The Revd Margaret Legg
I was chatting to a friend the other night who’d just been to see the film of Les Miserables. She was gobsmacked, never having come across the story before. One of the aspects that had particularly struck her was the encounter Jean Valjean, the hero, had with Monseigneur Bienvenue, Bishop Welcome. Valjean has just been released after 19 years in prison and the Bishop gives him shelter for the night. Valjean succumbs to temptation and steals the Bishop’s solid silver cutlery. I urged my friend to read the book itself. It may be long - the paperback edition I have runs to over 1200 pages – but the 48 chapters are manageable chunks. Then, I suggested, you will experience the depth and richness of the prose, the nuances, the story as the author intends it to be, the story at its best.
Today our readings are about what is best: becoming the best person we can be and not settling for second best. About reading the book and not settling for just watching the film, so to speak. And we become the best we can be by resisting temptation. We are just five days into Lent, and whatever our Lenten rules, I guarantee we will be tempted to break them. The Vicar I understand has indeed broken his Lenten diet, but apparently that’s alright, because it means he avoids the sin of pride! Rather than seeing temptation in terms of rules we would like to break, or impulses we need to tame, as negatives, try looking on them instead as distractions, as those things that lure us away from being our best selves, that encourage us to settle for ‘OK’ instead of ‘excellent’, to shorten our sights and to fall short of the mark, of the call to true human-ness, which is to reflect God’s image in the world.
Lent stretches us, enlarging our God shaped centres, reminding us that just as we are to be the best we can be, so we are to look for the best in those we encounter,, whether it’s the annoying person who stands on the left on the Underground escalator, so that you can’t scamper past, the shopper barging in front of you at the supermarket checkout or the employee who seems so dis-engaged at work.
In the wilderness, Jesus wrestles with whether and how he will take up his ministry, and become ‘Lord of All’ as Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans. He’s just been baptised at the Jordan by his cousin John and the Spirit has lead him into this solitary and inhospitable wilderness where he examines what it will mean for him to keep God his Father at the centre of his life:
Will he be true to God in spite of his bodily needs and desires – he was famished?
He will be signing up to a nomadic, rootless kind of existence
Will he rule out the easy short-cut to achieving his Lordship of the world – all he has to do is to ditch the divine and place the devil at the centre of his life and worship him?
Death on the cross awaits him if he remains loyal to God
Will he seek proof of his status as the Son of God – just spoken out loud by God at his baptism with the words: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’. If God really loves him then should he jump he will be rescued
He will experience total abandonment by God on the cross
Jesus did not succumb to the devil’s blandishments. He knew that God was larger than all of them and had greater riches in store for him than anything the devil could offer. We too, following Jesus’ example, resist temptation not because God will be cross with us, not because we’ve failed an endurance test we’ve set ourselves; and certainly not because we’re on ego trip, promoting ourselves – our strength of character and self-discipline; we keep Lent faithfully because otherwise we will miss the best that God has for us, we will miss fulfilling our potential and becoming the people God created us to be.
Not to be miserable!
So Lent is not about being miserable, but about being upbeat, because we are being true to our deepest centres. Like the Israelites, who are as happy as Larry because they have finally entered the Promised Land. They give God their first crops as a sign of their joy and thanks and a reminder that it was only through God’s help, God’s grace that they had made it to that land flowing with milk and honey. Through their hospitality to the resident aliens they live out that grace, they reflect God’s image in the world around them; in the same way Paul reminds the Christians in Rome that we are all one in Jesus. So we too are to be hospitable to all people, regardless of creed or ethnicity, starting with our thoughts, and what we say to and about others.
Inevitably, the gendarmes capture, Jean Valjean and haul him before Bishop Bienvenue, who is eating breakfast with no cutlery. In a trice the aged Bishop fetches a pair of solid silver candlesticks and gives them to Valjean, chastising him for his forgetfulness in leaving them behind. They symbolise the light of Christ. The Bishop’s parting words to him, after the gendarmes have withdrawn, are these:
Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.
The God-centred life of the good Bishop gave Valjean the energy and encouragement to reshape his life for the better. May we use our Lenten discipline as fuel to power us to become the best that we can be.