It was my birthday this week, and I had a very unusual experience on my birthday this year – I woke up scared!
I appreciate that a lot of people live with fear as a constituent part of their lives. I am not one of those people. I don’t normally fear much. Indeed, I have been criticised on more than one occasion for not fearing enough!
I put myself into dangerous situations regularly – happily stepping into boxing rings and blithely moving in and out of warzones without any realistic appreciation of the risks that I am taking (or so some people say). Regardless though of whether those criticisms are justified, what I can tell you is that this week, on the dawn of my 53rd birthday, I woke up scared, and scared about stupid things!
Initially it was the thought of retirement that terrified me – what am I going to do? And then I started fearing for my children – what was going to happen to them? And from there I managed to uncover a whole compendium of other things to get worked up over. It was as if I woke up with some sort of free-floating anxiety that was just looking to attach itself to something – to anything! And then my baby girl, Fran, came charging in and wished me a happy birthday, and that snapped me out of it!
It was a weird experience! Maybe it was something I ate the night before, or maybe I was still emerging out of some dream/nightmare (the details of which I couldn’t remember). I don’t know, but I do know that it was a weird experience, and after Fran disappeared I did have to slap myself around a bit (metaphorically speaking) with a bit of sober self-talk: ‘What’s wrong with you, Dave? This isn’t you!’
Of course it did occur to me that perhaps it was a very appropriate way to start Lent – wrestling with the devil in the wilderness, except that my birthday fell on the Tuesday – on Pancake Day! I was a day early!
Well … we’re certainly in Lent now, so let the nightmare’s begin!
Yes, if Christmas tis the season to be jolly, Lent is the season where you sober up! It’s forty days and forty nights where we are encouraged to spend extended time in self-examination and come up with a solid personal inventory so that we can work on ourselves and develop ourselves as more sober and more disciplined human beings, and we generally associate that process with giving something up!
Someone called me yesterday and asked me what I was giving up for Lent and I had to confess that I hadn’t come up with anything! How many non-essential things do I have that I can give up?
Of course, I always remember our dear friend Grace Reppion – a beloved member of our community for many years who is no longer with us. She lived to a great age though, and I do remember her saying to me in the last year of her life “I’m thinking of giving up sex for Lent.” Indeed she was a great example of self-disciplined discipleship!
Forty days and forty nights of sobriety, self-discipline, giving things up and struggling with our fears – this is Lent – and it all goes back to Jesus’ wandering in the wilderness at the very outset of His ministry, as recorded in today’s Gospel reading.
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:12-13)
Yes, we are back in the wilderness with Jesus, as every year at this time we take this journey into the wilderness with Jesus. The only thing that is different this year is that our Bible reading is from Mark’s Gospel, and that reading, admittedly, is different!
It’s short, isn’t it? Mark’s description of the wilderness wandering is only two verses long, and it’s completely devoid of all the details that the other Gospels provide!
What exactly did Jesus do in the wilderness? What temptations did Satan put in his path? How did Jesus respond to those temptations? The answers to each of these questions are given, but not here in Mark’s Gospel. All we get here is that Jesus was tempted and He dealt with it!
Sometimes that’s all we need. Rather than over-analyse a situation, some problems just need to be dealt with in the most straightforward manner that is open to us.
Back in the days when I was studying psychology at University I remember reading a case study of one of the great existentialist psychologists. He was describing a client who worked in a corporate environment and was having real trouble relating to his workmates and was struggling with depression.
The psychologist (whose name now escapes me) said something along the lines of ‘if I had been a Freudian theorist I would have examined his relationship with his boss – that perhaps he was seeing his boss as a father-figure who reminded him of his history of childhood abuse. And if I had been a behaviourist I might have helped my client find more positive reinforcement in some of the areas of his work that he was best at. From my perspective though his key problem was simply that he had a lousy job. I suggested that he quit and find something better!’
Sometimes that’s all we need! We don’t need deep analysis and clever strategies. We just need to take our temptations by the throat and deal with them! That’s the template we’re given in our Gospel reading today. Jesus was tempted. He dealt with it. He moved on!
And that indeed is the other side of the brevity of this temptation narrative – it’s short, it’s decisive, and it’s not recurring.
Jesus is tempted. He spends forty days in the wilderness, struggling with the devil, and then He moves on and we don’t’ see Him back in the wilderness again during His earthly ministry (not in this capacity, at any rate) and this is what distinguishes Jesus’ Lentern experience from ours.
Jesus is tempted, and He has to fight temptation, but this is not a yearly discipline, and the reason for that is in the nature of Jesus’ temptation. Jesus is not battling with a craving to eat too much chocolate.
