Our first car was a beautiful 1959 Morris Minor. It was a design icon, but it did have some drawbacks. It had none of the technology we now take for granted; certainly no aircon or airbags or ABS. It wasn’t exactly watertight and when it rained there was a regular drip from the ceiling light. Also it was draughty, the wind would get in but you could never work out where from. It did have a heater, but there were only two settings – on and off, and on was a blast furnace directed at your legs. In the winter you would toast your feet while the rest of you froze.
However we look back on it with great fondness. It was one of the family, and it was a delight to drive. Certainly not fast, but somehow you were much more in touch with the journey than in a modern car. And it was so cheap and easy to fix. All the parts were either reparable or replaceable. I learned about all sorts of things like alternators and solenoids along the way.
Now I’m remembering all this because it struck me as an interesting metaphor. We sort of imagine that life should be like a trouble free journey in a modern car. But in reality it is much more like our old Morris rolling along in the slow lane while everyone overtakes. But this thing about the Morris is that it could always be repaired, and carefully looked after it would run forever. My suspicion is that the Christian life is more like that than the gleaming modern version. And that is because what God is gently calling us to is a life more connected to his creation and to one another. God’s plan isn’t cruising along in a gleaming modern car, it is the long journey of growing in wisdom and a character, of understanding ourselves and others.
So how is that going? How are you doing at coming to terms with who you really are. Your unique character and strength, and your struggles, doubts and fears, and the demons that you fight.
This is what is at the heart of Lent.
Lent re-enacts Jesus 40 days in the wilderness, immediately after his baptism and before the start of his public ministry. It is a slightly daunting idea – emulating Jesus in an act of ascetic self discipline. But if we understand what is going on with Jesus, then we can ask the question what does that mean for us.
Jesus is led into the wilderness immediately after his baptism. A wonderful affirming moment – perhaps the point in his life when his calling and identity was most clear. A voice from heaven says ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
And that love is the foundation of all he does. But the remarkable thing is that if you are in Christ the same can be said of you. Lent begins not with the need to prove something, or to earn something, but with the unconditional love of God who says to you, ‘You are my child, beloved, with you I am well pleased’. We need to start our Lenten journey there.
But after that Jesus is led by the spirit into the wilderness. And once there he fasts for 40 days. Now anyone who has fasted will know that hard though it is, the benefits of it are enormous. The physical benefits have long been known and increasingly are being recognised by medical research. But the most immediate benefit is the mental clarity that it brings. The capacity to see clearly and act decisively. Fasting certainly can mean giving up food for some time, but it can mean other things too. The goal is to clear away the distractions and the noise. One idea is a digital fast. To restrict the amount of time we spend in front of screens, and to use that time more productively; to break the addiction and to embrace silence and even boredom, to allow your mind to wander, contemplate scripture and nature, and perhaps to face up to our own temptations.
The Bible account gives fascinating insight into Jesus’ temptations. In some ways these are unique to him, but some aspects of these are common to us all.
He was tempted in three ways.
The first was directly connected to his hunger. “Command these stones to become loaves of bread”. It was the temptation to use his power for his own ends and choose the easy road. The way of the cross is not the narrow road, not the self serving way or comfortable way.
The second was to demand proof from God, and to turn away from the path of faith. To throw himself into the abyss and demand that God catches him.
And the third was to choose worldly glory instead of humble servanthood. He is offered a shortcut to Glory instead of the path of sacrifice.
Jesus responds to each of these temptations with scripture, and that is an encouragement to us to know our Bibles. But it is very interesting that the verses Jesus quotes are all from the Exodus story; Moses leading the people from Egypt through the wilderness to the promised land. It seems that each one is a shorthand for one of the stories in Exodus about how the people of God were tested.
“Man shall not live by bread alone” is easiest – a reference to the Mannah story where God humbled them, causing them to hunger and then feeding them with manna to teach them that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.
“Do not put the Lord to the test” is a reference to a story in the desert at Massah (which means testing) where the Israelites quarrelled saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only” is a quote from Deuteronomy 6:10 which is very telling “When the Lord your God has brought you into the promised land, a land with cities that you did not build and vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and when you have eaten your fill, take care that you do not forget the Lord.”
So Jesus sees that what he is going through in terms of the 40 years that the people of God spent in the wilderness, and the temptation and failure they faced. He leads us through the same wilderness but trusts God and does not fail. But we need to beware of the same temptations:
The need for humble dependence of God day by day, living without securing our future, but trusting that God will provide what we need (rather than what we want).
The importance of living by faith, and trusting rather than demanding constant proof of Gods love.
And the very real danger of getting comfortable and forgetting God.
So Lent is 40 days of changing gear and traveling more slowly. Not simply self denial but re-finding your identity in God. Of stripping away the distraction and some of the comfort
What do do? Here are some suggestions
- Start with Love. Hear those words of the Father to you. ‘You are my child, beloved, with you I am well pleased’. And allow them to transform your anxious heart.
- Make some time each day. Find a park bench or an old church. Just sit and be.
- Join us in Morning or Evening Prayer.
- Cut out the distractions. As church we encourage a digital fast which we call [Dis]Connect – essentially to limit your screen time to ~30 minutes a day.
- Take a sabbath day.
- Go on retreat. There is something amazing about living alongside Monks or Nuns for a few days.
- Read Exodus and mediate on the stories of liberation. And over the course of Lent, allow the word of God to challenge you about particular temptations you face.
If the Wilderness experience was a process that Jesus had to go through to reveal his demons, his temptations and his vulnerabilities how much more do we need this? I think the more as you go on in the Christian life. There is a great danger we settle, we become comfortable. To know your temptations and your weaknesses, to understand them, and own them is the first step to overcoming them. And perhaps find others who are going thorough the same things so that the genuineness of your faith—which is more precious than gold may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.