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1st Sunday of Lent – Eucharist – 1.iii.

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(Genesis 9.8-17; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15)

I thought of giving this homily the title: “Why we are not singing the hymn,
Forty Days and Forty Nights, this morning.” Every year that I can
remember, I‟ve sung that hymn on the First Sunday of Lent, usually as the
beginning of the service. But not today. I think it‟s maybe just become too
automatic for me. A bit too comforting, because the very singing of the
hymn takes me back to my childhood when I‟d sing it in the choir and when
it was such a feature of the weekly children‟s Lent Club. They‟re not bad
memories. But the question I have to ask myself is, “Why do I keep the
season of Lent now?” Not, what images and memories does it bring into my
mind? But what is the challenge which it sets before me? How can it help
me to see things new and fresh? How can it help me be the person I am
called to be?

Of course it‟s right that we begin Lent by remembering the time which Jesus
gave to prayer and fasting in the desert right at the start of his public
ministry. Before he goes about preaching and teaching, before he speaks, he
has to listen. The hymn gets that:

Forty days and forty nights,


Thou wast fasting in the wild,
Forty days and forty nights,
Tempted, and yet undefiled.

In Lent we remember those days which Jesus spent, fasting in the desert, led
by the Spirit, praying that he might discern God's will. But there‟s more…

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This is not just so that we can look back on Jesus‟ time in the wilderness and
seek for inspiration by recalling it. It‟s not particularly so that we can be
encouraged by his resistance to temptation. And here I think we should
notice the difference between the tone of our Gospel reading this morning
from St. Mark and the rather different versions you can find in the other
Gospels. St. Matthew and St. Luke tell us much more - or rather they‟re
longer. The same forty days, but they pay particular attention to three
temptations resisted by Jesus - and his dialogue with Satan. But look in St.
Mark‟s account and there‟s no telling of the temptation to turn stones into
bread, to chance God‟s arm by leaping from the parapet of the Temple, nor
to fall down and worship Satan in return for dominion over earthly
kingdoms. That‟s not to say that they don‟t happen. But because Matthew
and Luke take up so much space in telling their story, perhaps they lose the
perspective that we need. Mark - on the other hand - is sparing in his telling
of the story: merely that Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, that he
knew the reality of temptation - and that he found himself in the midst of
wild beasts and angels.

Perhaps I‟ve already said too much - more than the Gospel strictly allows -
by saying that Jesus went into the desert to fast and pray and so that he could
discern God‟s will. St. Mark actually tells us that the Spirit drove him there.
And Mark doesn‟t tell us what Jesus did once he got there. He was simply
there. And stuff happened to him, like the temptations - and finding himself
with beasts and angels. What will make sense of this wilderness time is what
has already happened to Jesus at his Baptism, when he is acknowledged as
God‟s Son, and then in what follows, as Jesus preaches the coming of the

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Kingdom and the urgency of responding to it. In between there‟s simply that
space of forty days - empty time in an empty place.

Wouldn‟t you love to get away from it all? So many of us say that. But
would we want something so extreme as that time spent by Jesus in the
desert? I‟ve just started reading Sara Maitland‟s new book, which has the
title, “A Book of Silence.” It‟s a memoir of her experience in seeking silence
- a journey which has taken her from “an unusually noisy childhood,” as she
puts it, through gregarious years of challenge and excitement as a student,
through family life in that least peaceful of places, a Vicarage, eventually to
her establishment as a hermit, living at first not far from here in Weardale
and now on a remote moor in Galloway. Her quest has been for silence. She
writes:

We all imagine that we want peace and quiet, that we value privacy
and that the solitary and silent person is somehow more „authentic‟
than the same person in a social crowd, but we seldom seek
opportunities to enjoy it. We romanticise silence on the one hand and
on the other feel that it is terrifying, dangerous to our mental health, a
threat to our liberties and something to be avoided at all costs.

