1 Peter 3.18-22
Canon David Stranack
So during this last week we have come to the beginning of Lent. Last Tuesday,Shrove Tuesday, was traditionally a time for repentance before God, and did not just involve tossed pancakes that might land on the floor. Ash Wednesday which we kept last Wednesday continued the theme of repentance as we began what is called the penitential season of Lent. Now all that could sound rather gloomy and negative, but don’t despair. First let us look a little closer at today’s Gospel reading. We heard how as soon as he was baptized Jesus went into the wilderness to be alone, to think about and to pray to the Father about the ministry he was soon to begin. St Mark’s Gospel version is expanded in the other two synoptic Gospels of Matthew and Luke but Mark gives us a summary of those events. At his Baptism, as Jesus came out of the water the Holy Spirit descended upon him and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
In his commentary Tom Wright says that so many children grow up in our world who have never heard a father say to them … ‘You are my dear child’, let alone, ‘I’m pleased with you.’ Many children leave home without hearing words of praise and support but instead feel they are failures because they do not match up to what they think their parents expected of them. But God’s standards are thankfully so very different. He says to his Son Jesus, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ Tom Wright goes on to add that, ‘when the living God looks at us, at every baptized and believing Christian, he says to us what he said to Jesus on that day’ of his baptism, ‘You are my dear, dear child; I’m delighted with you.’ Because ‘God sees us, not as we are in ourselves, but as we are in Jesus Christ.’ God sees our potential – a potential that can be and can only begin to be achieved as we live in Christ.
Yes, every one of you, every one of us, is a dear child of God and as we begin thisseason of Lent let us never forget that wonderful fact; God loves you.Then we heard that ‘the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. Hewas in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wildbeasts; and the angels waited on him.’Clearly Jesus was thinking about his ministry and the temptations that came to him were about the way he might use his divine powers, but in wrong ways:First, to provide himself with bread from the desert stones to feed his own hunger.Secondly, to carry out a stunt by throwing himself off the pinnacle of the temple.And thirdly by using his power like a military leader to force people into his kingdom.We often think of those temptations, which the other Gospel writers describe in more detail, we think of them describing the struggles that Jesus faced in planning his ministry. In actual fact what that episode describes is our Lord’s spiritual triumph over the powers of evil.
Jesus shows us the way to face up to the making of wrong or dangerous decisions in our lives. As he was alone in the wilderness it must have been at a later time that he shared with his disciples what he experienced and how he overcame those temptations and he would have told them in order to strengthen them and therefore us in the temptations we have to face. Jesus had the divine power to stand firm. He was spiritually strong enough to resist and to reject those warm and inviting yet evil courses of action. As the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says: ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4.15) Yes, Jesus triumphed over evil there in the wilderness. But this also means that with his spiritual help we too can triumph over wrong and evil decisions, so long as we stay close to him and to his Word.
And Jesus wants us to share in that triumph because, as I said earlier, we are his dear, dear children. He is on our side. He is, as the Psalmist says, our ‘very present help in trouble.’ (Psalm 46). But what about the temptations that we have to deal with, or rather to triumph over with the help of God? First of all we need to recognize what we personally are having to deal with. Where are our weak spots? What are the temptations that frequently catch us out? So often we don’t like to admit where some of our weaknesses are. Sometimes we are so used to them that we fail to recognize them as temptations. For instance we so
easily have prejudices that colour what we say, or think, or do, and often we are unaware that we have such prejudices. All too often we gloss over or deny before God those things that we should be ashamed of. Perhaps we should ask ourselves if there are things in our nature that we know are wrong but we are too embarrassed to admit to. As Jesus went into the wilderness to give himself time with God to consider the nature of his mission, let us use our Lenten ‘wilderness’ opportunity, and give extra time during the day, to be with our loving, merciful Father, to come clean before him about those things that are slowly but surely separating us from his mercy.
The various exercises in self-discipline, those acts of self-denial, that we traditionally attempt in Lent can be important as they help us to win self-control over our lives, but what is even more important is finding some ‘wilderness’ time to be with our Lord and to share with him our real feelings, the worries that dominate our lives, our failures, yes and even those embarrassing things we have said that we try to gloss over.
After all he knows exactly what we have done and said and in spite of that, still loves us dearly. But he can only help us move forward when we are honest enough to recognize our problems. If there is anything we feel ashamed to mention to God, then that’s probably the most important thing he wants us to say. It is when we are really honest to God that we can emerge from our ‘wilderness’ times stronger and more complete as the people of God, ready to go out in God’s power. And to do all that is to share in God’s triumph, to share in God’s victory over the powers of evil temptation. And that is certainly nothing to do with Lentern gloom but rather something for us to rejoice about and celebrate.
As Jesus said: ‘there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance’. May that joy up-lift each of us as we come closer and closer to our loving and merciful Father during this season of Lent. Amen.