Sunday, February 18, 2018

Into the Wilderness with Jesus (a sermon for Lent 1 on Mark 1:9-15)

I wonder what comes to your mind when you hear the words ‘trackless wilderness’? I wonder if you’ve ever been in one?

I’ve never really experienced a hot desert, but I’ve got a lot of experience of the cold variety. We lived in the Northwest Territories from 1984 to 1991, and while we were there I made many hunting trips out on the land. Aklavik, our first Arctic home, was an hour by snowmobile from the Richardson Mountains. The trail there led through small trees at first, but eventually as we climbed, the trees disappeared and we were in a ‘trackless waste’. The locals didn’t think of it as ‘trackless’, of course – they knew it well! One friend I was hunting with asked me if I was okay to find my way back to Aklavik by myself. “There’s a road you can follow”, he said. That didn’t make any sense to me, until I remembered that the Inuktitut word for ‘road’ can also mean ‘trail’, and a skidoo track in the snow was a trail to him!

We’re not told where the particular ‘wilderness’ was that Jesus went out to for forty days, but it’s traditionally been assumed that he went south into the Negev, or south-west into the Sinai Desert where the Israelites had wandered for forty years before entering the promised land. Mark’s gospel tells us very little about what happened during Jesus’ forty-day wilderness pilgrimage; we turn to Matthew and Luke for more details about the devil’s tests, but Mark has nothing about that. What he does tell us is that, first, it was the Spirit who led him out there – the word actually used is ‘drove him out’, a surprisingly forceful word; second, that while he was there he was tempted – the word can also mean ‘tested’ – by Satan; and third, that he had company while he was out there – wild beasts and angels!

So what’s it all about, this wilderness experience? And why has it been such a strong symbol for the Christian journey for two thousand years since then?

I already mentioned the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness with Moses for forty years. But Moses himself had first met God in that same wilderness, at Mount Sinai, where he was looking after his father-in-law’s sheep; he saw a burning bush and had a dramatic encounter with Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was in the wilderness that the Israelites heard God speak and received the commandments and the rest of the Law through Moses.  They had to wait there a long time – forty years – before entering their promised land.

Later on in the Old Testament we read of how the prophet Elijah was on the run from the wicked Queen Jezebel who was trying to kill him. We’re told that he took a forty-day journey into the wilderness, fasting all the time, until he came to Mount Sinai, where Moses had met God. There Elijah too had an encounter with God’s ‘still, small voice’; he heard an encouraging and challenging word of God, and he was strengthened to go back and continue his struggle. These are just three of the many wilderness stories in the Old Testament.

So there’s a long tradition in Israel’s scriptures of the wilderness as the place you go to meet with God. It’s also a place of repentance. The Israelites had to wander there for forty years instead of entering immediately into their promised land, because of their lack of faith, their grumbling and complaining, and their idolatry. John the Baptist appeared in the Judean wilderness ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4). And Matthew and Luke give us stories of Jesus being tested by the devil, tempted to take unholy paths rather than following the hard road of the cross; he intentionally turned from those dead-end paths and chose to do the will of his Father instead.

What is it about the wilderness that makes it such a fruitful place to have an encounter with God? I think it may be the lack of distractions there.

Let’s think about that for a minute. Here we are in the middle of a bustling city. Our senses are bombarded with sights and sounds and smells, every day, twenty-four hours a day. Many of us check our email first thing in the morning, maybe even before we brush our teeth, and we’re doing it again many times through the day. On any given day there are many, many things we need to do, probably far more than we can reasonably fit into twenty-four hours. And we’re constantly being bombarded with ads telling us we don’t have enough stuff yet; there’s at least one more thing we need to buy, and then our life will finally be complete.

These are the voices we choose to listen to. But where in the midst of all that distraction do we take time to listen to God? When do we slow down and take time for unhurried reading of the scriptures? When do we turn off the noise, so we can make friends with the silence, not saying anything, just content to rest in God’s presence?

We can do that in the city, or the country, in the midst of our busy lives, but it takes practice and discipline to be able to do it well. But the wilderness is a place where there are very few distractions. In the wilderness, it can sometimes be much easier to hear the voice of God.

In the history of Christian spirituality there have been monks and nuns who have intentionally gone out to live in caves and huts in the desert, away from all distractions, so they could spend all their time in prayer. We call them ‘the Desert Fathers’ (there were some Desert Mothers too, but you don’t hear of them as often). Later on, of course, monks and nuns got a little more organised, monasteries were founded, and people’s time was regulated in a way that left lots of room for silence and contemplation. Many of the classics of Christian spirituality were written by people living in situations like that.

