Sermon for Lent

Into the Wilderness - a Sermon from Martin Henig - one of a series during Lent - 29.02.12

Martin Henig (ASWA Vice President)


And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness.

And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.


+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


 The lure of the wilderness is present in many religious traditions. In Christianity it has been an important theme ever since the time of St Antony and the Desert Fathers of  Egypt and Syria. Their eremitical ideal was taken up in the ‘wet deserts’ of IrelandandWestern Britain. The ‘Celtic Christianity’  of the monks on Skellig Michael, of Columba on Iona and of Cuthbert on Holy Island was very far from the current whimsical notion of ‘Celtic spirituality’ that seems to have taken hold in the popular mind. Its distinctiveness lay in its powerful Penitential tradition, of fasting and abstinence and acts of extreme mortification, its stripping away of  absolutely everything  that came between the sinner and God. In the deserts of the Atlantic West, as in those of the Eastern deserts, monks and hermits lived in flimsy shelters or in dark caves while the barest necessities in the way of food were hard to find, in landscapes hostile to crops. Women and men went into the desert to discover their true selves by stripping away all inessentials and to fight the demonic forces lurking within themselves . In the lives of saints such as Antony and in art these are shown in physical form, as terrifying winged creatures, but the devils they  encountered in truth were projections of  hunger, lust, boredom, anger, pride and all the other sins that beset humans, rendered all the  more acute in the emptiness of untamed nature.


   And yet if  wilderness too often brings out the worst in us, this is merely a reflection of  the pampered and  privileged lives so many humans have always had and especially possess now, with the support of families and friends, and vast quantities of possessions , expensive clothes and vast quantities of food, far more than is necessary to sustain life. The life of the desert hermit for most of us seems very distant, almost shocking. That is illustrated well by the  story of how St Francis ofAssisirejected the life  of a rich merchant, casting off his clothes and his patrimony in order to follow Christ still fills those of us who try to follow the example of St  Francis with awe.


  A feature that recurs again and again in the lives of the Desert Fathers, of the Celtic Saints and of St Francis is their closeness to the animals, which they save (like St Giles’s hind), befriend or are befriended by (St Jerome’s lion and St Cuthbert’s otters)   and even preach to (St Francis’s birds). This is no mere conceit. In part it goes back to the Covenant God made with Noah (Genesis 9,8-17), which was the reading from the Hebrew scriptures last Sunday. God makes a Covenant with his entire Creation, with ‘all flesh’, that he will never again destroy his Creation by flood. As is clear from later reflections of this Covenant in Hosea(2,18) and Isaiah (54,9-10 and see Isaiah 11,1-9), the ideal of paradise is the restoration of peace between all creatures; it is a restoration because something had certainly gone wrong, for the story of the Bible from Cain and Abel onwards is shot through with conflict. In our world (and alas in the Church) far too little thought is given to our relationship with the rest of Creation, and that despite Our Lord’s saving sacrifice! We selfishly exploit the habitats of wild creatures and are still driving many of them to extinction. The horrors of factory farming, treating God’s Creation as mere commodity, is part of the very real obscenity against which the Church should be protesting as a major issue, both of theology and pastoral care. At least Bishop John and three other bishops have pointed to it as an abuse this Lent as part of the reason for abstaining from meat at least in this penitential season.And of course it goes without saying that  this obscenity extends to the way we treat other members of our own species, either deliberately or through negligence, including  indigenous peoples in the very few great wildernesses which remain whose integrity is compromised by those who want to exploit natural resources for gain. Far from  wildernesses  being  places distant from God, they have  increasingly come to be  seen and cherished as havens, as habitats to protect; and the demons are in truth, as they always have been and always will be, human demons.


  In one of his greatest plays, William Shakespeare explores the stripping down of the human animal, divesting him of power, wealth, comfort and even the barest necessities of life. King Lear is a mighty ruler who abandons his power to his two unscrupulous older daughters. He and  two or three notables of  his former court find themselves on a heath in a storm. After raging against his fate, Lear’s thoughts turn to prayer and,at last, thoughtfulness about others:


Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your loop’d and window’d raggedness defend you

From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en

Too  little care of this!.. (King Lear act 3 sc.4, ll.28-33).


  He is then confronted supposedly by Tom o’Bedlam tormented by the ‘foul fiend’ or by more than one fiend, for Flibbertigibbet, Obidicut, Hobbididence, Mahu and Modo (King Lear act 3,sc 4 l.45;act 4,sc.1 ll.57-63) are mentioned at various times, and as we have seen the demons belong in the wilderness. Tom is in fact Edgar, elder son of  the Duke of Gloucester, who has been expelled from his patrimony by his credulous father. For his lack of spiritual vision he will literally  lose his eyes. Just as Lear in the wilderness at last comes to realise the plight of the outcast, the outsider so the Duke of Gloucester painfully learns  that human actions have consequences, in his case indulging in sex without responsibility and Edmund, the illegitimate son he bore, betrays him.  As Edgar  concludes:


 The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices

Make instruments to plague us:

The dark and vicious place where thee he got

Cost him his eyes.(King Lear act 5 sc.3.ll 170-172)


That is a harsh judgement on selfish indulgence in wrongdoing, indeed  belonging to the searing truth of the wilderness where all creation is equal.


