Wilderness and fruit – 5th March, 1st Sunday of Lent

A beautiful garden.  Full of plants and animals.  Plenty of warmth and sunshine.  Plenty of shade when it gets too warm.  Gentle rain when needed. God creates and places two people there, to enjoy it, to tend it, to eat of its fruit.  They spend their evenings walking in the garden with God.  There’s just one rule: don’t eat the fruit from that tree in the middle of the garden.  Don’t even touch the tree!  The couple are naive.  Innocent.  Like small children.  They don’t know much.  They don’t need to know.  They don’t know what they don’t know.

Into the garden comes a snake.  He’s cunning and more worldly wise than the man and woman.  What a lovely garden!  Can you eat absolutely any fruit?

No, says the woman, we mustn’t eat from that tree in the middle, or we’ll die.

Die?  says the serpent.  Oh, no, you won’t die!  God doesn’t want you eating from that tree because otherwise you’ll become like him – it’s the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Don’t you want to be like God?  Don’t you want that knowledge?  Look at how lovely and tasty that fruit is!

And so the woman tries the fruit.  So does the man.  And suddenly they begin to know!  The first thing they know is that they are naked and so they rush to cover themselves.  Their knowledge makes them feel shame.

Their knowledge comes at a cost.  They have tried to become like God.  But instead, they have distanced themselves from him.  No longer can they stay in the garden.  They must go out into the wide world, a world of hard work, sweat and pain.  A world in which eventually they will die.

The wilderness.  Burning hot by day.  Bitterly cold at night.  A place where little grows.  A place where few animals can survive.  A place of desolation.  A place of need.

God leads a man there.

This man is worldly-wise.  He comes from a humble family.  He’s been a refugee.  He’s grown up in a world where the differences between rich and poor, between powerful and powerless, between those who loved God and those who don’t, are all too obvious.  He knows the world is full of evil and hardship.  He knows.  And because of this, God has called him.

When this man hears God calling, he goes to the wilderness, a place of even greater hardship than his usual world, to pray and meditate over what his calling might mean.

There’s no food in the desert.  He’s hungry.  He’s alone….Or is he?

Into the wilderness comes the devil.  He comes at the point the man is feeling his hunger most acutely.  “Turn these stones into bread” he says.  The man refuses, quoting scripture “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”.

The devil tries again.  “OK, so you’re not going to give into your hunger, but I know what you’ve been pondering about here in the wilderness – you believe you might be God’s Son.  Ha! Well if that’s so, jump off the top of the temple!”  Oh, and as you’re so keen on scripture, here’s a verse from me to back it up!

Again, the man resists.  “Don’t put the Lord your God to the test!”

The devil tries a third time – “You think God wants you to be king?  Come up this mountain!  Look at all those kingdoms down there.  All yours if you just fall down and worship me now!

And Jesus resists Satan a third time “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”

Two stories of temptation.  One set in a garden of plenty.  The other in a harsh wild place.  You want to become like God, said the tempter!  Take the easy route.  Eat that fruit.  Turn the stones into bread!  Jump off the temple!  Bow down and worship me!

Two different responses.

Adam and Eve succumbed.  They were seduced by the beautiful juicy fruit.  They thought “We wouldn’t mind being like God”  And, like a small child being told “Don’t touch that!”, they couldn’t resist seeing for themselves what would happen if they did.  And they discovered that their choice had consequences.  Suddenly life would be full of danger, hardship and responsibility.  Suddenly they were no longer close to God.

Jesus said NO!  He knew that choices had consequences.  He knew that taking up his calling from God meant taking the tougher course of action.  There was no quick, flashy route to kingship.  God’s idea of kingship was different.  No mighty power, but life as a servant, healer and friend.  No riches, but a life on the road, relying on what food could be found on the way, or on the generosity of others.  No mighty army to thrash the enemy, but hatred from his own people, desertion by his friends and then death on a cross.  But his choice led him closer to God.  No sooner had Satan gone, than angels were by him, offering him strength and support.

The world is full of temptations inviting us to do all sorts of things, promising this if only we just do that!  Jesus invites us to follow him.  He invites us to love God as he did and to love our neighbour as ourselves.  Whose invitation are you and I tempted to accept?

Reader Catherine Burchell


Readings for the sermon and links:

Psalm 32 Genesis 2:15-17 3:1-7 Matthew 4:1-11

I don’t need to go to church – Genesis 1:1 – 2:3, Psalm 136, Romans 8: 18-25 (19th February, 2nd Sunday before Lent)

“I don’t need to go to church.  It is easier for me to connect with God when out in the natural world”

How many times have you heard something like that from someone you know?  I expect you have had similar experiences when you, too, have been on a beautiful beach, or on a walk in the Peak District or maybe even in our local cemetery in the Rivelin Valley.

