Sermon given at Matins on the Fourth Sunday of Lent 2015
Start Date: 15th Mar 2015
Start Time: 10:00

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The Venerable Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence

From an article in the magazine, History Today [Vol 62, Issue 8, August 2012]:

22nd August, 1812 a most extraordinary re-discovery was made and an ancient city re-emerged.

Now a World Heritage Site in the kingdom of Jordan and one of the most compelling archaeological sites in existence, Petra, 'the rose-red city half as old as time', was by the fourth century BC the capital of the Nabataean people, who controlled the trade routes from oasis to oasis in Arabia and later allied themselves with the Romans.

It was re-discovered by a 27-year-old Swiss explorer called Louis Burckhardt.

Burckhardt's great ambition was to discover the source of the River Niger. Here in London in 1809 he secured the backing of Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, for a journey across the Sahara from Cairo.

Burckhardt went to Cambridge to start learning Arabic so that he could pass himself off as a Muslim. On his way east, in Malta, he heard of a Dr Seetzen, who had set out from Egypt into Arabia in search of the lost city of Petra, but had been murdered. Burckhardt was naturally interested.

Calling himself Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Abdallah and paying for protection from local sheikhs, though often robbed and cheated, Burckhardt travelled about in Syria, the Lebanon and Palestine.

On his way south from Nazareth to Cairo, with a group of traders and some sheep and goats, he heard from local people about ruins in a narrow mountain valley off the road through the desert, near the supposed tomb of Aaron, the brother of Moses. Saying he wanted to sacrifice a goat to Aaron, Burckhardt hired a local guide to lead him to the ruins, where he marvelled at the superb ancient tombs and the remains of the Roman temple.

He was convinced it was Petra, but could not linger because he was afraid of being unmasked as an infidel searching for lost treasure and almost certainly attacked. He duly sacrificed the goat to Aaron and that night went back to rejoin the road to Cairo, where died of dysentery in 1817, aged only 32.

He never found the Niger.

What you have in front of you is the fourth in a series of Paintings and poems for the season of Lent under the title, 'In the Wilderness: Preparing for Public Life'. The full exhibition, which is part of the Westminster Abbey Institute spring programme ahead of the UK General Election, entitled 'Stand and be Counted', can be found next door in St Margaret's Church on Parliament Square.

This particular painting is taken from the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, which Louis Burckhardt re-discovered 200 years ago. After his initial subterfuge, over the successive decades, further ruins and temples emerged, including the view which Adam Boulter, the artist, has depicted. Locally, the site is called – for fairly obvious reasons – the High Place.

From this great height – you climb some 700 steps to ascend it – there is an incredible vista that you look down upon: the Wadi Musa, the tomb of Aaron sparkling white on the mountain opposite, and further away the Dead Sea, the Negev Desert and the Jordan Valley.

But the High Place had a religious and cultic significance: it was a place of sacrifice and of ritual cleansing. It was a place endued with a sense of power, distance from the daily concerns of the world, perspective with almost divine lines of sight.

And it's here, from this high religious vantage point, that Adam Boulter chooses to depict the Devil's final temptation of Jesus during his forty days in the Wilderness. He has transported the scene from the Temple complex in Jerusalem of Luke 4, to the cultic High Place in Petra, much nearer to Adam's home in Aqaba, southern Jordan.

In doing so he adds layer upon layer to the idea of 'looking down on' the scene below. Not just casting a careful eye over the world passing below, but 'looking down on', disdaining, scorning, having contempt for more mundane concerns.

Luke depicts the Devil's three temptations:
Firstly, to provide physical abundance for himself – 'man shall not eat by bread alone'; secondly, to adopt worldly standards of political authority – 'worship the Lord your God, and serve only him'.

But the third and final temptation, evidently the worst left until last, is that of religion: to look down from the High Place with utter contempt, and for Jesus to throw himself down, safe in the assurance that the angels of heaven will bear you up. To this Jesus replies: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test'.

This temptation is precisely the one which many of us religious people share, especially those who stand in grand pulpits and preach grand sermons. And, of course, this temptation is so serious because, while it is attractive and seductive, standing at a distance from the troubles of the world to believe that they are all resolvable, it is the exact and polar opposite of the Christian understanding of the Incarnation.

Christ, in the flesh, born as one of us, dwelling as one of us, takes on our humanity, does not stand afar, but comes close, so close that he inhabits our earthly experience. As John's gospel puts it, 'The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth'.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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