Lent I - 21st February 2010

Holy Communion – Address

Preached by Lay Chaplain - David Fuller

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Collect for Lent I

O LORD, who for our sakes didst fast forty days and forty nights: Give us grace to use such abstinence,
that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness and true holiness, to thy honour and glory; who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.

Collect for Ash Wednesday

ALMIGHTY and Everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Old Testament lesson: Deuteronomy 26, Vv 1 – 11
Epistle: Romans 10, Vv 8b – 13
Holy Gospel: St Luke 4, Vv 1 – 13

Our Gospel proclamation was Saint Luke’s account of the temptations that Jesus suffered before he began his public ministry. All three Synoptic authors mention the temptations, but only Saints Matthew and Luke go into detail. Saint Mark merely mentions, in just two verses, that, ‘the Spirit drove him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him’. The other two accounts are far more comprehensive.

   Saint Luke tells us that, filled with the Holy Spirit Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness. In those days he ate nothing and was afterwards hungry; our translation said ‘famished’. I should imagine that he was. How many of us could go for a single day without food and not suffer hunger pangs. Is there any significance in the number of days being forty? We are immediately reminded of the forty days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai talking with God after he brought the Israelites from captivity in Egypt. Moses neither ate nor drank during his time with God. During this mountain sojourn, God engraved the stone tablets with the Decalogue, the words of the Ten Commandments. This was God’s latest covenant with mankind, following on from those that he had made with Adam, with Noah and with Abraham. The number forty also reminds us of the forty years that Moses and the Chosen People travelled back and forth across the Sinai Peninsula before they were allowed access to the Promised Land, a land ‘flowing with milk and honey’. God’s people had thoroughly disobeyed his commandments and he determined that none of those who he brought out of the land of Egypt should enter Canaan. Even Moses was excluded. Only Joshua, the son of Nun, and Caleb were allowed in.

   Now God was making a new and final covenant with his people and he was making it with his own personal representative among those people, his incarnate Son. Jesus had spent his formative years learning the Jewish scriptures; those books that we know as the Old Testament. He had worked with his father at the carpenter’s bench, or on the building site. Tradition tells us that his father died early. Evidence for this lies in the general absence of his name from the pages of the gospels. Also, he is not listed with other members of the family at the wedding in Cana, as recorded by Saint John. John tells us that, ‘the mother of Jesus was there,’ but makes no reference to Joseph. He may have been several years older than Mary, although we have no proof of this. So, Jesus would have supported his mother, both financially and within the family unit. If he wasn’t her only child, and opinion is divided on this, then he was certainly head of the family and would have had responsibility for her. In those years Jesus would have had a deep feeling that he had a mission. He would have realised that many of the prophetic passages in the scriptures referred to him and to him alone. At some point in his young life, when he was about thirty years old, he decided that he had to leave his home and begin the work that God had sent him to do. His earthly ministry began with his baptism at the hands of his second cousin, John. Then came the tricky bit; how was he to carry out his Father’s wishes? How was he to build a new Kingdom of God on earth? He chose to take himself away into the wilderness and contemplate his future; a practice that many have since followed.

   Let us take ourselves forty days forward in the story. Jesus was hungry, he was thirsty and, no doubt, physically weakened. What better time for the devil, Satan, to call? Satan knew that Jesus was hungry. Why not suggest that, using the powers that God had given him, he turn some of the nearby stones into bread? After all, who would know? Jesus was alone. There were no crowds to see him perform a miracle. Jesus knew, from his forty days of lonely contemplation, that doing tricks was not the answer. Yes, magic and sleight of hand would relieve his hunger and later impress many who would flock to see him perform, but such trickery and illusion would not bring disciples to the Kingdom of God, and eventually to the foot of a cross in repentance. Jesus, as we heard, answered Satan, ‘one does not live by bread alone.’ The Authorised Version, the King James Bible, gives a slightly longer reply, ‘It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God’. We can almost hear Jesus saying to himself, ‘I can do the tricks, but I’d rather stay hungry’. Then Satan took Jesus up into a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, in a moment of time. These earthly kingdoms contained people, people that he could bring under God’s new covenant. They had administrations, leaders who could be persuaded to bring their citizens on board this new venture. They had wealth and resources that could be used to provide an infrastructure for a new kingdom. They could all be his for the asking. The devil, who made it clear that he held sway over these kingdoms and controlled their power, would give it all to Jesus; but there was a price. Jesus would have to worship Satan. Jesus knew that he could only worship God, his heavenly Father. He could not bend his knee before Satan, even for all the wealth that was promised. There had to be another way. The devil had one more try. If Jesus wouldn’t do simple miracles to relieve his hunger, and he didn’t want all the power and prestige of being an earthly monarch, even if his kingdom encompassed the whole earth, then perhaps he could be persuaded to do a much larger miracle, this time with an audience. We heard that he took Jesus to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the Temple. For all Jews, Jerusalem is the centre of the earth. If you have been watching David Dimbleby’s television series about the Seven Ages of Britain, told through its artistic treasures, you will have seen him explaining one of the world’s earliest maps, the Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral. This dates back to the thirteenth century and it shows Jerusalem still at the centre of the world; certainly it is at the centre of that map. Satan suggested that Jesus could start his mission with a spectacular event. I suppose it might be considered the equivalent of opening an hotel or shopping mall with a firework display. All Jesus had to do was throw himself off the Temple and hosts of angels would bear him up, lest he fall to his death, or even, as we heard, dash his foot against a stone. We know that Jesus knew of the angels that were his to command. In the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night of his arrest, one of his disciples drew a sword and struck a slave of the High Priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back in its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?’ Jesus knew that he could jump from the top of the Temple and suffer no physical harm, but that was not the issue. He had already decided not to perform conjuring tricks to stave off his hunger. He was most certainly not prepared to do trapeze acts to astonish the crowds. His reply was, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’. With this, the devil gave up and departed from him, as we heard, ‘until an opportune time’. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, we know that the devil did return to Jesus; we only have to read the Passion narratives to know how Satan and all the powers of darkness railed against him on Calvary’s hillside.

   Jesus had thus determined the sort of earthly ministry that he would offer to the lost sheep of Israel. It would not rely on tricks to impress the crowds; it would depend entirely on drawing the souls of all back into a loving relationship with his heavenly Father. Again, as we saw a few weeks ago, Luke’s account places Jesus in his local synagogue in Nazareth immediately after his return from the wilderness. There he explained exactly what his task was, using words from the prophet Isaiah. It was to: ‘bring good news to the poor; proclaim release to the captives; recovery of sight to the blind; and to let the oppressed go free’. He would do these things by putting his trust entirely in God. He would emulate some words that King Solomon had written in his Book of Proverbs: ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not rely on your own insight,’ and, ‘Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil’.

   As we begin our penitential, Lenten season we shall be tempted to turn aside from thoughts of Jesus’ Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection; thoughts that ought to accompany us for each of these forty days. We are not expected to go in the wilderness and live with the wild animals. We are not expected to go without food for forty days. We are expected to be with our Lord as he moves inexorably towards Jerusalem on that final, fateful journey. I pray that each one of us may keep a Good Lent because if we don’t then we can’t expect to rejoice and shout Alleluia on Easter Day.

Copyright © David Fuller 2010

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