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Be Strong and Courageous….Stand Firm – Canon Peter Collier QC, Cathedral Reader

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Title: Be Strong and Courageous …. Stand Firm!

Preacher: Canon Peter Collier QC, Cathedral Reader 

Readings: Josh 1:1-9, Eph 6:10-20

Date: The Third Sunday of Lent, 12 March 2023 4.00pm


May I speak in the name of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Go, Go, Go. Three cheers for York Minster Evensong.

What is it about saying things three times? There are various theories about why the habit developed, but it is certainly very long standing now. I think the bottom line is that we do it to ensure that we are heard, that we are understood and that we get a response.

Today our OT and NT lessons each have something that is said three times.

In the OT lesson God said to Joshua three times “Be strong and courageous”

In his letter to the young church at Ephesus Paul told the young Christians to be strong, but three times he told them they were “to stand”

Joshua was about to lead the Israelites into the new and promised land – he had very little idea about what lay ahead of them, what opposition they would meet, what practical problems they would face, and what resistance he might even face from his own people. He very much needed to hear God saying to him that he must be strong and courageous.

For the young church at Ephesus those new followers of Jesus Christ now found they were living in an alien culture.  Right at the beginning when the church had come into being there, there had been terrific opposition to the Christian message from the trades guilds and the civic authorities. Now Paul writes to encourage them to keep going as Christians. And at the end of the letter he reminds them that they are engaged in a battle, not a physical one but a spiritual one, and they need to put on their spiritual armour for that battle. In verses 11, 13 and 14 he tells them they are under attack, so they must put on the armour that God has provided and stand, stand still, and stand firm.

For us the season of Lent is a time when we think about the struggle that Jesus had in the wilderness; the battles he fought with temptation and we begin to reflect on our own struggles as well.

If you have made part of your Lenten fast giving up something like chocolate or alcohol you may have your own struggles when you fancy just a tiny piece of chocolate, or the teeniest drink. But you may also during this period be aware of other things in your life that you recognise as temptation that must also be resisted. The temptation to pass on gossip, the temptation to try and get your own way about something, the temptation to tell another whitish lie. There are many things we struggle with where we know the right thing to do, but it is just hard doing it.

So this afternoon we are told to be strong and courageous; we are told to stand. And our two lessons give us the same clue as to what might help us to do that.

For Joshua – he was told to meditate on the book of the law and to act in accordance with what was written in it.

For the Ephesians it was about putting on all the armour that God provided; and there are 6 or 7 pieces of armour depending on whether you include that last injunction to pray. But I am only going to pick out one this afternoon. The one I want to take is the sword of the spirit which is the word of God. Or as Joshua knew it – the book of the law.

The word of God is perhaps especially relevant in Lent. Because in Lent we are never very far away from Jesus struggling with his temptations in the wilderness. As we know – for each temptation he faced his answer he always said what God’s word had to say. Again and again he brings to mind and recites sayings from the Hebrew Bible.

His temptations I’m sure you are familiar with – to turn stones into bread, to prove who he was by throwing himself from the top of the temple when God would step in and save him, and to get everything he could ever want by surrendering to Satan.

I always enjoy that game in “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue” when the panellists are told “This is the answer, but what was the question?” And they often come up with quite bizarre and sometimes funny questions. This afternoon I want to start with the answers Jesus gave to the tempter, because that takes to the heart of each temptation.

These were all passages in the OT that Jesus knew from his life of studying the scriptures – hiding them in his heart. Joshua had been told to meditate on God’s words day and night. That’s what Jesus had been doing for 30 years and what we are called to do too.

Jesus’s first answer was that one does not live by bread alone. He says that we need to feed on God’s word.

After 40 days without food Jesus was famished and he suddenly gets an urge to turn the desert stones to bread, to satisfy those gnawing pangs of hunger and that physical pain that he was experiencing.

But he knows that for the moment his focus in that desert place was to deal with his spiritual hunger, to be in real communication with God his Father.

For us we may not have gone 40 days without food, but I expect we all know the constant urges to satisfy our material needs or desires. Whether it is food and drink, or the other things that we use and that entertain us and occupy us. Jesus reminds us that in all our muddling along in the business of this world it is that God shaped hole in the middle of us that needs satisfying more than anything else.

It was that which Jesus had gone into the wilderness to grapple with, and it is that which we need to address this Lent – getting to know God and what it means to be his sons and daughters.

The answer to the second temptation is that we must not put God to the test. Jesus had answered the first temptation with the Bible and so the tempter comes to him – Ah the Bible – two can play at that game – listen says the tempter – the Bible says God will send his angels to save you, so throw yourself down from the top of this temple pinnacle and if you are who you think you are, the Son of God, then God will step in and save you from harm. You will float down from heaven on the wings of angels and everyone will know that you are God’s Son. So, if you are God’s Son, put on a show. Show them some magic! Jesus’s answer says is that the Bible says you mustn’t put God to the test. Because, he knew that the only route by which people would come to know who he truly was, would be by his going to the cross.

When we recognise that God is to be the focus of our living, the next step is to understand that that relationship is not about us and what God will do for us, but about our following him, accepting that our lives must follow the way of the cross. And it can be a real temptation for us to want to use God to establish our own importance and position rather than recognising that if we follow Jesus we are on the path to the cross. So there is a second thing for us to grapple with this Lent.

Finally, the third temptation – the answer to it was you must worship and serve the one true God. This temptation is to get it all – all the wealth, comfort, recognition, power, and glory that is out there. Satan offered all that to Jesus if he would take the easy way – his way. How often do we say we follow Jesus but in reality we live our lives working and straining for all those other things because we have in fact exchanged the service of God for the service of Satan.

So as we work our way through Lent – another 26 days or so to go – let’s focus on getting to know God, on walking the way of the cross, and on truly worshipping and serving God rather than stuff.

Let’s keep God’s word at the centre of our lives – meditate on it, allow it to shape our lives, use it in our dialogue with those often subtle urges that come to us day by day. So that in all these things we may be strong and courageous and stand our ground.

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