I’ve had one of those weeks. When you forget what day it is on Ash Wednesday, you know you might be overdoing it! My diary seems to have been filled with one thing after another. I’m not complaining, but I’m hoping the pace of next week will be rather more measured.
Perhaps you’ve had a busy week, too. Or perhaps you’ve had the frustration of not having enough to do – or not enough energy to do very much at all. One of my Oxford tutors once said that we should all remember that we’re human beings, not human doings – we are not made by God with the primary purpose of doing things, but only of being – and we mustn’t get overwhelmed by business.
As we start Lent, we start a time when we try to be more reflective – to slow down a little, and go on the journey towards Jerusalem with Jesus.
So what do we learn from Jesus in today’s Gospel reading about how to ‘be’?
I’m struck by how passive Jesus is in most of the reading we heard. Jesus is baptized by John and in Mark’s version of this story the only speech we have is from heaven itself as Jesus sees the dove descend. Then the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan and waited on by angels. Only when John the Baptist is arrested does Jesus finally act: he comes to Galilee and proclaims God’s good news. And did you notice what he asks his listeners to ‘do’? - repent and believe in the good news.
Jesus doesn’t begin his ministry with great shows of power, mass healings, huge sermons (in fact other gospel writers suggests to us he might have been resisting the temptation to do just that).
Jesus begins with God the Father’s blessing and with a time of reflection and prayer. And then he requires of his followers that they should turn and believe in the good news of God’s love, before they listen to any instruction from him about what to do at all.
Here is the good news, indeed, for human beings obsessed by doing something – God’s love for us is God’s initiative, not something of our doing, and we start by simply believing in that love.
You might have felt that the reading from Genesis, too, was somewhat lacking in action. Noah has, on God’s instructions, built the ark, filled it with animals, and sailed through the devastating flood.
But now the action is all over, and today’s passage reports God talking to Noah about the covenant God is making with all creation, sealed with the sign of the rainbow.
I was struck again by the fact that this covenant relationship requires nothing from Noah or any other of God’s creatures: it is a deal struck through the unconditional love and care of God.
God uses the word ‘covenant’ 7 times in that passage. 7 times! - it might just be a coincidnce that that’s once for each day of creation – a covenant with every living thing God has made. The covenant, like the act of creation itself, is God's initiative - after all, Noah & his family had only obeyed God's instructions - God did all the creative parts!
Perhaps in our busyness, when we're so taken up with things we feel we have to do, God sends us a rainbow - a sign that God is in charge & we are just the hired help.
Even Jesus is called to be obedient – to put God the Father in charge at the start of his ministry and right through until the end.
I haven’t touched at all on the subject of giving things up for Lent – of course this can be a useful spiritual discipline and has it roots in the ancient tradition of fasting as a means of closer communion with God. I think the danger is of our seeing Lent as something else which we do: whilst today’s readings are pointing us firmly in the direction of what God does for the world – in the covenant relationship with all of creation, and in the incarnation, life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
Our task is to repent and believe – to trust and obey. So it is entirely proper that we receive communion today – accepting the bread and wine given to us, as a symbol of all the unconditional love God gives.
There is only one thing we must do in return: eat and drink – and be very thankful.