“Through fasting, prayer and acts of service you bring us back to your generous heart.”
So runs our Eucharistic prayer during Lent and that is something of a theme for us this Lent: generosity – God’s generosity first and foremost, but also ours. And, as usual on the first Sunday of Lent, we find ourselves in the desert. Jesus’ forty days in the desert, which is the subject of our Gospel reading today, is also the pattern for us on this Lenten journey.
The desert is a hard place for generosity. It appears to be barren and empty. In fact, the whole point of Jesus’ journey in the wilderness is usually depicted as a self-inflicted endurance test, deliberately harsh, self-flagellating and miserable. It can look as though he’s testing himself. Yet that could not be further from the truth. In fact it is, for Jesus, a time of joy, of purpose, of renewal and of generosity, and so it should be for us.
Firstly, joy. What is not immediately apparent when reading this Gospel passage out of context is that Jesus is driven by overwhelming joy. He has just been baptised and, on coming out of the Jordan, he has heard his father’s voice saying “You are my son, I love you and I’m pleased with you.” He’s just discovered himself! He’s spent 30 years searching for his vocation, having an inkling, perhaps, of his true identity, but never knowing for sure. Now, he knows – he is God’s son. Now he knows his father loves him – deeply. Now he learns that his father is pleased with him – just as he is. This flight into the desert is not Jesus testing himself. Quite the reverse! He’s learning that he doesn’t need to do anything to prove himself because already, right at the start of the story, before he’s performed any miracle or given any teaching, before the Cross and Resurrection have even appeared as a shadow on his horizon, his father is pleased with him. Just because of who he is. No need to prove it.
And this shows in the Devil’s tactics: he begins each temptation with the words “if you are the son of God…” He’s tempting him to doubt his father’s love. Don’t just take his love at face value, try and earn it. Don’t be content with who you are – do something to prove yourself. But Jesus knows he doesn’t have to. Far from being an endurance test, the desert is a time to lay aside all striving, all temptation to be self-made, and to bask in the truth that his Father loves him just for who he is. No need to prove yourself, no need to justify yourself, no need to be anything other than who you are. Just let God’s love sink deep into your soul. This is a time of joy and renewal, not a time of misery and endurance.
Secondly, this is a journey with purpose. For one thing, Jesus’ 40 days in the desert mirrors the 40 years Israel spent in the desert, journeying to the Promised Land. Jesus, as God’s Chosen One, is identifying himself with God’s Chosen People. It is a reminder that our spiritual lives are never solely about ‘me and God’, because to come to God is to become part of his people. It is why there can be no such thing as a solitary Christian and why the idea of being a Christian without being part of the Church is a complete anathema. Yes, you can embrace some Christian values by yourself, but you cannot follow Christ without journeying with his people. The journey into the wilderness might seem like a journey into solitary confinement, but in fact it is a journey into fellowship. As soon as we divest ourselves of our material possessions and our busyness, we find just how dependent we are on each other and why our place in this community matters so much. The desert is a place that looks empty, but is in fact full – full of people God is reconciling to himself and turning into a new family, each with a precious purpose.
It is also a journey with a purpose in that Jesus’s temptations overturn the mistakes of Adam and Eve. Where they took the forbidden fruit, Jesus refuses bread. Where they ran away from God, Jesus chooses to worship him, to adore him, to be in the closest possible relationship with him. And where they were ashamed of their nakedness, Jesus is content to be metaphorically naked before the world. Rather than presenting himself before the world as something self-made, he is content simply to be himself, even though they will crucify him for it, because to be God’s child is greater than anything this world might try to make you, or anything you might try to make of yourself.
And so it is also a place of renewal, a place to rediscover who you truly are. One of the delights in my 7 years here so far, has been to see people discovering their vocation after long years of searching. For some people it’s discovering that they were called to ordination, sometimes late in life. For others it’s discovering a calling to care for others, or to lead worship, or to engage in outreach or service. But above all, it is the discovery of who they truly are by discovering God’s love for themselves, not as an academic exercise or just random words coming out of the mouth of a preacher, but as something real for themselves. It is completely renewing – like falling in love, but somehow even deeper. It is the discovery of who you are and what your purpose in life is – the discovery that you are God’s child, that he loves you and that he’s pleased with you. And so you too embark on a journey of purpose.
And it is also a journey of generosity. The desert looks like a bleak place, a place of nothingness, a place where you might be anxious about your next meal, your next drink, a place of crushing loneliness and a place where you are in danger of annihilation. Each of these fears the Devil subtlety tries to unlock in Jesus – make food for yourself, draw attention to yourself, grab power for yourself, because there’s nothing here for you otherwise – God’s abandoned you to this place of emptiness! But, any David Attenborough fan knows that he desert is not empty. It still teems with life, but you have to look at it a different way. Jesus sees it in this different way, as a place where God’s generosity still flows. God still provides food – in fact at the end of this passage, angels come and feed Jesus and I bet that was a magnificent picnic! He just had to wait, to trust that God was still generous, still cared, that there were still good things in store, even though he couldn’t see it just then.
So often, we too are tempted away from generosity, by ‘glass half empty’ syndrome. We live in times of austerity. We have to work much harder these days to make ends meet. And in church, we are faced with ageing congregations, declining numbers and fading finances. It looks like the desert. It looks as though there is nothing to be generous with. But if we see this with the eyes of faith, with Jesus’ eyes, the desert is just as abundant with God’s provision as anywhere else. It is a place of generosity, not of barrenness. Above all, because the same God is in our midst. The same God who created the world, who provides all things, for whom nothing is impossible. To be generous in the desert is to trust that God will provide. And when we let go of our fears – and let go of our purse strings, God does indeed provide. No need to turn stones into bread because angels are about to wait on us. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.” Because the living God is in our midst.
So my charge to you this Lent is to consider generosity. In particular, we are asking you to review what you give you church. But I don’t want you to do that with a heavy heart, or miserably, or as some sort of endurance test. If that’s how you feel, then don’t worry about the giving. I know we need the money, but generosity needs to be something we feel in our hearts, not just in our wallets. So above all this Lent, I want you to spend time in the desert with God. To let his love sink into your soul and find your purpose and vocation in it. I want you, as you reconnect with God, to reconnect with your Christian brothers and sisters in a new and deeper way – as family. I want you, as you fast, to strip away your material consumption, your personal ambitions, your self-made image, the person you want to pretend to be (for the world to admire) and to rediscover the person God made you to be. And I want you to find the desert not a place of barrenness and loneliness, but a place of abundant generosity and fellowship – place that gives life; a place where you can connect deeply with your creator; a place where you can notice how much God gives you each day – things of real value in place of the fripperies our money can buy. A place where God’s generosity never runs dry. My prayer is that this Lent generosity will become our most conspicuous characteristic as “through fasting, prayer and acts of service [God] brings us back to [his] generous heart.” Amen.
Preached: Morland, Great Strickland 5 March 2017