Genesis 2. 15 – 17; 3. 1 – 7
Matthew 4. 1 – 11
I made a new year’s resolution to read more. More spiritual and theological books, of course (!) but also some exciting novels too.
I think I’m doing quite well, though I have to confess I’ve become rather bogged down in some Charles Dickens recently.
In addition to making virtuous new year’s resolutions, it’s traditional to give something up for Lent; an imitation of Christ’s forty days of fasting in the wilderness that we heard about in our gospel.
Perhaps you’re giving up alcohol, or going vegetarian, or something else.
In casting around for ideas for books to read in Lent, I came across a homily from a church in London that mentioned the most bizarre little book. It’s called ‘Against Nature’ by the French 19th Century writer, Joris Huysmans.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. But in a strange sort of way, this book has something to say to us about our Lenten journey, and why the Church encourages us to self-denial in this holy season.
The only character in the book is the last member of a once proud aristocratic family. He’s lived an extremely decadent life in Paris—countless affairs with as many women as he can find; eating and drinking himself to point of illness—and is left disgusted with human society.
So he secludes himself, and he tries to restore his joy in life by devoting himself to beautiful and exotic things instead.
He fills his house with masterpieces of painting and sculpture. He tries poetry; he creates perfumes; grows poisonous plants and flowers. Like me, he even tries the works of Charles Dickens (but he doesn’t get very far either).
He buys a tortoise, but finds it doesn’t quite go with his colourful carpet; so he glazes its shell with gold, and encrusts it with precious gems. In the end he grows tired of all these things.
He eventually turns to something guaranteed to restore his zest for life—yes, a collection of Church vestments! He delights in decorating his house with gorgeous dalmatics, copes and stoles, in the finest damasks and brocades
Hard to believe though it is, even these fail to satisfy him.
In the end, as a symbol of the futility of the man’s quest, the poor tortoise dies, “unable to support the dazzling luxury imposed on it.”
What the book shows us—and what our Lenten discipline calls us to remember—is that pleasure on its own can never satisfy us completely.
It isn’t wrong to take pleasure in the things of this world. God has given us a wonderful creation that he delights in; and we are to care for it and delight in it too.
But it’s when we disconnect God from our pleasure in creation, that it begins to take a hold on us; and like the French aristocrat, leaves us more and more empty.
Many in our society are seduced by the belief that happiness in this life is the ultimate goal; because this life is all there is.
But as Christians we know that there is so much more beyond the limits of life as we can grasp it; and that all of what we can see is destined for recreation in glory, in the fullness of time.
And so the beautiful and pleasurable things of this world that we delight in, remind us of the glory that is to come. They should always point us to the one who created them, because they are but the briefest taste of the perfect joy of life in his presence that we hope for, for all eternity. Our joy and pleasure then become an act of praise, rather than an exercise in self-gratification.
When the devil offered Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour,” without hesitation he could say “Away with you, Satan!”—for even if you have the whole world and everything in it, you have nothing, without God. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, discovered this in the Garden, as we heard.
Lent is the ideal time to remind ourselves of this truth, and re-evaluate our own relationship to God and his creation. By subjecting ourselves to the little burden of going without something we enjoy, we are saved from the far greater burden of becoming a slave to it.
But fasting and self-denial are only part of it. The Church also encourages us to take things on, such as a renewed devotion to prayer, and the study of God’s word. There are plenty of opportunities to do that through our programme of services and events through this season.
And there’s another opportunity to take something on for Lent, today.
You’ll have seen tucked away in your pew sheet a very wittily named form called the ‘En-list.’ Today I’m encouraging you to consider prayerfully how you might take something on this Lent, and ‘enlist’ to offer your time and talents to our shared life here at St Margaret’s.
As the list suggests, a huge amount of time and energy goes into all that happens in our church community – and I’m incredibly thankful for everyone who contributes in any way, no matter how small.
You’re not committing yourself to anything at all at this stage. And you might already be involved in a lot. But if not, I hope this is a helpful starting point for some prayerful reflection about what God might be calling you to offer.
I encourage you to start thinking about that now, as Christopher offers us a musical reflection on the Gospel; and to keep it in prayer throughout Lent, as we seek to grow closer to God, and to one another. Thank you. Amen.