had been put in prison, Jesus begins his public ministry and proclaims the good news. He picks up John’s message of repentence and proclaims that the time has come, the kingdom of God has arrived with his presence.

Today we celebrate the first Sunday of Lent, and Lent, of course, is derived from Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. But is it not a measure of how much we have tamed Christianity that so little of our Lent bears any resemblance to this text?

If Jesus called his followers to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him, should we not at least seek to imitate Christ? The apostle Paul says to the Corinthians, ‘Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’ (1 Cor 11:1). Paul follows his own advice, for we know that after his conversion he went away to the Arabian desert (Gal 1:17).

So I wonder how many of us are going to head to the wilds of Hampshire, to live in whatever wilderness we can find, to be warmed by the sun by day and shiver in the darkness of the night? Are we going to fast for one or two days, let alone forty?

It’s not as though at periods in the church’s history, that such radical acts of commitment were not embraced. The Desert Fathers and Mothers were radical ascetics who rejected home comforts and embraced a life of prayer and simplicity and silence in the wildernesses of Egypt, Palestine and Syria. They followed Jesus’ example, and went a stage further, by staying not just forty days in the desert, but for years.

Taking the bible so literally? Well, it’s just not British is it?

In so many ways we have massaged and ameliorated the stark harshness of the gospels into something all the more tolerable and reasonable.

We must admit that we live in a comfortable Western country, where only a few people don’t have enough food, (and rely on food banks). We’re not persecuted for our faith in Christ, most of us have nice homes, we’re not going to be made homeless, so the idea of making life uncomfortable in Lent may just about stretch to a dietary renaissance of reducing our sugar or alcohol intake.

But it was precisely times of blessing and comfort that caused the explosion of spirituality demonstrated by the desert fathers. Once Emperor Constantine had issued his edict of Milan (313 AD), and Christianity became acceptable, the radical nature of living life on the edge was taken away. The Desert Fathers rejected the established church because they feared they would lose their love of Christ and be tempted by material comforts. They founded communities of monks, who lived in their own cells in solitude, but worked and worshipped in community. Our Benedictine tradition is the inheritance of what they started. So should we not in our Western comfort be prepared to do something radical to engage in spiritual warfare?

On Ash Wednesday the cathedral was filled with activity and people. There was a hive of work, welcoming hospitality and prayer. I’m particularly proud of how I polished one of the brass candlesticks in Foxes Chantry chapel, and the Dean, I think, is particularly proud of one of the collection plates.  Now the Cathedral is often a hive of activity and people and prayer, but last Wednesday it was different, because we were doing it as part of Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent. We were also proclaiming the kingdom to anyone who walked past, inviting them to receive the sign of the cross, a sign of God’s love, and a sign the kingdom of God.

Lent is a time to pull our spiritual socks up, to try something radical that will help us engage in the spiritual battle that is constantly being waged around us.

Yesterday my wife and I cleaned the windows of our house. They were embarrasingly dirty. Whilst we could see the fly spots, the smudges and grime from rain, we’d just got used to them being dirty. Now we can see clearly through the windows. In the same way, Lent can be a time to clean the windows of our souls so we can see God more clearly.

How might we do this? Let me suggest four ways.

First, if you haven’t already, join the ABC course. ABC stands for Absolutely Basic Christianity. There are three groups you can choose from, starting tomorrow, at lunchtime, or in the evening, or on Tuesday. Or if you’re already an expert, do some other theological study, like, read the Archbishop’s Lent Book.

Second, commit to spend some time each week in silent prayer and solitude. You can use the Jesus Prayer to focus your mind on God. It is in silent prayer that we do battle in the spiritual realms, and seek to focus on Christ, and love him more. Join in the opportunities for silent prayer that are advertised on the leaflets by the door.

Third, think about fasting. Most healthy people can safely fast a meal or even a whole day once a week, even if you’re not used to fasting. It’s amazing how my good demeanor is reliant on food. Fasting helps us recognise our frailty and dependence on God for life and health. We offer ourselves to God as an act of devotion to him.

Finally, consider making a formal confession. I noticed on Wednesday we had the Epiphany chapel reserved for confession, but I didn’t see anyone taking up the offer.

Making confession is tremendously releasing, because, as it says in our epistle reading this morning, it is the pledge of a clear conscience before God. You’re not confessing your sins to the priest, but to God, and what the priest hears is sealed and confidential. If you want to make confession during Lent, please do contact one of the cathedral clergy.

I wonder what will happen if you allow the Spirit of God to throw you out into the wilderness over the next forty days, to wage spiritual warfare against Satan. If you think there is no battle to wage, then the battle is already lost. But if we seek to draw on the riches that Christ, who has gone before, has won for us, may we discover the joy of spiritual discipline. May we feel your spiritual muscles being stretched. May we embrace the blessing of finding forgiveness in Christ. Amen.