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By Canon Jeremy Haselock
The First Sunday in Lent
10 March 2019
The Rev. Canon Jeremy M. Haselock, Household Chaplain to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of England, returns to St. John’s as our Distinguished Priest in Residence throughout Lent.
Only two of the four gospels provide us with any details of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. John leaves it out altogether and Mark’s gospel covers the whole thing in two sentences: the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, he was there forty days, Satan tempted him, wild beasts kept him company, and angels waited on him. If you remember more than that you are recalling today’s gospel or that of Matthew, because they are the Evangelists who go into actual detail about the devil’s wiles and how Jesus countered them. I’m always struck by Satan’s subtle approach. It proves among other things is that he is biblically literate. He knows exactly where to find the Bible verses he needs to put Jesus to the test, but Jesus knows more than what the Bible says. Jesus knows how to do what the Bible says, which is how he passes his wilderness exam. Every time the devil offers him more – more bread, more power, more protection – Jesus turns him down: No to the butter-baked brioche, no to the kingdoms of the earth, no to the angelic health and 2 safety regime. For Jesus, none of these allures are a patch on worshipping God and serving only him. So, by the end of the story, the devil still has all his bribes in his bag and Jesus, now even stronger in himself, is ready to embark on his ministry.
Now I imagine you’ve already heard quite enough sermons on what Jesus and Satan said to each other, and as none of us is likely to be put to the exact same test, I’m not going to inflict another upon you. When we are tempted, none of us is going to get the Son of God test. We’re going to get the regular old Adam and Eve test, which means that the devil won’t need much more than a bottle of Dom Perignon and a lottery win to turn my head. I’m going to look instead at where the exam takes place – the wilderness – because I have an idea that every one of us has already been there in one way or another. Maybe it looked like a doctor’s waiting room to you, or the sudden prospect of life without a loved one. Perhaps it was a kind of desert deep in the middle of your own chest, where you begged for a word from God and heard nothing but the wheezing bellows of your own breath. The wilderness comes in so many shapes and sizes that sometimes the only way you can tell you are there is to look around for what 3 you normally count on to save your life and come up with nothing. No food. No earthly power. No special protection: just a Bible-quoting devil and an endless expanse of sand.
Needless to say, this is not a situation many of us seek. But sooner or later, every one of us will find ourselves taking our own wilderness exam, our own sojourn in the desert and discovering who we really are and what our lives are really about. This is not bad news. Even if those of us who end up there want to get out again as soon as possible, the wilderness can still be one of the most reality-confronting, spirit-filled, lifechanging places a person can be in. Surely, we can confirm this from all that the long, hungry time in the wilderness did for Jesus? It set him free from all devilish attempts to distract him from his true purpose, from hungry craving for things with no power to give him life, from any illusion he might have had that God would make his choices for him. After forty days in the wilderness, Jesus had not only learned to manage his appetites; he had also learned to trust the Spirit that had led him there to lead him out again, equipped with wilderness wisdom, the kind of clarity and determination he could not have found anywhere else.
In Lent we get a sniff of this wilderness wisdom every year, even if it is reduced to cutting out our evening Martini or putting a pound in the charity box for every dessert we skip. The kernel of the wisdom is still there: that anyone who wants to take up his cross and follow Jesus all the way to the end needs the kind of clarity and determination that he found in the wilderness.
Our word “Lent” comes from an Old-English word “Lencten” meaning the time when the days start to lengthen, the Spring. This links the season beautifully not just to the welcome sight of crocuses pushing their way out of the ground in the weeks before Easter, but also to the greening of the human soul – pruned with repentance, fertilized with fasting, sprinkled with selfappraisal, mulched with prayer. What a stunning paradox is Lent! We look to do our spiritual horticulture, to cultivate the garden of the soul in the barrenness of the desert!
Paradox or not, maybe a little spell in the wilderness is worth a try – a few weeks of choosing to live on less, not more, not because your regular life is bad but because you want to make sure it is your real life, the one you long to be living. Almost everyone I know uses something to keep themselves from experiencing what it really feels like to live the kind of lives they are living, to anesthetise themselves from reality, a comfort blanket. I have my favourite escape strategies: Classical radio stations, Facebook, the latest Soap opera on TV, Country Life magazine, Bombay Sapphire, white Burgundy. I’m not saying these are particularly awful things in themselves but I do realise that they are distractions – things I reach for when I am too tired, too sad, or too afraid to enter the wilderness of the present moment – what Fr Harry Williams once called the True Wilderness.
The problem for me is that I find it hard to go straight from giving up Facebook and turning off the Radio to hearing the still, small voice of God in the wilderness. But we don’t have to. There are forty whole days ahead of us for finding out what life is like without the usual painkillers. Once you turn off the radio, silence can be really loud. Once you turn off the television, a night can get really long. After a while one can start thinking that all of this quiet emptiness or, worst case, all this howling wilderness, is a sign of things gone badly wrong: the devil on the loose, huge temptations, God gone AWOL – not to 6 mention one’s own spiritual insufficiency to deal with any of these things.
But take it one day at a time. After you have reached for your particular comfort blanket a few times and remembered it is not there because you made a conscious decision to give it up, then you may discover a whole new level of conversation with yourself. The mind is very adept at telling us that losing our anaesthetic is going to be the death of us, but it’s almost never true. After the withdrawal symptoms recede life gets steadily better. And it would be a mistake for me to try to describe your wilderness exam – I’ve hinted at mine – yours is unique. Only you know what devils have your number, and what kinds of allurements they use to get you to pick up. All I know for sure is that a voluntary trip to the wilderness this Lent is the best way to practice getting free of those devils for life, not only because it is where you lose your appetite for things that cannot save you, but also because it is where you learn to trust the Spirit that led you there to lead you out again, ready to worship the Lord your God and serve no other all the days of your life. Amen.