Thanks to a stroke of extremely good luck combined with similarly extreme gesture of generosity, I’ve recently had the pleasure of watching an international football match from the stands. It was a welcome distraction that offered me the chance to have a mental rest from the very intensive and occasionally overwhelmingly busy time I’ve had ever since the beginning of the year. It was a completely new experience for me as I had never watched a game from the stands. In contrast to watching the game on the telly, it was stripped of slow-motion replays, close-ups and running commentary. Surprisingly, watching the game in that new way inspired my reading of today’s gospel.
Unlike those reports in St Matthew or St Luke regarding Jesus’ time in the wilderness, this report is concise. Yet, despite the brevity, this passage contains a few very noteworthy elements. Firstly, ‘the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness and he remained there for forty days.’ From a relative local prominence, newly-acquired on the banks of the Jordan thanks to St John the Baptist’s testimony, Jesus arrived at a place with no cheering crowds to greet him. The wilderness was a harsh environment. There was little to attract Jesus’ attention or to offer him distraction. Far from the everyday hustle and bustle, Jesus had an opportunity to ponder his vocation and mission. Sometimes God drives us away from our little comforts and familiar routines too. When that happens, we usually find ourselves kicking, screaming and shouting, maybe accusing God of unfairness, or of injustice, or of downright cruelty. It’s so difficult for us to recognise that it’s ‘the Spirit who drives us out into the wilderness.’
In a literal sense, forty days is quite a long time. It feels even longer when it’s either tedious or unpleasant. In the Bible the expression ‘forty days’ has a symbolic meaning as a time of trial or probation, sandwiched between two distinct periods of time. When Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, it wasn’t for his amusement or for fun. It was for the purpose of going into a spiritual battle where the success or failure of His mission would be decided. St Mark described it concisely: ‘Jesus was tempted by Satan […] and the angels looked after Him.’ Essentially, we too engage in a similar battle whenever we face difficult choices and decisions. Sometimes none of the potential outcomes seems to be good and we must choose a so-called ‘lesser evil.’
Here comes the bit I mentioned earlier about my inspiration gleaned from the football match. At half-time the players leave the pitch and go down to the dressing room. Then comes the time for assessment of the first half and adjusting the tactics for success in the second. Changes made can vary from subtle tweaks to significant realignments and substitutes: but essentially it involves the same team of players going back onto the pitch and trying to win the game.
Last Wednesday we kicked off the time of Lent. It’s our half-time, a break in usual hustle and bustle of our lives to assess our situation and subsequently to tweak or correct our lives, or to change them significantly. It’s a time for checking our priorities, and perhaps re-ordering them. It’s a time for putting aside all the usual distractions and diversions in order to face our inner demons and angels, so that God can cast out the former and strengthen the latter. At the end of engaging in spiritual battle, we will have a clearer vision of what lies ahead and will be better equipped for it. ‘Repent and believe the Good News!’