Lent 1: Deuteronomy 26, 1-11, Romans 10, 8-13 & Luke 4, 1-13
I suspect that many of us have whiled away time on a long car journey, or in some other context, playing ‘word association’ You know that game when someone suggests a word and then you have to respond by saying the first word that comes to mind.
Let’s play now and the word that I am giving you is Lent………….
Thank you for your Lenten words. The word I would like to offer you is gift. Lent is God’s gift to us of a period of time, forty days, to reflect deeply on our faith, so that we grow in faith. As with all good gifts the onus is on us, the recipients, to cherish the gift and use it wisely. We need to start by recognising that we haven’t earned the gift, we have simply been given, or graced, it. This simple act of recognition and grateful receipt marks the beginning of our growth in humility.
My simple encouragement to you this week is that you use the gift of Lent wisely and lovingly.
During Lent we are providing various tools to help enrich your faith. There is of course the Lent talks and discussions, please do come along. Then there is the tool that you will be given at the end of this service which might help you think about discipleship more deeply. Finally we are producing each week, during Lent, a card which includes a quote, a bible passage and a prayer to help you meditate and reflect on some of Christianity’s big motifs. This week we start with denial, before moving on to lamentation and reconciliation.
I want to encourage you to use Lent wisely for one simple reason: the world needs more and better Christians. Lent is an opportunity to enrich your faith grow in holiness and to become a better Christian. Go for it!
The fruit of a Lent well spent, will, I think, be more love for God and more love for each other. A Lent well spent will find its fulfilment in the ability to obey the greatest of commandments: loving God with all of our being and loving our neighbour as ourselves. The Old Testament reading and the epistle both point towards this outcome.
In Deuteronomy we read that after a period of trial the Israelites ‘will bow down before the Lord your God, then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house,’ whilst in the epistle to the Romans we are told that salvation is truly for all, for ‘there is no distinction between Jew and Greek.’ The point is not to erase our temporal differences, as though they don’t matter, but to hold them together, in Christ. Christ is the chalice in which the dignity of difference is held. Lent, therefore, invites us to accept the radical proposition that all are truly equal in God’s eyes. Lent challenges each and every preconception we might hold of what neighbourliness means.
In many ways today’s gospel reading – the temptations of Christ – can be read as an invitation to self aggrandisement and the abuse of power. Satan who is depicted as the self-styled Lord of the World offers to give Jesus any amount of worldly riches, power and authority if he will only worship him. He also seeks to tempt Jesus into using his Divine gifts for purely selfish ends: the satisfaction of his own hungers. Satan, you see, has recognised something very different and highly dangerous about Jesus. He has recognised that, unless he can stop it, Jesus is going to offer an entirely new way of doing religion: an incarnational way, and a way that invites intimacy and love. Intimacy and love with God, intimacy and love with our neighbours, whoever they are, and wherever they are from.
Satan the Lord of the World’s power is contingent on idolatry, selfishness and division. Jesus’ power and authority, which is the same power and authority given to the church is, by contrast, vested in humility, intimacy, service and love, where all of these are the practical out workings of true worship.
Lent is the gift of a period of time, forty days, to grow in humility, intimacy, service and love; these are just some of the words I associate with Lent.
Lent is the period of time given to us to grow in holiness so that come Easter Day we really do love the Lord our God with all our hearts, minds and strength and our neighbour as ourselves.
Go for it!
2nd Sunday before Lent: Genesis 2, 4-9 & 15 -end, Revelation 4 & Luke 8, 22-25
I think its fair to say that all human beings enjoy a good story: it’s why we read, go to the cinema or theatre, watch soap operas, and even sport. All good stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Indeed, many of us can perhaps remember being told to make sure that the stories and essays that we wrote as children (maybe even as adults) were structured like this. A good story doesn’t just depend on its structure for good stories are brought to life by their characters. In many, most, good stories the entirety of the plot depends on one central character.
Today’s readings are taken from the beginning (Genesis), the middle (Luke) and the end (Revelation) of the bible. Like most good stories the plot starts of well and comes to a good conclusion. The trouble and the place where the plot is developed, and thickened out, is in the middle. The reading from Genesis ends with the most wonderful words: ‘And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.’ The reading from Revelation provides us with a picture of heaven, that place where we will to borrow, Charles Wesley’s words find ourselves ‘lost in wonder love and praise,’ singing songs of ‘everlasting praise.’ In the meantime we find ourselves in that post-Eden and pre-Revelation place where shame, sorrow, fear and downright exhaustion really do exist and bear down on our souls. I would like to strongly suggest that Luke 8, 22-25 isn’t simply an historic account of an event long ago, but a current reality, a place where many still exist.
Fear, anxiety, shame and the experience of trying to navigate our way through the storms and tribulations of life are in many ways characteristic of the human condition. In fact I would go so far say that anyone who tells you that they have lived, and continue to live, a life free from any sense of shame, anxiety, fear and foreboding and outright fatigue may well be something of a fantasist. However, if we capitulate to such feelings and emotions, if we allow them to dominate our lives, we are also in a very dangerous place, not just on our own account, but as the Fifth Gospel, as people who are supposed to signpost for others a way through the trials and tribulations of life to that final place of Revelation.
