Desert, fasting, temptation - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Desert, fasting, temptation

Luke 4: 1-11

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1 And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,

Being forty days tempted of the devil. And in those days he did eat nothing: and when they were ended, he afterward hungered.

And the devil said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread.

And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.

And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.

And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it.

If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine.

And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.

And he brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, and said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence:

10 For it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee:

11 And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.

Some of us are currently reading Eavesdropping, by Henry Martin as our Lent book this year.  And in his opening section the author makes a simple but rather important observation about the nature of Lent: namely that it is first and foremost a time for us to draw closer to God.  And this morning I'd like to reflect a little further on what that might mean for each one of us.

It has always seemed to me that, contrary to popular perception, Lent should not be regarded as a gloomy and miserable time, when are supposed to deprive ourselves of the things that give us pleasure in order to feel pious and worthy - so that, if we have the iron will to stay the course (which many of us won't), we can pat ourselves on the back for our splendid moral fibre before forgetting all about it for another year.  Which is why I think Henry Martin's observation is a very good one.

You see, although Lent both can, and should, be a time of challenge, much more importantly it can be an incredibly significant and creative time of self-discovery, and, as Henry Martin suggests, an experience of deepening of our relationship with God - perhaps by striving to live a bit differently.  And the strange paradox is that, although Lent is commonly perceived as a time when our lives become much more limited, it can in fact be a time of liberation, when we are set free.

The practice of observing Lent has its roots in the Gospel story we heard a moment ago.  Before the start of his active ministry, Jesus went out into the desert, where he fasted for forty days and forty nights, and where he encountered temptation.  And it is worth reflecting on each of those three elements in turn: desert, fasting, and temptation.

Any of you who have spent time in a desert of any kind, will know that deserts are very exposed and exposing places, both literally and metaphorically.  They are places where the normal distractions of life are stripped away.  Places where there is nowhere to hide; that is why it was in the Judaean wilderness that Jesus tested to the uttermost his commitment to his calling, and his commitment to God, before embarking on the ministry that lay ahead of him. 

But you don't need to travel to the Judean wilderness to have a glimpse of that kind of experience.  When my children were little, for a period of about ten years we spent every summer in a cottage in Cornwall that we borrowed from a friend of ours.  And, for me, one of the things that was both challenging and liberating about those holidays was that, for that period every year, we had no television, no internet, and no telephone.  And in the absence of the constant interruptions and distractions that such things inevitably bring with them, we related as a family very differently. 

Because we did things together routinely.  We read, and we played games, and we spent time on the beach, and we went for walks, and we cooked, and we made things, and above all we actually talked to each other.  And because we were together all the time, there was no hiding place: If there were difficulties, we had to deal with them there and then.  Indeed, on occasions I noted patterns in my own behaviour that I came to realise were really not very helpful for my children.  And it was precisely the absence of the usual distractions that characterised our normal life, that made that possible.

Interestingly enough, once they got used to the idea, our girls didn't actually miss the television at all.  But much more importantly, the enhanced quality of our relating during that period each year, was something that we carried with us, as we returned to regular daily life at the end of the summer.  If we can find a way to cut down the usual level of distraction; to live a bit more simply; to find time to be attentive to what is really going on in our lives, is not only instructive, it helps us to identify what it is in our lives that perhaps we need to change.

And what about fasting?  For much of Christian history, that was the single most important factor that characterised Lent: the Book of Common Prayer designates Lent officially as a season of fasting.  What does that mean in practice?  It has been variously interpreted (and for some people, of course, it is not advisable on medical grounds), but the bottom line has always been fairly simple, and very accessible: the convention was that you reduced your normal daily intake of food, focussing on one main meal a day, and eating much more sparingly than usual at other times; and also refraining from meat on certain specific occasions (notably on Ash Wednesday, and on Fridays during Lent) - although some chose to forego meat altogether.

And what is the point of fasting (however we choose to interpret it in practice)?  Firstly, particularly for those of us in the West, who are faced with a super abundance of food all the time - to go without things that we normally take for granted, doesn't half enhance our appreciation of those things.  Particularly when it relates to our food, which is, of course, fundamental to life.  It makes us much more aware, generally, of what we consume.  And, as Nina will be reminding us later, for those of us who do eat meat, it is worth pausing to reflect on where our meat comes from; and how it is produced; the British farming industry is ahead of the field in delivering quality meat that is reared in organic and sustainable ways - but not all meat is produced like that.

Speaking personally, I also find that if I eat too much, or if I eat unnecessarily, it dulls my senses.  That is why I never normally eat before I pray in the morning, because I find I am much more attentive; I listen; I have a clearer head, if I don't.  And having the occasional experience of feeling hungry for a while isn't probably not a bad thing for any of us - not least because it reminds us that for the majority of people on this planet, that is their permanent state.

And what about the subject of temptation?   Back in 2005, in a fascinating documentary series called The Monastery, which some of you may have seen, five ordinary men, most of whom had no particular religious commitment or affiliation, spent 40 days sharing in the life of the Roman Catholic Benedictine Community at Worth Abbey, and observing with members of that religious community, the same monastic discipline of work, prayer and study. 

A short time into their 40-day retreat, a couple of the men decided to sneak off to the village shop to buy chocolate and cigarettes, or something similar.  Unfortunately, they were discovered.  The guilty men knew they were in trouble, were summoned to a conversation with the Abbot, expecting to have their knuckles rapped.   But the Abbot's response was quite different from anything they had anticipated.  If I can paraphrase his words, the gist of what he said to them was this:

This is a monastery.  It is not a prison.  There are no locked gates to prevent you physically from going off site, and doing whatever you want, whenever you want.  But you must remember that you have come here in order to experience at first hand something of what a life dedicated to the love and service of God is like.  And if you succumb to the trivial and ultimately unnecessary temptation to go and buy chocolate - or anything else like that, for that matter - you need to ask yourself, what is actually in control of your life?  Are you in control of those kinds of desires?  Or are they in control of you?

The impact of his words upon those men was infinitely greater than anything that he could have achieved by tearing them off a strip or punishing them.  And the wisdom of his words gives us a glimpse of how, by ordering our desires properly, far from impoverishing our lives, it can be something that sets us free.

The point about the temptations faced by Jesus in the wilderness, and why they were so powerful, is that they all aimed to seduce him into using his God-given gifts to seek his own ends.  Only when he had been confronted with those temptations, and withstood them, was he free to follow the ministry entrusted to him.  Because only then did he know that his focus could truly be turned outwards, in compassion for those around him whom he was called to serve.

How we can most profitably observe the season of Lent is a question for each one of us to answer, because only we know in our hearts what it is that stands in the way of our relationship with God: is it distraction from the things that truly matter?  Is it self-indulgence, the quest for casual gratification that dulls our senses, and cushions us against the need to face reality?  Is it the temptation to place our own needs and desires first, and fail to lift our eyes to recognise the pain and the helplessness of so many in our world, and the consequences of our actions upon our precious environment?  I wonder.

But above all, we should remember that the purpose of Lent is ultimately that of liberation.  It is there to set us free: free to deepen our relationship with God; free to discover who we truly are; and, with the help of the Spirit, free to grow in love and compassion for our world, and for those around us. 

And thanks be to God for that.  Amen.

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