Eucharist Sermon - 21 February 2021

The First Sunday of Lent
1 Peter 3:18–end, Mark 1:9–15

The Revd Canon Graham Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity
Tenacity in Christ

Data not dates, has become the mantra, and we all await the briefing tomorrow about how the country is preparing to come out of lockdown. The media are sounding notes of a cautious optimism as we turn towards another spring. In my garden the daffodils are opening, along with the crocus and the heliotrope, the aconites are over, but the snowdrops persist as they persisted throughout the cold snap, the frost and the ice. They always strike me as frail flowers, their large white bell-heads swaying in the wind on very slender stems. And yet they have a tenacity and while the heads are all bowed shyly those stems are exceptionally strong, upright, in bearing the weight of the flower.

Through the week I have been reading the essays of John Berger, British art critic and novelist, as he reflected upon the lives of the people he knew in places of war, oppression and devastation: the Palestinian territories, those commuters on the London underground caught up in the bombing of July 2005, the poor and dispossessed in Russia, the political dissidents imprisoned in Turkey, the migrants and homeless everywhere, the farmers in sub-Saharan Africa wedged between the hostilities of globalisation and climate change. The collection is called Hold Everything Dear. “It is essential,” he writes, “to take care of every good there is.” But the world seems pitiless, where every choice involves a kind of sacrifice and the “worst cruelties in life are its killing injustices”. Nevertheless, he observes that hope is both demanded, and somehow emerges, like the bit between the teeth. “With hope between the teeth comes the strength to carry on,” he writes. “A person, with hope between her or his teeth is a brother or sister who commands respect.”

As I read our lessons for this morning, particular our Gospel reading, I’m thinking then of snowdrops, the hope that persists even in the face of what is desperate, and the fact that “reality is all we have to love”. It’s the simple movement in the Gospel narrative that draws my attention: the baptism of Jesus by John and the voice from heaven affirming “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. Then the abrupt seizure by the Spirit that immediately drives Jesus into the wilderness. And, finally, the announcement by Jesus Christ in Galilee that “’The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.’” What a dramatic series of shifts is announced here: affirmation and the proclamation of the gospel is sandwiched between forty nights in the wilderness. We’ve been here in Scripture before: with the triumphant defeat of the Egyptians and the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, the entrance into the Promised land flowing with milk and honey, and in between the forty years of nomadic wandering in the same wilderness Christ persisted in. Salvation comes in and through endurance.

We can call this a time of testing, if you like. But what is being tested? And why? Why is the suffering not only evident, but somehow even necessary? We can’t be prissy or abstract about suffering. They are victims. Some despair is not defeated. Some do not survive the degradations, oppressions, and mutilations they experience. There is always a cost, and history repeatedly shows us that the people who bear most of that cost are those least able to afford it: the poor, the vulnerable, what Matthew’s Gospel calls the “little ones”. The injustices kill, maim, traumatise. They are borne by people with names, dreams, desires and friendships. They are also borne collectively: we remember them. They are and remain part of us, part of our histories. A recent opinion poll on how many want to see the priorities set for coming out of lockdown suggests that after school reopening the next desire is for non-essential shops to open. I am not against shopping and I recognise that the high street is in crisis, along with the livelihoods of shop-workers. But I don’t want us to ease the pain of the lockdown through a surfeit of consumer goods. The wilderness cannot be forgotten. As we say of those who have fallen in combat through war on every November 11th: we will remember them and in that small way their lives are honoured.

In the Scriptures, hope is always linked not to forgetting but remembering; because the experience of the wilderness is perennial. In the wilderness, as many have experienced during the lockdown and the isolation it brings, we recall: we reflect not just upon the present conditions and future possibilities but what we have experienced in the past and learnt. We are reminded of our fragility and the fragility of the world systems we are all embroiled within, believer and non-believer alike. We recall what we share: the reality that is all we have to love, the things we hold most dear. In the wilderness we learn how to name our desires and question them. Desires will always wound, and naming them doesn’t safeguard anything from that wounding. Nevertheless, in the wilderness, the illusions of our desiring are stripped back; careers rethought; priorities reassessed. We might call this repentance. Again: whether we are believers or not. As believers we hold, and the hold is to be through faith, to Christ’s words “the time is fulfilled.” Is fulfilled, not will be fulfilled. We endure by faith, and faith alone – which is more Christ’s abiding faith in us than our faith in Him. Because something is unquestionably true in a world in which, even after we emerge from this pandemic, “killing injustices” will continue: there will be injustices that sometimes we simply have to endure. But enduring them does not stop our resistance, because it doesn’t stop our hope for better things. We always have to resist in order to hold on to what is most dear, most true, most good and most beautiful. Like the snowdrop.

That’s what we learn in the wilderness. Not how to flourish. Nothing flourishes for any length of time in the wilderness. But how to live by faith, served by angels, and combatting whatever evil it is that besets us. We do this, as St. Paul tells us, hoping against hope that the gospel, even in the wilderness, is nurtured; a word is sown that will one day be proclaimed within us, fulfilled in the testimony of our lives. One of the most famous quotations of John Berger reads: “Emigration, forced or chosen, across national frontiers or from village to metropolis, is the quintessential experience of our time… To emigrate is always to dismantle the centre of the world, and so to move into a lost, disoriented one of fragments.” The wilderness is a place of migration and exile, but for Christ, as for us, it is a place of being led, where we learn to name and question what we are doing and why. And then estrangement, dispossession, loss, wandering and fragmentation turns us into pilgrims looking for, waiting upon, attentive to the tiniest signs of that “city without foundations” where we truly belong. “The time is fulfilled.”