‘Going without . . .’ is a phrase understood in our culture as a sign of ‘deprivation’, which, it is hard to deny, goes against the spirit of our age. Many years ago I remember passing one of those wayside pulpits – a notice board with a ‘thought for the week’ plastered upon it. It said ‘Wants are many. Real needs are few’ Its truth struck me even as a young boy and has remained with me, yet looking back over forty years, comparing my life now, even with life in the early 1970s – one cannot help but reflect that ‘Wants’ have vastly multiplied, and many have become ‘needs’.
This Lent I am unhooking from at least one of those ‘Wants’ become ‘needs’, that is my connection to the internet, a daily check of email and this occasional blog apart, and all forms of technology which have accrued over the intervening years. So for example, books will be for me made out of paper, and sermons hand written. The season of Lent is a time of preparation – a time of discernment. “How are things with my soul?”, is a question which Lent invites us to ponder . . . but to do that requires deprivation. The sated soul cannot know its own condition, buried under the excess we have come to call ‘enough’.
Last year during Lent, I restricted my eating. Not I hasten to add, to the point where I found myself tired or even remotely suffered, but through various practices, ate simply enough and no more. The Fourth Sunday of Lent is a day of easement of Lenten practise, and as it is in England, Mothering Sunday, we feasted. I ate and drank no more than was usual prior to the Fast – a ‘decent’ sized roast dinner, some apple pie for desert, and shared a bottle of wine with my wife. I paid for this excess over the next 36 hours, and it taught me a severe lesson. That to which I had become accustomed was, under circumstances of ‘enoughness’ more than that with which my body could cope. Buried under food, I had lost sensitivity to my condition, to the point that what I had thought a ‘reasonable meal’ made me quite ill.
As ‘going without’ is a state to be pitied in this day and age, so too ‘enough’ is a concept we struggle with, insensitive as we have become to our condition. ‘Deprivation’ in Lent usually goes no further than cutting back on those things which we once saw as luxuries and very occasional treats which have become part and parcel of our everyday consumption. ‘Chocolate anyone?’ It might seem a rather bleak prospect having ‘just’ enough.
How we are shaped in living whilst naively imagine we are choosing how to live our lives . . .
In Lent we remember Jesus driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, away even from his own culture’s ‘enough’, to a place of what appears as utter deprivation, yet it is not. All he has is sold to buy the field.
Buried under what we call ‘life’, and perhaps more deeply buried than ever before in our age, is Life. As St Luke records, ‘Jesus returned [from the wilderness] in the power of the Spirit . . .’
A couple of years ago I had a dream. It was so striking that I wrote it down in my journal. In it I was in a canoe paddling up a stream. The stream, as streams do, became narrower and the water shallower, therefore the effort of paddling became greater until I grounded. Of course the obvious thing was to turn the canoe round, but the stream was too narrow
It must be said, when I ponder that dream and its meaning for me, the contemporary church also hoves into view. The stream getting narrower and shallower, perhaps a metaphor for falling numbers? And trying harder and harder . . . perhaps we need to get our bearings. To remind ourselves of one or two fundamentals . . .
1. God is not relevant to our lives
I have pondered often and long about why so many of us are at the very least hesitant about ‘sharing our faith with others’ – and the answer that came to me in the early hours of one morning this week was that we imagine the conversation in our head – a little like this.
I’m a Christian
My faith makes a real positive difference to my life
Really? What? We have been friends for a long time. Your life and my life – they are pretty similar – indeed in many respects you might say I have a better life than you, no?
Well, yes, errm – I see what you are saying, err but I have a profound peace in my heart
Yes. Good. I’m happy for you. I find a walk on the beach does that for me. Isn’t it lovely 🙂
So how are the grandchildren doing then . . .
When I say ‘God is not relevant to our lives’ I mean it. But what do I mean by ‘our lives’. I mean the lives we determine for ourselves. The life which is all about our life story – the story which people may tell of us after we die, of career and home and children and hobbies etc. etc. The lives into which we try to fit God rather like a new kitchen accessory – a Unique selling point in a house, or in this case a life
We have grown up in a culture which springs from Christendom – a world where ‘everyone was a Christian’ – God was in his heaven ‘watching over it all’, and all was well with the world. ‘God’ in this scheme was there to sort out the difficulties of our lives. Like a kindly chaplain, or a Spiritual plumber, or indeed a kindly parking attendant who found us that parking space we really needed or otherwise we’d be so stressed at that important meeting with the bank to discuss our mortgage . . . God is ‘there to look after us’. But of course, for our friend with whom we are in conversation, they pretty much manage to get along very well thank you very much without any of that, and also they have spare time on a Sunday to use as they wish . . . and of course should life’s circumstances become difficult then perhaps we don’t really need this church stuff anyway because God is there looking after us, or perhaps he isn’t and actually it doesn’t seem to really make any difference . . . after all there are lots of helpful guides to having a better life – some are religious, some aren’t . . .
