Sermon for Lent I 2019

for 10th March 2019 on Luke 4.1-13

Deuteronomy 8.1-10
This entire commandment that I command you today you must diligently observe, so that you may live and increase, and go in and occupy the land that the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors. 2Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. 3He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. 4The clothes on your back did not wear out and your feet did not swell these forty years. 5Know then in your heart that as a parent disciplines a child so the Lord your God disciplines you. 6Therefore keep the commandments of the Lord your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him. 7For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, 8a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, 9a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. 10You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.

Luke 4.1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ 4Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’
5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ 8Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’
9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you”,
“On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
12Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

During Lent this year we are focusing on the theme of Healing, as part of our overall theme of “re-imagining Mission”, because Christian mission is essentially about healing. My job, as vicar, is to exercise the ‘cure of souls’. That understanding of Christian Mission has become rather obscured, but part of our reimagining is to reclaim that understanding of our mission. We are in the business of curing souls because it is in coming to Christ that we are truly healed.

And that cure is both for ourselves and for the world around us. On Ash Wednesday I argued that healing only comes when we heal the sickness of our society, for it is in their health that our health lies. Ultimately, the Bible tells us, true healing is only possible when all things are re-ordered under God’s will, when God heals every ill and restores the whole of creation. In the meantime, we can treat symptoms with drugs, or promote wellness with health regimes (both of which are good), but healing in its deepest sense is only possible when we are restored to God, the source of our life and health, when he is king over creation once more. That is what we mean by the term ‘kingdom of God’. And Lent is a time when we re-orientate our lives back to God and make the kingdom of God a reality by doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.

And Jesus, in the wilderness, was focussing on just that. This is, to me, one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible. Some people see it as a kind of miserable endurance test, but that view is not really possible if you read it in its proper context.

The context is that it follows as an immediate and direct result of Jesus’ baptism, where he heard his father speaking in the clearest possible voice to affirm Jesus: “You are my son, I love you and I’m pleased with you.” Jesus is here in the desert because he wants to treasure the truth of these words above everything else, for “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

This is a discovery of identity, a journey into life and the blossoming of love. Jesus can cast off food, glory and even ultimate power, so easily, because he has just discovered a love that shows up even the best the world has to offer as mere trash by comparison.

And if you want confirmation of the hopeful nature of this journey in the wilderness, you only need to read it in the context of Deuteronomy 8.1-10 (our first reading). This is clearly the passage at the forefront of Jesus’ mind in the desert. He sees this story being re-run, but going deeper, in his time in the desert. In Deuteronomy the chosen people were journeying to “a good land, a land with flowing streams [of living water], 8a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, 9a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing.” Jesus, the chosen one, is on the same journey.

And in its context, he sees things for what they are. The endurance test comes not from God tormenting him – it is the devil who torments, who tempts you to the quick fix, feel-better-in-an-instant remedy which satisfies our hunger so that we lose the desire for anything better. But Jesus chooses hunger over that because he knows that God is offering manna in place of bread. He knows that suffering is a short-term problem. The instant patch-up we automatically desire isn’t fundamentally healing. In fact, it can stop us from seeking fundamental healing.

I know how easily I fall into this trap myself. How one bout of exercise makes me feel better and allows me to go without exercise for a whole week. How one glass of wine can shed off the cares and allow me to hide from my problems. How little I think of God when I am well. How little I think of others. How little I think of the value of life, until things go wrong. And then, my first instinct is always to patch up, to restore the normal. But Jesus’ way seems to be to allow the suffering to produce in us a deep hunger for a more radical change, not to accept the normal as good enough, not waste our lives in comfort, but to hunger for things to be different, for the healing of all things, for the coming of God’s kingdom. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus says, “for they will be filled.”

Likewise, Jesus doesn’t fall prey to despair. And despair must surely have been what was going on when the devil “showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world”. The things of power in this world can seem so overwhelming: whether it be the might of corrupt powers like the Nazis or the overwhelming power of an incurable illness, there seems to be nothing that can be done to resist them, let alone defeat them. The temptation to fall prey to despair seems like a logical and rational response, but Jesus tells us it is not so, for he is here to defeat them. The fragile, hungry, weak, solitary man in that desert is actually more powerful than all the evil he will face. The kingdom of God is more powerful than ‘all the kingdoms of this world’ and it is accomplished wonderfully simply: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” That’s it! For by worshipping God as king, by obeying his will, the Kingdom of God becomes a reality which overcomes all the kingdoms of this world, whether literal kingdoms like the Nazi regime or Daesh, or figurative kingdoms like illness, death, despair.

Again, this speaks to me deeply. Since my early 20s I have been susceptible to depression. Inwardly I feel as though I am battling constantly against despair. For me, healing is only found when I “worship the Lord our God, and serve only him.” One of the pains of Christian ministry is that you see more clearly the scale of the problems we are facing, the desperate need for healing, physically, mentally and spiritually. And it can seem overwhelming. But Jesus conquers it all, through love, through his Cross, through worshipping his father, and serving only him.

We need to understand better what we are about as Christians. And that is made all the harder by people misrepresenting it. Even within Church I hear people listening to what hardened Atheists say about the Church more than they listen to God. The hardened Atheists tell us that Christian mission is about shady empire-building, that Bible study is about closing our minds to science, that religious devotion is the cause of all wars and that the Church itself is dying. God tells us that the Church is a never-failing stream of living water, that Bible study is about feeding on the true food so that we will never hunger again and that Christian mission is about offering healing, dignity and self-worth to a world that is dying from the indifference of a self-centred humanity.

Jesus saw through the twisting of God’s word. When the devil tempted him to throw himself off the Temple, the Devil was twisting God’s word. When the devil says that God will send his angels to prevent his foot striking against a stone, he is quoting Psalm 91, which is not about throwing yourself off Temples to prove that God is on your side. It is about sheltering under God’s wing and staying true to him, even though terrible things happen around you, knowing that in the end he will ‘bear you up’. It is about facing your suffering, not going for the quick fix.

In each case, Jesus is able to answer the Devil’s temptation by deploying God’s word, because he knows it deeply. The whole exercise in the desert, from the moment of baptism, until he begins his public ministry, is an exercise of recognising his father’s voice: through prayer, through the Scriptures and through the suffering he faces. And it will continue to sustain him, because this is not the end: the devil has only left him “until an opportune time.” It is an ongoing battle, not a quick fix. Healing has to become a way of life, not just a one-off cure. Deep healing is only possible through the suffering we face.

“Doesn’t that test your faith”? How often have I heard that question when I have been faced with the terrible things I come across in my ministry and sometimes in my own life? I bet each of you has been asked that question also. It betrays an assumption that our faith is a kind of naive optimism that will shatter as soon as reality hits. But the Christian faith is not a belief that everything’s okay. It is a belief that everything is far from okay; that things need to change radically; that we won’t be satisfied with the quick fix, the healing patch; with ‘feeling better’. It is a belief that we need to face every evil, everything for which our world is sickening. It is a belief that the kingdom of God, hungry, weak and fragile as it is, is more powerful than ‘all the kingdoms of this world”. It is a belief that, despite all logic, despair is not the right response. It is a belief that healing is possible. More than that, it is our destiny, because God “is bringing us into a good land, a land with flowing streams [of living water], and a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing.”

It is a healing journey that is only possible if we offer it to the whole world and dedicate our lives to it. It is our mission, it is our purpose, it is our destiny and it is our healing. Amen.

Preached: Cliburn (joint), 10th March 2019