Learning God – Part 2

A Study Course for Lent 2022

Matthew  Chapter 4 vs 1-11, Chapters 5,6,

“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the Devil” Matthew 4:1 (ESV)

Last week we began pondering the idea of ‘Learning God’, in the same way as a small child unconsciously learns their parents – looking to them and imitating their ways, almost as a form of play

Have you ever thought of Christian Life as a form of play? Read the end of Chapter 11 – note that Jesus calls us to be with him and learn what one translation calls, ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’. Is that how your life feels at the moment?

What is the difference between learning God, and learning about God? (Can you put this in terms of how a small child might relate to a parent?)

Jesus time in the Wilderness echoes, or perhaps to use a favourite and much stronger word of St Matthew in his gospel, ‘fulfils’ in the forty days what the Hebrews, adopted by God and ‘brought out of Egypt’, failed to learn.  (Matt 2:13-15).  (Note by the way, the 40 days do not ‘copy’ the 40 years, not least because Jesus as ‘faithful Israel’ resists the devils temptations, and so enters the Land of Promise)

(You may wish to compare Matthew’s account with that of Luke – they are subtly different in a couple of ways)

We read that Jesus was ‘led up by the Spirit, into the Wilderness, to be tempted by the Devil’. What does this suggest to you?

Recently there has been in some places a return to more rigourous – what we call ascetic – Christianity. In the Anglican Church in New Zealand we of course have the Urban Vision Monastic Community, young people living amongst the poor in our cities, especially Wellington. It has been suggested that young people today are looking for something more demanding from religion and that to quote ‘the decline of the church in the West is simply because it doesn’t demand enough’ What do you make of this? Why have the traditional practices which have been part of the non-negotiable parts of the faith – Prayer – Fasting – Almsgiving – Forgiveness – gone into decline?

Jesus fasts 40 days and was (unsurprisingly) hungry. Whilst this clearly sets the scene for the first temptation, what purpose does fasting fulfil in the life of a Christian?

Recently there has been in some places a return to more rigorous – what we call ascetic – Christianity. In the Anglican Church in New Zealand we of course have the Urban Vision Monastic Community, young people living amongst the poor in our cities, especially Wellington. It has been suggested that young people today are looking for something more demanding from religion and that to quote ‘the decline of the church in the West is simply because it doesn’t demand enough’ What do you make of this?

Why have the traditional practices which have been part of the non-negotiable parts of the faith – Weekly Worship – Prayer – Fasting – Almsgiving – Forgiveness, even – gone steeply into decline? Has contemporary culture suggested to us it can ‘fill our needs’? What ‘needs’ does it fill? What is left empty?

Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread. What does his reply suggest as an answer to the question we have been considering? What is his priority as, as it were, The Human? (You might recall how we are dust, and only raised to Life by God’s Spirit) In what does He trust? In what do we trust?

PAUSE IN SILENCE

Allow that emptiness to be apparent, boredom perhaps?

Feed on God’s Word – Psalm 42 and 43 are suitable for this

Jesus is taken to the top of the Temple. What is the nature of the Temptation? (As revealed in Jesus’ response) Jesus is in the Wilderness, what questions must run through his head.

Tempted not to trust God for Life, now the temptation steps up a gear. If he doesn’t trust God, how does he even know God is there? See how it follows on?

Finally the greatest temptation. For context it is perhaps worth comparing with Genesis 3:1-5.

Three Temptations

Do not trust God – Test God – Be God . . .

Do you find resonances with your own life? Take time in the quiet to consider this?

Respond in prayer as appropriate

Next week we begin the Sermon on the Mount and see how Jesus’ teaching clearly contradicts the Devil’s blandishments

Juxtaposition

If you are patient with them, words come together . . .

