Time away from the crowd

First Sunday in Lent—Mark 1:9-15—February 26, 2012

I am sure I won’t have to convince many of you that we don’t get as much sleep as we used to. Not since factories and street lighting and late night restaurants. Certainly not since Facebook and iPhones. An interesting BBC magazine article this week on the history of sleep reported that not only did we sleep a lot more in those old days, but we also slept differently. People, a couple centuries ago, went to sleep for four hours, woke up for a couple of hours, and then went back to sleep. Historians have found all sorts of references to the 1st sleep in literature, medical reports and court documents. Part of it was economic – candle wax was expensive and even the wealthy, researchers say, didn’t get much status out of wasting it. The night was much darker than it is for people in cities now, and it was not a time people wanted to spend up and about for long stretches – so they spent more of it getting rest. As it turned out, much of the time between 1st and 2nd sleep was spent reading or praying. I imagine a great many thoughts happened in that space between sleeps. Probably a lot of important inventions as well. I am sure that many of us will reflect with a certain wistfulness on a time that put a premium on sleep, as we are pulled in so many directions these days.

But living in the midst of a society, we can become ignorant to the subtle ways that it influences our choices, the way that technology expands our workday, or something like street lighting might influence our sleep patterns. I often talk about apathy, which I think is a growing social ill, but that suggests people don’t want to be better, that they prefer doing nothing, to live in a walking sleep of sorts. In fact, most of the time we don’t see what we can do , or we don’t have the energy to do it, or so many things have been put in place to make it hard to do something. I saw a great Ted Talks video on apathy, in which the commentator made a similar point. He showed on the  screen a sample of a Toronto City rezoning request. We have them here in Ottawa – there’s been one on the old Boehmer building down the street for 10 years. The piece of paper he was using was paragraph after paragraph of little type, or confusing bureaucratic language, and only at the bottom, in 12-point font, was there a notice of who to call or what meeting to attend if you wanted to save this certain green space or prevent a new strip mall, or whatever it was. The point was that most of us want life to get better, we want things to be better, but there are an awful lot of roadblocks in the way, and often it is distractions or temptations that lead us in another direction.

So why do we have this moment in the gospel when Jesus heads off on his own – our hero taking some time away from the crowd? Our gospel this time doesn’t go into detail, but we know that this was the point when Jesus was most tempted by the devil to step off his path, to prove his power, and to claim it for himself. Why does the Devil pick then? Why does the temptation strike Jesus in that solitary moment? Wouldn’t it have been better for the devil in our story to sit on Jesus’s shoulder in the marketplace where the fans are adoring, all clamouring to wash his feet and serve him dinner – when Jesus might see most clearly just how good life could be if he hung up his dusty sandals for a golden throne? But now, instead, temptation arrives in that quiet moment.

Often this is when it comes for us too: perhaps this is partly why we keep so busy, why we run around so much, why we have gotten away from meditative thought and prayer as a regular practice in society. We know this is where the tough questions happen. They don’t get asked when we are thinking defensively in a fight with our spouse. When we are trying to justify a mistake to our bosses. When we just want our kids to stop fighting with each other and go to bed. No, the doubt creeps in in the dark, in our quiet moments: that is when we are often the weakest.

And it is also when we can be the strongest, or at least the wisest. We know in Jesus’ case that he, of course, wrestled the devil’s tempting and won. He listened to his own self-doubt and silenced it. He heard his own hidden whispers, and tuned them out. But he needed that quiet space, that reflection – both to hear what those nagging fears and concerns were saying, and to contemplate and resolve them. He needed that space between the 1st and 2nd sleep, when we are still in the dark, and must face the truth. That is not something that should scare us: it is something that we should practise intentionally – otherwise we spend a lot of time doing the wrong things over and over again, or doing nothing when perhaps there is a simple way to act. It is in those periods of quiet that we read past the jumble of words to the sentence in 12-point font that really matters.

There are two times a year in our faith life in which we are specifically guided to take those moments. Those times are Advent, and Lent, which started this week. They are both times of anticipating, but also of reflection. Lent is meant to prepare us so that when Easter arrives, we know what to do with it. 
Next weekend at our Youth Leadership Event, we will be talking about what it means to be a hero. And there is a reason why the curriculum we are using makes a special point of talking about teaching our youth to be reflective, and how to meditate. To be heroic requires thoughtful action, an awareness of self: it takes planning.

Every year, I urge you do to the same thing during these Lenten weeks. Turn off the television and sit with your thoughts. Go for a walk and let your mind wander. Consider the temptations and the self-doubt and where it comes from. In listening to ourselves, we find clarity. In listening to ourselves, we hear God. That is the lesson of the gospel today.  That is the discipline for this season of Lent all of us would do well to practice. 

Amen.

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