2. Our lives are not relevant to God
Sorry if we find this thought troubling, but they’re really not. God does not spend every moment of his waking hours figuring out how to get our lives sorted out so that we can have the life we always dreamed of . . . indeed we may have noticed that 🙂 And vice versa, there is nothing we can do to ‘help God’. On the one hand the dominant expression of faith is that ‘god is up there somewhere looking over us’, and on the other, the Church seems obsessed in what Margaret of Sienna calls ‘solicitudo religioso pro Deo’ To translate roughly, ‘a blasphemous anxiety to be doing God’s work for him’. Whatever, ‘God’ is largely absent from the proceedings
Like in the canoe dream – people paddling harder and harder as the stream narrows and the water shallows. The church is busier than ever, getting the message out, endless committees, initiatives etc.etc.etc. ‘God’ becomes an ever vague shadow, out there, somewhere, perhaps??
Last week I concluded that we would do well from time to time, not to put ourselves in the disciples’ position, as they observe Jesus healing people, but rather to place ourselves in the position of those who are healed, in other words, In Jesus direct line of sight.
Well, let’s do that this week and where is Jesus looking, oh yes he’s looking at his disciples. He is telling them, quite openly that he ‘must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.’
And we all know Peter’s response – And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
Now let’s just pause at this moment. Immediately before our gospel reading, Peter has declared that which God has revealed to him, not what he has figured out for himself, what God has revealed to him, That Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed one, The King of Israel . . .
And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him?????!!!!!!
3. The problem is ‘Our Lives’ . . .
Jesus words seem like madness to Peter – but it is Peter who has the problem . . . turning and looking at his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Jesus tells Peter ‘You don’t get it! You don’t have a clue! You are the One trying to destroy my work . . . and we, like Peter have So much confidence that we do get it . . . but as I said, we cannot give a coherent account of what IT is to those amongst whom we live
The problem is ‘Our Lives’. When we listen to what Jesus says, it seems utter madness, we are there with Peter. Jesus says ‘The meek shall inherit the earth’ – and we rebuke him saying, that’s a nice sentiment Jesus, but actually its the hard work and fine accounting skills, its our genius that will get us what we want . . . and the moth and rust will corrupt and if we store it all in vaults after our deaths, the thieves will break in and steal.
I was in a church meeting a long way from here earlier this week, where the wheels of power were turning. We were planning and proposing. And someone gave a very lengthy account of a significant event in the life of the church and credited one person with all the credit and said how much we owed them by way of thanks, and no one batted an eyelid . . .
No one – myself included – said, ‘Let us pause and offer profound thanks to God without whom Nothing is possible. It was as if God didn’t even exist.’ We’d pulled it all together.
We modern westerners are So in control of Our Lives – and thus the way we run them is in direct opposition to the way of Jesus – Jesus who says ‘The meek shall inherit the Earth’; ‘do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth’, ‘unless you become like a little child’ How could a child even begin to run the church as we do??? Jesus who says For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
4. Jesus response to the problem of ‘Our Lives’
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
As I was painfully reminded this last week by a friend, we miss the horror of what Jesus is saying here. The Cross has become a pretty item of jewelry – or we talk about it is terms of the sufferings that are common to all human kind, broken relationships, illness – ‘We all have our cross to bear’ we sigh. Jesus speaks to the whole people of God, who symbolised by Peter have their minds set on human things and faces them with something horrific. No one there, none of the readers of Mark’s gospel in the first 300 years will have not seen, in all likelihood Many Crosses, not hanging round people’s necks, but with people hanging on them. ‘You really don’t want to go there’, but Jesus says this is the Way.
Pontius Pilate wanting to let people know where the real power lay, didn’t always bother with wood, bit of a waste, he would nail people to the walls of Jerusalem. Everyone knew the horror of it and had seen how literally excruciating was the death of the Crucified, over hours in unendurable agony. The utter destruction of a Life – indeed bodies were left there to be devoured by wild animals and birds. So horrifying that people could not bear to speak of it or write about it. Truly A Satanic tool.
