On Saturday we unmasked Pride – the Proud One who is ‘the father of lies’. The one whom Jesus encounters in the Wilderness. How in his cunning he fools us, not only into denying his presence, but then, and this is much easier given we do not accept the reality of his existence, whispers in our ears to keep us from our true healing.
The example of this action was the deceit that we do not need to confess our sins one to another – that all that is necessary is that we confess them before God. Apart from the fact that this is not what the scriptures teach us is the way to our healing – and thus we are not healed – it also unmasks our determined individualism – the pride which says ‘I do not need my brother and sister!’, masked as the pietistic ‘I have my own private relationship with God’. Pride will always keep us separated from one another, and THEREFORE also from God. The ‘god’ of our pietsitic imagination is only the echo of our own heart. As the beloved evangelist puts it ‘Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.’
So our refusal to confess one to another, and that is what it is, is born out of hatred for them. Most certainly it is the fruit of Pride. It is, as I shall show shortly, the result of not having heard the Gospel.
But for now, I wish briefly to examine a very important principle of our growth in Christ. The Doctor of souls, St Benedict in his Rule for monks begins by talking about the different types of monk. He speaks of with the ‘eremitic’ – those who live as solitaries. He comments that they can only do this because they ‘have come through the test of living in a monastery for a long time . . . [and so] go from battle line in the ranks of their brothers to the single combat of the desert’
Here we find the root of the idea that we cannot pursue the spiritual life on our own until we have learned to live it in community – otherwise we are easily deceived. Of course by and large we have grown up in churches where the exact opposite is thought to be true – that living in close community was a more difficult call than going it alone (even as I write it I can see how foolish we are in this regard)
Thus also, to take a slightly different tack, one cannot carry the Poustinia of the heart out into the world, until such time as through years of training we have lived in a Poustinia learning the discipline of service to the community.
In these and many other ways we are deceived into thinking we can go it ‘alone with God’, avoiding the school of the Lord’s service which is the Christian community.
Anyone who thinks they can confess truthfully to the Lord whom they cannot see and know purely by faith, and yet who cannot confess truthfully in the assembly of Christ’s body – anyone who does not discern Christ in the body – is in grave spiritual danger.
Tomorrow we read of this in action – in a situation where Pride has been torn down.
‘Unless one is tempted, he cannot know himself’ Augustine
Many years ago, I went to a church conference in North Wales. There a speaker, a man named John Smith – one doesn’t have to have a memorable name to be remembered – said something which I think was utterly profound and when we hear it sets us better free to follow Christ in the world. He said ‘Becoming disillusioned is a good thing. For you can only be disillusioned if formerly you were suffering from an illusion!’ As many of the spiritual greats have noted, one cannot begin to make progress in the church unless one becomes thoroughly disillusioned with it, laying aside your fantasies of how it should be. Of course some in pride go off to find a better church, one more suited to them, but to be more truthful about this, they go seek one more suited to their own self delusions. Charles Spurgeon was once accosted by a member of his congregation saying ‘Mr Spurgeon I am leaving your church to find a perfect one. Madam, he replied there is no such thing. However, should you happen upon it, do not join it for you would only spoil it. Oh how I love straight talking Others who have chosen the path of humility, who recognise that the church is not perfect because they are not perfect, stick with it and work with the reality they have been shown, rather than the dream they have woken up from.
I don’t know how many here would be familiar with The Matrix trilogy of films. The story briefly is of a dystopic future in which machines have taken over. Human beings are being used a batteries to power their world, and vast fields of these ‘humans’ are connected to The Matrix. They live a life of illusion, fed by computers directly into their nervous system – a largely comfortable world, not disimilar to the world which we know. The hero figure, Neo, is rescued from the Matrix by a small group of freedom fighters, but his life out of the Matrix is far from pleasant – the only food they have is a chemical protein soup – their lives are lived in semi darkness, all the time on the run from the machines. But at least it is Real. Of course not everyone of the rebels is ‘happy’ with this existence, however Real it is and one decides he wants to return to the Matrix, for which he will need to betray his friends to the machines. He is seen in a restaurant – eating the juiciest steak, and drinking the finest wine with one of the machines agents. He says,’I know that this steak is not real, I know that the incredible flavour and texture are merely bits of data being fed into my mind by a computer, but you know what? I don’t care anymore’
Our churches and indeed ourselves are suffering from many illusions – Lent if we observe it well helps us to strip these away, but of course that is far from comfortable. It may be a good thing to be disillusioned, but thank you we’d rather not be. I don’t really care for Reality, it’s far too uncomfortable, it asks too many questions of Me, and I’d rather ask questions of Reality.
