Life in Union with God – Br. James Koester

Br. James Koester

The First Sunday in Lent

Deuteronomy 26: 1-11
Psalm 91: 1-2, 9-16
Romans 10: 8 b-13
Luke 4: 1-13

It was the fall of 1999 and I was in Jerusalem for the first time. I was there on sabbatical and was attending a course at St. George’s College. A week or so after arriving we all piled onto a bus and headed for Cairo. We were to spend about 10 days in Egypt and Jordan stopping at various sites along the way. One place we stopped was St. Anthony’s Monastery near the Red Sea. As its name suggests, this is where St. Anthony the Great, who is known as the Father of Monasticism, lived alone in the Fourth Century. After our visit to the monastery we went to the cave where Anthony actually lived. The cave is high up on a hillside and requires a climb of several hundred steps, but I decided not to go. Everyone else hiked up the hill, and from all reports had a wonderful time. As enthusiastic as everyone was after having been in the cave where
St. Anthony lived, I have never regretted my decision. I decided not to visit the cave because I thought that the best way for me to honour St. Anthony was not by visiting his cave, along with everyone else, but rather by doing what he did, by being alone in the wilderness. I spent the hour or so while everyone was up the hill, sitting on a rock gazing out at the endless barren landscape.

There wasn’t much to see, but on the other hand, there was everything to see. I was alone, but on the other hand, there was a lifetime of memories to keep me company. Sitting there in the midst of that barren expanse I realized I was on holy ground. Monasticism had been born here. It had been born out of the experience of one man, living alone for years gazing out at this barren landscape and with nothing else to do but to begin to gaze within upon his own inner landscape. Once Anthony began to gaze within, the torment began and he wrestled, sometime literally, for years with his own inner demons.

Today we are on holy ground again. You could argue, that while Christianity may not have been born in the wilderness, it is certainly marked by it. We are marked by the experience of Jesus sitting alone gazing out at a barren landscape and with nothing else to do but to begin to gaze within upon his own inner landscape. Once he began to gaze within, the torment began and like Anthony, he wrestled with demons.

It would seem that the devil is not fond of people who set their minds and hearts on seeking God and good. Anthony headed into the wilderness having taken to heart the gospel injunction to sell all he had, give to the poor and follow Christ.[1] Jesus was driven[2] into the wilderness following his baptism where he was proclaimed to be the beloved Son of God.[3] Both headed into the wilderness to understand the full meaning of their vocation in God. What for Anthony did it mean to follow Christ, and what for Jesus did it mean to be God’s beloved Son? What for both of them did it mean to live in union with God?

These questions are as alive for us today, as they were for Anthony and Jesus. What does it mean for you and me to follow Jesus? What does it mean for us to be God’s beloved daughters and sons? What does it mean for us to live in union with God? And these are the questions which makes the Great Deceiver or Satan tremble, for as our Rule of Life reminds us: Powerful forces are bent on separating us from God, our own souls, and one another.[4]

The story of Anthony, the story of Jesus is played out in our own lives. Wherever and whenever we decide to live in union with God in prayer, worship and mutual love[5]suddenly we are filled with the demons of doubt, conceit and jealousy. Wherever and whenever we decide to discover for ourselves what it might mean in our life to follow Christ, we are filled with the demons of hopelessness. Wherever and whenever we decide to claim our inherent goodness as God’s beloved, we are filled with the demons of worthlessness. Wherever and whenever we decide to seek a life in union with God, we are filled with the demon of despair. Wherever and whenever we take our stand for Christ, Satan trembles and the demons of fear surround us.

The language of scripture, the language of the life of Anthony, the language of devils or Satan or demons or the Great Deceiver, may not be our language, but the story is the same. Powerful forces are indeed bent on separating us from God, ourselves and one another. Life would be easier, more convenient and sometimes more fun if we didn’t have to contend with this God thing. But we would be vastly poorer for it. We would be vastly sadder for it.

Life in union with God has the power to fill us with faith. It has the power to fill us with hope. It has the power to fill us with love. Life in union with God has the power to fill our lives with meaning. In a world where so much seems meaningless, life in union with God is good news indeed.

But good news, and especially this good news, does not come easily. Anthony knew it. Jesus knew it. And we know it. We all know firsthand the temptations that exist which are bent on drawing us away from the life in union God.

For Anthony it was demons in the guise of lust and laziness and boredom. We can see those demons attacking him in the figure of a little red devil up in the window that depicts him in the clerestory here in the Monastery chapel. For Jesus it was Satan in the guise of power and wealth and prestige. We read about them in today’s gospel. I know what my demons are, and I am sure that you are all too familiar with your own. But the good news is that these forces which attempt to draw us away from God, need not have the last word. They didn’t for Jesus. They didn’t for Anthony. And they don’t need to for us. Because the last word belongs, not to Satan, but to God. And that word is love.