Jesus takes Our Lives to the Cross, and we are called to follow him. Indeed this is the meaning of our Baptism – not some folk rite, so that we are in on this Chaplain God and can expect his services. Christendom neatly sidestepped the Cross and delivered up a faith of the irrelevant God, placing the human and our lives back in the centre of things. But our Lives are only the centre of things if w are In Christ, the Crucified One. We are baptised into his death so that He might be Our Life, Our All in All. As St Paul puts it in Colossians, ‘For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God’ Our baptism is the End of Our Life. The end of Our agendas, the end of Our plans. The life we now live we live by faith in the Son of God. For truly Christian life to begin, Our Lives must end. He must become Our Life. The Risen one
And So we come here, we confess our Sins, that once more we have lived for ourselves and not for Him who loves us, We feed on his word which is Life giving Like honey on our lips, we respond in words irrelevant to the World, the Creed, and in his infinite Grace and Mercy, he feeds us with His Very Life.
Glory to Jesus Christ
Glory for Ever
A Lent course – for St John the Evangelist, Roslyn
Praying in the Name of Jesus
‘The Jesus Prayer’
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.
This Jesus is
“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.”
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’
(‘Lord, I want to be a Christian’ The Proclaimers. Coincidentally, the video link contains pictures of New Zealand)
I was out praying and walking the other morning when it came to me that this song connects so well with the Jesus prayer. For the one who desires to Love God in and through everything, this prayer is the journey we make . . . and to pray the Jesus Prayer is to make a journey. We might say that it is the prayer of the Disciple. ‘Lord, I want to be a Christian, in my heart’
A very simple prayer
A very ancient prayer
Not ‘just another prayer’ . . . although it may be treated as such.
Used by millions of Christians every day, and often all day
A prayer which takes us into the deep roots of our faith and our existence
A prayer which by Grace we may learn to ‘pray without ceasing’, Constant prayer is an essential aspect of a lively faith. Four times Paul exhorts us to this
‘Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer’ (Romans 12:12)
‘Pray at all times in the Spirit’ Eph 6:18
‘Continue steadfastly in prayer’ Col 4:2
‘Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus’ 1 Thess 5:17-18
And with Jesus ‘Stay alert! Watch and Pray that you do not enter into temptation’
But first, CONTEXT.
Whenever we dare to speak of prayer we make many assumptions. When we think about Context we may think of our own lives and culture, but to Pray is to enter a far larger world, a far greater context and leaves us with many questions.
How do we Orient ourselves within such a world?? (The verb comes from the practise of lining churches up to face East, towards Jerusalem – Orienting them)
What does it mean to pray?
Why do we pray?
To whom do we pray?
Who is it that prays?
Who am I?
What does it mean to ‘be saved’?
What is the goal of our faith?
Prayer, Faith, Salvation are words which do not belong to our everyday existence, yet we assume we know what they mean. Our answers to these questions will profoundly shape whether we merely Say the Jesus Prayer, or come to Pray the Jesus prayer.
We live in an age of disconnection and technique. We no longer think ‘everything has its place’ even in the world we can see, let alone that which is only revealed in faith, so we might think that we can just ‘use’ this prayer – without any understanding of its context. If we are alert to these things then at least a rudimentary understanding of the significance of context is necessary is we are to pray in this way . . .
It would be very easy to teach ‘The Jesus Prayer’ as a simple ‘prayer technique’. Rather like I could teach you to sing this song . . . ‘My Young Man’ Sung by Kate Rusby (Pure Records)
But truly to pray is to enter far deeper than simply ‘practising a technique . . .’ one may speak, indeed pray with the tongues of men and angels, but utterly miss the goal. This goal we may perhaps slightly better understand through considering how we approach a song like the one we have just heard
From Words to Language
From Admiration to Identification
From Repetition to Resonance
This is a song Kate wrote in memory of her Grandparents. The ‘young man’ of the title is her maternal grandfather whom she never knew, and it is as it were ‘sung by her grandmother’. Her Grandfather was a coal miner in the Yorkshire coalfields, and coal dust gave him emphysema which turned him from a strong man, to one who is in his later years cradled on the lap of his wife. Just the story itself is touching and indeed there may well be themes in it which turn it from being ‘just another song’.
