The black marks in the form of the Cross, made on our foreheads last Wednesday, have already disappeared, which is – incidentally – a positive and welcome testimony to our personal hygiene! We got that mark, made from ashes, as a sign of our willingness and readiness to engage actively in intensive spiritual exercises, specific to Lent. Some of us have already decided to carry out particular Lenten devotions, some of us are thinking about them, and perhaps a few haven’t got round to them yet. Today’s gospel, telling the story of the temptations experienced by Jesus in the wilderness, can give us the right framework for any practices we choose to take up.
First of all, Jesus ventures into the wilderness, led by the Spirit. The wilderness can be seen either as a particular geographical place, or as a state of mind and affairs. We live in a noisy world, full of buzz and artificial excitement. To a certain extent it’s more and more difficult to find a quiet and peaceful space for ourselves; even our churches sometimes resemble market places rather than temples of contemplation. The main disadvantage of living in such an environment is that we don’t actually know our true selves. For us these days it’s getting more and more about pretending and posturing rather than living out the human life. It’s easy to lose our bearings and get lost in life. Facing boredom is an unattractive prospect, but that’s the first step towards looking inwards and finding our true selves. I suggest that you would find it helpful to try to cut down the noise and commotion around you; and do not be afraid to stay in silence for uncomfortably long periods of time.
When Jesus stays in the wilderness, he’s being tempted in three different ways. The common element of these ways is that they appeal to every person’s sense of uncompromising self-importance. The suggestion of changing stones into bread is about the abuse of creation and nature. The offer of unlimited earthly power in exchange for the worship of the devil is about abandoning ideals and principles. The suicidal invitation to throw himself down into the void in order to be miraculously rescued by angels is about the attempt to replace God with man at the centre of the world. Sadly, our world provides too many examples of what happens when individuals or groups of people yield to such temptations. Unbridled greed and craving for power destroys nature as well as human lives.
We might rightly be sceptical as to whether our individual efforts can change the world. We can rightly see ourselves as lacking in influence in the grand scheme of things. Let me tell you this straight: this is a temptation to leave things as they are and to allow those in power to make the changes. It’s not going to happen. Changing the world always begins on an individual level, it radiates into the family, then out into the wider community, and wider still. It’s true that at one point each and every movement needs a leader or champion. Let me finish with an anonymous poem, ascribed to an Anglican bishop:
“When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits, I dreamed of changing the world. As I grew older and wiser, I discovered the world would not change, so I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change only my country. But, it too, seemed immovable. As I grew into my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I settled for changing only my family, those closest to me, but alas, they would have none of it. And now as I lie on my deathbed, I suddenly realise: If I had only changed myself first, then by example I would have changed my family. From their inspiration and encouragement, I would then have been able to better my country and, who knows, I may have even changed the world.”