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 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.”
Well, that was quite a lot of story to pack into a few verses. Jesus is baptised, the Holy Spirit descends, Jesus is driven out into the wilderness, John is arrested, and Jesus comes back to proclaim the Good News and the kingdom has come near. Whew! I’m getting tired just thinking about this.
Now, because we’re Anglicans and therefore nobody will sit through a 30 minute long sermon with full exegesis on this passage, we’re going to have to break this down a little bit. Luckily, while this scripture seems to be rapid fire information, it is moving towards a single point. The kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the Good News. Or, get ready, The Christ has come.
And what a message for the first Sunday of Lent. Repent! I should have a big floppy Bible that I could shake at you while I shout repent! That would really complete this picture. Repent! Such a loaded word, at such a loaded time.
Because, isn’t that what Lent is all about? Penitence and repentance, ashes and sackcloth, wailing and lamentation. I think that’s probably the view of many people, that, or deprivation, Lent as a time of fasting and abstaining. Either way, it’s viewed as a time of self-punishment and contrition, remorse, a time of sorrow and atonement.
And yes, it is a time for atonement. It is a time for repentance. But repent does not mean breast-beating and weeping. It really means to re-think. A turning back towards the Lord, a return to our best self, our place as the child of God, His image in the world. This is what Lent is really about. It is a time for God’s incarnational story and presence to come close to us. It is a time for God to come close to us. It is a time to return to Him.
And so, we begin in Lent with a turning to God in the words of the gospel ‘Repent!’ And we find that turning in the wilderness. This is where Lent begins: in the wilderness.
Which is not a terribly comfortable place to be. It’s the place of challenge and struggle, the place of the jagged edges of life.
It’s a place that most of us, myself included, would like to avoid if we could. It’s dark and scary, it’s a place where we don’t know what is going to happen next. And for most of us, again, myself included, it is easy to get stuck in that beginning place, that wilderness, and think that this is what Lent is supposed to be like, what our faith journey is supposed to be like. Just a terrifying, panicked, lost-in-the-wilderness experience that will teach you something, humility or faith or whatever is that you’re missing and need to go outside the bounds of society to find. Like John the Baptist, living in the wild wrapped in camel’s hair eating locusts.
I mean, I can’t even camp. The most ‘roughing it’ I can do is a hotel without a pool and a continental breakfast. So, believe me, when I say I don’t want the discomfort of the wilderness, I mean it. Why couldn’t we start, say, on a nice path, or even better, a highway inside my comfortable heated car, with my iPod on. Then I can just speed along, we’d get there in no time, I have a lead foot.
But, I’m not called to comfort, much to my dismay. I am not called to stagnancy, I am not called to an easy life. I am not called to the bare minimum. You and I are called to follow Christ, and in this season of Lent, we are to follow Christ to the cross. And so, we have to start in the wilderness.
Because we will follow Him out of that wilderness. And where He goes, shalom will follow.. He will touch the unclean and will leave cleanness in His wake. He’ll touch the dead and they will come back to life. He’ll speak to the blind and make them see, to the deaf and make them hear. He’ll enter every crack in our hearts and leave behind hope and faith and love.
Because this Lenten journey is about the reminder that Jesus is transforming the world, He is transforming us. In Christ, God is not unapproachable, but a palpable presence in our lives. He is near. And when He is near, everything can change. We can change.
And we are all gathered here as community to be part of that change. Especially this morning as we celebrate baptism and welcome new members, new life, to this church family. As we start our own Lenten journeys into closer relationship with God, we can share this beautiful moment with new travellers on their own paths towards the kingdom, and set before their feet the lessons we have learned in our own beginnings, the hopes and dreams we have for them as our new family members. Because what better way to begin our repentance, our returning to Christ, our following Him into the wilderness, than to reclaim love and hope in the celebration of new life. To reaffirm our commitment to God and to each other.
This, my friends, can be our Lenten promise. To enter into the wilderness of this world and pour love out in all directions, to be radical in hope, to resist the temptation of comfort and inactivity. To practice the labour of love, which is fierce and imperfect and life-giving. To teach and model and practice this in all ways. To give those who are starting their journey today, a tomorrow we can all participate in.
When we reaffirm our baptismal promise in a few moments, let us take the time to turn our hearts towards the cross, as see our Lenten season not as a dreary time of restriction, but an opportunity to return to our rightful place, a life of natural communion with God, our communities, and creation. Let us reaffirm our commitment to walking the path, whatever wilderness it takes us to, with courage and faith. Let us put God back at our center, and savour this season where we consciously, intentionally, live into God’s grace. Let us join with our new brothers and sisters in Christ in journeying, and let us repent, truly repent, for the kingdom is here, and we can see it in the shining faces of those we celebrate this morning.