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Beginnings – Sunday 22nd February 2015

 

Genesis 9:8-17, Mark 1:9-15

Beginnings

 

In the year 445, St Patrick baptized King Aengus of Munster in Ireland. St Patrick had in his hand a sharp-pointed staff and by mistake, without noticing, he stabbed the King in his foot while he was conducting the baptism. The King made no mention of this, and St Patrick only noticed what he had done when the baptism was over. ‘Why didn’t you tell me what had happened?’ he asked. The King replied, ‘I thought it was part of the ritual’.

 

The gospel reading for this first Sunday in Lent is a very compact 7 verse section of Mark. The 7 verses neatly cover three key events right at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry: his baptism, temptation in the wilderness, and the start of his work of preaching and teaching. Over the next 6 weeks we will travel with Jesus to the cross and then on Easter day to the empty tomb. But today, it’s all about beginnings. Some of you will remember that our previous Vicar, Tony Vigars, encouraged us to follow a series of studies called, ‘His story, our story’. It was based on the idea that somehow, in the story of Jesus, we find our own story. That the story of our life, and that of Jesus’ life, somehow match or mirror each other. Let’s see how we get on as we explore that idea with today’s short passage in Mark.

 

The wilderness experience is at the heart of the gospel reading, framed by the baptism and the start of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. That theme of wilderness is perhaps what Lent is most about. Lent is a period of 40 days – that’s not counting the Sundays – which is the same as the length of time that Jesus spent in the wilderness, being tempted and tested. Why 40? It’s a day for every year that the Israelites spent in the wilderness as they wandered from Egypt to the promised land – read about it in Exodus. That number 40 then connects us with Jesus in the wilderness and then right back to the book of Exodus, and 40 years spent in the wilderness. The word Lent, just in passing, simply means ‘spring’. We start Lent in the cold days of late winter and it takes us into the heart of spring with the re-emergence of the created living order in the bright spring sun. There’s another journey.

 

Before we get to the wilderness, let’s pause at the Baptism. As Jesus arrives on the scene – and in Mark’s gospel he just appears as if from nowhere – he submits to the baptism of John the revivalist preacher, aligning himself with the new movement of repentance and turning back to God. As he comes up from the waters of the Jordan, a dove flies down and lands on him, symbolizing the coming of the Spirit and a voice is heard: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (11). Those words and the presence of the Spirit are gifts to Jesus as he faces testing and trial and the start of his ministry. What more did he need? What more could God the Father give than his love, his assurance, and his very presence through the Spirit? Brothers and sisters, that assurance comes to us also. Here is where these events recorded on paper come alive for us and mirror our own experience. Most of us probably can’t even remember our own baptism – some will be able to – but we too can allow ourselves to hear those same words spoken to us: ‘You are my Daughter or Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’. Let those words rest on you, let them settle on you, like a, I don’t know, a dove. Let that assurance touch you, allow the Spirit to take that right into your heart: know that you are beloved.  The baptismal font is at the door of almost all churches and cathedrals because baptism is the sign of entry into the fellowship of Jesus. There’s a tradition of sprinkling yourself with a few drops of water from it as a reminder, and echo of your baptism and a few weeks ago Christine encouraged us to do that here at St John’s as part of the service. Do it again! Do anything you can to remind yourself of your baptism, and of those words of assurance and love.

 

You might think that after that high point Jesus would go on in triumph to conquer the hearts of his people and perhaps duff up the Romans while he’s at it. Counter-intuitively, the Spirit himself ‘immediately drove him out into the wilderness’ (12). There had to be a testing of Jesus’ calling and commission. He went out into a literal wilderness, a wild place, an empty place in order to confront his demons – the short-cuts to fame and success that would avoid the cross. The temptations of the flesh and and heart which could side-track him from his mission. The account in Mark is literally one verse only – we don’t get the detail that we do in Matthew and Luke. I’m not going to go to the detail, I want to use the barrenness of Mark’s words to reflect a bit around this theme. Firstly, there’s a very real sense in which the testing was necessary, to prove himself. How do any of us know we can do anything until we’ve been tested? Jesus’ mission was a spiritual one, so he faced spiritual testing.

 

Just as we too have been baptized, have received the Spirit and the assurance of God’s love, so too will we have wilderness experiences, times of trial and testing. That doesn’t mean something has gone wrong!  Wilderness times come to all of us – they can come from bereavement, loss of a job, retirement, the pain of mental or physical illness. Anywhere where we feel rootless, emotionally or spiritually alone. Strong temptations can come on us in those times – temptations to kick over the traces, to find solace from somewhere else or someone else. Where is your weak point? How well do you know yourself? We used to talk about temptation coming from the world, the flesh and the devil. Let me bring that up to date and then you’ll know what I mean – money, sex and power. They are, I believe, the root temptations for all of us – the places we are most likely to compromise. Richard Foster wrote a book called exactly that, ‘Money, sex and power’. We studied it in home group several years ago – it’s an excellent book. I bet that if you think about your weak spot, your Achilles heel, it’ll involve at least one of those, if not all three. We should guard ourselves and fight the temptation to succumb, to give in when we are at a low point. That will make us stronger, more ready for what we are called to.

 

For many Christians in the world today, the wilderness experience has a much sharper edge than what I have described. We heard last week of the terrible murder of 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians in Libya who were executed for no other crime than that they were Christians. When I heard about it I texted my friend and work partner George, who is himself a Coptic Christian. ‘My dear friend’ he texted back, ‘The whole world has gone to the devil. Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy’. The church in the Middle East and North Africa is facing terrible hardship at this time. Some of us heard Mona Siddiqui at the University comment a couple of weeks ago that the West seems to have forgotten about the existence of the historical Christian communities in those places. Perhaps during Lent we can remember the wilderness times that they are passing through and pray for them.

 

There’s a silly story about a man who had two dogs, a black one and a white one. Whenever his friend visited, he noticed that the two dogs were fighting. Sometimes the black one was winning, and sometimes the white. He asked them man, ‘why is it that one week the black one is winning, and the next week the white?’ The man replied, ‘It depends which one I feed the most’.

 

Lent provides us with an opportunity to draw on resources to build ourselves up, to feed ourselves. I’m going to suggest a few practical ways we can do that. Personally, I’m using the ‘Daily Prayer’ app on my iPad. It’s brilliant! It gives you prayers and readings for every day for morning, evening and night. I’ve only been using the morning ones but I am finding it really, really good. Then there’s ‘Pray as you go’ – these are 10 minutes of music, reading, reflection and prayer that you can get on your computer, tablet or mobile. You can use earphones and listen while you travel to work on the bus or train, or put it on speaker in the car. Lots of great books – Rosemary and I are getting so much from ‘Finding Sanctuary’ by Abbott Christopher Jamison. Rowan Williams’ book, ‘Finding God in Mark’ has daily readings from the gospel through Lent. And lots more, of course. Carpe diem – seize the day! Take the opportunities that are out there.

 

So Jesus passed the test. After the baptism, the testing; after the testing, the mission. Jesus started his public ministry of teaching, preaching, healing which in three short years would lead to the cross. The phases of calling, assurance and trial were necessary.

 

In the year 445, St Patrick baptized King Aengus of Munster in Ireland. St Patrick had in his hand a sharp-pointed staff and by mistake, without noticing, he stabbed the King in his foot while he was conducting the baptism. The King made no mention of this, and St Patrick only noticed what he had done when the baptism was over. ‘Why didn’t you tell me what had happened?’ he asked. The King replied, ‘I thought it was part of the ritual’.

 

He was right.

 

Richard Croft