Monday, 2 March 2020

Lent: Into the wilderness


A sermon preached at Croydon Minster on the First Sunday of Lent, the reading were Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7; Romans 5.12-19; Matthew 4.1-11.

“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’

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Lent has begun!

And we are taken in our gospel reading, for this first Sunday of Lent, to the Judean Wilderness, where ‘the Spirit led Jesus to be tempted by the devil’.

From the dust and ashes of Ash Wednesday, the solemn marking of the sign of the cross in ash upon our heads, we are taken into the dust, sand and grit of the Judean Wilderness.

In the Bible the wilderness is physically a barren place, but spiritually a fertile place.

The prophet Isaiah says ‘the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus’ (Isaiah 35.1):

Things can happen in the wilderness that can’t happen elsewhere, or at least, the contrast is seen more clearly.

The twinkle and beauty of a star is far more powerful in the darkness, than when a star shines in the daytime. We miss it!

So it is with the wilderness: where all is stripped away, so that nothing can impede one’s immediate experience of the deeper realities of life, exposed in all their starkness: what we truly depend on is revealed to us.

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For Jesus the forty days and forty nights in the wilderness culminate in the three temptations placed in front of him.

Temptations placed in front of him when he is at his lowest ebb: famished through fasting; windswept; sunburnt in the day; frozen at night; utterly exhausted.

The wilderness bespeaks the extremes of physical and spiritual experience. Indeed, the physical and spiritual are inseparable.

There’s no hiding place in the wilderness. And as we heard about Adam and Eve, the human propensity is to cover up, hide, ‘dissemble and cloak’, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it.

Jesus did not hide from the devil. He faced the devil and endured the temptations of being fed when famished, the temptation of being given security and safety in a hostile environment, the temptation of the allure of power: all which would be received if he would only turn away from God.

He was tempted as we are. But the depth of his relationship was God was such that he did not succumb.

A definition of sin is the fracturing of our relationship with God: in that Christ did not sin.

We will be tempted; temptation never goes away.

What Lent is about is schooling us in being able to name and to face down what fractures our relationship with God and begin to find ways to repair it.

In the temptations in the wilderness Christ reveals his fidelity to God and opens to us the possibility of living life without masks, life without being trapped in the power games and manipulations of so many human relationships.

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I have been to the Judean Wilderness, albeit, like many pilgrims in the Holy Land, I did as a passenger on an air-conditioned coach. For the modern-day pilgrim to the Holy Land the physicality of the wilderness is a very different experience from the experience of the People of Israel and indeed for Jesus.

One evening, on my most recent pilgrimage there, we were travelling from Jericho to Jerusalem. The lights of the Holy City were far away, but visible, and the coach pulled over at the side of the road so that we could see a Greek Orthodox Monastery that is built into a rock face above a dried-up wadi, a little stream. Just like the first monastics, known to us as the Desert Fathers, people like St Anthony of Egypt, those monks live out the wilderness experience of prayer and fasting.

But we needed to be in Jerusalem for Mass at a church there, and we were running late.

We stepped down from the coach and my mind was taken to the Temptations in the Wilderness and also to the book of Exodus which describes the movement of the People of Israel through the Wilderness of Sinai after their liberation from Egypt.

Their experience in the wilderness is a microcosm of our human condition with its ups and downs; our experience of closeness to God at times and distance at others.

The Israelites wandered in that wilderness for forty years. A migrant people: they marvelled at what God had done for them; and wrestled with what they were doing stuck wandering in the middle of nowhere. They drank from miraculous streams of water flowing in the desert; yet they grumbled about the lack of food, saying, ‘shall God prepare a table in the wilderness?’ (Psalm 78.20).

Speaking with our local guide we decided that rather than hurry to Jerusalem and perhaps be late to the service, we would celebrate the Eucharist there, by the roadside, in the wilderness.

It is perhaps one of the most beautiful masses at which I have ever presided. I had with me all we needed: bread, wine, the Bible. And so we found two large stones which we placed on top of each other which formed an altar about a foot high.

And there we celebrated the Eucharist. To answer the Israelites question: yes, God can prepare a table in the wilderness!

I read from Psalm 78 which narrates the people of Israel’s experience in the wilderness:

‘So God commanded the clouds above and opened the doors of heaven.
He rained down manna also upon them for to eat and gave them food from heaven.
So man did eat angels’ food for he sent them meat enough’. (Psalm 78.25)

And the gospel we read was the one we have read today. Hearing that gospel standing in the very wilderness where Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights sent a tingle down the spine. But it was more than that. Where we saw stones on the ground, we heard the words, ‘command these stones to become loaves of bread’.

There in the wilderness we ate the bread of angels in the Eucharist, and the reminder that we live ‘by every word that comes from the mouth of God’.

Here. Now. We come to eat the bread of angels. Into barren places God’s presence blossoms and we learn to be his people, once again.

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