St Bride's: Sermons

The antidote to our distraction

Mark 1:9-15, Genesis 9:8-17, 1 Peter 3:18-end

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Mark 1:9-15
And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.

10 And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:

11 And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

12 And immediately the spirit driveth him into the wilderness.

13 And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.

14 Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God,

15 And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.

Genesis 9:8-17
And God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying,

And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you;

10 And with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth.

11 And I will establish my covenant with you, neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.

12 And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations:

13 I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.

14 And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud:

15 And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.

16 And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.

17 And God said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant, which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.

Peter 3:18-end
18 For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:

19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;

20 Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.

21 The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ:

22 Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.

As I've reflected in recent days on my prayer life and what Lenten disciple might be most appropriate for me this year there has been one particular frustration that has come to mind - distraction.  My inability to avoid trivial distractions would be comical if it weren't so disappointing to me.

My reflections reminded me of Pieter Brugel's painting 'the procession to Calvary' which I've spent some time contemplating.  Perhaps you know the work.  What characterises it, and other works of his, is that the figures that are conventionally the focus of art works disappear within the broader, crowded canvas.  Jesus carrying the cross is actually at the centre of the painting but unless you look closely you're likely to miss that altogether.  Very few people in the seen are paying any attention to him.  They're absorbed elsewhere in games and fights or just their own absent mindedness.  Many are on their way to Calvary, a stream of people heading to the spectacle of suffering and death at a public execution.  Almost all are simply oblivious to Christ's presence, distracted elsewhere.

Our Gospel reading included Mark's account of the temptation of Christ.  If you weren't paying careful you might well have missed it because compared to the other Gospel's accounts it's very brief - "and immediately the spirit driveth him into the wilderness" and there we learn he was tempted by Satan for forty days, was with the wild beasts and ministered to by angels.

Karoline Lewis, a Luthern theologian, suggests that the brevity of Mark's version is actually its strength because following on from Christ's baptism the account serves to emphasise that in the wilderness Christ rests in the father's presence and it is that presence that protects him.

In the other Gospel accounts we find analysis of the specific temptations.  The hedonism of satisfying physical desires; reflected by Satan tempting Christ to turn stones into bread.  The egotism of demonstrating ones might; reflected by Satan tempting Christ to jump from the pinnacle of the temple to show that he will be rescued by heaven's angels.  Finally of materialism, reflected in Satan's promise of all the kingdoms of the world if Christ will bow down and worship him.

These are useful to recognise but Karoline Lewis suggests that perhaps the greatest temptation is to behave as if God is not present, particularly in a society like ours which is so often dismissive of faith claims, even when views are expressed that are respectful of the church as an institution. God's absence is very commonly assumed and all the things that so easily distract us in self-gratification of one sort or another are often taken to be what life is all about.  This is much less to do with 'life in its fullness' - that relationship with God and neighbour that is our Christian calling than with a philosophy that equates fullness of life with 'having it all', unbounded consumption to which advertising encourages us. 

The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has spoken of what he calls "practical atheism" within the church pointing to those of us who despite regarding themselves as believers, in practice act like non believers.  He says that too often we pray to the father "give us this day our daily bread" and then say "where's the kitchen?".  We overlook our dependence on God.

This kind of attitude can be reflected in how we approach Lent.  Lenten disciplines like fasting are qualitatively different from giving up alcohol for January or growing a moustache in November to raise money for charity, regardless of how worthwhile those things might be.  Lenten disciplines are less about giving something up in our own power than about recognising our dependency on God, the presence of Gods' blessings in our lives, our complicity in the suffering of the world and seeking to be agents of Gods' grace in responding to our brothers and sisters in need.

So whilst Mark's account of the temptation of Christ omits the details of specific temptations, this can serve to emphasise the most important point for us, the focus on Christ and his presence, the promise of our baptism. Our baptismal liturgy speaks of our being 'clothed with Christ' - 'as many as are baptised into Christ have put on Christ' we say.

In preparing for this morning I came across a poem by William Cowper called temptation.  It struck me when reading it that it is resonates with Mark's account because on the face of it there isn't any reference to obvious temptations.  Nevertheless, whilst temptations are not given form they are expressed as elemental forces.

William Cowper suffered greatly from mental health problems through his life which he reflects here as a sea journey.  He speaks of his shattered bark - his shattered ship.  "Though tempest-toss'd and half a wreck, my Saviour through the floods I seek" he says.

Temptation by William Cowper
The billows swell, the winds are high,
Clouds overcast my wintry sky;
Out of the depths to Thee I call,
My fears are great, my strength is small.

O Lord, the pilot's part perform,
And guard and guide me through the storm;
Defend me from each threatening ill,
Control the waves, - say, "Peace! be still."

Amidst the roaring of the sea
My soul still hangs her hope on Thee;
Thy constant love, thy faithful care,
Is all that saves me from despair.

Dangers of every shape and name
Attend the followers of the Lamb,
Who leave the world's deceitful shore,
And leave it to return no more.

Though tempest-toss'd and half a wreck,
My Saviour through the floods I seek;
Let neither winds nor stormy main
Force back my shatter'd bark again.

It's a poem with a great focus on God's presence and that's the essence of prayer and the antidote to our distractions.




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