Sermon for the first Sunday in Lent 2019: part of the series 'Dancing in the desert: exploring faith in the wilderness'
Deuteronomy 26. 1-11
Romans 10. 8b-13
St Luke 4. 1-13
The Gospel reading today relates the desert experience to end all desert experiences. As we hear: 'Christ was led by the Holy Spirit in the wilderness, where, for forty days he was tempted by the devil'.
We may have different images of a desert: endless sand dunes, constantly shifting; flat and featureless, stretching for miles; the blistering heat, or the freezing cold at night, perhaps.
But the desert into which our Lord entered was stony and rocky and full of temptation. Maybe that is closer to the deserts of our lives.
Most, if not all of us, have had desert experiences in our lives: to know what it is to be between a rock and hard place.
Maria Boulding, in her book The Coming of God, describes these experiences thus:
"Our desert is any place where we confront God. It is not a change of scene, nor a place to run from our failures, nor a heroic adventure that does something for our ego. Our desert experience may be tedium, weariness, disappointment, loneliness, personal emptiness, emotional confusion, the feeling that we have nothing to give, the conviction that we constantly fail God in prayer".
"You just have to keep on keeping on in prayer and you are not aware of progress, because there seems to be nothing by which it could be measured. There are no paths in the desert except the ones you make by walking on them". End of quotation.
Deserts, like our desert experiences, are places of liminality; thin places where hardly anything separates us from the presence of God. There is nowhere to hide - either from God or from ourselves.
The deserts of our lives, of our spiritual journey, require a response; otherwise we would just give in or give up. What sustains us in our desert places, our desert experiences, is our relationship with God. Only God has the power to see us through. PAUSE
And so we begin our journey through the desert of Lent and one of the most important things to be said is that in journeying through Lent, we journey with Christ in the wilderness.
It is probably the only time when it is we who are accompanying God in Christ, rather than the other way around and culminating in the final, fateful, part of His journey - through Holy Week to Good Friday. PAUSE
So how is all this achieved? Well, it is achieved by our accompanying Christ in Contemplation and the practice of Contemplative Prayer.
Why is this so important?
In 2012, the then Archbishop of Canterbury - Rowan Willaims - opened his address to a Synod of Bishops in Rome with theses words:
"The humanity we are growing into in the Spirit, the humanity that we seek to share with the world as the first fruit of Christ's redeeming work, is a contemplative humanity".
He goes on to say: "Contemplation is very far from being just one kind of thing Christians do: it is the key to prayer, to liturgy, to art and to ethics; it is the key to the essence of a renewed humanity, that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom; freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them.
To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the insane world that our financial systems, our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit.
In short, to learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully, honestly and lovingly". End of quotation.
Thomas Merton put, perhaps more succinctly: "Without a humanity shaped by contemplation, we will have nothing to give others" PAUSE
All of that demonstrates why Contemplation and the practice of Contemplative prayer is central to who we are and all that we do.
As disciples and followers of Christ, we are here to do the 'Opus Dei' - the work of God. Too often we find ourselves doing whatever we think is right without asking, "Is this what God wants me to do?".
The only way of knowing whether we are truly doing the WORK of God is to learn first how to BE with God. And we do that through Contemplation and the practice of Contemplative prayer.
The practice of contemplative prayer is, quite simply, opening our hearts to what it is that God is saying to us, and the way we do that is to go into the desert or to otherwise take ourselves away from our immediate surroundings. And we don't do that physically, we do it through the spiritual practice of contemplative prayer.
That is why it is so important that during this Lenten season, we accompany God into the desert, to learn what it means to encounter and resist temptation and to make a closer walk with God. PAUSE (850 words).
In our Gospel reading today, our Lord dances with the devil in the desert and explores His faith by resisting the devil's temptations and affirming His calling as the Incarnate Christ, come to redeem the world.
We too have to dance with the devil; we too have to constantly explore our faith.
It may not fall to us to be the Second Coming or to be redeemer of the world but by our own spiritual journey and spiritual practice, we can show others what that redemption might look like. That, as Thomas Merton may have said, is what we can give others. PAUSE
There remain a large number of people who, for one reason or another, think that the contemplative life is, at worse, an irrelevance that somehow implies being cut off from and unconcerned with, the world and its concerns and at best, something to which very few of us are called.
Those who engage in contemplation and practice contemplative prayer know that this is not the case.
Contemplation is a word that describes the most subtly significant thing that can happen to a person. It is the consummation in God of both life and death. St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, a French Carmelite nun, puts it this way: "God is your soul and your soul is He".
So without Contemplation and the practice of contemplative prayer, we cannot be in a right relationship with God or be one of His disciples. We are justified by faith and by works; to be and to do. To dance in the desert and explore faith in the wilderness; that is our calling this Lent. Amen