A sermon preached by Canon Anna Macham, Precentor, on the first Sunday of Lent, 1 March 2020
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
I’m sure I can’t be the only person who has slightly nightmarish memories of doing the Duke of Edinburgh awards at school. Despite preferring reading and music practice, aged 14, I signed up to do the Bronze level, encouraged by my school, having had no experience of camping our outdoor pursuits whatsoever. For the practice expedition, we went to a place in Northern France, and, as an added extra, were sent on an orienteering course in a French forest. I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but I somehow managed to get lost from everyone else in my group, and ended up wandering around through trees and more trees, away from paths, and getting more and more deeply lost in the depths of the wood. I’m not sure how long I was lost for- whether a relatively short or long time- but I do remember finally, as it was starting to get dark- stumbling back into our campsite, and those sent out to search for me being called back.
A forest can be a dangerous place. Francis Spufford, the novelist and author of Unapologetic, a book defending the Christian faith in an age where many don’t see the point of religion, in an earlier book called The Child that books built, talks about the power of childhood stories like Little Red Riding Hood, or the Wind in the Willows, that are set in woods. In these narratives, the forest is a place a character enters alone- but it’s also a place of encounter, and of change, with unpredictable paths. “You never came out the same as you went in,” he concludes.
To me, the forest- in the imagination- is the English, or European equivalent, of the desert in middle eastern culture. Both are places of solitude and encounter. In the Gospel reading this morning, Jesus has just been baptised: the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him, affirming that he truly is God’s Son, the Beloved. Then, full of the Holy Spirit, he is led into the wilderness.
Matthew tells his version of this story with his characteristic narrative eye for drama and vivid detail, exploiting to the full the cosmic potential of this threefold testing of Jesus’ Sonship and his fidelity to God by the Devil. The story almost instantly brings to mind scenes from Hollywood movies that portray a devil looking very much like a human dragon, with horns and a tail, taking a Jesus, who doesn’t really look that much worse for wear after forty days of no food, on fantastic journeys.
But we shouldn’t let these lurid images distract us from the grim reality of the wilderness experience Jesus was embarking on. A vast and harsh place, rocky, desolate and dry, the Middle Eastern wilderness could be a frightening place for a person alone, who would have to do battle physically and emotionally just to survive in that rough environment. And- as with the forest experience- Jesus is led into this wilderness very much alone: no human companionship, no food. He eats nothing during these forty days in the wilderness, and he is tempted in very direct and specific ways.
During these forty days of Lent, we are called to leave behind everyday human pleasures whose existence we take for granted, and be led by Jesus into our own wilderness, to retreat from life’s busy surface into its solemn deeps, to be alone with ourselves and our human fears and hopes. We take time away from the things we ordinarily fill our lives with, the things we use to comfort ourselves, that divert or entertain, that distract us from confronting our deeper longing for real happiness, a happiness that would come from within, rather than being snatched from outside.
The desert is a curiously ambivalent symbol, both in the Bible, and in the history of Christian spirituality. It is a place of beginning, where the human is refined and God is revealed, as with Moses at the burning bush. As its name suggests, it symbolises barrren desolation, solitude or, as in the Greek eremia, stillness, a state of extreme simplicity, stripped of anything unnecesary, even the pleasures and cares of civilised or cultured life, and especially the comfort and distraction of society. But it is also a place of struggle, of hand-to-hand combat with demons, of temptations, inflamed imagination, and for those successful in this combat, of pride. For the desert fathers, especially St Athanasius in his Life of St Antony, the desert seems to be a noisy, clamorous place. Barren as far as all human purposes are concerned, it is a place where God’s presence and power are manifest. The journey into the desert is a powerful symbol of the experience exacted by God of those who seek him.
In our modern world, the readiness of the ancients to believe in angels and demons is hard to relate to. But whether you choose to dismiss such beings as merely part of their world-view, part of an apparatus of explanation that has long since been superseded and can be readily “demythologised”, or whether you choose not to go all the way down that route, is in a way beside the point. What is important is what the demons stood for in the experience of the early Christians.
In the writings of the desert fathers we encounter the idea of logismoi, thoughts caused by demons. Logismoi were not thoughts in the sense of “ideas” but trains of thought, strings of considerations, that invaded the heart, occluded it, divided it, and destroyed any chance of a single-hearted devotion to or search for God. It strikes me that this concept is very close to what we today would call negative thought patterns, trains of thought that prevent us from living life in the fullest way we can, thoughts that tell us that we are not worth loving, that stop us from being the free, unique individuals that we are.
The hold these thought patterns have on us may well be something we don’t even notice in the course of normal life, lived on the surface. That is because demons belong to the desert, to the solitude of the desert. When we are led alone into the desert to face our own demons, of rejection, bereavement, illness, the end of a relationship, whatever they may be, these are the times when, as we seek God, gradually we begin to discover the truth about who we really are, that we loved by God. The desert is hard because it brings us face to face with ourselves. But it is also the place where we must go, where God will meet with us.
When I went on pilgrimage to Israel, I remember being astonished at how beautiful the desert was: I’d expected to see a barren place, but what I saw was a breathtaking carpet of flowers stretching on as far as I could see. Climate change means that many of the world’s deserts are fast becoming totally barren. But seeing that desert made me think it’s no surprise that the prophet Isaiah could speak so poetically of the desert as a place of transformation. And as we spend time in our own metaphorical desert, we discover that here is the place where, undistracted by trivial things, we experience God’s mercy, as we are reacquainted with our deep longing for God.
I was speaking to someone recently, who had recently started coming back to church after a long time. Different experiences had kept her away, but now the circumstances of her life had brought her back. She said that, looking back, for her, the times when she had felt far from God, that God was absent, were just as important as the times when God had seemed close, real to her. The via negativa, the desert experience, was just as important as more joyful, celebratory times in helping her to see that God really was there and had been all along.
In the Desert Fathers, a common image of the aim of the solitude of the desert is that of leaving a bowl of water still, so that at last the surface of the water is undisturbed, and one can see one’s face in it. In that solitude, logismoi are like ripples that disturb the surface of the water, or cracks that let the world in and destroy the reality of the desert.
Our task in Lent is to learn to be still, to cultivate the places of solitude and silence, the desert places that run parallel to our lives, where we can begin to see ourselves as we really are, not through the distortions and cracks which are our habitual ways of seeing ourselves, but as God sees us, as his Beloved: so that in all the stress and noise of living, the surface things that distract and divert us, we can know the stronger and quieter voice of God.