So next time you are troubled by doubt, ask if its name is love. Next time you are troubled by fear, ask if its name is love. Next time you are troubled by jealousy, ask if its name is love. Next time you are troubled by lust or greed or shame or worthlessness or whatever other demons come to you, ask if its name is love. And the God who is Love will be made known to you and you will discover, or discover again what it means to live life in union with God.

[1] Matthew 19: 21

[2] Mark 1:12

[3] Luke 3: 22

[4] SSJE Rule of Life: Chapter 27 Silence

[5] SSJE Rule of Life: Chapter 1 The Call of the Society

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  1. Richard on March 7, 2024 at 09:26

    Demons of hopelessness and despair, this message of the inevitable result of choosing to turn to our Lord are real and quite devastating. Thank you for this message of hope.

  2. Elizabeth Hardy+ on March 7, 2024 at 09:13

    Br James: So lifesaving. I was living in a time of great despair recently and was lifted up by a sermon by a layperson preaching in our Lenten series. He reminded us that Satan always comes to those who are alone, who have isolated themselves and is able to tempt them in their loneness. He noted that Satan came to Eve not when she was with Adam but on her own. Simple but those words helped me to ‘snap out of it’ and realize that my dark thoughts were Satan wheedling his way in when I was alone and not able to hear another, loving, saving voice.

  3. Dee Dee on March 7, 2024 at 08:01

    I am thankful to have read this sermon today. It’s so powerful and yet so simple: Nothing is evil when it’s rooted in love. The evil comes in the form of shame, fear, and doubt. Thank you for helping me to see that, Br. James.

  4. jeffery mcnary on March 6, 2023 at 06:33

    thank you much for this….for me, it’s fine timing.

  5. Kellianne on March 6, 2023 at 06:07

    “Ask if it is love” what a good question
    Thank you

  6. Rowan Orre on March 5, 2022 at 20:11

    For me, if I am wrestling I am doing it wrong. Zen has taught me that transformation happens when I stop ignoring, hiding, pushing away and sit absolutely with exactly as I am. And Christianity has taught me that in in this sitting, I am not alone. And for, when Jesus says “this is my body…” it is the continual statement statement, that there is no place that he is not – Emanuel – God Is With Us. thank you for your time reading my thought.

    • Katherine Orcutt on March 7, 2024 at 07:56

      Thank you Rowan- 2 years later you speak to me to remember to sit with myself- exactly as I am, and as I am loved.

  7. Nell on March 5, 2022 at 16:54

    Thank you, these words have really helped me today.

  8. Sue on March 5, 2022 at 09:18

    Denial of the demons is fulfilling for the devil. It’s when we really dig in and identify our demons the battle begins. It’s the first step in the right direction. Taking the time to think, pray, and meditate is the growing part. Thanks for the insight of love in the process.

  9. Carol Ward on February 18, 2016 at 19:06

    Well, that was a powerful message. I had a boyfriend as a young woman who used to complain that he was bored. It used to irk me so. I couldn’t believe that anyone could be bored as long as they had a functioning mind. I’d never needed to be entertained as a child. There were books to read, forts to build, flowers to pick. There was just so much on this earth to see that sitting on rock & looking long into the distance was a perfectly rewarding thing to do – for me. We didn’t last very long as couple. When I was a twenty-something, I didn’t think of this contemplation as drawing me nearer to God. And, even now, I have a hard time admitting that such a thing could even be happening. Your words about Satan preventing me from thinking about ‘closeness to God’ struck home. I’ve always said that it was the ultimate conceit that we should think that God would enter into our petty little lives. So, if I find myself thinking in such terms, I quickly banish this from my mind as a conceit. And, I admit, it is even difficult reading what people say about how they are near to God or becoming nearer to God. It makes me feel that they are pretty darn conceited too. Hmmm . . . I thinking this might be a long process. I’ll start by reading your homily a few more times.

    • Vanessa on March 5, 2022 at 11:31

      I wonder if there may be some conceit in thinking God couldn’t enter into your life – a life God gave you and certainly does not consider petty? If God cares about the sparrows, how much more then does God care about you? as Jesus says. I wonder if your thoughts may be the Great Deceiver’s way of separating you from a close relationship with God?

    • Reed Saunders on March 7, 2024 at 08:30

      I think boredom is a form of sin. It’s a willful blindness to God’s abiding presence and love.

  10. Sandra Ahn on February 17, 2016 at 13:42

    Brr. James, your message is just what I need as I am struggling to rewrite my Rule of Life and ask “what’s this about?”, The more I seek the harder it gets. But now I can ask the question – is its name love? That takes me aback . It does require work but its message is reassuring and comforting. For I am not alone and with a grateful heart I know that God’s mercy always prevails. With peace, Sandra

  11. Margo on February 17, 2016 at 07:30

    Thank you Brother James. Just excellent! Margo

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