I‟m sure she‟s right that the quest for silence requires real commitment, and
we shouldn‟t under-estimate the demands that silence can make upon us.
Before I undertook an eight-day Individually Guided Retreat, I was required
to fill in a questionnaire - and there was a warning that people who had no
previous experience of at least a few days of silence should not sign up. It‟s
when you find yourself on your own and in silence that you find not merely
the opportunity for peaceful reflection, but also all the disturbing voices
speaking which otherwise you can ignore amid the frantic hurly-burly of life

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the way we normally live it. Those things that wake us up in the early hours
and won‟t let us get back to sleep. The things that we try to put off, shirk and
shake off… they all crowd in on us. If we would embrace silence we have to
confront the darker parts of our life, the responsibilities which can never be
escaped, the fears which need to be owned so that they can be effectively
confronted. Is that what is happening as Jesus - 40 days in the desert - finds
himself a prey to temptation and surrounded by “wild beasts”?

Sara Maitland writes:

I did not want peace and quiet; I wanted to be „wholly a flame‟. It is


not chance that the words „whole‟, „healthy‟ and „holy‟ are all derived
from the same root. I incline to excess.

And she goes on:

… I wanted to understand silence better. I wanted to demonstrate at


least to myself that silence was not just a negative absence or loss, and
was not necessarily waiting to be broken. But if it was not simply a
lack of noise, then I needed to know what it was, what its positive
content might be. I am convinced that as a whole society we are losing
something precious in our increasingly silence-avoiding culture and
that somehow, whatever this silence might be, it needs holding,
nourishing and unpacking.

If we are to ask that Lent might be for us a holy season, a time for spiritual
renewal, then there is no shortage of opportunities in this parish for time in
prayer and worship, in study of God's Word addressed to us, and in seeking
to grow in understanding through time spent learning with other Christians.
But I hope we will allow them to bring us to a deeper reflection so that
throughout Lent we may find ourselves coming ever closer to Jesus in our
prayer. And then, there is what you can do on your own: finding time for the

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prayer of silence; making time for examination of your own conscience so
that you can the better offer your needs to God; asking what are the needs of
those around you, and offering them to God in intercession.

We shouldn‟t be afraid to ask one of my earlier questions, "Why keep


Lent?"… If we‟re looking for a reason for the 40 days Jesus spends in the
desert we might guess that it‟s to take Jesus to the place of empty spaces,
away from the distractions of life's busy-ness, to seek God, to listen to his
heart, to learn what truly is to be God's will for his life's work. The forty
days and forty nights do not have a value in themselves, but rather are a time
for preparation for his public ministry. And this must be the purpose of Lent
for us. It is not a time simply for deeper devotion or spiritual refreshment so
that - once Lent is over - we can go back to our old ways. It‟s [instead] a
time to explore what it means to be Christ's disciple, to learn more about our
Christian calling and more about ourselves, so that Easter may find us
changed, ready to meet the risen Jesus, discovering that he has already found
us. We need to look at ourselves to ask where we are going and why.

And we should ask these questions without inflicting negative self-criticism


upon ourselves. We hear enough about what is wrong with everything. What
we need to know is how God cares for us, loves us, meets us in our anxieties
and fears, nourishes and tends us. When we ask "Where are we going?" we
need to be assured that ours is a journey we can invite other people to take
with us. We need to recognise again that ours is a journey worth making.

Fr. Gerard Hughes – author of God of Surprises, which we once used for a
Lent course - suggests that,

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"It is a very useful exercise to take a piece of paper, divide it
into two columns, one headed 'Events which bring me to life',
and the other 'Events which deaden me', then scribble down
whatever comes to mind. Keep the list, and add to it whenever
another item occurs to you. If you persist, the list will lengthen,
and you may discover that you give more time and attention to
the things which deaden you than to those which enliven you."

We need to look into our hearts and ask, do we find a spirit which deadens
or a spirit which enlivens? Do we just try to get by, holding on to what we
have got, but seeing it inevitably decay? Or do we take risks in living and
loving so that we might grow?

Sara Maitland writes that in her quest for silence,

I wanted to explore my own spirituality and deepen my growing sense


of the reality of God, and the possibility of that reality. Within all the
major religious traditions… there is a shared recognition that silence
is one very effective tool for spiritual development.

If only we‟ll take the chance and the opportunity… It‟s after his forty days
in the wilderness that Jesus finds angels ministering to him. And he emerges
from the desert able to declare, "the kingdom of God has come!" The
Christian task is to share that proclamation. So may this season of Lent find
us looking into our hearts to find God at work - in opportunities for silence
may we recognise more clearly what is really real.