First Sunday of Lent

Gen 9: 8-15, I Pet 3:18-22, Mk 1:12-15 (23)

Dear Friends! A mother camel and her baby are talking one day and the baby camel asks, “Mom why have we got these huge three-toed feet?” The mother replies, “To enable us walk across the soft sand of the desert without sinking.” “And why have we got these long, heavy eyelashes?” “To keep the sand out of our eyes on the trips through the desert” replies the mother camel. “And Mom, why have we got these big humps on our backs?” The mother, now a little impatient with the boy replies, “They are there to help us store fat for our long treks across the desert, so we can go without water for long periods.” “OK, I get it!” says the baby camel, “We have huge feet to stop us sinking, long eyelashes to keep the sand from our eyes and humps to store water. Then, Mom, why the heck are we here in the Toronto zoo?” Modern life sometimes makes one feel like a camel in a zoo. And like camels in a zoo we need sometimes to go into the desert in order to discover who we truly are. Lent invites us to enter into this kind of desert experience.

On the first Sunday of every Lent we find Jesus in the wilderness.  He is in the desert without food, without shelter.  He is tempted by Satan.  We have three accounts in the gospels of Jesus’ temptation. The one in Mark, which we have just read, is the shortest—only two verses.  But its brevity does not reduce its meaning.

I think the most important detail about this gospel is that if Jesus is in the desert, he did not choose to go there.  Mark says that immediately after his baptism, the Spirit drove him out into the desert.  Being in the wilderness was not a part of Jesus’ plan, but nevertheless he found himself there in barrenness and isolation.  This detail invites us to ask whether we can locate deserts in our own lives.  Are there barren circumstances in which we find ourselves and into which we have not chosen to come?

Perhaps these barren places are caused by the financial situation in which many of us find ourselves: fearing for our jobs, dealing with reduced income, worrying about our future.  We didn’t choose this situation, but here we are, and there doesn’t seem all that much we can do about it.  Perhaps there is a barren place in our life caused by sickness, either physical or emotional.  We find ourselves coping with disease either in our own lives or in the lives of someone that we love.  We didn’t choose to have this evil in our lives.  But here it is, and we have to face it.  Maybe we are dealing with a desert experience because of a failure in a relationship: a fiancé who rejected us, a marriage that came to an end, the loss of a friend.  We didn’t choose that these relationships fall apart.  But they have, and now we find ourselves in barrenness and loss.

Since we are human, we will be tempted.  We will be lured to make decisions that are not the best choices for ourselves or for others.  We do not need to be embarrassed about temptation.  Everyone experiences it.  Jesus himself was tempted, as is made clear in today’s gospel.  It is, however, important to know how to deal with temptation — how to make choices that will truly benefit us rather than hurt us.

Temptation is really about freedom, having the freedom to say no to those things that will harm us and the freedom to say yes to those things that will help us.  This is why it is important to cultivate the right orientation towards temptation.

You see often we approach temptation and the season of Lent which begins this week by placing too much emphasis on what is negative.  We center too much on sin.  What Lent is about is not so much saying no to sin, as saying yes to the Kingdom of God.  The freedom that we are looking for is not freedom from our faults, but rather freedom for God’s purposes in our lives.  The more we can understand what freedom is for, the  easier it will be to avoid temptation in our lives.

As you and I approach this Lenten season, our emphasis should not be simply on what we seek to avoid, but rather on the goodness that will result if we can in fact resist it.  We might decide to resist the temptation to criticize, to judge, to be jealous, or avoid over-eating, drinking or smoking. As we do these things, we will find more energy and power if instead of simply seeing these things as faults to avoid, we can realize that by resisting them we can build a life that is more thankful, more positive, more joyful and healthier.

If we seek to avoid temptation, we must emphasize that which is most positive and most powerful.  Power comes from the goodness that our actions generate.  The freedom that really moves us is not the freedom from sin, but the freedom for God’s Kingdom.  Let us keep this freedom in mind as we proceed into this Lenten season.  In this holy time we should ask ourselves not “how can I say no to sin,” but “how can I say yes to God?”