First Sunday of Lent
[Keep a moment of silence, calling to mind that, though we are unable to gather together, we share fellowship as a Church family as we offer this short act worship in our own homes]
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” [Matthew 16.24]
Merciful Lord, grant your people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil, and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Gospel Reading: Mark 1.9-15
A reading from the Gospel according to St Mark.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for 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.’
Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness forms the backdrop to the season of Lent. The event is recorded by the writers of the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Matthew and Luke tell us about three of the temptations; to turn the rounded stones of the wilderness into loaves of bread; to jump off the high rise pinnacle of the temple to showcase his supernatural power; or to embrace worldliness by bowing down before the devil. It’s clear that in rejecting these options our Lord chose the way of the cross instead. Luke ends his account with these chilling words, ‘When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time’ [Luke 4.13]
Today’s Gospel reading is St Mark’s account of the beginning of our Lord’s ministry. As a ‘man of few words’ he doesn’t give us any information about the nature of the temptations, leaving it to our imagination instead.
We begin by reflecting on Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan, when the heavens opened and the Spirit descended on him as a dove. It was at that moment that God the Father spoke and commissioned him, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.’ St Mark’s account is an intimate moment between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
But the evangelist tells us that the same Spirit immediately drove Jesus into the wilderness. He condenses the forty day experience into just two dozen words, ‘He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.’ Often with St Mark ‘less is more’.
The Judean wilderness was a scary place in New Testament times. It was often referred to as ‘The Desolation’ and full of things that were out to kill you; scorpions, snakes, wolves, lions, jackals and bears. It was also the hiding place of gangs of robbers who had no care for the sanctity of human life [as we read of in the Parable of the Good Samaritan].
It was in the wilderness that Jesus encountered Satan, whose Biblical name means the ‘accuser’ or ‘adversary’. The devil doesn’t need to be embodied in person to tempt the children of God. We know that what is contrary to the kingdom is never far from our thoughts. It’s why St Paul famously wrote, ‘I find it to be the case that when I want to do good evil is always close at hand.’ [Romans 7.21] We are tested all the time!
Matthew and Luke suggest that the devil tempted Jesus to take the easy options of being a celebrity miracle worker; buying people’s adoration by feeding them with bread; or simply by embracing the political power of this world. After forty long days and nights he overcome the time of testing and emerged, strengthened to begin his work as Saviour.
Two phrases are worth some closer reflection.
First, Mark tells us that Jesus was with the ‘wild beasts’. This could be a reference to the story of Adam and Eve, who lived in harmony with the ‘beasts’ in the Garden of Eden at the dawn of history. We know, from that story, how things went terribly wrong for Adam when his sin brought enmity and discord into the created order. So Mark might well be suggesting that Jesus, as the second Adam, was with the ‘wild beasts’ because his ministry would restore the harmony that was lost in Eden. The Gospel has a vision for creation restored!
Second, we are also told that ‘angels waited on him.’ Angels play an important role in the Gospel story. They were there at Jesus’ birth and at Easter’s empty tomb. They were also at the temptation, not so much as heavenly waiters but, as their name suggests, as messengers who reminded Jesus of his unique sonship and calling. In a similar way, over this challenging last year of pandemic, there have been ‘angels’ who have ministered to us in so many ways. They are out there if you look for them!
Today’s Gospel reading ends with Jesus going into Galilee to proclaim the gospel by saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news!’ A more modern version of what he said would be, ‘The time has come, turn your lives around, dare to believe the good news that God’s kingdom is all around you!’
The forty days and nights of Lent are an opportunity for us to face up to the temptations that come our way as people of faith. They challenge us to open our eyes to see the many ‘angels’ who minister to us, especially during times of testing and challenge. They also call us to emerge from our own wilderness experiences with faith renewed and ready to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God is upon us.
Lord Jesus, as we remember your baptism by John in the River Jordan so we think of our own baptism and our call to be a royal priesthood proclaiming the good news of your kingdom in the world. Bless John our Archbishop and all who serve you in your Church. Give us grace to resist evil and to be faithful to the way of the cross.
Lord, hear us.
Lord Jesus, as we call to mind the forty days and nights of your temptation in the wilderness we pray for strength to resist the testing we encounter in our Christian pilgrimage. May this season of Lent be a springtime for our souls, as we repent of our sins and seek to grow in your likeness.
Lord, hear us.
Lord Jesus, at the beginning of your earthly ministry you declared the good news that your kingdom has come upon us. Bless those who proclaim and share the faith today, clergy, evangelists, lay and family ministers; may your kingdom come and grow in and through us.
Lord, hear us.
Lord, we pray for those who are ill in mind, body or spirit; that they may know your healing love and presence in their hour of need.
Lord, hear us.
Lord, we pray for those who have died; remembering our departed loved ones and friends; that they may know the eternal joy, light and peace of your kingdom.
Lord, hear us.
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.
Prayer for those who are unable to receive th Sacrament of Holy Communion
Thanks be to you, Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits you have given me, for all the pains and insults you have borne for me. Since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, I ask you to come spiritually into my heart. O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother, may I know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day. Amen.
[after the Prayer of St Richard of Chichester]
[Keep a moment of silence for spiritual communion with the Lord and with our brothers and sisters]
Forty days and forty nights
thou wast fasting in the wild;
forty days and forty nights
tempted and yet undefiled.
G H Smittan [1822-1870]
May the Lord bless us and keep us; may the Lord make his face to shine upon us and be gracious unto us; may the Lord look lovingly upon us and grant us peace. Amen.
Bible Readings: New Revised Standard Version  - Word of the Lord: Church in Wales - CCL Parish Copyright Licence: 753662