Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Someone once wished me a “Happy Ash Wednesday”! I am still not entirely sure what they meant but it raises an interesting thought. What does one say to people at the start of Lent? And what is Lent all about anyway? Where does it come from? What, if anything, does it mean today? All the evidence suggests that some time of intentional preparation for Easter has been kept from the very early days of Christianity. By the 4th century a Spanish nun called Egeria was able to write in her journal that the church in Jerusalem was very intentional about keeping Lent – a time of fasting, teaching and confession of sins in preparation for Easter. Lent has often been likened to a journey, a pilgrimage – and I have vivid and happy memories of being read the story told by John Bunyan in “Pilgrim’s Progress”. We are not singing it today but I trust that at some time in Lent we will sing the hymn based on Bunyan’s vivid imagination which tells about hobgoblins and foul fiends. If you don’t know it look it up in the red hymn book in front of you – No 212. “Who would true valour see.”

Bunyan saw the whole of Christian life as a journey, a pilgrimage to the celestial city where, finally, the one of true valour, the one who trusted God and did not allow him or herself to be led astray, or tempted off the straight and narrow path, would stand before the glory of God. We heard something of that in last week’s reading from Isaiah 6, and are reminded of that great vision of God’s glory every time we say or sing the Sanctus – Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest.

What happens if we use today’s readings as a way of equipping us for this journey through Lent? What do we need to take with us? How can we prepare for the journey that will lead us to the gates of glory? In the next few minutes let me offer you three things from each of today’s four readings to take with you as part of your equipment. In that way, while we may not have a ‘happy’ Ash Wednesday and Lent, we may, I trust, keep a ‘holy’ Lent.

From Deuteronomy I offer Thanksgiving, Acknowledgement and Generosity. Deuteronomy 26 is one of the great passages in the Old Testament, setting out some fundamental principles of faith. In the context of a harvest gathering the people of God are to bring their gifts as an act of Thanksgiving – not just once, but year by year. Their thanksgiving is to be not only for the present harvest, the good life they live now, but in Acknowledgement of their past. In a few short lines the history of the people of God is brilliantly told: a wandering Aramean was my father, he went down into Egypt few in number. He became great but was oppressed. In despair he cried to God and God heard and saw and brought us out and gave us this land! It is because of that action long long ago that I bring this gift today. It is a gift to be shared, an act of Generosity – shared with my neighbours as well as the aliens who live among us. No one is to be deprived of the goodness and abundance that comes from God.

In an earlier passage in Deuteronomy parents are exhorted to teach their children about God, all that God has done and all that they have received at the hands of God. This is to be handed on from generation to generation – never forget who and what we were and are. We were a nobody, now we are a loved child of God. And we are to share that goodness, that abundant goodness, with others in an equally generous way.

From Psalm 91 I offer Courage, Trust and Safety. This is a psalm that is often prayed at night, set as one of the psalms said at Compline – the last prayer of the day. It is a psalm that offers the pilgrim Courage because she is not alone, God is always there, always near, always one step ahead. It is a psalm that invites the pilgrim to Trust God – not, as the devil used it when confronting Jesus, as a way of getting out of trouble, but as a way of coping with the difficulties of life. We don’t have to do it alone. God is with us. It is a psalm which offers Safety, or, to use a word being bandied around at present, Sanctuary. Like almost all the psalms there is so much in Psalm 91 it could be used every day during Lent and you would still find more to think about.

Before we move on let me bring together two thoughts from these two readings – that of including the resident alien and that of finding sanctuary, safety, in God. In recent weeks we have seen a number of cathedrals and churches offering sanctuary to those asylum seekers likely to be sent back to Nauru. It’s a bold and daring thought to entertain, and one that has been used in the recent past. One example I am aware of is the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg which opened its doors to resident aliens (in this particular case, Zimbabwean citizens) at a time of appalling xenophobia. To offer sanctuary is a costly and long term commitment. I am not sure that those in our churches really understand that. It is one thing to make a symbolic gesture, quite another to have to live with the consequences year after year, which makes the invitation of the Victorian Premier all the more noteworthy and honourable when he offered to take all of the people in question. As for us at St Peter’s Cathedral – we continue to pray and hope for our own beloved Illuno family, and, I trust, will support the Anglicare SA initiative with its Homemaker Kits.

From Romans 10 I offer Confess, Believe and Belong. The first two are easy to find in the text – we simply have to read verse 9. “If you Confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead…” Verbal confession, inner belief. Isn’t that what baptism is about? We confess our sins, our turning from evil and towards Christ. We express, through the words of the Creed, our belief in God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer and Giver of Life. In Paul’s argument it is the confession and belief that assures salvation and hence Belonging – being part of God’s family, God’s people. In the past, Paul argues, entry into God’s family was restricted to those who were Jews, who kept the Law of Moses, who were, at least in their opinion, ‘righteous’. But now, in and through the cross and the resurrection of Christ, all who confess, all who believe – both Jew and Greek – are saved. They all, we all, belong.

What about Luke’s account of the temptations of Jesus. It would be easy to say that the three offerings are related to the three temptations, but I am not going to say that. Though I hope you will mull over those temptations. Rather, I want us to notice that three times in this short passage at the start of Jesus’s ministry the Spirit is mentioned. Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit … was led by the Spirit in the wilderness. After the devil departs (with those ominous few extra words ‘until an opportune time’) Jesus, filled with the Spirit, returned to Galilee. It is the Spirit – at the beginning, in the middle and at the end that is with Jesus. It is the Spirit who offers to accompany us in our journey through Lent – beginning, middle and end.

At his baptism Jesus is affirmed by God through the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit accompanies Jesus (at least in Luke’s Gospel) in the wilderness and throughout the temptations. The Spirit fills Jesus as he begins his life’s work of proclaiming the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven.

As you think and pray about these four readings over the next few days, allow your mind to flit back and forth between them, seeking and seeing the connections and the contradictions, finding and holding on to the comfort of God’s presence in sanctuary and Spirit, ready to share your blessing with others, especially the aliens, the ‘Greeks’ in our midst. May we keep a holy – and happy – Lent.

Let us pray:

O saving God, who led your people through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land: so guide us that, following our Saviour, we may walk through the wilderness of this world and be brought to the glory of the world which is to come; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen           Collect for Lent 1, APBA