Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Going into the Desert to Meet with God (a sermon for Ash Wednesday on Psalm 42:1-3 and Matthew 6:1-21)

The Arctic, where I used to live, is sometimes classified as a cold desert. A lot of people think of the Arctic as a snowy place, but in fact it gets a lot less snow than some parts of southern Canada. We used to joke about how we got most of our snow in late September and in April and May; the rest of the year, it just blew around a lot!

But of course, travelling on the land in the wintertime, it’s the barrenness that strikes you. All you can see for miles and miles is white snow, dark rocks, and the occasional group of caribou or musk ox. The scenery can be majestic, but there’s not much variety. If you were riding a skidoo and trying to figure out a complicated math problem in your head, there wouldn’t be too much distraction from the landscape around you.

And that’s why desert imagery figures highly in this season of Lent. This coming Sunday we’re going to read about how, after Jesus’ baptism, he went out into the desert for forty days, fasting and praying and being tempted by the devil. This forty-day period in Jesus’ life intentionally parallels the forty years that Israel spent in the desert, after Moses led them out of slavery in Egypt, but before they entered their promised land. While they were in the desert they met with God, received his commandments, and were shaped into the people he wanted them to be. And so, in the imagery of the Bible, the desert became the place where you go to meet with God.

Early in the history of Christianity there were a group of people who did this very literally; we know them as ‘the desert fathers’. They were a group of Egyptian monks in the third and fourth centuries AD, and they literally left behind the pleasures of ordinary life and went out to live solitary lives in the desert, spending their whole time in prayer and wrestling and fighting with the devil. To us today their stories seem very strange, but they have had a very powerful influence on Christian spirituality, especially in the monastic tradition.

What does all this desert imagery have to say to us as we begin the season of Lent? For most of us, even if we had the inclination to do so, it would be impossible for us to leave everything behind and go out to the desert to spend our whole lives in prayer. We’ve got jobs to work, and mortgages to pay, and family obligations to fulfil, and anyway, Jesus doesn’t actually ask us to do that, does he?

Maybe not, but we do well to ask ourselves about the spiritual truth that all this desert imagery is conveying to us. At its heart, it’s about the removal of distractions, so that we can no longer hide from our hunger for God.

For most of us, our world is full of so many distractions that it’s easy for us to ignore that aching and longing deep down inside us that can only be adequately filled by God. We’ve got more possessions than our grandparents could possibly imagine; we’re connected to people near and far by wireless technology. We never have to deal with silence, because in every store and movie theatre and restaurant there’s a constant soundtrack playing, not to mention the noise from cars, and aircraft, and LRT warning bells, and the constant hum that plays in the background in any city or town of any size. We’re busy from morning to night working our jobs and fulfilling our other obligations. It may be true that the God-shaped hole in our hearts is only adequately filled by God himself, but we’ve got it so stuffed with other things that, even if they don’t quite fit the bill, they certainly make it easy to forget that God himself seems to be conspicuous by his absence.

Lent is a time for us to turn from as many distractions as we can, and to cultivate our longing for God, a longing that he alone can fulfil. Let me remind you of these words from Psalm 42:
‘As a deer longs for flowing streams,
So my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
For the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
While people say to me continuously,
“Where is your God?”’ (Psalm 42:1-3)

In these verses the writer of the psalm correctly identifies what it really is that he’s thirsting for in life – the presence of God – ‘the living God’, not some make-believe idol that human beings can control. But the problem with the living God is precisely that he’s not under our control. We can’t command him to make his presence known at any given time; all we can do is ask, and then wait patiently for him to do what he thinks is best. And if it turns out that we have to wait a long time, then we must resist the temptation to fill that empty space with some substitute god. No – we must cultivate our longing for the true and living God. If we do so, sooner or later, we will be satisfied.

