BREATHING IN AND BREATHING OUT– 'Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness' (Matthew 4:1).
Jesus was anointed by the Spirit at the time of his baptism and then almost immediately, in Matthew's Gospel, the Spirit drove him into the wilderness. It is a pattern you see frequently in Scripture: exaltation, followed by withdrawal and testing, which in turn equips the Christ for his public work.
It is as rhythmic as breathing in and breathing out and this rhythm has been built into the life of the Church. Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, opens the door on a period of spring cleansing in preparation for Easter. What kind of preparation is appropriate for Lent, or should we just junk it as incompatible with our busy lifestyles?
Just over 100 years ago, the Church Times reported a scandal. The Scarborough Conservative Association had decided to hold its AGM on the evening of Ash Wednesday. Even worse, they planned to conclude the business with a 'smoking concert'. Now this last decision, in view of the judgment against Philip Morris, might be controversial now, but I doubt whether the violation of Ash Wednesday would cause the indignation expressed by the Church Times of a century ago, which thundered in a headline: 'Save us from the Conservatism of Scarborough'.
You and I know that while even President Clinton tiptoes around Muslim sensibilities during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, the Christian fast of 40 days is hardly visible. Some people embrace minor mortifications and give up chocolate in the run up to Easter, but even they are often apologetic about it.
CARNIVAL WITH NO LENT– When I was a curate in those prehistoric days before overhead projector screens, we used to bring out two cheerful cutout characters on the Sunday before Lent. They were called GUS and TOM. It was a threadbare homiletic device. They stood for the two sides of Lent – Give Up Something and Take On More. We tried, but the tide was against us.
In some ways this is surprising. We live at a time when for many people the spectacle of superabundance for some, of carnival with no ensuing Lent, has become rather nauseating. 'Carnival' literally means 'goodbye meat', and it used to be the festival on the eve of the period of fasting. Now the rhythm has gone and it is carnival all the year round.
At the same time, the destruction of the rhythms of the day, the week and the year in favour of a mere succession of passing moments (hyped, but ultimately deadening), has led to a spiritual exhaustion in which you might think that a little fasting and reduction of stimuli would have a fashionable appeal.
Lent chimes in with another modern movement for re-inventing and improving the self. So many of us are evidently dissatisfied with ourselves as we are. Working under the instruction of some guru, we hope to progress to some better 'me', with a fuller and richer life.
Some of these gurus are genuinely helpful. Many of you will have read or at least have bought the book by Steve Covey called, 'Seven Habits of Highly Effective People'. Over 5 million copies have been sold over the past 10 years. The teachings of this Mormon sage have impressed Clinton and Gingrich alike, with useful advice like: 'don't prioritise your schedule, but schedule your priorities'. OK, it is as difficult as the letters of St Paul, but the advice is not without value.
In such circumstances – disgust at over-consumption; the evident effects of the destruction of rhythms in daily life; and dissatisfied people struggling to reinvent themselves – the failure of Christians to market Lent seems strange and incompetent.
EMPTYING TO BE FILLED– Lent is the springtime of the Church year, a period of preparation for Easter. God's gift to us in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the sending of the Spirit is life in all its fullness, but we know that there remains an undertow in daily life which carries us away into negativity and forgetfulness. Our lives become old again. We need an annual review.
Perhaps, however, it is not so strange that Lent has not caught the popular mood. Centre stage for contemporary gurus is the individual consumer of life operating on his own profile and image to produce a trimmer, more effective figure. If a person takes up religion in this mood, then it is because God is an asset in this process.
By contrast, the Christian faith promises new life; life in all its fullness to those who open themselves up to God, emptying themselves so that they can be filled with the life that flows from the Godhead.
The Christian Lent is not a time for reinventing the self by a supreme effort. It is a time for opening up to God and seeing through some of the shadows inside us. Jesus the Anointed One faced a crescendo of temptations from desert, to temple wall, to high mountain. He saw through the daydreams about power and possession and emerged equipped by the Spirit for his work.
HEARING GOD'S DRUMBEAT– The Spirit drove him into the wilderness which is indeed a place for confronting oneself at depth. I went into the Sinai with a group of young East Enders, which included Muslims, a few Christians, mostly don't-knows. The experience had a profound effect on us all. The desert is a great leveller and revealer. When you all have to go behind the shadow of a great rock with your loo roll and a box of Swan Vesta matches (we were ecologically conscientious!) the barriers between people and the protections of status and normal routine fall.
Lent in the desert is not possible for many (but don't dismiss the idea that you could be in need of a pilgrimage). Even at home, Lent can be a time for reducing some of the chronic over-stimulation which is so much a part of modern living; a time when we protect ourselves a little more from the daily bombardment of images and stimuli, the pressures which keep us trapped on the surface.
You will know the pressure points in your own lives, but now is the time for deciding how to use Lent. Perhaps by not reading so many newspapers, hearing so much, watching so much, consuming so much, so that we can be liberated from the sick hurry which dulls our capacity to hear the still small voice.
Perhaps it is the time to live more simply in order to tighten up the drumskin, so that God's drumbeat can be heard more clearly in our lives.
Perhaps it is a time for carving out some solitude so that we can become aware of those senses which are deadened in daily life. The choice is yours. You have to decide what is most relevant. The London Diocesan team, quite apart from what they are doing individually, have decided to fast from routine meetings in order to spend more time to be with other disciples in the parishes of the Diocese on their Lenten journey to Easter.
Just giving up chocolate, which can be resumed in a great binge on Easter Day, does little good and can easily fill us with an unhelpful sense of spiritual achievement. Lent is an opportunity for Springtime cleansing and we can encourage one another in observing it. Why should Weight Watchers have a greater care for one another's progress than followers of Jesus Christ?
Thanks to the Bishop of London for preaching this sermon at Holy Trinity Brompton, London, on 14th February 1999.