Sermon for Lent 1 – 2013 – Year C
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
‘that we may receive mercy and find grace in time of need . . .’
Just this week I heard the story of a man who was in some dire circumstances in his life and went in search of help to a monastery. As is the custom, he was given a director for his time of retreat and he poured out all his problems to the monk, but the monk didn’t respond to them, instead he told him to spend the day meditating on a portion of scripture. Well the man went to his room and for the whole day meditated on the scripture – but nothing came, nothing happened.
The next morning her returned to the monk and told him and started to tell him all his problems again, after all THAT was what he wanted sorting out, but again the monk didn’t respond to anything the man had sent, and gave him a passage from scripture to meditate on – the same one. So again, the man went away and spent another day with this passage – and it was like a brick wall to him – it wasn’t giving him answers – it wasn’t solving his problem. Well the third morning he goes back to the director and the same thing happens, he tries to pour it all out to this monk who doesn’t seem to be interested in him and his problems and again the monk gives him the same passage of scripture, and about half way through the day, God broke through.
What this story illustrates is how distracted we are, how consumed with ourselves -the man was so tied up listening to his story and rehearsing it over and over again, it took God two and a half days to get through to him. And in many ways, distraction is the root of our problems. This past week I have been on retreat. Seven days ‘Away from it all!!’ Sounds wonderful doesn’t it. Seven days when you can leave everything behind and just concentrate on God . . . Well you only need to go away from everything else – all those things that you think are getting in the way of your relationship with God, to understand that they follow you – you carry them around with you. That the problem you have Isn’t with all those people and situations – it is the problem of your heart, that wants to pay attention to anything, rather than to God.
Put yourself in the situation of that man at the monastery – I wonder – could we meditate on a short passage of scripture for an hour, even . . . he has to sit with it for two and a half days, so distracted is he. The problem isn’t that the scriptures are unclear, it is that we are deaf ad blind and we need healing, we need the distractions stripped away. We don’t know how distracted we are from God, until God is all we have
Way back, in the Garden, the snake employs just this technique. The MAn and the Woman had their attention on God, and like a conjourer, the snake distracts them, and all of a sudden God has disappeared – Here ‘look at this tree, look how good the fruit is to eat, don’t pay attention to God . . . and they look at the tree’. And distracted, they forget whose children they are, they forget what the source of their life is . . . And here is the tragedy – we forget who we are – this is why we sin. We forget whose children we are.
And so we come to the season of Lent – it is a time when we follow Jesus into the wilderness – it is a time of preparing ourselves for Easter, and there is only one way we can do that, by dying to our selves – by refusing to make ourselves and our endless stories about our lives the centre of everything. And Lent to be properly observed needs to have Wilderness space in it – Empty space – Space where you are just left with yourself, without distractions – place where we discover that in general we have ordered the universe around ourselves not God
Jesus full of the Spirit, returned from the Jordan, returned from his baptism where God had declared him to be his Son and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil for forty days. Tempted, tested – had that word from heaven, had that sense of who he was, had it sunk into the very fibre of his being? – or was it just another thought – ready to be blown away. Everyone of the temptations a distraction from the Life of God his Father. – Everyone of the temptations to deny God – to deny who he was, cleverly dressed up as an opportunity to prove who he was, to make himself the centre of the story.
he was famished, and the devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God . . . an invitation not to faith but to doubt . . . command this stone to become a loaf of bread’ As Alexander Schmemann notes – the temptation involves food, just like the apple in the garden of Eden – food is a great distraction. We even eat to avoid things. Unlike Adam and Eve of course, Jesus is famished – they are so much more like us – they have Everything they could possibly need. Jesus is alone, with no food, and here he reveals how it is God, not the food that is the true source of his life. God my Father is the provider . . . I rest in his provision.
I am reminded here of the challenging words of Jesus in John’s gospel, my food is to do the will of the one who sent me – my life is found in humble obedience to my father, he will provide all I need. I wonder if we know what it is to feed on doing the will of God?
Again Satan comes to him – Shows him . . . how easily we are distracted by what we see . . . shows him all the kingdoms of the world . . . ‘Just worship me and you can do whatever you want!’ ‘If I ruled the world, every day would be the first day of spring . . . If I was the king of the Jungle, I tell you we’d have this place sorted out in no time . . . how easily we think to ourselves that God doesn’t know what he is doing – how readily we seek to assume command . . . all this will be yours – turn your attention from God at the centre and then you will be able to put everything right – the Central delusion of modern life in a secular age – we can fix it
all you have to do . . . note how each of the temptations is carefully crafted – just turn the stones into bread, just worship me, just throw yourself down – the consequences hidden – just eat the fruit of the tree – you have everything to gain – the losses carefully hidden. The gain seems so great, the disobedience so small – after all you are Very hungry, after all surely to rule all things is what its about, after all it would be worth it, just to check that God’s word was sure, no? Just a little test??
