Lent 1: Hope in the Wilderness

Year A – Lent 1

Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Most Tuesday mornings I give an assembly at Frieth School. It is the most terrifying 15 minutes of my week! This past Tuesday the topic was of course, Shrove Tuesday; I asked the children what does Jesus have to do with pancakes? They answered well and we moved on to Ash Wednesday – again good answers. Then I rounded off the assembly with the story of Matthew 4 using the medium of cartoon.

At the end, a little chap in Year 1, put up his hand and announced that there was nothing about temptation in the cartoon just shown. I realised that I had to expand out what I meant by temptation beyond reducing screen time and sweetie intake for this discerning crowd.

The idea behind fasting for Lent is rooted in this Gospel story; Jesus was able to resist temptation at his weakest points. We give up things in Lent to remind ourselves of the sacrifices that Jesus made. It is not so much about the cakes, chocolates & wine as it is about the attitude of our hearts towards God and the sacrifices of Jesus. Lent always starts with this Gospel reading as set.

In Jesus’ baptism, his identity is revealed by God as being God’s son, precious and beloved. The Spirit then leads him into the wilderness where that truth will be powerfully tested and assaulted by Satan. Jesus is not treated as we might expect post-baptism. If you have been to a baptism recently you may have experienced a lavish celebration after the event! There is no cake or bouncy castle for Jesus, no lingering in the glory of baptism for him.

We may question why God would choose to do this to his beloved Son. Isn’t that the question that we ask when things happen to us that we weren’t expecting or desiring? Why me?! Come on God – why?

One explanation for Jesus’ temptation is that he had to determine what kind of Messiah he was going to be. Jesus was at the very start of his public ministry; He might as well start as he means to go on.

I want to briefly look at the temptations that Jesus faced and what they might say to us today.

“Tell This Stone to Become Bread”

There should not be any doubt that Jesus could not have done that. He was, after all, hungry. He had been fasting for forty days! He could have made himself a lovely, fresh loaf and satisfied his hunger right then and there. Served himself as he had the power to.

It was the Spirit that led Jesus into the wilderness; this was not something he decided to do himself. He trusted his Father in heaven so to turn the stone into bread would have shown distrust in his father. Many of us have the power to look after ourselves, provide for ourselves to a standard that we see fit. I can do it myself, thank you very much! And probably better than you could anyway.

By doing things for ourselves all the time, we too can stop exercising trust in God to provide for us. His provision is always better, remember we too are his beloved and precious children.

“Throw Yourself Down From Here”

The second temptation is also about trust in God as Satan wants Jesus to put God to the test. This never ends well! Sometimes we put God to the test too when we try to bargain with him. I’ll do this, if you’ll do that.’

God is more than capable of handling our questions, our doubts, our anger and even our temptations. They need to be handed over to him though. What is not acceptable is dangling these things, threatening to do them in order to make God responsible for our actions.

What’s the root here? Power. People crave power and Satan knows this. We want to be in control of our own lives, destinies, plans. Adam and Eve were tempted by the prospect of power. They believed, with no proof at all, that eating the apple would make them like God.

The serpent convinced them that there was more to God than he was letting on. Surely just living the good life in the garden was not all that God wanted. Really? The idea that we can become our own ‘god’ is pervasive in current culture. We want to be powerful, image is everything. Is it? People are falling down all over the place – so get torn down, others throw themselves down.

“If You Worship Me, It Will All Be Yours”

It is very difficult to imagine that Jesus would be tempted to worship Satan. This final temptation is more about Jesus wanting to take Satan’s authority out of his hands. This authority is temporary and limited but it still is very real; a quick read of the news and it is easy to see.

Sometimes we may find ourselves wanting to take control of a situation, overtake another person, and get our own way. We want to be the centre of attention. Adam and Eve listen to the wrong voice and it didn’t end well for them. The serpent cast doubt in their minds, the apple was eaten and out of the garden they went. God gave them one prohibition and a relatively small one at that.

We listen to the wrong voices! We worship the wrong things, the wrong people, the wrong stuff – thinking that they hold the key to our security. It is only in God that we will ever be truly secure. Who are we worshipping today?

Finally, what do we do with this? What Satan and so often the world offers us is false. It will not give us what we think it will. It’s an illusion. Adam and Eve fell for it even though they had heard directly from God about what he had to offer them. Jesus did not despite his circumstances.

