Trusting in the wilderness

Sermon given on 6 March 2022

Luke 4: 1 – 13

It’s not often that the Choir Director gives the sermon!
But, this time last week I was beginning my mammoth drive to Central London, for Caroline’s Licensing Service, and next Sunday I will be in Oxford – so I thought I probably should preach today!

It was a curious experience, last Sunday – seeing Caroline again, looking just the same but in a strange place.
And, although Licensing services are done differently in the Diocese of London – there was the same familiar legal jargon as Caroline was handed her licence and “installed” (wonderful term – “installed”!)

And I’m guessing that next weekend will be just as odd.

Stella and I will be returning to Trinity College Oxford, where we met, for a college reunion and for the memorial service of the then chaplain, Trevor Williams.
I will be directing the choir at that service, more than half of whom will be the very same singers I worked with back in 1986 – and whom I haven’t seen, or heard, in over 30 years.

And so we’ll be returning to a very familiar place which will obviously have evolved; and also seeing again some very familiar faces which will also no doubt have changed in the decades since we were there.

Taken together, then, those two weekends start to feel a bit like pilgrimage – that deliberate exercise of taking ourselves into new places, and finding familiar experiences and glimpses of God’s presence IN the strangeness of what is new to us
AND also of looking at familiar places with fresh eyes: looking for new and unexpected signs of God’s presence in the places we thought we knew.

And that’s not a bad place to start our journey through Lent – with its focus on the renewal of our faith.

Lent is a time to take a “fresh look” – to recognise what has become stale and needs refreshing. And Lent is a time to see what we’ve been missing – while we’ve been too busy with our own thoughts.

Our reading this morning recalls Jesus taking himself off into the strangeness of the wilderness. And I’m not going to delve too far into that, as many of us heard virtually the same reading explored on Wednesday.

But that was Matthew’s version.
And, this morning, I just want to note some of the subtle difference between that account and Luke’s,
which we’ve just heard.

Both accounts have the same three temptations, but Luke puts them in a slightly different order so that he ends with the challenge to Jesus, to throw himself off the Temple to prove that the Father would save him.
And there’s another curious little change at this point.
Whereas Jesus and Satan mostly exchange quotes from scripture with: “It is written… this” – “It is written.. that”,
here Luke has Jesus saying – “It is said that – you will not put the Lord your God to the test.”

It is said – not it is written – and there must have been a reason that change. Was he implying that this was current teaching, among the faithful – rather than just inherited wisdom from the texts?
And if so, does it still ring true for us? Are we liable to put God to the test?
Certainly it’s very easy to find ourselves trying to bargain with God.
Even those who have very little belief or faith at all will sometimes cry out in desperation:
”God if you’ll just help me – if you’ll just keep him safe – if you’ll just make her well – THEN I’ll start going to church, or I’ll give this or do that.”

And I’m absolutely NOT suggesting that there’s anything wrong with anyone crying out to God for help – quite the opposite in fact. But what I think we’re being cautioned against is making that cry some kind of transaction.

Carved at the back of church, here, is a reminder that all things come from God and that we can only give back to God is already his. Our worship and praise and love is due to him without any special favours to us first.

Promising God that “If you will just – then I will” really doesn’t cut it.

What Jesus demonstrated, from the Temple, was an absolute trust in the Father that needed no proof.

There’s another difference, right at the end of the two accounts of Jesus in the wilderness.
In Luke, Satan departs from him “until an opportune time” – waiting to sow doubt in the heart of Jesus at the Garden of Gethsememe – lurking in our world, perhaps, to sow confusion, and doubt and division, whenever an opportunity presents itself.

In Matthew, however, when Jesus has resisted all three temptations, Satan leaves and immediately angels come and minister to Jesus –
as evil is rejected, goodness takes its place.

It’s been said that Vladimir Putin chose “an opportune time” to invade Ukraine:

And, caught right in the middle of the unfolding chaos, is the Convent of St Elizabeth, in Minsk – the capital of neighbouring Belarus.

It’s from that Convent that we have our two icons.
Founded in 1999, St Elizabeth’s is a very new community in a very young country. Minsk itself has been under the control of Kiev, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Germany and, for much of the 20th Century the USSR – only achieving independence in 1991.
So they know only too well what invasion feels like.

They also know what it means to trust in God – not only because both the church has survived the various changes there, but because of the colossal amount of good that manage to do in their city – funded only by their sales of religious art and donations to them.

They run a residential home for children with learning disabilities, and two large farms – one for men and one for women – which provide shelter, food, clothing and work for people who would otherwise be homeless.
They are now understandably concerned that their work might be hampered by any escalation of conflict in the region.

At the same time they are an Orthodox community – linked to the Russian Orthodox Church,
which has done rather well under Putin’s regime.
And so, for the residents of St Elizabeth’s,
there must be something of a tug of loyalties.
The reflected glory of a strong, influential church must be helpful to the Convent in raising funds for its work.
And yet, like the 600 Orthodox priests who have just issued a statement condemning the war in Ukraine, they simply can’t square the unfolding horror there with their own faith and mission.

Their response has been to publish a “prayer for use in time of war” – recognising the seriousness of the situation – and crying out for God’s help on behalf of all the Orthodox, and for all involved in conflict,
that he might “remove from their midst all hostility, confusion and hatred, and lead everyone along the path of reconciliation.”

That sounds like a plea that evil might be banished so that good may flourish in its place – so that they can continue to minister and be messengers of God’s grace (angels) to those that need them.

And perhaps we can make the same prayer – not only in relation to Ukraine, but to countless other situations nearer to home.
As we make our pilgrimage through this Lent,
it may seem that we are being tested –
to hold our nerve, and keep on trusting in God’s purposes, though the world around us seems even less certain than last year.

Let’s begin then by looking afresh at ourselves and the world we inhabit;
giving thanks for the many good things we find there;
and praying for strength to tackle the things which we see that need to be changed,
so that goodness may truly flourish:
in us,
through us,
and around us.