The natural world is awesome!  We can marvel at the size of mountains or trees, at the power of the waves crashing on to the shore at the coast, at the beauty of a bird, flower or insect.  It can make us feel small compared to the vastness of the land.  It can encourage us to respect the elements, realising that we don’t have control over the weather.  We appreciate that the natural world is beautiful but can be dangerous!  Our reaction to the natural world is “Wow!”  It can lead us to feel God’s presence.  It can lead us to worship God the creator!

Sometimes our response to experiencing the awesomeness of creation is to create something ourselves.  So we might paint a picture or make something from wood, clay or cloth for instance.  We might play music or sing a song.  We might write a poem or tell a story.  Creating something of our own is good.  We get a sense of joy from it.

And through creating something ourself, we can find that it helps us to make sense of the world about us.  It helps us to tell others about our experience too.  So for generations the world over people have told stories, created paintings and sculptures and made music and drama.  And so they have passed their experiences of the created world and human life on to each other.

Sometimes we build the stories into the fabric of our buildings.  You can see this in old churches.  When many churches were built, most people couldn’t read.  So the buildings themselves told the story of the faith.  Stained glass windows, carved stonework and wooden features all told bible stories or sometimes the lives of the saints.  If you look up at the roof of the church, it’s like the inside of a boat – a reminder perhaps of the boat Jesus and his disciples were in when he calmed the storm.  Or a reminder of the sea journeys made by Paul.  Or a reminder that we are all on a voyage of faith together.  The pillars represent the ordinary people of faith from the earliest Christians nearly 2000 years ago to us here today.

Some scholars think that the Jerusalem temple told a story too.  It told the story we heard this evening, of the very beginnings of time, the well-known and well-loved story of the 6 days of creation.  You may remember me mentioning it in passing a few weeks ago.  Here’s how the scholars suggest the temple told the story:

At the front of the temple was the “Holy of Holies” – the area no-one except the high priest was allowed to enter.  This contained the ark of the covenant.  This was where God and the Holy Spirit symbolically resided.  This represented Day 1 – or a time outside of time.

On the 2nd Day the story tells us that God separated heaven from earth.  The veil separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple represented this.

On the 3rd Day the story tells of God separating land and sea.  Plants and trees covered the land.  In the temple this was represented by the golden table for plant offerings – bread, wine and incense.

On the 4th Day the story tells that God filled the heavens with lights.  This is represented by the 7-branched lamp – the sun, the moon and the 5 planets known at that time.

On the 5th Day (and half of the 6th) the story tells of how God then filled the seas and skies with fish and birds.  He filled the land with animals.  In the temple this was represented by the altar of sacrifice.

And then on the 6th day, human beings, both male and female, were created to tend the earth and to take care of the animals.  And they were represented by the high priests.

The story itself reads a bit like a religious liturgy.  Notice how certain phrases are repeated…And there was evening and there was morning…the first day.  And God said:  Let there be…. And God saw that it was good.  You could imagine how as part of their worship, the people might move round the different areas of the temple, telling the story as they went.

So it seems that for ancient Israel, the temple “was” creation.  Worship in the temple protected and preserved the creation.  As long as worship was carried out in the right way, creation would be protected.  Worship and creation go hand in hand.  So we have those strange bits in some of the psalms where trees are clapping their hands, or mountains, hills and sea monsters are being encouraged to praise God.  The psalm we read this evening was a bit like that.

If the worship went wrong and the people sinned, it would have a knock-on effect on creation.  Much of the rest of the Bible focuses on this.  We are reminded in Romans 8 that creation has been marred.  God’s plans for the earth have not yet come to completion.  Creation is still going through the pains of labour, but God’s promise of new life and new birth is there.

Christians have sometimes had the reputation of not caring that much for the environment.  And this can mean that the people we try to share the Gospel message with don’t have much time for it.  Things have thankfully changed a lot over the past years – each Christian denomination now has its own environmental policy.  And today, this second Sunday before Lent, is now called “Creation Sunday”.  We are actively being encouraged to celebrate God’s work in creation.

So it’s not only ok to care for creation, it is part of our response to the God who is good.  You cannot worship God and neglect creation.  And as we care for creation, so we spread the Good News about God’s love.

Male and female, we are all called to care for creation

Male and female, we are all called to worship the Creator and to encourage others to join in.

Catherine Burchell – Reader


Readings for the sermon and links:

Genesis 1:1–2:3   Psalm 136   Romans 8:18-25

Wrestling with God – Genesis 32:22-31 (14th October, 21st Sunday after Trinity)

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.


Tonight’s reading from Genesis reminds us of a time when God’s relationships with his people were very definitely ‘hands on’ – you can’t get much more hands on than a wrestling match, after all! So, how do we get to this situation?

Jacob is returning to Canaan after 20 years away, and he knows that he and his extended family will be met by his brother, Esau, who’s lining up with several hundred men to meet him.  The ‘family argument’, you may remember, stemmed from Jacob deceiving his father, Isaac, in to giving him a blessing that was intended for Esau.