The word ‘temptation’ can mean a lot of things. You can feel tempted to have that extra dollop of ice-cream on your pudding, and you can feel tempted to leave the wife and kids and run off with the church organist (nb. not a temptation I’ve specifically had to struggle with, but you get the idea)!
Specifically, in Jesus case, He has been given a mission by God that begins at His baptism and that will take Him all the way to the cross. We see Jesus struggle with this destiny – once at the very beginning of his work here, and once in the Garden of Gethsemane, just prior to the completion of His work.
The struggle Jesus faces is whether He is going to follow God and be true to His destiny – whether He will fulfil the mission God has given Him and live the life laid out for Him, or whether He will take an easier path.
In a sense, this is the same struggle that we all face – whether we are truly going to devote our lives to the service of God and humanity, or whether we are simply going to drift along with the tide, play the game, and try to ‘succeed’ in the worldly sense of the word.
“You can’t serve God and money”, Jesus says (Matthew 6:24). You can’t serve God and the devil. You can’t live for the Kingdom of God if you’re busy storing up for yourself riches on earth. And we need to beware of trivialising this struggle – dumbing it down and making it about giving up chocolate or sex for Lent!
The real struggle (or ‘Jihad’, to use the more evocative Arabic word) is choosing God over the devil, and that means dealing with ‘Temptation’ (with the big ‘T’) rather than with all the little temptations (with little ‘t’s’) that religious people are so good at getting obsessed with. And what I want to suggest to you today is that making the choice for God over the devil largely comes down to a choice to live in the present rather than getting sucked into the future or the past.
Living for God, I believe, means living in the present! It means experiencing the presence of Christ in the moment, and following God now, wherever God chooses to take us! The Temptation (and I do mean ‘Temptation’ with the big ‘T’) is to remain stuck in the future or the past.
The past is constantly distracting us with guilt and regret and sapping our strength for the present. We can’t focus on doing what we are called to do when we are all the time distracted with thoughts about what I could have done or should have done.
- If only I had been a better daughter to my mum and dad
- If only I had made better use of my time at school
- If only I had been a better partner to my spouse
- If only I had spent more time with my children when they were little
These sorts of regrets are disempowering as they leave us wallowing in guilt and self-pity and incapable of living for God in the present, as we become convinced that if we try to do something worthwhile with our lives it is bound to end in failure.
But far more disabling than guilt about the past is fear about the future. Guilt tries to hold us back, but it is fear that blocks the path forward.
For most of us, it’s not an obsessive love of money that tempts us to serve the wrong master. It’s the fear of running out of money!
- What would happen to me? What would happen to my children?
- Where would we live and how would we survive?
- And what if there is another war? Will we be prepared?
- And what will happen when I retire? What am I going to do?
Yes, I’m back with my 53rd birthday compendium of fears, and it’s these fears about all the possible things that could go wrong that shackle us, and make it almost impossible to move forward in the present!
In truth, I don’t think it’s possible to completely overcome all fear, and I’m not sure if it’s even desirable!
I remember again from my days doing psychology, a study that was done on persons about to undergo surgery, assessing the amount of fear they were experiencing going in to an operation. Those who put together the study wondered whether obsessive fear going into an operation might negatively affect the body such as could be measured by a slower recovery rate after the operation.
As expected, the final results did suggest that obsessive fear was correlated to a slower recovery time. The unexpected result from the study though was that those who went into their operations feeling no apprehension at all ALSO took longer to recover! The study therefore spoke of ‘doing the work of worrying’ – suggesting that a medium amount of fear might be good for us, especially in terms of preparing the body for trauma!
I often tell my fighters about this study before they go into the ring for their first fight. They should not be panicking, which is disabling, but neither should they feel guilty if they do feel a little fear. That is normal and healthy and may indeed brace their bodies for the shock they are about to experience!
Likewise, when it comes to your ‘jihad’ with the devil, don’t feel embarrassed if you feel a little fear. If you find yourself bothered by those questions – ‘what if I run out of money?’, ‘what if a war breaks out?’, ‘what if I’m not prepared?’ – this is nothing to be ashamed of. The challenge though is not to allow that fear to disable us, but to have the courage to push ahead and live for God in the present despite our fears!
I mentioned my surprising birthday fears. That wasn’t the only surprise I had on my birthday morning. I also woke to find an astonishing number of Facebook greetings! How did they all know? What really threw me though was the fact that some of the most lengthy and endearing messages came from people I didn’t now at all!
One such message from a name I didn’t recognise said “Don’t worry about the past. It’s gone. Don’t worry about the present. I didn’t get you one!”
My message today is indeed ‘don’t worry about the past’, and I want to add to that ‘don’t worry about the future either’, but DO worry about the present, or rather than worry, do LIVE in the present. For today is the day to meet with God, and now is the time to serve Him!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 22nd of February, 2014.