Bishop of Clogher's Sermon The First Sunday in Lent 2009
Bishop of Clogher's Sermon The First Sunday in Lent 2009

The Rt Revd Dr Michael Jackson preached at a service of Holy Communion in Haifa, Diocese of Jerusalem on March 1 2009

Genesis 9:8-17; psalm 25:1-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22; St Mark 1:9-15

Genesis 9:17: So God said to Noah, This is the sign of the covenant which I have established with all that lives on earth.

We get a very strong sense of Lent being a cosmic event from the Readings from Holy Scripture prescribed for today, the First Sunday of this Season. We hear of God’s covenant which establishes on a fresh footing the relationship of love and protection between God and the whole of creation. We hear of the resurrection of Jesus Christ who sits at the right hand of God with angels, authorities and powers made subject to him. We hear also of the testing and the trying of God’s love in the way in which the Son is driven by the Spirit out into the wilderness and, in his temptation, has for company the wild beasts and the angels is attendance on him. All of this is strange in the extreme for a modern audience. But we do see and feel God at work as God. Difficult Seasons like Lent are like this and somehow have to be, if we are to be brought beyond the best and the worst of ourselves.

I want to do little more than explore that idea of Lent showing us God at work as God. We are very accustomed to our public prayers beginning with the following words: Almighty God … or Almighty and Everlasting God … We hear them time and again and perhaps we do not give them a second thought – that is just the sort of churchy language which the church uses. Hope frames our prayer. Phrases like these give body to our hope in the following way: the God who is almighty, the God who is everlasting is not going to abandon us to destruction while that same God tests and tries us and is all along aware that we are being tempted AND who was in Jesus Christ tempted as we are. The Collect for Ash Wednesday which we use daily throughout the Season of Lent points us in this direction by stating that the God who is almighty and everlasting hates nothing that he has made. In other words in the midst of temptation, sin and evil he continues to love his creation.

To my mind this is important to remember. We know nothing of what lies within those few words which we hear in St Mark: (Jesus) was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him. What we do know, however, is that something of a new creation is working itself out here. God in heaven has become human on earth in Jesus Christ. This is what took us to Manger Square in Bethlehem at Christmas and this is what brings us as accustomed worshippers and as visitors to this church today, as we step into the wilderness with the Son of God and child of Mary. Things have indeed moved rapidly this year from the little town of Bethlehem to the Forty Days and Forty Nights, as our hymns which we sing at home express it. But for us it is good to remember that it is the same human-and-divine Jesus who is at the heart of this journey which we take.

It may be too much to expect you to remember a few telling words from the Epistle for Christmas Day 2008, so I shall remind you of them. They come from the Letter to Titus, chapter 3, verse 4: When the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. Not only here do we have a very strong linking of baptism and the saving work of Jesus; we also have the same Holy Spirit working for rebirth and renewal. From the River Jordan into the wilderness – is the Holy Spirit still a dove voicing the pleasure of the Father in the Son or is she now The Great Tormentor?

Let me return to the Collect for Ash Wednesday: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent … God loves his creation; God does not hate his creation. Today’s Epistle, from the First Letter of Peter, points us to the inner aspect of baptism and salvation. We are washed in the waters of salvation, not as Peter in the Gospels thought by being willing to be doused from head to toe, but by talking with God from a good conscience. And, in this way, many of the things which we are encouraged to do in the Season of Lent fall into place. We are not asked to subject ourselves to a cosmetic spiritual makeover – we are asked to do our almsgiving in secret. We are not asked to become a celebrity, someone quite different from who we are - an undying modern obsession – we are asked to participate willingly in the transformation under God which is referred to as the new creation. It is beautifully and hopefully voiced in 1 John 3:2 and 3: Dear friends, we are now God’s children; what we shall be has not yet been disclosed, but we know that when Christ appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. This is the fruit of our response to baptism, to the saving work of God and to the forgiveness of God.

At a time when the whole world has Israel-Palestine in its heart and in particular the peoples of Gaza, trial, torment and the wilderness are very much in our mind and on our heart. We in Ireland who seek to stand in solidarity with all who suffer in this situation of human degradation, devastation and disaster, continue to be inspired by the witness and the courage shown by Christian people at the heart of this tragedy. We are further inspired by the words of your bishop, a dear friend who worshipped with us in our diocese on the Day of Pentecost 2008. I refer to the words he used when right at the end of the old year 2008 he said: ‘The world waits in eager expectation for people of good will, courage and vision to set aside personal agendas, to encourage the change of heart, to empower all people of faith to tear down the walls of cruelty, fear and hatred. We cannot diminish or escape from the challenges before us which are very real and confront our people. Peace, a just durable peace, is rooted in the reconciling love of God for all the people of this land.’

In the midst of tribulation, we need constantly to be reminded and to hold fast that God loves all his creation, everything that God has made.

St Mark 1.12, 13: At once the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, and there he remained for forty days tempted by Satan.


Date: 2 March 09