Lent is an interesting time of our church calendar. I say interesting because I am always slightly bemused by the plethora of thinking about what Lent is meant for. Questions as to whether we should eat fish on Ash Wednesday (stating categorically that not on Fridays especially Good Friday); of giving up – I am amazed at the number of people who are giving up their Facebook; of a particular time to participate in a bible study or reflections; of somehow participating in, if not just recognising, Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness; and the list could go on.
All these miss the historical origins of Lent as our liturgy for Ash Wednesday puts it,
At first this season of Lent was observed by those who were preparing for baptism at Easter and by those who were to be restored to the church’s fellowship from which they had been separated through sin.
In course of time the church came to recognize that by careful keeping of these days all Christians might take to heart the call to repentance and the assurance of forgiveness proclaimed in the Gospel, and so grow in faith and devotion to our Lord.
…since early days Christians have observed with great devotion the time of our Lord’s passion and resurrection. It became the custom of the church to prepare for this by a season of penitence and fasting.
It seems to me that Lent is primarily a time of self-examination in the light of the revelation of God through his Son Jesus Christ as he is revealed to us in the Bible.
If we are to fast, whether that means literally having times when we do without food or giving up something, then it ought to be concerned not with just giving up, but doing so in order to make more time and space in our busy lives to focus on where we are in our knowledge and love of God and what that means for who we are and how we are to express our identity in God in the world.
It is not just enough during Lent to give up something as much as this may encourage us to support the work of mission through the church. It is a legitimate time for naval gazing.
The beginning of our Lenten reflection this morning speaks of the journey of Jesus. First he is baptised and, coming out of the water he has an experience of the Holy Spirit providing an affirmation of who he is in God, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” If that were my experience I think I would want to understand this meant for me.
And so, we are told, by the Holy Spirit, he is driven out into the place of being alone, to be alone with God, and there he was, as the text describes, tempted. Mark does not give any details of what these temptations might mean, as Matthew does. But if it was me, I would have to deal with bad pride; God has marked me out as special. I would be tempted to think that I have pleased God so far, I can do whatever I want.
Following this time in the wilderness, Mark provides us with the length of time Jesus was in the wilderness, after John the Baptist was arrested, begins his ministry, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”
This itself is telling, because it defines the ministry that Jesus has come to understand his role to be. As Matthew’s account of the wilderness testifies, there are many possibilities that Jesus could have entered into: a miracle worker, of assumption of political power, and self-glorification. But Jesus comes to understand that it is not about him, although it is through him. His purpose is to draw others away from all things including religious rites and law and restore them to God and place their trust in God in order to enable the kingdom of God to become a reality. Jesus does not draw attention to himself. Just as the Holy Spirit points us to Jesus, Jesus points us to the Heavenly Father.
Jesus baptism, wilderness experience, and entering onto the world stage of ministry, encourages us to be a people who are examining our motivations for everything we do especially the mission and ministry we do in God’s name.
We don’t need to look too hard to find those paedophiles whose motivation for offering themselves as clergy, or teachers, or scout leaders, or anything in order to have access to children. But we also need to ask ourselves about our motivation for any of the things we do.
In the reading for Ash Wednesday we hear of Jesus asking this motivation question of those who provide financial charity, who pray aloud on street corners and in synagogues, who disfigure their faces while fasting. There is nothing wrong in giving alms, or praying aloud, or fasting, but they do it in order that others may see how generous, religious, and pious they are.
We, too, can fall into all kinds of motivation for what we do, and don’t do: that we might be seen as nice, generous, good, holy, clever, manipulative, controlling.
Lent is an important time for self-examination about where we are in our relationship with God in Jesus Christ as he is revealed to us in Scripture and an important time for self-examination for discerning our motivation for what we are being called to do and not to do in our mission and ministry.