David Walker's Sermon - 10th March 2019
Once again it’s Lent, and once again someone in the pulpit asking - what are you doing for Lent?
The Lent liturgy sets out our calling:
I invite you... in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.’
So, what are you doing for Lent?
The characteristics of a ‘good Lent’ traditionally, and based broadly on the liturgy, are self-examination, penitence, self denial and study, to which we can add alms giving and generally preparing for Easter.
I’m sure we’ve done all, some or none of these at various times over the years. I know I have. Sometimes Lent has just crept up on me and hardly made itself known in my busyness. At other times I have been able to make it a priority and put it front of brain.
This year I’ve made an effort. I have agreed a package, with myself, reconciled the competing factions of my mind (whether that’s hard or soft Lent, or no deal Lent, with or without a backstop) and committed it to paper. You could say I’ve signed a Treaty with myself. And I’m ready to go.
Being a humble person I won’t share it with you.
Instead I’ll talk about the first Lent, Jesus’ Lent, and then perhaps we, and me especially, will have a bit of a yardstick against which to measure our own Lent ‘packages’.
For Jesus, of course, this is a real milestone. Not only is it his first Lent, it’s going to be his last. I suppose it’s worth thinking about that. If we knew this was our last Lent would we be planning anything different?
In the context of Luke’s gospel it’s interesting how up to this point the story meanders quite slowly through birth narratives - and then suddenly really picks up pace.
One minute Jesus is being baptised in the Jordan, endorsed by John and blessed by God; the next he is in the desert, the wilderness, about to face the greatest test of his life. This is the bridge between the endowment of the spirit and the start of his public ministry.
Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he was tested for forty days with nothing to eat - only his thoughts to accompany him and no-one to turn to except the God that called him his Son.
It’s worth picturing this wilderness. It can be pretty around here wild up on the moors - but there’s vegetation, there are sheep, there are connections with humanity.
Judea was only inhabited along its central plateau.
Between there and the Dead Sea was the wilderness, about 35 miles by 15 miles, known as Jeshimmon (the Devastated place), nothing but dusty hills, bare landscape, blistered and jagged limestone rocks, and glowing with the heat of a blast furnace by day whilst freezing by night. Empty and desolate, not a place for humankind. Jesus went there of his own accord, albeit led by the Spirit.
First point to consider when we think about our own Lent. Do we need to go out into a wilderness? Should we take a tent and camp out on Cotherstone Moor? Do we need extreme conditions?
I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s the point or not the main point. I think it’s more about the emptiness which Jesus found. Nothing else there, no comfort and no support, no friends, no family – no distractions of the world.
Whilst we may not need a wilderness we do need to find a space where there is emptiness, a place in our lives that is not just automatically filled with the stuff of the world.
That’s hard to do, especially in our modern world of phones and computers, television, or even books and newspapers - where quietness can seem like boredom and where we constantly seek alibis to avoid meeting ourselves.
But we do need time to empty ourselves, time when we can resist being filled up, when we can allow God, and only God, to enter our lives.
And in the emptiness there is the testing. It’s naive to think that all that emptiness will be filled with good thoughts, no matter who we are or how good we imagine ourselves to be. And sometimes we just have to go with it and try as best we can to deal with it, as Jesus did.
Jesus was tempted. He was made to doubt. This had to be. God came to us in Jesus in order to be one with humanity, to be one of us.
God created a humanity possessed of free will and equipped with free choice. A fully human Jesus had to share that free will and that free choice. Hence, these temptations had to be real. They could not just be theosophical window dressing.
Jesus’ temptations are very special ones. They have to be because this is Jesus, who has just been told he is the Son of God - by God. He wasn’t going to be tempted to have a Snickers bar.
Jesus’ way to the cross, to the salvation of Easter, lies ahead of him. He knows now who he is, what his mission is. The question for him is how to go about it, which way to follow.
It is not meticulously mapped out in detail. He is not a God-shaped automaton programmed to achieve an inevitable and glorious victory. For this project to succeed, for it to be authentic, Jesus had to be both human and divine. Divinity alone was never going to be sufficient.
Jesus is tested three times. First, having fasted for forty days and being famished he is tempted to turn stones into bread.
This would have been an easy way out, an easy way to satisfy himself, to take control of the material world.
Jesus rejects this temptation in the words of Moses in Deuteronomy that ‘one does not live by bread alone’ to which he adds ‘but by every word that comes from out of the Lord your God’.
Later when Jesus seeks to recruit help to his cause he does not offer them bread or material reward but just a simple invitation to follow, to come and see, to put their trust in God.
Jesus is then taken to a mountain top and offered all the kingdoms of the world. All he has to do is worship the devil, pledge allegiance to a false God, and be disloyal.
His is invited to pass on his responsibility, to compromise himself, opt out - take the easy way. Again he quotes Deuteronomy ‘worship the Lord your God and serve only him’, a call to honour and trust in God.
As Jesus approaches his passion and his final destiny he is again tempted in the garden at Gethsemane. Jesus, even Jesus, wavers. He prays that he and his followers will not come into the time of trial and then he retreats from them and prays himself ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done’.
At this point he is back in the wilderness, and he needs to call on the strength that he found there. He trusts that he is not alone, that he has not been abandoned and that he will not be abandoned.
The final temptation is the most spectacular. Jesus is tempted to fling himself from the pinnacle of the temple, 450 feet above the valley floor and to challenge God to save him, to make a sensational statement, perverting the laws of nature. This time a test for God.
Jesus, once again, refuses the easy way. And again he quotes Deuteronomy, ‘do not put the Lord your God to the test.’
When Jesus faces Pilate at his earthly trial Pilate offers him release. But Jesus knows that this is not his ultimate trial, that there is another, more important one to come. It is only through the cross that he can become that combination of sacrificial human and loving God which is the ultimate statement of God’s commitment to humanity.
In St Mark’s gospel he is challenged to come down from the cross, to show his power, demonstrate who he is. And in John he is on the brink of despair as he quotes Psalm 22, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’
But there is no shortcut to his destiny, there can be no despair, no giving in, no letting go of God; that is not the way of the cross.
The wilderness, the desert, the Lenten experience has prepared Jesus for these tests to come and for the sake of humanity Jesus passes them not through inevitability but through choice and the exercise of complete trust.
He is completely faithful to God and God’s purpose and it is only at that point that he truly becomes the Messiah, and only at that point does the meaning of being Messiah become fully clear. Jesus proves faithful, the true Son of God – he is ready.
The Messiah was expected to be the one who could turn stones into bread, conquer the world and provide dazzling miracles at will. But the real Messiah humbles himself, trusts in God and will not be diverted from his task.
Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness helped him to work out who he really was and how he should go about his mission. It prepared him for what lay ahead and in particular for the trials and tests that he would need to encounter.
At the end of the passage there is the foreshadowing of what is to come. This is no triumphal end but a much more measured comment that ‘when the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time’. The testing is not ended.
Jesus’ Lent was the first Lent and a very specific preparation for the way he had to follow, the way that leads to the cross – which is also the way that leads to Easter. There is no cross without Easter and no Easter without the cross.
Our challenge at Lent may seem fairly insignificant in comparison and be under no doubt it is. But we will all face hard and difficult times ahead.
We have the chance every year to confront our demons afresh and work our way closer to the cross that will appear at the end for all of us.
Just as Jesus saw a way through and past the cross so can we, and we can use the energy of Lent to help us prepare for whatever comes in our lives, prepare for the emptiness so that we can fill it with the sense and presence of God, and alert ourselves to the promise of what lies beyond the cross, and to the eternal life
Have no doubt, Jesus is really tested. But his response is to empty himself, humble himself, and to become obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Out in the desert land of Judea he became the Messiah he was destined to be, the Messiah who would then be ready for the greater tests of Gethsemane and Golgotha and it is here he takes the first step, the first challenge to the whole salvific mission of God.
At Gethsemane and Golgotha Jesus was in no less a wilderness than he was out in the desert but he had learned to live with emptiness, to live with it by filling it up with God.
This is what Lent should be about for us. There are always hard and difficult times ahead. We are mortal and not indestructible.
People will leave us, times will get harder, we will suffer, and we will know pain. We will know hardship. We need to prepare for that, for the times when all else has left us and there is only God. When the emptiness is not of our own making.
Jesus prepared for the challenge ahead, for the temptation of opting out, of avoiding the pain and the suffering, of making choices.
We have choice. Easy or difficult? Turn away or turn towards?
We can live in the world, we can fill our lives with the busyness of the world, but ultimately we are alone, and we will suffer alone - or we can make room for God, invite God to share our empty spaces, and always know that we can rely on God.
So, what are we doing for Lent?