This Sunday is the first Sunday of Lent. The Bible passage is the account in Mark’s Gospel of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. In our world, we generally regard temptation as a bad thing. Temptation is viewed as something that Satan uses to make us stumble and fall before we become wracked with a sense of guilt and inadequacy. However, it is pertinent to note, according to Mark’s Gospel that it was the Holy Spirit that sent Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted. Why? One simple answer is that for God, temptations are not sent to make us fall but rather to strengthen us. Temptations are not meant for our ruin but for our good. In some translations of the Bible, the word temptation is replaced by the word testing. While we do not like the pressure of tests, we do acknowledge that by being tested we emerge a better person. In a physical test, we emerge a better athlete and in mental tests, we emerge a more knowledgeable scholar. It is the same when God allows Satan to tempt us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity to emerge a more spiritual person and a better warrior for God. Remember, God does not want us to lead easy contented lives as much as purposeful lives in which we continually grow in character. As we journey through Lent, let us rejoice in all the temptations that face us and see them as a way of deepening our relationship with God. In addition, if we do stumble and fall, let us just pick ourselves up, seek forgiveness, resume the fight and continue the journey.
The Bible passage for today, Sunday, 14th February, is the account in Mark’s Gospel of the transfiguration. Jesus was at a pivotal point in his ministry. He was just about to set out to Jerusalem and to the cross. What does he do? He turns to his Heavenly Father to get his endorsement. Although fully God, Jesus was also fully human and needed to be sure that the searing pain he was about to endure was fully part of His Father’s plan. Moses represented the ‘law’ of God and Elijah represented the prophets of God. By receiving their validation, Jesus was positioning himself to be fully in tune with God’s plan of salvation wrought in history. If Jesus had God’s backing, then he would be able to cope with the unimaginable pain of the crucifixion, death and temporary separation from His Heavenly Father. What is the application for us? Two things, I suggest. Firstly, before we embark on any major journey in life, we should seek God’s approval first. Secondly, once we receive this approval, we should boldly go forward in the sure knowledge that whatever the devil throws at us, we have the full backing and power of God to overcome.
What is the depth of the relationship between us and our nearest and dearest? In the Bible reading for this week, we have the story of Jesus’ passion which includes the account of the Last Supper which Jesus shares with his disciples. As he hands around the cup, Jesus says, “this is my blood of the (new) covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” The word covenant was crucial to the people of Israel and it is crucial to all Christians too. Jesus, by his life and, crucially, death, made possible a new relationship between God and man. In effect, Jesus was saying, you have seen me and, in seeing me, you have seen the heart of God. Jesus by his teachings, healings, compassion, passion and death has revealed to humanity what God is like. Jesus was the personification of God’s love for humanity. Because of Jesus’ suffering and death, the way is now open for humanity to have a relationship with the living God. In these dark times of the corona virus, we need to hold onto the truth of Holy Week which proves that God is on our side. God is for us; God is with us; God will not desert us, especially through these troubling times. Perhaps we can join with the hymn writer: “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.”
Do we stand up for what we believe in? In this time of global crisis where Christians cannot physically meet for fellowship, how do we remain strong in our faith? The Bible passage for this week recounts the story of the blind man at the pool. Jesus healed him and then the pharisees interrogated him and his parents. Despite the isolation and fear of excommunication, the blind man remained resolute. “All I know is that I was blind and now I can see….no man has ever opened the eyes of someone born blind. If this man were not from God, he couldn’t do it.” It is a tremendous profession of faith in the face of opposition. Why? Because Jesus had changed his life. After the man was thrown out of the place of worship, Jesus did not desert him. He found him and revealed to him who He was. Jesus is always true to the person who is true to Him and this loyalty brings revelation. In this season of trial, this is equally true and relevant.
Where should we worship God? Of course, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic with social distancing and churches shut, this is a topical question. In this week’s Bible reading, Jesus gives clear advice. He tells the woman at the well in Samaria, “It doesn’t matter whether you worship the Father here or in Jerusalem.” What prompted this remark? The Samaritans had adjusted history to suit themselves. They said that Abraham had been willing to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Gerizim and that it was at Mount Gerizim that Melchizedek had appeared to Abraham. Moreover, they held that it was on Mount Gerizim that Moses had first erected an altar when the people entered the promised land. As a result of all of this, the Samaritans had been brought up to believe that Mount Gerizim was more sacred than Jerusalem. It is for this reason that the woman in Samaria asked Jesus the question, “Where should we worship God?” Jesus’ answer is clear: God is Spirit and what matters is not where you worship Him but that you worship Him in spirit and in truth. In church or out of church; in groups or individually, we can worship God anytime, anywhere. Let’s keep praying for the world at this critical time by continuing in a state of worship, wherever we are.
Which verse in the Bible best sums up the Gospel? For many people, it is the one found in this week’s Bible reading from John’s Gospel: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that everyone who believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” This verse tells us at least three great truths. Firstly, the initiative of salvation is God’s. Jesus did not change God’s mind. God was not someone who was angry and needed to be pacified by a human response. The origin of our salvation is purely God’s. Next, it tells us that the essence of God is love. It was love that formed the universe and love that drove our salvation. Salvation was not to bring the universe to heel and satisfy God’s desire for power. It was to satisfy his love for us. Finally, this verse tells us of the breadth of God’s love. It was the whole world that God loved. It was every race and every tribe and every person within those. God loves the unlovely, the unlovable, the pagan the atheist and the terrorist. All are included in God’s vast love. As Augustine wrote: “God loves each one of us as if there was only one of us to love.”