Sermon for 1st Sunday of Lent – “Our faith will be tested”, preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey on Sunday, 18 February 2024 by The Reverend Robert Green (1 Peter Ch 3: v 18 – end; Mark Ch 1: v 9 – 15).

In this coming year our Gospel Readings will be mostly from St. Mark. It is the shortest of the Gospels, and almost certainly the earliest to be written.  Out of 16 Chapters, the last three are devoted entirely to the last week of Jesus’s earthly life; making it very clear that the Cross and Resurrection are at the heart of the Christian faith. There is a sense of urgency in the whole Gospel, and, it is thought that the Gospel was written soon after Peter’s martyrdom in the Neronian persecution which was A.D. 64-5 , and, under this threat of persecution, Mark is determined to make a record of the events as he has received them from various sources. The chronology in the Gospel does not always fit the geography, the ministry journey of Jesus as recorded by Mark is like travelling from London to Edinburgh via Cornwall! It is generally thought that the Gospel was written in Rome, and Mark was not familiar with the actual geography of Palestine.  His style is close to the everyday Greek spoken at the time giving it simplicity and directness. The phrase kai euthus, (“and immediately” ) occurs 41 times. Mark was not of high intellect, but he needs to leave a written record of the Good News, and that is what we have in our Gospel Reading this morning. Mark writes: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” Notice there is no mention of his birth, Jesus simply comes from Nazareth of Galilee and is baptized by John in the Jordan. For Mark it is his Baptism which is the significant moment to declare Jesus’s identity as the Spirit descends on him like a dove, and he hears a voice saying , “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”.

No sooner as Jesus has had this revelatory and affirming experience, the Spirit immediately (euthus) drives him out into the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by Satan. Unlike Matthew or Luke we are given no further details of the temptations, and it is sufficient for Mark to record that Jesus, like us, faced temptation. This is important as all Christians will face temptation, or to put it another way our faith will be tested and as we enter this season of Lent, it is an opportunity to examine how we are living as a Christian in our home, work or school, and how we do react to temptation.

A fortnight ago 10 members of our Abbey family publicly confirmed their faith. It was for me an occasion full of powerful symbolism and meaning, and quite moving. It was a privilege to be sharing in this family event, and judging by the celebrations afterwards, they all were touched by God’s Spirit. As Christians we will from time to time have great spiritual experiences as we allow God to be working in our lives, but as we make our faith journey, that faith will from time to time be tested, and we need to be on our guard.

As we were reminded when the candidates renewed their Baptismal promises there are spiritual forces at work which can undermine our faith. This is vividly described when in the Baptismal promises, “the deceit and corruption of evil” is renounced. Deception can be very subtle, and corruption may be a long process. What we do know is that sooner or later we will find that our beliefs may be questioned or challenged or even ridiculed. Yes, the devil has been defeated on the Cross, but we have an enemy who won’t accept that defeat, and uses guerilla tactics to wear down the followers of Jesus.

That is the bad news. Now for the good news. In this faith journey we are not alone, for every believer has received the Holy Spirit at their Baptism, and this was affirmed in the Confirmation two weeks ago. Whatever we may have to face on our journey we do not do it alone. The wonderful hymn we sang at the end of the service puts it so well: “I shall not fear the battle if thou art by my side, nor wander from the pathway if thou wilt be my guide”. Jesus through the Holy Spirit promises to be with us on our journey. We on our part can equip ourselves spiritually for whatever may happen by receiving spiritual nourishment through the Sacrament of the Eucharist, becoming familiar with the Bible, and setting aside time for Prayer. Someone once said, prayer develops our spiritual muscle, and Pope Francis has described prayer as the heartbeat of the Church. In the letter to the Ephesians it actually spells out how we can put on spiritual armour (Eph. 6 vv.11-17 ). Every piece except one is for defence and protection, the exception being the sword, which is the Word of God. In the letter to the Hebrews the Word of God is described as a two-edged sword, and in each of the temptations in the wilderness, recorded by Matthew and Luke, Jesus counters each temptation by quoting scripture – the sword of the Spirit.

Jesus is not our only companion on the journey of faith, for also in the liturgy of Baptism we, the whole congregation, promised to uphold the candidates and each other in our lives in Christ. As a Christian community, sisters and brothers in Christ, part of God’s family, we can support one another, particularly if we are going through a difficult time. To know that people are praying for you can be a great source of strength when we may be going through a time of suffering, crisis or doubt, and  I close with a prayer based on that passage in Ephesians: Strengthening God, clothe us this week with heavenly armour, so that we might stand firm on the battlefield of life; with the shield of faith and the belt of truth; with the helmet of salvation and the breastplate of righteousness; with the shoes of the gospel and the sword of the Spirit. May we stand and see the victory of the Lord in whatever lies before us. Amen.