Sermon Lent 1

I have to confess I’ve had little appetite to write a sermon for today.  Traditionally in Lent we look inwards and see how we can ‘smarten up’ our faith, but it’s hard to look inwards with what’s going on in Ukraine.  

The horror of this war is incomprehensible and the scale of the humanitarian crisis overwhelming.  It’s the stories of individuals that are most able to break through our sense of disbelief and shock: fathers putting toddlers onto trains, knowing  they’ll probably never see them again; inexperienced 18 year olds getting ready to fight. 

So what can we take from Today’s Gospel to help us amidst this horror?  

Here we see Jesus in the wilderness, he’s been there for 40 days and he’s starving. He’s way beyond any kind of hunger pangs that we can imagine.  

He’s physically weak and his stomach has been completely empty for over a month.   Yet he’s full of something that has enabled Him to endure 40 days of physical hardship and taunting by the devil – He’s full of the Holy Spirit.

There was a wonderful report on Wednesday’s news, about how faith is helping to galvanise the spirit of resistance in Ukraine.  Surely this is the unifying work of the Holy Spirit?  The report showed a woman of about my age saying ‘we’ll fight them with whatever we’ve got, even our bare hands…’  Their confidence comes from the belief that God is on their side.  We heard a military chaplain speaking of Russia as a mean and vile Goliath – they know they’re like David with little more than 5 smooth stones in their sling.  Yet moral is high because stories in the Bible tell them that when the enemy is wicked God intervenes.

We also saw Ukraine’s interior minister prayerfully seeking guidance, strength and inspiration in one of their beautiful Churches.  The reporter asked how he felt about the likelyhood of Kyiv being encircled by the Russian army.  He calmly replied ‘We are ready.’  These people’s confidence comes from the belief that right is on their side and this belief is widely shared across the world. 

Of course we are fearful for the Ukrainians; it feels like martyrdom.   I pray that if the worst happens, they’ll share something of Stephen’s experience, the first Christian martyr.  As he was stoned to death he remained filled with the Holy Spirit.  As he gazed heavenwards towards his final destination he saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at his right hand and prayed that God would forgive his attackers, just as Jesus did on the cross.

Today we heard Jesus say to the Devil ‘It is written, “One doesn’t live by bread alone.”  The people of Ukraine are living out the reality of this. They’re pressing forward relying on stories from scripture that tell us about God’s nature.  Like that of David and Goliath and the escape of the Israelites from oppression in Egypt, recalled in our reading from Deuteronomy.  Like Jesus they are being empowered by the Holy Spirit.  (Even the US Secretary of State said yesterday that Ukraine’s defeat is not inevitable; he felt over time they could win as he couldn’t see 45 million Ukraines ever accepting a puppet government imposed by Russia.  Their Spirit might give them victory.)  

Sadly we don’t have to look too far to find an example of someone who’s fallen prey to the Devil’s second temptation of gaining glory and power.  Jesus rebuffs this by  saying:  ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’   I think it would be fair to say that Putin is serving himself rather than his people or the people of Ukraine.  

However scripture also reminds us to look to ourselves before we judge others.  Have we ever bullied or overridden the choices or preferences of those we’re supposed to love and protect in order to get what we want?   Perhaps by taking a job at a massive cost to our family, because we wanted the prestige or increase in salary?  (We usually justify our selfish behaviour when we do this – just like Putin!)

Jesus told us that in his Kingdom ‘whoever wants to become great … must be your servant … just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’  (Mat. 20:24-28)  So the way God measures greatness is diametrically opposed to Putin’s.  With God it increases with every decision to serve, and with every unselfish and unseen choice.  This is what we are seeing in those men and women bravely attempting to protect their homeland.  (Perhaps our fast this Lent should be about laying down our ambitions, preferences and desires in favour of those of others - rather than chocolate!)

In all of this let us not fall to the devil’s final temptation - of making assumptions about how God will act.   The Devil tempts Jesus to throw himself off the Temple saying ‘He will command the angels concerning you, to protect you…’ But Jesus replies ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’  He’s quoting Deuteronomy 6:16,  here Moses is reminding the Israelites of the time that they demanded a miracle from God and threatened to return to slavery in Egypt if He would not perform it.  

We too must not be tempted to demand a miracle.   God is not subject to our rules or expectations; we cannot box Him in with our theology or reading of Scripture.  Instead, we are called to submit our wills to His.  

There is a fine line between faith and the sin of presuming or assuming that we know what God’s will is.  We do not know what God’s purposes are.  What we do know however is that as Christians we are called to give to those in need, to fast and  humbly pray   That God will over rule the hearts and minds of those with power and authority. That victims will be few; the innocent protected and that peace will come through justice and not through the infliction of the will of a stronger party on a weaker.’  (Bishop of Europe.)    Amen

























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