Sunday  21 February   Lent 1

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.”

 “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?”

This is Jesus’ own question to the crowds. It is worth asking what Jesus himself expected when he went into the wilderness, full of the Holy Spirit - to learn perhaps what we may expect in the 40 days of Lent or in the silence of retreat.

What seems to have been on his mind – in his meditation – was the book Deuteronomy; at least this is what he quotes to resist the temptations of the devil – Deuteronomy, the compendium of the Law, touchstone of Israel’s status as the nation beloved of God and a part of which was read at Mattins this morning. We may imagine Jesus turning over in his mind and prayers the Exodus: - “we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction … [and] brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand”.

Would the Lord in his own day see Israel’s affliction and save them and give them the land of their promise? How would the Lord accomplish this?

If the question on Jesus’ mind in the wilderness was about his own calling, then understanding this demanded a wider vision of God’s purposes. What we find is that the 40 days in the wilderness gave Jesus this vision and a new orientation. To see what this was, we can compare the before and the after.

Before the 40 days we do not learn much in scripture of the adult Jesus but where we meet him, he is in the company of John the baptiser, already on the edge of the wilderness. Jesus seems to have been party to John’s movement to renew Israel, to ready the people for God’s coming to save. The message was, “Repent!” John’s ministry called the people to come together out of the villages and it cleansed them from their unfaithfulness to the Law. They were to stand prepared for God by doing acts of righteousness: ‘be satisfied with your wages, do no extortion, share with those who have none.’

It was a ministry to galvanise Israel as the people who were given the pledge of the Law - in readiness for God’s action, God’s judgement. Its mark was baptism and its slogan, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This was the John-movement of national moral restoration with which Jesus was associated. Then he went into the wilderness.  

What do we find after that time? Jesus returns from the desert – again filled with the power of the Spirit, as Luke puts it but not to do what John does, baptising in the Jordan. Rather, he returns to Galilee. Jesus’ ministry is to people where they are, in their homes and places of work. He travels, to the further North, at Caesarea Philippi and Tyre on the coast, East into the debatable territory of the Ten Towns and South to Jerusalem (3 times according to the 4th gospel). Jesus’ ministry is one marked not by the wilderness but by human settlement. He goes to find the Israel of God, wherever it is scattered, to the furthest ends.

John in the wilderness was known as an ascetic, shunning easy living but Jesus, moving among people in their daily lives, comes eating and drinking, as he says of himself. John’s vision has been of coming judgment, of axe and fire and winnowing fork. When Jesus teaches of the kingdom of God, his pictures are drawn from a different register: feasting and weddings and abundant fishing. These are Old Testament images of the final peaceable kingdom God makes with those who are his own. They are images of well-being and of generosity.

The mark of Jesus’ ministry, the typical act by which he is recognised, is not the rinsing baptism of John but the healing touch for the many broken people who throng to him. What Jesus proclaims is not fear but good news. As we heard in previous weeks, on returning from the wilderness he first goes to his home town at Nazareth and takes the Jubilee scroll of Isaiah and announces the year of the Lord’ favour. Where John had prophesied what was yet to come and had prepared the people for this, Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled.” In place of John’s message of the coming judgment, Jesus says, “Yours is the kingdom of God.”

This wildly popular ministry in the villages of Galilee, indiscriminately sweeping up sinners, tax collectors and all, does not look like the kingdom John expected. So when in prison with mind tormented, John tries to understand what has become of the message he has delivered; he sends to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one?” Jesus answers, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard” – healings and good news to the poor. This is the kingdom already come, not striving in obedience to the Law.

As if to emphasise the point, Luke goes on from there to relate the story of the woman of sin who kisses Jesus’ feet and anoints them with her ointment. No waiting for outward righteousness; the good news is already here. Those who love much are those to whom much is forgiven.

Two different visions of God’s good news – separated by Jesus’ time in the wilderness. Tested there, Jesus re-imagined the Exodus. The bread that satisfies; the power that sways kingdoms; the constancy of God’s love – these are not to be earned in the way many imagined the Law of Moses demanded. Much less are they to be grasped without effort in the self-centred and self-deluding way with which the Devil, the father of lies, tried to tempt Jesus. All that may be good news for human beings comes through God’s good gift.

What Jesus found in the silence and clear spaces of the wilderness was this new vision, the unshakeable love of God, ever-present and his own calling to be that love before Israel and all the nations: - the bread of life, the kingdom not like those of this world, the true sacrifice.  

So, be careful – a time in the wilderness may instil this vision in you.

        Oswin CR