Sermon preached at Eucharist on the First Sunday of Lent (10 March 2019) by the Revd Canon Tricia Hillas, Canon Pastor

Worship
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8:00am Holy Communion
8:45am Morning Prayer
11:15am Sung Eucharist
3:00pm Choral Evensong
5:30pm Eucharist
6:00pm Cathedral closes

Sermon preached at Eucharist on the First Sunday of Lent (10 March 2019) by the Revd Canon Tricia Hillas, Canon Pastor

On the First Sunday of Lent, the Canon Pastor invites us to rediscover ourselves again in this season of Lent. 


Perhaps it’s a peculiarly British phrase, but you may have heard someone use the expression ‘I very nearly forgot myself’.

It might be used when someone has done something very out of character - like the Dean getting up now and flossing or leading a conga down the centre aisle or when the carefully constructed constraints we put on ourselves dissolve - and we lash out in anger - ‘Gosh I completely forgot myself.’

Today is the First Sunday of Lent and there are many things about this holy season which captivate me again and again each year. One of them is the Lenten preface to the Eucharistic Prayer – you will find it on page 15 of the service booklet.

It is rich in meaning and poetry:

‘In these 40 days you lead us into the desert of repentance
That through a pilgrimage of prayer and discipline we may grow in grace
And learn to be your people once again.
Through fasting, prayer and acts of service
You bring us back to your generous heart.
Through study of your holy word
You open our eyes to your presence in the world
And free our hands to welcome others
Into the radiant splendour of your love.’

There is so much there, but here in the beginnings of Lent I’d like to focus on that first phrase:

‘In these 40 days you lead us into the desert of repentance
that through a pilgrimage of prayer and discipline we may grow in grace
and learn to be your people once again.’

Do you hear the sense of homecoming which I hear? Which sparks recognition that I, we, need a season like Lent; to help us to remember ourselves, to ‘learn to be God’s people once again’. Because we forget.

This remembering, relearning happens as we are led into the desert of repentance. 

Some of us can be uncomfortable with the terms repentance and sin. Unsurprising, when they have so often been used by some to judge and to condemn others. 

But that is not how I believe God uses them. 

Yes, to face the reality of our sin – those things which harm others, which mar the image of God in them and in ourselves and which wound the heart of God is deeply challenging. 

To truly repent of them – to make amends, to follow through on the determination to go a different path from this moment is also deeply challenging, but is liberating.

It’s about learning to be God’s people once again.

Most of my life I am far away from desert spaces but my travels have shown me how distinctive and beautiful they can be; from the cold, rocky, high altitude altiplano between Bolivia and Peru to the scorching soaring crescent dunes of the Northern Sahara. 

Though it looks like nothing could survive there we know that the desert is a place of surprising tenacity and growth – not least after the infrequent rains. 

Deserts are testing, exposing places – as adventurers, hermits and desert dwellers know - they can reveal much about one’s own character, dependency and identity.

Our Old Testament lesson directs our attention to the 40 years of desert wanderings of God people. Those wanderings would end, and when they do, at their new juncture they are to remember the lessons learnt in the desert. As they become a settled people they are to ensure that their first acts there seal their bond with God and their identity as God’s people. Because we too easily forget.

Our gospel passage follows hard on the heels Jesus’ baptism and marks the preparation of the beginning of his ministry. At his baptism his identity was revealed and sealed – Son of God, the Beloved. 

Coming up from the water of the river Jesus is led into the desert. 

There the affirmation of his identity will be sorely tested. There the temptation will be strong to abandon his identity as the beloved of God and to seek self-sufficiency, to depend on himself and his own status. To be a self-made man.
 
There, as the writer Jane Williams notes, Jesus is invited to feed himself when he is hungry, to gain power for himself and to test the Father’s love for him.

But Jesus’ sure-footedness, his standing in his identity as the beloved allows him to stand against the whipping desert wind and scorching sun. 
His refusal to use his power to feed himself means that he is later authentically able to feed others. 

His choice to depend on the Father’s power means he can later exercise power for good, for the healing and wholeness of others.

His refusal now to test the limits of the Father’s love would later enable him to cast his body and soul into the Father’s hands with his final breath.

In the desert Jesus looked deep into the reality of his identity and such knowledge sent him into his ministry – and yes ultimately his passion.

May this Lent be a time in which we ourselves will be led by the Spirit into the desert – the desert of repentance. 

Here and now may God in tenderness enable us to face and to walk away from those sins which wound us and others that we might live in our truest identity, that we may grow in grace and learn to be God’s people once again. 

For that is who we are.

Amen.