1 Mar 2009
“The Spirit drove [Jesus] out into the desert and He remained in the desert for forty days.” (Mark 1:12-13a) In the name …
Fr. Randy Calvo
Today, as we always do on the First Sunday of Lent, we have read the Gospel account of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. The reason for this is obvious: The 40 days in the wilderness translate into our 40 days of Lent, which we began just a few days ago. It’s always the same story, but it’s not always the exact same account. Mark, for example, hasn’t heard the details that Matthew and Luke include of the devil offering the four specific temptations to Jesus. He’s much more succinct than this, or maybe even more reverent, maybe Mark doesn’t even dare to try and imagine what the temptation of God’s Messiah may have been like. But Mark’s briefer version of the 40 days in the desert allows the church to include an additional couple of verses that we wouldn’t be able to if we were reading the longer versions in Matthew or Luke. So this year we can hear not only of the temptation in isolation, but also what follows from it. The sequence is quick: Jesus is baptized, He ventures out into the wilderness where He is tempted, and then He begins His public ministry of preaching the gospel. It all flows together as one complete whole.
There was a continuum from Jesus’ 40 days alone to the beginning of His public ministry. He was not the same person who emerged from the 40 days ready to speak to any and everyone as He was when He walked alone into the desert after His baptism by John, but it was only after that change had taken place in the wilderness that Jesus was then ready to go public and fulfill His calling as God’s Messiah. Again, Mark doesn’t let us know the details of the temptation, but whatever happened out there alone in the wilderness, Jesus was able to begin sorting through the unbelievably complex realization of His person and purpose. Only after the 40 days was Jesus fully prepared to go back to His hometown, His old neighbours and family, His old synagogue, and there begin preaching a radically new gospel based on the revelation that in Him the “kingdom of God is at hand.” He could not have said that without the 40 days. He was not prepared to say that until after the 40 days.
As I mentioned, Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness is the template for our 40 days of Lent. Sometimes we can imagine that Lent stands alone. It’s like these are an isolated 40 days of fasting and sacrifice, but this ignores the example of Jesus’ 40 days. When we look back to the temptation, we have to include the revelation that Jesus was changed by them and prepared for His ministry by them. It wasn’t like Jesus merely survived the 40 days so that He could then return to His old life again. He came back to Galilee as the Messiah not the carpenter (Mark 6:3). Lent also calls upon us to be changed, to not only endure the 40 days as an isolated block of time, but to emerge from them better prepared to be the spiritually called people that God has always expected us to be. In this sense, our 40 days are no different than Jesus’.
I know a very intelligent man who is one of those bio-engineering professors over at UMass. The University recruited him from all the way over in the Netherlands to come here and teach. He will be here for an extended period of time, and because of this he wanted to get a Massachusetts driver’s license. He went to the Registry and picked-up the study guide. This man is very intelligent, but he’s also a scientist, so he’s very practical too. He chose to concentrate on all of the laws and regulations that would pertain to him as a driver. In other words, he ignored all of the material in the hand-book pertaining to young drivers, those between the ages of 16 and 18 or is it 16 and 21 who have a restricted driver’s license. See I don’t even know, and I have a daughter who’s just about ready to get behind the wheel of my screaming-yellow Ford Focus. He goes back to the registry to take the license exam, and lo and behold a good part of the written exam is based on the questions pertaining to young drivers, the very questions my professor friend ignored as not relevant to him. He failed.
Mark tells the story of Jesus’ baptism, temptation and public ministry as a unified whole, and his briefer account allows the church to do the same. It’s all meant to be connected, and it’s all meant to serve as an example for us too. If we try and tear this story apart, we run the danger of repeating the mistake of my professor friend who failed the driver’s exam by doing the same thing. We can’t pick and choose what’s important because then we run the risk of ignoring what counts. And I think when we are tempted to pick and choose in this story of Mark’s, the part we will leave out is how Jesus was changed after the 40 days. We may think it’s not relevant to us. We’re not the ones going out and proclaiming to our neighbours, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” And so like my professor friend who didn’t bother to study the young-driver-questions in the registry’s hand book, we may think we can ignore that part of the Gospel-message that speaks of the results of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. We may think we can ignore the lesson that Lent is supposed to change us so that after our 40 days we are prepared to be the spiritually called people that God needs us to be.
We won’t leave this building on Easter Sunday and go to visit our neighbours carrying a lily and saying, “Repent and believe in the gospel!” But that’s not an excuse to not be the people that God needs us to be. Our temptations are not the same as Jesus’, and the results of our 40 days also won’t be the same as Jesus’. But nonetheless, Lent is meant to change us so that we are ready to listen and act as God would have us do. What that may entail is going to take time alone with Him, but that’s why we have 40 days. Come to church, pray, see what our Lenten Devotions offer, hear others at our Lenten discussions, fast, sacrifice, read the Bible, in other words give God the chance to speak, and then be willing to listen. May Jesus guide us on this journey, and for this we pray in His name. Amen. (+)