Lent 1. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley. 26th February 2023

Genesis 2: 15-17, 3: 1-7;  Romans 5: 12-19; Matthew 4: 1-11

On Wednesday, in churches across our nation, people were marked with ash as a priest said: turn away from sin and follow Christ. The old prayer book words that may be more familiar to some are: repent and turn to the Gospel. As we receive the ash, we’re recognising that no one of us is free from the temptation to sin. But we are not being encouraged to wallow in that place of regret or self-flagellation. Rather, we are asked to own it and then to do something about it, to do the thing that we know transforms and heals. Turn to Christ.

We have a pretty well universal shared understanding that there are categories of bad behaviour – at one end of a continuum the unhelpful word or action that we find it easy to excuse, right through to criminal acts that require a legal response. We can quickly see extremes of sinful behaviour as something that is perpetrated by people out there, people not like us, and therefore as something that isn’t really to do with us. We might find it shocking; we might do all we can to distance ourselves from those who would commit such atrocities, but we can be fairly secure in our knowledge that we’re not about to follow in their footsteps.

We often hear people in the church encouraging us to love the sinner not the sin, making that distinction between who people are and what they do. I’m not convinced it’s quite that simple. The question of why some people find it possible to behave in ways that we almost universally identify as sinful is clearly deeply theological. It gets to the heart of who we think we are and how we are made. We could spend time this morning focussing on the Augustinian doctrine of original sin, but I don’t think that will help us very much.

I’d like to look at the question from a slightly different angle from that. I’d like to think about the ways that we choose to distance ourselves, to ‘other’ people whose behaviours we consider to be abhorrent and sinful, to dehumanise them, perhaps in the same way that we see them dehumanising those against whom they sin. We make the sinful behaviour something that happens out there, often as a result of a temptation that someone is lured into. The classic story to reinforce that is, of course, the talking serpent whose wiles the woman was not able to resist. He put temptation in her way, and she responded.  Contrast that with the response of Jesus when the devil tempted him in the desert – the difference was that he had the capacity and sufficient insight to resist.

Let’s think about what we know of human nature. When we hear narratives about people who have committed dreadful acts, we are often regaled with stories about how they had a cruel streak when they were young and that their behaviour escalated.

It has certainly been my experience when I have worked with people who had committed acts of violence that their offending behaviour escalated over a period of time. People who were verbally aggressive at school then found themselves fighting in order to save face; and it’s not a big step from there to fighting with people you don’t know; not a big next step to participating in gang fights and then only a tiny step to do someone else some serious harm. The point here is that the journey from acting in a way that we could perhaps imagine is the first step on that journey that took someone into a way of acting that we can’t imagine.

So I am making a basic assumption that those people who find within themselves the capacity to do serious evil, to actively sin against others, have been tempted along a continuum that has taken them to that place.
We may be quick to look for an external tempter, to identify those who have made violence appear attractive or grown-up or whatever, but I want to suggest that the most likely tempter is actually the person’s own ego.

My, admittedly limited, experience of people who have done very bad things is that the real driver was a desire to make themselves feel better. The people I worked with were not happy individuals; they were not contented in their own skin; they often found it difficult to identify any kind of joy in life.

When we get to the litany, in a couple of minutes, we will hear the words: have mercy upon us miserable sinners. They’re not easy words, but I think that they are honest words. Those people who commit the kind of sins we are thinking about here are often miserable. It may not be their actions that has made them miserable, rather their discomfort with themselves and with their lot in life.
If we accept the premise that most of us are unlikely to sin to the extent that we commit a crime, what are we then talking about when we describe ourselves as miserable sinners? Just think for a moment about the things that you might do that you would ask forgiveness for. That careless word or look that caused someone to be upset; the thoughtless act that inconvenienced someone else; the decisions to put your own desires before the needs of others.

When we recall these incidents, the memory of them doesn’t make us happy. And yet, in the moment of bad behaviour, it may have fed some part of us that feels inadequate or insecure, some part of us that yearns to feel different. That smart comment that was actually cruel may have felt good in the moment, but consider how it might feel on reflection.

Are we so different from those people who do things we can’t imagine? Those people whose behaviour has escalated, who are driven by ego and a need to feel better about themselves. We also want to feel better about ourselves. The difference is perhaps that we know something about what really helps us to feel better about ourselves, to be healed and transformed. And that is our relationship with God.

Jesus was able to resist the temptations in the desert, at least in part, because he didn’t need to make decisions that would help him to feel better about himself. He didn’t need to massage his ego; to make himself feel more special or more important than other people. He shows us what it means to live in the knowledge that we are loved unconditionally; to trust that God is all that we need and that we are good enough for God.

It’s not the bad behaviour itself that makes us miserable – we’ve seen that it may actually make us feel good in the short term – it’s distancing ourselves from God. That is what leaves us in the desert place. That is what makes us bereft. That is what leaves us open to temptation. That is what makes us miserable. And we are changed when we accept and engage with God’s mercy and forgiveness and love. When we trust that we are worthy of God’s unconditional love freely offered to each one of us.

Turn away from sin and follow Christ.