First Sunday of Lent

Sermon preached by Rev’d Karen Charman on the First Sunday of Lent, 1st March 2020 at St Giles’ Church, Horspath

Lent.  So, how’s it going?  Have you succumbed to temptation yet?  Eaten chocolate, or cake, or sweets … or whatever you were going to give up?

You may remember, I was going to try to give up busyness.  I’m finding it a challenge, I must admit!!  But I have started reading the book, Do Nothing to Change Your Life.

I also managed some quiet time for reflection, prayer, journaling and reading on Friday afternoon – in the chapel at Church House, and then in my study at The Rectory.

I’d hoped to book a proper Quiet Day somewhere – perhaps the Carmelite Retreat Centre, at Boars Hill – but was too busy, in the run up to Lent, to get anything booked!

I am, soon, having a Quiet Day with my cell group – a group of priests with whom I trained at Cuddesdon; and who I now meet with several times a year for prayer, reflection, the Eucharist, and mutual support and encouragement.

I’ll also be attending our weekly Oasis space throughout Lent; and attending Eucharists at college, Led by the Spirit in High Wycombe, and Sacred at Christ Church.  My Lent, I fear, will be busy – I won’t quite achieve my aim of giving up busyness – but I’m trying to create spaces for rest, refreshment, spirituality and prayer.

And I hope that Oasis, in particular, will provide a space where you, too, can be refreshed and nourished during Lent.

Our readings set for today both deal with temptation.

But we have two very different settings:

In our Old Testament Reading, the action takes place in the garden of Eden – a beautiful garden planted by God.  The garden is described in Genesis, Chapter 2:

“Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

10 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches…”

The garden is sometimes referred to as Paradise – from the Greek paradeisos, which means “beautiful garden.”  We can be sure, if God planted the garden, that it is very beautiful.  We know that it has many trees, and a river.  I imagine it’s also filled with fragrant flowers and herbs.  It’s in the East – possibly in the area we know as southeast Iraq.  So – in addition to the figs we know grow in the garden – Adam and Eve made for themselves coverings out of fig leaves – there may have also been liquorice, date palms, willows, tamarisks, poplars … bulrushes along the river banks … geraniums … fragrant thyme, sage, and different types of daisies.  A fertile, fruitful, fragrant garden in which – before the fall – God liked to wander, at the time of the evening breeze.

Perhaps you can picture it now … God strolling through the garden as the sun sets … gin and tonic in hand, perhaps … reaching out to pluck a juicy fig from a nearby tree … bending down to pick a sprig of thyme and rub it between his fingers to release the woody, lemony scent … stopping to splash his toes in the refreshingly cool waters of the river … before he senses that something’s different … that all is not good in the garden … that the state of innocence has passed; and Adam and Eve have succumbed to temptation.

A beautiful garden, but all is no longer as it seemed.

Already, the fruit is beginning to rot … the grass is beginning to wither … the river is polluted and full of plastic, and – instead of gently watering the garden – it now threatens to overflow its banks and flood the fertile valley.

Adam and Eve have not been good stewards of creation.  They have not heeded God’s word and – as a consequence – they face eviction from paradise.  With no-one left to tend the garden, it will go wild … brambles will grow up and choke the daisies which once clothed the lawns and fields.

We fast forward through many, many generations –: Cain and Abel … Seth, Enosh … Noah, Shem, Ham, Japheth and their descendants … Abraham and Sarah … Ishmael and Isaac … Esau and Jacob … Joseph and his brothers … Moses … Samuel, David, Solomon … until we come to the prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos and the others … until we come to John the Baptist, who stands on the cusp, harking back to the former prophets, and looking forward to the coming of the Messiah.

We fast-forward through Jesus’ birth, his childhood, his baptism … and then we find ourselves in a far different landscape … in a wilderness or desert.

This isn’t a desert like the ones we see in films – in Lawrence of Arabia, or the English Patient … not the shifting sand dunes of the Sahara, but a barren wilderness of dry rock and stone … hills and steep cliffs and a hot, hot wind.

