A little pre-Lent ramble

Today’s reading at the morning Eucharist was Mark 7.1-13.

I can’t think of an instance in the gospels when the Pharisees would have come away from a conversation with Jesus thinking, ‘That went well, I think we really convinced him this time.’  And they try so hard, so very hard, to get it right, and they always miss what’s right in front of them.

Today, this reading comes across not as a last Alleluia before the fast begins, but perhaps more as a comment on Lent itself and how we keep it.  It reminds us that the whole point of the law when it was given was to give another way, alongside all the many other gifts and self-revelations of God through the centuries, for us to ‘learn to be God’s people once again.’

It invites us to think about how whatever Lenten discipline we’ve chosen to undertake is going to help us draw closer to God – and warns us against anything that might inadvertently become an end in itself and so drive a wedge between us and God.

It took the ancient Israelites 40 years – a whole lifetime – to learn to be God’s people, and they still kept getting it wrong, just as we do. The law that was given to them during this time at Sinai was supposed to help, but in every generation since, God’s people have done as the gospel’s Pharisees tend to do, and made the law into a thing in itself, rather than as a way of learning to be People of God. All that time in the wilderness, trying to work out how to do it right, and all along, through the visceral and dramatic pillars of fire and cloud, and through the daily gift of manna from heaven, God was right there with them, inviting his beloved children to trust him, to draw up a chair at his table, sit and eat.

The poor Pharisees in the gospel reading are in a similar boat. They try so hard to get it right, and all the time they’re missing what’s right in front of them: Jesus’ friends, with their unwashed hands, are drawing up a chair every day and sitting down to eat with God.  I pray that when the last judgement comes, all who tried so hard, yet missed the point, will be confronted with the raw love and generosity and hospitality of God that says, ‘Sit, and eat’, and finally reply, ‘Thank you, I’d love to’.

This Lent, I pray that whatever we ‘do’ may be a way to draw closer, to become God’s people once again, whether that process takes 40 days or 40 years. I pray that it will be a time when we can hear God’s invitation and respond by drawing our chair closer – in worship, work, leisure, and rest – and enjoy table fellowship with our Lord.

Lent 1: Matthew 4.1-11

There was once a short-lived reality TV show called ‘SAS: are you tough enough?’ in which ordinary people undertook SAS style training and were, one by one, eliminated from the programme.  I remember watching one episode, and reflecting on the title that no, I really really wasn’t.

There’s a strand of the Lenten tradition that teeters on the brink of being all about whether we are tough enough.  Fasting, strict disciplines, and onerous rules for Lent can, if we’re not careful, become a matter of will power.

But that’s precisely the opposite of what Lent is really about.  The Eucharistic Prayer for Lent speaks of how we are to “learn to be God’s people once again” – in other words, we are on a quest not for self-improvement, but for a deeper rootedness in our identity as people of God.

If we give things up for Lent, we do so so that our usual props  – the things we think we are relying on but are really just cosmetic, with no real strength – fall away, and we are left with only the real, structural, load-bearing columns that really are keeping the building standing.  Sometimes it takes some time in the wilderness to find out what those columns are.

In Jesus’ time in the wilderness we see a process of stripping away.  Jesus fasts, giving up the comfortable feeling of having enough. And he heads out alone, giving up the tangible signs of support from his family and friends.  And he goes away from the towns, away from the trappings of human civilisation, and from the sacred places of his Jewish practice.   And there, he faces temptations to make himself comfortable, to take the easy route to power, and to test the love God his Father.

So what is it that enables him to survive this brutal wilderness experience?  Is it simply that Jesus was “tough enough” when we are not?  Undoubtedly Jesus was strong spiritually, mentally and emotionally, as well as physically, but if we make him out to have some sort of souped-up will power, then we deny his full humanity, and ignore all the evidence from the rest of the gospels that he was “tested as we are”.

When I read this passage it seems to me that we see Jesus finding, in his battle with Satan, that even without many of the things that he had relied on, there were certain things that were deeper sources of strength and courage in the face of adversity. He turns to scripture, refuting each of Satan’s advances with his own, deeper understanding of the Bible’s witness to the eternal and irrepressible love of God for his people.  And, I suspect, he also went into the wilderness with the words of God his Father ringing in his ears at the day of his baptism: “You are my son, I love you, and I am pleased with you.”

It is a fundamental need of each human being that they know they are loved unconditionally.  This applied to Jesus just as it does to all of us.  It is the foundation of our psyche, the ground of all our loving, the sound basis for our risk-taking, our growth and development, and the central core of our ability to love God and love our neighbour as we love ourselves.

Jesus shows us that it is not, and never was, about being tough.  It is about being human. And to be human is to be loved for ever by a God who reveals that love through scripture, and through his calling us by name at our baptism, and through his presence with us in every one of our life’s wilderness challenges.