For me, undoubtedly its sad beauty lies in my identification with Yorkshire, a county where I lived many years, and the sound of the Brass ensemble which Kate asked to accompany her singing. The accent of her voice, and the meek mournfulness of the Brass goes deep. (Although, we were a bit posher than that where I grew up in the country away from the coal and manufacturing culture which generated the great Brass Bands. Our village band was a Silver band J)
But of course, for all but Kate, we will all be in one degree or another mere observers – we may Admire, but our level of identification will never be total. You and I are not Kate 🙂
But the Jesus Prayer is given precisely that we might enter into ever deeper Identification with Jesus. Our Life is in Him – and as strings resonate, so every fibre of our existence is given to thrill to and resonate with the Life of God made known to us in Jesus Christ – As St Paul puts it in the letter to the Colossians – ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.’
We might express ‘being a Christian in my heart’ as being perfectly in tune with Christ Jesus.
If we are to pray this prayer, indeed in a sense if we are to pray meaningfully at all we need to understand at some level the roots of the deep longing which that desire to ‘be a Christian’ in my heart – why is it there? Why for example do I find that song resonates, if not because I want to be a Christian, in my heart 🙂
St Augustine says these familiar words ‘You have made us for yourself, O lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’
Some of us have been unhelpfully trained in ‘instant Salvation’ – but from the first this has no place in The Tradition. Paul, again.
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.
Sadly, too many Christians have gone astray, because they substitute a ‘Christian’ form of Paul’s confidence before meeting Jesus for Paul’s. The outcome is that their ongoing need of Christ becomes very vague. Something happened to me in the past. I might ask him for guidance on some life decision, but . . . Jesus is seen as central to the faith in some doctrinal manner, but not the living beating heart of all we say and do and are as Christians. And tragically this culture has produced Christians who are hesitant to name God, let alone Jesus. And many false Spiritualities grow up in which Christ is not central. Put simply this is a question of ‘When Peter stand up and full of the Holy Spirit says “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” What does he mean by ‘saved’?’
Unless we understand this, we cannot lay hold of the medicine of the Jesus Prayer. As one well educated Christian said to me recently ‘praying to Jesus that he might have mercy on us – well it sounds so negative – surely we’ve moved past that?’
But for all our ‘confidence’ still that song ‘I want to be a Christian, in my heart’ may well resonate. We hear the Great Command – the Word which brings us Life ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ And feel the gap between that and the reality expressed by that disarmingly honest Saint, Theresa
‘Lord I do not Love you, I do not even want to love you, but I do want to want to love you’ Theresa of Avilla
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”
This week, set aside say five minutes a day – find a quiet place and say the prayer over and again – with attention. Attention to Jesus, Attention to yourself.
Whilst this is a prayer one can pray all the time, if we are going to Resonate, we need to start gently and attentively. A ‘space’ in which to do this is helpful.
It is not recommended to go beyond this for now, especially if we are starting out
Next Week: Jesus and healing. Sin and Salvation. We do not know what we are doing
Recommended Reading : The Jesus Prayer. Frederica Mathewes-Green
I spoke of how the healing and peace I’d found on retreat had evaporated in my re-engagement with the digital milieu. This morning, reading the only blog I currently subscribe to, I found words to express what had been going on. Once more, Fr Stephen’s words were enlightening, but in this case very personally so. In particular I draw your attention to the ongoing discussion thread, where thee is much extra wisdom and help. The blog can be found HERE
It is the mental noise that I wish to leave behind – I find that the multiply distracting internet is in the main ‘noise’
“If we give ourselves over to the passions, these disordered sounds, thoughts and feelings, we simply yield ourselves to a lot of noise. A lot of the noise might be religious and spiritual, but it will always come back to frustration because it’s just noise and not the primary work of purification.”
Soon I shall return to where we left off – to consider the second disconnection my recent retreat offered me, disconnection from the Internet.
As we shall see, this was more than metaphor, and the gift of it was more than I could have imagned in terms of learning about myself and my relationship with God.
For now I share a little insight from the world of morticians told me by a good friend who is in the business.
When preparing a body for ‘viewing’ by family and friends, enbalmers take great care to notice those things that many of us would like to get rid of – signs of ‘aging’, wrinkles. But rather than calling them signs of aging, why not call them signs about our physical life.
This particular insight however is both an insight into physical life, and also our disconnection. Of using our bodies to escape from our surroundings. A New wrinkle has been identified. Not previously seen, below the chin at the top of the neck. It has been labelled ‘cell phone’ wrinkle. For it records the repetitive looking down at our cell phones.
We are our bodies – they even tell us when we are trying to escape them.
‘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 . . .