Updated: Jan 30
We have entered into the season of Lent. All the Mardi Gras parade floats and beads have been packed away for another year. Beginning last Wednesday, we recognize forty days of sacrifice, where tradition has individuals contemplate setting aside one small pleasure (sin).
Of course, personal sacrifice is optional.
Today, we read in Mark’s Gospel how Jesus “was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
That can neatly sum up why some Christians make Lenten resolutions.
We set a course to a barren place that is largely “without the comforts of home,” where “home” represents our life prior to giving up something. We enter a “wilderness” where that pleasure is absent.
Once in that place, we constantly hear a voice inside our heads saying, “You know you want to have that which you gave up.” That is being tempted by Satan, who tests us to see if we are trying things by will power alone.
Then, we find ourselves confronted by other people whose vices are not the same as ours, or whose faith puts less value on sacrifice. They are the wild animals that are not directly tempting us, but their actions magnify our loss. We see them in their natural habitat and they stir our innate fears … where we sense humans are the weakest animal in the wilderness … feeling like sheep among wolves.
Then, we either get over our anxieties, or we cave to the pressures. Bad angels then come and serve us our forbidden fruit on a platter, or Good angels help us completely eliminate something that needed to be eliminated from our life, without second thoughts.
The success or failure of our Lenten sacrifices is based on our preparation. This means we cannot make any significant changes in our life patters simply by will power. For true changes in our lives to come about, we have to want that change, enough to work towards that goal.
For example, I used to be a smoker. I imagine if there was such a thing as Smokers Anonymous, I would have to say, “I am a smoker. But, I have not smoked a cigarette in eight years, two months,” and x-number of days, hours and minutes.
I began smoking when I was 16 years old. Many times over the next thirty years, I would come to a clear understanding that smoking was not good for my health, to the point I knew I should quit.
I gave up smoking many times, the same as people give up something for Lent many times. Then, I would stop giving up smoking … until the next time.
If I used will power to stop smoking, then I would regress and make up for lost smoke in my lungs by binge smoking.
Then, over one ten year period I quit smoking three times. Each time was for about three years. Each time I started back, it would be roughly four months before I realized I should not have given up, so I stopped smoking again.
I came to a personal realization that smoking was a form of suicide. It was a self-inflicted wound, which would eventually lead to death; but it was a slow death, which allowed for regular life to continue … a life that I didn’t see worth preserving one moment, and then the next it seemed okay enough to put the suicide on hold.
Best of all … I knew I could quit IF I WANTED TO QUIT. I had been there, done that before. But, anyone who suggested I quit smoking was only causing me to smoke more. As long as I wanted to kill myself, I reserved that right. No one could force me to quit, just as no one forced me to smoke.
That is why giving something up for Lent so often fails. We can make it seem like an ultimatum, one given to oneself. We say, “I will use Lent as the motivation to force myself to stop doing something I know is wrong; but I love doing it so much, I just can’t keep myself from doing it.”
You cannot will yourself to quit doing bad things, when you enjoy doing bad things.
You have to desire … to love … to completely want to stop doing wrong, for any life-changing success stories to result.
So, with this known, let’s look at the readings this week.
Mark wrote, “The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness.”
There was no calendar that Jesus reviewed, which reminded him … “Lent is in two weeks. Try that wilderness plan this time.” He wasn’t “driven” into a state of sacrifice by it being a scheduled event.
We then back up in Mark’s account a little, we see that the immediacy of this drive … this desire to act … this need to seek barren surroundings … was because Jesus had been filled with the Holy Spirit.
“[Jesus] saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descended like a dove on him.”
When it says, “Like a dove,” you have to intuit there was no force cast upon him. No will of God commanded that Jesus receive the Spirit and go to the wilderness. It simply fell upon his heart like a warm feeling, which then relaxed his whole being.
Then, you have to pay attention and hear what God said to Jesus.
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
That says Jesus was loved by God, and that love was mutual. Jesus did not please God simply by wading into the Jordan River one fine day, to be baptized by John. He had been pleasing God for some time.
Jesus had been preparing himself to quit being a mere human being (albeit one with a special relationship with God) and begin a dedicated ministry for God. Many years had been preparing Jesus for this day.
God was well pleased when Jesus made that decision to give up those last remaining pieces of Jesus the man, the son of Mary and Joseph, the brother of James and other siblings … to become a full-time servant of the Lord.
In a sense, one can see how Jesus’ life might have been like those ten years of my life, when I did not smoke 90% of the time, but I did smoke in between those times.
We can get a glimpse of that, when Jesus was a guest at the wedding in Cana. He told his mother, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” (John 2:4) Sounds a little bit like Jesus had an attitude then. He sounded a little snappy, like he was his own man and not liking being bossed around.
