‘The Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness.He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.’ (1:12-13)
The collect for this first week of Lent invites us to ‘discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit’. In Church environments, the expression “being obedient to or led by the Spirit” can evoke very different mental images. Many could think of hands raised high in praise during loud church services, others may think of the large crowds John Wesley use to pull, others still may think with suspicion about people speaking in tongues or falling in a trance before shifty self-appointed TV evangelists; but I dare say that not many of us would associate “being obedient to or lea by the Spirit” with discipline - with solitude, fasting, silence, and quietness. Yet, this is often the picture that Scripture associates with the Holy Spirit, and this is the picture we find in the gospel today. Here the Holy Spirit is at work in Jesus and leads him to a place separated from other people, into silence, into a wild and untamed landscape where civilization with its continuous noise and worries cannot reach.
In the gospel of Mark Jesus is almost always the person described as doing things, speaking, curing, and walking – he almost always has the active role. Jesus is in charge of the situation, but two exceptions to this are very telling; the first is found here, the second during his Passion. We have to look very attentively to see that verse 12 does not say, “Jesus was driven by the Spirit”; it says, ‘The Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness’, meaning that here the Holy Spirit has the active role. Jesus is completely open and receptive to whatever the Spirit is doing in him. So we see that for him being obedient to the Spirit is not about being the centre of attention, pulling great crowds, or doing things differently for difference sake; rather, it is all about reconnecting with what really matters – with both spiritual realities and with himself – through the means of solitude, fasting, silence, and quietness.
It is only after this period in the wilderness that Jesus reassumes his active role in the story; and more importantly, it is only after the discipline of wilderness experience that Jesus speaks to the world for the first time.
Our challenge for Lent is this, to imitate the Jesus we see in today’s gospel, a Jesus who is completely open to the action of the Holy Spirit and takes retreat into the wilderness so as to focus his attention on his vocation and the Cross. When we imitate Jesus in this way we are enabled to experience a true change of life, a true repentance that allows us to believe more firmly and intensely in the coming of God’s Kingdom. Imitating Jesus also prepares us to announce the Good News to those around us in a more credible way. In short, I ask you to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit.
This Lent the Spirit calls us to reacquaint ourselves with our spiritual wilderness; anything short of this will not do. Any half-baked plans for Lent will not produce lasting fruits but just a smug feeling in saying, “Oh, look, I have given up chocolate for Lent!” No. The Holy Spirit calls us, and our spiritual wilderness and wastelands await us. It is time to switch off our TV sets, to find time for silence; it is time to examine our consciences, to be confronted by our inner hopes and fears; it is time to seek quietness, to avoid gossip, to forgive one-another; it is time to open our hearts and see what’s lurking inside, to open our wallets and give to charity; it is time to pick up our dusty Bibles and read the gospels, to learn from Jesus how to relate to one-another.
Being in the wilderness like Jesus is not easy, sometimes it may be a scary experience, but at the other side of our discipline, of our solitude, fasting, silence, and quietness the great joy of Easter awaits us. And if temptations and doubt should find us, angels will wait on us as they did with Jesus. At the end of the day, God is faithful and he will not ask of us more than we can do.
I want to leave you with some powerful words about this season of Lent by Leo the Great, one the 5th century Church Fathers. In speaking to his congregation about their relationships with one-another he says,
‘This season let faults be forgiven, let bonds [of slavery] be loosed, let offences be wiped clean, let plans of revenge fall through, that through the divine and human grace of Christ, the holy festival of Easter may find us all happy and innocent.’