Monday, February 11, 2008

A Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent

Preached at Grace Church, Ilderton, 10 February, 2008

Genesis 2:15-17,3:1-7; Ps 32; Rom 5:12-19; Matt 4:1-11

Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matt 4:4)

I spent Ash Wednesday with a bunch of pirates. Well, not pirates exactly, but kids and adults dressed up as pirates. The theme for our deanery children’s day was “Pirates Journey to Easter Island”. We did some teaching around the themes of Lent, themes that are prominent in our readings today: human sin and temptation, repentance and some of the spiritual practices of Lent. We asked the kids to think about what a “piratey” world would be like, with lots of cheating and killing and stealing, and then we contrasted that with what the world of God’s kingdom would look like. It was also a great opportunity to say “Arrrgh” and “Shiver me timbers” a lot.

Towards the end of the day, we invited the kids to write down a list of “pirate” acts, such as cheating and stealing and mean behaviour, on a sheet of paper. This paper was then burned along with the palm crosses, and the Rev’d Greg Little told them how we need to block out the tempting voice of the devil by listening to God. The ashes were then used in the ancient act of tracing the sign of the cross on the children’s foreheads at the closing Eucharist, as a reminder of how, at their baptism, their parents and sponsors promised that they would help these children resist the world, the flesh, and the devil.

I’m pleased to report that none of our deanery children are in any immediate danger of running off to become pirates and cause mayhem on the seven seas. They didn’t appear tempted by a life of killing and freebooting and hoarding gold. Being children, they were however subject to the normal temptations of childhood, such as sneaking an extra chicken finger when no one was looking, or fighting with toy swords despite the ban on this activity. This misbehaving was hardly sinister, just the normal business of children being children, though at the end of the day the adult organizers agreed that running a holy day for just twelve kids, as we did in November, was a lot easier than running one for thirty five kids.

Even though we adults were tired at the end of the day, we were all glad that we’d put on this day. I think we all understood that one of the fundamental roles of churches is to give reality and substance to the idea that we are all God’s family. That sounds really abstract, doesn’t it? We tried to make it real by asking the kids at the start of the day to say what churches they were from. Then, after a fun time of imaging what “piratey” life might be like, we reminded the kids that they were from different churches, and as such, were part of God’s family. The kids got the point, that they’re called to live as God’s people, in so far as they understand it from bible stories, from church fellowship and Sunday School, from the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, as it’s taught to them by their family and from their parish family. They chose God’s life over pirate life, and in doing so, they showed that they got the basic theological idea behind Lent: listen to God, don’t listen to the devil.

What is Lent for us grown-ups? As adults, we know all too well that when we do wrong, it’s more than a stolen chicken finger or naughtiness with a play sword when no one is looking. Most of us have done a lot worse than that. We know from experience the truth behind St. Paul’s statement in Romans that “all have sinned” (Romans 5:12). Given our frailty, it’s easy to think of Lent as a sort of spiritual new year’s resolution, a time to try to improve ourselves. As the Dominican preacher Jude Siciliano puts it, “Perhaps we’ve decided to try and pray more; or try to go to church a little more often, or try to break a bad habit. Perhaps we may have resolved to eat and drink less, so that we can sacrifice some and have the bonus of losing a few extra pounds.” Those might be good things to do in themselves, but what if Lent was, as our children suggested, simply a matter of not listening to the devil?

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus withstands three temptations from the devil. Satan tries to persuade Jesus that he doesn’t need God. Use your powers to look after yourself, Satan says. If you’re the Son of God, feed yourself. If you’re the Son of God, force him to look after you. If you want power, real power, forget God and worship me. This is the same temptation that Satan used on Eve, as we heard in our first lesson. It’s the same temptation that we have probably heard at some point, the temptation to think that we should decide what’s best for us. What God wants doesn’t matter. He’s far away and we’re here and we know best.

How does Jesus resist temptation? Partly it’s his identity as the Son of God. As Paul writes in our second reading, he is the only one who can undo the sin of Adam. But what’s also interesting is how Jesus begins each response to the devil with the words “It is written”. He’s not taking words of scripture out of context, as Satan does here, but rather, we get the impression that he is anchored in the word of God, like a radio set clearly tuned into a strong signal. Jesus knows who he is, and who God is, and that sustains him in this moment of temptation. Jesus knows that God’s word is trustworthy and life-giving, and he knows that only God is worthy of service.

I think one of the worst kinds of temptation is the tendency to think that God isn’t there, or that if he is, he doesn’t speak to us anymore and doesn’t really care what we do. The worst temptation of all may be the thought that we are alone and abandoned in whatever wilderness we may find ourselves in. I conducted a funeral service yesterday for a gentleman who had taken his life. I didn’t know him, but I gathered that a combination of crises had convinced him that his life was no longer living. Now I thank God that the church today has a more compassionate understanding of suicide than in the old days, when Christians saw it as a mortal sin. We understand that depression and mental illness are complex, and can be just as deadly as other diseases. Even so, I can’t help wondering if this man would have taken his life if his spiritual resources had been greater. Would he have given in to despair if he had felt that God was present with him in his personal wilderness, if he had felt that God might have had something to say to him?

If we think of nothing else this Lent, let’s set our minds on the truth that God does speak to us. When we feel temptation, even if it’s the temptation that we are alone, let us hold to the truth that God speaks, and we need to hear his word to stay alive. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matt 4:4). I came across an article last week which has also been making the rounds of the internet, and it struck me as a great spiritual discipline for Lent. The idea is simply this. What if we treated our bibles with the same importance that we treat our cell phones? What if we picked it up every time we left the house, and took them with us whenever we traveled? What if we turned to it once a day for an important text message? What if we gave bibles to our kids the way we give them cell phones? Thanks to the Holy Spirit, our bible always keeps a charge, and we never have to worry about our bible being disconnected because Christ paid the bill! If we carried our bibles with us every day for the next six weeks, my guess is that we would better see the truth behind today’s text, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ Amen.

©Michael Peterson+ 2008

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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
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