Lent takes us to that place, if we will allow, where we are faced with our own tendency to prefer the comforts of life over the Reality of Life in Christ – of Life with God. And so it is hardly surprising that in a world of ever increasing comfort that Lent is not exactly the most fashionable of seasons in the church’s year. Jesus can go out into the desert for fasting and prayer, we’ll make do with some pleasant non too challenging devotional reading.
For Lent is about our becoming disillusioned – and we can only begin to understand this if we have like Jesus taken considerable time for fasting, or given many hours to prayer. Both of these practices create that Wilderness where we confront Reality, where our illusory comforts are stripped away, where we face that we are with the traitor, saying, ‘I know that none of this is real . . . but really I don’t care’
And I’d like to think particularly about Fasting for a few moments. Fasting of all the disciplines is about stripping away the illusions. At least in prayer you can sit in a warm room, you can light a candle, you can put on pleasant music – few practise prayer which is a conscious stripping of comfort, that goes on hour after hour. But fasting deliberately takes comfort away – the comfort of food.
My family know this all too well. My wife’s maternal Grandfather was notoriously grumpy if dinner was more than a few minutes late. Not that he was one of those meticulous types who wanted a regimental life – far from it. But something happened to him physiologically that meant his mood altered and dramatically. His name was Fred Jee and so in the family it is called Jee Syndrome. My brother in law also has it, as does one of my children Well that is what fasting does. it reveals who we are when our comofrts are taken away. As one of my mentors pithily puts it ‘you might think you are on the whole a good person, but if they cut off the water supply you’d be killing your neighbour within three days.’ The lack of food and other comforts affects all aspects of our being. It strips away our illusions about what lovely people we are, and most importantly of all, it strips away our sense of God. It takes us to a place where we realise that our perception of God is far more to do with how we are feeling, than God’s reality. That is not to say that God is not there, God is always present, but we see that our perception of God is more often than not a function of our own psychology and physiology, which when fasting kicks in, don’t function. The comfort blanket is ripped away. We are awakened to Reality
So Jesus, as he goes out into the desert does not go out to have an lovely extended quiet time with God – quite the opposite – ‘he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil’. Now there are two knotty problems for us here – firstly what is the Spirit doing leading Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil? Put briefly it is this, that Jesus is fully human – that temptation is part of his lot. If he suffers not temptation, then how can he help us who are daily tempted?? [There is also a striking parallel with the story of Job]
Secondly there is the source of this temptation – ‘to be tempted by the devil’. Part of the illusion that has been cast over our minds has been the continuing attempts to deny the existence of the devil, to such a point that the Church of England is now wondering whether to remove him from their baptism liturgy – oh, and by the way, before we recoil in horror, do not forget that we in the Anglican Church in NZ did this years ago . . . It seems to me that the two chief temptations the devil tries are Firstly, to tempt us to deny his existence – that works easily for most. But where it doesn’t, we are tempted to inflate his significance far above that which it is. All he is is a fallen angel of God who in some mysterious sense still has a part to play in God’s ordering of the world – no more, no less. Of course those who fall prey to the second temptation and are always going on about the devil, do the devils work in that they help him persuade the majority group how wise they are in Not believing in his existence.
And Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights, after which he was ‘an hungered’ as the King James BIble has it. Tired, Weak, emotionally and physically utterly drained. Unable to summon up of himself any ‘sense of God’, like Job utterly afflicted . . . the tempter comes. And the three temptations teach us much if we have ears to hear.