“Grandmother, let’s not have any godtalk while you are here, okay? I believe that God is everywhere. Let’s just get on with life” Charity – five years old. Reported to Eugene Peterson and recorded in ‘The Pastor – A Memoir’

‘The same Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, “Say something to the Archbishop, so that he may be edified.” The old man said to them, “If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.” ‘Sayings of the Desert Fathers’ trans. Benedicta Ward

“It may be that the advent of language alone produces, and indeed requires, this distancing from reality, this degree of alienation . . .It has often been surmised that there is likely to be a relationship between language and psychosis. I believe that this is correct” Iain McGilchrist: The Matter with Things

“For God alone, my soul waits in silence” Psalm 62, verse 5

The Peacemaker Comes, riding on the Wings of the Storm

Regarding forgiveness, our context is very important to consider. I touched briefly on this in the sermon but as I said, we could have spent much more time exploring this, and indeed how all the other set readings fed into this, as all scripture directs us to God’s work in Jesus Christ. Below I explore this in a little more detail.

‘Whatever happened to sin?’ This question which did the rounds from time to time is not insignificant. By some it was thought that the church could be obsessed by it, yet certainly it has become less and less a focus of preaching. Something less and less part of our consciousness, to the point where in some circles, the Gospel announced as ‘Christ died for our sins, according to Scripture’ (1 Cor 15), indeed the significance of the death of Jesus Christ, except as a sign of God’s participation in human suffering, seemed a rather strange idea, with little or nothing to do with our daily lives.

Yet, apart from the insistence in some quarters that the Gospel and the teaching of the Church must be relevant to our lives, perhaps it is more the case that this seeming irrelevance calls our lives into question. Certainly as today’s gospel points us towards the rejection of Jesus’ by Jerusalem, with its own humanly directed salvation quest – not entirely disimilar to our obsession with political solutions to the human plight – it also directs our attention away from Jesus Christ as God’s response to us, and indeed the way of healing.

To understand better perhaps the centrality of forgiveness in life, we need to consider sin, and its effects.

Straightforwardly put, sin breaks the bonds of affection, or the ties of love by which all things are held together – perhaps this is Physics mysterious ‘weak force’ . . . ? For those of us living in highly technological, depersonalised societies such as here in New Zealand, or more generally Modern societies, the idea that my relationship with those around me is Essential to Life is a strange one. After all if I have money, why do I need people, except if I am of a gregarious, extroverted nature and like a party?

I can obtain the ‘essentials of life’ without attention (love) towards those around me. My life has the sense of something I sustain by my own efforts, in a not dissimilar way to the way in which Jerusalem understood that her Redemption would come by keeping the Law. Such a stance counter intuitively also suggests that Sin and Forgiveness have little to do with the Essence of Life. Where Sin is merely ‘breaking the Law’, as opposed to rupturing the ties that hold all things together in Love, forgiveness of sins is inessential to Life in its fullness.

In our society in which technology ever infiltrates the ‘between’ of human existence, and we move toward the uncontact society towards which we have moved far far further than there is distance left to travel before its completion, we move towards a state of affairs in which in a perverse sense ‘sin will be no more and sorrow and sighing also’, for we shall have no connection with one another, to break. Yet that connection Is Life. In another sense, we shall humanly speaking, be dead.

Imagine it you will instead a community which is as large a community as we might meaningfully live within – say about 150. It is one in which the community works together to grow its food and in which there is of necessity mutual interdependence. If you fall out with your neighbour, or are indeed cut off from the community, this is a matter of life and death. Or indeed if you as a community fail to live in some kind of mutual relationship with the land in which It’s life is understood to be literally vital, then also you will die. Sin as the breaking the bonds of affection. between yourself and your neighbour, or yourself and the land, leads to death.

Forgiveness in such a scenario is also a matter of Life or Death. And this is fundamental whether we recognise it, in a smaller, more personal society as sketched out here, or in a city – say, Jerusalem – which does not recognise it, not least because cities are always out of tune with their surroundings, except in Urban Planners dreams.

God is Love. It is God we seek to kill in our failure to love. In societies which do not understand that they are fundamentally, essentially dependent on love. God is sent outside the walls to die. ‘Life’ so called has no Holy Anima, and increasingly mimics that of those forms of ‘life’ we have ourselves created without love, that is the machines, or graven images of God, that which we imagine we control.