The time of temptation was to establish that Jesus had choices and desires of his own, like all humans do. We, following the example of Jesus, must choose to make God’s will our own will. We choose through our temptations and wilderness times what kind of Christian we will be. There is hope in the wilderness; God does not abandon Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus is ministered to by the angels. When we find ourselves in the wilderness we are not abandoned as it is Jesus who tends to us.
Lent can be a wilderness season of sorts as we make time (or should make time) to examine where we are at with God. Jesus was able to answer Satan at each turn with scripture from Deuteronomy. Maybe we need to brush up on what the bible says (or doesn’t)!

A wilderness season, however challenging, will never be wasted if we believe and know that God is with us, that those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved, that our identity lies in being His beloved son or daughter. If we can hang on to that, then whatever the wilderness throws at us, whatever illusions we live under can be overcome.

Sunday Before Lent: Transfiguration

Exodus 24:12-18
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

We are about to enter the last week of the short season of Epiphany. This coming Wednesday we begin forty days of Lent. Over the past few weeks at various services I have talked about epiphany. As a reminder, the Greek word for “epiphany” means disclosure, manifestation, unveiling or appearance.
Matthew 17 for this week describes one of the greatest “epiphanies” ever; the Transfiguration of Jesus before Peter, James, and John. It is complete with blinding light, a heavenly voice, and visions of Moses and Elijah.
The event was so mind-boggling that the New Testament reading this week in 2 Peter 1 admits that some people dismissed the story as a “cleverly invented tale.” The Transfiguration account is in Matthew, Mark & Luke so we know it is an important event.

Close your eyes just for a moment.

I would like you to consider: what does Jesus look like to you?

What colour is his hair, his eyes, teeth – crooked or straight? Ears – big or small? Tall or short? Hands – rough or smooth?

Just create a picture of what you think He looks like.

By this point in Matthew’s Gospel we have seen a very human Jesus. He was born, had a childhood; Jesus eats, drinks, sleeps, goes to a wedding, goes sailing, meets up with friends. He travels, he cries, he gets angry, he wants to be alone. All very normal and human activities. But we also see Jesus healing people, exercising demons; doing more supernatural things. He is doing a lot of teaching and preaching and the crowds are growing and the Pharisees are starting to close ranks.

Then we have the Transfiguration! If there were hints that Jesus was something more than strictly human, here we have it! Jesus really is more than a mere man, more than human. The Transfiguration is the luminous story of a mystical encounter, not only between God and God’s Beloved but also between those at the centre of the story and those who watch. Those at the centre are Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Those who watch are Peter, James and John. And then, of course, there are all of us watching all of them.

I want to focus on the watching, the listening and the closeness to God that happens in this story.

Peter, James and John are invited to accompany Jesus up the mountain where he physically changes his appearance before them. The description is that of a heavenly being, dressed in white. These three probably had a better understanding of who Jesus was; beyond being only human. Just before the Transfiguration account, Jesus asks Peter ‘who do you say I am?’ and Peter replies ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’. Jesus blesses Peter for this answer.

Once this acknowledgment takes place, Jesus begins to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, to suffer and die at the hands of the chief priests and the elders, and on the third day rise again.

While it might not have made complete sense to Peter, James and John, they have already decided who Jesus is. He is the Messiah. They had stayed close to Jesus throughout his ministry being the first disciples called. They stayed with him through to the end – even Peter who denies Jesus three times never really leaves him.

If we want to see who Jesus is, if we want to listen to Him – we need to stay close to him.

Go back for another moment to your mental picture of Jesus. How far away is he from you? Three inches, three feet, across the room, a speck in the distance?

Where we place Jesus in our thinking and in our lives says something about how close we are to him. If we want to see his face then we need to stay close. Keep Your Eyes on Jesus. Also keep your ears on Jesus.

For the second time, the disciples hear a voice from the cloud saying ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. They first heard this at Jesus’ baptism; but this time there is an addendum, ‘listen to him’.

If we want to hear Him; then we need to stay close to Him. Jesus is always speaking but we are not always willing to listen to his voice. People sometimes tell me that they don’t think they have ever heard from God or had any encounter with him, what some might call a ‘mountain top’ experience – whatever that might mean for them.

I am always curious to know how people are positioning themselves to ‘hear from God’. Closeness to God is a thread that runs through both the Old & New Testaments.

There is an intimacy to a relationship with God; we see this as he takes aside certain people – Moses, Peter, James and John for particular purposes. Sometimes we have to be taken out of our circumstances and situations to meet with God. Moses is taken up and spends an extended amount of time in the presence of God: forty days and forty nights. Moses is given instructions for the building of the ark of the Covenant and other laws and commandments for the people of Israel whom he was leading.

Moses reappears in the Transfiguration story as representing the OT law that is fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. Throughout the OT God is hidden because he is too glorious to be seen by his people. They could not survive in all that glory.
It is through Jesus that we can stand in the glory of God – the God that is hidden in the OT is the God revealed and exposed in the person of Jesus in the NT.

