Today is the first Sunday in Lent. In my sermon today I am going to explore the meaning of Lent.
The first thought that comes into my head is that Lent is a time when we feel we should give something up that we like and in that period to resist the temptation to return to it. Many a time and oft I have tried to give up eating chocolate but not very successfully.
This attempt to give up something we like appears to be superficial in comparison with what find in today’s Gospel reading. Here, Jesus resists the offer made to him by the Devil to have ‘all the kingdoms of the world, and their splendor’ because he will not worship any other than God himself. I would hesitate, though, to dismiss our attempts during Lent to give up something we like as superficial. It is, I believe, a mistake to be too grandiose about what we do in our ordinary lives and God is, I believe, the God of ordinariness. I say all this because such attempts can reflect what is going on at a deeper level and not everyone has the time to engage in profound thought and reflection about what they do, particularly in today’s non-stop 24/7 busy world.
In days gone by, when the pace of life was slower, this gave more opportunity for engagement in reflection on our deeper level of being. So to explore the meaning of Lent at that deeper level we can look at the writings of those who in the past had that opportunity for profound thought and reflection.
One such was Thomas à Kempis, the German-Dutch canon and author who, in the fifteenth century, wrote his famous work ‘the Imitation of Christ’, Thomas wrote that good Lenten practice means to resist the attempts of the Devil to turn you away from ‘exercise of devotion, reverence for the saints, remembrance of your sins, vigilance over your own heart and your ‘resolve to make progress in goodness’. A tall order, particularly for us in today’s world. Yet when we worship today we do ask for God’s mercy and forgiveness and many people all over the world are striving for a better state of affairs for everyone.
What Thomas is asking us to avoid is being distracted by the Devil. What makes all this harder for us today is that we are constantly distracted by a bombardment of offers and rewards from companies and organizations. I am not quite sure whether they are kindly meant or purely commercial and I think it may be a mixture of both; some for our health and welfare, or to help us in the cost of living, or enjoyment, all with good intention, others simply to make money out of us. If, though, we can shift away, not from enjoyment of what life has to offer us, but from excess then I believe we are on the path that Thomas would like us to be on in relationship to God. It is one which by-passes the Devil’s path of restlessness and disturbing of the good state of our desires and allows space for prayer and Bible study.
If we can stand firm against the wiles of the Devil then we imitate Christ as he stood firm in the wilderness. His was a mighty resistance as an offer of kingdoms and wealth after 40 days and nights in the wilderness must surely have been a massive temptation. This ultimate resistance gives us a model for our attempts to shift away from temptation in Lent.
The deeper meaning of Lent is also found in the activity of the Holy Spirit. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. In Mark’s Gospel there is an urgency; Jesus is driven by the Spirit, immediately, into the wilderness. What does this mean? According to Reverend Harry Williams, priest and theologian, in his sermon given at Trinity College Cambridge in 1965, the Spirit is ’God in us’. It is from that place that we can be, as Jesus was, thrown out into the wilderness as part of our call to God’s service. This leaves us isolated but in that isolation we are losing shallow communion with God ‘and new powers of communion with our world are being built up within us’. Isolation does not necessarily mean being alone in the desert as it can take many forms; it is, Harry writes, a sense of being alone, saddeningly alone or alone and frightened. Isolated from friends or family or from those who you feel have achieved success that you have not achieved. For Jesus it was isolation in the actual wilderness but I would say that, in spite of loving parents and some acceptance and praise of others, he was isolated from cradle to grave because of his unique destiny. Yet the time spent by Jesus in the wilderness in isolation shows us what happens to ourselves. We see in his life the meaning of our own.
In his resistance to the Devil in the wilderness, Jesus shows himself to be, as Jerome’s Biblical Commentary gives it ‘the perfect lover of God’. We may not feel that we can reach that height of perfection but the author of Psalm 32 reminds us that if we confess to God then God forgives us as our protector and deliverer whose steadfast love surrounds us always.