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.