Sermon delivered on the First Sunday in Lent, the 14th February 2016 by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes in the congregations of St. Alban’s and St. Mary's Church of England, Cayman Islands in the service of the Holy Eucharist.

Scriptures: Deuteronomy 26: 1-11     Romans 10: 8b-13     S. Luke 4: 1-13

Romans 10:8 “The Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.”

Statistically, the age that men (in particular) reach in their life is shown to be affected by whether they have a companion or not. On average our lifespan is longer when we do have one. That is no surprise, certainly. When elderly people live by themselves, the physical dangers of life are more of a threat to them if there is nobody else to give them a helping hand or even to check on them from time to time. When I set a mince pie on fire in the oven the other day when my wife was away I thought of that. Yet I would suppose that the benefits of companionship go deeper than these sorts of physical factors. A study was published about 20 years ago showing that the percentage of married men living past 65 years old was 80%, while the percentage of unmarried or divorced men living past 65 was 32%. Of course statistics do not predict for specific individuals. But it is beneficial for the mind and the soul to interact with others, and no doubt it is the deeper levels of interaction that are more beneficial than the shallower ones.

As those baptised into Christ, we are all most fortunate that our baptism and our faith involve very basically a critically important closeness or companionship that we are able to lay claim to. We are fortunate because Christianity involves much more than keeping to the rules, even though as in disciplines of every kind, there are still in practice, for members of Christ's Body, boundaries and obligations to be observed and met at various levels, just as there are in all well-functioning homes, families or communities. We would have to be in retreat from reality if there were none of these. Yet we should never forget that the more basic thing about Christianity is our relatedness, primarily to our Heavenly Father, and flowing from this, our relationships with men and women. And of these relationships we are called into a particular sort of relationship of closeness with those who are members of the household of faith. If we do truly have such relationships, that would most likely contribute to length of years. As people of faith we know too that length of years is not the only sign of God’s blessing. A greater sign than length of years is whether or not life is profoundly better, however short or long it may be in this age. The real prize and blessing, of which this profound betterment also would only be a sign, is in the age to come.

Our Old Testament lesson today is from the book of Deuteronomy chapter 26, which details certain ordinances which the children of Israel should conform to when they enter the land God will give them for an inheritance. The book of Deuteronomy is one that our Lord especially quoted from, as He did in the wilderness, and although the portion of it chosen for the Old Testament lesson deals ostensibly with outward observances, the real flavour of what is being enjoined upon the people has to do with their inner attitude of heart, and that in turn has everything to do with their disposition towards the God that brought them to their inheritance. We all know that when we are involved in the production of something, like a cabinet we might have put together or doors that we might have varnished, or perhaps documents that we helped to craft, it is something of a personal expression. So when the people of Israel periodically take some of the ground’s first-fruits that they themselves harvested and set it before the altar of the Lord, it is something of themselves that is being dedicated. Through that gift, a relationship is being forged or strengthened between the Lord and the worshipper. So from the outward observance we move to a relationship involving an inner disposition of the heart. The words that the worshipper recites beginning “My father was a wandering Aramaean” are not merely a formula but words of profound humility and thanksgiving about the nation’s humble origins before the Exodus and its being rescued from peril by the mighty hand of God; and the speaker identifies himself with the nation as a whole. In this way the worshipper makes explicit, and declares, his trust in God.

Our Lord’s temptations in the wilderness, too, are about His relationship with the Heavenly Father. The Satanic attempt was aimed at breaking the filial relationship that was so recently expressed at John's Baptism of Jesus, when St. Luke records that the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”

“If you are the Son of God,” He was tempted in the wilderness, “command this stone to become bread.” Whether He could have done so, or not, must not become an issue. The proof of His Sonship must lie in what has already been revealed to Him, and His obedience to that; and to seek a further sign now will be to disbelieve what He already knows, and to go contrary to His obedience, drawing up the ground upon which He stands. It was by that ground that He lived, and not by breaking the great fast in such a way. “Man shall not live by bread alone - but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God”- a quotation from Deuteronomy ch 8 v. 3, He makes in reply. In the desert as well as in the Jordan, in the dryness that is a foreshadowing of His last hours on the Cross, just as was affirmed in Jordan's baptismal stream of a new beginning, what has been revealed to Him of His Sonship He must hold beyond question or doubt. This is the new Man, the first-fruits of a new race that will be part of and yet unlike the race of Adam, the generation of those who are to be given power to become sons of God.

It is not hard to see in the violence of so many sorts on the part of cowardly or horribly warped individuals throughout the world, the exercise of temptation and a series of failures to resist it. But the more basic issue is whether the perpetrators and their silent allies have in their lives ever been given a knowledge of God’s offer of being sons of His. Without accepting that offer, and continually being renewed in such acceptance, they live under a spreading curse, as our recent Commination declarations on Ash Wednesday show. Sons of the dust through Adam desperately need to find the way of becoming sons of God through Jesus Christ.

Jesus affirmed in His wilderness trials that the true Man is sustained in every circumstance by the word that proceeds from the mouth of God. “The Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” are St. Paul’s words in our second lesson, Romans 10:8. He is saying that our Christian confession has brought us to an entirely new era of closeness to God Himself. The very words that we utter to confess our baptismal faith are the Word that God has to speak to us and to transform our hearts and lives. That Word that we confess is “Jesus is Lord”, and if we make that confession and know in our heart that He is not far away either in time or in place – not someone that lived long ago and is now dead and buried in a far-away place: if on the other hand we know that God raised Him from the dead to be with His people now, then we are truly the sons and close companions of God, in the time of trial being saved and fashioned in His image, and aiming for the prize of fulfilment in the age to come.