St Francis, Terriers - Lent 1 (18.02.2018) Tony Dickinson

We’re supposedly heading off with Jesus into the desert this week, so why do our readings focus so sharply on water? In our first reading we heard how, after nearly six months, Noah makes landfall on an earth scoured clean by the great flood, a world where all life has been blotted out except for his family and the creatures they saved in the ark. They offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God, and God in return establishes a new covenant with humanity. In our second reading the story of Noah is reprised as a prefiguring of baptism. And in our Gospel, we hear again words that we first heard six weeks ago when we celebrated the feast of the Lord’s Baptism. Jesus plunges into the water of the River Jordan, as he receives the baptism of John, before being driven out by the Spirit into the wilderness. Partly it’s a reminder that for the early Church Lent was the final stretch of preparation for baptism at Easter. But there’s also in each case a struggle going on between chaos and creation. All life is blotted out. Jesus suffers for sins, to the extent that he is “put to death in the flesh”. But, before that, he is tested in the wilderness by Satan – though Mark, unlike Matthew and Luke, offers no details of what those tests might have been.

In each case, too, there is the promise (or the reality) of restoration. God gives humankind the rainbow as the sign of his new covenant. Jesus makes a proclamation to the spirits in prison – whoever we may understand them to be. In the Eastern Church they have always been depicted as the patriarchs and prophets who died before Christ, so that the icon of the resurrection is not a picture of the Lord stepping out of his tomb, but the depiction of him shattering the gates of Hades and hauling Adam and Eve out from the shadow of death into the brightness of his presence. And, in the gospel, for all that Mark says nothing about the content of those temptations in the wilderness, he adds a detail which Matthew and Luke both lack: “he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” In Jesus right relationships are restored between humanity and both the natural and the supernatural world.

That is the hope in which we embark on every Lent: that human beings will accept the everlasting covenant freely offered by God; that our participation in the sufferings of Jesus will bring us closer to God: and that in Jesus the kingdom of God has come near.

But we haven’t yet arrived there – despite the apparent belief of some church leaders in the USA that President Trump has somehow inaugurated God’s kingdom. That doesn’t stop us from behaving like children in the car, or the train, asking at every twist and turn of the journey, every halt on the way, “Are we there yet?” And of course we aren’t. Like Robert Frost’s horseman “stopping by woods on a snowy evening”, we too “have promises to keep and miles to go before [we] sleep.” Those promises are the ones that were made for us at our baptism and that we made for ourselves at our confirmation. Over the years the words have changed, but the core remains the same: to resist evil at the cosmic, the global and the personal level. At this point in the history of our nation and the history of our planet faithfulness to those promises is vital, whether it is worked out in the struggle for justice and peace or in the effort to preserve the integrity of God’s creation, whether it is worked out in public or at home. From time to time we fail. That’s inevitable. We are, as the saying is, “only human”. But at this point in the year the message of Ash Wednesday is not only a reminder that we are mortal, but also an encouragement. “Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.”

That can be costly. But what are the alternatives? To allow ourselves to be swallowed up by the tides of hatred and malice which are coursing round the world and setting people bitterly, sometimes violently, against one another? Is that the way of Jesus, who included both a zealot and a tax-collector among his disciples? To allow our language to become corrupted as the language of politicians, of broadcasters, of journalists, of social media has become corrupted? Is that being faithful to Christ who is “the way, the truth and the life”? These weeks of Lent offer us the opportunity to stand back and assess what we are doing, where we are going, and, where necessary, to repent and recommit ourselves to the “good news of God”. They also offer us the opportunity to make a difference.

This year’s Lent Project, supporting the work of the Wycombe Rent Deposit Guarantee Scheme, offers an opportunity to make a difference in our town, breaking down the stereotype of homeless people as “parasitic scroungers”. It offers the hope of stability and a degree of permanence to people looking to make a new start. It enables people to put down roots.

Those of us who were at the pancake party last Tuesday heard Catri Plummer talking about the way in which the Wycombe Rent Deposit Guarantee Scheme has changed lives during the two decades of its existence. Here is one more example of how it does that:

A vulnerable lone parent with physical and mental health problems was referred to the Scheme just days before her possession hearing to end the tenancy and request eviction from the property. WRDGS staff met her and her landlord and agreed a postponement of court proceedings. This enabled them to gather financial and medical evidence to support an application for backdated housing benefit and discretionary housing payments. WRDGS negotiated with the District Council Housing Benefit Department, who granted a significant award that was paid directly to her landlord. This, together with an agreed payment plan, resulted in the repossession proceedings being cancelled. The end result was that the landlord had the rent that was due and the woman and her child were able to stay in their home.

The important thing was to bring the two sides together to talk, to bring about a new relationship, as God brought about a new relationship with humankind after the flood, as God brings about a new relationship in every baptism, as the wild beasts and the angels prefigure the coming of God’s kingdom. In this season of Lent, as the failures of the past are washed away, let us move forward with confidence in the God who has called us to follow his Son. The weeks and months ahead may be difficult, and the temptation to discouragement hard to resist, but let us keep before us always the faithfulness of God and God’s commitment to us in Jesus the Christ. To him, with the Father....