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Bible readings:

Lent I Year B (February 22, 2015)                                  St James', Peace River

I was pleasantly surprised, over the last week, to run into a number of news stories about Lent. I'm not sure whether it's a sign that our culture is now distant enough from this particular tradition that it qualifies as “news” - or a sign that people are actually looking for something that the church has to offer. Maybe a bit of both! Of course, the stories mostly focused on Lent as a time for self-improvement, and on the “giving up” angle. One reporter used a Twitter analysis to measure the things people were talking about giving up for Lent. The top four: chocolate, alcohol, swearing, and – ironically enough – social media.

Even in the chatter about doing something healthy and making your life better, though, there was a distinctive edge. One writer talked about wanting to take life more seriously – and hoping the church would still be around, pushing things like Lent, to give him the chance to do that. I thought that was an interesting comment on where the practice of our religion might actually connect with the spiritual needs of the people around us.

But when we come into church on this first Sunday of Lent, what I notice first is that we start in a different place. The root of our observance of Lent might actually be in an awareness of our own inadequacy, incompleteness, and lack of seriousness. That much we probably share with thoughtful people who don't have a religious tradition to shape what they might do about it. But Lent for us isn't meant to be a time simply to bemoan our own general uselessness; and neither is it meant to be a time to try pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps in order to be better people – because, by now, most of us know exactly how well that works.

We have this season in order to know that God's grace is there, and that God's grace is the only way to change what we cannot change about ourselves. And so we begin with God's promise. We begin way, way back, this year – with God's promise to Noah, and not just Noah but (as the text keeps repeating) to “every living creature”. In the text of Genesis, it marks the introduction of that word “covenant” which eventually describes the character of God as God's people come to understand it. God is the one who makes promises and keeps them, who draws people and creation into (or back into) relationship with himself on the basis of mutual commitment; and God doesn't go back on those promises and commitments, even when we do.

The flood story as a whole spells out that element of God's nature, and maybe embodies something of how people come to understand it. Most of us, left to our own devices, start by believing the world is ultimately a dangerous and destructive place, and that human wrong-doing plays a significant part in that. We might even elevate that intuition into a principle, so that we come to believe that the universe is in the business of being out to get us. The destruction wrought by Noah's flood almost teaches us that that's true. Almost. The saving grace is God's passion and compassion for the world he has made, and for all the creatures in it, including humanity. God cannot bear to see the world distorted and creation corrupted; the only thing God can bear less than that is to destroy it all. So, out of the flood, something is saved to start over. And there is a promise made: I will not destroy. That is not who I am, God says. I want what is good for the creation and for its creatures, and I will find a way.

While the story describes it in universal terms, you can bring that promise down to a very personal level. God is not in the business of destroying you, no matter what you have done. And while that promise doesn't give us a free pass to escape the consequences of our actions, it does teach us that those consequences are not the last word. You can hurt people, you can damage yourself, you can miss opportunities and refuse to be your best self. But God always sees more in you than any of that. God sees someone worth loving, someone worth placing a rainbow in heaven for, someone that God is so passionate about that he will move heaven and earth to find a way to bring you back from the edge of oblivion.

And the denouement of that whole story is right there in the gospel. God finds a way to address our weakness and sin which is not destructive, not scrapping the whole creation project and starting over. Instead, and amazingly, God comes to be with us and to change us from the inside. There are some interesting echoes between the two stories. Jesus' forty days match the forty days of rain. His wilderness echoes the loneliness of Noah's family, cut off from the rest of humanity. Even the wild beasts are there. Because this is God coming through on his promise. Jesus' humanity doesn't just emphasize the love God has for his creation – it is the embodiment of that love, in a way that makes it possible for us to be the people and the world God made us to be, and to love him in return.

So it's also important that Jesus “was tempted by Satan”, because that is where we all find ourselves at one time or another. The gospels of Matthew and Luke spell out what some of those temptations might have been, but Mark just focuses on the basic fact. It's not that God doesn't know or has never experienced our predicament, where we are constantly being drawn off the path and into destructive dead ends, where we make choices based on our desire to have some control or exert power or simply get what we believe what we deserve – and end up making the world worse. Through Jesus, God knows exactly what that temptation looks and feels like. And yet, the message in all that isn't to make us feel very small because we can't hold firm when Jesus can. Rather, he is showing us a way out. By letting God be first in our lives, and then by knowing how much we mean to God, and relying on God's commitment to us in order to commit our lives back to him, we can live a new and different way.

The fullness of that story is in the whole gospel, not just the first chapter. Jesus' solidarity with us isn't limited to experiencing temptation in theory. He persists, through all the consequences of living a faithful life, through all the hurt that the choices of others can inflict on him, to the point of dying with a question on his lips as to whether God has actually kept his promise: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Only to discover, for himself and for all of us, that God never forsakes any of us, not even in death. That is who God is, and in Jesus God shows us both what it means to keep a promise, and what it means to trust that the promise will be kept.

If we can get our heads around that this Lent, it will make much more of a difference to how seriously we take our lives, than any promise we might make (and probably break) to God about giving up a dubious habit. Before we can make or keep any commitments in God's sight, we first need to know who God is: the one who is completely trustworthy, completely reliable, unswerving in determination to find a way home for us. When we make and keep promises to God, it is not so that we might deserve God's covenant with us, not even to keep up our end of the bargain: it is because we want to. Because we want to offer something, no matter how small, to show our love for one who loves us that much.

Now I don't want to leave it just there, because Lent is a time for more than just telling a story and talking about what we believe. It is a time to do something, to practise and exercise the spiritual capacities which enable you to receive and appreciate God's grace and love. So, what can you do that can strengthen your capacity to trust and depend on God? I have a general answer, and a specific one.

The general answer is, to come to know God better. God's covenant, God's commitment to giving us life is so fundamental to our senses of who God is, that the more you get to know God, the more you will “get” that and learn to centre your life around it. And getting to know God is not an abstract or theoretical exercise: it depends on practices, like taking time to be conscious of God in your life, like coming before God in prayer simply to know that God is there, like reading and pondering the story of God's way with the world in the Bible. This is the Lenten discipline of prayer, which all of us have an invitation to practise more deeply in this season. It isn't simply prayer for the sake of prayer, or for the sake of being a holier person. It's prayer for the sake of getting to know God better, in order to soak up that commitment God has to loving you, which you know in the back of your mind but which needs to come into your heart and be part of everything you do.

The more specific version of what you can do to strengthen your capacity to trust God, is actually more in your hands than mine. But I'm asking you to think about it: What is going on in your life, where your trust in God is at issue, or where you might have the chance to stretch yourself in believing that God really is there for you? Whatever it is, that's the place to focus your attention as Lent begins. It's no good me saying, “You should trust God more” - and it's no good you saying that to yourself either. Trust isn't something you can manufacture – it's something you develop with use. So, find a way to act as though you depend on God. Take the kind of risk that God is inviting you to take. Risk being embarrassed as you reach out for someone else's forgiveness; risk looking stupid as you try to help; risk being left standing alone when you set out to change something you see that is wrong. Whatever it is – take the risk, because whether you succeed or fail, God will be there with you, and you will have learned that you can count on God to keep his promise.