Yesterday morning Cathedral Square was a sea of red. Bunches of red roses were in abundance, love was in the air and trade was brisk as about 30,000 roses were sold during the day. Today is of course not only the first Sunday of Lent, but for most people it is Valentine’s Day, with the saint dropped from the front. A day to celebrate love and particularly tell those who matter to you most that you love them. I spoke to one elderly woman in the square who had made a special trip to buy flowers so that she could put them on her husband’s grave. He used to give her flowers and now she was doing it for him. As she laid them on his grave she would tell him about her day. Happy memories, tinged with the sadness of parting. In The King’s School on Friday, where I was speaking at their assembly, some enterprising students were running a trade in roses for £1 each and for £2 they’d deliver them.
Celebrating love and the beginning of Lent are not very far apart. When we spend time in prayer and fasting, as we will over these 40 days, we do so to be reconnected with the love that is made visible to us in Jesus. The self-denial which comes with fasting is to heighten awareness of the senses, of what makes us human, of all that fills us and renews us in God’s loving embrace. This is the love that lies at the foundation of the universe, of creation, and it is the test of truth. Not love in a soppy easy emotion sense, but love that has grit and passion, real giving and total commitment. Love that will expend itself for the benefit of the other and will never let go. This love leads to the cross and resurrection and the purpose of Lent is to prepare us for the great festival of Easter, our defining festival and the hope that fills our hearts with joy and thanksgiving.
For the Old Testament writer in our first reading (Deuteronomy 26:1-11) the defining moment was the liberation of the people from oppression in Egypt and the bringing of them to the Promised Land, shown through blessing and plenty. Well we know their fortunes varied over the centuries, as did their faithfulness and adherence to this belief and self-understanding. That passage is the foundational creed for the Hebrew faith. In the Epistle reading (Romans 10:8b-13) this is changed to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, the one who is to rule in our hearts and lives. It is the resurrection that is seen there to be foundational and the new defining feature of belonging. There is no longer Jew nor Greek, but all who can join in with this confession of faith have an equal sharing in it. A reminder, perhaps also, that the Christian faith did not start in the Home Counties, but in the Middle East. God’s grace has been extended to us, not from us.
Both creeds, though, spring from loving rescue. For the Hebrew people, the wandering Arameans, liberation from oppression was a sign of their beloved status. They mattered enough for justice to shine and win through. Justice and liberation are themselves expressions of love being foundational in the world and many strive for them, often at great personal cost. The murder of the Cambridge student in Egypt for conducting research into trade unions there is a reminder that freedom can never be taken for granted, and neither can the justice of employment, tenancies and freedom of speech. In Ireland journalists have been warned that organized crime has targeted some of them for murder. They do not like the exposure of their activities. We know that in Syria and other places where Daesh operate that alternative views are neither welcome nor tolerated. Whatever we think of the current political climate here, we can at least express different political views freely.
I am rather bereft this week. The demise of the Independent newspaper in print form is going to end a way of life for me. I’ve read it since it came out in 1986 and while I read a lot of news and comment online from a variety of sources I like having a print copy around the house to flick through and also the daily fresh air of walking to pick it up. It gets me into the city centre early in the morning each day. Its liberal voice will be a loss to the newsstands which are heavily dominated by politically aligned and reactionary, angry copy. Some of these are subsidized by people with other agendas. Liberal has become a term of abuse and it feels like a minority sport. But liberal democracy, liberal arts and thinking, open to evidence based assessment, open to the riches of diversity and different views, is something to treasure. It is part of the liberation and justice that we treasure. The fact that only 35,000 or so of us bought a copy is perhaps why I find myself out of step with so many views I hear expressed. There is a cold wind blowing. The Independent will continue to be published online and there are others offering intelligent thought, but any of us who have expressed views online quickly find a torrent of abuse comes back at us and the comments underneath online articles very quickly become extreme and abusive, unmoderated as they often are. Liberal thinking needs defending and affirming.
At the end of 40 days fasting and praying, when Jesus was hungry and probably weakened, the temptations started (Luke 4:1-13). It was as he came to the end of a profound period of reflection and being at one with the root of all things when he connected with what was foundational for him. Surprisingly it is when he has topped up with spiritual alertness that the tempter is made visible. Is there something in this? It is as if when we go deeper into prayer we become more aware of the temptations around us. It is when we should be most protected that the attack comes. Perhaps it is when we are focusing on the true purpose of life, of love and hope, that we become the biggest threat to those who would have it otherwise or even fear it. When we are attacked for our views is perhaps when we are most seen to be a threat to someone else’s view and there is in the attack a compliment that we are on to something important that they don’t want. I have often found that the most aggressive people towards me are usually the ones trying to throw me or others off the scent as they fear their power base is threatened or that activities are about to be exposed and challenged. The most aggressive are often the most fearful and fear is itself something that love liberates us from and we need this freedom if we are to flourish.
The temptations of Jesus are a challenge to the love at the heart of the universe. Stones to be turned into bread is a challenge to misuse power, to think material needs are all that matter, but also to think things can be solved with magic solutions which don’t challenge the structural injustices at work where hunger is due to greed. It is also an attempt to stop the focusing and heightened awareness which the fasting is intending to bring. Worshipping the devil to whom all authority has been given is a subtle one. Who gave him the authority and was it theirs to give? Or has this authority been assumed, or grasped, so not actually given at all. The smokescreen is then that of false legitimacy which he tries to lure Jesus into taking for granted and thus bolster the power grab. It is God’s kingdom and the false claim of the usurper is called out. Recklessly throwing oneself off a high building to test God’s saving love is utterly bizarre. It is not only putting God to the test, it is the invitation to self-destruction. God doesn’t protect in that way and people who place themselves at risk are sometimes injured or killed in their self-giving, self-sacrificial gift. So here there is a blinding to informed consent that the journey to the cross involves.
Love is in the air and St Valentine’s Day and the First Sunday of Lent meet. Lent brings a call to take time to be still long enough, to still our longings long enough, to become more aware of what really matters. We are taken back to the foundations of our life and our hope in God’s love. Spiritually, physically, intellectually and emotionally, all aspects of our being and thinking are to be brought into this loving embrace. Lent and love belong together.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 14th February 2016