Galatians 4.26-end; John 6.1-14
I wonder what sort of mental picture you get when you hear stories from the Gospels. It’s very easy to see things through the filter of our own culture. Lent is not a particularly stressful time for most people in our society. We have such a big safety net in the form of supermarkets, deep freezes and so on. When Jesus first went out into the desert for 40 days to plan his ministry and confront his human weaknesses, there was no safety net. It was a brutal regime: 6 weeks without food - approaching the longest anyone can go without eating without risking long-term health damage.
And what of the ordinary people who followed him out into the wilds to receive his ministry? They too were making a considerable sacrifice of comfort and safety. They would have become dehydrated in the heat. They wouldn’t have had a nice layer of stored body fat to keep them going like most people in the west today. And villages weren’t just economic units: people gathered together for mutual protection. Out in the open there was danger from wild animals, outlaws and not least bands of occupying soldiers who could treat the people of the land with wanton cruelty.
But these people knew that the sacrifice was worth making for what Jesus had to offer them. In John’s Gospel, the author stresses that they came for healing. Other Gospels refer to Jesus teaching them, but whatever it was they wanted from him they wanted it badly enough to take a risk with their comfort and safety.
And when it came to the crunch, Jesus didn’t just teach them, he didn’t just heal them. Unexpectedly, I’m sure, he also fed them. It must have had enormous impact on the early Church, because all four Gospels tell the story in considerable detail - it was evidently one of the defining moments of Jesus’ earthly ministry. We don’t know for sure whether he took this step as evidence of his divine power, or out of concern for the well-being of the people who had followed him, or as a symbol of his ability to feed people spiritually. We don’t have to make an either/or choice: it was a dazzling lesson however we take it. Certainly the Church down the centuries has embraced every interpretation: we are called to declare Christ’s glory, to feed the poor, and to feed people spiritually.
But here’s the main point I want to make: As we continue through Lent, we are all, here and now, symbolically engaged on a pilgrimage into the desert with Jesus. It’s a two-fold journey: one in which we stand alongside him in the fight against temptation and the devil, and one in which we kneel before him to receive his teaching and his healing. And as an added bonus, on this symbolic journey into the hardship of the desert, the Lord who would not turn a stone into bread for his own hunger feeds us - not with bread but with himself. We will celebrate that spiritual feeding once again later when we take the bread and wine.
Of course, not everybody observes Lent in the same way, and that’s appropriate. Our reading from Galatians reminds us that we are not slaves to Law, but men and women who have been freed from sin to be friends with God. And similarly our observance of Lent is not about obeying a law or bowing to peer group pressure. The point of Lent is to transform our approach to the rest of the Christian year, to strengthen us, to empower us, to help us get more out of our fellowship with God and with one another. And the best way to do that is to balance the negative (giving up) with a positive (taking on).
Let me mention just briefly some of the things people often take up at this time of year:
A more regular discipline of prayer, either privately or with others... more Bible reading... perhaps a more conscious study, like the Lent Course that Peter is running... joining a house group, helping out with something in the church or wider community... asking ourselves questions about what they could or should be doing with the rest of their lives... The possibilities are almost unlimited, but they all have two things in common. They all involve a sacrifice of some sort, even if only of our free time. And they all help us to receive from Christ.
Lent is a time not just for giving up food, but for being fed by Christ. And the experience of Christians down the centuries is that doing Lent with a bit of determination reliably turns into a major blessing. Some talk about going into the summer with a new sense of cleanness after dealing conclusively with something in their past. Others talk about a new strength to resist temptation. Some talk about a renewed sense of God’s presence in their lives, or a new vision for the future, or a fresh commitment to living life God’s way, or a resilient new sense of joy and peace even in difficult times.
Easter is a time when we reflect on all that God has done for us in Christ. But it is equally about what he can do for us in the future, and what we can do for him. No one can predict how this Eastertide will change you, if at all. But by giving things up and taking things on during the preparatory season of Lent, we offer ourselves to God to be changed and renewed, and line ourselves up to receive a blessing from him that will transform the year ahead and possibly the rest of our lives....
As we approach Passiontide, may those of us who have given up something specific for Lent maintain our resolve and learn more about resisting temptation and the devil. May we each receive from Jesus the teaching and the healing that we need. And in our spiritual hunger, may we truly feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving.