Sunday 5 March 2017 – First Sunday of Lent

Sermon: First Sunday of Lent
Sunday 5 March 2017
The Revd Canon Karen Rooms, Canon Missioner

Wilderness, Prayer and Temptation (Matthew 4.1–11)

We all have conversations going on in our heads. We are glorious sentient human beings after all: gifted with thought, intelligence, curiosity and deduction. We can work things out. For some of us blessed with extravert personalities, a fair amount of those conversations, happen out loud – which can be exhausting for those around us. For the more introverted, (I’m told!) there can be real energy being lost in your own thoughts.

Prayer is an invitation to the loving creator of all to join in our internal conversations.
Prayer is working things out with the Redeemer and lover of our souls.
Prayer is a risky adventure with the Spirit of God.

During the six weeks of Lent this year we will be exploring Prayer, and we begin today in the wilderness with Jesus, at the mercy of a harsh environment, the provision of his heavenly Father, and the conflicting thoughts in his head.

‘Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.’ (Matt 4:1)
One of the ways the book of Revelation describes the devil or Satan is as the accuser of those who take hold of God’s salvation – who accuses them day and night before God.
He is out to get them – ‘that ancient serpent, the deceiver of the whole world’ (Revn 12:9,10)
He is the one who said to Eve, ‘Did God say …you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’ and when she responds with, ‘This is what God said, ‘we may eat the fruit of the trees in the garden…but not the tree in the middle – if we touch it we will die’.
‘That’s not true’….and he gets her thinking, and she and Adam choose to eat.
So whether we are in a garden or a wilderness, there are competing voices for us and there are choices to be made.

And Prayer is one place we notice those choices and conflicting voices. It is where we can attend to them in the presence of the One who loves us.

Prayer is not straightforward.

Why does the Spirit lead Jesus into temptation?
(‘Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.’)

It was not the devil who led Jesus into the wilderness. It was the Spirit of God.
We do not believe in a capricious god who sports with human beings, nor a god who sets us up to fail.
But it seems that God does test and prove those he loves, his beloved. This is the work of the Spirit – the Spirit who led Jesus up from the floor of the Jordan valley into the mountainous Judean desert.

Notice that Jesus’ temptation follows his baptism and commitment to the Father’s will. Stepping into the Jordan alongside hundreds of people who wanted to start again, he stepped into the vocation he is sure is his. Spirituality writer David Runcorn suggests that ‘Temptation may be evidence of living, vibrant commitment to God. We are tempted because we are more alive, not less so.’ (Choice, Desire and the Will of God) So maybe our struggles are evidence that something important is going on for us.

The Spirit leads him into temptation because his choices matter. And so do ours. Temptation honours us with the assumption that we are free to choose and that our choices are real and important. The words of ashing from last Wednesday remind us of that, ‘Turn away from your sin and be faithful to Christ’. We can choose to do these two things.

So who is this Spirit?
Christians for centuries have portrayed the Spirit in art with delicate pristine, pure white doves. The gospels tell us that the Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism ‘like a dove’ and to stress the reality of this, Luke adds, ‘in bodily form’. People saw something real, movement, in the air.

Michael Mitton offers an interesting insight in his book, ‘Wild Beasts and Angels’. The Greek word ‘dove’ is a ‘rock dove’ – which is pretty ordinary and looks like one of our pigeons. It is a wilderness bird at home in rocky desert terrain, in hard places where human beings instinctively feel under threat. This is the bird that speaks to us of the Spirit of God: at home in the wilderness, a tough provoker and tester of life who risks leading us closer to the vulnerabilities that test our conflicting desires. In the Spirit’s presence our desires, longings and choices become clearer, and more vivid.

