An Open Hand
Preacher: The Revd Rob Ryan, Cathedral Curate (2010-2012)
13 March 2011, 10:30 (Lent 1)
The first Sunday of Lent! Welcome ... to that most popular of Christian seasons! Everyone knows about Lent. It seems, this year, that everyone wants to give something up for Lent. They are even talking about giving things up for Lent in the afternoons on Radio 1. On the Scott Mills show people are giving up chocolate, alcohol, TV, Twitter, Facebook. I even have one friend who last year decided to give up church for Lent. It seems he enjoyed the experience so much that he has chosen not to return!
But - is Lent about giving up stuff? And, if so, what should we be ‘giving up’? Where does this practice come from? The 40 days of Lent, symbolically represent the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. There is evidence to suggest that for at least the last 1500 years, the church has observed a fast as we have approached Easter. In medieval Europe, however, this would not have been that unusual - fasting and abstinence from meat would have been the norm for at least one day every week. There was also a cycle of smaller fasts - Lent though was the biggie, the toughest, the real thing!!
But why? What is it all about? What is the purpose of this? I think there are 3 reasons. Lent is an opportunity to remind ourselves of our humanity and that we depend, daily, on God. ‘From ash you came and to ash you shall return’ were the words of Adrian on Wednesday evening as made the sign of the cross on my forehead in ash. In our world today it is easy to believe the lie of our culture - that we are at the centre of the universe, that we deserve all there is going, that it is really all about us!
Secondly, Lent draws us closer to God through our prayer. God does not draw closer, God is always there but much of the time we are too busy to notice. If we give up things for Lent traditionally the time saved from that is to be used in prayer. As we pray we invite God back into our lives.
Thirdly, Lent reconnects us to the idea of community as we journey through Lent together. In previous centuries Lent was a communal thing with the whole of a particular Christian community observing Lent together. Although Lent has now become a personal thing, we can take the opportunity to be more aware of the reality that the Christian life is to be lived together. We can take comfort that we are traveling through Lent together and we could learn from each others experience.
So Lent is not just about giving up things that are bad for us. This is the impression that the world has got. The conversations on the Scott Mills show that Lent is seen simply as a time to give up something that is not really that good for you ... and nothing else. Many do that - but they are not observing Lent. They are more on a kind of a holy detox - and I only use the word holy because they choose to take their ‘fast’ during this holy time.
If this whole season has its origins in the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness then a question comes to mind. What was it that Jesus gave up?
Our gospel reading today is commonly known as the temptation of Christ. That title does not really help us here and I don’t think that is strictly accurate. The Greek word used here, ‘peirazo’ (pi-rad'- zo) refers more to a testing than to a temptation - a strict translation would be ‘a trial or test to see how one will react.’ Jesus is being tested.
Immediately before being taken into the wilderness, we read in chapter 3, that Jesus is baptised and we hear the words of God: ‘This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased’. If Jesus was not aware that he was the son of God, the Messiah, then it was all confirmed here! Our service sheet misses the first word of chapter 4. The passage starts ‘Then Jesus was led up by the spirit into the wilderness’. There is an immediacy here. Jesus is baptised and then straight away it’s wilderness time!
Jesus fasts for 40 days and nights. The bible tells us he was famished! Starving. That doesn’t sound like a Lenten giving up of chocolate to me! Jesus has not given up just those things that were bad for him - he seems to have given up everything that was good for him too! He was weak, craving for food, no doubt wanting this experience to end - and it is in this weak and vulnerable state that Satan pops up with these tests; and we see the start of a mighty struggle in the wilderness.
The struggle is about the nature of Jesus’ vocation and ministry. I think what we are seeing here is the pull and lure of culture. These tests are rooted in the cultures belief of what the Messiah would be like.
The turning of stones into bread signifying a messiah who will perform miracles on demand. The throwing himself off the pinnacle showing a Messiah who would be famous for his amazing acts. The offering of the world for a Messiah who would bully his way to the top, destroying those, like Rome, in the way.
The sort of Messiah the people were hoping for would perform great miraculous, maybe even self indulgent acts, be fearless for himself and overthrow the occupying Roman army. Satan is simply and deviously inviting Jesus to step into the mould that the current culture has already designed for him. It would be so easy ...
The pull of hunger, the lure of cheap and quick success, the desire to change the vocation to that of becoming a powerful ruler - all must have been inviting, (This was God - and he was experiencing first hand how his people were being crushed by the Romans!) all could combine to cause him to doubt his calling of which he had been so sure when he heard his father at his baptism.
The battle was successful from Jesus point of view because he did not succumb, he did not give in and become any of the messiahs that the people were suggesting. Instead, he gave up those images, choosing instead God’s way.
Jesus gave up food, he gave up rights, he gave up a lot in the wilderness - but most of all he gave up false images of himself and his life ahead.
I think there is a Lenten message or lesson available to us today that is very similar. There are a number of things that we can choose to give up and many of us will have done already. But, I wonder, whether this Lent time we need to start to give up our false images of God.
Sometimes we can hold onto our personal images of God tightly, protectively holding that image close to us, like in a grasped fist. Why not just make a fist with your hand now...
Imagine holding something there that you wish to protect, something precious, something that you do not wish to be harmed. Look at your fist. What you have in there is safe and secure. No one can harm it or steal it. No one can take it from you. It is safe and you know that.
But .... look at your fist again and ask yourself a question - how can I receive anything new? How can God add to my understanding? How can God show me more of who he is?
A fist protects and holds, but it can’t receive.
You need an open hand to receive.
Why not open your fist ... now you can receive - but the risk in opening your hand is that you can lose what you have tightly held grasped safely in there for a while, maybe even years.
I wonder if Lent is a time to open our hands. To give up our false images of God. False images that we have picked up from our family, from our culture, from our own imaginations. False images that we have held onto for a long time and really believe them to be true. Bishop Tom Wright says, ‘We need God to show us where our images of God have become too harsh, too weak, too small, too fragile, too stern.’
This Lent, may we take that opportunity to open our fists and give up those false images of God and may we be surprised as God places a fresh image of himself in our open and empty hands.