In this sermon preached at the beginning of Lent, David Newton encourages us to think about using the Jesus Prayer and fasting.
Every Lent we hear Jesus’ call… ‘go into your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret.’
Lent is a time for retreat, for stepping back from the rush and haste of the world, a time to make space for quiet solitude, a time to shut the door… to pray, to diligently search the scriptures, to seek the face of God.
For some, making space may be easy enough. If work keeps reasonable hours, there are no children around, and other commitments are not all consuming.
For others, to make space, to find such quiet solitude may require the firmest of resolve and the greatest of discipline. It may mean setting the alarm a bit earlier. It may mean forgoing your favourite TV programme. Or living without Facebook.
Seeking such quiet solitude may not be easy, but then Lent was never meant to be.
For in Lent, of course, we remember Jesus’ time in the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil. We remember, but we are also called to join him.
With Jesus by our side we are to wrestle with the demons of the night.
In Mark’s gospel, the temptation narrative is very short indeed, and so what he does relate, as of first importance, is intriguing. Mark simply records that the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wild, that he was tempted by Satan, was with the wild beasts, and that the angels tended to him.
I’d like to suggest that Lent is a time to wrestle with the wild beasts that rage within us. We are called, in that place of quiet solitude, to look deep within. We are to ask questions of ourselves, or perhaps better, we are to let God question us. We are to go out with Jesus into the wild places of our heart, to stare into the dark abyss of our souls.
We are to create the space for God to help us look truthfully at ourselves. Wrapped in his love, with Jesus by our side, we are given the resources we need to begin to see ourselves truthfully – warts and all.
For too often we see ourselves through rose tinted glasses. We’re like the Psalmist who says ‘why have you left me, O God, I’ve lived by your Law all my days.’ (Honest). We are self-deceived, and often cannot bear to look at ourselves without some form of shield or mask.
So Lent is the time to let God take the mask off. And in the place of quiet solitude to see before us our broken desires, our wonky priorities, our corrupted heart, our pride, our vanity, our anger, even our hatred towards others.
It is not a comfortable journey, but then Lent was never meant to be.
One way of beginning such a Lenten journey is by using a very ancient prayer called the Jesus Prayer: a mantra designed to help us to still our hearts, and let us see ourselves truthfully whilst all the time being held in the mercy and love of God.
The idea is that you repeat, again and again, the simply refrain. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’
It can become a kind of background mantra as we look deep into our hearts, as we think through the week we have just had, or confront our fears and failures. I encourage you to think about using it this Lent.
I would also encourage you this Lent to take seriously Jesus’ comments on fasting. He does not say if, he says when… But unfortunately, it is something of a lost discipline in the church today. I must admit I used to fast, but have rather fallen out of the habit, and intend to take it up again this Lent.
I’ve noticed a tendency in recent years for people no longer to give something up for Lent, but to take something up. There is something commendable in this. As Isaiah tells us, our fast must be connected to breaking the chains of oppression, and fighting for justice. But we are (I think) in danger of acquiescing to our consumerist, pleasure driven society if we abandon the idea of giving things up for Christ. Central to Christianity of course is the idea that we give our lives up to God.
So I encourage you, certainly do take something up, seek justice and mercy for the vulnerable and oppressed. But also consider giving something up. And most specifically, consider fasting. Not just giving up TV, or another new-fangled fast, but forgoing the most basic thing necessary for survival – food.
For fasting is another way of creating space for God to help us look deep within.
To start with, there is extra time to pray which would otherwise be spent eating.
But fasting also shows us ourselves more truthfully. Does our hunger reveal gluttony? A desire to simply be comfortable? Do we notice that we are irritable and have a short fuss? Do we find ourselves being self-centred? As Richard Foster says, in his great book A Celebration of Discipline, ‘fasting reveals the things that control us.’
Fasting also creates space for God to work within. To change our priorities – to help us see that we live on the Word of God, Jesus Christ, and not on bread alone.
Fasting helps us to remember those in need, who do daily go hungry. And it may help us be more generous with our bread, with our money, with our time.
There are many ways to fast, and each person should work out what works best for them.
For some, those who have certain medical conditions or those who are pregnant, it is not a good idea to miss meals at all. Fasting may mean eating simply, and giving the money saved to a Lent Appel. Or perhaps giving up meat – something we all need to eat less of as we face ecological crises.
For others, missing lunch is a common unnoticeable occurrence, (that’s not me but I hear they exist – I’m more like the Hobbit pining for second breakfast). Such people should think of fasting for a whole day, missing breakfast lunch and dinner, and drinking only water; perhaps spending the extra time in quiet solitude seeking God’s face.
For others, fasting might feel very daunting. My most common fast was to simply not eat until 3pm. I was in good company for John Wesley used to do this twice a week.
I did this fairly small fast once a week throughout much of university. It’s not much, but it was enough for me, to re-orientate myself to God and His voice. To put a check on simply fulfilling my pleasures, and to remember the first call to seek the Kingdom.
So I encourage you to think about using the Jesus Prayer and Fasting this Lent. To let God take off the masks, and with Christ by our side, to look into the darker places of our heart we would rather not go. We begin to see truthfully, and let God work on us.
Such work, as I’ve already hinted at, is not just about self-improvement. We do not just go into the inner room for ourselves, but for the sake of the world…
Amidst the collapse of the Roman Empire St Benedict withdrew from normal life and set up a monastery. He understood that amidst the rubble and carnage of the ongoing battles the way he could best serve the world was by setting up a monastery committed to stability. It would be an anchor in the storm. It was a place committed first and foremost to prayer and reading the scriptures, but naturally out of that, it was also a place where the sick were cared for and the hungry fed.
St Benedict withdrew, not to preserve his life or keep himself pure, but because he saw that retreat was the best way to serve and love God’s world for which Christ died.
My suggestion for us is that, in our current cultural climate, there is nothing more important for us to do than retreat. Than to attach ourselves onto the anchor of our souls.
Amidst a world of deception and illusion perhaps there is nothing more important for us to do than to learn to look truthfully at ourselves, and give space for God to shape and mould us.
Perhaps in the midst of violence, increasing levels of fear and xenophobia the world needs to see a people who are anchored and stable in the love of God.
Perhaps retreating to the inner room then should not be seen as a silly spiritual alternative to doing something useful by actually breaking the chains of the oppressed. Instead, as Benedict realised, the best way to serve the world might be to retreat.
For by retreating we witness to the world that there is a love that holds us all, a love that can break the chains, and set each of us free. A love that can cope with failure. A love that is an anchor for the soul amidst crashing waves and dark oceans.
And by retreating to the inner room, we of course, also find ourselves refreshed and energised for the fight. Re-fuelled to bring God’s light and life and peace to every place we find ourselves in.
So, for the sake of the world, for God’s sake, let’s keep Lent this year. Let’s retreat, let’s go into the inner rooms, into the wild places of our heart with Jesus by our side.