Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent
Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7 & Matthew 4.1-11
Lent is the season of forty days in which Christians, as individuals and as a Church prepare to celebrate the Easter feast. I wonder what your pattern of preparing for Easter is? Is Lent for you a time to give something up, or to take something on? Or do you feel there is not much in your life, spiritual or otherwise, that needs changing?
Or are you maybe a little bit like myself? When I start thinking about what I should or would like to change about my life, I easily get overwhelmed. There seems to be so much that I could and should do better, that I don’t even know where to start. Therefore, also this year I have fallen back to my default resolutions: giving up alcohol, praying more and spending more time with God.
There are two questions I would like to think about a little bit here. They are both related, and our readings give us some insight too. The first question is what and why do we want to change? And the second question is, how we may do this. The examples I will use may sound a little trivial, but, as we will see, they can easily be translated to our spiritual lives.
So firstly, what and why do we want to change? Let us suppose we would like to change the way we look, say by losing a little bit of weight. The first question we should ask ourselves is why we want to do this. Do we want to conform to what we see around us? Or do we want to live healthier, happier and longer? If it is because we want to live up to the expectations of others, and of ourselves, it may be worth thinking again. Is this really something we would like to change, or do we realise that we actually find it hard to accept ourselves as we are?
The same applies to our spiritual lives. If we say we would like to pray more, do we feel that we fall short of God’s standard, or our own? Or do we genuinely want to spent more time with God? Also here, if it is a fear of falling short, we need to remember that God doesn’t keep a score of how good we are, but has given us free will to flourish and grow. This realisation is at the heart of the story from the book of Genesis that we hear this morning: the story of the Fall. Adam and Eve, happily living in the Garden of Eden, fall prey to temptation and do the one thing that God told them not to do, and so their eyes are opened and suddenly they know what it means to feel guilty and ashamed.
Although few Christians believe this story to be a historical account of the lives of the first two people, it contains a universal truth. The truth that none of us can resist temptation. Sometimes we can, but sometimes we can’t. It has become known as the doctrine of original sin, and it is part of what makes us human.
That is also a difference between us and God, between us and Jesus. In our Gospel reading we hear how Jesus spends forty days in the desert, yet without once succumbing to temptation. Unlike us, He manages to stay faithful at all times. It is important to remember that this is our example, but that at the same time we know that it is an aspiration rather than the bar we need reach.
On Ash Wednesday, the Bishop of Salisbury told the story of a Roman Catholic nun he met, who asked him what he would say when he meets his maker. I guess, like a good few of us, his answer was ‘I am sorry’. The woman replied that the Jewish rabbis teach that when we meet God face to face, He will not ask for an apology, but ask us whether we enjoyed this wonderful creation. So, before we set ourselves a goal, ask if it is realistic. By all means, we should aim high, but we also shouldn’t be too distraught if we disappoint ourselves. And maybe more importantly, we shouldn’t feel that we have disappointed God.
Having set our goal, and managed our expectations, how may we get close to reaching our aim? How do we change? Recently I read the insightful book ‘You are what you love’ by James Smith – worth reading this Lent if you have decided to read and study more. The subtitle of the book is ‘The Spiritual Power of Habit’. And that is precisely what I would like to suggest this morning: that it is through habit that we make the most effective and lasting changes. To put in in slightly different words, it is small steps, rather than great thoughts.
Let’s go back to the season of Lent: forty days – not including Sundays – is a long time. In my case, when I think about all the occasions on which I am not going to drink a glass of wine, or all the mornings on which I have to get up a little bit earlier to spend some time in prayer, I feel not just a little overwhelmed. I will never manage to do this. So I’m back at square one, feeling guilty about my inadequacy and worried not meeting God’s standard. However, when I think about it a day at a time, it suddenly becomes a much more manageable task. When I set my alarm in the evening, I don’t think about the fact that I will need to do this for the next six weeks, but just set it for the next morning. When someone offers me a glass of wine at dinner, I answer that I prefer a soft drink, just at this occasion.
This way of thinking and acting has two advantages. The first one, I already pointed out, is that whatever we would like to change is suddenly a lot less daunting when it is broken down in little steps. The second advantage is that if we go wrong once, or twice, we have just got it wrong that time. Instead of feeling that we have failed altogether, we just need to get it right the next time. Tomorrow is a new day.
It is a little bit like driving a car. If you would go from here to Salisbury and think about every bend, every crossing and every gear change you would need to make, it seems an impossible journey. However, if you do it step by step, you notice that it is actually not too bad. You even notice that after a few times, you almost drive the road without thinking: it has become a habit. So also with our spiritual lives: the more we practice, the easier it gets and at some point it even becomes a habit. Forty days may not be quite enough to build up a completely new routine, but it is not a bad start.
And therefore the questions with which I’d like to leave you are the same as the ones with which we started: what would you like to change this Lent as we prepare for the Easter feast, and how are you going to do this? And please remember, this is not about proving anything to yourself, someone else or especially not to God. God knows our weaknesses and loves us all the same.