But you and I don’t live there. We aren’t monks and nuns. We live ordinary lives in the world, many of us work jobs and raise families, and somehow we have to muddle along and try to grow a relationship with God in the midst of our daily routines. So what does the wilderness have to say to us, when we can’t go there?

Well, maybe we can. Remember, the wilderness is about turning away from distractions so that we can pay closer attention to the still, small voice of God. It’s about turning away from earthly comforts for a while so we can experience the comfort above all comfort – knowing ourselves to be loved and supported by God. It’s also about turning away from distractions so we can come face to face with the truth about ourselves – the ugly as well as the good. Yes, there are strengths and loves, but there are also behaviours we’re addicted to, and we don’t discover that until we try to do without them for a while.

That’s where Lent comes in.

I don’t have time this morning to tell you the long history of the evolution of Lent. I will just say that from ancient times it was connected with Easter, and the preparation for the baptism of new Christians which took place at the Easter Vigil. For the final few weeks of preparation, the new converts went through an especially rigorous time of fasting and praying, and it became the custom for the whole congregation to join them in this time. Gradually this season became associated with Jesus’ forty-day wilderness pilgrimage - Lent is forty days long if you don’t count the Sundays – and so it became a time of fasting and prayer and self-denial, with the goal of drawing closer to God.

That’s why we give things up during Lent. Giving things up is not a good in itself; there’s nothing especially meritorious about giving up sugar or alcohol or Facebook for Lent. But Lent is an opportunity for us to ask ourselves honestly about the things that are distracting us from God. Is that ‘comfort food’ becoming a snare for us? Do we turn to Facebook before we turn to the Bible in the morning? Is it time for us to intentionally ‘declutter’ our lives for a while so that there’s more room for God, more time to listen to him, less distraction when we do?

I’ve given up blogging and Facebook for Lent a number of times, and it’s always been beneficial for me. I get a lot of enjoyment out of social media, but it can seem like a very noisy and crowded world from time to time. It’s not for everyone, but for me, going on a blogging or Facebook fast has often been a very powerful spiritual discipline.

Let me suggest three questions we could ask ourselves when we’re thinking about possible wilderness disciplines.

First, what has gotten such a hold on me that I can’t imagine being able to live without it? Is it that wine bottle that lives in the fridge all the time, or in the cupboard above the stove? Is it that constant Facebook conversation? Is it the luxury of a daily latté at Starbucks? If we’ve become so dependent on something or some habit that we can’t imagine living without it – maybe that’s a sign we need to live without it for a while.

Second, where could my self-control muscles use a little exercise? Self-control is mentioned in the New Testament as a fruit of the Spirit – a virtue that the Holy Spirit grows in our lives. But my experience is that he usually grows it by exercise! When we’re trying to break a negative habit or form a positive habit, we’re always tempted to give up. Self-control grows as we practice not giving up. That’s why Lenten fasting is helpful too – it teaches us that most people don’t die of hunger when they miss two or three meals.

Third, what might be the biggest distraction from God in my life right now? What is taking up the time that I could be giving to quiet prayer and Bible reading? What’s filling my mind when I could be focussing on loving God with my whole heart and loving my neighbour as myself? Where do my thoughts, money, and spare time go? Is it possible that might be my real god, even though I think I’m worshipping the one true God?

Let me encourage you to think about these questions. Don’t put it off. Take a copy of this sermon home with you - or look it up on our church website this afternoon. Remind yourself of these questions, think and pray about them, and make some decisions about Lenten disciplines that are right for you.

Finally, let’s remind ourselves of where we want to refocus our attention. What are we being distracted from?

We said on Wednesday that the convergence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day this year was a good reminder that Lent is all about love. Jesus told us that the two great commandments were, first, that we love God with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and second, that we love our neighbour as we love ourselves. The meaning of our life is found in a strong relationship with God and a strong relationship with our neighbours – the people close to us, the people we meet every day, the people we’re able to help.

So it’s no good just giving things up for Lent and leaving it at that. We need to replace those things with better things. For instance, one of my Lent disciplines is a weekly two-meal fast – I miss breakfast and lunch and I don’t eat in between meals, so it’s almost a twenty-four hour fast. But I also make it a habit to take the lunch period, find a place where I can be alone, and spend the time in silent prayer, just sitting and listening, opening myself up to God’s presence.

So if you decide that watching TV while you eat supper is not a good thing and you want to give it up for Lent, what are you going to do in its place? If you’re living with your family, the obvious thing is to try to make supper more of a time of family interaction – conversation, storytelling and so on. And why not try ending the meal with a family devotional time, a short Bible reading and prayer?


