Minister's Sermon - 1st March 2020
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenBible Study for Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church

Sunday 1st March 2020

Matthew 4.1-11

Soon after I began to take prayer seriously, I found a spiritual director, who introduced me to the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola. He says that the spiritual exercises are a collection of different forms of prayer, to help us become spiritually fit, just as we have exercises to get physically fit. Because the purpose of prayer, is to shape our lives so that we become the people God made us to be, living as faithful and fruitful disciples of Christ. Prayer is never intended to stop with prayer. Prayer is a beginning! At some point in our lives, ‘though, many of us find ourselves in the wilderness. The wildernesses we find ourselves aren’t all the same. Some come as we face suffering, in the form of illness, or death. Others come when we another form of loss, whether ours or other peoples. Some are the result of disillusionment - with God, with faith, with the church, with ourselves, with politicians or the world. And wilderness might also be a place we choose to go. As I did when I spent thirty days in silence praying Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. So, today, I want to introduce you to prayer in the wilderness. By offering three short reflections. The first begins with a video. The second is a reflection on the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. And the third is about prayer when the wilderness is challenging.

Here is a video of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. The days are in the top left-hand corner. When we’ve finished watching, I’m going to ask, what strikes you most?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-6a25Yo2wE

Talk to your neighbour about what strikes you in this video.

The thing that stuck me, is that Jesus’ time in the wilderness isn’t all bad, it’s not all about temptation! There are good things there too. Games. Time to look at things. Talking with animals. It’s only later it begins to get dark. And it’s the same in Stanley Spencer’s paintings of “Jesus in the Wilderness.”

So, when I speak about prayer in the wilderness, I’m speaking about a rich biblical theme. In the quiet afternoon today, and the evenings I’ll lead on centering prayer, we’ll be using five of the many wilderness themes. Silence or solitude. Testing. Self-emptying. Encountering God, ourselves and other people. And transformation. The wilderness is about so much more than temptation! But o the first day of Lent it is also about temptation. And that brings us to today’s reading.

The spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness AFTER his baptism. That’s important, because he goes into the wilderness ONLY AFTER God uses his baptism, to affirm both his divinity and his humanity. Jesus doesn’t need to be baptised. And John the Baptist tries to stop him. But he’s baptised in solidarity with us. His baptism confirms that Jesus is just like us, one of the human beings God loves, God chooses, and God invites to live a life worthy of our calling as God’s sons and daughters. So, when Jesus goes into the wilderness, it’s his humanity and not his divinity, that’s being tested. After 40 days and 40 nights of fasting he is starving, exhausted, empty. And when Satan - the devil - the tempter – whoever or whatever we call him or it – comes to tempt Jesus, he doesn’t come to make Jesus do something “bad.” Food, safety from harm and power, are necessary for human life. Instead, the tempter invites Jesus do what seems entirely reasonable for all the wrong reasons. Because the temptations invite him to let go of his identity as a human being by using his divine power. (1) And we know its Jesus’ identity that’s being tested, because each test begins with the words, “If you are the Son of God ...” (2)

But this isn’t only about Jesus. The prayer of thanksgiving in the Methodist communion liturgy for Lent says, “Holy and Gracious God, we give you thanks and praise that in the fullness of time you gave your only Son to shares our human nature and to be tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin.” (3) Jesus’ temptations are one of the ways we are given to help us understand God’s choice for us as human beings. They don’t help us choose between good and bad things. But rather what it means to choose what is life-giving and reject what is not. One commentator says that through these tests Jesus “articulates the parameters around who God is. In other words, what is truly life-giving resides inside certain boundaries.” (2)

In other words, he shows is how to live in a life-giving, and fruitful way.

The first temptation focuses on Jesus’ hunger. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” The temptation suggests that God’s beloved should not hunger. That there should be no such thing as unmet desire for those God loves. Or that wanting something and not getting it is not human. So, the tempter invites Jesus to deny his humanity, by performing a miracle. And turning stones into bread. But we know that it is not true that we should have anything we want. There is much we want and cannot have. Jesus could have turned stones into bread, but he could only do it, by manipulating creation for his own ends. Turning “what is not meant to be eaten — a stone — into an object he can exploit. As if,” Debie Thomas says, “the stone has no intrinsic value, beauty, or goodness, apart from Jesus’s ability to possess and consume it.” (1) Of course, this is what humans began to do the moment we settled in communities, and stopped replying on hunting and gathering for our food. And there is much that’s good in that. But another consequence is that we have exploited creation ad overused it resulting in the environment crisis we’re now experiencing. So somehow, we have to find a way of living in harmony with the planet that is our home, without seeking miracles, in a way that honours the beauty of the creation that God sees as “good.”

