SERMON: Becoming more aware of the love that surrounds our lives, the mystery, the sheer miracle of it all
A sermon preached by David Barton at St Mary’s, Iffley on 26th February 2023
Romans 5: 12-19, Matthew 4: 1-11
The first Sunday of Lent. Reading through that familiar epistle and even more familiar Gospel I was struck by the way they both ended up in a wordless mystery – a mystery that doesn’t just belong to the bible but to the life and faith of all of us. Let me explain….
Jesus has been baptised in the river Jordan. Its a shattering, life changing moment. He is enveloped in the mystery of God. Its a vision that re-designates who he is. No longer Jesus, Son of Joseph, but Jesus Son of God.
So he flees into the desert – the place from which his people had come, to ponder just what such vision might mean. What is it to be Son of God? What task?
The three ‘temptations’ Matthew gives us, are, in a way, recapitulations of the history of Israel in the desert – all of them connected with Moses. The idea of turning stones into bread is an echo of the manna the people ate in the wilderness – bread-like cakes, lying on the stony ground. Was he to do the same? But the manna was God’s initiative, not from Moses. Jesus shuns the idea.
And Moses supervised the building of the Tabernacle in the desert, the successor to which was the golden temple in Jerusalem, one of the great wonders of the ancient world, visited by thousands. Was this to be the stage for a great public apparition? But a showy miracle could not have been further from the vision Jesus had just seen. And finally, Moses, just before he died, glimpsed the promised land from the top of Mount Nebo. The world spreads out before Jesus in his imagination, and with it the role of conqueror. But Jesus has lived under Roman rule. He knows about the Glory of nations of the world and what it means. Surely the easiest temptation to reject.
And then, when all these very human thoughts and possibilities are exhausted, there is nothing. Jesus is left with only the silence of the desert. And at that point Matthew tells us: suddenly angels came and waited on him.. Remember Elijah after the wind and storm and earthquake on Horeb? Just silence. Silence that becomes the voice of God. Angels denote the presence of God.
The great vision that drove him into the desert who he was returns. Here, in the silence, Jesus holds himself into the mystery of God and the mystery of Sonship. When he leaves there is no plan in human terms. Instead a much deeper level of being: Jesus acting out of the purposes of God, deep within himself. Later he would say to his disciples “Do not worry about what to say or do. You will know what to say or do.” It was how he lived and acted..
And its Jesus’ utter faithfulness to God and trust in God that so impresses Paul. Remember, he writes this epistle – indeed all his epistles – before Matthew writes his Gospel. So whether Paul knew this story we don’t know. But Paul knows the consequence of this event – the story of the cross, where it is as if Jesus becomes a window into the heart of God’s compassion. And as part of a dense doctrinal argument Paul contrasts Jesus with Adam. Obedience as opposed to disobedience.
But below all that discussion, there is another level to this text. Its something you can only see in the Greek, and its the way at this moment Paul’s writing, as it were, falls apart. Its one of several passages in Paul you dread to be asked to translate as a student. Some of its sentences (if that is what they are) have neither subject or verb or object. There are just phrases, thrown out. “So then – through the trespass of the one – unto all people – unto condemnation, so also – through the righteous act of the one – unto all people – the verdict of life.” Its the job of translators to make sense of the text before them. But we do miss something.
That broken structure to me points to a deeper level here. And its entirely appropriate. Paul writes this towards the end of his ministry. And as he does so he remembers “the abounding grace”, as he calls it – two we in that section. Once an enemy of the gospel, he is now forgiven and welcomed as an apostle. And there were those times when he was beaten, thrown out of cities, imprisoned. Dying he said, behold we live. As it all comes to mind he is overwhelmed by the abounding love poured out in Jesus. Its as if he can’t find the words that will express the wonder of it all. He can only stab at it, stutter out the miracle of it.
And for me, reading these passages for the umpteenth time, what strikes is that sense of wonder and amazement just below the surface of the text. And how much that wonder and amazement is part of the faith we proclaim. Its not that I think that we should all be visionaries, or be able to look back on mighty conversion moments. But rather we should become more aware of the love that surrounds our lives, the mystery, the sheer miracle of it all. And the gratitude that seeing all that implies.
And I guess all that is hard to get at because in this rational, twenty first century, western world, all of that is discounted. There is not much room for mystery in our scientific, pragmatic, materialist society. Our deeper senses are dulled by all of that.
That wise old Orthodox Archbishop, Anthony Bloom, was once asked by an old lady for advice about prayer. She told him about all the prayers she used to say every day. “But,” she said “I have never felt myself to be in the presence of God.” And his reply was “How can you sense the presence of God if you are talking all of the time.” And he told her to go to her room, light the lamp before her icon of Christ, take up her knitting and knit. “And,” he said “I forbid you to say one word of prayer. Just sit in silence before the ikon of Christ and knit.” And when, after a while, he saw her again she told his she had taken his advice – though she didn’t think it was very pious. She lit her lamp, and slowly she had come to value the silence. And then to look with with new delight on the place where she was, and, then, after a time, deeper in the silence, she sensed a presence, and the presence was the presence of God.
We need more silence. Like Jesus in the desert, or Elijah, or Paul himself who fled to the desert after his conversion for two years, we need to get out of our argumentative heads and into the mystery that surrounds our lives with love. So I have a suggestion. At the back of the church there are those Lent books – all of them good, and helpful. But, in Lent, for ten minutes, put aside all the books and sit in silence. Knit, if that is what you do. Or use the Jesus prayer, as Andrew suggested on Wednesday. Or just the word Jesus. Put all your mind and heart into that: “Put your mind into your heart and hold yourself before God.” And let the silence find its voice.