I once read the story of a man who was trying to make his way to a place he had never visited before. When he came to a crossroads, he discovered that the signpost had fallen down, leaving him crestfallen and confused. But then, as he sat there wondering what to do, he had a bright idea: he knew where he had come from and so he realised that if he put the sign back up pointing in the direction he had just come from, he would be able to move on with confidence.
There's a valuable lesson there: it often helps to know where you've come from if you want to know where you should be going. That's why I think Lent is such a useful time of the year. It offers the Church a great opportunity to look back to where it has come from so that it can check it's heading in the right direction.
Lent of course is the time when we remember Jesus chose to spend forty days in the desert going without food and resisting a series of tough temptations. But why was he there? Well, first and foremost he was there because God wanted Him there. As Luke says, he was 'led' by the Spirit.
As I read that observation of Luke, I couldn't help thinking that the Church needs to view the current pandemic through a similar lens. God has not lost control. He is still working out His plans and as with the beautiful Queen Esther, He has placed us where we are 'for such a time as this'. It's worth asking then if we are moving on with this kind of faith.
We also need to remember that Jesus went into the wilderness following his baptism in the River Jordan. That was a hugely significant moment in His life because it was the moment when He was assured that He was the Messiah and therefore going to rule the world. But it was also a key moment when he was warned that He was being called to live a life of sacrificial service and heartbreaking rejection. Jesus spent those forty days figuring out how He could and should live out that calling, not least because it would mean His death and that He would have to trust God to bring Him back to life again.
Jesus then, was a man 'with a mission' and as Christians I think we should take advantage of this time of the year to ask ourselves if we take His mission as seriously as He did because we are all too easily tempted to focus on our own needs rather than the needs of others. As someone has helpfully suggested, "God's greatest frustration has to be a church that is preoccupied with itself."
Jesus expects His disciples to be both 'signs' and 'instruments' of His Kingdom. In other words, we are supposed to show the world what life looks like when He is 'calling the shots'. For example, Jesus went around 'doing good', so we should too. This is why Christians should be involved in initiatives that promote social inclusion, from Street Pastors to food banks and anti-poverty campaigns like Christians Against Poverty. But it means more than that. We have a message to proclaim and we have been charged to deliver it, whether we find a welcome response or not.
Living this way can prove very costly. Loving others and sharing the Christian message takes both time and energy, and it often involves a lot of discouragement and disappointment not to mention rejection. There's also no guarantee it will make us popular, particularly when we dare to suggest that Jesus is unique or seek to argue our case on issues such as human sexuality, gender and abortion. Jesus encountered a lot of opposition so why should His followers expect anything different?
As Tom Smail once said, "If you are looking for an experience of the Holy Spirit that is going to put you on some kind of charismatic cloud where you can float in untroubled glory straight into the Kingdom of God, my friend you are in cloud cuckoo land, and you are looking in the wrong place altogether. Jesus doesn't know how to give anyone an easy ride. He hadn't one himself and He won't give it to anybody."
But as we all know, His life was not defined by temptation or rejection. It was defined by resurrection, which is why as Christians we can do more than reflect on the task in hand, and we can find inspiration in the glorious future that is in front of us.
So let's make the most of this Lenten period by figuring out how the Lord wants us to engage in His mission in the coming weeks and months. The challenge hasn't changed: "As the Father sent me so do I send you." The temptation to despair and even to give up can be real indeed but hopefully we will emerge from this time of testing 'in the power of the Spirit' just as Jesus did.