Sunday, 21 February 2010

Sermon - Lent 1

Reading: Luke 4:1-13 (Jesus in the wilderness)

What are you giving up for lent? Anyone giving up chocolate? How about alcohol?

I don’t know whether this is your experience, but sometimes when I meet ‘proper’ Christians they look down on me with derision when they find out that I give things up for lent. Some of my friends belong to the free church tradition where observing the church year is suspicious, a hang over from the worst of Catholicism perhaps. Every day is equally Christmas and Good Friday and Easter for surely these events have happened and are therefore in our consciousness, we don’t have to recreate the events… Yet, for me, limited as I am, I can’t keep all these things in my mind at one time, I find it helpful to observe the church year, to identify with Jesus in the different events of his life. And the 40 days of lent mark the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted, as we read about in today’s passage. For me, how do I experience temptation at this time unless I give something up that I want and normally partake in?

Other people tell me rather proudly that they don’t give up for lent, they take up.. and so extra groups appear to study the bible, more time is spent in doing good deeds, more money is given away and by the time I have been told about all the extra wonderful endeavour that is being done, my giving up chocolate feels rather poultry and I feel like a primary school child who has been out done by a grown up…

However, in my defence, I think that the greatest temptation in our lives is business.. in the business we squeeze out every chance that God might speak to us, we squeeze out the ability to hear the inner voice within us and hear our desires… during Lent I try, just a little bit, to reduce the number of things that are to be done.. I try to enter into the stillness and the barrenness of the wilderness..

The Bible is full of references to the desert or the wilderness, and it is clear that God draws his people into the desert to teach them, the desert being either physical or metaphoric:

  • Elijah has a desert experience - after Jezebel threatens him, he flees: ‘But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”’ [1 Kings 19:4 NRSV] After this he is fed by an angel and meets God in the still, small voice.

  • God speaks to Hosea and says of Israel ‘Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.’ [Hosea 2:14 NRSV]

  • John the Baptist preaches repentance in the wilderness: ‘the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. [Luke 3:2b – 4 NRSV]

  • And we read that Jesus himself spent time in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry: ‘Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.’ [Matthew 4:1 – 2 NRSV] Throughout His ministry he chose to be alone: ‘But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.’ [Luke 5:16 NRSV]

Moses, however, was the best example of one acquainted with the desert. He not only spent forty years in the wilderness himself tending flocks, but then he spent a further forty years leading a group of grumbling Hebrews in the desert [Acts 7:30 and 36]. After he had spent time in the desert himself, he was an experienced guide to lead the Hebrew people, knowing every spring and wadi between Egypt and the Promised Land. The doxology at the end of Deuteronomy pays tribute to Moses, a man shaped by his life in the desert: ‘Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face’ [Deuteronomy 34:6].

Moses must have spent much of his time in silence and solitude, wandering in the desert with his flocks. He had left his life in Egypt far behind, and his life was free from distractions. He was a man who would have had long hours to consider the murder he had committed and was eventually described as the most humble man who lived on the earth [Num12:3]. Henri Nouwen says:

‘What becomes visible here is that solitude molds self-righteous people into gentle, caring, forgiving persons who are so deeply convinced of their own great sinfulness and so fully aware of God’s even greater mercy that their life itself becomes ministry.’

Moses noticed the burning bush and took the trouble to turn aside and take a good look.  In a book I read by a man called Buckingham it says that the ‘tragedy of our wilderness experience is not that we have to go through grief and suffering, but that we often miss the blessings from burning bushes – the things through which God speaks.’ Moses is sufficiently open to God to hear his call to free the Hebrews.

And there is a spirituality dedicated to the desert

Initially, the ascetic movement consisted of hermits, but some of these hermits became teachers and attracted a following. In Egypt, by 400 AD, there were three types of monastic experience
        groups of brothers united in work and prayer,
        and monks gathered around a spiritual leader, or ‘abba’.
The ‘abbas’ or ‘desert fathers’, through their words and example, left a legacy of wise sayings that form a unique literary genre.

My favourite story is this one..

A young disciple had heard of a great and wise Abba who lived at the top of a mountain in a cave. He trekked up the mountain to see the Abba and when he got there the wise man motioned for him to sit down. The young man sat with great expectancy to hear the words of the Abba. For an hour they sat in silence, the young man desperate to have some reward for his long and arduous trek. Another hour passed and another and the man started to fret that he wouldn’t receive any wisdom before he needed to trek back down. So he expressed his frustration to the old man.

The Abba stood up and in his cave he had very few belongings, but he did have a jug, full of water and a bowl. He set the bowl before the young man and poured in the water.
‘What can you see?’ asked the Abba
‘Muddy water’ replied the young man
Again the Abba fell silent and twenty minutes passed
‘Now what can you see?’ asked the Abba
‘I can see my reflection’ replied the young man.

The moral of the story is of course that it takes time in prayer before the sediment of the business of our lives falls away and we can see our reflection.

The desert people had common experiences; they left their lives behind, avoided distractions and possessed only the bare essentials. Contemplative prayer was at the heart of what they did, along with manual labour, and they found there was a huge interior struggle, it didn’t take long for the desert dweller to discover that the demons were within and to be engaged on the battleground of the soul.

This tradition of contemplative prayer continued, over the centuries, and Benedictine and Trappist Monks brought it to the West. From these roots, mystical spirituality developed, giving us ‘Centering Prayer’ in the 14th century, from a book called the Cloud of Unknowing.

A while back I recognised someone who is a man of prayer.. I have longed to have the stillness he has, longed to be able to pray like he does. He prays in private but you can see the fruits in his life.. Years ago, I decided that I would try to find out how he prays and he has taught me, but lately I have wanted to actually pray with him, using the method that he uses. Well, after a bit of badgering, the other day he let me pray with him.. and we spent an hour in prayer, mostly in silence. It was wonderful, and something I hope to grow in. Prayer is like anything else, we need to learn how to pray, it takes time and practise.. of course we can simply shoot up arrow prayers and children can pray.. but the sort of prayer that affects us and changes us takes time to learn and discipline to put into practice.

If you can, this Lent, reduce the number of things you are doing, and find some space to be tempted, find the inner demons, allow yourself to be uncomfortable, and find space to pray.

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