But of course there are things we can do to put ourselves before God in the place where he can meet us. Jesus identifies three of them in our gospel reading for today: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. These are three basic spiritual disciplines that any godly Jew in the time of Jesus would have practiced; no one would have dreamed of trying to live a godly life without these three disciplines. Nowadays, of course, we tend to forget that ancient spiritual wisdom, and it may well be that we have deluded ourselves into thinking that we can do without these disciplines and still live a satisfying and fulfilling Christian life. Take it from the lips of the Master himself: we can’t.

First, fasting. Of course, fasting concerns what we have already been talking about: the removal of distractions. For many people in our well-fed part of the world, food is one of the major distractions. Not that it’s a bad thing in and of itself, of course; God created it for our good, and we soon come to grief if we don’t get enough of it. But ‘not getting enough of it’ isn’t a big problem for most of us; very few of us are acquainted with the pains of real hunger, and it does us no harm to experience them for a short while and get some sense of what daily life is like for most people in the world. And fasting also a symbolic way of saying to God, ‘I am hungry for you, and I am not going to succumb to the temptation of trying to satisfy that hunger with anything less than you and your presence in my heart’.

But it doesn’t have to be a fast from food (although this is almost always beneficial). Ask yourself, “What’s the most powerful distraction from God in my life? Could it be that God might be calling me to set it aside for a while so that I can pay proper attention to him?” For me, I spend a lot of time reading blogs and writing blog posts, not to mention seeing what’s going on in the wacky world of Facebook. But I know I can get a little obsessive about it, and so each year in Lent I either give it up altogether, or severely curtail it. I know this isn’t for everyone, but it’s important for me; it opens up a lot of time that I can use in prayer and spiritual reading, and in caring for the people in my life.

Second, prayer. Prayer is the most basic of all spiritual disciplines; how can we imagine a relationship with God in which we don’t speak to him and don’t try to hear what he’s saying to us? But we live such busy lives, and prayer is difficult, and many of us find that the time we spend in prayer gets gradually whittled down to a bare minimum without us even noticing it.

How do you pray? When do you pray? Do you pray every day? Have you found a way that works for you? Many people have found it helpful to set aside some time at the beginning or end of the day to focus exclusively on God. That time would typically include some silence as we pay attention to God’s presence and listen for his voice. It would include some reading of scripture and reflecting on what God is saying to us through its words. And it would include some vocal prayer – thanking God for his goodness, asking his forgiveness for our sins, bringing our own needs and those of others before him, and asking his guidance and strength for our daily lives. If prayer is not a regular part of your life, Lent is a time to reflect on that, and to make some changes.

And speaking from my own experience, I want to add this: don’t forget about the blessings of praying with someone else, particularly a spouse. Making a commitment to pray every day at the same time with someone else helps to keep you steady, and it’s also a good way of drawing the two of you together as partners in Christian discipleship.

First, fasting; second, prayer; third, almsgiving. ‘Almsgiving’ is an old word for ‘giving to the needy’, whether they are near to us or far away. Growing as a disciple of Jesus includes growing from a selfish, self-centred person into a loving and caring person. Giving to the poor is a vital part of this. The gospels are full of examples of Jesus encouraging us to do this; in one place he even says that when we care for the needy it is really him that we’re caring for. And in Isaiah 58 the prophet warns us that God isn’t impressed with fasting and liturgical worship if it doesn’t lead to a change in the way we treat the poor. He encourages the people to loose the bonds of injustice, to share their bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into their homes, and to stop pointing fingers and speaking evil of other people.

So, how big a place does caring for the poor have in our own spirituality? What are the practical ways in which we obey this call of Jesus? Lent is a time to think about this, and to make changes, if changes are necessary.

So as we go into this Lent, let’s pay attention to the call of the desert. It’s a call to turn away, as much as possible, from the distractions; it’s a call to cultivate our longing for God; it’s a call to grow in those simple disciplines – fasting, prayer, giving to the poor – that will help us grow in love for God and for others. So let us now commit ourselves afresh to following Jesus through this season of Lent, so that when we come to Easter we may be more in tune to the presence of God and the joy of his Holy Spirit. Amen.

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