Few of us can manage a 40-day retreat, like Jesus in the desert, as told in the Gospels. For many of us 40 minutes would be hard to find. But the idea of removing distractions, so that we might allow God to work in us, can happen on a much smaller scale, and doesn’t necessarily mean sitting in quiet contemplation. In fact I think it’s something to bear in mind if we are taking up any sort of discipline for Lent.
The idea of giving something up for Lent has become a popular cliché. There was much made in the press of Ash Wednesday coinciding with Valentine’s day this year, including the suggestion of a combined greetings card. One of the verses offered was, ‘Roses are red, violets are blue, Lent starts today so no chocolate for you’.
There’s nothing wrong with giving up chocolate for Lent, or for taking up exercise, or anything else that is generally good for us. If you didn’t manage to keep your New Year’s resolutions, you can always use Lent as a time to have another go at whatever it was, a second chance to make a fresh start. These things might be good for our health and wellbeing; but they won’t necessarily bring us any closer to God. We might call this the level of self-improvement.
There’s a level beyond this, which we might call the level of self-denial. This gets a bit more serious. I know people who have a Lenten discipline of fasting, for a day a week, maybe not a total fast but certainly a much reduced food intake. Other people will take something on. It happens that our stint with the Night Shelter this year coincides almost exactly with Lent – we finish on Easter Sunday morning. Some of you may have made volunteering at the night shelter part of your devotion for Lent, giving up your time and personal comfort to offer something of real benefit to others.
There are two potential dangers with self-denial: one is about self, and the other about denial. If the denial part becomes dominant – say you decide to fast, and you spend the whole day thinking of how hungry you are and counting down the hours and minutes till you can next eat – then that’s not helpful. That’s not bringing you close to God and you might want to look for something less ambitious.
If the ‘self’ part becomes dominant, there’s a danger of pride. You feel a sense of heroic achievement because you didn’t give in; you are proud of what you have managed. If that happens then the discipline itself has become a distraction, and again, it will not bring you closer to God, no matter how hard you push yourself.
So self-improvement might help our physical wellbeing but not our spiritual health; self-denial can help our spiritual health provided we are aware of the dangers. How, then, are we to navigate these dangers? And what of those who are not able to take on an extra burden, perhaps because their health is already fragile?
If I were aiming at a nice three-point sermon, I would at this point be looking for another ‘self-‘ phrase to complete the set. But the whole point of the trials of Jesus, and the secret for us in finding our way through Lent, is that it’s not the self that needs to be at work. It needs to be God at work in us. Our call, and this is much, much harder than it sounds, is to get out of God’s way. To do that, we need to be aware of when we are in God’s way, so we might call this, God-awareness.
So, for example: you’re really upset, or worried, or angry, and you pray and it doesn’t get any better, so why not cheer yourself up with a nice biscuit instead? Ah – maybe, that’s the moment to stay with God a while longer, and see what God might be saying to you through this. Or you see someone who seems to be in need, and you think, I could stop and help, but I do need to get home and let the dog out/cook the dinner/write a sermon, whatever it happens to be, so better carry on. Ah – maybe that was a prompting from God to put yourself out for once. When I say ‘you’, I of course mean ‘me’. When a bible reading or a preacher annoys you and you think ‘I’m not listening to that any more’ – ah. Maybe there is something you need to hear, and the annoyance is the part of you that really doesn’t want to know.
Or maybe not. Maybe the preacher is wrong – maybe I’m talking nonsense. This is about discernment. Jesus was sent into the desert by the Spirit; he had to discern that these various temptations were not also from God, but from somewhere else. Each of us needs to discern our own avoidance mechanisms. Which might include some of the practices that seem to be really good.
I’m not saying, stop doing good things. Please don’t. Please keep on with the night shelter and the discussion group and anything else you are doing. But keep alert, keep that God-awareness, so that we remain open to God at work in us.
And here’s the thing. For all the hardship of the desert, for all the deprivation and the testing and the wild animals, Jesus is waited on by angels. The more we truly open ourselves to God, painful as it might sometimes be, the more we know the angels waiting on us, waiting to pour out the goodness and love of God.
No makeovers here; no quick fixes; no instant results. But may Lent be for all of us a time of the quiet, inner transformation of God.
Revd Sue McCoan
from a sermon given at St. Andrew’s Ealing 18th Feb. For the full text, click here.