Nearly thirty years ago I stood on the blistering heat of the Negev desert in Israel and wondered, ‘Who is this God who chooses to reveal himself in this sort of place?’ Many years later, still drawn by the desert, we took ourselves off on a Wind, Sand and Stars week long trip, camping in the Sinai desert. I imagined flying to the popular holiday resort, Sharm-el-Sheikh, an overnight stay in a nice hotel and then to get going once we were rested and fresh. Not so. From crazy days at work and the shopping malls of Heathrow we landed at Sharm-el-Sheikh and immediately clambered into 4 Wheel Drives. We drove for 2 hours in total darkness: weaving through road blocks, and then off road onto soft sand, passing through steep rock cliffs, to arrive at a simple campfire with 20 plastic chairs around it.

Here I drank bottled water and washed my hands like never before, with soap and water and then Dettol and water. In the firelight we ate a simple meal of bread, fried chicken and rice.  Behind a tarpaulin set up like a beach windbreaker, there was a newly dig narrow trench loo and two planks of wood to stand on. I am a human animal who needs to stay healthy in this hostile place. And I have come to this wilderness certain that this is the sort of place the Sprit of God is surprisingly active.

This is where God tests and is tested by a nation. This is the place where their identity is forged. They are not slaves of the dominant political and economic powers of their day in Egypt. They are resilient people, chosen by God, loved by God who provides for all their needs – water, manna, quails. They are a people chosen to worship their creator and to be a light to others. Covenanted. Beloved. Freed to live by laws full of neighbourliness.

‘Who is this God who chooses to reveal himself in this sort of place?’ God who is like a deep fresh water stream bubbling up from beneath the desert, living water. God who is present in the stillness and silence. God who can be relied upon for life itself. God who identifies himself as I AM in whom we discover who WE ARE. God who is Love and who likes us.

For me the wilderness is a place of meeting. A place of hospitality. A place where I am completely dependent on the presence of others to survive.

‘Jesus is led by the Spirit up into the wilderness….’ where his vulnerabilities are exposed. Is that what prayer is? The place of meeting of vulnerability and dependence?

Back to the conversations.

We read the tempter comes to Jesus with three questions,

  • If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread – satisfy your appetite
  • If you are the Son of God throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple – announce your religious authority
  • Will you fall down and worship me and I will give you everything you can see.

Ian Adams, in his book, Wilderness Taunts, talks about the testing of Jesus as taunts seeking to throw him off balance. Taunts from the despair and darkness of the world that try to extinguish hope. Taunts of the shadows within ourselves.

Temptations are not about external choices of food and personal power. They do far deeper than that. Who we are always comes before what we do. Our choices and desires follow out of our sense of personal identity. Jesus responds to the taunts from his identity and security in his Father. This is what American theologian Pat Kiefert (Church Innovations, partnership for Missional Church) calls ‘God centred self definition’. He responds from who God says he is. So Jesus responses are answers to that inner voice, that taunt, ‘who do you think you are’?

Yes he is the Son of God, totally dependent on the words of his Father.
Yes he is the Son of God, who does not exploit or test that love.
Yes he is the Son of God who worships and serves him.

And that is why we pray.
To hear again and again the words of our heavenly Father reminding us about who we truly are, so that we can answers those taunting voices of self accusation. Prayer is hearing God’s words over us. Prayer is where we remember who we are.

So when we pray this Lent, let’s notice the taunts, those repeated little phrases that we speak to ourselves, the accusing inner voice.  To ‘You don’t have what it takes’ we could respond, ‘I am at one with the divine community who do have what it takes’. To ‘You have wasted so much’ … ‘I am here now and the future is open’. To ‘Your appetite will win’ (and don’t we know it as we give up chocolate, alcohol, meat!)  … ‘My soul cries out for you’. To ‘You can’t do this’…  ‘Nothing is impossible with God’. To ‘Doing this won’t make any difference (especially pertinent in this FairTrade fortnight)… Jesus words, ‘ Be faithful with a little’

Write down those taunts. Isn’t it when we name those demons that they lose their power?

And ask God to speak his words to you and show you those scriptures that remind you who you are in Christ.
Prayer is a wilderness. A place of testing. A place of meeting. It is where we discover who we are.

Almighty God, by the prayer and discipline of Lent
may we enter into the mystery of Christ’s sufferings
and by following in his Way
come to share in his glory:
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.