The First Sunday in Lent
21 February 2021
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!
Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
Genesis 9: 6-17
Whoever sheds the blood of a human,
by a human shall that person’s blood be shed;
for in his own image
God made humankind.
And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.’
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’
1 Peter 3: 18-end
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
Mark 1: 9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
“Are you giving anything up for Lent?”
This might once have been a familiar conversation-starter; as we start Lent in 2021, the conversation might be rather curt. The weary reply might be,
“I don’t know, what’s left?”
The global experience of the past 12 months makes us almost numbed to what has been given up, what is being given up every day and what may yet need to be given up. It feels almost crass to mention the numbers, the personal stories, the chances and opportunities gone by. We might even see the whole pandemic experience as one long and ongoing Lent; if so, we have just entered a ‘Lent within a Lent’. Does this rob the Lenten season of the power to challenge and re-focus us? Or does it ask us to challenge and re-focus not just ourselves but our entire society, applying Lenten disciplines to all we have seen and learned in this long year?
Looking back and looking deep are unfashionable at the moment. ‘Hindsight’ is used as a jibe or insult, implying nit-picky defeatism. But if Lent is anything, it is a season to look back and to look deep. However else are we to see ourselves as we truly are and to fumble for better ways to be?
In Lent we are called to face temptations, hence the old familiar giving up of treats we enjoy. This is of course rooted in Christ’s experience of fasting, reflection, prayer and temptation in the wilderness before his final climactic mission to turn to Jerusalem; to adulation at first, with rejection, scorn, torture and death to follow swiftly afterwards.
The greatest temptation of Christ was the temptation to run away, to embrace fantasy rather than reality. Lent 2021 still finds the world tempted to embrace fantasies of many kinds; in fact, the concept of objective reality itself feels more tenuous all the time. “Repeat a lie often enough and people will come to believe it” is a line often attributed to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Recent studies in psychology indicate that, contrary to what we might expect, belief in all statements, be they plausible or implausible, increases with repetition.
A statement often repeated in the past few months of our pandemic experience, as the sad death toll passed new milestones is that, as a society and as embodied in those we elect to lead us, “We did everything we could”. The fact that this statement is often repeated should not imply that it is untrue; neither should it imply truthfulness. We simply cannot judge how true something is by how often it is said or repeated. We need other means of judgement, other ways of deciding whether we are running towards or away from reality.
As I mentioned, this was the dilemma faced by Jesus Christ in his first Lenten temptations. The way that he was able to hold to reality, however devastating and painful it would prove to be for him, was through prayer and closeness to his Father and through knowledge of religious traditions which had stood the test of time.
If we were to sit in Lenten meditation, reflecting on our place in life, our past, present and future, what we could learn and what we could improve, how far would we be able to get if we set out from a position that “We did everything we could”? Although our closeness to our Father can feel feel tenuous at best, and our knowledge of religious traditions may be partial and hazy, I suggest that we might quite quickly come to feel a conviction that we had in fact not done everything we could. On the contrary, we might recollect a fragment from the Church’s general confession that, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done”.
The Lent we have just entered is, of course, not the first which the world has entered during this terrible pandemic experience. Almost a year ago, Pope Francis was speaking during Lent, reflecting on that first experience of the impact on our lives.
I would like to leave you with a prayer that the pope addressed to God at that time, saying that “it is not the time of your judgement, but of our judgement: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others.”
whose Son Jesus Christ
fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are, yet without sin:
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 your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
your Son battled with the powers of darkness,
and grew closer to you in the desert:
help us to use these days
to grow in wisdom and prayer
that we may witness to your saving love
in Jesus Christ our Lord.