And for Lear, too, lack of self-knowledge results in an even more  terrible reckoning for him,the death of his beloved Cordelia, ultimately the  victim of his own former foolishness, arrogance and unforgiving anger: Almost his last word is the unanswered question:


Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,

And thou no breath at all? (King Lear act 5 sc.3,ll.306-307)


Most of us are protected, at least to a degree, from the consequences of our actions by the safety nets society provides. The wilderness is a place where the boundary between life and death is very thin. King Lear purports to be set in Pagan Britain, but of course the play is full of Christian resonances, and can be read, acted and seen as a Christian morality.


   One character who first challenges and opposes King Lear in giving away his kingdom and disowning Cordelia, and is banished for his plain speaking and true loyalty is the Duke of Kent who preserves his nobility and spiritual freedom throughout the trials laid upon him. Offered the crown at the very end of the play he declines with the words:


   I have a journey, sir, shortly to go.

My master calls me; I must not say no.(King Lear act 5, sc.3, ll.521-522).


On one, perhaps the most obvious, reading he is already an old man and feels he will die in a few months or years and so follow his master, Lear to the grave. But the words seem to me to have a Biblical resonance, and the master he is truly following is Christ., besides whom nothing else matters And, like Christ, he has resisted the all too fickle blandishments of temporal power. And as we all know, at least in this Church, Shakespeare was deeply familiar with the Bible.


 Being in the wilderness can be a very testing experience indeed, and one is struck by  the many ways in which people today, and probably in all past ages too, have tried  to avoid communing with themselves and with God. So many churches are awash with a babble of voices or banal songs, hectoring Jesus  or otherwise attempting to avoid encountering the divine mystery in the awe and silence of the wilderness. As the Insular saints discovered it can be profoundly rewarding to discover one’s  own sacred space in which to pray and to meditate. We find Jesus again and again seeking solitude in lonely places.  Satan was no match for Him and so his ministry of love and compassion  surely began with the wild beasts:


  Christ of His gentleness

  Thirsting and hungering

Walked in the wilderness;

Soft words of grace He spoke

Unto lost desert-folk

That listened wondering.

He heard the bitterns call

From the ruined palace wall,

Answered them brotherly;

He held communion

With the she-pelican

Of lonely piety.

Basilisk, cockatrice,

Flocked to His homilies,

With mail of dread device,

With monstrous barbed slings,

With eager dragon-eyes;

Great rats on leather wings,

And poor blind broken things,

Foul in their miseries.

And ever with Him went,

Of all His wanderings

Comrade, with ragged coat,

Gaunt ribs-poor innocent-

Bleeding foot, burning throat,

The guileless old scapegoat;

For forty nights and days

Followed in Jesus’ ways,

Sure guard behind Him kept,

Tears like a lover wept.

                            [Robert Graves] 

Other Services

Sermon - Animal Welfare Sunday - 4 Oct 2017 - Revd Jennifer Brown - Nottingham Service

Evensong on Sunday - Evensong on Sunday June 25th 2017 Trinity 2 Revd. Professor Martin Henig - St Margaret’s Church, Binsey

Evensong Sermon - St Margaret's, Binsey and then at St Giles,Oxford

Evensong Sermon - Evensong on Sunday 9th April 2017 [Palm Sunday], St Margaret’s Church, Binsey

Eucharist - Eucharist on Sunday January 8th 2017 at St Fridewide's, Osney - Revd Professor Martin Henig

Twentieth Sunday after Trinity - Parish Eucharist sermon by Lay Preacher, John Clements in The Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Botley in North Hinxey Parish. Text - Psalm 111 and the Gospel Luke 17:11-19

Animal Welfare Sunday 2016 - Sermon at St Cross, Winchester by the Rt Revd Dominic Walker OGS

Trinity 16 Service - Sermon by Revd Prof Martin Henig - ASWA Vice President

Service for Animal Welfare - Sermon by Revd Mandy Young, Curate, All saint's Snodland Kent

Passion Sunday - 2016 - St Frideswide’s , Osney Eucharist on Sunday 13th March 2016 [Passion Sunday] - Revd. Professor Martin Henig

ASWA Annual Service 2015 - Sermon from The Right Reverend James Jones former Bishop of Liverpool

Harvest Festival Sermon - Sermon from Eucharist Service held on Sunday 27th September [Harvest Festival] at St Frideswide's Church, Osney - Revd. Professor Martin Henig

