On the First Sunday of Lent, 6th March 2022, I preached to both churches within the Benefice in which I serve my curacy. One of the lectionary readings for the day was part of Psalm 91, a psalm which is particularly challenging for Ukrainians and those who hope for peace to reign in Ukraine – that was certainly the case for me, as the son of a Ukrainian refugee. Through lots of prayer I was drawn to a sermon that challenged, even scared, me because it confronted when scripture is seemingly at odds with our situation. Delivering it to the congregations was equally challenging. Their response was humbling.
Afterwards people asked for a copy of the sermon to be sent to them. And so with that in mind I am posting it here on this blog, something I rarely do because are sermons mostly written for specific congregations and churches, and specific times. But I also rarely publish them because there are theologians, writers and preachers far, far better than me who will see flaws or errors within it that I did not – and that’s a scary and vulnerable place to be in too, but as this sermon does talk about finding ourselves in such places I have indeed posted the sermon below.
It is by no means perfect but I hope it is of help, if it isn’t please try to forget you read it!
Rev’d Andrew Avramenko, 6th March 2022
Lent is a somber time in the church’s year, this year particularly so. We strip back our celebrations and decorations — the Gloria and the flowers we are so used to in our services each week are gone, for now.
We give things up, we may take things up. We do so to help us walk in Jesus’s shoes, into the space He found in the wilderness and out towards the Cross on which He was crucified. We do so to remember His hunger for justice and salvation. Our pangs of desire for the things we might go without for a short while, or our effort to fulfil a newly adopted commitment, helps us to remember the magnitude of what He would ultimately give up for us on that Cross.
We are called in our remembering to turn our hearts, minds and prayers to what He gave up His life for. We do that in the hope that through this we and the world is moved not simply into hope of resurrection and salvation, but into accepting the actuality of resurrection and salvation that Jesus achieved for us when He defeated death.
Holding onto the promises spoken through scripture and continuing to trust God wasn’t a simple task, for Jesus or for us. Life is not easy, we know that only too well, Ukraine knows that only too well. But there is hope, there are blessings, there is joy to be found even in the darkest of times, whether they be in the wilderness, in a bomb shelter or in our minds.
And there’s a lesson I think Jesus is trying to teach us through the account of His temptation in the wilderness. Jesus changed the perspective from the devil’s view to God’s; His foundations withstood the challenge of temptation, of vulnerability, of scripture seemingly at odds with our situation.
The Gospel (Luke 4:1-13)
Jesus stepped into the spotlight the moment He was baptised by John in the River Jordan. From that point on, He was more vulnerable than he’d ever been since Mary and Joseph whisked Him away from danger and fled as refugees to Egypt. Throughout the years that followed His baptism, Jesus tried to keep His mission and identity a secret because He knew the more people knew about both, the more vulnerable He was, the less He could do and the less time He would have before Pilate would give in to the demands to kill Him.
Knowing what lay ahead, knowing what He needed to do, and what He needed to do it, lay behind Jesus’s tendency to withdraw from the crowds, and even from the disciples. He withdrew to spend time alone and in prayer with God. Time alone provided less distractions. Time in prayer lifted the clouds and brought clarity. Time with God gave Him the strength that He knew needed, but it did not remove His vulnerabilities — and fasting for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert made Jesus particularly vulnerable.
It is perhaps no surprise that the devil struck when Jesus was so vulnerable. When we are vulnerable we are less able to interpret things correctly, we are less able to resist temptation and we are more vulnerable to succumbing to harm.
Jesus was able to resist because He didn’t struggle on in His own human strength, He drew strength from God. And he needed all of that when the devil tried to sow seeds of doubt in Jesus’s mind, effectively saying “If you are really the Son of God you wouldn’t be hungry right now”.
The devil tempted Him with an easy way out, a way without the pain of the present and the future. But Jesus with the strength of His faith, His knowledge and His Father was able to see through the simplicity of the language and the comfort that the devil tempted Him with.
We though are not Jesus. We are made in His image, but we are not divine, we are not gods. We do give into temptation sometimes, we do fail sometimes, especially when we get hit with more than we can handle. But through what Jesus gave up for us, in the desert and on the Cross, we have a God who forgives us when we get things wrong, who picks us up when we fall, and who cries with us and comforts us when we cannot handle what comes our way.
