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Bishop Helen-Ann's sermon for Lent 1

Wilderness: challenge and redemption

Bishop Helen-Ann preached in St Paul's cooperating parish, Putaruru for Lent 1.  The photographic image is of a cross that depicts the challenge of Lent on one side but the beauty of the hope to come on the other side.  It represents the wilderness as a present place of testing but always with the capacity to be transformed by God's grace.

Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7
Romans 5.12-19
Matthew 4.1-11

Well, here we are in Lent!  How is everyone doing?  Anyone given anything up?  Or perhaps taken something up?

Our readings this morning offer us a deep well of wisdom from which to draw refreshment for our journey.  From Holy haberdashery as Adam and Eve manufacture the world’s first clothing line to (I have to say) a rather typically weighty Pauline exposition on sin, there’s a lot going on!

I’d like to spend some time reflecting on the theme of temptation which is front and centre in our Gospel reading, and which of course is also an important part of the Genesis reading.  And so back to my initial question for you all: have you given up anything for Lent, and have you been tempted to break your fast yet?

In my Ash Wednesday reflection this year, I began by recounting the time a number of years ago when I was struggling with haven given up chocolate for Lent.  One evening in a moment of weakness I remembered that in the fridge there was a Cadbury’s chocolate flake that belong to Myles.  I figured that he wouldn’t mind if I had it because it could easily be replaced, so I opened the fridge, reached inside and took hold of the chocolate bar only to discover that it was wrapped in a post-it note which said: ‘don’t even think about it!’  I immediately put it back, and felt very guilty!

That of course is quite a trivial example, however it does rather go to the heart of what temptation is about: it’s all about me!  In our consumer-driven way of living, we are constantly bombarded by messages about self-improvement in the false hope that if we had that thing, that home, that person in our lives things would be a whole lot better!  Well of course, we know that not to be true, but human nature is a strong and irrepressible force at times.  The devil knows that Jesus is human and divine, and presumably knows that Jesus’ human nature might fall short of his divine essence.  Quite helpfully in writing about this passage, Bishop John Pritchard puts it like this: ‘What Jesus faced in the wilderness were the temptations that would constantly snap at his heels throughout his ministry – the temptation to focus on earthly needs rather than their heavenly roots; to be spectacular rather than consistent’ to take short cuts rather than to put God first in everything’ (Reflections for Sundays Year A, Church House Publishing, 2016, p.87).  I find this immensely insightful, because it’s easy then to see things from Jesus’ perspective, and in that view see our own lives and struggles.  In doing that of course we find a deep sense of reassurance because of God’s love and mercy, but only if we acknowledge the challenge for us in it all first.

One of the difficulties, as my culinary example suggests, is that for some, we use the word ‘temptation’ too freely and in so doing lose its deeper meaning.  My desire for chocolate wasn’t really serious; it wasn’t a matter of life or death.  As our Gospel tells us, the real meaning of temptation is about a testing of integrity and purpose.  As the commentator Raymond Chapman puts it: ‘the very sifting of the soul to find how much truth remains’ (Following the Gospel Through the Year, Canterbury Press, 2001, pp. 43-44).  That is serious stuff!  I wonder what you make of that image of soul sifting?  If it provokes discomfort then sit with that, don’t resist it but ponder its meaning for your journey through Lent.

Jesus’ temptations happen when he is driven into the wilderness.  The length and location of this narrative is crafted so that we might make connections with the story of Israel: the 40 years of wandering; the miraculous provision of food; the taking of Jesus up to the high mountain just like Moses in Deuteronomy 34, right at the end of the journey who glimpsed the promised land but did not live to inhabit it.  Here in Matthew, the vision is expanded so that Jesus sees ‘all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour’ (vs.8).  

While the wilderness is the place of temptation, what might be overlooked is positive realisation that the response also comes from the wilderness.  I have a card that sits on my desk which was sent to me by the wife of a former student of mine who herself was ordained deacon in July last year.  On the front is a full flowing river with a quote from the American writer and theologian Frederick Buechner: ‘The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’

‘The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’

The wilderness, it seems, might just be a place of redemption as well as testing.  Remember the angels came to minister to Jesus; they came into the wilderness to where Jesus was.

If that is the case, then that has profound implications for what it means to be church here and now, in Putaruru but also further afield.  I was talking with Labour MP Sue Moroney earlier in the week, and was telling her that I was visiting Putaruru today, and was recounting to her some of the remarkable work of faith and discipleship that is happening here.  She mentioned that Radio New Zealand’s panel programme were apparently waxing lyrical about Putaruru only the day before!  Divine coincidence perhaps?!  But it is the case that so often communities like Putaruru struggle with an outsider perspective that is more urban focused.  Yet this is short-sighted and the temptation is to trust the stereotype rather than really see the detail of what is actually happening.  Now I am not for one second calling Putaruru the wilderness (as if Hamilton were an oasis!), rather what I see here are some wilderness situations being transformed by grace and faithful discipleship, and that is the unnerving attraction of the Gospel is it not?!  

‘The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’

In his Lenten book Wilderness Taunts: Revealing Your Light (Canterbury Press, 2016) Ian Adams places the temptation narratives into contemporary contexts using words and photographic images.  For example, we might think wilderness looks like a dry and barren landscape; but what if we took an image of a regular street with shops and homes; some inhabited and busy, others empty and derelict?  Where do you see the wilderness, and what might a God-shaped response look like?  The temptation perhaps lies in a desire for a quick-fix, rather than playing the long game of discernment.

The first of Ian Adams’ Wilderness taunts centres on identity, which perhaps goes the heart of the Gospel this morning: Jesus’ very identity as Son of God is being tested.  How does he respond?  How with Him, might we respond?  Can you imagine yourself ministering to Jesus in his place of vulnerability; can you hold out the possibility that Jesus might be ministering through you to those whom you encounter who are in need?  Maybe you are that person in need?  Always know that God desires to know you in good times as well as in testing times.

I leave you with these words from Ian Adams to ponder during your week:

Who are you?

No really, who are you?
You have no idea.

You know that you are not the person you aspire to be.
And you are rarely how others think of you.
Who are you?

Some recognition that you do not know who you are
may be a very good place to begin this wilderness journey.
Let go of all your accumulated conceptions
and misconceptions
to clear the way for whatever may be true.

Knowing nothing is a humiliation.
It may also be a gift.

And perhaps, echoing a name from an old story
of how God describes God – I Am
- the gift may be a discovery that You Are.

And that You Are loved.
And that You are love.

(p. 4).

Story Published: 5th of March - 2017

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