Sunday, February 14, 2016

Lent 1 C sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist

I wonder if you've noticed how often the life of faith seems to be lived aboard a roller-coaster. You attend a service where God's presence is so evident that you feel sure that the whole world will look different forever – then go outside to discover that you have a flat tyre...
You go on retreat and encounter God in a new way, then return home and pick up the threads of a long-standing family disagreement as if nothing had happened.
A Warden in my curacy parish used to describe the process like this
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit...” is ALWAYS followed by “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be”.
In other words, - those mountaintop experiences that we thought about last week are often followed by something that brings us down to earth with a bump, reminding us that we are, each and every one of us, very much works in progress...that we may manage two steps forward, but there will often be one step back.

I wonder if that's how it seemed for Jesus. In the previous chapter, Luke tells us of his baptism, of the Spirit descending upon him and that wonderful voice, speaking directly to him
You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”.
Now, he leaves the Jordan behind him and goes into the wilderness.

It's interesting that whereas Matthew tells us that the Spirit led Jesus inTO the wilderness, providing the motivation for this journey, Luke sees it rather differently.

Jesus was led by the Spirit in the wilderness he says.

In other words...the Spirit was there throughout the whole experience, not just at the start.

That's something we need to remember. The wilderness – a landscape of disorientation,loneliness,and deprivation – is nonetheless a place where God's Spirit is present and active.

That may not be the way it felt to Jesus for those 40 days as he fasted and struggled...but though he was famished, empty – he was FULL of the Holy Spirit...the Spirit who never left him, even for a moment.

Standing, as we do, outside the gospel story we might assume that Jesus always knew what would happen – but surely as he emptied himself of his divinity to become fully human, Jesus also emptied himself of divine foreknowledge. His wilderness experience was REAL for him – not something manufactured as a teaching point for us...
But against all expectation, that place of deprivation and loneliness became a place of self-discovery and of blessing – for Jesus and for us too.

Each of the temptations offered him were temptations to be LESS than his true self and so we are shown Jesus wrestling with what shape his ministry will take. The tempter is crafty. This isn't about chocolate or single malt or an expensive sports car but something far more important...howJesus will inspire people to follow, and engage with building the Kingdom.
Will he go for the quick fix and the easy win?...And will it really matter if he does?

It sounds so innocent, really.
IF you are the Son of God – command this stone to become a loaf”
Well, why not indeed?
What harm could it do.
He was famished, after all. 40 days is a long time to fast.
After all, God once provided manna for his people in the wilderness...and Jesus could surely do the same – but to do so now would be to step outside the limitations of his humanity, just for his own benefit.
And so he will have none of it.

You see, I think that's the nub of it all.
To do something just for his own benefit would be to compromise the heart of his ministry and of his identity.
To value oneself above anything else is the root and ground of all genuine temptation – and surely one of the strongest voices in society today.
We're encouraged to see ourselves as privileged consumers, to focus on our own rights, to delight in having free choice in most things, even where and how we worship God.
It's disturbingly easy, as you look at 21st century western culture, to believe that life really IS all about ME, that I am indeed the centre of the universe I'm thankful that Jesus met this head on.
Not for him “Because I'm worth it...”
Rather in his steadfast insistence that
We do not live by bread alone” Jesus reminds us that getting what you want may not be the best thing for you...even if what you want is in no way bad in itself. There are other things that matter more.
Readers are expected to hear the rest of the words that Jesus leaves unspoken, recalling that gift of manna described in Deuteronomy 8
He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.[a]
This experience, then, is about humilty and about dependence on God....We are creatures made to exist in relationship – above all in relationship to God, whose word shapes our lives.

So far, so good.

Jesus stays true to himself but next comes the temptation of power, an easy route to victory – all gain with no pain. To yield would mean Jesus ruling the world – but enthralled to Satan and thus so much less than himself.

Later Jesus would show all times and all people that God's power is made perfect in weakness, - for the greatest moment of his glory was when he was lifted on the cross, in powerless vulnerability. I don't think Satan understands that kind of power – not then, not ever.
For now Jesus simply asserts that all worship belongs to God...worship offered elsewhere is meaningless and empty – for worship is all about putting things in their proper order..
God first.

Finally he's encouraged to make God PROVE that he cares.
Go on.....jump....He'll save you if you're THAT special”
I know I fall into this one again and again....for despite all the evidence I find it hard to really believe that I am loved and worthy of salvation...while my head knows better, my heart continues to struggle from time to time with the outrageous grace of a God who cares enough to share our human life AND our human death...triumphantly demonstrating that there's nothing He won't do for us
Because you're worth it”
Jesus is the proof of God's love – not a needy recipient of it....and in this 3rd exchange we hear him coming into his own identiy. He is secure in the knowledge and love of God..and so the Scripture he speaks becomes in itself a declaration
Do not put the Lord your God to the test”
Yes, Jesus is quoting once again...but as he rejects the idea of tempting God he is also sending the tempter packing...routing him from his work of tempting God made man in Christ.
So through these temptations Jesus discovers his true identity and the course he is to take.He reveals something of the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit, which is founded on unconditional, unwaveriing love. The Spirit leads Jesus in the wilderness, because the Spirit leads him everywhere.

Great. As one friend put it in her sermon on this passage “Bully for Jesus. He's filled with the Spirit, never alone...but what about us?”

What help is it for us that he was tempted? What difference will it make when we enter the desert places of our own lives, when we feel ourselves deserted...

Actually, you know, the same holds good.
We are never alone....and those wilderness experiences, those times of desolation, are also the times when we have room to grow, and to discover both the truth of who we are and the wonder that God knows that and loves us all the same.

Our temptations are important in helping us to recognise the flaws and weaknesses, the engrained distortions of reality that we barely notice any more. In the wilderness, there is less going on around us – more chance to notice what is going on inside. Our temptations may, like those we've heard about today, attract us at first because they seem to be routes to a greater good...but in fact they are byways, leading nowhere.

During Lent, we are each of us invited to spend time considering both who we are and who God calls us to be. That's the point of it all.
We go into our own wilderness to seek God in the silence of a less cluttered landscape.
For in these forty days you lead us into the desert of repentance, that through a pilgrimage of prayer and discipline we may grow in grace and learn to be your people once again”

To learn to be God's people.
That's our core purpose...the reason we are here...not just here in the Wilderness, but here on this earth at all...and so the wilderness experience is something to be welcomed and cherished. You see, we can be confident that even in those apparently unfriendly surroundings the Spirit is present, leading us, helping us to strip away the small props and luxuries that we've come to rely on, enabling us to increase our conscious dependence on Him.

The wilderness is the place where we recognise who we are, our own particular temptations, and face them head on, so that we might come to a deeper understanding of our own nature.
It's also a perfect place to meet with God.
It's quiet out there – a good place to spend this time listening.
Listen to the voice of your ego, the one that insists
Go on.......because your worth it” and in listening come to a greater understanding of your own struggles and difficulties.
But having listened to yourself, listen even harder to the still small voice of God.
Expect to hear Him – and pay attention to his transforming words of love.

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