Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent
1st Mar 2020
The First Sunday of Lent Year A (2020)
Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Matthew 4.1
At the beginning of the Lenten season the Church helps us to we see the Christian Faith from a more searching and interrogating point of view. This is suggested as we are sent into the wilderness with Christ. Of course, here in London, we are thousands of miles away from the kind of sandy, rocky desert which Jesus inhabited. We should remember too, that in First Century Palestine, the desert was never very far away from the town. Even today it is amazing how soon on leaving the city of Jerusalem you meet the desert only as it were a few miles down the road. But for Jesus then and for us now, the idea of the desert place still worked on the human mind. It was seen as a place and an experience in which one might find clarity of thought and vision untrammelled by the distractions of town life, but equally it was a place of unremitting intensity and harshness. It was for all these reasons that in the life of the early Church, the so-called Desert Mothers and Fathers made their homes in caves and practised rigorous lives of prayer and self.-denial.
The desert offered a real challenge. For Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries, this challenge was inscribed in the people’s memory in the ancient search for The Promised Land, and of Moses leading the people through great travail to the place of final sanctuary. But before this, they understood that Moses entered Mount Sinai for forty days and nights before receiving the tablets of the Law. Jesus’ habitation of the wilderness over this forty day period, the period of Lent, is set alongside the Giving of the Law and begs the question of what kind of new law or provision does New Testament Scripture envisage?
The emphatic message of the Gospels is the one which has not denied the worth and truth of the Old Testament tradition. But it is plain on one basic point. This is that all Jewish scripture and its promise now receives its fulfilment in the One man, Jesus Christ, and in the manner of his whole being: his teaching, his actions, his example and above all in the God-givenness of his destiny. We come to know that his destiny will end in his freely going to his own death. So now, by these means, we come to understand Jesus temptations in the wilderness over a forty day period as a movement of divine love. Jesus’ ministry and destiny are not fixed but have to be worked out, and worked out very painfully. They must involve a desert experience as an extreme form of personal and spiritual testing. If Jesus is to be Christ the Saviour this testing must take him to the very limits of his own estimation of things and beyond them. There must be an engagement with the evil that may always assert itself on other side of the good. The acknowledgement, is made that even in the desert, there exists the light and the shadow component in the mind of Man. There is the need to understand these things and, acknowledging the burden that human freedom of choice often sets upon us, of the importance of coming to know the good and of deciding in its favour. In his respect we may see the temptations in the wilderness as establishing the right kind of moral frequency through which Christ overcomes the ancient divisions the threaten to divide and separate us.
The Temptation in the Wilderness also assumes the existence of the Devil. The Devil is no longer in the forefront of the Christian mind. It’s because people were wedded to the notion of the crudeness with which they were offered images of the devil, many of them stretching from the high medieval period in which punishment by devils were a commonly illustrated theme. The fear of hell-fire its companion piece. But the expunging of the idea of the Devil or of the existence of evil from consciousness leaves a vacant gap into which Christ’s ministry and work as defeating the devil is left unheeded. A full consciousness of the power of evil and of evil influence is essential for a balanced view of our world, where the simple analogy of light and its casting shadow allows us to see that as humans we want to see ourselves as people who wish good to prevail, but act very often with mixed motives. It is certain for Jesus that in order to enter the human condition as it is found, he must understand the nature of human frailty, and in the temptations by Satan, the recourse to self-aggrandisement, spiritual pride and self-will. Jesus has rejected these things in the wilderness but he will be accused of these things by the angry mob, under whose despising he will be condemned to die.
The Church has always wanted Christians to instruct themselves in the way of self-acknowledge. In doing this it observes the essentially divided nature of the human condition. But at the same time open up the possibility latent in the mercy and forgiveness of God through the honest recognition of our condition: The Prayer Book Confession expresses it well : “We have done those things which we ought not to have done and we have not done those things which we ought to have done and there is no health in us. But thou O God, have mercy upon us…” Jesus is in the wilderness to tell it like it is. To remind us that there is much to understand about the human condition in all its complexity and contradictoriness, but also much to understand and to forgive, both in ourselves and in those around us. The Christian grounding is the one which has studied these things and internalised them. That lives according to what has been called ‘the ground of our being’ and which can see life as containing both light and shadow.
Finally, The Wilderness Experience is the one which is seen as the preparation for Christ’s ministry. It is assumed that the world of men and women is that strange mixture of light and shadow. If the Christian faith is to provide that way of looking at the world which offers humankind ‘a way back’ to our created splendour, then Jesus Christ as the bringer of new healing must be the one who has encountered all the worst that the world can throw at him, and finally to have prevailed. In all this, we are being given a powerful reminder his morning that in Jesus we have a Saviour who has gone ahead of us to restore us into the image and likeness of God himself. We too, must follow where he has gone.
The words from ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’ John Henry Newman.
O wisest love! that flesh and blood,
Which did in Adam fail,
Should strive afresh against the foe,
Should strive and should prevail.