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In the desert

Salisbury Cathedral, photo by Gary Price
Posted By : Edward Probert Sunday 14th February 2016

A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 14 February 2016 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor

(Deuteronomy 26.1-11; Luke 4.1-13)

 

In contrast with my work as a parish priest for couple of decades, when every week I chose hymns for services, at the cathedral this task falls to the Precentor, and I am in the happy position, common to the rest of you, of being able to apply a quizzical eye and ear to his choices. We have three hymns this morning, all in their ways typical of high-Victorian hymnody. Two of them I like a lot; the third, our last today, I regard as a stinker. There are actually much worse hymns than Messrs Smyttan and Pott's 'Forty days and forty nights', but my particular dislike of this one focuses on the third verse: 'Shall not we thy sorrow share, and from earthly joys abstain, fasting with unceasing prayer, glad with thee to suffer pain.' The rest of the verses aren't too bad, giving in their doggerel-style a narrative of Christ's temptation and expressing a desire both to follow in Christ's footsteps and to prove faithful when put to the test.

 

But this verse does two things that for me overstep the mark. First, it suggests that we will be glad, on Christ's behalf, to suffer self-inflicted 'pain'. You could write thesis on the psychological underpinnings of that statement; I will confine myself to saying that I do not associate myself with it. Second, it asserts that for these 40 days and nights we, the singers, will be 'fasting with unceasing prayer'. Well, the simple answer is that I won't - I do have other things to do, and so, I suggest, do the rest of you. Giving up chocolate or alcohol or saying a few extra prayers and attending a course of study all fall some way short of spending weeks alone in a desert without food and water.  The imitation of Christ which, I agree with our hymn writers, it is a good thing to practise, shouldn’t descend into deluding ourselves that you and I are some kind of spiritual heroes, martyrs for our faith.

 

There is an irony here. My big problem with this verse is that it's a self-serving religious fantasy; and that this is the reverse of what Jesus did: he went out into the nothingness of the desert to confront the truth more clearly, to come to grips with the complexity of what motivated him. Though both Matthew and Luke cast this period of temptation in the unlikely but convenient form of a dialogue with the devil, they describe an inner wrestling which is wholly credible: this man, sensing a special calling from God, is inclined to serve his own needs, to feed his own self-esteem, to make dramatic tests of the power of God in him. He overcomes these urges - but only, we are told by Luke, for the time being. You may have noticed that his account of this episode leaves unfinished business: the devil departed 'until an opportune time'.

 

I am going now to make a sharp change of focus, but not, I believe, of purpose. Yesterday I was at a well attended conference organised by Sarum Concern for Israel-Palestine, which looked at the history of British involvement in the politics and diplomacy of that area, discussed the present state of things there, and wondered what we as individuals, groups, and as a nation can do to foster a good outcome in the tangled and tragic web of politics and religion, idealism, oppression and grief, long memories and glib forgetfulness, rights and abuses, which characterise the region. You will not be surprised to know that no easy answers were available; in fact, to be honest, any consideration of the present state of things there which wants the best for both Jews and Palestinians, is bound to feel pretty depressing.

 

It is a familiar observation that this small area, containing the Promised land and holiest sites for Jews, the scene of our Lord's activities for Christians, and the third holiest site in Islam, that this 'Holy Land' should have concentrated within it so much that is unholy; that the very worst of human instincts and behaviour should come to be expressed there. Taking ourselves into the realities of that land is metaphorically a desert experience, one capable of removing comfort and hope. So we can do a number of things in response: we can retreat into pietism - maybe go and look at some pilgrimage sites, say our prayers, and imagine ourselves to be following Christ; we can wash our hands of the lot of it, reckoning that it's nothing much to do with us and anyway it's intractable; or we can seek to understand, continue to hope and pray, and do what little we can. You can see which of these I favour from the way I've expressed those choices, but let me explain why.

 

The history of the Holy Land gives ample evidence of the dangers of religion, of the capacity of devout people to do harm in the name of good. It's a deeply human instinct to let corruption in by the back door, and even Jesus was inclined to do so. There is no moment when the problem is dealt with definitively - after all, the devil only left him until the next time. This process of wrestling with the truth of our motivations and of our behaviour, of seeing the world and ourselves as they actually are, rather than as we would piously hope, is at the very heart of a faith in God who comes among us, who lives among us, who is one of us. To believe in the incarnation is not to run away from a mucky reality, but to be confident that God loves it all, everything and everyone he has made, and that he has gone into the desert, and gone so far as his own torture and execution.

 

There aren't easy answers. But we do know that God wills the good, even from emptiness and despair. So we have to look honestly at ourselves and our world. Which is why I don't like hymns or anything else which aren't really honest. However, in this sermon when I have used, or been tempted to use, the word 'irony' a number of times, here is a final one. In urging us not to ignore the intractable facts of Israel and Palestine, I've likened it to a desert experience. And what Smyttan and Pott did in their own way in today's final hymn was to exhort Christians to follow Christ in his desert experience. When we go out of here, having sung in their Victorian way about sharing the sorrows of Christ, I urge you to do just that, by confronting uncomfortable reality wherever you may find it, and praying God that it will come to good.