Let me say this in conclusion: I have to confess that I really love Lent. It always arrives in the nick of time for me, as I’m getting too distracted by stuff that’s not important. So, let me encourage you to use this season to the full this year. Turn away from distractions and turn toward God. Trust me, you will be surprised at how much benefit you get from it.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Upcoming Events

Upcoming Events February 19th to February 25th, 2018

February 19th and 20th, 2018
Office is closed
February 21st, 2018 
2:00pm Lectionary Bible study @ church
7:15pm Vestry meeting @ church
February 22nd, 2018  
8:00am  Men’s and Women’s Bible Study @ Bogani Cafe
February 23rd, 2018 
6:00pm – 8:00pm Friday Night Church  
February 24th, 2018 
4:30pm – 7:30pm  Crosslife Church rental
February 25th, 2018 (Lent 2)
9:00am  Holy Communion
10:30am  Holy Communion and Sunday School


Thank you to everyone who attended our Shrove Tuesday pancake dinner and donated to cover the cost of food. We had $91 left over which will be donated to World Vision.

Please join us for ‘Friday Night Church’ on February 23rd beginning at 6pm. We will enjoy a meal together and then join in a story/teaching time, songs and child friendly activities based on Noah’s Ark! Everyone is invited to attend. There is a sign up sheet at the back of the church.

Next Sunday Feb 25th, Tim Schultz from World Vision will be speaking at both the 9am and 10:30am services. We will be presenting him with a cheque for the money we have raised for World Vision, at the 10:30am service.

Random Lent Thoughts

If you're looking for a little more spiritual input through the Lenten season, Tim is writing a blog series called 'Random Lent Thoughts'. His goal is to post every day except Sunday (when he posts his sermon), but he may not succeed in that due to busyness of life etc. etc.!

If you'd like to read them, go to Tim's blog 'Faith, Folk and Charity' at https://tachesterton.wordpress.com. He will also be posting them on the parish Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/stmargaretsedmonton/), and on his own Facebook page.

Daytime Lectionary Bible Study from 2pm – 3:30pm on Wednesday afternoons @ the church. Please drop in if you can!



Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Lent is All About Love (a sermon for Ash Wednesday)

Ever since someone noticed that this year Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day, people on Twitter and Facebook have been having a field day. Most people seem to see it as something incongruous: Valentine’s Day is about romance and chocolate and pleasure and more than a hint of sex; Ash Wednesday is about self-denial and taking up your cross and going into the desert with Jesus and getting closer to God. What can the two possibly have to do with each other?

Personally, I’m much more interested in the connections than the contradictions. Valentine’s Day, we’re told, is all about love. And what’s Christian growth about, if it’s not about growing in love? How do we grow as Christians? You don’t need me to answer that one for you: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…You shall love our neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31).

Christianity is relational: it’s about growing in our loving relationship with God and our neighbour. And wise people know that life is relational too. It’s often been observed that no one on their death bed says to themselves “Gee, I wish I’d spent more time at the office!” We all know instinctively that when we’re facing the ultimate test, that stuff’s not going to count for very much. What will count will the quality of our relationships - the quality of the love we’ve offered.

So I want to spend a few minutes with you tonight, as we begin our Lenten journey, unpacking this theme of love. How might we make this Lent all about love? I’m actually going to offer you three ‘L’ words tonight to hang our thoughts on: Love, Listening, and Labour, and all connected with Lent (I know, that’s four ‘L’ words…!).

So – love. “Love is all you need”, sang the Beatles, and then they broke up and proceeded to sue each other for millions of pounds. Obviously, love wasn’t all they needed – or at least, the sort of love they aspired to wasn’t adequate to guide them through the challenges of long-term relationships.

So let’s start by reminding ourselves that when the writers of the New Testament used the word ‘love’, they probably had something different in mind. “Getting the Love you Want” was the title of a well-known book of the 1980s, but nothing could be further from the Christian conception of love. We’re not about getting the love you want; we’re about giving the love God wants you to give. And when the New Testament describes this love, it always describes actions.

What does Jesus do to illustrate to his disciples what it means to “love one another as I have loved you”? He gets down from the supper table, removes his outer garment, wraps a towel around his waist, and washes their feet. In their culture this was the servant’s job, but for some reason that night no servant had been there to do it. And of course, a few hours later he ‘loved them to the end’ (John 13:1) by laying down his life on the cross for the salvation of the whole world.

This is the most important thing for us as Christians. God is love, and we are made in the image of God, so growing in love is growing in God’s image. And that love is offered in two directions: to God and to our neighbour.

We love God because God first loved us. We don’t love God as a way of earning God’s love; God’s love for us is unconditional and indestructible, and Jesus tells us that he pours it out on the righteous and the unrighteous. We know ourselves to be loved by God, and in response, we offer our own – much smaller – love to God.