It is in the Transfiguration that we are reminded of greatness and otherness of Jesus and of God which is helpful as we head into Lent. We need reminding that Jesus is more than we are, he is more than enough.

I think that many Christians try to reduce him down, make him fit into our lives, constrain him to our view of the world. We easily dismiss Him when he doesn’t do or act how we want him to.

With Transfiguration Sunday, we come to the end of another liturgical season. We have spent time with the people who experienced Epiphany (the wise men, Mary & Joseph, Simeon & Anna). We now prepare for the long darkness of Lent. We can’t know ahead of time what mountains and valleys lie ahead. We can’t predict how God will speak, and in what guise Jesus might appear.
But we can trust in this: whether on the brightest mountain, or in the darkest valley, Jesus is with us. Even as he blazes with holy light, his hand remains warm and solid on our shoulders. Even when we’re on our knees in the wilderness, he whispers, “Do not be afraid.”

So listen to the ordinary. Scan the horizon. Keep listening. Keep looking. It is good for us to be here.

2nd Sunday Before Lent: Worry less?!


Romans 8:18-25
Matthew 6:25-34

I started this sermon sitting in my priest seat on Friday afternoon. I was waiting for the first of 7 funeral/thanksgiving/ashes interments/cremation services that populate my diary over the next 3 weeks to start. I looked at the beautiful flowers by the altar, the 6 candle stands that would surround the coffin.

As I enjoyed a few minutes of quiet, I thought about the words that would be spoken, the tears that would be shed, the memories and thoughts of those gathered here. I also thought about the deceased and wondered about their worries and how they had now all come to an end.

Then I thought a little bit wider to the earthquake victims in Turkey & Syria. Can we even begin to fathom their worries? My thoughts then came back to this country and the worries that so many are burdened with. Next the Church of England and the General Synod meeting of this past week that discussed the blessing of same sex civil marriages. This will be of great worry to many people on both sides of the argument.

Today is also ‘racial justice Sunday’ which marks the 30-year anniversary of the racially-motivated murder of Black teenager Stephen Lawrence in Eltham, south-east London. This is to be a time for all churches to remember, reflect and respond to the importance of racial justice, and an opportunity to give thanks for the gift of human diversity and commit to ending racial discrimination. I am worried I haven’t done anything about this and have not paid very much attention.

How many of you worry about things that don’t ever happen? I think a lot of people tend to worry about things that won’t ever happen! Couldn’t possibly happen! But it might – so worry about it! Let’s throw that on the pile too!

Rather aptly these days, Matthew 6 comes to soothe our worried souls. This is part of the wider Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is addressing a crowd of people for whom worry was evidently a part of life too. Jesus is speaking to the practical needs of food, drink, clothing and housing. Very real issues to an impoverished crowd. Very real issues to many people today.

Jesus is trying to give his listeners some perspective on their worries by giving them a bigger picture of life. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing? We are of value to God; more than the birds are and he looks after them. Can you add any hours to your life by worrying?

If we can believe in our great value to God, it frees us from much worry. I’m not sure many things compare to the challenge of ceasing to worry. Maybe one reason why it is hard to stop worrying is because we have so many prime opportunities to practise. Yet we will never overcome worry by eliminating reasons to worry.

One of my Grandmothers was of Mennonite German descent and she had a saying that loosely and more politely translated from low-German to English was: ‘don’t wee before the water comes.’ What she meant is that we are not to get anxious before there is something to get anxious about.

Jesus would tell us that when these situations arise, and they will, we are to go to him. Jesus sums up the futility of worry in verses 25 & 26; we can’t add a minute to our life by worrying. The paradox is that there will always be something to worry about.

Simply put, worry is not particularly helpful. Even when we seem to worry about ‘important things’; even when we worry in the name of love it will accomplish nothing.

Well then, what are we supposed to do?! It seems that we need to change our perspective by seeking the kingdom of God. How do you do that? A starting point may be to learn to turn our worry effort into prayer. Have a conversation with God; that is what prayer effectively is. He already knows what we need. Prayer is the way to access those needs, to build a relationship with the one who created us.

The second perspective changer is thinking about creation. The Old Testament reading for today is Genesis chapter 1 & 2 which tells the story of creation.
Whatever we make of the Genesis account of creation, we are given a view of God that is huge. God the creator of everything who made something out of nothing, brought order to chaos, called things into being and they were. God saw that everything he did was good. The big things like the wind and water, light and darkness, sea and sky right down to the seeds to birds to the things that creep along the ground. God took his time to do all these things.

