A sermon given during the 10:30am Choral Eucharist, by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, on the 18th February 2024.

Genesis 9:8-17, Mark 1:9-15

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

Jesus is driven into the wilderness with God’s voice ringing in his ears, words spoken to him as John baptised him in the River Jordan. “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased”. God said. You might think Jesus would have time to bask in these words. To listen to them sitting up his mountain gazing at the view, to gather with family telling the story of his baptism by John, to go to the temple where he felt so at home to reflect on them in the light of the scriptures with the rabbis around. You might think he would have time with those words. “You are Beloved”. But immediately the Spirit drives him into the wilderness. As it always is in Mark’s Gospel where there is little time to ponder one thing before another happens. Except for Jesus during this time in the wilderness, where Jesus spends his forty days. This is a piece of time during which Jesus learns who he is and during which we might learn a little more who we are. It’s not just the Father’s voice that tells Jesus, tells us. It’s the time in the wilderness where he faces being human, lives being human, tempted by Satan, the Accuser and accompanied by wild beasts. Jesus is not alone encountering all this, though, for there are angels in the wilderness, too.

Our forty days begins a little differently. We have ash traced in the shape of a cross on our foreheads. And the words were spoken: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Our humanity, the truth that we are mortal, finite, beings, is marked on us as we are encouraged to embrace a holy Lent. The dust is made by God, though, and the breath that gives us life, and the words “You are my Beloved,” are whispering. Our Lenten task is to hear them, turn to them, allow ourselves to be embraced by them. The ground of Lent is God’s loving voice.

God’s love for us holds us in the midst of our being finite and tempted and knowing that we can be sinful. How do we live this time of Lent? It may not be necessarily about giving things up or taking things on. The question is what stops us hearing God’s voice. What stops us hearing God’s loving voice?

If there is something … a way of being or some thing or how we look or what we have achieved … if there is something that we know we think makes us worthwhile … then noticing that and letting it go for a time is a holy thing to do. What do we think makes us worthwhile? God does not love us because we are good. God does not love us because we achieve things. God certainly does not love us because we belong to some group rather than another. God loves us because we are. Our Lent invites us to spend time with that, glimpsing it a little more, hearing it, finding it. Or more to the point, perhaps, allowing God to find us.

Our Lenten time may or may not be about taking something on. Three groups of us and many others who are reading alone will take on reading Rachel Mann’s book reflecting on the writing and insight of Jane Austen. It is a truth universally acknowledged – the title taken from the opening words of the first book we will spend time with – Pride and Prejudice. Taking this on we hope to find something of what Rachel Mann calls Jane Austen’s “rarely matched insight into human character and our abiding human problems.”[1] We hope we will also find something of Rachel Mann’s insights into the life of prayer and the truth of God. May we find some insight into our own human character and our abiding problems, on the life of prayer and the truth of God, as we reflect on this book in company or alone.

We might wonder in the midst of this, though, if Lent is not necessarily about giving things up or taking them on. If Lent is more about being. About giving God a little time. Spending time with ourselves and finding God there. Knowing our sins and turning towards God who says, “You are Beloved” and when he hears of the sins, says, “I forgive you.” We are not good at this ourselves. This task of forgiving. And we find it very difficult to believe that God is good at it too.

Our reading from the Ninth Chapter of Genesis is not read by accident. It is to help us be clear about God and forgiveness. The story is told about the Flood.

God was devasted by human behaviour and so he decided to cleanse the earth of almost all human beings. God has instructed Noah to build an ark and save two of each animal from the great flood. The ark would act as a refuge for the animals and Noah and his family, while God cleansed the earth. After forty days, the water began to recede and the ark came to a stop on the mountains of Ararat. Noah released a dove, which returned with an olive leaf signifying that the waters had decreased. Noah and his family then left the ark, taking the animals with them, and God put a rainbow in the sky as a sign of his promise to never again send a flood to destroy the earth.

God said: ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.’ (Genesis 9:9-13)

The rainbow reminds us that God will never give up on us. Never again will God not forgive. It is interesting that we are given this story at the beginning of Lent. The truth about God grounds our Lent. God loving, forgiving at all times in all places. Our Lenten task is to spend time in this truth.

So Lent may not be really about giving things up or taking them on. Lent may be more about being. We might think of Lent as giving God a little time. Which leads us to wonder about prayer …

Michael Mayne, former Dean of Westminster Abbey put it this way. He was writing about prayer:

Prayer is not an escape from life, a few minutes cut out from life, but a regular disciplined reminder that all life is lived in God’s presence, a marvelling at God’s love shown in Christ, a thankful responding to that transcendent reality by whom we are held in being. Prayer, then, is not primarily something I do in order to achieve something, but something I do because this is the sort of creature I am called to be: one who has an intuitive sense of the transcendent, one who has a muffled but persistent sense of the presence of the holy.[2]

Our prayer in Lent, our time cut out for God is not about doing anything or not doing anything, necessarily, but about spending time with this ‘muffled but persistent sense of the holy.”

The priest Philip Carter writes about digging. Philip Carter is a spiritual director for many of us and was the former leader of the Julian Centre for Spirituality. He has just had a book published entitled Journeying Towards Faith: Becoming What I am. The book will be launched in the CP Hall on Saturday 2nd March and will be sold through our Cathedral Shop. He writes this about prayer:

God reveals God’s self, albeit in many ways hidden and obscured, and wants us to wake up, and see a little more clearly, and recover the ‘vision splendid’ of the Divine in the midst of our lives. This is our life’s task, ‘breaking out of the prison-house of the ego into a second childhood, into childhood transformed.’[3] We are diggers not builders, in a world where God comes to us disguised as our life, and learning Jesus, rather than claiming even to know him is our task … [4]

We are diggers not builders … Might we imagine prayer as digging. Do you remember sitting as a child or with a small child digging for worms? Sitting on the earth, utterly absorbed in the task, finding roots of plants, perhaps, a bulb just beginning to grow, bugs and then … a worm. Do you remember the child’s delight, your delight perhaps? Hands covered in earth, knees sore, digging. Would prayer be like that? Not building anything, not needing to have anything to show for this time of prayer, but digging, staying close to the earth, close to who we are and finding God there. We are not meant to create anything in Lent or even to become more holy. Prayer might be like digging, staying close to the earth, close to who we are and finding God there.

“You are my child, my Beloved”, God says. May we spend a holy Lent dwelling in these words, in the truth of these words, noticing perhaps, a rainbow glimmering in the distance, reminding us that we are not only loved but forgiven.

[1] Rachel Mann A Truth Universally Acknowledged pxvi

[2] Michael Mayne Pray, Love Remember p24.

[3] Here Philip quotes David Nicholl from his book Holiness p149.

[4] Philip Carter Journeying Towards Faith: Becoming What I am p16.