In primary school when I first joined the Boy Scouts, I remember there was a period of initiation. Part of the initiation was that the senior scouts would give a pep talk from a handbook about the do’s and don’ts for anyone who wants to remain a scout. Much of it was centred around good behaviour, growing in self-confidence and also acquiring skills like making a rope knot, putting up a tent and some basic survival skills.  However, all of this was founded on two basic attitudes – good behaviour and generosity of service. 

The Gospel on this First Sunday of Lent (Mark 1:12-15) presents to us Jesus’ very first sermon as recorded in the Gospel of Mark. In this succinct description of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, Jesus leaves the desert and now begins His public ministry. His very first sermon describes the basic attitude that which is required – Jesus calls for a reform of life. His message was clear and never ambiguous, to begin with, “Repent, and believe the Good News.” Jesus’ demanding call for a total change of heart (metanoia) is going to be grounded on a radical decision for God.

That is why in this first sermon, Jesus does not present a set of rules to follow or gives a “pep-talk” from a handbook. Jesus’ universal call is not about the ‘how’ but rather it is about a personal decision to accept God into one’s life. Once that decision is made, the how will fall into place. Though Jesus’ initial message sounds simple, its implications are unsettling: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mathew 16:24). In other words, the radical option for God is going to be a lifelong task and not just the forty days of Lent.

As we started Lent with Ash Wednesday, we are already hearing and seeing visuals on social media or being sent to our mobile devices about what one should give up during Lent. Giving up for Lent is not a “ritual” to take on once a year during this season. It has to be something more than that. Though the tradition of the Lenten sacrifice or self-denial has its roots in Jesus fasting for forty days in the Judean desert, it is more about realigning our thoughts, words and actions, if these have strayed, towards the pathway of Jesus Christ. If we do not attempt this, then when Easter arrives, we will just revert to indulging in things that we sacrificed during the Lenten season – with no lasting change.

The Greek word metanoia (repentance) is used twenty-two times in the New Testament, an indication that Jesus’ invitation to radical change is at the heart of the good news proclaimed by Jesus. This word too is at the heart of the season of Lent because the genuineness of our sacrifices and self-denial only becomes evident when our lives change in accordance with the gospel. That is why the “giving-up” during Lent is not conditioned by the forty days but rather acts as a catalyst for lasting change. 

It is so easy to “ritualise” and confine our sacrifices to only a Lenten practise. If we tend to do so, then the core of Jesus message as we hear in today’s Gospel, that is, metanoia, is misplaced. For many Lent wouldn’t be meaningful without a sense of sacrifice or the “giving up”. However, the sacrifice and the giving up makes no sense if there is no attempt for a change – a radical change is called by Jesus. Think a little deeper about what Christ did for us by dying on the cross, it’s the least I can do – metanoia. Don’t make sacrifices in Lent just because everyone else is doing it, but do it because I want to change something.

Jesus’ first sermon will not just remain a sermon because, throughout His ministry, the overarching theme of metanoia will be demonstrated with acts of humility, kindness, forgiveness, love, and the faith and courage to do the right thing. Perhaps this is what our Lenten journey should lead us to – the sacrifices and self-denial that helps us to act with humility, kindness, forgiveness, love, and the faith and courage to do the right thing. So, if you are still thinking about what to give up this Lent, make it something that has a lasting impact and not just for forty days. Following Jesus more intently during Lent is to make that radical change for God, for the kingdom of God is close at hand. 

First Sunday on Lent (21 Feb 2021)