Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent

So, Lent is here again: a season of fasting and self discipline as we remember Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Our 40 days of Lent reflect this time, and giving up things we enjoy is a way of deliberately putting ourselves in a position where we are likely to have to wrestle with temptation, and so, in a small way, be in solidarity with Jesus.

Any wrestling with temptation is a wrestling with conscience – conscience is the bit of us which spots what is right or wrong. If we didn’t have a conscience, we wouldn’t ever experience temptation – we’d just do whatever suited us. But conscience isn’t a straightforward thing – it’s something that develops and changes throughout our lives, and throughout time. For example, most Christian sportspeople today wouldn’t have a problem with running a race on a Sunday. Eric Liddel’s struggle with conscience now seems a bit outdated to us now. And maybe the same is true within our lifetimes – things we couldn’t, in conscience, have done years ago are now not a problem, but life presents new quandaries for us: what we eat, where we go on holiday, what sort of car we should have (if any), the pattern of our relationships. In the light of environmental destruction, consumer choices are some of the things that exercise our consciences the most – or at least they should.

But most people’s daily ethical choices are not between total good and total evil, but between various shades of good or evil. Very few things are completely good or bad – so these internal conversations we have with ourselves are nuanced and subtle – we weigh things up in our minds, and sometimes it’s a real struggle. Painful though this can sometimes be, I think it’s a good sign: it’s absolutes that we have to beware of: often, absolute good and absolute bad are perceived as such because our own egos have become the reference point – this is when we fail to attempt to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Sometimes, feeling right is very gratifying and labelling someone else as ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ makes us feel good about ourselves. I think this is particularly so in the church – as an institution we often set up a system of ‘us’ and ‘them’ – we seem to need someone to label as deviant or unworthy.

In the world of absolutes, evil can disguise itself as good. This is what happened in the Third Reich: Nazis turned the legal order on its head, making the wrong and the malevolent the foundation of righteousness. I went to the Anne Frank house during my recent holiday in Amsterdam, and was reminded in a forceful way of the awfulness of a philosophy which treated people with such cruelty and brutality. Anne was a lovely young woman – she was clever and joyful and hopeful – full of life. Such a terrible waste of life. I hadn’t realised before that Anne and her sister Margot died at Bergen-Belsen while their parents were at Auschwitz – imagine how terrifying that was for these two teenagers, and how painfully sad for their parents. Only Anne’s father, Otto, survived the war – the rest of the Frank family, and the others hidden in the Annexe with them, died.

So we have to watch ourselves with absolutes!

It’s easy, too, for evil to be pinned on what we might call ‘the other’. Look at the picture on the front of the service sheet today: I hesitated to use it because of the black and white issue – Jesus is portrayed as white (which he wasn’t) and the devil as a black man. In the end I decided to use it because it is a reminder that messages about good and evil can be very subtle – this one image wouldn’t convince us that the devil is a black man, but you can see how repeated exposure to images like this might affect your assumptions. And we have to wonder why the painter decided to make the devil black – what was going through his mind?

Identification with ‘black’ with ‘evil’, we now know, is painful and frustrating for people who are black. It’s interesting that a debate about similar things has arisen in the last week about changes made to Roal Dahl’s books. It has caused uproar. Should we allow bad people always to be fat, warty and ugly, or indeed black (think Enid Blyton) , in children’s literature? Should we leave these things in and allow parents to discuss this with their children as they read? Or should we change the text and bring it up to date? Should we change Roald Dahl and not Shakespeare? It’s a hard one. As someone who often prefers things to be clear and definite it can be hard for me to live with quandaries – with not knowing the answer, not knowing what’s right. For me, and for many of us, I suspect, this lack of certainty about something is very uncomfortable.

But, I think, this discomfort is good. Not being entirely sure is good. And this is because it’s a sign we’re actually thinking – that our conscience is in a good state.

Here’s why!

At the trial of the Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann, in 1961, observers noticed that he was unable to think or speak coherently. An observer wrote that Eichmann personified neither hatred or madness nor an insatiable thirst for blood, but something far worse, the faceless nature of Nazi evil itself. Here was someone who hadn’t really thought about what he was doing, who hadn’t wrestled with his conscience – he’d just gone along with what everyone else was doing.

It makes me wonder whether Jesus’ answers to the tempter in the wildness were as instantaneous as the Gospel suggests – it was a big issue he was working through – how to use his power. Jesus came out of the desert with focus and purpose – he knew he was going to use his power to serve others, specifically to heal the broken, to give dignity to those who were marginalised, and ultimately to give his life to save us.

And here is another clue about conscience – it’s not all about us. Jesus shows us that conscience is about others – his ministry gives us a focus for conscience which isn’t about moral absolutes, but it is about the welfare and cherishing of others.

So, this Lent, as we remember Jesus in the wilderness, it’s a good time to enjoy being unsure and to stop and think when we find ourselves swept along by popular opinion. It’s a time to dwell on uncertainty and to welcome it, uncomfortable though it is. It’s a time to challenge our own indifference. And it’s a time to refocus our conscience so that it encompasses the good of others, the good of the planet.

This Lent, may we wrestle with our consciences!