Psalm 119: 1 – 32, Genesis 25: 27 – 26: 5 and Hebrews 2: 14 – 4: 1
Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord. Psalm 119: 1
And all the nations of the earth shall gain blessing for themselves through your offspring, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes and my laws. Genesis 26: 5b
Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. Hebrews 2: 17 and 18
O Lord, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights: Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness and true holiness, to thy honour and glory; who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen. Collect for First Sunday in Lent
Our evening readings follow on from the morning theme of the Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, hence our collect referring to that forty-day period of trial. Lent is traditionally a period of abstinence and reflection in the weeks leading to the Passion of our Lord, and the prayer asks that our flesh (our unbridled appetites) might be brought under the control of the Holy Spirit, so that we lead disciplined and careful lives.
As we enter the weeks of Lent, it will be with Psalm 119 as our companion. This is a rather daunting psalm because of its length and subject matter. It sets such a high standard of obedience to God’s Law that we can easily feel unworthy or downhearted. Indeed, the very first verse is something we can stumble over as we struggle to walk blamelessly through life, recognising this is something we are unable to achieve in our own strength. It serves as a reminder that the only truly blameless person to walk this earth was Jesus, but offers hope to us when we utter the prayer of verses 17 and 18, asking God to deal with us bountifully and to open our eyes so that we see the wondrous things out of the Law.
The reading from Hebrews is a great encouragement if we are feeling a sense of spiritual inadequacy. Hebrews 2: 14 reminds us that Jesus shared our own flesh and blood and had the same physical limitations that we do. The forty days in the wilderness were a dreadful physical trial, surviving in the arid landscape and with extremes of heat and cold. On top of the physical deprivation came the spiritual trial of disciplining his body and mind to face this ordeal and to prepare himself for the three years of arduous ministry ahead. Little wonder in this weakened state he was exposed to the physical, political and spiritual temptations that Satan brought. Jesus needed to identify totally with fallen humanity (yet without himself falling into sin -Hebrews 4: 15), so that he was fully ready to understand our needs and weaknesses, and then to die on the cross for those very sins. Verse 16 of Hebrews chapter 2 reminds us that Jesus came to earth to help the descendants of Abraham (as we are reminded in our reading from Genesis 26), and that because of his own testing he is able to help us as we are tested or tempted (verse 18).
With this encouragement surrounding us, the writer to the Hebrews begins chapter three describing us as holy partners in a heavenly calling. The daunting start to Psalm 119, with its thoughts of being blameless in our walk with God, can then be understood in the context of the New Covenant, where Jesus has taken our sins away on the cross, where righteousness (or blamelessness) has been imputed to us (Romans 5: 18 – 21), and where we can draw on the strength of the Holy Spirit to deliver us from present temptation. Hebrews 3: 6 speaks of Jesus being faithful over God’s house as a son, and that we are part of that house if we hold firm. The picture is one of being integrated into a great building, where Christ is the foundation, the corner stone and the cement that holds it all together.
The passage from Hebrews (often a rather technical and sometimes obscure book) has further encouragement for us, that we are part of that worldwide edifice, the Church, and that we are not alone. In fact, the writer sees us as being dependant on each other. Apart from the mutual love and kindly support Christians are called upon to share with our brothers and sisters, we are also called to exhort one another every day (3: 13). The word ‘exhort’ can mean energetic encouragement and correction (where needed) to help each other on the way, recognising that we can fall away and need urgent help to bring us back into line.
At a time when we all feel shell-shocked and worn down by months of bad news and things just not being ‘normal’, we can draw strength from the fact Jesus experienced the human condition and is alongside us in all our tribulations. He will support us, help us to walk blamelessly and pick us up when we fall. May we use this year’s season of Lent to understand afresh what it cost Jesus to give up the glory of heaven, to become one of us and to offer his life in our place to save us from our sins.
Kevin Boak, Lay Reader