Third Sunday of Lent: Isaiah 55, 1-9, 1 Corinthians 10, 1-13 and Luke 13, 1-9
We live in a world where we are used to hearing shocking and barbaric stories; the recent events in Christchurch, New Zealand, being a poignant and heart rending example. We also live in a world where so called leaders do appalling things to their own people and trample all over their God-given dignity and rights; just think of Syria. We live in a world that is in many ways characterised by injustice and violence. And we deceive ourselves if we think that barbarism and atrocity are solely features of life in other countries. Extremism, hatred and cruelty permeate, sadly, in our society; think of the rise in knife crime. We also live in a world where many, many, people are discriminated against, sometimes explicitly, sometimes because we fail to speak out, simply on the basis of who they are. We live in a world where power and authority are frequently used for the worst of reasons. As a church we need to face up to this and be honest.
Horror, atrocity and the refusal to let people simply be who they are has always been a feature of life. Sadly it’s often, as we know, a distinct feature of life for those who profess a religious faith. Again think of the Muslim community in Christchurch, or the Coptic Church in Egypt. Being a Christian in middle England, is, it has to be said, somewhat easier. But against this we do need to acknowledge the fact that the church has, and continues to be, a place not of affirmation, but fear, for many, many people. Sadly, not all feel welcome in church. Sadly we know that people have been abused and sidelined by the Church.
In this church we strive to provide an unconditional welcome. We may not always succeed, but real and true hospitality is one of our three aspirations. I long for a church where all may flourish and none need fear. In Isaiah’s terms I long for a church where ‘all may come without price,’ (where price means the sacrifice of their very souls) and where all may ‘eat what is good and delight in rich food.’ I long for a church and a world where all will truly know, as St. Paul puts it, that ‘God is faithful.’ Will you join me in these aspirations and longings? I have never been more convinced than I am now that what the world needs is a good, virtuous and healthy church; a model community that is manifestly and obviously the body of Christ on earth, showing to the world a better way, a deeply relational way, that says to all ‘you are welcomed, you are valued.’ If we commit to this way of being, and offer this way of belonging, the good news is that we – the church - will discover for ourselves that God is indeed both faithful and merciful. We will discover that God hasn’t given up on us, and that God is both with us and for us. We will know for ourselves what it really means to ‘delight’ in our faith.
Committing to this way of being, and offering this way of belonging is, for me, the heart of repentance. Repentance isn’t a trivial word, it doesn’t just mean saying sorry for minor misdoings, although it might include this. It means instead a complete turning away from the abuse of power as personified by the likes of Pilate and a commitment to grow in holiness. It means adopting the very characteristics of the Christ who refused to give way to the vicious, humanity-denying, antics of Pilate and instead aligned himself with the weak, marginalised and down trodden. Repentance means keeping our eyes fixed on God and allowing ourselves, through our spiritual nutrients: prayer, reading the bible and sharing in the sacraments (the rich food Isaiah talks about) to be truly transformed, so that we become more Christ-like. Repentance, as the Prayer of Preparation so beautifully puts it, is all about allowing the ‘thoughts of our hearts,’ to be ‘cleansed,’ through the ‘inspiration of the the Holy Spirit.’ If we don’t take these practices seriously, if we don’t live by the ‘inspiration’ or in-spriting, ‘of the Holy Spirit’, we the Church, will be of no earthly use whatsoever. These are the practices, the daily practices, that build up our resilience. They are both the antibodies and the ‘rich food’ that allow us to keep going when all seems futile, when we feel that we are being tested ‘beyond strength,’ so that we can be of earthly use; so that we can bring something of the ‘kingdom of heaven’ into the here and now.
As I have said before, Jesus established the church to be the 5th Gospel, the living testimony to the all encompassing love of God. The way we get there, the way we become the 5th Gospel, is by taking the notion of repentance to heart. The good news is that if we do this we will testify ‘to the glorious, loving, life-giving freedom of God, known in Christ, full of the Spirit – generous, open and accepting of all comers?’ We will be of real and enduring earthly use.
So, let’s do it. Let’s repent.
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.’
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