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


The Second Sunday of Lent

Sermon preached by Kath Boyd – Reader

Well here we are on the second Sunday in Lent already. I hope it’s going well for you so far, especially those of you have decided to give something up, it’s hard and there is a long way left to go so I take my hat off to you and wish you all the best. I’m afraid I have to confess that I haven’t given anything up. As Melanie mentioned in her sermon last week, Lent is upon us quite quickly this year and in spite of giving it some thought beforehand I was finding it rather difficult to get into, in any meaningful way. I considered giving up chocolate or alcohol or Radio 4, all of which I enjoy but I didn’t feel that would do anything apart from test my will power and as I’ve been on the 5:2 diet for about four years now I think my will power gets tested quite regularly as it is. In the past I have heard suggestions that instead of giving something up it might be good to take something on and this can indeed have merit, especially if it is something that broadens our horizons or deepens our understanding or benefits others as well as ourselves. However, I’m already struggling to fit in all the things I need to do and as nothing of any great merit came to mind I haven’t gone down that path either. But I didn’t want to not mark Lent so the question remained “what to do”? Again as Melanie suggested, sometimes we just have to get on as best we can and hope that a way forward will become clear. So that is basically what I’ve been doing since Ash Wednesday and in a quiet, unspectacular fashion I am finding a meaningful way forward.

For quite a number of years now I have been using the Lent Extra publication and this year, as ever, it contains a lot of interesting and thought provoking articles, suggestions for daily readings and comments and observations on them followed by a little prayer, all of which I’m finding of great worth. On the third day of using the suggested readings there was one from Isaiah chapter 58 which particularly spoke to me. In it we hear God challenging the people about the way they conduct their worship, saying and doing all the things they think are going to get his attention and favour such as fasting and performing rituals, whilst in their daily lives they completely fail to follow what he asks of them. Perhaps they were fooling themselves into thinking they were doing all the right things but God is not fooled by empty words and actions and he spells this out to the people and tells them what he really wants.

“Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover them, and not hide yourself from your own kin?

As the notes in my Bible say “The fast that God wants involves saving other people from oppression and satisfying their needs.” In other words He wants people to actually do what they pay lip service to rather than making a big show of ritual observance which doesn’t really do much for anyone. The comment offered on the passage in Lent Extra reiterates this and goes on to suggest that as well as giving up foods or other pleasures and comforts we can fast in other ways too such as “abstaining from judging others and from gossip, letting go of anger, jealousy, resentment and a reluctance to forgive by opening our hearts to the action of God’s grace”. This is all good advice, good for us and for the others who benefit from us becoming better people. I like to think that I am a fair minded person and that I try to see things from other people’s points of view but when I read this it has made me look a bit harder at my own thoughts and attitudes and I’m now trying to take a little longer to consider matters before coming to conclusions. I’m trying to let go of the thoughts and feelings that hold me in bad places and to genuinely forgive as I hope I will be forgiven.

The little prayer at the end of piece said,
“Lord, help me to live and love like you. Amen”

On the sixth day in Lent Extra came a piece entitled “Standards of love” which references a parable in Matthew’s Gospel chapter 25 about the separating of the sheep from the goats, you know, the one where the sheep have done all the right things in caring for others and the goats haven’t. Again it challenges people to examine the potential differences in what they profess to believe and how they actually behave. Do we always treat others with dignity, kindness, care and love and in so doing do the same for Jesus? I suspect that most of us try to but there are times when we fall a little short, especially when we feel threatened, uncomfortable or under pressure because we are short of time or we don’t know what to say or do. I used to avoid Big Issue sellers because I couldn’t always afford to buy a copy from them and I didn’t like saying no but then a friend told me that one of the sellers he had talked to said the worst thing is when people blank them and don’t acknowledge that they are even there. I thought about this and tried to see it from his point of view so now when I bump into a Big Issue seller I always reply yes OK or sorry, not today. Either way, most of them say thanks and wish me a good day anyway and I dare say both of us feel better about the encounter. They don’t feel ignored and I don’t feel bad for avoiding them. Perhaps we can use Lent to think about how we view and treat and value others and again try to become better people for their sake and our own.

“Lord, help me to see you in others and love you in them. Amen”

I started writing this sermon on Tuesday and I’d like to read the Lent Extra offering for that day for you because the writer, Barbara Mary Hopper puts her message across so well.

“The prophet Isaiah tells us that God sends out his word with a mission. God’s word comes to us through the scriptures. As we ponder the message in prayerful silence, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the word will make its home in us and gradually transform our lives. God’s presence in the word is as real and life giving as in the Eucharist. Daily, as we respond to the voice of the Lord, especially in the Gospels, our lives will witness to the richness of God’s merciful love for all. For many people, the only Gospel they will ever read is the one written in our Lives!”

For me that last line really stood out and it certainly makes me think hard about what kind of an ambassador I am for God and his church. It should make us all think. Not in a way which just makes us feel like failures because we do all get things wrong at times but in a way that gives us the courage to examine what we think and believe and how we actually live our lives. Do we practice what we preach? How can we do better? It’s a practical question and it needs practical answers and actions!

Just after the service today we will be holding our APCM, Annual Parochial Church Meeting. I know that for many people it’s not one of the highlights of the church year that you look forward to or perhaps you don’t think it involves you because you are not on any of the rotas or committees or in any of the groups or maybe you feel you haven’t got anything to contribute so there isn’t much point in sticking around for it. I’d like to politely ask you to reconsider. A moment ago I said that how we find ways to do things better is a practical question and how we collectively run this church is a practical matter which we all have something to contribute to just by being here. It’s not about getting roped into doing things you don’t want to do or having to stand up and speak if that’s not your thing. Think of it more as an opportunity to consider what St Mary’s means to you, to look back over the past year’s activities and achievements, to show your appreciation and support for the people who have put in a lot of effort to keep the church going not just for those of us who come here regularly but as God’s house which is here for the whole community and beyond when they want or need it. Hear about the plans and aspirations for the coming year to build on what we have already achieved and I have to say that over the years we have steadily accomplished a great deal. You might have ideas on how we could do better.

I know that sometimes it can seem that we get bogged down with a lot of bureaucratic procedural stuff or we are forever struggling to hold the place together or even that we expend a lot of time, money and effort trying to respect the heritage of the building or add to it but all these things are what make St Mary’s the unique place that it is. It is part of how we reach out to people and connect with them. Ultimately the church is about people and our relationship to God. Together, as a church we can help each other to become the people he wants us to be.

Each and every one of us and what we say and do makes a difference so whatever you are giving up or taking on or pondering, Remember that line “For many people, the only Gospel they will ever read is the one written in our Lives!” and hopefully it will help to encourage you on your journey through Lent. We really can be transformed along the way. Amen.