Reflections for Lent

Bishop Edward King Chapel

I am willing to bet that nearly everyone has tried, at some time or other, a new diet book, a self-help book, or a new form of therapy that ‘guarantees’ success.  The culture of self help books is not new.  They have been going well since the 1950s.  In the post-war era, there has been a huge expansion in the market for self-help/quick-fix/DIY books: The One Minute Manager, The Hip Thigh Diet/Superwoman/How to Get to the Top in Ten Easy Steps – and more besides.  All promise instant results; even a money back guarantee if not fully satisfied.  Who can forget the ‘lose weight in 30 days [super new] cabbage diet’?  Lots of recipes with cabbage; you’ll shed the pounds…but it fails to add that you’ll shed friends too, who are not likely to come near you for weeks.

Luke’s account of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness (Luke 4: 1-13) offers some helpful hints and wisdom as we continue in Lent.  We are reminded that Jesus was tempted.  And we are reminded to repent.  Because the temptations that Jesus are offered all cluster round seminal issues that are not that alien to our culture:  diet – you will perform miracles with food; career – you will rule; and longevity – you will live. 

Yet the temptations are more subtle than they first appear.  For a start, like all true temptations, they are not ridiculous, but only slightly less true than something more worthy.  These temptations are all things that Jesus will have to negotiate in any case.  But the questions are: Will the end justify the means?  Is the shortcut worth it?  Does what is offered really match what is true?

After all, Jesus does perform miracles with food – he feeds thousands with a few loaves.  Has he not succumbed to the tempter here?  Does Jesus not get to be lifted up, and glorified?  What then is the tempters’ problem?  It is only giving Jesus his due a little earlier – like opening the Christmas presents the day before.  Does Jesus not throw himself before to the Romans, perhaps knowing he will be raised up?  Why not simply prove it now?  In one way, you could say that Jesus lives his life giving in to the temptations; for he does test God; he does concoct some food into more; and he does rule and reign.

But the key is timing.  The Kingdom of God is a slow process of building, and unlike our quick-fix, instant self-help guides, this kingdom cannot be done in 30 or 40 days.  Put simply, the three temptations of Jesus are really only one: power, prestige and privilege all rolled into one.  The church is constantly seduced anyway. So why not take a short cut?  Well, three reasons occur…

First, shortcuts don’t usually work – they cheat the faith journey.  Second, God’s work is slow; the Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint.  Discipleship and holiness are built slowly, with years of patience, practice and learning.  Lent is about this.  Lent can’t be done in 10 days or 2 minutes; its 40.  Short cuts can cheapen a ministry.  Third, shortcuts rob other people of the chance to respond and grow.  It is possible to grow a church, or a College, or a ministry very quickly.  The results can be spectacular.  But now try and sustain it.  Not so easy.  There is no substitute for hard work.  That’s why miracle diets seldom really work.  So don’t try a 30 day wonder; slowly change the way you eat; effort and will are better than quick-fix cures.

So in one way, Lent is all about slowing down, and leaving quick-fix solutions behind.  It is about the patient deepening of our relationship with God, and doing so in a thorough and methodical way.  The aim is not to achieve instant success, but steady and deep growth.  Fruit that lasts comes from hard graft.  Jesus, in his Lent, turns his back on instant glory and results, or an easy, happy ending.  He will be glorified and will get results.  But it has to be in God’s time. 

So, Jesus is the archetype.  In surrendering his life to God, he turns his back on cutting corners, short cuts, the end justifying the means, and our instant culture.  Instead, he invites us all to walk, slowly, with him to Calvary.  Be sure you don’t run, and don’t take short cuts – you’ll miss something.  You’ll miss the slow God, who’s often found in the slog of ordinary life, and not in the impostor of instant results and quick victories. 

Small wonder, then, that the first time Jesus appears, in the first gospel, the first instruction he gives is ‘Repent’.   From then on, it is his most consistent message – it is what he says to temptation. Talk of repentance makes modern-day Christians nervous, even squeamish. We are embarrassed by the stereotype of old-fashioned preachers hammering on and on about sin, and making people feel guilty.  We rush to assert that Jesus isn’t really like that; he came out of love, he wants to help us.  He knows us feels our every pain, and his healing love sets us free. 

That’s true, of course.  But this also needs to be set alongside the fact that Repentance is the doorway to the spiritual life, the only way to begin.  And in Lent, we have a chance to focus on all the clutter that gets in the way of our spiritual lives, and blots out God from being our focal point. But Lent is all about focus.

So what is the main temptation? As Harvey Cox noted in On Not Leaving it to the Snake (1968), the first and original sin is not disobedience. It is, rather, indifference. Indifference is pitiful, and it is the enemy of prayerful attention and spiritual focus.  Lent re-centres the self; it takes away distractions, and says ‘turn to God’ and ‘notice God’.   Anything else is foolishness and self-delusion.

Some years ago, a predecessor of mine at Cuddesdon ran a ‘God on Monday Club’. It was for all aspiring seminarians, hoping to be ordained.  The Club met at lunchtime, and there was only one rule.  You could only talk about God.  Nothing else. Not preferment, the latest fashions in ecclesiastical garb, or whether your friends were too high up or too low down the candle.   No, just God.  As the Principal remarked later in life, it was amazing how many of those hours passed in near-silence.  Just God, you see: nothing and no-one else. 

The starting point for the early church was this awareness of the abyss of sin inside each person; the murky depths of which only the top few inches are visible. God, who is all clarity and light, wants to make us perfect as he is perfect, shot through with his radiance. The first step to healing, then, is not being comforted. It is taking a hard look at the cleansing that needs to be done.

Hermas, in his book The Shepherd, written about A.D. 140, writes, ‘Repentance is great understanding’. Repentance is insight, not emotion; it is understanding the conditions that enslave and corrupt.  Fr. Alexander Men, an outspoken Russian priest who was assassinated in 1990 at the end of Perestroika, wrote,

“The good news of Christ was preceded by a call to repentance…and the very first word of Jesus’ teaching was ‘Repent.’ Remember that in Hebrew this word means ‘turn around,’ ‘Turn away from the wrong road.’  While in the Greek text of the Gospels, it is rendered by an even more resonant word, metanoite, in other words, rethink your life. This is the beginning of healing.  Repentance is not a sterile ‘grubbing around in one’s soul,’ not some masochistic self-humiliation, but a re- evaluation leading to action. …The abscess must be lanced, otherwise there will be no cure.”

If we are resolved to move daily further into union with Christ, we must be ready for a journey; to face our sins, the things that hold us back, and to let God begin to heal them.  Lent is decluttering the soul.  It is learning that we can go with-out; and seeing that God might flood in to the gaps left behind.  Lent is not beating ourselves up; it is making room for God’s grace to repossess us.

That’s why repentance is the way back to the Father.  It is both the door and the path to a new life.  And to have the heart set on God is to choose wisdom, and to follow him who calls us.  Not to a life where desires are fulfilled, but to one where the restless heart is finally set at ease and at peace.  R.S. Thomas, in his poem ‘The Bright Field’, puts it well:

I have seen the sun break through

to illuminate a small field

for a while, and gone my way

and forgotten it.  But that was the pearl

of great price, the one field that had

the treasure in it.  I realize now

that I have to posses it.  Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past.  It is the turning

aside like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush, to a brightness

that seemed as transitory as your youth

once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Our question for Lent, then, is can we turn aside from the world that sometimes threatens to seduce us all, and look for something deeper?  Remember what Jesus says: “for where you treasure is, so will your heart be…”.