Sermon: The First Sunday in Lent (B) – 22nd February 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 8am and 10am

Readings:   Genesis 9:8-17;  Psalm 25:1-10;  1 Peter 3:18-22;  Mark 1:9-15

the Spirit … drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.[1]

Temptation. Ever a key Lenten theme. And every Lent I’m driven crazy by memories from my Presbyterian Sunday School days of that hoary old hymn, ‘Yield not to temptation’. “Yield not!” it exhorted us, “for yielding is sin!” We were to shun evil companions, bad language and taking the Lord’s name in vain, and “look ever to Jesus, who would carry us through”. We Sunday School kids were pretty ignorant of the passions, dark or otherwise, of which we sang but, as we grew, we picked up scraps of knowledge about temptation, most of it vaguely about ‘not doing things’, and all of it wrapped in dark fear-of-God language about sin.

As a grown-up, I became an Anglican and discovered Lent, and two new things: guilt and the troublesome thought that it was not a question of ‘when am I tempted’ but ‘when am I not’!

If I gave up alcohol it was too easy to claim dedicated ‘fast-free’ feast days—which, by the way, include Sunday! OR there’d be a crisis and I’d rationalise some excuse for comfort. As an ex-smoker I’m very good at rationalisations. The greatest success I’ve achieved was giving up smoking twenty-five years ago last Tuesday–at 1123pm–and I’m extremely proud of that success. So—‘damned if I did and damned if I didn’t’. Guilt over yielding to temptation and guilt over successfully resisting it. I began to hope my failure at Lenten discipline didn’t mean I was worse than anyone else but that I was just the same as everyone else. So I rationalised … wasn’t it just that human nature is faulty and self-serving as well as well-intentioned and capable of great good? Such easy comfort. I could slide into ill discipline, avoid the challenge of resisting temptation and call Lenten fasting merely a medieval hangover. Relieved, I could espouse Oscar Wilde’s appealing cynicism: the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.[2]

But as I learned more about faith and personal responsibility, I realised all that was a cop-out. Temptation, Lent, and fasting had to be explored. I soon learned that early Christians might have fasted for forty hours between Good Friday and Easter but forty days of self-denial and prayer were unknown until very much later. So how had Lent, a word not in the Bible, and its forty days of fasting, come about?

Very early Christians had lived in white-hot expectation of the parousia, the second coming of Jesus. Who didn’t come as they expected. So they waited … and waited. And as they waited, they wove stories of what would be when he did return. They hung up crosses and painted murals and devised many ways of expressing their hopes and dreams, of saying who they thought God was. Eventually, expectation of an early second coming faded and they devoted themselves to all they had created to comfort themselves as they waited. These comforts eventually threatened to matter more than God; being safe and secure to matter more than being holy; being nice and respectable to matter more than standing up for the powerless whom Jesus had championed.

But God will not be forgotten forever. The word of God through the prophets whispered across the centuries. What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves[3] O my people, what have I done to you?[4] Be appalled, O heavens, at this … for my people have … forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.[5] For those who heard the challenge in these words, comforts created in the perceived absence of God were as ashes. And they lamented with their forebears: ‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?’[6]

They thought about the ancient Exodus Hebrews wandering in the wilderness for forty years, suffering for their faithlessness.[7] They thought about faithful Moses prostrate on the stony ground of Mount Sinai for forty days and God delivering the law and the commandments detailing the people’s obligations if they were to be God’s people[8]. They thought about Elijah running away from the task faithfulness demanded, enduring forty days in the wilderness before huddling in that cave where God found him and asked what he thought he was doing.[9] And they thought about Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, and his visions of being lured from God by the seductiveness of greed, glory and power. These stories pierced them for they recognised their own desires, covetousness and faithlessness. And remembered that God was more than the comfort of their crosses and liturgies, their books and their songs. They were confronted by the challenge of ‘God-in-the-wilderness’.

From such understandings Lent evolved. Its origin an old English word meaning ‘spring’. Lent would be forty days without the comforts people could devise, but forty daysdepending only on the grace of God. Forty days to face the challenge of God-in-the-wilderness in their souls, becoming empty and making room for something new. This is the tradition we have inherited. What do we do about it? Like our ancestors we have comforts: alcohol, tobacco, habits, sports, sex. These too can become worthless things and cracked cisterns. Lack of discipline, the most seductive temptation of all, can distort them. Then they don’t lead to God. They don’t create a ‘God Space’ within us, a‘holy of holies’. Just emptiness. We try to fill that emptiness with our comforts but it will remain empty of God’s grace until we face the challenge of ‘God-in-the-wilderness’ and that ancient question: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?

It’s a difficult challenge. It’s about human weaknesses. Greed … the attraction of acquiring stuff, wallowing in materialistic consumption our get-something-for-nothing world loves so much. Insecurity … the desire for glory, to be noticed. “Look at me!” children cry but we grown-ups are not meant to crave admiration. And the most insidious temptation? Power. The most desirable ‘thing’ and it is so quickly misused. Not just by brute force but the kind of underhand manipulation that says sweetly, “if you really loved me, you’d do what I want”.

Greed, glory and power. Jesus rejected them all for he would neither challenge the power and authority of God nor distrust the God of hope.[10] For Jesus the temptations were to stop praying, to stop caring, and to stop hoping. It is no different for us. When worship is boring and dry, when we disagree with something the church does, when the world’s ridicule of faith seems like personal rejection, the temptation is to give it all away. But Lent is about praying when there doesn’t seem any point and keeping the First Commandment and loving God even if we don’t feel like it. When the world’s suffering is overwhelming, the temptation is to ignore it, call it someone else’s problem, turn away and have another glass of wine. But Lent is about caring –keeping the second commandment and loving our neighbours as ourselves. When life seems an unresolvable mess, the temptation is to despair and lose hope. But Lent’s about hoping — in the promise of the resurrection.

Lent begins with that hope. It will end with reassurance that that hope is real. Between now and Easter morning we must face the fact of our human preference for greed, for glory, and for power, a weakness which feeds our capacity for terrible cruelty. We must face the memory of a dreadful deed for which that cruelty was responsible: the crucifixion of Jesus — and the scene of his last temptation. “If you are the Son of God,” the people jeered, “come down from the cross”.[11]

To that temptation he said no. But that ‘no’, like all his other ‘nos’, translates into a resounding ‘yes’ to God. Jesus accepted the challenge of ‘God-in-the-wilderness’,

faced hidden temptations and made way for God in the ‘Holy of Holies’, in his soul. We are to do the same. For us ‘yield not to temptation’ means remembering to keep praying, to keep caring, to keep hoping, and to keep believing in the promise that on the other side of Calvary is the mystery of the risen Christ. Then the answer to our ancestors’ question — “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? — will be to offer God, with Jesus, a resounding yes’.

 

 The Reverend Elaine Farmer

 

[1] Mark 1:12-13

[2] Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan

[3] Jeremiah 2:5

[4] Micah 6:3

[5] Jeremiah 2:12-13

[6] Micah 6:6

[7] Numbers 14:33

[8] Deuteronomy 9:9

[9] l Kings 19:13

[10] See Milton’s ‘Paradise Regained’

[11] Matthew 27:42