Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, "As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth."
God said, "This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 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; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when 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. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you – not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the desert. He was in the desert 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."
Some years ago on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group of others to follow in the footsteps of Christ. We visited Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem; climbed the Mount of the Beatitudes and swam in the Sea of Galilee and even in the Dead Sea (not a pleasant experience!). We walked from Jerusalem to Jericho, looked into Jacob's Well, stood on the place in Cana where Jesus changed the water into wine and even knelt at the place where he was crucified. Everywhere we went, we took our gospel with us and read the appropriate passage. It was a moving experience all the way. But the strongest impression I have retained is that of the desert where Christ spent forty days before starting his public life. During our pilgrimage, we spent a day and a night in the desert.
It is not surprising that the three great world religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, were all born in the desert. It was through the desert that Moses led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. It was from that desert that John the Baptist came to herald the Messiah and soon after Jesus followed to proclaim himself Messiah. After my visit there, I came to realise the significance of the desert. The desert is a purgatory man must pass through to reach paradise. What is impressive about the desert is its sheer aridness. There is no vegetation, no bird life and, apart from the odd tiny lizard, almost no animals.
The silence is almost total. In that bleak landscape, nothing comes between man and his God. One either discovers God or succumbs to despair. It is no wonder that those Bedouins who ply the salt trade following their caravans across the desert are deeply religious. No life thrives here except the inner life. It is not surprising that it was the Desert Fathers who created that great institution dedicated to fostering the inner life, Western monasticism. It has so profoundly marked Christianity that we are all now, in a sense, children of the desert.
Living now as many of us do, in built-up areas, piled high on top of each other in high-rise apartments, bombarded day and night with the roar of city traffic and the blare of electronic music, we are in danger of losing our desert roots. And with that our inner life. We need to create a time and a space to nurture our spiritual lives. Lent is such a time. The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert and he remained there for forty days. Like Jesus, we should let the Holy Spirit lead us out into the desert this Lent where we can confront the devils that haunt our lives, and like him too, triumph over them. That is the freedom, dignity, and gift that is offered in today's gospel.
Lent does not have the impact it used to have. It doesn't impact on the lives of Christians as much as Ramadan impacts the lives of Muslims. But it is good to take Lent seriously just the same. As a church we are on a journey which will end with Easter Sunday. The gospel for the first Sunday of Lent is always about the temptation of Jesus. Mark's account of the temptation is the shortest by far. There is no dialogue between Jesus and Satan and the details of the temptations are not spelled out in any way. Instead we have that enigmatic statements that Jesus was with the wild beasts and that angels ministered to him.
We could think of the wild beasts and angels as opposing forces. The wild beasts could be understood as putting Jesus' relationship with God to the test, enticing him to put himself rather than God at the centre of his life. The angels, in contrast, support Jesus in his time of struggle, giving him the strength to stand firm in the test, to withstand the onslaught. There is some parallel between this story and our own lives. We too can find our best convictions, our deepest values, being put to the test. The values of the gospel do not sit easily with today's competitive, self-assertive world. The pressure to compromise our values can be very strong. Indeed, we can feel very alone as Jesus must have felt very alone in the wilderness.
It is good to remember that we are not alone, any more than Jesus was alone in the wilderness. The Lord's ministering, empowering and comforting presence is always at hand. That was the opening message of Jesus as soon as he stepped out of the wilderness, 'the time has come; the kingdom of God is close at hand'. The angels will minister to us; the Lord will stand by us. He has given us and will continue to give us all that we need. God is constantly at work among us and within us. Like Saint Paul we can say, 'I can do all things in him who strengthens me'.
A way of looking at life is to see it as a struggle between sin and grace, selfishness and holiness. Our time on earth will be successful in the measure that we put aside sin and try to live by the grace of God. Today's Scriptures show two contrasting reactions to temptation. The first humans, Adam and Eve, are imagined as preferring their own inclinations to the will of God. Jesus, the Saviour, on the contrary resisted temptation, remaining faithful to what God the Father required of him. St Paul reflects on how these choices affect ourselves: Adam's sin brought trouble on all, but we are saved and offered new life because of the fidelity of Christ.
An old priest who was blind for many years before his death, liked to urge his penitents to renew their efforts with these inspirational lines:
"We are not here to play,
to dream, to drift.
We have good work to do,
and loads to lift.
Shun not the struggle.
Face it. ˜Tis God's gift."
Temptation in one form or another is an unavoidable part of life. If we honestly examine our daily experience, we can find many aspects of temptation: impulses or tendencies counter to the right way of doing things. To rationalise away these temptations, so that they become socially acceptable and politically correct–is itself an insidious temptation. We want to dictate for ourselves what is right and wrong, to draw for ourselves the boundaries of "acceptable" behaviour, unencumbered by any notional commandments of God. This is rather like Adam demanding to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Our real growth to Christian maturity comes by acknowledging and accepting the vocation of struggling against temptation, to achieve the kind of behaviour and attitudes Jesus expects. We must submit our behaviour to his gospel. Christ and Adam show the two opposite reactions in face of temptation: Adam, archetype of sinful, evasive, self-seeking humanity, finds plausible reasons to yield to it, and rebels against God's will. Jesus, archetype of the new God-seeking man, resists temptation even repeatedly. It can only be conquered by this blend of patience and loyalty, supported by trust that what God requires of us is what is best for us.