Seven times in the creation story we are told we come from a God who sees. God steps back from his work and he looks, he notices each tiny piece. We also come from a God who creates new things. On each of the six days in creation, God made something new.

He still does today! We wake up every day and there are new things in the world. The snowdrops and daffodils, the tiny buds on the trees. Nothing goes unnoticed. God’s mercies are new every morning. God is also big enough to take on our worries, our cares. Cast your cares on him.

As Christians we need to continually learn and re-learn to trust in the providence of God. Jesus uses the birds of the air and the lilies of the field as an example. Birds and lilies can’t provide for themselves. Birds neither sow nor reap. Lilies can’t toil nor spin but are beautifully made. We are of more value to God than these.

St Paul in Romans urges us to look at creation too as it longs for revelation and freedom that comes from God. Yes there is suffering now and there is glory to come. Everything will be set free from destruction and decay but we have to wait.

Paul is calling us to hope; it is in hope we were saved. Hope that is unseen means learning to be patient. God is patient with us; not wanting anyone to perish.

Is it possible to reframe our worries into hopeful waiting by seeking the kingdom of God? I hope so! There are endless things to worry about, no question. Worrying will not eliminate the things we worry about. It will not add any hours to our lives. Seeking God and his kingdom, remembering we are part of something bigger that also waits to be free gives hope. This will add eternity to our lives and that is well worth waiting for.
I am going to end with a poem that we used at Friday Prayers in Fawley this week…

Forget about Enlightenment
by John Welwood.

Forget about enlightenment.
Sit down wherever you are
And listen to the wind signing in your veins.
Feel the love, the longing, the fear in your bones.
Open your heart to who you are, right now,
Not who you would like to be,
Not the saint you are striving to become,
But the being right here before you, inside you, around you.
All of you is holy.
You are already more and less than whatever you can know.
Breathe out, Touch in, Let go.



Psalm 48:1-7
Malachi 3:1-5
Luke 2:22-40

Candlemas reminds us that Jesus is the light of the world. This is the message that we and the wider world needs right now. There is light in the darkness of the current age and that light is Jesus. This is the same opening that I used last year! Not that I expect you to remember that.

The world sadly remains in very much the same position; darkness, violence, oppression in many places, etc. We wait, not always patiently, for things to get better or at least to be less bad.

The prophet Malachi speaks to the time when, ‘The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.’ This is partly fulfilled when the baby Jesus arrived at the temple in the loving arms of his parents. Mary and Joseph, being good Jewish parents, bring Jesus to the temple as was the custom of the day. This was to be expected as part of custom and fulfilment of Jewish law. Any presentation was a three-step process: circumcision, redemption and purification.

Circumcision is first commanded in Genesis by God. It would serve as a sign of the covenant (a promise) between God and Abraham. The rite of circumcision was God’s way of requiring the Jewish people to become physically different, by cutting off because of their relationship to Him. Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day of his young life.

The Rite of Redemption was a reminder to the Jewish people that ‘the Lord brought them out of Egypt with his mighty hand’ (Exodus 13). God had redeemed His people from their slavery in Egypt. Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem in obedience and thanksgiving to God for having redeemed His people.

Thirdly, the Rite of Purification. It is an act of cleansing for the mother after giving birth. When this time was over (33 days for a boy and 66 days for a girl), the mother was to bring offerings to the priest. The required sacrifice was a lamb plus a turtle dove. However, if the mother could not afford a lamb, she was to take two turtle doves. They brought the least and were given the greatest.

In these rituals, Jesus is presented to the people he came to save and redeem. This is where Simeon and Anna fit. They were at the temple the day that Jesus was presented. They are proof of the faithfulness of God. Simeon got himself ready through devotion, worship, prayer, watching and waiting. Anyone wanting to experience the glory of God, want to deepen your relationship, strengthen your faith – be like Simeon and work at it!

The faithfulness of God also features in Anna’s story. I don’t think you can talk about Simeon and then ignore Anna. She was the next person Jesus is presented to. Anna has lived a life of patient hope as she spent 65-ish years in the temple. She didn’t waver, didn’t give up but daily lived with faithfulness and expectation until the day the Messiah arrived.

On this day of presentation, we are reminded again of the ultimate faithfulness of God. We see the examples in the lives of Joseph, Mary, Simeon & Anna. We experience God’s faithfulness in the life of Jesus. We also have to trust in the unseen faithfulness of God, the faithfulness to come. Jesus is the light of the world; even when we cannot or choose not to see it.

We will all be presented to God one day – hopefully well into the future. We have to work at having pure and clean hearts and hands. Between now and then, may the faithfulness of God to us and our faithfulness to him be evident to all.