Firstly The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” We were created to find our satisfaction in God alone. Our lives provide us with multiple alternatives, but they are never enough. As I said a few weeks back for me it has long been books, ‘just one more book . . .’, as if I might find what I am looking for there, for others any number of things. Some live for controversy in the church, some feed on conflict, others on the endless deluge of media we live in – indeed we have become an age unlike any other in our capacity for creating distractions, vacations, consumer products, and of course endless variations on the oldest of them all, Food! For most people in history food was ‘what you could get’, no it is ‘whatever you want!’, all presented to us in endless cookery books and programmes. Gluttony as properly understood is not over eating, it is making food your life. The most sparing of consumers who satisfies themselves and their waistlines with the tiniest nibbles of ‘only the very best food’, is as much a glutton as the person who feasts alone on a family size tub from KFC.
But Jesus reply is startling. There he is – at the end of all his resources, but Satan’s testing only reveals one thing – underneath everything else, the human is created to be hungry for God. The lack of fasting in our culture only reveals how easily we are bought off . . . there is no hunger for God himself. The things of God, yes, God’s provision, rain in due season and the rest – for of course all good things come from him, but not for God himself. If we do not occasionally fast, if we do not lay aside these ‘God appetite’ suppressants, we do not even recognise who is tempting us. There are many things to be consumed by
Secondly Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Of Course the one who hungers truly for God himself, so Loves God that he does not require God to prove himself. he knows and is content to know that God does not exist for his sake – quite the opposite – Jesus knows and understands that He Lives for God. Again so much in our contemporary world and indeed our contemporary church screams the opposite. We call out to God, why aren’t you doing things for us? We doubt God because he doesn’t serve us and our endless appetites for comfort. Again we under our illusions do not begin to comprehend what is going on.
Again Jesus does not name Satan – it is almost as if at this point he does not recognise who is behind all of this. He is purely the righteous man of God. And neither do we, but by and large we fall so readily for the first two temptations that we never get anywhere near the third . . . Jesus forces Satan to show his hand. Here is someone who is devoted to God, who hungers for God above and beyond everything, who Live to serve God ‘though he slay me’ (to use the words of Job). Satan is forced to do that which he hates. Jesus forces him into revealing himself as ‘the ruler of the world’ Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Live my way, and you can have that which you really desire. We are slaves to our desires – and so is Jesus, except his desire is for God and he now sees and names his adversary – and in so doing reveals his authority over him Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
The constant refrain of Satan is ‘If you are the Son of God . . .’ – Is Jesus’ sense of Who he is, his identity just an illusion? . . . This perhaps is why we do not take Lent all that seriously – if at root it calls into question our sense of who we are . . . ‘Children of God’ what we call ourselves. Why would we want to call that into question?? Better surely to get on with our lives and hope it is true?? After all, my life is quite good, I’d rather not rock the boat . . .
Jesus of course was not the only one to go out into the desert, years later others followed, realising that the city had become a place of illusion. Seeking after God and thus rejecting all the comforts which they knew would distract them from Him. Abandoning distractions they saw deep into the reality of things. They were much sought out by those who wanted to live more truly as Children of God – ‘A disciple came to Abba Poemen and asked, ‘When Jesus said ‘he who is angry with his brother without a cause is in danger of judgement’ – what did he mean by “without a cause”’ The Father replied to him ‘If your brother angers you by his arrogance, and you are angry with him, you are angry without a cause, and if he gouges your eye out and cuts off your right hand, and you are angry with him, you are angry without a cause. but if he cuts you off from God, you have every right to be angry with him”
Those who are revealed through testing to be children of God are those who pray ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do. Who see not the assault on themselves , but pray for mercy for the one who wounds them’
Such a saying destroys all our comfortable illusions about ourselves, our church and our Christian Life. It leaves us disillusioned, and that is the best way to start Lent. For only if we are so disillusioned might we set out together as a church determined to seek out the Life Of God. May God plant in us such holy disillusionment this Lent. May we have the courage to follow Jesus, to discover who we really are, and by God’s grace grow up into the fullness of him who fills everything in every way
‘those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Those who humble themselves will be exalted’
Yesterday we thought of how Pride keeps us from confessing our sins, one to another, how we are lured into keeping them ‘just between God and ourselves’
Lent leads us into much fuller discernment of Reality, not least of that which is going on, or rather who is truly our Father. Jesus’ time in the desert was not a ‘time alone with God’. As we hear in the Gospel for Sunday, Jesus is driven into the wilderness ‘to be tempted of the devil’, and tomorrow’s sermon will unpack this further. For now let us just note that we live in an age which we have become perhaps more blind than ever to ‘the devil and all his ways‘, to the point where some churches are considering whether to remove references to ‘the devil’ from their baptism rite. Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy
What was the sin of the devil that led to his fall from heaven? Pride! When the disciples come rushing to Jesus declaring ‘even the demons submit to us in your name!’ His rebuke is the gravest of warnings, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven!’
