+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
A sense of hurry and urgency is one of the distinguishing features of the Gospel according to St Mark. His favourite word is Euthus, meaning straightaway or immediately. Episodes in Jesus’ life follow straightaway, one after another. Today’s passage is a perfect example of this. Both Matthew and Luke give us much fuller accounts of the temptation of Jesus, and we get those memorable exchanges between Jesus and the devil, exchanges that have given artists and theologians and preachers and even novelists rich material to work with. But Mark covers in a few short verses events that are given much fuller treatment in Matthew and Luke. Jesus is baptised, He is led by the Spirit to the wilderness where He is tempted by the devil, and He begins His preaching ministry.
I’ve often wondered about this sense of urgency in Mark’s account, I’ve often wondered what it says about St Mark, and what it says about Jesus. But the sparse nature of Mark’s narrative can also lead us in another, quite different direction. Where Luke and Matthew fill in the gaps, Mark actually leaves a good deal of space for our own reflections and prayerful wonderings. We can read Mark with a sense of urgency and hurry if we wish to, but we can also read it in a more meditative way, using the sparse narrative structure as a starting point for our own reflections. So whilst Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ temptations for us, Mark leaves the space open, and we are free, if we wish to, to try to recreate scene for ourselves, to consider with prayer and imagination what Jesus’ experience in the wilderness might have been, and to reflect on our own experiences of wilderness and of temptation in the light of Jesus’ story.
The psalm appointed for this morning is a portion of Psalm 25. Psalm 25 belongs to a family of biblical poems in which the structure is usually completely lost in translation, because it is an acrostic poem. An acrostic poem is one in which the first letter of every line or verse spells out a word. There are several acrostic poems in the bible, and all of them are alphabetical acrostics. An alphabetical acrostic is one in which the first letter of every line or verse spells out the alphabet.
So in Hebrew, the first letters of the verses of Psalm 25 are simply the Hebrew alphabet. This is why the psalm can feel a little disjointed: there is no real narrative or development of ideas, there is no sense of one idea being built on and leading logically to another. The content is subordinated to the structure, an alphabetical structure which has no intrinsic meaning.
This Psalm like so many of the psalms is a lament. The writer – traditionally King David – is in some considerable distress, and prays earnestly but hopefully to God: “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me”. There is also a wisdom element in the Psalm, seen in the use of such words as “teach”, “paths” and “truth”, and there is also a penitential note: “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions”. It seems strange that someone wrestling with a difficult situation, someone apparently living in fear of enemies, a situation quite possibly brought on by their own wrongdoing, would turn to this rather rigid alphabetical structure to shape their earnest plea to God for wisdom and saving help.
But actually, on second thoughts, it is not hard to see how someone who wanted to write a prayer out of a painful and difficult situation might actually find it helpful to have some kind of a structure to work with. When we pray out of distress our thoughts can so easily get into a repetitive and almost obsessive pattern. A definite form of words or a set structure can help us escape from the anxious whirl of our thoughts. To give shape and structure to this fear of death and shame, tempered by hope and trust in God, the psalmist turns to the alphabet: in Psalm 25 we quite literally have an A-Z of lament.
It would be only a little unfair to say that there has been a certain amount of rather trite devotional writing over the years about wilderness experiences. But I hope I can say without being trite that this past year has for many of us been something of a wilderness experience.
For some of us, certainly, more than for others, and at some times, certainly, more than at other times, but I think that there are few of us who have not had at least some experience of loss and isolation. For some these experiences have been intense and severe.
Life has perhaps slowed down, or lost its shape and structure, the rhythm of a daily commute or school run. We have been left a lot more to our own devices, cut off from wider family and friendship networks. Many have faced anxieties about money, others about health.
There is I think quite a lot of reflection going on at every level. What has this experience revealed about our world, about our nation, about our church? What has it revealed about me? What are the temptations that we have encountered, what are the devils that we have had to face?
Perhaps we have come to realise how much we need the company of others, perhaps we have come to perceive the importance of certain friendships and connections. Or perhaps we have been surprised at how well we have managed in relative isolation. Perhaps we are tempted to congratulate ourselves on our resilience, or perhaps we are shocked to find ourselves rather colder towards our friends and family than we would have wished to believe.
It may be that as a nation we have pulled together rather better than many would have expected at the outset of this crisis. But it may also be that this virus has shone a light on our divisions and injustices, and on our tendency towards finger-pointing and blame.
And within the Church too this virus has highlighted divisions and dissatisfactions, at a time when many would have liked to have been able to depend on the ancient and reassuring patterns of her corporate life.
So whilst we may feel that we have been compelled to stumble about in the wilderness this past year, in this season of Lent we should seek to enter the wilderness intentionally. We should seek to enter the wilderness intentionally not to indulge in reflection that is obsessive and repetitive, not to get stuck in an anxious whirl of thought.
Rather, as the writer of Psalm 25 used the Hebrew alphabet to give shape and form to his attempt to bring his fears and his hopes before God, so we are given the wonderful story of our Saviour’s redeeming work to shape our thoughts and reflections and prayers.
But unlike the alphabetical structure of Psalm 25, which has no intrinsic meaning, the story of Jesus’ earthly life and of His passion, death and resurrection gives us not only structure but also meaning, and, as Julian of Norwich puts it, His meaning is love.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.