This is the very nature of sin, small subtle distractions from God – generally none of us face temptations to commit adultery or murder or steal of go to court and lie about our neighbours – rather we’re just distracted – and gradually we are led deeper and deeper into the woods and then wonder – where is God. We’re distracted by what’s going on around us – all those people who are making our lives difficult, we’re distracted by things – and carefully we listen to those little rationalisations – after all, surely it can’t do any harm. NOt realising that we’re profoundly lost, we try and follow the most convenient track – This must be the way . . .
Of course we could then go out paranoid into the world, trying desperately to avoid all these tiny sins – another distraction – distraction from God.
Lent is a time not to try desperately live good lives, looking at the myriad possibilities to sin and fighting to avoid them – but rather a time to clear away distractions – to turn to God in faith. Faith at its simplest is this – to attend to God, to live in attentiveness to God. Jesus is tested, but his attention is on God. This is why prayer is the essence of faith – to pray continually as St Paul says, is to live in faith, with our eyes upon God in Christ. And down thorugh the years the church has called us to three disciplines of attentiveness in Lent. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving
Prayer first – the essential discipline. Just try sit in the silence in the presence of God, try to attend to God for an hour, and all of a sudden you will understand why you need to pray. Oh it sounds like heaven! But within a minute, this distraction or that comes flooding in and you relaise ten minutes later that you’ve been thinking about the shopping, or those people who are giving you a hard time, you haven’t been paying any attention to God. So for Forty days we are called to a special discipline of prayer – in large part that we might realise how much we need to pray. That we are actually permanently mentally distracted
Then Fasting. Here we learn what really drives us – Food is the most basic of our physical needs. And if we do fast, then we rapidly become aware of how controlled we are by it – and we realise that its not just our minds – our bodies are screaming for attention to and we realise how often we live unthinkingly in response to our physical needs – that our lives really aren’t as controlled by the love of God as we had fondly imagined
Then Almsgiving – always a thorny one. John Wesley’s dictum . . . if you want to be free of the power of money, give it away! It is often said the last part of a man to be converted is his wallet – I have to say I don’t know if it also applies to a woman 🙂 I know few if any people who believe they are no controlled by their financial security – few who belive the words of Jesus, that it is a straight choice – we don’t control money, it controls us. The voice of the snake . . . doesn’t scripture say that you should provide for the needs of your family, you will need a pension and all those sort of things – you can’t really expect God to provide for your needs . . . or more subtly, well of course God has given you all this money precisely as a sign of his care for you . . . Seriously if truly it IS God who has given you your wealth and it wasn’t your anxious hoarding that has accumulated it – your anxiety laden attempt to secure yourself against the future – if God really has given you it – then it is for one purpose – that you might be a blessing to others
Well that is a fairly negative look at the three disciplines – the painful angle if you like – but as the verse at the outset reminded us – we find mercy and grace in our time of need from Christ. Mercy, severe mercy at times in his exposing what is really controlling us – but also Grace. If we follow in his path – in prayer we grow into a deeper and deeper apprehension that we are his children – the more we want to attend to Him, to listen for His voice. Fasting teaches us dependence on God – note how that sounds negative!! All he has is dependence on God – but THIS is to be fully ALIVE!!!! And when we learn that God our father really DOES provide, then we are set free in generous love – we attend to God in prayer – through fasting we learn the Joy of dependence upon him ad so enter deeper into his life of GEnerosity – more and more we remember who we are, that we are his children and that attention to him and dependence upon him and imitation of him is the most natural thing.
But none of this comes from us – it is only possible because there is one who Lives – one who has conquered death and sin, one whose life means that actually we don’t have to be distracted. Jesus goes into the desert to be tested – has his identity as the Son of his heavenly father taken root in his heart, and he emerges triumphant for he lives out of complete dependence upon God. God will provide, I will worship God, I have no need to test him – who could doubt the father’s love?
And so he is obedient even to death on a cross – for he entrusts himself to the one who even raises the dead – and so becomes the source of life and light to all who trust in him – who turn from their distractions, who repent – who attend to him and walk in faith. MAy God grant to us all a Holy Lent, and may we all grow in grace in the footsteps of Christ.