The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s098g15   First Sunday in Lent   22/2/2015

‘the Spirit .. drove him into the wilderness ..’   Mark 1:12

One of the reactions to powerful religious experiences is the need to withdraw.   Here Jesus experiences the divine at his baptism and the voice addresses him directly: ‘You are my Son’.   This is overwhelming, and Jesus requires time and solitude to take it in.

Likewise Saul, on that road to Damascus, has a powerful experience of the divine and he too withdraws.   He writes: ’I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus’.  (1)  I still recall getting a phone call telling me that I was to become a grandfather for the first time.   I immediately went for a quiet walk by myself, to take in the news.   Samuel turns 3 on the 18th.

But this withdrawal is always temporary and Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness is just a prelude and preparation time before he begins his public ministry.   So too with Paul, he returns to life and ministry, time and again being driven away by the religious, from Jerusalem to Rome.

Our religious experiences are, in the end, not about us and our status before God, they are about others.   Those suffering from mental illness can get isolated by perceived stigma and delusion and the church can similarly get isolated by perceived privilege and superiority.

Recently I read a really lovely article about 2015 being the year of love.   But as I read it I thought how wonderful if the church corporate adopted this rather than ever trying to define and refine who is in and who isn’t; withdrawing into herself.   Certainly we all have an aspiration to love - we know that it promises a far happier existence, but your and my personal efforts are hardly likely to be even noticed while the church corporate has a different agenda.

There was an old saying: ’If you were accused of being Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?’  (2)   How personal and manipulative this is!   Yet how many people look at the church and see it wracked by dissension and politics and wonder: ‘Where is the love?’  (3)   Where is the communion with others?   It is almost a logical impossibility - a church that exists to be in communion with others!

Today we begin our Sundays in Lent - a time when religion can become so personal and self-absorbed.   What will we as individuals give up, or take on, to make ourselves more worthy of the name of a disciple?   Will this Lent reinforce that tendency expressed by Eva McIntyre in an article entitled ‘Lord, have mercy upon our misery’: ’Our liturgy actually reflects both our human tendency towards low self-esteem, and the comfort with which we cling on to the sense of our wretchedness and inadequacy.   After all, being wonderful, loved, and potent is far more frightening.’  (4)   Again, no matter how commendable these might be - until the church focusses on communion with others, our efforts will always be in vain.

The Spirit may well have driven Jesus into the wilderness but that is not the only direction the Spirit drives.   Jesus was lead back into community, into incarnation, into society, and we are called to follow.

I am grateful to Brian for occasionally sending me some of Bishop John Shelby Spong’s words and these seem particularly relevant today: ‘Some pretend that the old way of doing religion, which hasn’t worked for years, will somehow begin to work if we only learn to do it better.   Few are willing to walk into the gathering storm and to engage the issues openly, having already concluded they are not capable of doing this.’  (5)   This seems far more honest than throwing money at the church as it is, as the Church of England is proposing to do: ’Breaking the rules on borrowing from the future is necessary to stave off the "existential crisis" of ever-declining congregations, members of the General Synod were told this week.’  (6)

And finally I reflect that Satan is found in the wilderness; the power of evil is magnified by solitude.   Health and strength comes in community and society.   And this is as true for the church corporate as it is for us as individuals.

1.  Galatians 1.17