Francis Montagu, Evensong sermon                Sunday, 17th March, 2013                       1 Corinthians 10.1-13
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I wonder who we think we are tempted by. Last year I heard a story about Nikos Kazantzakis, the author of Zorba the Greek. When he was 19, he was not sure that he wanted to be religious or not - his mother was, his father wasn't. One summer he climbed a mountain and spent that summer in a monastery where a Father Makarios lived. Nikos asked him "You are 80 years old, do you still wrestle with the devil ?" Father Makarios replied "No. I used to fight and wrestle with the devil, but now I have gown old and tired and the devil has grown old and tired with me. I leave him alone and he leaves me alone." Nikos asked him "Is it easy then ?" "No," replied the Father, "it is much more difficult. Now I wrestle with God, and that is much harder than wrestling with the devil." Nikos said "You wrestle with God and you hope to win ?" "No," replied Father Makarios, "I wrestle with God and I hope to lose." Jesus wrestles with the devil in the wilderness - and wins. Later, he wrestles with God in the Garden of Gethsemane, and loses. In the first part of our lives we wrestle with the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil, getting and spending we lay waste our powers. In the second half of life we may find we wrestle much more with God - and I venture to say that  many of the congregation here have reached that second stage in their spiritual lives . What might that involve ? In closing I'd say one or two things. First, questioning old certainties of faith, awareness of life's complexities, of our and others' frailties, are part of spiritual maturing. As we grow older we believe in less, but believe it more intensely. And secondly, what will bear us up, sustain us, is the nurturing of the inner spiritual being in all of us - nurtured in liturgy, in discussion, by the ritual, by intellect, but more profoundly, in reflection and silence.
The epistle reading is about history. History has been in the news this week - how and why it should be taught, what it is. Last year I listened to Lord Lamont, the former Chancellor, on Radio 4 - 20 years after Black Wednesday. Lamont thought it had set us on the road to recovery, but most people saw it as a fiasco. "History", said Lamont, rather irately , "is what most people think happened." May I give you one other definition, by a rather greater thinker, before we consider this passage. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, writing of the charismatic Athenian military leader and politician, Alcibiades: "History is what Alcibiades did and had done to him." So it was what happened - a series of events , of battles and defeats, successes and failures . Our reading today is almost a potted history of Exodus and Numbers reflecting on several separate incidents in the Old Testament wilderness journey of the Israelites. It's been said that the Old Testament contains historical material , but it isn't a history . It's not a history because what is included is intended as a guide, a warning, for future generations, not simply a record of events. I'd like to refer to two of them. The first: "the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play." This is a reference to the golden calf which the people make while Moses is on the mountain receiving the law - the law which makes Israel a 'peculiar people'. There is not a great deal in the Old Testament, apart from Genesis about Adam and Eve, and this incident, in Jewish history as opposed to pre-history, is the story of the fall - an act of deliberate disloyalty and disobedience. They are commanded to make the tabernacle, instead they make their own image. The second is the plague of serpents, or snakes: they sought to test God, and were killed by snakes - a curious incident which is referred to by Jesus in his discourse with Nicodemus in John's gospel : "just as the snake was lifted up, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so all who believe might have eternal life." So there is temptation and failure, but also restoration and a second chance. Despite their failings, they have the continuing provision of God - that spiritual food and drink on the wilderness journey - and they enter the promised land.