Satan is also the Father of lies, the one who turns our head away from the Life giving word.
‘confess your sins one to another that you may be healed’
The evil one leads us a tragic dance, away from the Word to our own rationalisation. ‘I do not need to do this, I can keep this between God and myself’
Pride traps us through deceit. But we think we are free, we feel comfortable in its company, it keeps us ‘safe’, indeed in the echo of our closed heart we may even call him our father . . .
Yesterday I suggested that perhaps ‘Retreat’ is a misnomer, as is ‘withdrawl’, for in the Desert we as it were step much closer to the reality of things. Most especially for our purposes today we see more clearly the state of our own heart.
On day one I suggested that our mood for Lent ought to be one of Rich Joy, for it was as if we were facing surgery which in our heart of hearts we knew and wanted, however apprehensive we were of the process. Well today I would like to suggest a path which is offered us for a more radical and indeed swift surgery and deeper and more long lasting healing.
In the Church in the West, especially the Protestant Church we have taken the path of the Individual, and indeed many blogs on Lent and its meaning speak of it in terms as if we too were Jesus, walking alone into the desert for Lent. But we are not. We are the body of Christ. Lent is something which we do together (and not merely as a group of people following the same programme in isolation). Rather the significant disciplines of Lent, its deep journey is one we do with mutual companionship and love.
Although the distinction is not as clear cut as I am going to suggest, there IS a strong correlation between ‘Spiritual practices’ as we have been taught to understand them through a plethora of books, and Individualism.’Your Walk’, ‘Your Journey’, ‘Your sins’, ‘Your repentance’ (all in the singular)
Our brothers and sisters from the Eastern (Orthodox) Church, have a different apprehension. When they fast, they do it together, when they pray, they do it together, etc etc
Perhaps The most healing practise, and I speak from my own experience here as well of that of those few who have walked this path, is of Mutual Confession of sins. (As I write this I too feel more sharply the touch of the surgeons knife, seeking to do something more) God uses the whole body of Christ in our healing, and by and large we in the West have ignored that – perhaps because, especially amongst Protestant denominations, Pride gets in the way. Indeed in some sense it is the foundation of such churches. After all you can only go off and set up your own church if you think your understanding of church is somehow better than what appears to be on offer. Spiritual practices carried out alone, in many regards are the fruit of such Pride.
“Confess my sins to another?!!! I do not need to!!! – I have My personal relationship with God!!!” So Pride keeps us trapped, and sins do not heal and we come back week after week, or if you are like me, day after day, confessing over and over but without that deep healing, for in truth Pride has fooled us into thinking we do not need our brothers and sisters – we close the door on the Church, we close the door on Christ.
Pride does this. Pride closes the door of our hearts – leaving us only to hear that which we call ‘god’, the echo of our own deceit.
James, the brother of Jesus says ‘confess your sins to one another, that you may be healed’. Only one who has walked in this practise can know how much more powerful it is than the usual approach of saying them to ‘god’. For it is a healthful double edged sword:- There is the bringing of sin into the light, with the accompanying embodied forgiveness, which heals the effect of sin; And we lay down our pride.
This was a practise of the early church, it was the pracitse also of the Fathers. There is a lovely story about one Desert Father, an elder, visiting another more junior brother. The Elder enquired after the heart of the younger, who declared ‘all is well!’ After a pause, the elder confessed – I must say I have much trouble with thoughts of fornication. The younger quickly agreed that he too sinned in this way. The floodgate was opened and soon both the elder and younger were confessing to one another. The Elder, as it should be, laid down his pride. Confessed he was a sinner, named the sin, and the younger in the position of the one hearing the confession was able to share God’s forgiveness and also confess himself.
Perhaps this Lent we might experience the Rich Joy of mutual confession and forgiveness?