And then we love our neighbour. ‘Neighbour’ doesn’t just mean those in close proximity to us – family, friends, the people on our street. Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan? ‘Neighbour’ means people in need who we are in a position to help, both near and far away.

How do we love these people? I want to make a suggestion to you this Lent: let’s start by listening to them.

Most of us are much quicker to speak than to listen. This applies both in our relationship with God and our relationships with other people. When we take time to pray, most of us take time to talk to God. We’ve got our concerns, things we want or need for ourselves, loved ones we’re anxious about and so on. And so we sit down to pray, and we start talking right away. “God please do this. God, please bless that person. God, if you want to know how to bless them, I’ve got some ideas I could give you”.

The same with other people. It’s scary to think how much of our conversation consists in showing off to other people. I’ve got such a good joke to tell you! You’re going to love this story! I’m going to share my political views on this subject and you’re going to see immediately that I’m right and you’re wrong!

And even when we do listen, how carefully do we listen? For instance, when I sit down to read the Bible – to listen for the Holy Spirit’s voice – am I open to the possibility that there might be something new for me today in the passage? Or do I  just think “Good Samaritan, yeah, yeah, I know that story, I know what it means”? Do I just read it quickly, and then pass on to sharing my shopping list with God?

Or when someone’s talking to us, how long are we prepared to listen before we interrupt? Ten seconds? Twenty if they’re lucky? Do we assume that after twenty seconds we know enough to respond helpfully to them? I’m sure we’ve all had that experience: we start sharing our struggles with someone, and they don’t really let us get finished before they’re launching into giving us their helpful advice, which is actually not that helpful, because they haven’t given us time to really go deep yet.

So how about this Lent we all resolve to do our best to become better listeners – to God, and to other people?

Some of us in our parish have decided to read the Gospel of Mark this Lent. Let’s not assume each day that we already know what God’s going to say to us in the daily passage. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to speak to us, and then let’s read it through, slowly and meditatively, two or three times. Which words or phrases particularly strike us, and why? What’s the passage saying to us about God? About ourselves? About life? About what’s important and what’s not important? What’s the passage calling me to put into practice? What difference would it make today if I tried to practice it?

We can also listen to God in silent prayer. Most people who do that don’t actually hear God speak in an audible voice, although some people do report that they feel they’re received some guidance and direction from God. But it’s mostly about quietening down and becoming more aware of the presence and peace and joy that God gives. Again, it’s not something that can be rushed. A lot of people find that about ten or twelve minutes in, they start to notice things they hadn’t noticed before. Are you willing to wait that long?

And let’s listen to others, and pay attention to what they say. A friend of mine used to do a little exercise: he’d get people together in pairs, and then one person had to listen carefully while the other took five minutes to describe something that had happened to them recently. When they were done the listener had to take three minutes to recount in as much detail as possible what they had heard. The first time I was the listener, I was amazed at how hard that was! We’re just not that practiced in listening!

And yet people long to be listened to! When we really listen to someone, we’re communicating to them that we value them, that we love them. I’m ashamed to admit how frequently I really don’t listen to Marci; she’s talking to me, but I’m doing something else or thinking about something else, and I only listen with one ear and a quarter of a brain.

This may be the most loving thing we can do this Lent: to resolve to become better listeners - to God, and to other people.

Finally comes labour. In 1 Thessalonians Paul writes, ‘…remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Thessalonians 1:3).

Labour of love – that’s a striking phrase! But it reminds us that biblical love is not primarily about feelings; it’s all about actions. Listening is one such action, but there are many others. Jesus says “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). What’s the point of saying we love Jesus if, as soon as he tells us to do something we don’t want to do, we refuse to do it? That love isn’t worth very much, is it? It needs to have a little labour added to it, to make it real!

What does it mean to love our enemies? In Romans chapter 12 Paul quotes the Old Testament: ‘No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink’ (Romans 12:20). And in the parable of the sheep and the goats Jesus spells out for us what Christian love looks like: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35-36).

What labour of love might God be calling you to this Lent? You don’t necessarily have to undertake some new relationship (although, I have to say, every prison chaplain I know is looking for more volunteers to go in and spend time with the inmates). But when we think of the people who are already in our lives, and we think of their needs, is there anything else we can do to love them in action? Or do we perhaps need to go first and listen carefully to them, so that we don’t assume we already know what their needs are? You see how these three ‘L’s tie together!


So – this could be our Lent. Let’s make these six and a half weeks until Easter a season of love. Let’s work on our relationships with God and our neighbours. Let’s make it our first priority to learn to become better listeners – to God, and also to people. And then let’s find new ways of putting our love into action – our labour of love - so that we can truly be a blessing to others as God has blessed us.