Skip to content
Home » Sermon 18th February 2024

Sermon 18th February 2024

    Sermon for the first Sunday in Lent

    Readings: 1 Peter 3: 18-end; Mark 1: 9-15

    We have four accounts of the life of Jesus in the New Testament; the four gospels, of course — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They all have their distinctive features, and one of the features of St. Mark’s gospel is its directness and sense of urgency. It is the shortest of the gospels. Mark doesn’t waste words.

    In today’s passage, we have three events concerned with the start of Jesus’ ministry. First — the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan; then the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness; then the proclamation by Jesus that ‘the kingdom of God has come near.’

    It is typical of the way in which Mark writes his gospel that these accounts are brief. In the baptism incident, there is no dialogue between Jesus and John as we find in another gospel. And in the account of Jesus in the wilderness we may be surprised to find no specific reference to the three temptations mentioned by Matthew and Luke: the challenge to turn stones into bread; the dare to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple, and the incitement to fall down and worship Satan. No mention of those in Mark’s account. Perhaps his stark narrative is appropriate as we consider the wilderness experience of Jesus, and our own passage through this Lenten period.

    But the three events do hang together in a way we should take notice of. For Jesus, his baptism was a commission to do the work his Father had appointed him to do. It should be no less of a commission for us. The words of the baptism service have changed over the years, but the candidate, or parents on behalf of the candidate, make this assertion. “I turn to Christ; I repent of my sins; I renounce evil.” If you are still wondering how best to keep Lent, those three phrases should give you all the instruction you need.

    It’s customary to renew our baptismal vows on Easter Day, so may be as part of the ‘Watch and Pray’ theme the C of E is observing this year, we could all ponder on those three promises in the next six weeks. I turn to Christ; I repent of my sins; I renounce evil.

    To return to the gospel: the Spirit descends on Jesus ‘like a dove’ at his baptism, and immediately, Mark says, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. We were thinking last week that often a moment of high spiritual uplift can be followed by a bringing-down-to-earth experience or a time of testing. Here, notice, Jesus seems not to go into the wilderness of his own accord. The Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. He was to be tested in the same inescapable way that we are tested.

    The writer of the first letter of Peter, our new testament reading today, says “Baptism saves you; not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience.” We have made our promises at our baptism or confirmation; the grace we receive should fortify us as we seek to repel the tempter.

    The gospel concludes with Jesus returning from the wilderness, and proclaiming “The time is fulfilled; and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The Kingdom of God does come nearer every time we overcome temptation. I suppose that if every person in the world turned to Christ; repented of their sins and renounced evil, then God’s kingdom would fully come.

    But we live in an interim period. Temptations still abound. Satan — however you think of him, or it, still attacks. But because Jesus overcame, we are given grace to meet our temptations and overcome. Each of us will face our own temptations, which may be equally about the things we don’t do, or the good we should do but fail to, as of the things we shouldn’t do. Psalm 19 asks the question “Who can tell how often they offend? O cleanse me from my secret faults” — by which I take to mean the faults we have been blinded from recognising. Then the psalm continues “Keep your servant also from presumptuous sins, lest they get the dominion over me.”

    Writing in Church Times this week, Charles Moseley reflects on the Christian understanding of Lent. He notes that the Church has long understood the intimate and necessary relation of flesh to spirit, and spirit to flesh. He reminds us that Aristotle defined humankind as a rational animal, neither all reason and spirit, nor all appetite and matter, but an interactive, paradoxical combination of all of them. So, continues Charles Moseley “When we ‘give things up for Lent’, when we try to discipline our wills to refuse ourselves things and pleasures that are in themselves innocent, we are getting ourselves morally better to resist pleasures, actions and indulgences when they are dangerous.”

    St. Paul, if you remember, used the analogy of athletes training for the games, with rigorous discipline, as a metaphor for the spiritual exercises that will bring us closer to God. Early Christians often followed the example of the ascetics. They considered that excess of food fed the unruly desires and uncontrollable impulses of the body to anger, covetousness and sloth. Relinquishing everything not absolutely necessary sought to restore the spirit’s rule over the body and the body’s desires. So — and this is the important bit — fasting and watching, discipline and silence, far from being life-denying, sought a fullness of spirit ready for the joy beyond this world, which all desire, perhaps without knowing it.

    All heavy stuff, perhaps. As I consider my congregation I don’t see too much evidence of over-indulgence, sloth and covetousness. But it comes back to what we were saying on Ash Wednesday, that Lent isn’t firstly about a programme of self-improvement, but an acknowledgement of who we are in God’s eyes, how far we might have strayed from the people he desires us to be, and a growing reliance on Jesus, and his goodness.

    So may we keep a holy and wholesome Lent, as we watch and pray, and take to heart the words of today’s Collect:

    “Give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit, and as you know our weakness, so may we know your power to save, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

    Skip to content