Sermon at St Matthias’ Church on 25th February 2007
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert.” Luke 4:1
The story of the temptations in the desert, which we read at the beginning of each Lent, usually prompts us to think about the temptations we face. Instead of thinking about the temptations, I want to think about the context of those temptations, the circumstances in which Jesus found himself; what can we learn from the place where Jesus went?
Absolute isolation is a rare thing. We live in a world where there are people all around. Even if we are alone, it would be rare for us to be absolutely isolated. Anywhere you go in Ireland, if you face an emergency then there are people to call upon. Even in the wider world absolute isolation is a rare thing, you might be a round the world yachtsman or a polar explorer, but there will be the radio communication and the satellite navigation, and if you run into trouble the aircraft will be out looking for you.
Jesus is alone, there would have been no-one upon whom to call, no-one to come to the rescue. Absolute isolation is a frightening prospect. Imagine being entirely alone. What if you were sick? What if you fell on one of the rocks and broke an ankle? You would just lie there and slowly die.
Loneliness always seems stronger when it is combined with darkness. I really don’t like the dark. There was a footpath through Saint Andrew’s churchyard in my home village of High Ham. It wasn’t really a shortcut; by the time you had taken a diversion to get from the village green to the church gates and then followed the path around the church to get to the gate in the wall on the far side, it was just as easy to walk along the road; but it was a source of dares for young boys. Growing up in sight of Glastonbury Tor, we believed in ever story and legend that we were told. Ghosts were an absolute certainty, no-one would have confessed to not having seen one! The churchyard was a definite location for ghosts, the church dated from Norman times, so there had to be lots of them. The dare was to walk alone in the dark from one gate to the other. It was daft, the only danger was falling over fallen headstones in the long grass at the back of the church, but boys are daft. The darkness became something sinister and threatening.
Darkness for me is something to be avoided, but for other people it’s an opportunity. The children’s school had a 24 hour sponsored run last autumn to raise money for a telescope for those interested in astronomy. The night sky for many people is a source of interest and wonder. If we are to enter into Jesus’ experience of the wilderness we need to experience darkness away from all the city lights and the glow in the sky and to look into the sky as Jesus would have done during those forty nights. When we do that that we have a sense of our unimportance, our frailty, our mortality, but also a sense of God’s great love, that in this infinite space he has time for infinitesimally small people like us, we can ponder on the words of Psalm 8.
Along with the isolation and the darkness, the wilderness offers Jesus silence. Many people put on the television or the radio, even if they are not listening. I remember being a curate in the North and saying to one lady that she had left her television on in the other room. ‘Oh, I keep it on’, she said, ‘it gives me a bit of company’. I must confess to being like her, often the car radio is on, but I have no idea what is being said.
There is a tendency to fill our lives with noise. It’s almost as though we are afraid of what thoughts might come into our heads if we were quiet. If we fill our every waking moment with inconsequential babble, then there will be no place for disturbing thoughts. Look at the stuff we watch on television, how much of it is actually worth watching? Our satellite dish got damaged at Christmas and I decided I wasn’t paying the €100 they wanted to fix it when we were moving in a couple of months.
I realized when we had only four channels how much I had filled my life with pointless noise. Why not turn off the set and listen to the silence?How can we hear God if we never take time to listen? The story of Jesus in the desert teaches us the importance of silence, of being quiet for even a short time so that we can hear the voice of God.
Isolation, darkness and silence are experiences that can have both negative and positive aspects. There are other physical experiences in the desert that do not have a positive side to them, but can still give insights.
Hunger is not positive. Archbishop Empey once told me a story from the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in 1998. One morning a Filipino bishop came to breakfast and poured himself a mountainous bowl of corn flakes. Dr Empey looked at him and said jokingly, ‘You are not fasting’. The Filipino looked at him in seriousness and said, ‘My friend, when I return home there will be many times of fasting’.
There is a difference between fasting in our own country where we have full cupboards of food and the hunger faced by countless people who simply have nothing to eat. To be hungry is something we can choose, not because it necessarily makes us any better, but because it gives us a tiny insight into the realities of our world.
Hunger is not a positive experience, nor are the other physical experiences that Jesus went through in those forty days, the scorching heat of the midday sun, the bitter cold of the nights, the discomfort of living in the open air, sleeping on the rocks.
I don’t cope well with physical discomfort. I have decided I can cope with most things as long as I have water to wash – it might mean standing in a shack, pouring buckets over my head my head, but I can cope with that as long as I feel clean. My problem in facing what Jesus faced would be the thought of not changing clothes for forty days, I couldn’t cope with it; it makes me itch to think about it! Maybe it is a useful exercise to think about what things we need in order to cope. What things are essential? If everything were lost tomorrow, what things would I want to replace first? It is remarkable how much I have that I don’t need, yet after a while things that I once regarded as luxuries become necessities. Jesus’ physical experience should help thoughts about what things are really important.
There are two emotions that Jesus’ physical experience would have caused that are not mentioned in the Bible and that might help in thinking about the story. The first is fear. Being in the open air, alone, at night, in an environment where wild animals were common would have been frightening. You become wary of every little sound. What things do I fear?
The other emotion is boredom. I remember in teenage days working on a plant nursery for a couple of summers and there being a fourteen acre field where the hoeing between the individual plants had to be done by hand. I used to dread being put on that job, not because of the blisters on the hands at the end of the day, but because of the boredom, I wasn’t old enough to have many things to think about. How does Jesus cope with boredom? I don’t know, but as I have got older I have found that boredom can be an opportunity to get thoughts in order and to think about things that might otherwise get no thought.
Maybe this Lent, we could think about the reality of Jesus’ experience and try to imagine it for ourselves: the isolation, the darkness and the silence; the hunger and the discomfort; the fear and the boredom. When we get close to Jesus, then we will hear the voice of God. How can we hear God if we never take time to listen?