Into the wilderness…


Sermon for Lent 1 – St Mary’s Whitkirk

“My castaway this week…”

Even if you’re not a fellow radio 4 addict, I guess many of you recognised that as the opening of Desert Island Discs. First broadcast in 1942, it’s basically a clever way of finding out about someone’s life.

The premise is that the interviewee is cast away alone on an island with only 7 pieces of music, a couple of books and a luxury for company.

If there’s time at the end, the interviewer asks, “How do you think you would cope on the island?” Some discuss practical skills, but the more perceptive guests wonder about the solitude.

If you were cast away…on a desert island, or like Jesus in our gospel reading…driven into the wilderness…what would you find most difficult? The thirst? The hunger? The flies? Or maybe being completely alone? Not just a blessed hour or two of peace…but days or weeks of only your own company?

Without human interactions, I think we might lose a sense of who we are. I’m a wife, mother, sister because of others. I am a curate because of you, and this parish. Without all those people – who am I?

With our Lenten rituals of giving things up – usually food – it’s easy to focus on the physical side of Jesus’ experience in the wilderness. But the way Mark tells the story in this week’s gospel; it seems to me to be more about identity.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus bursts on to the scene already adult, already a friend, colleague, son, possibly brother, likely a carpenter. And Mark tells first of his baptism – where the voice from heaven gives him a new identity ‘You are my son the beloved, with you I am well pleased’.

Then ‘immediately’ Jesus is driven by the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted. To wrestle with what this new identity means.

Matthew and Luke give a few details to help us imagine that wrestling. They suggest Jesus was tempted to think being God’s son would involve having plenty of material stuff, certainly enough to eat; would involve power over others, including kings; wouldn’t involve being vulnerable – as angels would be there for protection.

We know from the rest of the gospel, though, that Jesus emerged from the wilderness with a different understanding. Being God’s son actually meant embracing his humanity totally, becoming powerless in the eyes of men. It meant not taking his identity from material things, power over others, or even from his family.

Later in Marks’s gospel when his family come looking for him, Jesus utters those words “Who are my mother and my brothers?” – I’ve always felt it was a bit harsh on his family – I’ve never before thought what it might have cost Jesus to distance himself in that way.

During those 40 days, Jesus rejects an identity that comes from stuff, from power, or even from good relationships, for one based on God. The gospels suggest he does this during 40 days and nights with little sign of God’s presence.

But he goes into that time with God’s words ringing in his ears, “You are my Son the beloved.” Perhaps it was only this affirmation that enabled him to cope in the wilderness.

I am, as usual, giving up one or two things this Lent. It’s good for me, I think, to be reminded of those who have nothing to give up. It’s a reminder that chocolate, caffeine, alcohol are not the things I should seek comfort from; that ‘stuff’ should never be allowed to define who I am.

But this Lent I am also attempting to go into the wilderness. To spend some time not being busy, not rushing round doing all the things that I often use to provide my identity.

And that means putting time aside to be alone before God. There is something about being still and really alone – without TV, music, books as well as without people – that can bring us face to face with who we think we are.

Our modern world tries so hard to tell us our identity comes from stuff – new clothes, a new car, the latest phone, so I need a space where none of that matters.

But much deeper, I think, is our desire for power – sometimes over others, or just over our own lives. We find our identity in what we are able to do. We feel our identity threatened if we can no longer do the things we once did, or if someone else is able to do them better. So I need to stop doing for a while.

Or we take our identity from what others think of us. I feel like a proper priest and curate when people tell me I’m doing well. Of course there’s nothing wrong in giving and receiving praise, of wanting to do things well, but what if I strip all that away? If those things tell me who I am, what happens when they are absent?

If I take these things away – who am I? What is left?

When I look at the wilderness that way I see why the spirit had to drive Jesus there. It’s not a comfortable place to be. But like Jesus, we can go into that wilderness with God’s words ringing in our ears, “You are my child, my beloved.”

If that is true, then ultimately nothing else matters. If I can hold that thought, I’m ready to go into the wilderness, to have the false identities I make for myself stripped away one by one. To try to really believe in my heart what I know with my mind – that the identity that matters most is the one that comes from God.

And I hope to emerge at the end of Lent, ready to renew my baptism vows on Easter morning with a slightly better understanding of what it means to be God’s child whom he loves.



