This Sunday was the first Sunday of Lent. We heard how following his Baptism Jesus was sent into the wilderness and was tempted before he began his public ministry. And, as it happens, I too was sent – up the hill in Caterham to preach in our neighbouring parish church. Here’s what I said.
There are three signs that you are getting old. One is memory loss. I can’t remember the other four.
What’s your memory like? I remember reading in The Times a few years ago when I was in my early forties (those who know me will be aware that’s more than a ‘few’ years ago!) of some research scientists undertook into memory and age. They wanted to find out at what age your brain starts to malfunction. And it’s younger than you think. They discovered that your brain starts to malfunction, mainly because your brain cells start dying, once you reach the age of 40.
At that age, they said, you can expect to start getting that experience of walking into a room and forgetting why you did, or of going to the fridge and opening the door and then standing there like a lemon thinking “why on earth have I opened the fridge door?” The only comfort you can take from knowing that your memory is fast disappearing is that everyone else over the age of 40 is just as bad and is in the same boat.
Everyone knows that experience of putting something down and not being able to find it again. Although some people seem to do it far more often than others! And top of the list seem to be your keys or your reading glasses or your mobile phone. Fortunately, since I wear glasses all the time, I have managed to avoid losing them! But lose something, and the whole house can be turned upside down before you find what you were looking for in the most obvious place – and you can’t understand why you didn’t notice it before.
Of course, being lost yourself is no fun either. But the advent of the smartphone with its ability to show you on a map exactly where you are has made it far more difficult to be lost. And travelling is easier these days – it’s far harder to get lost on a car journey with sat-nav there to guide us on our way. The old days of someone pouring over those massive car atlases and saying, “Take the next left,” and then when you do shouting at you, “No not that left, the next PROPER left” are behind us – I still remember that comment clearly! Take a wrong turning with sat-nav and it promptly works out a new route to get you back on the right track, sometimes saying: Please make a U-turn if possible!
Well, here we are again, beginning our journey through Lent. And Lent starts by making us face up to the reality that we are lost! That we are well and truly lost! And that we need to turn to God if we are to find ourselves, recognise where we are, and get ourselves back on track, heading for our ultimate eternal destination. The problem is that most people – including many Christians – do not realise that they are lost!
Where have we got to on our journey? Do we still know where we are supposed to be going? Are there things we need to do to get back on the right road? Are we so lost that we need help from others? Or do we think we are not lost at all – have we forgotten that, on a spiritual level, we need to be found and guided back on the right way?
The problem is that too many Christians don’t want to, or don’t bother to think about, the journey. Or they look for short cuts – ways of making the journey easier and more straightforward. Short cuts, though, are not necessarily a good idea. “Short cuts make long delays,” says the hobbit Pippin in Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings and that’s certainly true of the Christian’s journey. There are no short cuts – you really must take the journey seriously.
Now, you’ve probably all heard the old joke about someone who is lost and who asks a bystander for directions. The response comes: “Well, if you’re wanting to get there I wouldn’t start from here.”
Well, the place to start our Lenten journey isn’t here today, the first Sunday of Lent. It was last Wednesday, because we start Lent, our annual pilgrimage journey of rediscovery, at the Ash Wednesday service – a time to reflect on our own sin. And unless we face up to our own sin we cannot, surely, truly grasp the grace of God in sending his Son to die on the cross for us, that we might get back on to the road to life. Ash Wednesday with its penitential liturgy, with its deeply symbolic act of ashing to show that we are truly sorry for failing God and each other, reminds us that we are lost beyond any hope of finding our way again by ourselves, but that God reaches out and finds us and sets us off in the right direction with Jesus as our guide. And sometimes that may even mean making a U-turn!
And knowing that we are lost is so key to our relationship with God. Because sin – our sin – and its consequence is serious business. Sin is all the stuff that is wrong with the world, the stuff that is getting in the way of God’s ideals of love, of justice. But sin isn’t something that other people do. We all sin as well though we don’t like to admit it. We all think things, and do things, and behave in ways that God doesn’t like. And sometimes we know what we’re doing and sometimes we don’t – but we need to say to God, “I’m sorry – I am wrong and I need your help to be better in the future.”
And recognising our own sin is hugely important because we all will ultimately face the judgement seat of God, and if we cannot get down on our knees and be honest with God about our sin now we have lost our way. God forgives us our sin if we confess it to him – he doesn’t forgive it if we ignore it and pretend it isn’t there, that it doesn’t exist.
There are no short cuts.
So we begin Lent by facing up to our sins and asking God for his forgiveness – and then we can allow him to help us find our way again on our spiritual journey. And a recognition that we have lost our way somehow will lead many of us to read a Lent book, make an effort to pray more or to read our Bibles more regularly, or to change our lifestyle for the better somehow. And I hope you’re thinking about doing one or more of those. Don’t fall into the temptation of thinking that you don’t need any of those things – that’s a sure sign that you’re lost and don’t know it.
There are no short cuts.
Jesus had to undertake his own spiritual journey. It wasn’t all plain sailing after his baptism as we saw in our gospel reading this morning. Because we saw how once John had baptised him Jesus didn’t just go straight off and get going with his mission. No – the Spirit of God drove him out into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan for forty days.
It wasn’t a good time for Jesus – it was hard and difficult and a struggle. But only after he had gone through his desert experience was he ready to come back and begin the preaching of the good news of repentance followed by belief being the way to the kingdom. Jesus, of course, didn’t sin – but he knew the reality of temptation and he struggled with it at the beginning of his ministry.
And if it was necessary for Jesus to go through that experience before he could carry out his God-given ministry, how much more do we need to work through the issues of temptation and sin if we are to then go on and carry out the ministry to which we have been called as his people. Because unlike Jesus we constantly give in to temptation, and we lose our way and need to be found.
There are no short cuts.
Lent is a time when we face up to our sin. And like the time Jesus spent in the desert, facing up to all that is wrong in our lives is a real challenge because our human nature is such that we never like admitting we are wrong and need help.
Lent is a time when we turn to God and ask forgiveness. We recognise that we are lost and that Jesus needs to find us again, and we do what we can to help that process through those Lenten acts of discipline – of fasting, of reading of Scripture, of prayer, of self-examination, of confession.
And Lent is a time when if we use it wisely we begin to understand deep within our hearts and minds the reality of what Jesus has done for us on the cross and why his resurrection is the life-changing and world-changing event that it is. And however lost we may have been we find our way again and can continue our journey to our eternal destination .