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Sermon by Canon Anne Tomlinson

Today we are using a service which is unfamiliar to many of you. It was created just over two years ago by our Provincial Liturgy Committee to fill a gap in our Church’s provision of worship; to be a form of worship on those occasions when neither the Eucharist nor Morning Prayer meets the needs of a particular congregation’s main act of worship on Sunday; to be a form of the service of the Word which is more easy to access than Matins. Matins is a lovely service but its verbal and musical complexity can be quite off-putting to newcomers. If we are trying to be a missionary church reaching out to newcomers and welcoming them in, then it is important to think about accessibility and language, and about the kind of liturgies we offer to seekers and searchers. So this new liturgy was duly authorised by the College of Bishops for experimental use for a period of two years from October 2011, and it will be reviewed by the Church as a whole later this year. Indeed some congregations in this diocese were chosen to trial the service for the Province, among then the East End Team and St Oswald’s Maybole, and this they have been doing for the past two years to great effect.

One of the aspects of the liturgy that has been most appreciated is its ‘spaciousness’ – the pauses for silent reflection that it encompasses before prayer, after readings, after the sermon. And the other is the freedom it gives the preacher. The rubric at that section reads as follows: ‘Sermon or other Exposition of the Word’. And the accompanying notes go on to say: ‘A sermon may be preached in the normal way. The term ‘other Exposition of the Word’ includes less formal exposition, the use of drama, interviews, or discussion’.

So I am going to make use of that freedom. Don’t worry - I am not going to spring drama or interviews on you, but I do want us to have a bit of a discussion. At least with your neighbours in the pews. Visiting preachers can do this sort of thing with relative impunity; after all, we disappear at the end of the service never to be seen again and you can relax in the knowledge that Nicholas will be back with you next week. So bear with me, please.

On the front of your service sheet is a painting by Stanley Spencer, the well-known English twentieth-century artist; the series of painting he made as a war artist in Port Glasgow will be well known to you many of you, I’m sure. Spencer was an early modernist painter, a visionary, whose works often express his fervent, if unconventional, Christian faith. This painting is one of a series entitled ‘Christ in the Wilderness’ that he created in the 1940’s. Originally he intended to paint 40, each one an imaginative representation of a day in the life of Jesus in the wilderness, but in fact he only completed 8 which are to be seen in the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth; they were originally intended for the chancel roof of Cookham Church in Berkshire.

Spencer wrote of the series: "I have tried to visualise the being (Jesus) is and the life he lived from day to day using the sayings as a guide."

By ‘sayings’ he meant moments from the teaching ministry of Jesus, relocating these back into the desert and so showing how His ministry had flowed out of that formative wilderness experience. The wilderness, as heard today, is the place where Jesus went to refine and discover what it means to be God’s Suffering Servant; the place where He brooded upon His calling. This series of paintings is about vocation: Christ’s - and ours.

Spencer painted them when he himself was in a personal wilderness. Faced with the failure of his second marriage and badly depressed, he moved on his own into a rented room in London and lived in extreme isolation for a while, and this series emerged from that context. And in doing so he drew on another, earlier, experience of wilderness; the rugged barren terrain of Macedonia where he had served in World War I.
We see Jesus squatting in just such a desert; in a barren and thirsty land where nothing grows. In His hands He cradles a scorpion, a deadly creature, feared and rejected, while another scuttles away towards His right foot. And for a moment, in silence, I would like to invite you to look at that painting, really ‘attend’ to it, let it speak to you.

And now turning to someone near you for a minute or two, I would like you to share what you see in the painting – don’t worry, what you say is not going to go any further; there is no plenary session afterwards; this is just you and your neighbour in the pew speaking to one another about what you notice, what the painting says to you. There is no need to be clever; indeed much better that you don’t try to be; just share with your neighbour what jumped out at you as you looked at that painting.

I have not shared with a partner in the pews, so I will share with you all what I saw when I spent time looking at it in my study last week; what I say is neither better nor more definitive than your own sharing. It is simply what the painting said to me and what it caused me to reflect upon subsequently.
I see Jesus looking on the cradled scorpion with infinite tenderness. In His face there is ‘an unutterable gentleness and compassion’. Clearly He has been stung by the venom of the creature – note the badly swollen fingers of his left hand – but He continues to cradle it. He does not subdue the scorpion. He does not tread it underfoot. He receives and holds and cherishes the very thing that could kill Him. He has learned how to love His enemy. Stung, He goes on loving, goes on holding the scorpion. He endures the pain. The picture speaks to me of divine love and harmony; divine love bearing the pain of the world. Evil, if met with evil - as we heard in our Gospel two weeks ago - will only expand its destructive power. But there is another way; the way of the Cross; the way that bore the pain and through that pain, broke the bonds of evil and set us free. Divine love that walks the extra mile and bids us do likewise. Divine love then.

And divine obedience. As I looked, I noticed the way Christ’s hands are cradling the scorpion. They reminded me of the way I will hold my hands out later when Phyllis leads us in Communion from the Reserved Sacrament; hold my hands out for the bread of life. For this is a picture about communion. Jesus’ complete communion with the Father’s will and His making possible our communion, through Him, with God. Through his obedience; through his self-giving. Through not succumbing to the temptations that the devil lays before him, or giving in to the ease of those pathways. That struggle we just heard about in our Gospel; the three temptations and the three conquerings of those temptations. Jesus here has arrived at a point of acceptance of God’s will. Hungry, he has asked for food. And has received instead a vocation to death. What father among you, if his son asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?. But He accepts this vocation. For our sakes. For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous. Divine obedience bringing the exiles home.

The picture also speaks to me of divine challenge. Jesus squats on the ground in the way I saw campesina women squatting to give birth in a Bolivian shanty town. And birth is painful. The wilderness experience of Lent can be a time of expansive discovery if we let it be that; a place of encounter and enlargement. Of rediscovery and reorientation. Of the bringing to birth of new understandings. But it’ll involve labour pains for sure. And so at the start of Lent I ask myself, am I up for that rigour and interrogation? Am I up for that divine challenge? Are you?

And fourthly the painting speaks to me of divine feeding. The stung hand appears to be just like a plaited bread loaf. His very flesh is bread-like. It is a reminder to me of the things that truly feed me. A reminder, too, this Lent, to try to eschew the things that are unsustaining, that do not nourish, the distractions and the stuff I allow to affect me. All the fast-food idols in my life – like instant messaging on my ‘phone and the constant distractions that digital technology can create if I let it. Choosing not to be beguiled by the hungers induced by modern technology – the power, the 24/7 accessibility - will be hard, I know. Yes, the wilderness of Lent will be full of wild beasts. As in the painting, the sky is overcast, and there are dark clouds threatening.

But our Gospel today reminds us that there are blessings too; Jesus said, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.' Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

May we too know angels waiting on us this Lent as we seek to be faithful and obedient to God’s will in our lives. May we share the joy of His obedience. And offer our praise with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen