Wednesday, February 18, 2015

God Chooses the Place and Time

First Sunday of Lent Year B

It is clear at the very beginning of this mass, that we are in the First Sunday of Lent. This, however, is not the beginning of Lent. Lent began a few days ago on Ash Wednesday and will continue for another forty days till Easter, (that is if you do not count the Sundays). If you throw in the Sundays and the Paschal Triduum, you can actually say that Lent lasts about 46 or so days. But the number 40 tends to stick better. Let’s not go into the nitty-gritty details which explain this little discrepancy. As you all know, the devil is in the details. It is already a great task to explain his presence in today’s gospel.

The reason why we easily associate Lent with the number 40 can be found in today’s gospel. The gospel of St Mark records this specific number of days that Jesus had spent in the wilderness, and where he was tempted by Satan. The number 40, while it certainly can be a literal number, has a greater theological significance. The number 40 indicates a sufficient time, a time when what needs to be completed can be completed. It is a time that extends beyond the ways in which humans keep time. It is longer than a lunar month, and so represents another way of keeping time, a way of keeping time that accommodates the plans and purposes of God.

For someone acquainted with Scriptures, especially the Old Testament, the number 40 has a prominent and significant part to play in the history of Israel and the history of salvation. I hope you won’t get lost as I make a list of these occasions. In the story of Noah and his life-saving ark, when God destroyed the earth with water, He caused it to rain 40 days and 40 nights (Genesis 7:12). Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights (Exodus 24:18). Moses interceded on Israel’s behalf for 40 days and 40 nights (Deuteronomy 9:18, 25). The Law specified a maximum number of lashes a man could receive for a crime, setting the limit at 40 (Deuteronomy 25:3). The Israelite spies took 40 days to spy out Canaan (Numbers 13:25). The nation of Israel, after its disobedient refusal to enter the Land of Promise, wanders for 40 years in the desert until the unfaithful generation has all died out (Deuteronomy 8:2-5). Before Samson’s deliverance, Israel served the Philistines for 40 years (Judges 13:1). Goliath taunted Saul’s army for 40 days before David arrived to slay him (1 Samuel 17:16). When Elijah fled from Jezebel, he travelled 40 days and 40 nights to Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19:8).

Now, if someone were to claim that all these events connected with the number 40 were just coincidence, you would really need to get your head checked. 40 isn’t any magical number. Don’t have to decipher this uncanny correlation as some secret code handed down by God or by an alien race. The common thread that runs through all these stories is that God’s time just doesn’t seem to follow our own schedule. Forty days represents the time needed for God to fulfil his purposes. It’s God’s time, not ours, and during this new way of counting time, God is at work.

Just like the final scene any stereotypical country Western film, the protagonist or his detractor often chooses not only the time but also the place for that epic showdown. If forty days, is God’s choice, now the wilderness becomes that place for encounter. Notice that the work of God does not take place in a town or city, not in a synagogue or even the Temple itself. If 40 days or years marks a new way of understanding time, then the wilderness symbolises a new place to encounter God.

The wilderness doesn’t have any of the spiritual aesthetics of the Temple, where God seems to be confined. God who is found in the wilderness is a Wild God, a God of surprises, a God that refuses to conform to our categorical definitions of who He is and how He should behave. He works in His own Time. In the wilderness, all our illusions are stripped away. In scripture, the wilderness has a long and marvellous history of being the place where God is found. Wilderness has always been a place of seclusion, of revelation, and of danger. Moses encounters God in the burning bush in the harsh terrain of the desert, and it is that encounter which sets the stage for the rest of the history of Israel and the world. It is the place where the prophets retreat to rediscover their centre and where they could recover their voice to courageously preach the Word of God, even though this meant death and persecution.

So, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Mark’s Gospel dramatically says Jesus is thrust into the wilderness by the Spirit. God is up to something, and the wilderness, in all its stark devastation is the place where Jesus is to meet God, his Father. But in his encounter with God the Father, Jesus must also face God’s adversary, Satan, the Devil. Where the St Matthew and St Luke described the three temptations in the wilderness, St Mark merely records the fact that Jesus was tempted by Satan. The temptation of Jesus highlight the contrast and conflict between this world, and the Kingdom of God which Jesus is about to announce and begin to usher in. But Jesus would not be alone in facing Satan and the collective forces that had been rallied against him. St Mark provides us with this simple message of assurance that is certainly not only meant for Jesus but for all of us who have to face similar temptations in our lives. As the “angels looked after” Jesus, so will they care for us too. God will not abandon us to the power of evil.

More importantly, in such an encounter, where both the time and place has been chosen by God, God remains totally in control. And there is the further reminder that we have a choice, we need not be slaves to our temptations, to sin or even to the devil. Just like Jesus who was also tempted, we can choose the Kingdom of God over the kingdoms of this world. We must make a conscious choice to live our lives differently, with different values, than the current world system. During this Lent, we are reminded that we must live according to God’s schedule and it is He who chooses the venue for an encounter with temptation as well as grace. Let us then follow Christ into the wilderness for forty days, for where the Head has gone, so must the Body follow.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Terms of Use: As additional measure for security, please sign in before you leave your comments.

Please note that foul language will not be tolerated. Comments that include profanity, personal attacks, and antisocial behaviour such as "spamming" and "trolling" will be removed. Violators run the risk of being blocked permanently. You are fully responsible for the content you post. Please be responsible and stay on topic.