Jesus, the Hen, provides the shelter of His Kingdom of Forgiveness and thus Peace for those who will Live, having at least some sense of what life is, and knowing that nothing counts more than the Love which binds all things together. He provides the overshadowing as the Blood of the Lamb, from Fox, or fire. So that when the storm hits, those who live by his Love, will be those who see it out to the end.

Learning God – A Lent Course, 2022 – Session 1

Learning God – A study for Lent 2022

Matthew  Chapter 4 vs 1-11, Chapters 5,6,7

“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the Devil” Matthew 4:1 (ESV)

“He calls his sons and daughters to the wilderness” Michael Card

[Find a notebook and pen, or pencil (I prefer a pencil).

Together with the Scriptures keep them close this Lent]

Recently one of our grandchildren celebrated her second birthday. Via the miracle of modern technology Sarah and I watch as she discovers the present her parents have given her.

Miriam was told to go to the kitchen and as the camera followed we saw her discovering a model kitchen within the kitchen. Having unpacked the box with the pots and pans and plates and cups she just set about ‘doing kitchen stuff’. It reminded us of when her mother and sister had also been given a play kitchen. They just set to ‘doing kitchen stuff’.

Children learn by imitation, but it is unselfconscious. It is such a remarkable thing. Jesus calls us to become like children in our faith – without self-consciousness; Learning God.

In this Jesus is our model “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”

Pause in Silence

Sit in the quiet with these words of Jesus. He can only do what he sees the Father doing . . . like the child can only do what they see the parent doing.

Perhaps take a pen and notebook – what does this summon up within you? Is there a prayer which rises up?

This is the entirety of our Christian vocation. This is our Christian Life, Life in all its fulness. To do only what we see the Father doing.

To live this life requires we see God clearly, and that is the purpose of the wilderness . .  to learn God.

Pause in Silence

What comes to mind when you imagine Wilderness? Take time to imagine  . . .

God’s ancient people the Hebrews were led out into the wilderness. This is the place which to our eyes is empty. Just the Wind of God, Breath, Spirit. There is nothing to distract . . . from God, and indeed ourselves.

There’s nothing we can do in The Wilderness to make a life for ourselves.

In my native Cumbrian dialect, the opening of  Genesis reads,

‘In the beginning, there were nobbut God’ In the wilderness there is a blank slate and ‘nobbut God’.

God fills our vision as a parent fills the world of the child who lives in the flow of unconscious vibrant imitation.

Pause in Silence

What do we make of the idea of learning God?

How does it resonate, or not with our ideas of ‘Being a Christian’?

“To all who received him, who trusted him; to all those he gave the right to become children of God, to become those born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but born of God.” John 1:12-13

(My translation)

Some writers suggest we can translate the opening of Genesis, ‘In the beginning, when God began to create the heavens and the earth’ This translation suggests a ‘coming into being’ of the surrounding world. But what of  us? Of our Becoming into being?

Our study this Lent comprises the key elements of Jesus Wilderness life.

As the Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness, so Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There after 40 days of fasting – which sharpens our vision of what really matters – to be tempted, or more helpfully tested, judged, tried.  (in the way one might try a metal to see if it was fit for purpose, in the fire.

            ‘Tempted’ carries a lot of unhelpful baggage . . . what is being tried here is Jesus’ discernment, his vision. Can he see right?

Seeing right the essence of the Life of God, as opposed to the death of Sin.

Then Jesus goes up on the mountain and there brings to fulfilment the encounter of God’s people with God on Sinai, when he gives ‘the Law’. Now from the Mouth of God comes Livingness in Jesus’ words.

For the rest of our time this week, read slowly through the ‘temptation’ story from Matthew and then the Sermon on the Mount . . .

Make a few notes as you go along. What strikes you? What attracts? What scares? What puzzles or confounds?

 We have plenty of time. All the time we need to take is found in God’s hands . . .  Let us know ourselves there in our imagination. And, what’s more,  there’s nothing else we really have to be doing, is there?

Next week – Learning God – What do you see?