The second temptation focuses on Jesus’ vulnerability. “[God] will command his angels concerning you,” the tempter promises Jesus. “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Again, the implication is that those God loves, will always be safe. From physical or emotional harm, frailty, disease, accidents, and even from death. We know it’s a lie. But it is so enticing, because it taps into our deepest fears about what it means to be human in a broken, dangerous world. However, much we want to believe that being loved by God, protects us from our humanity. It does not. Debie Thomas says it like this. “If the cross teaches us anything, it teaches us that God’s precious children still bleed, still ache, still die. We are loved in our vulnerability. Not out of it.” (1)

The third temptation focuses on Jesus’s ego. After showing Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world,” the tempter promises him glory and authority. “It will all be yours,” he says. He suggests that God’s Son need not spend the next three years in a marginal place like Galilee. That Jesus – and we – can do God’s work best when we’re centre stage. That if we’re to be effective, we need a place in the places of power, rather than in those the world considers insignificant. This is how the tempter – and the world - sees things. But what about us? Can we trust that God’s love for us does not depend on what we do are or? That God loves us as we are and that we don’t need any other identity than being God’s beloved sons and daughters? Christians have long had an uneasy relationship with power. Our history is full of stories of “Christian” ambition, power, and authority going wrong. But that’s because human beings have refused to embrace Jesus’ version of significance. A significance rooted in humility and self-emptying that shows that authentic Christian power is found in weakness. (1)

Jesus sees through the temptations. He will not let the Tempter make him give up his identity for the sake of food. He will not limit his understanding of God’s word so it becomes a litmus test for faith. And he won’t grab power in the way of human beings who need to be admired by others. (2) He answers the tempter by quoting scripture, and his answers tell us that the things that are life-giving, are rooted in God’s way. A way in which we do not insist on having what we want, at the expense of our neighbours, or the planet. A way that doesn’t take short-cuts to wisdom. And a way that recognises power in Jesus’ being lifted up on – but lifted up on a cross. (1)

What is the aspect of being human that you struggle with most? From whom or what do you draw strength and courage with you feel the tug of temptations?

I was driven to prayer, in what felt like the wilderness of powerlessness, when the bombing of Afghanistan started in 2001. Up until the moment I heard it’d begun, I’d believed the politicians, when they said it would be a last resort. The chair of district told us the bombing had started at the beginning of a service. I had a sleepless night. I felt despair and confusion. I knew I needed to do something. But couldn’t think of anything useful. So, the next day, I phoned the church secretary and said I’d be in church at 5.30 for 30 minutes to pray in silence. If anyone else wanted to come they’d be welcome. 5 people turned up. The next day it was 8. Sometimes 10 or 15. We met almost every week-day for 2 years. We began by sharing a few thoughts and then we sat in silence for 15 minutes. The silence was important because we felt powerless and no words seemed adequate given what we were witnessing. But we always finished with a blessing for everyone involved. Afghans, soldiers, and politicians. The only time we did something, was when marched against the war in Iraq, in 2003. And the idea of going grew out of our shared silence.

People find themselves driven into wildernesses for many different reasons. Sometimes it’s when we face suffering, ‘through illness, or death. At other times, it’s another form of loss, whether ours or other peoples. While for others, it may be the result of disillusionment - with God, with faith, with the church, or with ourselves or the world. I want spend a little time talking about a particular sort of wilderness. The wilderness that some of us enter when words no longer work or when God seems to disappear. I want to talk about it because I don’t think I’d ever heard anyone talk about it before it happened to me. And I suspect that had God not taken the initiative of driving me into silence, and then placed a spiritual director in front of my nose, I wouldn’t have had a clue what to do about my prayer life – or my life! Instead, I discovered, a whole strand of Christian spirituality, I’d never heard of before.

