In today’s Gospel we read of Jesus being tempted in the Wilderness. Well it must be Lent if we are getting around to this passage. Unlike the other well-known accounts of Jesus’s temptation, Mark is remarkably short with this moment in Jesus’s life. We do not read of the number of ways Jesus is tempted by the devil, rather Mark describes how Jesus is, “with the wild beasts” (v. 13).
As is characteristic of Lent, we are met with two overarching themes. The first is around being in the wilderness and what that means. The other is about sacrifice, letting go or giving up something. Today I invite us to enter once more into these themes in a slightly different, but just as applicable way.
For those of you who have had the opportunity to be on a formal retreat, or even taken time away from your daily life to focus on yourself and relationship with God, this will be all too familiar. For those of you, who have never been on a retreat, talk to me afterwards, because you are missing out on a great opportunity not only for Lent, but any time.
One of the things that happen to us when we first go on retreat, usually on day 1 and possibly through to day 2 is that our mind is flooded with the pre-occupations of our lives. It is hard to sit still, focus and unwind from the drive, the week we have just had, what we have done, what we have not done, all the work and commitments that await our return and any number of other stressors that dominate our mind. We may wonder what on earth is going on. We are supposed to be away from all this stuff, relaxing and focusing on holy things . . . But despite our best efforts the concerns of the world that we carry, that we have been carrying for some time without our ever realizing it, suddenly come to the forefront of our minds and demand our attention.
We have no choice, we have to deal with them in some way and put them aside so that we can begin to enter into our retreat. From my experience, this can take a good day, sometimes two days to do. We lead busy lives where we have responsibilities and commitments that our body and mind deal with on a daily basis, so hitting the pause button mid-stream can be hard. For those who have a hard time putting aside our daily concerns, this collect from the New Zealand Prayer Book is most helpful, especially at night:
Lord, it is night. The night is for stillness. Let us be still in the presence of God. It is night after a long day. What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done; let it be. The night is dark. Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives rest in you. The night is quiet. Let the quietness of your peace enfold us, all dear to us, and all who have no peace. The night heralds the dawn. Let us look expectantly to a new day, new joys, new possibilities. In your name we pray. Amen.
The Wilderness and Jesus’s time in the wilderness can be seen as a retreat of sorts. He is away from the city and the places where people have demands on him and his time. Immediately he is confronted with the ‘wild beasts’ and he needs to deal with them; to work through them and put them aside for God to do God’s work within him. From Mark’s Gospel we don’t know what these “wild beasts” are, but for us, they take many forms. They are our relationships, work, commitments, promises, expectations of ourselves and others. Like us, Jesus too needs to take the time to not let them dominate his time in the wilderness, but rather to put them in their right place.
Once we have persevered with our wild beasts, whatever they may be, they do fade away. At that point we suddenly, sometimes without realizing it, enter into a place of deep calm, peace and real presence with The Holy.
When we are in this place, usually on day two and three of the retreat, we know we are in the presence of God, even if we can’t identify exactly how we are there. We begin, as Richard Rohr would say, to see things more clearly the way they are. We are able to see and hold in Holy tension the pain and angst of our lives along with and in union with the good and life fulfilling of our lives. We begin to see, even at an unconscious level the good in our pain and sorrow and how these are transformed by God. Alongside that we also begin to see with clarity a direction and a focus of where we are being called. For some, this can be life changing.
When Jesus leaves the wilderness, he begins with earnest the work and purpose of his life. He sees, through his time in the wilderness more clearly how things really are and proclaims immediately that, “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1: 15). This as we know becomes a dominant message of Jesus.
When we allow ourselves to be still in the presence of God we allow God to open our eyes anew and what God has planned for us. This of course means we need to lose control a bit. It means we have to let go of being in charge and in control of the narrative and how we think things ought to be. We need to let go, because in the final analysis, it is not about us. Rather it is about making space for God to do what God does best in our lives. So we enter into day 3 or 4 of our retreat where we have to get ready to return once more into the world and our lives, only this time with fresh eyes and a new perspective.
Welcome to Lent. May this Lent be Holy and Spirit filled. May you be still in the presence of God and may God give you the clarity of thought and purpose of God’s plan for you.