Two years ago, I visited Egypt where I spent a short time with a religious community who lived in the desert at the foot of Mount Sinai. My brief time there confirmed that the desert is a place of extremes. It is very hot in the day and very cold in the night. It is a place of beauty and terror. It is a barren place and it is a place full of life. It is a place where one experiences fear and a place where one experiences God. It is a place of hope and new beginnings. Yet it is here, in a desert environment that the people of God are shaped. The Israelites wandered for forty years in the desert discovering their identity as God’s people. Even today, Jews recognise the importance of this experience in an annual festival called the Feast of the Tabernacles when they build tents outside their houses and often actually live in these tents over the period of the feast.
Jesus was in the desert, the wilderness, not for forty years, but for forty days and nights, as we heard in the Gospel today. He, too, was discerning what it meant to be God’s chosen one.
Today’s Gospel points to three temptations faced by Jesus and by us all:
Getting our priorities wrong.
An obsession for security, for answers, for reassurance.
These were pitfalls into which the ancient people of Israel fell when they were in the desert; they were temptations faced by Jesus in the wilderness and they are temptations faced by us, as God’s people, indeed by society as a whole, today. Let’s look at them one by one.
‘Command this stone to become a loaf of bread,’ was the first temptation. Jesus remembered that the people of Israel cried out for bread in the wilderness even though God had promised that they would be well. They were impatient. They did not trust that God would keep to his word…..they wanted it and they wanted it now. Today, we are a people and a society demanding instant responses and gratification. We become impatient if the internet takes 10 seconds to give an answer…..we expect it in 3. Much business is built upon the premise that my email will be answered by a colleague in Hong Kong within the hour. I may receive an email in the morning and if I have not answered it by the end of the day, I may be chased for a response. I am sure that many here have this experience. Yet such impatience can lead to madness and meltdown in a society which becomes superficial and demanding.
However, it is those life-changing moments that force us to view our impatience differently and it is often in matters where we have no control. As we wait for examination results which will come out on a particular date, we discover something important about patience. As we wait for the letter which tells us whether or not we have the job for which we have been interviewed, we discover something important about patience. If we sit and wait at the bedside of a sick or dying loved-one, we discover something important about patience. Waiting on God is something that we all need to learn and re-learn. It’s not like waiting for a bus which may or may not turn up, but it is an expectant waiting, knowing that it will happen in God’s time, not ours. Waiting for the birth of a baby is a wonderful example of expectant waiting and helps us with the patience that we so often lack. God does not let us down, but he does not always work in the ways, by the methods, through the people or in the time-scales we expect. We need to rediscover expectant waiting.
‘Come and worship me and all this will be yours,’ said the devil as he showed Jesus the kingdoms of the world in the second temptation. Jesus remembered the people of Israel in the desert turning from the worship of God to the worship of Aaron’s golden calf. The temptation to worship false gods. Every society has its false gods and we all face the temptation to worship them. Pride, self- interest, money, power, control, tradition…..keeping things as they have always been. We may have addictions such as food and drink which figure high in our lives and take on an obsession which belittles rather than builds on our identity as a child of God. The Church, too, needs to beware of worshipping false gods, such as a pursuit towards certainty and always trying to keep things as they always were.
Now, of course, the Christian faith is all about joy, using the gifts given to us by God and living life to the full…..it is not about long faces, misery and self-absorption. But the way in which we shape our life is key. What this period of Lent helps us do is to push ourselves from the centre of our life and concerns and try to bring God and others centre-stage. It helps us recalibrate our lives. It helps to ensure that we don’t mistake the worship of the golden calf for the worship of God. But all this is easier said than done and it is easy to slip back into our old ways – this is what was happening to the Israelites all the time in the wilderness – but Lent provides an opportunity, often with the help of others, to give ourselves a 10,000 mile ‘spiritual’ service to check whether we are getting our priorities right or wrong.
‘Come and jump from the highest place in town,’ said the devil in the final temptation. ‘You’ll be fine because God will look after you. You won’t get hurt. And what a spectacular act it will be.’ Jesus remembered the many times that the Israelites probed and tested God to get him to work for them in spectacular and reassuring ways, like bringing water out of the rock struck by Moses. An obsession for security, for answers, for reassurance because they did not trust.
Today, we face unprecedented demands for security. The UK has a wider coverage of CCTV cameras than anywhere else in the world. The fear of terrorism is a spectre that is raised in many arguments from justifying waging war on a nation to inhibiting human rights – and all argued from a very ‘reasonable’ perspective. We are always looking for answers, often in the past – I cannot remember a time when there have been so many public enquiries into incidents in the past. What exactly is going on here? Of course, it is important to probe injustices and wrong-doing so that we can learn from them, but there seem to be an unprecedented proliferation of such enquiries.
We are a nation constantly seeking reassurances. We are discouraged from taking risks because of what might go wrong or how people will view us if they do go wrong. Every organisation needs to have its risk assessment, that’s ok and may be sensible but we need to beware of becoming risk-averse. There is the danger that we no longer trust each other to get on with whatever task has been allotted. As the people of God, we need to be able to trust each other and, more significantly, to trust God which means a willingness to go out of our comfort zones and take risks. We need to work with people with whom we do not like to work or with whose opinions we disagree. There are always compelling reasons for staying as we are and how we are: but there are more important reasons for us to be willing to move to new positions, to new understandings, probably through the desert as the Spirit of God prompts us, because it will be there that we find God waiting.
Impatience. Getting our priorities wrong. An obsession for security, for answers, for reassurance. These were the temptations faced by Jesus in the wilderness: these were the pitfalls into which the people of Israel fell and they are the pitfalls into which we can so easily fall. This season of Lent enables us to join Jesus in the wilderness. To do this, we don’t have to go to the desert itself, but we need to be willing to go through the desert experience. It is an opportunity to recalibrate ourselves and regain some spiritual equilibrium. It is a time of hope and new beginnings. Used positively, we may find that Lent is Easter in disguise.
St. Mary’s Church, Hadlow
First Sunday of Lent – 17th February, 2013.