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Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the First Sunday of Lent 2019

Lent 2019 is an exciting, but testing time to live the holy life.

The Venerable David Stanton Sub-Dean, Canon Treasurer, and Archdeacon of Westminster

Sunday, 10th March 2019 at 11:15 AM

Lent 2019 is an exciting, but testing time to live the holy life.

Each of us, in our own way, must decide how we wish to express or reveal our faith to others.

Each of us must decide how we deal with internal temptation, how we cope with the subtle yet real testing of faith.

Each of us must make an internal judgment as to how deeply we grasp the opportunity to journey at a deeper spiritual level.

Last Wednesday (Ash Wednesday) we were reminded that a fundamental purpose of Lent is to help us to focus afresh on God.

To put God at the centre of our life. Not to be a slave to worldly things, or human desires, but to be a servant of God and be mindful of our sins.

As we embark upon this season of Lent it does us no harm to be reminded of the fact that Jesus, having experienced temptation in the wilderness, placed a high emphasis upon the traditional aspects of first century piety: giving to the needy, prayer, and fasting.

These were fundamental to the Jewish religion. Quite likely they are the outer form of the faith summed up in the Shema:

Hear O Israel: the Lord your God is the one Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your strength.

Prayer is the means by which we love with all your heart; fasting is to love with all our soul, and almsgiving is the way we show love with all our strength.

Jesus assumes that the faithful Jew will practise these three aspects of his or her faith.

But for Jesus it is not enough that you do these things. What also matters is how and why you do them.

There are some, and Jesus has the Pharisees in mind, who do their deeds of righteousness before others, to be seen by others, to receive honour from others.

Jesus condemns such people as hypocrites, mere actors, who appear to be honouring God, but in fact are currying favour with others.

The Pharisees seek rewards from their peers, and that is all they will get.

But Jesus’ disciples are to do deeds of righteousness quietly, even secretly, and then God, who sees in secret, will give them their reward. In our day, its very different.

Within the world of the church, there may be some kudos to be gained by appearing to be righteous.

But in the secular world, you don’t gain brownie points for displaying your religious fervour. Quite the reverse.

If people in your office ask you what you are doing over the weekend and you say you’re going to church, I don’t imagine they necessarily react with much admiration.

The pressure today is exactly to keep one’s religion private. And sometimes it is necessary to challenge that ethos by what we usually call witnessing to our faith.

So if we are going to take seriously Jesus’ command to proclaim the good news, we’ll need to do so with some care.

Jesus commends the practice of a religious faith which is more concerned with what God thinks than what other people think.

Within the church, that means we shouldn’t be practising our religion in order to gain recognition and honour and thanks.

But out in the world, we shouldn’t be hiding our religious practise in order to fit into the expectations of secular culture, and to avoid embarrassment with our peers.

We are to be pleasers of God, not people driven by the praise or the shame of other people.

Lent is an opportunity to alter our lives in some way so that we do re-focus upon God. This leads me to our Gospel theme, that of Testing/ Temptation:

At the heart of our Gospel reading this morning, and integral to our keeping of Lent, is the knowledge that the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan.

Some of you may remember the version of the Lord’s Prayer in the old Series 3 Eucharistic liturgy, which translated ‘lead us not into temptation’ – as ‘do not bring us to the time of trial’.

If you do, you’ll probably recall how controversial that was, and it hasn’t survived into Common Worship.

I say this because the word in the prayer translated as temptation, certainly also carries the meaning of trial, of being tried or tested.

And it is this sense of being tested that is central in what I want to say.

We know that Jesus was driven by the spirit into the wilderness (the desert) to face temptation; this can be interpreted in a number of ways, but I often think of them as ‘inner voices’ testing everything that Jesus had come to believe about who he was, and how he was to serve God.

One of the greatest temptations for Christians, at least at some stage of their lives, is to despair, or perhaps lose hope, lose faith in God and humanity, and possibly, ultimately, to loose hope in oneself.

It is a denial of God, of God’s love and self-giving, for which we cannot perhaps be blamed, but which can spiritually destroy us.

So how can we in the face of temptation or despair aind God ‘in the darkness’ or in the wilderness? How do we look beyond it, look deep into God’s presence?

One of the great notes of Lent is the real opportunity that we each have to not only re-form significant spiritual connections but also to embark once again on a significant spiritual journey.

We’re being given the opportunity to remind ourselves of the deeper meaning of the journey of our lives, a journey which always has to do with our response to the drawing of God’s love and the voice of his calling.

Ultimately Lent is about taking time out to explore more deeply the meaning and purpose of our lives and to find space to wait on God in the often fast frenetic pace and pressures of life, and to be challenged about our priorities, and about what is really shaping us as men and women.

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