Monday, 15 February 2016

Lent 1: Are you afraid?

"Are you afraid?" the ad men shout from every screen and billboard. Afraid you can't afford to put the finest and freshest food on the table? Afraid you can't keep the house nice and warm? Afraid you won't be able to get the kids the bigger Easter Egg, the best birthday present they've ever had? Afraid you can't send them to the nice nursery the neighbours daughter goes to? "Maybe you're not doing enough. Maybe you're not good enough. Maybe you're not praying enough," say other voices. "But don't worry," they say. "We can make it all better. Just one little loan won't make a difference, just one little bet on the horses, and we can make your little go a much longer way. Trust us: won't do any harm. Just say the word, and we'll turn your stones into bread" -

- the first Temptation.

"Are you afraid," the politicos shout, and all their media darlings, "of the immigrant? Afraid of the poor man? Afraid of the rich man? Afraid of the evil Muslim, the evil Russian, the evil Tory? Don't worry," they say. "We've got the answer. We'll free the markets so everyone can work: power to the consumer!" Or perhaps, "we'll take from the rich and give to the poor: power to the proletariat! Don't worry about the collateral damage as benefits are cut, or don't worry about the massive loss of tax income as the wealthy flee: just make your mark here, one little vote is all it takes! Just bend the knee to our ideology, and we'll bring in Utopia, give you the power, kingdom and authority over all you survey" -

- the second Temptation.

"Are you afraid," the pimps and pushers say, "of being lonely? Isolated, left out, unwanted, unsexy? Ah, it's Friday night, and look outside: everybody else has got friends, everybody else is having fun - but not you. That's OK. We can fix it. This legal high will do no harm; this little prescription, one a day, will take all the darkness away; just one more drink, just one more shot; or just click here for a thousand friends who'll be with you whenever you desire trapped behind the glass of your 'phone (and you're not trapped at all, of course); or click there to see people doing anything you want them to. From the depths of depression, isolation, ennui, I'll pull you up and get you high. OK, the high won't last long, there'll be a fall, but trust me, my friends will be there to catch you and help you up again (for a very reasonable fee) -

- the third temptation.

The temptations are false promises and easy answers to misguided cravings based in fear and anxiety.

Straight before this wilderness episode in the Gospel was Jesus' baptism. You remember: the heavens opened, the Spirit descended as a dove, the Father's voice proclaimed Jesus His beloved Son. Surely the crowds all around the banks of the Jordan, seeing this, must have expected great things: liberation from the Roman occupation, maybe even by force; profound spiritual teaching; miracles, signs and wonders. Huge expectations. Immediate, magical solutions.

But Jesus does not give them any of this - yet. Instead, He is compelled, Mark says "thrown out," by a movement of the Spirit in His innermost being, to go out into the wilderness, a place of danger and uncertainty, where He outright rejects the Devil's easy answers, even though they are the answers the people want to hear.

Jesus is not the answer. He is not for sale, as yet a another panacea. There are those who try to sell Him - from the prosperity Protestant pastor of the "Lord, won't you buy me Mercedes Benz" school, who says the reason you're poor or sick is that you're not praying hard enough, through to the hardline Catholic who wants you to give your brain to the Church. But Jesus going into the wilderness shows that's got to be wrong. Those people who try to sell Him with the promise of cheap salvation are just more tempters in the desert, along with the pushers of sex and drugs and lifestyles and bling. He went out, without Bible or Breviary, into the dangerous desolation where wild beasts prowl seeking whom they may devour; He went to confront those beasts, to see them for what they were, to learn to live among them and yet to their traps He would never succumb.

Last week, I spoke about the importance of silence in our life of prayer. It seems to me that silence is the gateway to the wilderness of our souls. It can feel dangerous because when we enter it, like Jesus, our eyes are opened to the fears and anxieties which lead us to sin. It forces us to look at ourselves honestly and to see that the waters of our soul's ocean have not settled, they're choppy and swirling with dust and grime. But recognising those dangers and learning to live with them without yielding to sin is vital for our spiritual growth. We have to discern those dangers amid all the clatter of our lives and our busy minds, filled with distractions and fears by the outside world. We need to discern which are real dangers and which are being manufactured by others for their gain but at risk of losing our souls. If we do that, the wilderness can become a place not of fear and desolation, but of beauty, peace and joy, a fertile field for God's grace to bloom. There, we see that we are enough, we are worth something, we are loved and lovable, not because of what we earn or how we look, but because  our deepest being is the very image of God Himself.

Better than giving up chocolate for Lent, give up sin! But don't think for a moment that it will be an easy fix. Jesus does offer us the easy yoke, the light burden, the chance to rest in Him, but at the same time, He says, the Way is hard and the gate is narrow; and that Way to Truth and Life is not through magic fixes, through money trees, Utopias, temporary highs, but through the wilderness, through the place where there is nowhere to hide.

For the Way to Resurrection is none other than the Way of the Cross.

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