In 2007, a book of letters written by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, shocked many people because it revealed an experience of God that many people could not understand. She wrote this. “I call, I cling, I want ... and there is no One to answer ... no One on Whom I can cling ... No One. Alone ... Where is my Faith ... So many unanswered questions live within me… If there be God please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. I am told God loves me and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” (5) She also wrote this about prayer. “I utter words of community prayers — and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give — but my prayer of union is not there any longer — I no longer pray.” (4) Mother Teresa thought she was a fraud. That her faith was fake. But it wasn’t. Her spirituality is an extreme example of a spirituality known as apophatic spirituality. Also known as the spirituality of the desert or the wilderness.

The spirituality of the desert or the wilderness isn’t new. It’s found in the scriptures from the beginning. Not only in the story of Jesus’ stay in the desert. It’s central to the story of Israel’s – the people God rescued from Egypt who spent years in the wilderness - before they reached the promised land. It includes individuals like Abraham who travelled through the desert. The slave Hagar sent by Abraham and Sarah into the desert to die. And Elijah who walked across the desert in despair. The desert, one writer says, is “a barren place, a secret place, a place that humans can make nothing of themselves, where only God can do anything.” (6) The desert contains a whole story of Christian spirituality. It includes the Desert Mothers and Fathers, people like Julian of Norwich and St John of the Cross, authors, including the unknown writer of “The Cloud of Unknowing,” and poets like TS Eliot and RS Thomas.

The spirituality of people like this share some common characteristics. A first, is that our prayer has no content. No words, no images or ideas. Prayer is about listening to God and resting in God’s presence. It’s a method of prayer that’s rarely spoken about or taught in churches. And it’s why I’m doing a series on centering prayer – which is a form of apophatic or contemplative prayer – on Tuesdays throughout Lent. Please come and try if you’re struggling with prayer, if your prayer life is dry, or you’re just intrigued. Silence in prayer doesn’t do anyone any harm! A second characteristic of those who feel who drawn to this sort of prayer, is that we don’t “feel” God, God’s presence or God’s love and some like Mother Teresa lose all sense of these. So, we simply have to trust that God is present and that God loves us. ‘Though it isn’t always easy. Another third characteristic of this spirituality is that knowing how challenging the world is, we’re not always sure what to pray for, so our sitting in silence is a way of aligning ourselves with God’s life-giving desires rather than those the world would have us choose. Many of us struggle with how to pray following the Holocaust and other human atrocities. And Rabbi Irving Greenberg sums up our problem in these words. He says that “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.” (7) And that includes prayer. Because sometimes, our prayer for those living in wildernesses, especially when people are seriously ill or dying and we want them to recover, can fall into the trap of the temptations Jesus resisted. That’s also true of times of war, of famine, and of the ecological crisis we’re now in. All of which are human disasters that God has given us the resources to overcome. So, praying for miracles, is to try to avoid the responsibility God has given us for our neighbours and this planet, and give in to temptation to live without care for others. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t praying for people or situations. Of course, we must bring them into God’s presence. But we do need to think about what we are praying for and be open to the possibility that we might be the answer to our prayers. Which brings me back to what I said at the beginning of this service. Prayer reshapes us. It reshapes everything we do and are. As well our relationships with family, friends, neighbours and this planet. And as we journey with Jesus through Lent and into Holy Week to Easter and Pentecost if we take the call to prayer seriously, we will find our lives shaped and reshaped by his journey and be led deeper into God’s life.

Think about Rabbi Irving Greenberg’s words.

Sue Keegan von Allmen

29th February 2020

References

(1) Adapted from Debie Thomas https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2541

(2) Adapted from Melina Quivik https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4391

(3) Methodist Worship Book Holy Communion for Lent and Passiontide, MPH, 1999, p154

(4) https://www.reuters.com/article/us-teresa-letters/letters-reveal-mother-teresas-doubt-about-faith-idUSN2435506020070824

(5) Quoted in https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2007/aug/24/wasmotherteresaanatheist

(6) Andrew Louth The wilderness of God, DLT, 2003 p34

(7) Irving Greenberg The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays” 1988, p.282 and 253, Jason Aronson, Incorporated