Sermon – 1st Sunday in Lent



Preached on Sunday, 18.02.2018

By the Reverend Dr. John Bell


This is the beginning of the season called Lent.

And it’s not a very protestant thing.

For most people here of Scottish presbyterian origin, Lent might still be looked on as a Roman Catholic thing.

Along with the Virgin Mary, the Pope, the Rosary and the Rythm Method, it has been regarded as a season which doesn’t really apply to us. It was one of the observances that was  rejected at the Reformation – along with weekly communion and the celebration of Christmas…… at least in Scotland.

But had you been in the USA four days ago on Ash Wednesday you would have found  Presbyterians, Methodists as well as Episcopalians and Roman Catholics eing up to have the sign of the cross made on their forehead along with words such as:

Remember that you are mortal:

from dust you came, to dust you shall return.

Turn away from sin and believe the Gospel.




The origins of the season of Lent are still a matter of debate.

It seems that in the fourth century, two different traditions came together.

1) Following Jesus

The first was a fast of forty days after the celebration of Jesus’ baptism… because, as was evident in the Gospel reading, Jesus is recorded as going almost immediately from the river Jordan into the wilderness for a period of forty days.

In some parts of the ancient church in the 4th century, this was seen as a fitting season for people who had been disciplined by the church, who were not allowed to receive Holy Communion, to show their  penitence and make reparation for their sins.

2) Preparing Catechumens for Baptism

In other places, there was a practice of having a season of fasting for 40 days, excluding Sundays, before Easter…which was the occasion on which adult converts were baptised. During these forty days, there was an emphasis put on instruction in the faith.

Joined Pratice

Subsequently, when infant baptism became more popular than adult baptism, the two traditions fused together into what was called a time of ‘pre-paschal quarantine’… in which everyone was invited to become more ascetic than normal, to curtail their eating and other habits… for which reason and for centuries thereafter, marriages were not celebrated in Lent.

So….with this long pedigree of history and practice, is it something which protestants or non aligned believer can dismiss as what used to be called

‘ a novelty of Romanism’

…or ‘a papist fetish?’



I want to reclaim this ancient season for own good…. not primarily as a preparation for baptism nor as a time of penitence – though turning away from sin is something which has to be encouraged.  But rather as a time for intentional reflection on what believe and what we do.

This desire comes from two specific gifts bearing insight.



The first is a book given to me at Christmas. It is called Poverty Safari by a Glasgow author called Darren McGavery.

It is not a devotional book. It is, rather, an autobiographical reflection of someone brought up in impoverished parts of the city and reared in a dysfunctional family by his abusive, addicted and mentally disturbed mother.

For much of the book, McGarvey – who is unapologetically socialist in his politics – speaks of himself as a victim of not just an uncaring mother, but an uncaring society. He is failed by his neighbourhood, he is failed by the education system, he is failed by the welfare authorities. He becomes himself an addict and a rough sleeper.

The conviction that we are the helpless victim of circumstances is a leit- motif in many lives, over privileged and well as underprivileged.

It reminds me of the story of the 11 year old boy who brought back his report card to his parents.  His father opened it and read:

Maths   20%

Science 25%

English 32%

History 7%

Physical Education D

….and just as the father was about to explode with anger and disappointment, the boy looked up in total innocence and asked,

‘Well, dad.  Is it environment or heredity?’


McGavery’s Critique

The critique McGarvey offers with regard to the inadequacies of the Welfare State for the most vulnerable is valid, and endorsed by independent research on which he leans.

But there comes a moment in his life when clarity breaks in and challenges his preferred self- identification as the failure, the victim of society’s inability to care. He writes:

Just as we are products of our environment,

our environments are also a product of us…. from the foods we eat

to the products we buy,

the newspapers we read

the politicians we vote for.

So many of the problems we face which we attribute to ‘the system’

are within our individual and collective competence to affect positively.


The question  is no longer simply





What I do not intend to do is to answer that question, with three hints as to how to mend an unsatisfactory life.

A Time for  Reflection

What I do want to suggest is that Lent might be the time when – notwithstanding the injustices which are publicised daily –  we begin to reflect on our own ability to improve or diminish the society of which we are a part.

And it has to do with time.

It has to do with an unaccustomed used of time.

It is not a matter of emulating Jesus’ forty day retreat in the desert,

but rather carving our intentional time for personal reflection,


even if that is antithetical to how we normally live

even if it is antithetical to the social seduction

of soundbite wisdom and instant answers.

I read the other day how Sean McDonagh, the Irish ecologist and Columban priest has taken on his own order which has a strong commitment to sustainability and the care of creation,

by alerting them to a practice they had never questioned:

In the last 20 years I have been living in Ireland,

we Columbans have never debated whether

owning a large dairy herd is in line with our

commitment to the integrity of creation.

Methane, which is produced by cattle,

is over 20 times more heat retentive

than carbon dioxide.

Personal Parallels?

Now, I would be naïve to believe that this reflection on usual practice has direct parallels on all the dairy farmers present in this congregation. But is there not something about taking time to look at our lived lives, and to be aware of the seductions to which we acquiesce which may be as subtle as the temptations the devil offered to Jesus.

… it could be to do with what we eat

….it could be to do with the way we use our financial resources

….it could be our private obsession with possessions

or with working under stress

or with defining ourselves by our failures

or with deliberately avoiding what is good for us.

I wonder, in this week in which the presidency of South Africa has changed whether the former lauded hero of anti-apartheid  Jacob Zuma would have come to such an ignominious end if he had ever taken time to reflect on the seductions of  his high office.

I wonder whether the phalanx of unknown people in English football who must have suspected the sexual abuse committed by the celebrated coach, Barry Bennell, might just have decided to speak out if they had taken time to reflect on the seduction of keeping silent.



But there’s a second reason, a second gift which makes me want to reclaim Lent as a time for intentional reflection.

The Examen

It came from listening to a nun speak about personal prayer… an issue in which few protestant ministers will have been traditionally schooled. I remember from childhood believing that spirituality was primarily for catholic priests. They had spirituality; whereas we had sexuality…and plenty of it.

This nun was referring to a Jesuit practice called the Examen which encourages people to take 15 minutes once or twice a day and which has five movements:


Asking God for enlightenment

Calling to mind reasons for gratitude

Discerning God’s purpose

Acknowledging specific failure to respond

Committing to make amends.


I was very impressed with the simplicity and structure of this form of personal prayer, and mentioned it to a Jesuit friend who subsequently sent me a pamphlet to remind me of what the nun had said.

So I began to follow this practice:

To ask for enlightenment

remember reasons to begrateful

discern God’s direction

acknowledge failure

decide to change my ways

…and I have found it embarrassingly difficult….

… much so, that I ask myself:

How come I can concentrate half an hour to write a letter

or engaging for an hour in a serious conversation

or listen for two hours to a concert


…but I have difficulty even for three minutes remembering reasons to be grateful to my Maker without wandering to what is of lesser importance.

Is it that prayer is not my thing, that I should blame the protestant tradition for its failure to encourage personal devotional life? Am I the victim of an uncaring religion?


A Time for Reflection

Or is it that its has to do with time…

with an unaccustomed use of time.

It is not a matter of emulating Jesus’ forty day retreat in the desert,

but rather carving our intentional time for personal reflection,


even if that is antithetical to how we normally live

even if it is antithetical to the contemporary seduction

of soundbite wisdom and instant answers.


Order of Service 18.02.2018 with Readings 

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