The Psalm (Psalm 91)
When we are vulnerable it is easier to give into temptation, to take the apparent easy way out, to give up. Some expected President Zelenskyy to take the easy option out of the war in Ukraine by accepting an offer of a lift to safety. He replied “I need ammunition, not a ride”. He resisted temptation because he knew, as hard as it was to stay, Ukraine had the best chance of surviving if he remained in the country.
We need to be wary of apparent easy solutions too, just as we need to be wary of easy readings and pronunciations of scripture. Scripture that is intended to comfort and guide us to salvation can do the opposite if we are not aware of our vulnerabilities. The devil tried to use this against Jesus, manipulating scripture in order to taunt and tempt Jesus. Jesus’s confidence of faith, of who He was, of who God is, of how God is, was the strength He needed to survive through His vulnerable situation.
Why is that important to us today? Because when we read passages like Psalm 91, a Psalm that assures us of God’s protection, we can be steered to uncomfortable and dangerous places when the promises in the text seem at odds with our circumstances. When our world is being shaken, when we are vulnerable in the midst of a storm, words intended with love can wound. And the devil knows it.
As Psalm 91 says, we live in the shelter of the Most High (verse 1), but we are still vulnerable to rockets and missiles. God will deliver us from the snare of our enemies (verse 3), but we are still vulnerable to death at their hands. Under God’s wings we will find refuge (verse 4), but we are still vulnerable to evil and fear. God does command His angels to protect us (verses 11 and 22), but we are still vulnerable to injury if we jump off the pinnacle of a temple.
Many in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have been crying out in prayer and struggling with scripture like Psalm 91 since they were invaded in 2014. Their cries and prayers over the past 8 years have not led to their liberation… yet. Some may well be asking where God was in those 8 years and where God is now. And I have no easy answers. God is with them, just as God is with us, but not necessarily in the way they and we cry out for Him to be, and that is a scary and vulnerable place for our faith to be.
Even for King David, the receiver and author of it, Psalm 91’s promises weren’t all instantaneously fulfilled, and in the waiting for them to be fulfilled would have been as difficult as it is for the Ukrainians waiting for them to be fulfilled. Acknowledging this tension helps, it helps us gain a healthy perspective and strengthens our foundations, and helps us to see and hold on to the blessing in the promises when the devil is trying to turn us away from them.
But there is hope, reassurance and comfort in Psalm 91, in Jesus, in Ukraine, in all of this.
Although Jesus was particularly vulnerable when the devil tempted Him during His 40 day fast, Jesus’s faith in God fed and strengthened Him. Jesus knew the bigger picture so the devil’s scriptural soundbites didn’t deceive Him. He knew what a passage was saying or promising, and He knew what it was not saying. He knew where in a passage was the promise, comfort and reassurance for the present, the future and the eternal.
But more than this, Jesus knew He wasn’t alone. He knew God was with Him. And He knew that with God He would get through this trial. The people of Ukraine know that they are not alone too. Our prayers, our protests and our provisions are getting through and helping them get through their horrific trial — and as they do, they know we are with them. As countries around the world unite to send supplies and welcome refugees, they know most of the world are with them. As Russian people protest or desert, they know that many Russians are with them too. And they see God making real the promises, comfort and assurance of scripture through all those crying out with them.
Psalm 91 is true, just not as or when we might expect it to be.
The devil would have Ukrainians read Psalm 91 in despair. And in their despair the devil would have them see it as a failed guarantee against danger, hoping that their faith would be shaken and shatter as a result. But Psalm 91, viewed as a whole and not in scriptural soundbites, is one of the most eloquent and comprehensive affirmations of faith there is, it is an anchor of trust to attach ourselves to.
Jesus anchored His trust in God. Though the anchor chain shook in the storms He faced, Jesus knew it would not break. The skies and streets of Ukraine shake to the sound of thunderous missiles, but I know many Ukrainians have placed their trust in that chain anchoring them to God. They know, as Jesus and the apostle Paul knew, that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39)
The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a Jewish and has the same Psalms that we do, the same Psalms that Jesus had. The Chief Rabbi of Jews in Ukraine, knowing our shared heritage, has asked Christians to recite Psalm 31 aloud in solidarity with them, such is his trust in God to fulfil His promises – I invite you to do that often as part of our prayers for Ukraine. And though I spoke of the danger of scriptural soundbites, here are a few verses to bring this sermon to a close:
21 Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was beset as a city under siege.
22 I had said in my alarm, ‘I am driven far from your sight.’ But you heard my supplications when I cried out to you for help.
23 Love the Lord, all you his saints. The Lord preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.
24 Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.Psalm 31:21-24