On a Wednesday morning I preach a relatively impromptu sermon after a few minutes spent prayerfully with the Scriptures in the vestry – a practice I trace back to my days as a curate, where each week either myself or my Vicar would put out the chairs and lay the table for Communion whilst the other pondered the texts for the day.
Here at St John’s my custom has been to follow the 1662 prayer book readings for the week, and today the gospel was the account of Jesus’ trials in the wilderness. It was a little remarked upon and so here I try to recapture some of what I said. Of course it is not the same reading a sermon on one’s own as it is to listen to it corporately in the context of the gospel reading and the Eucharist, but I offer it anyway with my prayers, for God to do with as He will. SDG
Gospel reading – Matthew 4:1-11
So we hear the words, as we do each week – ‘this is the Gospel of Christ’ – this is Gospel, Good News! And we may well ask, what is the Good News in that?? Is there Good News to be had in Lent?
Lent, as I began to suggest on Sunday is a time for stripping away illusions – for a confrontation with Reality. It is good to be disillusioned . . . of course we might think to be disillusioned is a ‘Bad Thing’ – we always here it in negative terms – ‘so and so has become very disillusioned’ – but straight away we discover that something we have been taught to think of in negative terms is not – for surely one can only become disillusioned is one was suffering in the first place from an illusion. Disillusionment is an awakening to reality – the reality may not look very pretty, but it is Real – we are no longer Asleep, or as the Scriptures would have it ‘Dead in our sins – we are beginning to come awake.
And Lent faces us with the Reality of Life, which in itself must therefore be thought of in some sense as ‘Good News’.
Last week we were all marked with ash – a double symbol of Reality. The twin related truths of our lives – we are sinners, and we are going to die. We face the Reality about ourselves – square in the face – no hiding. ‘Dust you are, and to dust you shall return!’ That which our contemporary world more than any previous culture does everything in its power to deny – the one thing that despite all our technological prowess we can at the most, given a following wind and a good dose of luck, can no more than delay for a moment – our Death – is pronounced. We were dust, we shall be dust. We are all going to die. We face it.
Although there are two things that we are told are unavoidable, death and taxes, we know that in reality some Do avoid the latter – but the other unavoidable, like death, we want to deny. Sin. It is a word that is out of fashion – but no matter, it still weave its web through each moment of our lives. It’s interesting to see though how even in Christian circles it has become less ‘significant’. For Lent, part of my reading is two books on Sin and the contrast is profound.
One very recent, has a certain jocularity of tone – its searching out of the seven deadly sins allows a little ambiguity as if perhaps each one had, at least in some regards something going for it, not that Pride, Anger, Lust, Envy, Greed, Avarice and Sloth were to be fled from, to be utterly shunned, to be rescued from. No, they are given a sort of charmingly friendly face as if they are a collection of lovable rogues. Not SO deadly sins??? [In a way also how we might be led to think of the Devil in contemporary culture, that is if we haven’t psychologised him away . . .]
The second book however, a meditation upon the Seven deadly sins, but also upon the Virtues – plays no such gamed. Although written recently, the author is a professor of the anatomy of Sin. Guided by early Christian writers, his style is sparse. Whilst the first writer lulls us to sleep in lengthy chapters, the latter with a few brief quotes lays open our condition. Didn’t think yourself proud? You do now! Too old for Lust? Think again! Anger . . . well I guess few if any of us need convincing of that, but we are not allowed any space to entertain it as in any sense less than something to be appalled at in ourselves . . and so the treatment goes on. In the space the first writer uses to try and draw a mist of uncertainty over Pride, the other exposes our condition. Like an Ice cold bath, it is shock therapy – we are Wide Awake. Like Isaiah in the Temple – we cry out ‘Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips . . .’ It is Good Spiritual Direction – Direct and our malady is Defintiely Spiritual and terminal – Dead in Sin.
Dust you are, and to Dust you shall Return – Repent of your Sins!
Our half of the Reality is exposed – our mortal condition – but also God’s Remedy. Lent takes us with Jesus, towards the Cross and in our gospel today we are at once found out and saved.
Of course, as I have suggested – we don’t seen any good news here – indeed we may well struggle to see what on earth it has to do with us , our image of Jesus sentimentalised, the Devil, little more than a cartoon character and after all we haven’t been tempted to any of These sins, have we! Have we?
I’d like to suggest that already this morning, as with every morning we have at least committed two of them, and that we regularly commit all three, and that they are our way of hiding – hiding from God – by, as we do with death, Sin and the Devil – living as practical atheists – as if God does not exist.
‘but I haven’t turned stones into bread . . .’ I wonder – as we sat to breakfast this morning, did we acknowledge that it was only by God’s grace we had it. Were we not tempted to think we got food by our own power. ‘I earned the money to buy this food . . .’ by the strength of my arm . . . I did it. What is the difference. Jesus we know could have got food, for himself . . . as if God wasn’t the provider – as if He didn’t exist . . .
‘Well ok, but come on – I haven’t thrown myself from the Temple! :)’ No? I know I have. One of my besetting sins is this – or its equivalent. One of the things we notice about Jesus, is his steadfast refusal to draw attention to himself, to make himself the centre of things. I am sure that there is more than one of you here who has from time to time suffered me breaking into what was supposed to be our conversation, by my telling you a story about Me . . . have we this morning even told someone something about ourselves which they did not ask us to? Have we this morning sought to draw attention to ourselves, to try and make ourselves the centre of things? ‘Throw yourself from the Temple! – Make a Splash! Let everyone know you are here’ As if we are the centre of all things – ‘you keep making it all about you,’ as a wise guide constantly reminds me
‘But been offered the whole world???, and accepted???!!!’ . . . and so come the weasel words – you are free to do whatever you want . . . life is your oyster . . . you are in charge of your life . . . it all lies at your feet . . . you can do anything. It’s your Life. God? Well like a wise old uncle, he’ll be there if you need him, but hey . . . with your background, your education, with those lessons life has taught you . . . After all, is God really to be trusted as much as you trust yourself???
We are not secure in who we are as Children of God – we try to do it all for ourselves, and then mutter a prayer at the end in the hope that by doing that we might carry on doing the same
The Apostle Paul tells us – Pray continually, every moment – be turned to God – your life is Not your own, not one moment of it – if you are not dead in your sins, believing the devils lies, then you know surely that it is His Life in You which is your only hope – what God is doing in and through you.
Jesus as the Son, knows his father provides the food, he doesn’t do it for himself.
He knows the Father will glorify him, he doesn’t do it for himself.
He knows the Father will put all things under His feet . . . he does not grasp at it
God’s Remedy is the Obedience of His Son – the Only one who lives for God and so becoming Life for us. He was tempted in every way as we are yet was without sin and so lives forever to intercede for us – his Life, lived towards God, becomes thus life poured out for us.
And so there is no better place to be than here now – we hear the Good News, we See who we are – we See the obedience of Christ – and in bread and wine, God’s Remedy is presented to us – the Life of his obedient Son. The one who lived under no illusions – faced the reality of Sin, but Sinned not, faced the reality of death, which could not hold Him, and so became the source of life for all who follow him in Faith