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21st February 2021

One More Step-when you are falling apart

Passage: Matthew 4;1-11


My grandmother, who was a lovely Christian lady was shocked by a film about Jesus where, at the end of that story we just heard, rather than being seen striding out triumphantly- I’ve got the better of the devil and now I am ready to conquer the world for God- Jesus is crawling painfully on his hands and knees, looking haggard, wild-eyed, unkempt. He is quite clearly as we would say, “in bits.”
To my grandmother this was blasphemy. How dare they portray Jesus, the Son of God, like that? It was my uncle, sitting beside her, who pointed out that this is exactly how you are going to look when you have been living rough, in total isolation, enduring physical and spiritual torment for forty days and nights. You are going to be in bits- body, soul, heart and mind.

A few weeks’ ago, I was listening to a professional counsellor talking to Ministers about signs of serious mental stress in oneself. Do you remember the writer Jerome K. Jerome when he felt unwell, looking through a Medical Encyclopaedia for signs of was wrong with him? He worked out that he had every ailment in the book except housemaid’s knee….. That was how it was for me, listening to the signs of mental stress. I had got them all. Not even one exception. Quite possibly, many of you would tick most or all of those boxes right now. And this is not hypochondria. We have been living a life which is not conducive to good mental health for nearly a year now. We have been isolated, shut away, scared, confused, tormented by destructive voices in our heads at three o’clock in the morning. It does not make for inner peace.

OK. It is just that surely, Christians (and Ministers in particular), should be leaping and singing in all we do, no matter how rough or tough the road. And if our leaping and singing are more like trudging and gasping right now, what are we getting wrong?

Both our stories today were about people under huge strain.
Daniel, by all accounts, was a bright, beautiful, golden Jewish boy, brought up to believe himself one of God’s chosen people and to aim for a high place in his nation. But then it all went wrong. Daniel’s country was invaded, and he was taken away from his family to live in a country where his religion and culture were despised and where powerful people were just looking for an excuse to kill him.
Think being a Jew in Nazi Germany…..

In the story, Daniel reacted bravely against the latest threat. He knelt at his window to pray, knowing full well that his enemies were watching and that he might well end up being torn apart by lions.
The picture of Daniel in my old Bible Story book shows him kneeling serenely at his prayers, with an untroubled face. Personally, I imagine that his knees were shaking, his stomach churning and although his lips might have been moving in prayer, his ears would just have been waiting for that fatal knock at the door.

And this brings us back to the film showing Jesus crawling out of the desert. Jesus had come from Nazareth to be baptised in the river Jordan before beginning his public ministry. He had heard the voice of God saying, “You are my beloved Son and I delight in you.” Now he is all alone in a dark place, hearing the voice of the tormentor – how can you possibly be the Son of God? If you were anything special, you would be turning stones into bread; you would be jumping off the temple roof and being miraculously saved; you would be taking over the world. And this voice would not just have spoken once. It would have gone on and on and on.
All Jesus could do was to dredge up verses of scripture he had learned as a child and repeat them back.

Not a lot of leaping and singing happening in either story……

OK. Maybe it is not our fault or failing if we are not exactly leaping and singing right now. That is reassuring. But what we do need to know is how did Daniel and Jesus get through?

For Jesus, it was the Bible. He quoted the Bible back at the tempter. There are a great many self-help books on the market right now and a lot of them are good and genuinely trying to help us to help ourselves. But, let’s be clear, the Bible is not a self-help manual. It is about God-help. It does not contain a 12 step plan for us to make ourselves better and stronger people. It contains a long story of God reaching out and coming through for us 12 times 12 times 12. Jesus held on to his awareness that he was the crucial part of God’s great story. He was the ultimate way in which God would reach humanity- by coming to meet them in the place where they were. And, although Jesus would go on to have arguments with people who did not understand the Bible as he did; who would even use it to argue for his death; he never even considered discarding it. To have lost the Bible would have meant losing the precious, living record of God’s involvement with humanity and theirs with God.

For Daniel, the coping strategy was prayer. Again, we are being encouraged right now to practice meditation, mindfulness, positive thinking and it is good stuff. But prayer is not about us training our minds and our thoughts. It is about a direct communication link with God: opening your life to a greater power than your own will. And I begin to see that, for Daniel to have given up prayer would have diminished him as a person so much that he actually thought it worth the risk of death.

For Jesus and Daniel, it was being in touch with a far greater power that brought them through. Even if they could not quite leap and sing, they could still walk the way, and walk the way with courage and with love because they were travelling in the power of God.

Let’s be honest, prayer and Bible Reading are not the easiest of activities for us. They take time- which we often struggle to find. They take commitment, along with all the other 101 things we are committed to. Sometimes they have a fairly instant “feel good” effect (yes! Glad I did that) and sometimes we wonder why we bother (what was that all about…). But, as we have seen in the stories today, they are about our quest to get in touch with something greater than ourselves; our need of a strength to draw upon when our own ability to leap and sing is gone; our maintaining living link with someone who loves us and is there to help us through. Surely, they are worth working at.

Everyone needs to find their own way.
Ritual in prayer and worship can be helpful; a prayer and Bible reading routine of some kind is essential, even if we do not always manage to stick to it; spontaneity can be great- when you find yourself just wanting to pour it all to God; stillness can be powerful, when you stop trying to find words and just wait quietly upon God. Seeking help in small study and prayer groups; in public worship; in all the resources available to help you to find your most effective means of prayer and exploring the Bible. Some people find themselves drawn closer into prayer through music, some through art or poetry, some in the beauties of the natural world.
You need to find what works for you and bear in mind that no method or routine is going to work 24/7. It is easy to set up a good routine of Bible reading and then, when you have a week from hell and let the routine lapse, give up and say, “that did not work for me.’
Or, when you cannot see that prayer is having any effect on you or anyone else you are praying for, it is easy to abandon it- been there, done it and got fed up with the t-shirt.

But, just like any other worthwhile activity, you need to stick with it and seek out new, creative ways of engaging, remembering that this is about God-help not self-help. We are promised that those who seek God, will be found by God.

Walking the way, when you are falling apart.
I would like to leave you with something I read about the way a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. When a caterpillar enters a chrysalis- that shell from which it will eventually emerge as a butterfly, it is reduced into a completely shapeless ooze. Only when the caterpillar is completely broken down can it be transformed into the butterfly.

I thought of how small pieces of broken china are re-shaped into beautiful mosaics; of how shattered stained glass windows have been re-created into inspiring new patterns; of how scraps of torn cloth are sewn together to make warm patchwork quilts; of how communities living in the rubble of war come together to rebuild their towns. And, looking ahead to Easter, I thought of how Jesus’ body was brutally beaten, torn by nails, pierced by a spear and laid, lifeless in a tomb and of how he came back risen, transformed even from death.

This tells me that falling apart does not have to be the end of our story. Because our faith is in the God who makes all things new.
May your journey through Lent bring you to newness of life.