Homily for the First Sunday of Lent – Matt

Here’s the text of Matt’s talk for the first Sunday of Lent (Sunday 22nd February 2015). Audio will be added in the next couple of days if you would prefer to listen.

The First Sunday of Lent

Mark 1: 9-15 

[from Rilke’s Book of Hours]

You are not surprised at the force of the storm –

you have seen it growing.

The trees flee. Their flight

sets the boulevards streaming. And you know :

he whom they flee is the one

you move toward. All your senses

sing him, as you stand by the window.


The weeks stood still in summer.

The trees’ blood rose. Now you feel

it wants to sink back

into the source of everything. You thought

you could trust that power

when you plucked the fruit;

now it becomes a riddle again,

and you again a stranger.


Summer was like your house: you knew

where each thing stood.

Now you must go out into your heart

as onto a vast plain. Now

the immense loneliness begins.


So here at the beginning of this holy season of Lent we have some foundational motifs that will ground us in our explorations and our journeying over the next 6 weeks as we make our way slowly towards the great Easter feast.

Today’s gospel reading begins with Jesus’ baptism by John and the divine disclosure that he is the beloved son. Then, immediately, he is driven by the Spirit out into the desert where he mixes it with angels and demons. Then he leaves the desert and enters Galilee proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.

I’d like to suggest that here we find a pattern that may be helpful to us as we move through life into what we all want for ourselves – which is an experience of life as whole and holy human beings sensing the holiness of the life within and around us. In this passage we find a pattern for human maturing, a manifesto for growth. There are archetypes and tropes here through which we can find a way forward in our spiritual odyssey or pilgrimage.

So if you feel a little stuck in your spiritual search, your spiritual journey – listen hard to this text as I think there is something here which may be of help to you.

We must begin, this passage suggests, with a foundational grounding knowledge of God’s love for us and our identity as the beloved. We must remember that this is an archetypal story – we are not simply observers we are participants in it. We must not make the mistake of leaving Jesus on the pedestal – his story is our story. Jesus never asked anyone to worship him but he did ask plenty of people to follow him. Follow him through his archetypal spirit journey – he leads the way and illuminates the path that we are all called to follow him on.

So, once we are tired with all the game playing and distractions and we decide we want the real deal, we begin with a disclosure of ourselves as God’s beloved. Now in a sense that’s not something we can engineer – it’s given to us, not demanded by us. Jesus didn’t make this happen but he DID go, he DID move. He wasn’t passive – he went to John. And when he went he SAW the heavens torn apart.

There is a special seeing gift that is given to those who are MOVING and looking. It is the gift to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. It was just another day at the Jordan river, another blue sky, another cloudless morning. But Jesus’ singleminded and searching vision pierced through the ordinary to perceive the presence of the extraordinary – the divine favour resting on him like a dove and the affirmation of his belovedness.

Was there a physical dove? Were the heavens in some sense actually torn apart? If you had been standing on the riverbank that day would you have seen with your own eyes what Jesus saw or experienced? We don’t know – the text isn’t clear and the parallel accounts in the gospels of Matthew and Luke don’t make it clear either. But somehow I doubt it.

This was a personal vision for Jesus, grounding him with a deep sense of divine love and approval before he began his ministry. It wasn’t given in response to him doing a good job. This grace-filled moment is given before he’s done any miracles or healings or all that good stuff.

And so it must be with us. We must know ourselves as the beloved before we can do anything of significance in the world otherwise our actions will never be free – we will always be seeking this approval or significance and trying to get it from people.

After our grounding experience of divine approval and belovedness we move into the desert – the image par excellence of course of lent (which is why this text appears on the first Sunday of Lent).

As Rilke puts it, “now you must go into your heart as onto a vast plain”.

This is such an important stage in the spiritual path and one that is often neglected or missed out entirely with devastating consequences. People who go straight from an experience of God’s love into ministry – that’s a loaded word which we don’t have time to unpack now but I’m referring to Christian service of some kind – and bypass the desert can do great damage and ultimately what they offer isn’t going to help people.

And that’s because our service of others, our ministry, flows directly from a sense not just of who we are but who we are not.

In the baptism of Christ – the foundational experience of grace, approval and love – Jesus is given a grounding experience of who he is. And in the desert when he faces his temptations, he understands with clarity who he is not.

And without both our service of others will not be fruitful or liberating.

Mark is light on detail – as is often the way with Mark. But Luke fills in some of the gaps. In chapter 4 of Luke’s gospel we are told that while in the desert a famished Jesus is tempted to turn a stone into bread, a Jesus yet to experience the power that was his is tempted to compromise himself in return for power from another source, and a Jesus still perhaps unsure of his own identity is tempted to control in order to prove himself.

As Richard Rohr points out (and of course it wouldn’t be a Home talk without a Richard Rohr reference!) these are clear attempts to confront the need to be successful, the need to be in control and the need to be right.

These are biggies!

Jesus had to face these challenges to know who he wasn’t after the experience at his baptism told him who he was.

He wasn’t the one who had to be successful at all costs, or who needed to manipulate and control in order to get the job done, or who needed others to acknowledge that he was right and they were wrong.

These were all stories that Jesus could have spun as he moved forward into all that was waiting for him. He needed to face them down and he also needed to learn the skill of spotting the false stories he was tempted to live within.

Although these are basic and primal temptations which we will all need to face at different times and in different ways – perhaps not as dramatically as Jesus did! – we are also continually faced with other stories, perhaps smaller more subtle stories, our minds spin like webs and which we can easily find ourselves caught up in.

There are some very common ones the writer and thinker Beatrice Bruteau identified:

“Health and beauty, money and power, are necessary for happiness”.