This isn’t a welcoming party; Jacob is concerned that his brother is out for blood, and splits his party for safety. He’s also sorted out a gift of livestock for Esau, and has spent time praying. He sends the gifts ahead of him, and tells those taking them that they should say to Esau that ‘His servant Jacob is following’.

At the start of tonight’s reading we see Jacob and his immediate family crossing the Jabbok, a small river running in to the Jordan, by a ford. He sends on his possessions, and stays alone to ponder his fate.

In this anxious and worried state, I think it likely that Jacob did some serious praying – maybe he prayed for a miracle to save him and his family, or maybe he prayed that God would somehow change Esau’s mind about fighting him. We don’t know; all we’re told is that he suddenly finds himself in a wrestling match with a strange man.  Jacob struggles with this stranger all night, and in doing so he realises that this isn’t a man; this is God himself wrestling with him.

Jacob isn’t a stranger to struggle; with his brother, then with Laban, and now, as he’s about to re-enter the promised land of Canaan, he finds himself doing hand to hand combat with God.

There’s a little word play here in the original Hebrew text. ‘God wrestled’ is ‘ye’abeq, Jacob is ‘ya’aqob’ and Jabbok is ‘yabboq’.  Whoever wrote this part of the Genesis story clearly loved to play with words as they told this intriguing story of how God came to Jacob in a form that Jacob could wrestle with – not in a dream, or a vision, or with words – but as a physical form that Jacob could hold his own against – perhaps as a physical manifestation of Jacob’s own struggles with faith at the moment in his life. He is wrestling with God, who holds Jacob’s destiny in his hands.

Jacob holds his own and the night progresses, and eventually the stranger touches Jacob’s hip and in an instant disables him.  God has shown his power in a subtle, meaningful way. He’s not destroyed Jacob, but has inflicted pain on him, and certainly in the short term has lamed him in such a way that makes Jacob more reliant on God to get through the coming struggle with Esau.  In case you’re wondering, there’s no indication in scripture that the injury was permanent.

Even in pain, Jacob still hangs on, demanding a blessing, and is given one; he will henceforth be called Israel – ‘one who has struggled with God and who has prevailed’. When Jacob asks the man’s name, he’s not given an answer, but is blessed. Jacob realises that, he has seen God and lived.

Verse 32 refers to a dietary requirement still in place today.  The ‘sinew’ is believed to be the sciatic nerve and associated ‘bits’ and is called the gid hanasheh. The hind-quarters of an animal are not allowed to be eaten – i.e. is not Kosher – without the removal of all of this sinew (as well as removal of fats).  This process – Nikkur – is possible but complicated – learning to do it takes at least 5 months and the process itself is incredibly difficult and labour intensive, so the hindquarters of animals tend to go to the ‘non-Kosher’ meat trade.

What happens next? Well, Esau comes to meet Jacob, and Jacob goes  out to attempt to appease Esau, by throwing himself to the ground in front of Esau in submission.  Whereupon Esau greets Jacob as his brother – God has removed the thirst for revenge from Esau’s heart – and Jacob tells Esau that God has been gracious to him, referring to the blessing that he received from God after the wrestling.

Do we wrestle with God? I know I do; in my life I’ve gone through times of trial when I begin to wonder what can go pear-shaped next. It doesn’t mean I’m fighting with God in a sense of trying to defeat or work against him, or doubt him. It means that I’m wrestling with what God wants to do with me and, if he so wills it, for me.  It might not be what I think I need at that time.  I think that Jacob probably wanted a peaceful night’s sleep to build his strength for what he saw as the coming fight with Esau, and that wrestling God was the last thing he wanted to do.

But God’s blessings on us come in unusual ways; God could have simply softened Esau’s heart (as he did) and no more. But he wished more for Jacob – and that extra came Jacob’s way only through intimate contact with God.

When we wrestle:

Our persistence will be rewarded. Jacob finds himself suddenly set upon and fights back; we may find ourselves praying and encountering issues we’d not thought of before.  Do we ignore them? Do we deny them? If we’re reading and struggling with scripture, do we gloss over the bits we’re uncomfortable with? Or do we persist and work through them?  When God challenges us through prayer or scripture, hang on in there. Jacob hung on in pain to ensure he got that blessing – sometime, we need to do the same.

We may be injured.  We may not walk away nursing a physical injury, but we may find that we carry a spiritual wound away from our match.  We may not physically limp, but we might well find that wrestling with God leaves us feeling a little less smart and a lot more humble as well as blessed.

Our identity may be changed; we’re not the same after a close encounter with God. We know of the faith that we’re baptised in to, just like Jacob knew the faith of his father and grandfather. But for that faith to become HIS faith, he had to fight for it.  And after this struggle, he was no longer Jacob, the deceiver, but Israel, who has struggled and prevailed with God.

Our own wrestling matches with God will be those moments that help define us as a Christian, and allow us to take our faith in Jesus Christ closer to our hearts in a more personal way. We may limp at the end of the bout, but if we do, we can be sure that, like Jacob, God has seen fit to be bountiful in his blessing.

Joe Pritchard – Reader