First Sunday in Lent, Year B
21 February 2021
1 Peter 3:18-22
I will always remember Marc Messier’s Lay’s potato chip commercial that ends with him saying to us, “Bet you can’t have just one.”
Often that is how we define temptation. To eat the whole bag of chips, to have another helping or another piece of cake. Or maybe when we were young to put our hand in the cookie jar when our parents weren’t looking.
Certainly, those are temptations, but they are rather minor in comparison to the one Jesus endured, except perhaps that the temptations just mentioned are self-indulgent and Jesus in his temptation needed to decide whether his life was about him – which is what self-indulgence is about – or about God and God’s reign.
And so after his baptism by John, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. This is the Spirit of God who descended into Jesus at his baptism by John. The Spirit of God was visible and audible to Jesus, and courtesy of the evangelist Mark do we know about this event. This Spirit marks Jesus identity as God’s beloved and this Spirit drives him into the wilderness to enter into the desert experience of God’s people who in the exodus wandered for 40 years, and into the desert experience of the people in his own time who are like sheep without a shepherd.
Mark’s narration is sparse, “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
And maybe because of it’s sparseness we don’t quite know what to make of it. Yet the reason we are given this story today is that we are standing at the beginning of Lent, entering a liturgical wilderness bare of alleluias, but instead filled with introspection, contemplation, and the discovery that most things and systems are not life-giving but are only things and systems.
And yet, as so often, and as the number forty alludes to Israel’s forty years in the wilderness, so the reference to wild beasts is a reference to the Old Testament, Book of Daniel in particular, which refers to oppressive rulers as “beasts” and speaks of angels contending with the princes and kingdoms. (Daniel 7:1-7,10; 12:1)
And so we learn that what we presumed was only a spiritual battle has political implications. The temptation story of Jesus is about which Spirit will dwell in him and consequently whose agenda Jesus will advance.
It is no surprise then that Jesus’ ministry begins after the arrest of John. The beginning of his ministry stands before the background of John’s arrest, making it clear that Jesus is not simply calling his followers to give up chocolate and potato chips but to choose something else all together.
And so for us who embark on the journey of Lent, our temptation is either hopelessness in the face of the daily news or accommodation to the status quo. Jesus, however, proclaims that ‘the time is now and the reign of God is near.’
And this proclamation shifts our focus from the future to today. Christians are followers of Jesus. Following Jesus means to keep our eyes on Jesus. Consequently, we are not people who are gazing toward heaven (Acts 1:11) but people who trust God’s promise and get to work.
To choose something else all together means that when we enter our own wilderness that we choose God over Satan. Concretely that means we choose our neighbour over our own comfort, we choose hope over despair, and because we choose hope over despair, we will not believe the lies Satan tells, that we should despair about the future, despair about ourselves, that accumulating more does not hurt anybody, that everyone is for themselves, that all opinions are equally valid.
God called a people, Jesus called disciples, the Holy Spirit constituted the church. No one should be for themselves. Not those who are needy, nor those who have much. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we need each other, which is why it is disappointing when some don’t keep the rules as it will keep all of us under restrictions for longer. I cannot wait to gather again.
Traditionally when we speak about Lent, we speak about introspection. That is a good thing, unless introspection becomes about us, and we become so busy seeing our own failings that we can no longer see Jesus. The point of Lenten introspection is that we peel away all the things that distract us and that we see Jesus more clearly and follow deliberately.
I remember our church’s pension plan offering a retirement seminar at a Synod Convention or study conference. For some reason I had the opportunity to tell one of the presenters that I wouldn’t be attending as I still had quite a few years to go. My decision was met with moral disapproval. And any financial planner worth their salt will tell you that it is your moral obligation to worry about the future. And the standard question always concerns the lifestyle one envisions for one’s retirement. This line of questioning makes it necessary to focus on me and my needs alone when Jesus’ ministry is for the whole world. The question we may want to ask is what life style does God envision for all of God’s creation?
Years ago we had a church growth person speak at a study conference. I don’t know exactly how we got to the topic but he told the story of attending a meeting at his child’s school about sex education. He said they were assured that the kids were just going to learn the facts without any value judgments. In response he asked how that could be possible, unless they weren’t going to tell the kids about date rape.
My point is that not all opinions are equally valid, not even in a democracy. Followers of Jesus are people who, like Jesus, are concerned about the last, the least, the lost, and the little, and that includes all who are vulnerable and all who are at the margins. Might is not right.
As Jesus begins his ministry, he declares that the time is now and the reign of God is near.
That is God’s gift. It is God’s gift that the life of the followers of his son is not only about heaven but about God’s reign today, among us, and in this world.
And because the time is now and the reign of God is near, we live in hope and we can get to work.