That says, however, that the decision when that hour would come was left up to Jesus. Jesus, although he quickly and easily changed water into wine, was not yet ready to sacrifice his will.
When he received the Holy Spirit, with God’s blessing, there was no turning back. There was no regressing back to being normal Jesus. It was onward to a world that could no longer distract through pleasures and comforts.
Jesus was driven by the Holy Spirit to have his metal tested by fire. The forty days was not something Jesus set his watch to let him know when that much time had passed.
Now, this is how we should see the Genesis reading today, where God makes a covenant with Noah and his descendants.
Peter wrote, “God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.”
You see, the time of Noah’s life, up to the Great Flood … 500 years … was like Jesus’ first 30 years. It was a life that shared a special relationship with God. Still, Noah lived among lots of regular folks, and the vast majority of them did all kinds of sinful things. Some of those sins could occasionally be inviting enough for Noah to partake of … just to know what all the attraction was about.
Likewise, Jesus might have retold a dirty joke he had heard … just because he knew it would bring laughter from people. Perhaps Noah played some pranks on his family, from time to time? Who knows? The Holy Bible does not focus on every moment in the lives of important people.
The point is that when God told Noah his plan to bring a flood, to start building a boat in the middle of a place with no major waterways … to start making preparations for a major change … Noah was driven to act, obediently.
Peter wrote, “God waited patiently in the days of Noah.” God waited for Noah to finish the ark, just as God waited for Jesus to be prepared to receive the Holy Spirit. God patiently waited for when Jesus would stop toying with fire and become the Son that God intended him to become.
Noah did not grumble and complain as he made an ark in the middle of dry land, while people mocked him and called him names.
Jesus did not grumble and complain as he grew into his special relationship with God, occasionally having to change water into wine or be scolded by his mother.
Jesus placed himself in the water of the Jordan River, just as Noah entered the ark when the rains began to fall. The rains fell for forty days and forty nights … the same amount of time Jesus was in the wilderness. Both Noah and Jesus were in dangerous places, but because of their devotion to God, they were attended by angels.
When both Noah and Jesus completed those forty days, they were in worlds that were nothing like the one they used to know.
Noah was in deep waters for a year, before the ark became grounded on Mount Ararat. Jesus spent three years navigating the lands surrounding Jerusalem.
Both Noah and Jesus were prepared to make commitments to major life-changing surrounding. They both welcomed sacrifice, no longer wanting the freedom to keep all options on the table.
The caveat in all of this can be seen where Peter wrote, “[Jesus] was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.” That is connected to the Genesis reading, where we read how God’s covenant with Noah included the agreement, “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood.”
The use of “flesh” has to be seen as the prison in which one’s soul (Peter calls it “spirit”) is affixed to the earthly plane. As such, Jesus did not get crucified in the Jordan River while John was baptizing him with water. He was put to death in the flesh when “the Spirit descended like a dove on him.” When that happened, Jesus was then “made alive in the spirit.”
That spiritual life “immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”
When you see that “death in the flesh” as the same as when one’s addictions to sin die, then you can have your eyes opened to how Lent is not a timeframe on a calendar, but the point in your life when you cease punishing yourself with death wishes. Lent becomes when one no longer attempts a slow-death suicide. Lent becomes when one begins preparing one’s life for a figurative death, through a polar shift in mindset.
Lent becomes that time when one ceases to be controlled by a brain that sends impulses that causes a body of flesh to immediately reach for a vice.
For Lent to come, one has to prepare to receive the mind of Christ, as one of the descendants of Noah who will no longer be forced by water to be saved.
God told Noah, “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.”
Mark wrote, “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.”
Jesus saw the clouds over the earth, and streaking down to him was the rainbow of God. Like a dove made from vapors of water and air, made colorful by the presence of light.
The covenant that is between God and us in the flesh is that God will never again tell us we must stop sinning, or we are going to die.
Death by willful neglect means a spirit perpetually confined in a prison, for not listening to the recommendation to “look for the rainbow.” That prison our spirits enters is not Hell, but a return to filthy flesh, to repeat the same need to become clean by a desire to return and be with God.
Water will no longer be the path that washes us clean. The new path goes through Christ, where we are told to prepare to receive the Spirit by a true devotion towards living like Jesus.
It is up to us when we can pull the calendar out and say, “I used to be of the flesh, but I have been alive in the spirit now for eight years, two months,” and x-number of days, hours, and minutes.
We must be able to see Lent on a calendar and recognize it as a marked date of personal achievement. That then celebrates when we stood before others saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”
But, by then, you won’t say that to impress yourself. You will say it to encourage others, so they will want to experience Lent in the way it should be experienced.
“Repent, and believe in the good news.”