First Sunday of Lent, Year B, 2021
St. John’s Cathedral
Lent has started and with the three images presented to us today on this First Sunday of Lent, we get three important pointers about Lent.
The first image is the rainbow. It’s the wonderful image of the seven colours that every now and then burst through the clouds. In the story of Noah and the Ark, the rainbow was a sign of God’s covenant, the sign that God would always be faithful to the human family. This sign can always be a reminder to us that God is on our side. God is there for us. God will never let us be overwhelmed completely. This is a very important first point in Lent. Lent is not about my self-perfection, how much I can fast, or my effort alone. It is first and foremost a time to remember and put my trust in God, our heavenly Father, who cares for us.
The second image is water. In the original Noah story, the world was flooded but Noah and those with him on the boat were saved. St. Peter tells us that this story points to our own baptism. When water is poured over us at baptism, we are cleansed of sin and made new. This too is another important starting point for our Lenten journey. It reminds us: we don’t save ourselves! Jesus Christ saves us. We make mistakes, we commit sins, we don’t always get it right in life. But Jesus has poured mercy over us in our baptism and that baptism mercy is always on offer to us. We need to keep coming back to this time and time again. God has shown me mercy.
This is something the Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred by the Nazis in 1945, said of himself:
“Every day the Christian community sings, ‘I have received mercy.’ I also received this gift when I had closed my heart to God; when I was lost and could not find my way back. It was then that the word of the Lord came to meet me. I understood that he loves me. Jesus found me: he was close to me, he alone. He comforted me, he forgave all my errors and did not blame me for evil. When I was his enemy and did not keep his commandments, he treated me like a friend. I find it hard to understand why the Lord loves me so, why I am so dear to him. I cannot understand how he wanted and succeeded in winning over my heart with his love. I can only say, ‘I have received mercy.’”
We come to the third image – the wilderness. The Gospel today says Jesus was driven—you might say ‘forced’—into the wilderness for forty days. Jesus was driven there to be tempted by Satan. He had to deal with the beasts. The prophet Daniel had also to deal with the beasts and in the Old Testament we also read about the People of Israel having to deal with temptations when they spent forty years going through the wilderness.
So the third important point given to us on this First Sunday of Lent is linked to going into the wilderness. Lent is not just about giving up things. It is about re-setting the compass in our lives. Often our world and we ourselves can be going through wilderness situations. We need to find the right direction.
Pope Francis often says we are living through a time when there is a worldwide crisis because of the Covid and this crisis is a time of testing, a time of sifting to help us make wise decisions so that our world will go forward in new ways in politics, in economics, in solidarity, in care for the vulnerable.
A crisis is a time of deciding. Jesus went through the crisis of the wilderness because even though he was the Son of God, as a human being he had to make choices. At Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan God the Father had declared to Jesus how pleased he was in him, but now Jesus would have to be faithful to God the Father in the years of life ahead of him as he started out in his public ministry.
Likewise, for us we need to remember how easy it is to get knocked off our direction in life through circumstances, difficulties in relationships, carelessness, and simply a dose of so-what-ism.
Lent is a time to start again and realise our choices are important. What we do with our lives is important. Most of us find ourselves at times out in the wilderness too, being tempted, feeling helpless, scared of our shadows and the wild beasts inside us as well as outside. But maybe these are the moments when we can make a new act of trust in God. Jesus, God and man, wasn’t alone, the hand of his Father was with him as expressed by the angels that looked after him.
In Tolkien’s book and film, Lord of the Rings, the elderly Gandalf is explaining to Frodo the history of the ring. At a certain point, Frodo says: “I wish it need not have happened in my time”. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
The point is that we can blame this or that difficult circumstance in life for troubles we have or issues we are dealing with. And maybe we are right. But what matters is that we now rise to the challenge and decide to take ownership of the direction of our lives.
In another place in Lord of the Rings, Gandalf says: “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”
So as we set out on our Lenten journey, let’s remember the three images: the rainbow that tells us God is always with us, the water that reminds us to hand ourselves over to the mercy poured over us in baptism and the wilderness that invites us to look at areas in our life of which we need to repent, recognising that the ways we fall down in living out our Christian life.
Re-setting the compass in our lives, making choices about steps we need to take might be something we find hard to do. But remember we’re not alone. There are others around us and through and with them we can come to see more clearly the steps we can take. This Lent can indeed be a time to take those steps in sorting out some issues inside ourselves or in relationship with others. It always costs but Jesus reminds us we’re not alone; the Kingdom of God is close at hand. Yes, the Good News is that you’re not alone. Jesus who has overcome temptations can do this also in you.