Notes from the Sermon by Becky Reeve on the 1st March 2020 to celebrate the first Sunday in Lent
May my words speak your truth and be a blessing to your people.
It is so tempting to see Lent in the same light as our New Year resolutions, a chance to find something about ourselves which we think falls short and to use Lent as a chance to improve it. Taking our cue from the old monastic fast patterns we dutifully give up chocolate, or alcohol, or swearing. Of late there has been the fashion to pick something up for Lent rather than giving it up, with the encouragement to exercise more, give more to charity or read improving books. What I suggest though is that both approaches miss the point of what Lent is for and what it is really calling us to.
The danger of engaging with Lent as we often do is that the season becomes some kind of personal improvement project, to make a new improved version of ourselves with added or reduced features. To stage-manage ourselves into being a more holy/ more ethical/ more sustainable version of ourselves. A better Christian product. But these are products of our own making and our own design. A product ripped from the tree of knowledge before it is ripe and ready.
In both our readings today we encounter the temptation to see ourselves as products to be extended; one reading where the temptation is resisted and one where it is not. Both readings riff on the temptation to be perfect- to aspire to be more than we actually are- to attain through foul means that which we think will make us whole and our lives complete. To refuse the role of humanity which is to be incomplete and dependent. Because if there is one thing which makes us human, it is surely that we are provisional beings, always needing to be in relationship with God in order to find completion. In the Genesis reading we see the voice of the tempter lure Eve to contemplate a life of perfection, being, like God, a complete being. This episode reminds us of how attractive our fantasies of perfection can be – ‘good food and a delight to the eyes’ as Genesis puts it. But we know how that story ended up….. In the wilderness Jesus was also tempted with things which seem good- the ability to feed himself and others, definitive knowledge of God’s care -and worldly power. Jesus, however, modelled the correct response to the temptation to work to improve ourselves as a project separate from God, giving 3 instructions for how to live: ‘by every word that comes from the mouth of God’, ‘not putting God to the test but worshipping’ and ‘serving him’. It is not God that Jesus puts to the test, but Jesus himself, allowing himself to be tempted and vulnerable, and in the process gaining true knowledge which he has struggled for rather than off the peg answers.
There is nothing wrong with knowledge. There is nothing wrong with study and intellectual pursuits. But one of the many things these passages tell us is that there is no short cut to wisdom. Anything that is truly worth knowing cannot be picked up off a shelf, or off a tree. It is only by struggling with knowledge, by facing down trials, like Jesus in the wilderness, that we can come to a place of true knowledge, which goes beyond the superficial and which is rooted deep in our souls, even if the trials happen solely within our own hearts and minds. As TS Eliot puts it, ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’
In refusing Satan’s temptations to improve his external holiness credentials Jesus categorically resists a functionalist approach to character, which always craves bigger and better. Jesus recognises that his limitations are not flaws, but the shape of his humanity, as a created child of God. We find it so hard to believe this- that we are loved as we are without needing to improve ourselves and iron out our dodgy bits. Without proving our worth and earning God’s grace. We have created a narrative of Original Sin which portrays us as inherently flawed and needing fixing, but this is not the story Jesus tells us about ourselves. In Lent we start to face towards the cross, the stage Jesus used to tell us the story of how much he loves us, and how God will stop at nothing to bring us back to him and show us his love. How much he loves us already, before we have done any improvement projects. The stories God tells are always better than the stories we tell.
I challenge you this Lent to sit with yourselves neither adding nor subtracting. The real question of Lent is not what we want to change about ourselves but what we want to learn. Deep learning, which can only be drawn out over many days, like Jesus in his 40 days in the wilderness. You don’t need any resources for this, any Lent books, or diet plans, or special practices. In the words of the Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse: ‘To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all-seeing, within you.’ Similarly Isaac the Syrian taught that the way to God is through our heart saying ‘Try to enter the treasure chamber that is within you and then you will discover the treasure chamber of heaven. ..The ladder to this kingdom is hidden inside you, in your soul.’
You are a child of God, built of the DNA of God’s universe. You need nothing more. Sit with the God that is in your depths and allow him to bring you back to being what you were created to be. Perfection is not something beyond ourselves to anxiously chase or to work towards, it is something we find in embracing the God who is waiting for us, the one who is as close as our heartbeat. Jesus knew this and it is what drove him into the desert to meet with his God and to face his doubts and limitations. It was only after this desert time that he launched into his ministry of healing and teaching. The wilderness created the silence which was needed to go deep.
It is only by giving up the striving to be better, more spiritual versions of ourselves through our own efforts, and relaxing into the knowledge that Jesus’s death is the final full stop to the statement of God’s unalterable, unflinching, unshockable love for us, that we can grow into the people we are called to be. As St Irenaeus said in the 2nd century- ‘The glory of God is a human being, fully alive’. Not powerful maybe, or infallible or even wholly good, but glorious none the less. The people who will actually be God’s hands and presence in this world. Not because we have made a personal commitment to grit our teeth and make ourselves do it for the next 40 days, but because we are beginning to live a different way- the way where our will is aligned to the will of our father, who wants only good things for us and who knows us better than we know ourselves. And so we come back to where we started- back before the fall- however you conceptualise that, to a state of grace with God- the ground of our being. …. So, if you must give something up this Lent, give up the voice which tells you that you must be more or better. And take up God’s invitation to rest in his love and to let it draw you back to being the person he made you to be. And that is good enough for anyone.
Just before I finish, let us take a moment of quiet to start a Lenten journey within, to meet with the God who is waiting for us deep in the silence of our hearts.
(light candle) Taste and see that the Lord is good………
May the Spirit lead us this Lent by unknown paths into the tombs of our hearts, and in the dark, hidden places may we be born again in you. May we too burst from the tomb, radiating the light of your indwelling.