Many of us make it a discipline to take an annual retreat of a few days. If we do, we will no doubt be greeted by folks on our return with the words ‘It must have been nice to get away from it all’, or sentiments in a similar vein.
But a retreat, properly understood has nothing to do with getting away from it all – rather if we do not engage in such practices, in truth we spend our lives running away from ‘it all’. In our busy lives we may think we are in the thick of it but, to use a sailing metaphor, in truth we are running before the wind. To go on a retreat is as it were to turn into the wind of reality, to drop anchor and experience that which we have been running before.
Our model for retreat, as in all things is Christ, and supremely his time in the wilderness, where he is sent by the Spirit to be tested. We may well think that our lives are test enough thank you, but for the Christian there is little if anything that befalls us in our lives that is not the common lot of all. Painful relationships, difficult financial circumstances, overwhelming work ‘obligations’, ill health – these are just part of the human condition and sweep us along. No, there is a far more profound testing which is called for, a testing which will, if we allow it be our healing – the testing of fire which is time in the wilderness.
In the wilderness we discover who we really are, and to our alarm discover that our greatest enemies do not lie outside us, ‘the trials of life’, but within. The deceit of our hearts, our desire to run from God (often disguised as ‘a healthy spiritual life’) The disciplines of solitude and fasting soon tear the veneer of ‘spiritual comfort’ from our lives. We readily see that for all the pain of relationships etc. we have mistaken the comforts of our physical life – other relationships, food and drink, warm houses, the endless distractions of the technological world in which we live – for the presence of the living God. When all these things are taken away, we face the testing of the devil, the challenge of Job’s wife ‘to curse God and die’.
When we ‘retreat’ from the ‘day to day reality’ of our lives, the Reality of our lives is exposed. We realise that we have confused the gods of this age, for the God of all consolation. And there in the wilderness with nothing but God, we are confronted by our own spiritual poverty, by a ‘spiritual life’ which is an illusion. We realise that the God who is a consuming Fire is to us a stranger, that we are ‘kindlers of fire’, constructing a comfortable god in our own image – a pale imitation of ourselves.
Lent offers us the gracious opportunity of a 40 day retreat. Through disciplines of fasting, prayer and almsgiving – disciplines of letting go of our illusions – a door is held open. A doorway which leads us from Illusion to Reality, from Death to Life, from a life we have made for ourselves to Life in all its fullness.
May God in his infinite love and mercy give us Grace to drop anchor and face into the wind . . .
Recently one of my sisters went into hospital for surgery. Over the last few months she has frequently been in excruciating pain following ‘accidental’ over exertion. Now the day had come when the surgeon would wield his knife to put right the damage she’d inadvertently done to herself. She had been longing for this day through many long days and dark hours in the night, and she faced it with a sense not of fear but of relief.
Today is Ash Wednesday. It is the first day of the 40 day appointment with the Divine surgeon, whose knife pierces to ‘the division of soul and spirit’, before whose light all are naked and exposed.
To be in the Desert with Jesus is to open ourselves to his healing gaze, his Scalpel of Love.
I wonder how we face it?
Sometimes I wonder if we have yet heard the Good News? If we have encountered The Living One?
In terms of the parable of the Prodigal Son, Ash Wednesday is the day we once more turn for home. But for us there should be a difference. The prodigal, who like his elder brother is a stranger to his Father, creates a story which he thinks will win him favour. He imagines he will have to try and strike some kind of deal just to get a square meal. His speech ‘I have sinned before heaven and men and am no more worthy to be called your son’ is born out of his estrangement, not his knowledge of his Father.
His ‘repentance’ has no echo of the joy of the angels, it is rather his attempt to save himself from his estrangement.
Our repentance is of a different order. We recognise we have strayed – better, we are sin sick – like my friend we feel the pain of our self inflicted injuries and we long for our appointment with Grace.
Today we set our face towards home, and find the divine surgeon running to meet us. It is interesting to note that in the parable, the prodigal is not home when the Father encounters him. The reconciliation takes place in a ‘between’ space – nameless and empty.
We call this space the Desert. It is the place of our healing. It is a place of a Rich Joy only those who know their predicament and their need can comprehend.