“I am identified by my body, personality and possessions.”

“My welfare is more important than yours.”

“No one willingly give up power.”

“The world is here for us to exploit.”

“No one can be trusted.”

“There have to be winners and losers.”

“They hurt me so I must get even.”

“I can’t feel good about myself unless I’m better than somebody.”

“Some people are supposed to dominate other people.”

“If everyone were good, life would be boring.”

No one would ever be so crass as to state or affirm these things in that form but we often find when we work backwards from our actions that we are holding a belief like one of these. ‘Why did I do that?’ is a good story-hunting question to ask.

Whether they are big and bold beliefs like these or smaller more subtle stories we daydream about ourselves or others or the world or God I think one of the most urgent spiritual skills we need to learn if we are to be people of spiritual maturity – a skill which the desert season of lent is fantastic training ground for – is the ability to become skilled at spotting the stories we are being tempted to believe.

The repentance that Jesus talks about in today’s passage involves finding and letting go of beliefs that compete with or contradict the good news. If we can catch ourselves spinning these stories and then learn how to let go of them and recognise them as just another story – ones that we can be free from and choose not to live within – we will discover immense freedom to be a source of blessing in the world (which is the next stage of today’s gospel story – we’ll get to that in a moment).

So, for example, there are certain stories we might tell ourselves about ourselves : that we’re stupid, or unattractive, or not capable, not good at certain things, or not able to do certain things. There are stories we tell about others : that person is ..dot…dot..dot, I am unable to get along with that person, that person doesn’t like me etc. There are stories we tell ourselves about the world : the world is unsafe, the world is threatening etc. There are stories we tell ourselves about God – God is disappointed with me, God doesn’t like those people, God has disappeared, God is like ..dot..dot..dot

Some of these stories are so subtle and have got so deeply ingrained over the years we are at the point where we can’t even see them as stories any more – they are our reality.

A great Lenten skill to develop – one the desert is designed to teach us – is how to take a step back and spot the stories we have been quietly telling ourselves for perhaps years.

These stories nearly always have some small basis in reality – if they didn’t they wouldn’t be tempting to us and we would need to be completely delusional to even entertain them. Jesus really was famished, and he really was the son of God – what was offered to him in the desert was truth mingled with deceit.

But what we do is take raw reality and embellish it with commentary and story spinning and then the story is the thing we relate to rather than the reality itself.

You can make story spotting an art form – if you live life with intention and awareness. It can become habitual to regularly pause, step back, and ask yourself – what story am I telling myself about myself right now? What story am I believing about that person? You can learn to catch yourself in a story, notice it and choose to let it go, saying to yourself “that’s just another story”. The point is that the stories start to become self-fulfilling prophecies and we begin to order our actions in accordance with the story. There is a delight that can come as we realise we are free to act, feel or think another way. We can choose to respond differently.

Once we have had a grounding experience of God’s love telling us who we are : the beloved, and been through the desert and become skilled at recognising who we are not (and by the way this is a cyclical pattern rather than a once and for all movement), then we can move with freedom into service of others.

Jesus returns with thunder from the desert into Galilee announcing the good news of the kingdom.

What is this good news? Well – we can say with some certainty what it is not. It’s not “Jesus died on the cross for your sins so you must say sorry and accept him into your heart”. How can I be so sure? Well – Jesus hadn’t even been to cross at this point so whatever this good news of the kingdom is, it’s not to do with that.

Jesus tells his hearers to repent and believe. The word for repent here is metanoia : which means literally to change one’s mind. Maybe even – believe a better story.

The story of God’s saving love is a story that relativizes all other absolutizing stories. It’s a story that undermines and undercuts all other stories. It’s a big, yet humble, story that shows up all the other stories that we tell – personally and culturally – as small, mean and petty, and ultimately inadequate.

Repent and believe – don’t fall for the my-god-is-bigger-than-your-god story of tribal religion, don’t fall for the god-as-puppetmaster story of a hyper-interventionist God, don’t fall for the sacred-vs-secular story of an un-enchanted world, don’t fall for the god-won’t love-me-unless-I-do-certain-things story of a mean-hearted, pharasaical god.

These are just a few examples of the myriad stories we continually tell about God. There are brash and noisy tellings of these stories – which we pride ourselves in distancing ourselves from. But these are the kinds of stories that can also operate on a much more subtle level, disguised and well hidden from view – which can also quietly influence our thinking and our actions.

Jesus comes with a good news story. THE good news story.

The good news of the kingdom of God is that there is a presence at the heart of all reality and Jesus came to show us that this presence is personal and is characterised by love. And this love doesn’t condemn but loves us and our world into wholeness and transformation.

The writer Elizabeth Johnson describes God as

….Spirit-Sophia, the mobile, pure, people-loving Spirit who pervades every wretched corner, wailing at the waste, releasing power that enables fresh starts …… From generation to generation she enters into holy souls and not so holy ones to make them friends of God and prophets ….. Sophia-God dwells in the world at its centre and at its edges, an active vitality, crying out in labour, birthing the new creation.

If we are to be those who are able to be such ‘holy souls’ and work with God to announce such good-news without it being coercive or manipulative, or without it being offered with personal kickbacks for ourselves so that it’s really about us getting our own personal needs met (and believe me we are very good at disguising this sort of thing, even to ourselves) then an ongoing experience of primal love – the baptism – and the clarity of the desert – are both required.

So may this lent be a time when we hear again the voice of God calling us the beloved, and where we learn the skilful means of letting go of the stories that snare us, so we can offer with honesty and generosity the good news of the kingdom of love.