Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Fasting, repentance, discipline, self-denial, not giving in to temptation: the things with which we have traditionally associated Lent can sometimes convey a rather joyless religion, a cramping of the human spirit, and a condemnation of pleasure. Historically, we know rather too much of the destructive effects of those brands of religion that induce guilt, or images of a God of severe judgement and insatiable moral demands – a God who seems to be more about applying the shackles and piling on the agony instead of a God who shares our humanness with us – warts and all – and who actually offers us liberation.
Although I sometimes think Lent has been used (perhaps abused) to make us feel negative about ourselves, I don’t think we should seek to run away from the challenges its traditional themes set before us. A religion in which anything goes, or a sentimental religion of constant sunshine and no demands surely has no cutting edge. It fails to speak to the reality of the human condition. Yes, there are times in life when everything is wonderful, God is in heaven and all seems right with the world. However, and I guess for some of us this applies more of the time, the reality is the often testing, and sometimes dark and painful struggle with the demands that life makes upon us, or that circumstances force upon us – the ‘time of trial’, from which the Lord’s Prayer asks that we might be delivered. These might well be termed our ‘wilderness moments’, and we often wonder if we will come out of them intact or, indeed, if we will come out of them at all.
The temptation story in Matthew carries some important symbolism. The three ‘episodes’ – seeking food, testing God and worshipping a false god – recall the Hebrews’ wanderings in the wilderness. They cried for bread and received manna; they tested God, and Moses struck the rock twice to give water; and they worshipped a golden calf Aaron had made. Matthew’s roots are in the Hebrew Scriptures and I guess his main point is that the people succumbed, while Jesus resisted. Jesus is, therefore, the fulfilment of the scriptures. When we are told that Jesus was ‘tempted’ in the desert, the word in Greek is the same as ‘tried’. Matthew’s gospel account that we have just read indicates that, for Jesus, this time of trial was also a time of self-discovery. It comes immediately after the story of his baptism by John, at which, we are told, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased,’ confirmation of Jesus’ unique role. And it is followed by the call of the disciples and the beginning of his public ministry, so this was clearly a pivotal moment for him.
But what about us? It is in the wilderness period of Lent that the church calendar provides us with an opportunity to engage in a process of self-discovery. For a while, at least, we can heed the advice of one of my favourite poets, R.S. Thomas, who wrote that ‘The best journey to make is inward.’ While we have the promise of Easter somewhere in our thinking, the festival itself is still some way off. In the meantime, we need to have the courage to stay with the wilderness, difficult though it may be. The starkness of the wilderness gives us the opportunity to take a long, hard look at ourselves; its silence lets us hear our own inner voice – and, who knows, maybe a voice from heaven, too. For a while, we are uncluttered by the busy-ness we often use as an excuse, a distraction or a mask to hide behind. Perhaps I should add a cautionary note, though. There is a risk that inward journeys may well begin and end inwardly. Lent is by no means a time for self-absorption and wallowing, but rather a process of self-discovery, or, in Christian terms, of discovering what God may be asking of us or calling us towards. And, as we know, the Christian faith urges us to look outwards to our neighbours, not just inwards to ourselves.
Now, we inhabit a very different culture from that in which Jesus lived. In the desert, he would have been acutely aware of concepts like a personified devil, potentially malevolent powers, and the ministry of angels. Our context is also different from that in which the early church developed: Lent was widely regarded as a time for imitating Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, a time for confronting the demons, and for spiritual battle. That is why so many Christians left the urban areas and went off to live in the desert; for they believed that there the hidden forces of evil could be unmasked and overcome in spiritual conflict. These ideas may be quite alien for many of us today, but it doesn’t take too much of a leap of imagination to find modern parallels. I was reminded powerfully of that by two recent cinema visits: Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea (highly recommended). Both portray difficult journeys through wildernesses of one kind or another. They pull no punches with regard to human pain and fragmentation, but they also include moments of reconciliation and healing. We still sometimes use the language of needing to confront our own demons, don’t we? In a sense, whether they are literal or metaphorical is beside the point.
So, where are the desert places of your life at the start of Lent 2017? What weighs you down? What are you struggling with? What challenges and trials do you have to face up to? What demons might currently hold too much of a claim on your life, and what potential is being neglected because of them? Where do you find meaning and purpose? How do you cope with those moments when life seems futile, or the way forward is unclear, when you feel empty inside and God seems far away? I realise some people make a conscious decision to go into the wilderness to try to clarify things. Many more of us, I suspect, avoid going there because things might be clarified a bit too much. If we go there at all, it is less to do with our willingness, and more because we find ourselves taken there, or deposited there by events. The story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, full of theological symbolism, is a powerful reminder of his essential humanity. Here, he contends with similar forces, issues and feelings we must also contend with: the lure of possessions; making ourselves the centre of our universe; playing God and the desire for power and authority. Perhaps, in some ways, not that much has changed…..
This gospel story, with its three powerful images of facing up to life’s trials, has so much contemporary relevance. The fact that Jesus confronts them head-on, reconciles the issues within himself, and thereby comes to see the way forward, surely encourages us to be honest with ourselves, to face up to our own challenges with courage, and to find our own reconciliation with life’s realities and God’s call to us. In the case of Jesus, the wilderness experience produced results not only in terms of his own understanding of his role, but how that role impacted on the rest of his own life and that of his contemporaries, and went on to affect the whole of human history. Our own sphere of influence may not be quite that expansive, but we all affect the particular place and time we inhabit, and those we share it with. Jesus’ experience demonstrates why this time in the wilderness – while it may prove uncomfortable, costly, and sometimes even painful is, nonetheless, so crucial. It is in facing up to what we are that we stand a chance of discovering what we may become. And remember – the Christian story does not end in the wilderness.