A sermon based on the reading set for the first Sunday of Lent. Matthew 4 1-11
A cultural desert, I feel deserted, the desert is barren, it’s a wilderness out there. I like words and I enjoy thinking about what words we put together and what words sound like each other. We don’t have many positive associations with either of the words desert or wilderness. But I love the desert.
People often ask me why I travel to the Holy Lands so often, there are a number of noble answers I can give you but one of the most truthful is that I love the landscape the desert landscape that surrounds the towns and villages of the Bible. The space, the emptiness, the quiet and the broad horizons bring me peace. The stony ground, the dryness and the sharp edges probably reflect my heart and soul!. Last summer I spent four days on a desert retreat in the Negev, it was a time of restoration and healing. A time to see the greatness of God in nature, the splendour of creation revealed in stars, oasis, the dramatic edges of rock formation’s – including one known as Lot’s wife, and freedom from the constant demands of having mobile data or wifi.
The Irish poet and theologian Padraig O’Tuama claims there is a recurring question Jesus asks his disciples and continue to ask us running throughout the Gospels: will you choose life in the wilderness or death in the city.
This may seem counter-intuitive. We visualise the desert as a place of death and it certainly is a place of danger. Even when I was there I had the odd moment when it felt unsafe – one evening I was happily sipping my Earl Grey tea and gazing at the sky when I was urged to stand up immediately and shake my clothes – a guide had seen a scorpion run over my mat. He was always keen to make sure there was fire burning wherever we stopped – not for warmth but for safety.
We know there is not much to eat in the desert and in the summer water is certainly in short supply. Its an isolated place and far removed from the healthcare, supermarkets, policing and infrastructure that we believe keep us safe in the city.
But the city as I think Padraig understood it has too many temptations for our souls to stay alive. We are forced to conform to stay successful, our focus becomes limited to our success in terms of wealth and status, we are disconnected from the land and creation, we are limited by walls either literally or metaphorically and we are subject to the power of institutions and lawmakers. Without time in the wilderness we do not have the strength to live as children of God, our distinctiveness is eroded and our stories overwhelmed.
In the desert we are driven to hear a different story. We become acutely aware of our internal drivers. Our physical needs – that might tempt us to turn bread into stones, our emotional need for connection, security and specialness, that might tempt us to test God and our psychological need for power, recognition and validation – that might tempt us to seek the adoration and worship of others. Jesus can resist these temptations because he knows the stories of the people of God, the people who wandered in the desert for 40 years, being formed, tested and refined. His imagination was shaped by the story of a God who sets people free, who guides, who comforts and provides.
The writer Ben Okri says: ‘Stories, are the secret reservoir of values: change the stories individuals and nations live by and tell themselves and you change the individuals and nations.’ For me an important Lenten discipline is to listen to the stories I tell, the stories I hear, the stories I repeat and see if they are reflecting the values I choose to live by. It might also be a time to listen to the stories our nation tells itself and think if there is any small way we can start to change the narrative or begin narratives the challenge the dominant stories.
Lent also seems to me to be a time to rehearse or practice for the times when we really need to exercise our spiritual muscles of discernment, dependency on God, faith and courage. There may be crunch times in our lives when we are called to set aside our physical, emotional and psychological needs to step out into something new and challenging or stand against the powers of evil manifest in political systems, corporations and institutions. As Jesus approached his death on the cross – he faced again the same temptations as he faced in the desert. He was offered wine to meet his physical need for drink but he refuses it, the men beating Jesus taunt him to prophesy but he refuses to use his divine power for magic tricks and the passers-by urge him to save himself from the cross but again he refuses, knowing that as tempting as miraculous short-cut might be, it will not serve God’s purposes for the universe.
We never know when we might be asked to risk our own comfort in order to confront evil or stand up for the oppressed. We know that is what saints do and we know it is a part of our discipleship but unless we have rehearsed in the desert, in solitude and prayer, we will not know how to respond and we will walk away or miss the moment – joining the crowds and townspeople in unthinking conformity and apathy.
When we pray the prayer Jesus taught us we ask not to be led into temptation and to be delivered from evil. You are delivered from something not by avoiding it but by going through it – think of childbirth. We are led into temptation when we fail to realise that we are prioritising our own comfort, avoiding risk, taking shortcuts for our own benefit and thus becoming tangled in the demands, priorities and values of the town. We can only see that in the wilderness. The wilderness of silence, of solitude, or self-awareness. The wilderness where we eat the bread and drink the wine that nourishes our soul and reminds us of lives that are broken and poured out for others. The wilderness where we deliberately tame our need for constant attention, consumption and security to experience what it means to be dependent on God.
Some of us this lent will be in a wilderness, not because we have chosen it but because that is where life has led us. Some us are creating our own space to see ourselves more clearly as we practice Lenten disciplines. However you got there, my prayer for you is that you find God there as you have time and space to see yourself with fresh eyes, to hear the stories of God’s love for God’s people and to prepare yourself to discern God’s call to you to dance with the Holy Spirit in the broken, forgotten and exploited corners of the world.