Here Jesus – a second Adam – is tested and tempted – as we are – yet without sin.

Jesus is driven out – or, in Matthew’s version – led up, into the wilderness, by the Holy Spirit, immediately after his baptism in the River Jordan … immediately after the Spirit descends upon him and a voice from heaven declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

I wonder, what can we learn from this?

Well, firstly, it’s noteworthy that God is well pleased with his Son … with his child … before Jesus has passed the period of testing in the wilderness.  God’s approval, doesn’t depend upon us first earning that approval or love.  God loves us, just as we are

Secondly, Jesus was tested, yet without sin.

We’re not Jesus.  We might – as a Diocese, as a Benefice, and as individuals – be striving to be more Christ-like for the sake of the world.  We will, all, hopefully, grow in wisdom, and in spiritual maturity, as we seek to follow Jesus in the way of the cross.  But we’re not Jesus.  Despite our best intentions, we will be tempted … and we will sin.

In the past, peoples went off into the wilderness in an attempt to avoid the temptations of the world … but temptations follow us, even there.  The desert, or wilderness, is a place of hunger, thirst, and spiritual combat.

The desert can also be the place where God leads us – as he led Jesus – in order to speak to us and, perhaps, so that he can send his holy angels to wait upon us, or to minister to us.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers – led, first by St Anthony of Egypt, around the 3rd Century AD, went first into the deserts of Egypt to escape the persecution of Christians by Decius.  They remained in the desert – and, even, moved deeper into the desert – after the persecutions ended, seeking a closer, deeper union with God.

The desert is a place of encounter.  Jesus encounters the devil there – and, perhaps, in the wilderness and in solitude, we might be confronted by our own demons – but it’s also in the wilderness that Jesus overcame temptation, and was tended by angels.

The desert is a harsh, challenging, environment.  You may be familiar with the Godly Play story of the Great Family, which reminds us:

“The desert is a dangerous place.  It’s always moving, so it’s hard to know where you are.  There’s little water, so you get thirsty, and you can die if no water is found.  Almost nothing grows there, so there’s almost nothing to eat.  In the daytime, it’s hot, and the sun scorches your skin.  In the night, it’s cold…  The desert is a dangerous place.  People don’t go into the desert unless they have to.”

This is almost the polar opposite of the Garden of Eden – with its fruit-bearing trees, a river to water the garden, and God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze – and yet, in the garden, Adam and Eve – after yielding to temptation – hide themselves from the presence of the Lord.

The Desert Fathers – and many Christians after them – went into the desert to find – and to be found by – God.

It strikes me that we – in our pilgrimage through Lent, and through life – need both desert and garden.

At times, we need the solitude and emptiness of the desert, to give us time and space to reflect, to pray, to be tested and challenged, and, perhaps, then, to be tended by angels.

We need well-watered gardens, green pastures and still waters, to be refreshed and rested.

Jesus promises that – when we pass through dark valleys – he will be with us.  During Lent, he goes before us into the wilderness; he climbs and conquers the mount of temptation; he carries his cross to Golgotha; his body is laid in the garden tomb.

I wonder, where will you seek – and perhaps encounter -Jesus this Lent?  Will it be in the wilderness … in solitude … in times of trials and temptations … in the challenge of fasting – from meat, or chocolate, or cake, or sweets, or alcohol … or from your use of plastics … or other practices which mar God’s good creation?

Or will you seek – and perhaps encounter – Jesus – in the peace and beauty of a well-watered garden?

Will you seek him in the busyness and vibrancy of the city centre – in the strangers you encounter on the city streets … in our schools, hospitals and, perhaps, prisons?

Or will you seek Jesus in the tranquillity and stillness of our churches and cathedral?

Will you humble yourself, and allow yourself to be ministered to … perhaps, by angels …?

Or will you offer hospitality to others and, perhaps, discover that, in doing so, you have entertained angels, unawares?

Let’s see if, this Lent, through spending time in both the arid wilderness, and also in well-watered gardens, we might grow in holiness, and in the likeness of Christ, for the sake of the world.