The tree of the knowledge of good and evil…


A sermon for evensong – 4th February 2018


“There was a young man of Hong Kong

who thought limericks far too long…”

Some of you are smiling…either you’re humouring me, or you just did something very clever. You recognised that was a limerick – a silly sort of poem – then recognised it was only part of a limerick – and saw that the humour was in it being a parody of a limerick. Brilliant!

We do it all the time – we use type of language, length of lines, how it’s arranged on a page, to recognise what kind of literature we’re reading…and so how to respond. I guess you’re not wondering who the man from Hong Kong was, why he thought limericks too long, whether this should affect your view of limericks…you just enjoyed the joke – or didn’t.

It’s a kind of unwritten agreement between author and reader, where the type of writing decides how we read it. The writer of information books expects us to take the words at face value – to assume she’s tried to ensure they’re literally true. The writer of instruction manuals expects at least some of us to realise they’re best read before we try out our new gadget. The fiction writer expects us to know he will use metaphors that are not to be taken literally.

And we’re very good at this…except sometimes when it comes to the Bible. The bible, inspired, we believe, by God, is so precious that we forget it contains many different kinds of writing.

Tonight we heard the second creation account. The fact we have two contradictory accounts suggests we’re not expected to take either literally. Anyway, it doesn’t read like an information text – much more like a story. And we expect stories to use metaphors, pictures, to grapple with truths that are beyond literal explanation.

To me this passage isn’t trying to explain how the world came to be – but wrestling with questions like, ‘why is the world such a strange mixture of beauty and evil?’ And that makes it much more relevant to us today – because it’s surely a question we all struggle with.

Once I read the story in this way, it makes me think…

        …and mainly, this week, I’ve thought about that tree of knowledge. Why was it forbidden? Why was it more dangerous, and more desirable, than the tree of life? Perhaps the writer’s exploring what sin is and how knowledge is often at the heart of it. So I’ve been thinking about how knowledge relates to sin – and what that means for us today.

In modern times we’ve tended to think knowledge is good. When my Granny was small – before knowledge of antibiotics – her school was closed due to a Diphtheria outbreak. When it reopened, a quarter of the children had died.

Of course, knowledge is not always used for good. The discovery of nuclear fission led to nuclear weapons as well as nuclear power.

But I think one reason knowledge is dangerous is that deciding whether we are using it for good or evil is often not obvious.

We’re now able to identify genetic abnormalities in un-born children. Parents who are likely to pass on horrific genetic diseases can choose to end, or never to start, pregnancies that will lead to short, painful lives…a good thing?

Parents can discover whether their child is, for example, a Down’s syndrome baby. In Iceland, this knowledge leads so routinely to termination that in 2017 there were no Down’s syndrome children born there. It’s likely that by 2030 there’ll not be a single living person with Down’s in Denmark. An Icelandic geneticist said recently that before it was developed, this test was seen as the Holy Grail of medicine. Now he says “it’s scary”. Is this use of knowledge good? Is it evil? Should we be making this choice?

In this country, the law allows for termination of pregnancies if there is a risk of disability. However, when two deaf parents wished to choose a deaf embryo – so their child could be fully part of their, deaf, community – the law did not allow this.

On one hand, deliberately bringing a disabled child into the world seems wrong. But is it really different to non-disabled parents wanting a child who will fit more easily into their world? To the disabled community this might suggest the law does not value their lives – that they’re unworthy even to be born.

I have no simple answers. That’s the problem, and beauty, of our scriptures. They’re not lists of instructions for every eventuality – they’re stories, poems, histories, visions that wrestle with truth, and invite us to do the same.

“Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you shall die.”

What does that mean for me thousands of years later?

Well the writer of genesis clearly had no inkling that genetic screening would one day exist, but I think he did understand how knowledge leads us so easily away from God, how dangerous knowledge can be. For me, this story is not a factual account of how sin came to exist – but a recognition of the danger that comes with knowledge and a reminder that all knowledge demands a Christian response.

This week that passage from Genesis has reminded me that I should think about how we use knowledge; that I should think about it in light of my Christian faith; that I should pray about it. That whether I understand the science or not, I should engage with discussions about what we do with new knowledge.

This week the General Synod of the Church of England will be discussing what Christianity has to say about pre-natal screening. Of course this is just one example of knowledge – but I think it shows how knowledge can separate us from God. It reminds us that Christ is the lens through which we should look at all aspects of life.