|Jesus in the Wilderness|
If you wish to listen to the sermon as preached please click HERE (The story at the beginning is from 'The Heart of the Enlightened' by Anthony De Mello)
(The written version below differs slightly from the sermon as preached and omits the short story at the beginning)
For a long time, this first Sunday of Lent was the first day of Lent, until the Church established Ash Wednesday as the beginning of the season. On Ash Wednesday the reading usually chosen is that in which Jesus talks about prayer, fasting and almsgiving. On Wednesday I spoke about those three disciplines which we use in Lent to help us through the season. Jesus talks about prayer, fasting and almsgiving such that he reminds us that they are in fact a normal part of our spiritual life, or our religious life, or our life with God. But during Lent, the Church asks us to take particular note of them.
In speaking about prayer, fasting and almsgiving on Wednesday I said of them that they help us to re-establish our relationship with God, with our self and with others. Prayer, helps us to come closer to God, gives us the opportunity to quieten the clamour of our everyday life and listen again to God's voice. Fasting encourages us to try and do without those things, food or otherwise that cover up the voice of our own mind and body. How often do we use food to ease the stresses of day to day life; how often do we reach for painkillers when we have a pain that's telling us that part of us is hurting? Doing without those things brings me back to the real me, the me that God has made. And giving reminds us that we are made to live in relationship with other people. To make and continue relationships we have to give - time, energy, love. Right from the beginning of the human story when God said to Adam 'it's not good for you to be alone' and gave him Eve as a companion, human beings have only found fulfilment in life in relationship with others.
So when we pay attention to these three of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we are simply restoring ourselves in right relationship to God, ourself and the rest of creation; and in that there is healing and we can truly say that if we follow these in Lent, then Lent can become for us medicine for body, mind and spirit.
Today we are reminded in St. Paul's letter to the Romans about what it means to be a Christian; what it takes. It takes belief, in heart and mind, and a confession, from the mouth. It's one thing to think something, or to hold something in your heart as true. But it's another to say it. Actually saying out loud what we think or believe in the presence of others makes it public and establishes it outside ourself. And in doing so it changes both our self and the world around us. And it changes the way the world sees us too.
And that of course is a huge challenge. It's only something we can do when we have a certain level of confidence in ourself. And I guess all of us are challenged from time to time and sometimes very vigorously about our Christian faith. We can only have the confidence to be really open about what we believe when we have that solid relationship with God and our self that the prayer and fasting that are meant to be part of our day to day Christian life help us into; as I talked about a moment ago. One of the hardest things in the world in the present day and age in this secularised Western world is to have the confidence to tell others about our faith and to be open with others about it, and to have it give shape to our life. But St. Paul assures us that being able to make the confession with confidence leads to salvation, which at it's heart means health of body, mind and spirit in this age and eternal life in the age to come.
When we meet Jesus in the gospel reading today we might be a little confused at the outset. The same Spirit of God that has come upon him at his baptism now leads him into the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil. Surely, you might think, the Holy Spirit would lead him away from temptation. But those of you farther on in the Christian life will know that in this life, the way things go is very much like this. God seems to lead us into times and places where our faith is tested more and more. And here in this reading as we linger over Jesus's temptation we can get a ready insight into the ways in which these things can sometimes work. And I'm going to take just two - doubts and lies.
The devil says to Jesus; 'If you are the Son of God.....' We can very often run away with the idea that the devil is out to get us to commit some huge sin to separate us from God. Well, it's true that he wants your soul. But he doesn't need you to commit murder to get it, when a simple game of cards will do the trick, as C. S. Lewis reminds us in his wonderful little book The Screwtape Letters. All the devil needs to do it sow the seeds of doubt in your mind and heart. And doubt will gradually do its work to drive that wedge between you and God. The devil tries to sow the seed of doubt in Jesus's mind - 'IF you are the Son of God...' How does he know he's the Son of God in the first place? Who told him? Is who or whatever told him reliable? Is he sure it wasn't just a figment of his imagination? The questions can be many. Once our mind and thoughts get going, the wedge of doubt drives deeper and unsettles us more and more. And that, to the devil, is job done. Faith gradually become fear. But Jesus counters the temptation with a quotation from scripture; on each occasion. He brings the word of God to bear on the problem and reassurance comes.
And then the devil tries another tactic - lies. 'I'll give you authority over the kingdoms of the world because it has been given to me', the devil says to Jesus. But it is a lie because the world was created and belongs to God. We have to be on our guard in the Christian life. What can seem good and right can be anything but. What can seem to be able to build up can wreck and bring down, if we aren't careful, if we aren't watchful. Authority and responsibility can be misused because human beings are very prone to delusion. We put great store by democracy in this country; but a bad decision isn't made good just because it's made democratically. Where two or three are gathered together, the devil can have a field day, just as Christ can be there also. We have to be on our guard. And as often as not, the word of God in scripture can help cut through the lied and deceit and delusion.
All of this seems quite sombre, and the start of Lent often seems to be. But we live this side of Easter when we know the outcome of the story. Jesus is victorious and even though we might be in the depths of disaster and despair He is able to lift us out of it. St. Paul and Jesus himself have reminded us today how our Christian life works. On the face of it it's like any other life; but as St. Paul said in his letter to the Colossians 'your life is hidden with Christ in God'. It's God himself who sustains and upholds our whole life, who will go down into hell to lift us out of it; who died on the cross to give us life. And it's only as we believe it and confess it and live it, that we come to know the truth of it.