Winnie the Pooh may seem a strange character with whom to begin a Lenten sermon but he is one of my favourites. Once, when he visited Rabbit, Rabbit offered him something to eat. Pooh accepted at once. Rabbit said “Would you like honey or condensed milk on your bread?”. Pooh said, excitedly “Both” but then not to seem greedy he added “but don’t worry about the bread.” Quite how he ate the sticky mess which resulted A. A. Milne doesn’t relate but I suppose bears can do that sort of thing. When I was in Zimbabwe last month my hosts commented on how I could eat a juicy mango without making a mess – something I’ve never managed with an orange. It’s all a matter of practice. However, the relevance of Winnie the Pooh to Lent lies in what Jesus said to the devil. “Man cannot live by bread alone.” Whatever else Lent means to us, it certainly means eating less. For people like Winnie the Pooh and me that is a serious, rather depressing prospect. We need encouragement. We need to feel it is not all a puritan plot to stop us enjoying ourselves. In Pooh’s case there is probably a health issue to be faced. Being so large around the middle can’t be good for you. It’s also embarrassing, as Pooh found when he tried to leave Rabbit’s hole after the honey and condensed milk episode and got stuck in the door. For several days he remained stuck there while Christopher Robin read sustaining stories to his north end and Rabbit hung his towels up on his south end. Perhaps that is why Pooh took up doing stoutness exercises, something which, fortunately I have never needed.
The trouble is that food is so nice. It’s not just a matter of not wanting to feel hungry. Ash Wednesday is a day when one discovers just how unpleasant it is to feel seriously hungry and you wonder how those millions of people cope who go hungry much of the time. That is a good reason for serious Lenten fasting, just to make us aware that going hungry is a really unpleasant condition. My Tariro children do badly in school because they go to school hungry. No wonder they can’t pay attention in class. The small experience we have of voluntary hunger in Lent should make us want to do rather more for those whose hunger is not voluntary and goes on much of the time.
As I say, food is so nice. It’s not sinful to think that. In recent years we have become more confident in thinking that God intends us to enjoy the beauties of the world he has created for us. He wants us to enjoy our food and drink. Jesus did; he seemed quite often to be at dinner parties. The trouble is that there is quite a fine line between enjoying food and drink and becoming obsessed by it. We may not realise we are obsessed by it until we discover our heart sinking when a dish turns up in the refectory which we really dislike, or when we think how often we complain about food not being cooked right (which as I know, means not cooked in the way I like it). The trouble is, we complain and that creates bad feeling or we become fussy and only eat things which are really right. After a while we lose our pleasure in food because we criticise how it is done. Loving food can be an honest appreciation of one of the good things of God’s creation. It can also become an idolatry which enslaves us. An alcoholic may start by enjoying various lovely drinks; he ends up not enjoying anything at all, just feeding a craving with whatever comes his way.
Paradoxically it is by giving up things that we can learn to enjoy them again. We gain a freedom. We no longer have to eat and drink; we do it for pleasure. Abstaining for a while from some joys of God’s creation makes it possible to see again just how wonderful it is. Fasting in Lent is not a denial of the goodness of this world. Quite the opposite; it treats the world with respect, allows it a chance to recover from our depredations, allows ourselves to recover the joys of simple things and frees us from a false idol.
That is the crucial thing which today’s Gospel calls us to. It is not just the food. It is the power and influence which appears in the second temptation. Not many of us fantasise about ruling kingdoms in this world, yet we are all good at creating small kingdoms in the monastery, in our work or at home and ruling them with a rod of iron. Not many of us want to jump from the highest pinnacle of the temple but we all like to be recognised, be honoured, even just be noticed. In every case it is not the thing itself that is bad but the way we let our desire for it supplant our desire for God. In each temptation Jesus calls us back to God. Is God really the centre of our life, as we want him to be? Lent is a time we discover usually that he isn’t and begin to do something about it.
If I stopped my sermon there it would be true, I think, but moralistic. Today’s readings give us two ideas about the keeping of Lent which help to put it more into the context of God.
Deuteronomy begins with that lovely passage: “A wandering Aramaean was my father and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number. There he became a nation, great, mighty and populous”. Quickly the writer sums up that amazing event when God led the people out Egypt, through the long and painful 40 years in the desert and finally into the land flowing with milk and honey...a land Pooh would have approved of! Yes, Egypt and the wilderness were times of great suffering but what Jews remembered was the graciousness of God, caring for them, favouring them, giving them the law and giving them at last a land of their own. Perhaps our own Lent could be spent thinking about the past and giving thanks to God for the wonderful way he has brought us to where we are now. It may not be what we intended but it turns out to be good, because God is good.
Then there is a nugget in Paul which sums it all up: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9) That is the heart of the Gospel to which Lent calls us back: Jesus and God. There’s nothing more for me to say.
However, let Pooh have the last word. Towards the end of the book Piglet asks Pooh: “When you wake up in the morning, what’s the first thing you say to yourself?” “What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say Piglet?” “I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today” said Piglet. Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing” he said. So it is. Amen.
Nicolas Stebbing CR