Promises, promises!

Sermon preached on 5th March 2017

Readings: Genesis 2: 15-17; 3: 1-7  Matthew 4: 1 – 11

Yesterday, I stumbled across a compilation of TV adverts from the 1970s and 80s – and it’s surprising how many are still lodged somewhere in the memory, even though I may have not have THOUGHT about them for a long time.

There was the glamorous Nanette Newman, with her “hand that do dishes”, advertising Fairy washing-up liquid – alongside an impossibly long and shiny table covered in impossibly white and shiny plates and cups and dishes.

There were reminders of the much-loved and highly inventive adverts for Hamlet cigars: always accompanied by Bach’s “Air on a G sting”, various characters endured some embarrassing mishap or other – then lit up a cigar and smiled through it all anyway.

One which I didn’t remember was an early one for McDonalds – which seemed just to list the various kinds of burger which we may or may not wish to inflict on our digestive systems: a reminder perhaps that the Fast Food chains that now surround us are in fact a relatively recent addition to our culture.
One thing that became clear surprisingly quickly is the fact that many of the adverts are actually about something very different from the actual product they are promoting: they “work” by sowing the seeds of “dissatisfaction with our lot” and offering the illusion of something different – “buy this and your life will be a whole lot better”.

I remembered very clearly an early advert for the Breakfast Cereal ”Ready Brek” – with the strap line “Central heating for kids”. Since, in the 70s, I was still at primary School and having to wear short trousers – in winter as well as summer – I do remember pestering my parents to buy some, on the assumption that I WOULD feel warmer on the way to school and in the playground once I got there. I quickly discovered that it didn’t work!

Barclaycard filmed Alan Wicker – in various exotic locations – clearly implying that with this credit card the world could be our oyster…. provided we can pay the bills afterwards.

Meanwhile, there was a common sub-plot to adverts for anything from Old Spice after-shave to Starbrite toothpaste, from Clearasil skin cleanser to the Maltesers which probably gave us spots in the first place: all of those things, and many more, would, it seems, guarantee to get us noticed by the opposite sex.

And harmony between the generations could apparently be bought either in the shape of a finger of fudge (“just enough to give your kids a treat” or, more recently, a packet of Worther’s originals.

I suppose, to some degree, we accept that this is the way advertising works – with so many things on offer, advertisers have to do something to grab our attention.
But I’m not sure that it IS only in the adverts that this kind of psychology is used.
The same sense of dissatisfaction – of yearning for something better – seems to have found its way into the mainstream TV schedule: “Grand Designs”, “Building Dream Homes” and several imitations promote the idea that you can buy or build your way to lasting happiness: your “forever home” is just a few months’ graft and a large overdraft away.
Programmes such as “Escape to the Country” and “Home or Abroad” are based on the idea that you can simply up sticks and start again somewhere else.

What is offered in either case is not just a shiny new home, or a change of scene, but the vision of a new life – a new “you” – freed from the problems of our daily reality, rather like being on holiday for ever.

That vision is, of course, just an illusion – no more real than the side benefits of Ready Brek or Clearasil.

And yet these programmes are popular – because they do tap into a real yearning – a natural desire to strive for more. The fact that one of the 10 Commandments instructs us not to “covet” our neighbour’s possessions – suggests that this instinct is not a new one.

We find it hard to be satisfied with what we have – and we find it equally hard to be satisfied with who we are.
And so we’re taken in very willingly, by the promise of something more, no matter how illusory that promise may actually be.
That very human instinct lies behind both of our bible readings this morning.

Adam and Eve have been created in God’s image – they have all of creation at their disposal – and yet the serpent persuades them that they can be even MORE like God – if only they will eat of the forbidden fruit. This is the one “product” they need to guarantee REAL happiness: but I the event that promise turns out to be false.

And as Jesus is tested in the wilderness, the tempter employs a certain logic: obviously Jesus is going to eat again some day, so why not just get on now and make himself some bread? Or, since the Father has already told him “You are my beloved Son”, surely it’s not too much to ask him to show that love – by sending angels to save him from a sticky end if he jumps? Finally, comes the real test – the promise of absolute power. Again, that is an illusion – as that power is not his to give away.
What’s on offer here is the “forever home” type of promise – a vision of lasting happiness that neatly forgets reality – the things that will happen beyond our control and force us to adapt, whether we like it or not.
Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness – our 40 days of Lent – give space to challenge and overcome those deceptions: to recognise the difference between the promises of God and the illusions that we, or others, construct for ourselves.

Jesus heads out into the wilderness to think about who he is and what he has to do – and we now face the same challenge – to learn who we are meant to be – to learn to be true to ourselves – to learn to be satisfied with ourselves.

That’s not an argument for having no ambition – for simply being content not to achieve much in life – in fact it may be the opposite. Discovering who God calls us to be – recognising the unique gifts of those around us – may in fact drive us to challenge the status quo – to challenge any people or systems which seem to prevent people from living fully human lives.
The first step, however, is that act of recognition –– that we don’t need to and cannot, in fact, buy ourselves into something new or greater – that we are already “God-like” – made in God’s image.
This afternoon and tomorrow evening – 13 parishioners will begin preparations for Confirmation. They come in various shapes and sizes – 8 of them under 16 years of age, and 5 of them a little older!
That’s really encouraging, I think – it’s certainly the largest group I’ve ever seen here and the first time in many years that we’ve been able to have a Confirmation service here in our own church. And so I hope we will ALL be excited for them and strengthened by the promise of what they bring among us.

For all of those candidates, then, this Lent will be a particularly important one – in discovering who they are and who God calls them to be, within the fellowship of his holy people.

And so I’d ask you to pray for them all – as they begin to explore – and for me, please, as I try to guide them along the way.

Throughout these 40 days may we also pray for ourselves, and for each other, that we can stop trying to be more than ourselves – that we can learn to love ourselves as we are – because we are already made in the image and likeness of the One who loved us first, and loves us still.