Animal Welfare Service - Watford 31 May 2015 - Animal Welfare Service - Watford

Ecumenical Animal Welfare Retreat - Ecumenical Animal Welfare Retreat, Penmaenmawr in North Wales from Monday 18th May to Friday 22nd May 2015

Sermon from Harvest Evensong - The Harvest is for the Animals too! Sermon from Revd Professor Martin Henig

Sermon for 2014 Annual Service - The Sermon given by the Rt Revd Dominic Walker OGS at St Woolos Cathedral, Newport accompanied by Intercessions from Revd Professor Martin Henig

Sermon at St Margaret's, Binsey - A sermon from Revd Professor Martin Henig

Animals, God and Human convenience - A sermon delivered at St Mary’s Church, Ewell, Surrey by Revd Professor Martin Henig

St Michael & All Angels Watford - Reverend Professor Martin Henig - Watford

CCA Ecumenical Retreat Spring 2014 - Wales - The first of two Sermons presented by Revd Professor Martin Henig

CCA Retreat Spring 2014 - Wales 2 - The second of two sermons presented by the Revd Professor Martin Henig

Dominion - A sermon preached Reverend Jennifer Brown (ASWA) at St Mary’s, Kidlington, Oxfordshire

Eucharist for Advent II - Revd Professor Martin Henig, ASWA vice president - "They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.."

Sermon for 2013 Annual Service - Sermon by Reverend Hugh Broadbent, ASWA Committee Member, at ASWA Annual Service on Animal Welfare Sunday

The Groans of Creation - A Sermon preached by the Revd. Professor Martin Henig - Vice President of ASWA

Whitsun Creation Service - Revd. Professor Martin Henig at St Frideswide’s , Osney

Whitsun Evensong - Revd. Professor Martin Henig - St Margaret’s, Binsey

Sermon for Lent IV - Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Lent by Revd Dr Martin Henig - Vice Chairman of ASWA

Sermon from 2012 Annual Service - Chelmsford - Sermon by Bishop of Chelmsford, Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell at ASWA Annual Service on Animal Welfare Sunday

Eucharist & Evensong Sunday 7th October 2012 - St Margaret’s, Binsey Revd. Professor Martin Henig

Animal Welfare Sunday Sermon - Sermon - St Mary’s, Kidlington on Animal Welfare Sunday - Reverend Jennifer Brown

Eucharist - Dogs & Cats - Sermon from Revd. Professor Martin Henig - St Frideswide’s, Oseney.

The birds of the air: From Holy Ghost to fall - The Birds of the Air: From Holy Ghost to fallen sparrow - Revd. Professor Martin Henig

A Sin against the Holy Spirit - Sermon for Trinity 1 by Revd Dr Martin Henig - Vice Chairman of ASWA

Sermon for Lent II - Sermon for Third Sunday in Lent by Revd Dr Martin Henig - Vice Chairman of ASWA

Lent Sermon - Salvation for All - Sermon by Reverend Jennifer Brown - Sunday 12th February 2012

Sermon from 2011 Annual Service - Sermon by Rt Revd Richard Llewellin, ASWA Chairman, at Kings Norton

Ecumenical Animal Welfare Retreat 07.05.11 - Address from Ecumenical Animal Retreat May 2011 by Dr Martin Henig, ASWA Vice President, run by Catholic Concern for Animals

Sermon - Creation Sunday, Oxford - Sermon from our Vice President, Professor Martin Henig - Creation Sunday 2011 - St Frideswide's, Oxford

Sermon from Gloucester Cathedral 20.11.10 - Sermon from Evensong at Gloucester Cathedral 20th November 2010 Revd Dr Martin Henig, ASWA Vice President

Sermon from 2010 Animal Service - ASWA President, Rt Revd Dominic Walker OGS delivered the Sermon at St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb

Sermon for Animal Welfare Sunday 2010 - Sermon preached at St Mary's Church, Kidlington by Reverend Jennifer Brown

Sermon from 2010 Animal Sunday Wokingham - Revd Dr Martin Henig spoke at Wokingham Parish Church

Sermon from 2008 Annual Service - Sermon delivered by Bishop Michael Nazir Ali at the 2008 Rochester Cathedral service

Sermon from 2009 Annual Service - Durham Cathedral Saturday 26th September 2009 Steven Shakespeare

Sermon from 2007 Annual Service - Sermon delivered by Brother Samuel at the 2007 St Michael’s Church, Watford service

Lambeth Conference - ASWA attended the Lambeth Conference with a fringe meeting on Wednesday 30th July.

Dr Tony Campolo Service 2007 - Dr Campolo speaks on Christian responsibilty for the Animal Kingdom.

Sermon from 2002 - Liverpool Cathedral - Rt Revd James Jones's Sermon from the ASWA Annual Service in 2002

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