Living in testing Times

March 5, 2017

Our Gospel for today immediately follows a most incredible event. Matthew recounts the story of Jesus had coming to the Jordan River to find John Baptist, his cousin. John, depicted as a wild man emerging out of the wilderness [always a metaphor for the place of deep inner searching]; John, in his powerful charismatic message was calling the people to repentance and to be washed, cleansed in the waters of the Jordan. It is dramatic indeed for the one whom he is promising to come who will be more powerful than he, full of the fire and energy of God's spirit; well this one has just presented himself for this baptism of repentance.

In powerful imagery and poetry Matthew catches the significance of what is going on. Jesus comes to express his own humanity and his solidarity with me, with you, with all people and our struggles and strivings to be human. He comes to repent too. The essential power of the baptism symbol as we know is to die, to be drowned to all that denies life and love and then to be born again into new life in the power and grace of God. So for Jesus, he comes and is pushed under the waters. If you have ever had that experience it is a most remarkable sensation. And he surfaces, drawn out of the waters of chaos, the waters of cleansing, and so he is raised up to new life with these words ringing in his ears 'you are my beloved child. You are my delight. You are my love'. The so-called original sin of Adam and Eve is cancelled!

What an extraordinary event. How it must have been for Jesus himself, this complete confirmation of his own personhood and destiny. It demands of him that he face the reality and consequence of what this must mean. Can there have been some confusion or even doubt here? Marks gospel has Jesus being driven straightaway into the wilderness, wrestling with the wild beasts of his psyche, while angels, the graceful loving surety of God's ongoing embrace, minister to his needs, protect him from the onslaught of the evil one. Is this a metaphor for our journey too?

He is driven deeper into the wilderness, real and metaphorical, a place of inner searching, where he will fast and pray and wait on God, and search the very depths of who he is to determine what will happen next and how he will make sense of this call and this experience. It is a scary place to be.

In the cold and dark, Jesus waits and watches. No food, no water probably, scant warmth, he opens the very depths of his humanity to the reality of the deepest human temptations. Forget the profound new identity given you in baptism, and use your new power for personal comfort and gain, for political influence and glory, yes and even free yourself from suffering and death. Wouldn't we all like that! Isn’t this a metaphor for our journey too?

And from the very depth of his humanity comes his freely owned personal commitment, the confirmation of his at-oneness with God. He rejects these temptations, these temptations that are ours too. For the hearers of Matthew’s words Jesus is confirmed as the one who is beloved of God, the paradigm of what it means to be human and therefore for all of us the ultimate example of what it means to be alive, fully human - the way, the truth and the life. And of course his way is one of sacrificial service, suffering and death as the means to love, wholeness and life.

Well let's be honest this Lent, if this is a metaphor for my journey too, I'm not altogether sure that I fancy going down this track, this way of Jesus!

But Love revealed in Jesus, shaped and tested in the wilderness, has for generations called us to our own vocations. In our baptism God is saying to each one of us - you are my beloved child, you are my delight, you are my love.

The consequences are that we are called to live as Jesus lived, to take up our cross and follow him through the dangers and delights of our lives. Wow, that’s a tough call! The Church through the ages has often sought to soften and bend the sharp challenge of this truth and turn Jesus in to Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, make God more comfortable, in our own image, and blunt the call to love as he loved us.

Each year Lent calls us to enter the wilderness and to seek the truth of our calling and its consequences. What are the temptations for me, and maybe for you: that my fear of really loving in the way Jesus does has me bargain for assurances which are inferior to what God promises and desires for me? Wouldn’t it be easier to trade true love for short-term comfort? How about success rather than transformation being my real mission in life? And material wealth, doesn’t this really provide the measure of my worth, rather than allowing God's grace to grant personal significance? At the end of the day and if I am brutally honest, wouldn’t I rather choose personal comfort over faithful living, over wholeness and holiness. I’m not too keen on taking up my cross, and would rather avoid sacrifice, suffering and death.

And yet it is in a supreme paradox that God reveals his continuing presence using sacrifice, suffering and even death as the means through which we find love, wholeness and life. God uses what we avoid to provide that which we most deeply desire.

I believe that we human beings all yearn to belong. It’s written all over our DNA. We yearn to love and be loved. We yearn to make a difference, to contribute. We yearn to continue, to endure, to last - even beyond death

And the message of Jesus the Christ is that we find these things only through loving in the way he loved us. That's the revelation that reaches into our intense longing. And there are countless human lives, some in the great saints like Augustine, and Francis, in men and women of faith, some amongst us here, who have striven to express this humanity, and the truth that for instance Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross these 16th century mystic discovered in their ever deepening prayer, that we humans are made of love, filled with love, and meant for love.

We are entirely free to accept or reject God’s offer. Choose life, we are constantly urged in the scriptures. And choosing life has to mean that we too like Jesus will face our deepest fears and existential dread, because we have glimpsed and been held for moment in the awesome love of God. We know that God dwells within us, and that we are intimately connected to the divine life force of love. We have to find words - God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. God is more natural than breathing. So let us choose to listen for love, seek love, and allow love to awaken within. Fear not the consequences for 'lo I am with you, and will never leave you alone'.

Will you use this season of Lent for its purpose of awakening to the truth of God's love? Will you face this love and your fears of its consequences? Will you take time, good time, to prayer, to worship, to journey with Christ in his journey, making it your own destiny? Will you dare to trust that you have God at the centre of your being? Dare to risk praying. Dare to ask, seek and find love within. Pray, yes, pray, not with wordy, noisy, chattering instructions to God, but with the prayer that sits in quiet, expectant listening, watching and waiting for your awakening again and for the first time to love's reality. Pray with your soul's ears, not with your mind's chatter. Listen for God's still, small voice. In the words of Mother Julian - put you mind into your heart and stand in the presence of God all day. And remember that this Crucified One we follow is also the Christ of Cana of Galilee, who wants for us the richness and deepest enjoyment of life.

I want to end with a poem by George Herbert, whose feast day we celebrated last week. This 16th century English priest wrote some of the most wonderful poetry, some of which we still sing in our hymns today.

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here:
Love said, you shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat.
So I did sit and eat.

This morning once again, Christ invites you to sit and eat, taste the bread of life and the cup of salvation. May you have a Holy and fruitful Lent.

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