Questions at the Start of the Season of Lent

A Sermon at the Start of the Season of LentWe live in a world of many questions.   Some of those questions have one answer; some of those questions have many different answers depending upon who you ask; and some of those questions seem to have no answers at all.  In our Parish Office every week-day morning there are a steady stream of questions arriving through letters and telephone calls and e-mails on a daily basis.  Those of you who have worked in office will know what the experience is like.  But even if you have not been in that kind of environment, you won’t have escaped from the ongoing flow of questions, because we are all bombarded by them through our televisions and radios and newspapers.

Who will be the next Prime Minister when we get to the election in September?  Why is the world the way that it is?  Why are people doing the things that they are doing to one another?  How can things be changed?

For the first few years of his life, my second son Malachi began almost every conversation with a question, which had been going on from the moment that he began to string his first sentences together.  He is still a great questioner, but not at the same rate that he was before.  From about the age of two the primary question that he asked was, “what are you doing?” which was quickly followed (if he received a response) by another question, “why?”  If he was speaking to someone he did not know the next question was usually, “what’s your name?”   After those three questions had been asked and answered he would normally start the cycle all over again.   It could go on for hours: “what are you doing?” “why?” “what’s your name?”

Those of you with children and grandchildren may have detected the same kind of pattern in the lives of the young ones who are close to you.  Those child-like questions are good questions for all of us, no matter what our age, especially at the start of Lent.   If I can paraphrase them slightly differently, we might ask: What are we doing?  Why are we doing it?  Who really we are?  At their heart they are fundamentally questions about our identity.

This holy season of Lent – which began for us on Ash Wednesday a few days ago – this season provides us with an opportunity to stand back from all that we do, as we prepare ourselves to once again receive the life-giving good news of Easter.   We will try hard to strip away all of the excesses to the minimum, so that we might reflect upon, and examine ourselves and our communal life in the light of the story of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, with as few distractions as possible.

Traditionally, for some of us, this season of Lent has been caught up with another question, you know the one that I mean, it is the question about what we are going to give up.   Bottles of wine left unopened, chocolate not purchased from the shop (whatever it might be).  It may be that if I asked that question at this Eucharist some of you would have an answer.  One of my fears about the question which begins, “what are you giving up for Lent?” which has been asked by many Christians through the centuries, is that by asking that question in our modern context we might inadvertently divert ourselves from what Lent is all about; because giving things up for Lent in Christian history has been about focusing more of our attention during this special season on God.

But the problem in our modern world, where there are a 1,000 or more dieting and self-help programmes on offer, is that more often than not when we give things up it is normally a symptom of us focusing more of our attention on ourselves.   So this Lent, that isn’t the first question that I have in my mind, although there are things that I have set to one side to try to simplify and de-clutter my life in this season.

Of course another possibility would be for us to ask the inverse question – about what we are taking on this Lent – which is a question which has great merit, but which can all too easily focus our attention on doing, rather than on being: on what we can achieve rather than on who we are.

So today, having talked about questions, I want instead of a question to offer us an answer which we might reflect upon to construct our own question or questions this Lent.  The answer which I want us to grapple with, begins with the words, “because I am in love with God.”

Martin Smith, the former Superior of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, a society of Anglican monks based in America and England writes:

 “The question that should be put to us all at the beginning of Lent is not ‘What shall we do?’ The right question is the one to which the answer is, ‘I am in love with God!’”

 Fr Smith goes on to say, “I wonder how you feel about saying ‘I am in love with God’?  I suspect if you were to utter these words quietly it would not be long before you became aware of voices from within contradicting and ridiculing you…  These voices have a certain ring of truth.  Even the greatest saints are overwhelmed from time to time with the sense that they haven’t even begun to love.  The trouble is these voices insist on being the only ones to have a say.  They drown out the other voice from a deep place within us that, in spite of everything, is ready to return the love of God.” 

So I want to suggest to us on this first weekend in Lent that we would do well in this holy season, amongst the myriad of other questions before us to ponder what question might lead us to answer, “Because I am in love with God.”   — “Because I am in love with God.”

In our Gospel reading we are captivated by the familiar story of Jesus being driven out by the Spirit (after his baptism) into the wilderness where he was tempted for forty days.  Lent has become focused around that experience of Jesus in the wilderness, not because this is a time of year set aside for us to be particularly tempted, but because it is a time for us to reflect on our relationship with God, on who we are in him.

The writers of Luke’s Gospel describe for us the experience of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness.  Compared to the frenetic pace at which Jesus will minister in the future, these forty days are given over, to contemplation as he comes face to face with the alternatives that are very readily before him.  Jesus faces a number of alternatives, of temptations that could lead him away from being all that his Father has in store for him.  It seems to me that at the heart of the response which Jesus gives to the questioning from the devil (the tempter) is this answer which Martin Smith raises for each of us, “I am in love with God.”   In Jesus’ reply we essentially find him saying “no, I won’t do these things because I am in love with God. And I am more in love with God than I am with food, or notoriety or power.”

Fundamentally this is a period of identity forming, as he rests with the wild beasts and is served by the angels.  To the Jewish converts who heard this story of Jesus in the wilderness in the Early Church there would have been an instant and powerful connection with both the story of the flood and the heroic character of Noah leading his family out on to a voyage into the unknown, and the story of the people of Israel fleeing from Egypt under the leadership of Moses and journeying through the desert.  You will remember that the Israelites crossed through the Red Sea into a period of forty years of preparation, and temptation in the wilderness before they reached the Promised Land.   The Israelites spent forty years there, Jesus spends forty days there.   Just as the people of Israel passed through the wilderness into the Promised Land, so Jesus passes through the wilderness to become the promised one, the Messiah who’s ministry will herald and bring in the long awaited reign of God.  The answer to the questions which the Israelites faced, about who they were, and what they were doing was, “we are a community who are in love with God.”

The people of Israel spent forty years in preparation for, and in the hope of the new life which was to come in the Promised Land.   Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness in preparation for his earthly ministry.    The Church gives us the gift of forty days each year to prepare ourselves in this Holy Season of Lent.

That is why this Lent I invite us to focus on our identity, on who we are in Christ.  To use my Malachi’s language:  What are we doing?  Why are we doing it?  Who really we are?   And that’s why this week we continue to offer opportunity’s for us to gather together in prayer and around the sacraments as we seek to remain close to Christ together.  And why on Monday night we will be coming together in Church for the first opportunity to hear the story of Jesus together afresh.

Last weekend I raised for us the challenge of what God is calling us to be and to do in the next stage of our life together.  This weekend we begin to answer that question by first affirming that we will be what we will be, and we will do what we will do, for no other reason, than because we are in love with God.  So I ask you: what will be the question for you this Lent, to which the answer will be, “because I am in love with God”?