First Sunday of Lent: Spring Training, the Lenten Way
Soon, spring training will be going full blast down here in Florida. People from the North will join us locals in doing our own sizing up of our teams for this year. Do the Rays look like they might be even better this year? How about the Red Sox and Yanks? Do those new players look good enough to keep them from getting embarrassed again? Along with the seasoned players who will certainly be on the starting roster, the beginning of spring training brings a huge number of prospects to town. Some may make the team this year, some are here only to get the experience of what big league ball is like. Many of them will be in shock because major league baseball, even as it eases into the season during Spring Training, is faster and harder than anything they have experienced. They will return to the minors knowing that they are not yet ready for the big leagues. But some will do very well during Spring Training and will make the team. Then the real test will begin. Every pitcher will challenge the rookie hitter. He'll see better sliders and curves and fast-balls then he could ever imagine. But if he works hard, each pitcher, each pitch will help him become a better hitter. He may fan a number of times, but he'll be ready the next time that pitch comes. And when others are writing in the press on what a great season an opposing pitcher is having, our rookie who has been tested and strengthened by the test will say, "I've hit him before, I can hit him again. Go ahead, throw me the high hard one. I'm ready." Or for the rookie pitcher, every one of his best pitches will be challenged. Perhaps many of those will be hit over the fence. But as his control grows and he learns to put the ball where the catcher is calling it, he watches the mighty strike out. Now, when the season starts, and he’s called out of the bullpen to put out a fire, he can say, “I’ve prepared for this; I’ve done this before. I’m ready.”
Just as Spring training prepares the major league player for the challenges of the year, Lent, the spring renewal of our Christianity, prepares us for the challenges of our spiritual lives. It is with delightful simplicity that the Gospel of Mark presents the testing of the Lord in just two verses. The Spirit sends Jesus to the desert for forty days. Jesus is put to the test. He's with wild beasts. Angels minister to him. We don't find the three temptations of changing a rock to bread, or jumping off the parapet of the Temple safely, or receiving all the power of the world, which we come upon in Matthew and Luke. The precise temptations were not important to Mark. For Mark the only thing that matters is that the Lord was strengthened by this test and then was ready to proclaim his Father's Kingdom.
Usually when we think of temptations we take a negative focus and consider our failures or how close we come to falling. But there is another way to consider temptations, a positive way. That's Mark's focus. Temptations can also be seen as a test that if successfully overcome, can strengthen someone to put up a better fight for the Lord.
As we begin Lent and relate the forty days the Lord spent in the desert to the forty days of Lent, we also can relate tests that we have had or may still have in our lives. Perhaps some of us can say that we were strengthened by a successful fight against temptation. Now, we shouldn't go around looking for temptation, that would be putting ourselves in the occasion of sin, but if we ever are tempted, we are ready. We have beaten it off before and we can beat it off again. Spiritually, we are ready for the high hard one. We need to have confidence in ourselves, and more important, confidence in the Lord who is preparing us to do battle for Him.
We're ready, but we are not ready just because we say so. We are ready because we have been given the power to withstand all assaults on our spiritual lives. In the Gospel of Mark Jesus is presented after the devil left as being with the wild beasts as the angel's ministered to him. Perhaps there is a reflection here of Psalm 91:11-13: For God commands the angels to guard you in all your ways. With their hands they shall support you, lest you strike your foot against a stone. You shall tread upon the asp and the viper, trample the lion and the dragon.
Maybe Mark is addressing his gospel to the Christians at Rome who had already experienced the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul and the persecution of Nero, and is saying to them, “even among these beasts of Romans, God is protecting you.” What the Lord is telling us is that in the face of forces wishing to destroy our spiritual lives, there is an infinitely stronger force who will protect us. Leopards, wild boars, bears and jackals roamed the desert where the Lord was praying but they couldn't hurt him. The angels ministered to him. Materialism, hedonism, and religious indifference roam the places where we live and are tested. But no forces can destroy our spiritual lives. The Power of Christ is with us. The Holy Spirit who was with Jesus in the wilderness is with us. Nothing can take the spiritual from us. We can only give it away by giving up and giving in.
"This is the sign that I am giving for all ages to come, of the covenant between me and you and every living creature with you: I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will recall the covenant I have made between me and you and all living beings, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all mortal beings." The main lesson of the flood was not a lesson of God's wrath, but a lesson of his covenant, his care and his love. He would never give up on his people. He would never give up on any of us.
We can allow the events of our lives to strengthen us in our faith life. We can must do this because God is with us, joining us in the fight against the forces that would otherwise destroy us.
Spring training is going full force. Our Spring training began last Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. Today on this First Sunday of Lent we ask God to give us the determination to find the ways that we can summon His presence in the face of the challenges to our Christianity.