What we need to make sure we do each and every day is to enthrone Jesus as the central character in the plot of life. We need to make sure that he is always in the metaphorical boat with us and that we allow ourselves to be navigated by Him. We need to become his sailors, His devoted lieutenants and the way we do this is through developing our inner stocks of hope and faith. Jesus asked his disciples: ‘where is your faith?’ He is asking the same question of us today. He asks it not just for our own sake, but for the sake of the world, for ‘where is your faith,’ is not an unreasonable question to ask of all who claim to be Christian. Lent, which we are about to enter in a couple of weeks, provides a wonderful opportunity to develop and relocate our faith. The way we do this, the way we learn to pass our version of the Yacht Master exam, is through our commitment to prayer, reading Scripture and the receipt of the sacrament. As I have said before, and will keep saying, these three really are our Christian essentials.
So please do take your pew sheets home and reflect on the bible passages for yourselves and do say your prayers. We have also included a quote on the pew sheet for you to reflect on: I will try to keep this going as a Lenten discipline! Please also give serious consideration to coming along to the Lent course. As individuals in community let us commit to making sure that Jesus is the central character in our story, and that our faith is entirely located in Him; the one who takes us from Eden, through the choppy waters of life, to that place of ultimate and glorious revelation where we find ourselves ‘perfectly restored’ before Him ‘lost in wonder, love and praise.’
Our National Life: Proverbs 8, 1-16 & Luke 22, 24-27
My maternal grandparents lived in Blackburn, Lancashire. In fact I was born in Blackburn. It may not be obvious but I am a proud Lancashire Lad. My grandparents were a particular sort of Anglican. Grandpa George played the organ in the cathedral church. Grandma Grace was a member of various church groups and was heavily involved with various local charities, particularly one that supported what was then referred to as handicapped children. My grandparents were good people but they were also the particular type of Church of England member who felt that there were two things that shouldn’t be discussed in polite company: religion and politics! At this point I need to say that they were probably the only people on who lived on Ramsgreave Drive who read the Daily Telegraph and that they did live in a constituency which was represented by Barbara Castle and then a young firebrand Jack Straw. So maybe admitting that you were a Tory was simply to invite a whole load of ridicule and pain?
Well I can’t help but talk about religion these days, but should I, as a representative minister in the Church of England, talk about politics? I think the answer is yes. And it’s yes for various reasons: first, the Church of England is a national and established church. Our bishops, twenty six of them, sit in the legislature as something called Lords Spiritual. They don’t vote en bloc and they are free to both speak and vote. Over the years our bishops have made a significant difference to the law of the land. Archbishop William Temple was one of the leading advocates for the welfare state and was a co-author of the Beveridge Report. The much sainted Michael Ramsey introduced the Wolfenden Report in the House of Lords and was the first peer to speak in favour of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Recently the Bishop of St. Albans has helped shape legislation with regards to fixed odd betting terminals. Archbishop Justin takes his role as a public theologian incredibly seriously, as does our own bishop, Steven. The Church of England is established by parliament -we are the agent and not the principal – and we are supposed to take a full and participatory role in both supporting and holding government to account. We are supposed to ask, of the state, difficult, challenging, affirming, ethical and religious questions. And, we are also mandated to pray for the country; our liturgy makes this clear.
Our prayers aren’t however limited to praying for the monarch, her ministers and parliament, for to stop here would be truly limiting, for our most important prayer, the prayer of the Church, provides us with the aspirations of faith: a world characterised by God’s values - ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,’ and a world in which everyone has their base needs tended to ‘give us this day our daily bread.’ If we want to see a Godly world, we need to start with imagining heaven. We live in a world devoid of imagination and aspiration. As Christians we need to be ensure that imagination and aspiration are integral to public and political discourse.
But, secondly, and most importantly I would want to argue, and argue strongly, that Jesus' own ministry was highly political; not party political but political. Jesus was a master at teasing out the ethical and religious questions, with perhaps the most obvious one being this: ‘who is my neighbour?’ This, it strikes me, isn’t simply a question for the biblical age but for all ages. The importance of good neighbourliness, both in terms of domestic and international policy, is something that the church should always hold before the nation’s conscience. Jesus, throughout his ministry, dared to speak truth to power, such that he was able to self-describe as the fulfilment of the law and the prophets. Jesus' ministry commenced with his ownership of the Isaiah prophecy and ended with him being charged by the religious elite and sentenced by the political elite. Jesus cared deeply about justice and the plight of the poor. If you think about his healing miracles what they did, alongside the act of physical healing, was to help integrate the hitherto excluded back into community and society.
The issues that Jesus sought to address are all issues that effect our national life and the way we relate to the world and to each other. We, as people of faith, must like Jesus and the psalmist ‘sing of faithfulness and justice.’ Like the writer of Proverbs we must look first and foremost to the religious tradition so that we too are people of ‘wisdom,’ ‘knowledge,’ and ‘discretion.’ We must, as Jesus instructs us act with humility, not seeking to be the greatest, the perhaps self-interested greatest, but the ‘one who serves.’
We, you and I, don’t have all of the answers, or at least not the party political answers, but there again that is not our starting point, for our starting point must always be our faith. As people of faith we must always seek to make sure that we seek God’s ‘good advice and sound wisdom.’ We must always make sure that we are not crudely seduced by ‘pride and arrogance…..the way of evil….and perverted (or politically contrived) speech.’
We may not have all the answers, but what our tradition gives us, for free, is the right questions. I think my grandparents, sorry, were wrong, for if we truly care about ‘our National Life,’ as a Church, we must always dare to speak ‘truth to power,’ whilst making sure that we also hold our leaders, spiritual and political, before God in prayer. Amen.
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