Ash Wednesday : Joel 2, 12-18; Matthew 6, 1-6 & 16-18
For the last couple of years or so, I have given up alcohol for Lent. It’s a challenge as I enjoy going to the pub and more often than not evenings with friends involve some kind of drinking. I am not afraid to say that I missed having a drink over Lent. After Easter, when people have asked me how I found the last forty odd days, I replied that I found I slept much better. That’s it. No other change. Certainly, to my shame, no mention of God. What had struck me the most about my Lenten fast was that my night’s kip was less disturbed.
I am not sure what you are giving up this Lent but if you are thinking of doing something or, indeed, have already started, take the advice in our readings this evening. Be clear why you are doing whatever it is you are doing for Lent. Whether it’s fasting, praying or taking something on, be honest enough with yourself to know what it is you are doing and why. For if it’s not to do with God, then we are not doing Lent. If you are giving up chocolate to lose weight, if you are doing more exercise to get fitter, if you are getting up half an hour earlier to achieve more, then good on you but let’s be mature enough to realise that these things are not done for God. If we are not doing these things for God, then, as good as they may be, we are not doing Lent.
Jesus rails against those who show off their piety: who shout loudly about their charity giving, who fast and make sure everyone knows it and those who pray in such a way that you can’t help but notice. They are not doing Lent either for what they seek is not God. What they really want is to get the approval of others; others who are impressed by their apparent holiness. I wasn’t doing Lent by giving up drinking. I was simply giving my liver a rest.
“Yet even now says the Lord, return to me with all your heart” that is the cry of the prophet Joel. “Return to me with all your heart”
We do Lent by returning to the Lord. Taking a consciously deliberate step to God. It is to turn away from the temptations that draw us away from God and turn to him. Not by accident but intentionally and purposefully. We can’t do things with all our heart absent-mindedly or by coincidence or with mixed motives. However, you choose to mark Lent, whatever you give up or whatever you do: do it for God.
Devote your sacrifice or commitment to God at the start of this Lent. When it’s hard, when you are tempted, offer it to God: quietly reminding yourself what you are doing and that what you doing is for God. If you succumb, don’t give up, but carry on with your devotion knowing that God forgives. You are not doing this because God demands it but because by this observance you might return to Him. To know more deeply of his presence in your life. We do it because we want to follow the example of Jesus. Jesus went into the desert for forty days where he was tempted. He went in the desert to learn what he was meant to do next with his life. He went in the desert because for him something about that place was special, where he was able to experience the divine. He did it with purpose.
That is how we return to God with all our heart. Mindfully. Purposefully. Intentionally. If we don’t, let’s not kid ourselves we are doing Lent. But if we do turn to God with all our heart, maybe this year it will be different, maybe this year instead of losing a few pounds or sleeping better or having read more we may learn the reality of the prophecy of Joel that God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Now that is doing Lent.
Revd. Didier Jaquet
Baptism and Transfiguration (Matthew 17, 1-9)
I wonder how many of us feel particularly attached to our names, or in some ways think that our names capture something of the essence of our personalities; names you see have meaning. Does anyone here know the meaning of their names?
I like my name for apparently Andrew means ‘manly.’ So, there you go! In the gospel reading we have heard just now Jesus isn’t actually called by name, instead he is called ‘Son’ and ‘Beloved’, the one with whom God, the Father, is ‘well pleased.’ These words replicate the words heard at Jesus’ own baptism. The notions of baptism and transfiguration are therefore closely related. The whole purpose of baptism, and indeed the sacrament of the Eucharist, which we will be sharing in later on in the service, is to both affirm us and change us, or transfigure us, so that we like Jesus might shine, or, in the words of the Prayer of Preparation, which I increasingly believe to be one of the most majestic prayers in the liturgy, might ‘magnify His Holy name.’
In baptism God calls us by name, assures us that we too are ‘His beloved’ in whom He is ‘well pleased’ and invites us into what the Prayer Book refers to as ‘newness of life.’ Felicity is shortly going to be baptised into such ‘newness of life’ in the hope and firm expectation that she will come to ‘magnify His Holy name.’
The reason that Gwen and Robert have brought Felicity for baptism is very straightforward: they want her to know that she is loved and cherished by both themselves and the family and by God. They want her to know that her very name, like yours and mine, is held in God’s hands and inscribed in the Book of Life. And what a name Felicity is. It is a name full of nuance and meaning. I think that it is also the only name used in the Book of Common prayer as a common noun; more of this in a second or two.
Felicity means joy and happiness and as I baptise Felicity today, I know that we will all be praying for her joy and happiness. But the name Felicity also has connations of faith and hope. Felicity is a profoundly Christian name. In the prayer for the Queen in the Book of Common Prayer we pray for our sovereign lady’s ‘everlasting joy and felicity.’ I think this is a wonderful praise!
My prayer for Felicity is that as a baptised Christian her life will be grounded in the surety of love, lived with infectious joy, grounded in faith and hope, in the sincere belief that she will, therefore, live a transfigured life; one that truly ‘magnifies his Holy Name.’
Come to think of it that is my prayer for each and every one of us here today, Amen.
I have a confession to make, I love the Book of Isaiah, I mean properly love it! I love it in a slightly nerdy sort of way. I do understand that it is not good to have favourites, that all of the books are divinely inspired and that just cherry picking the parts that I already agree with or enjoy leads to all sorts of problem in theology and the way that I end up perceiving the world with but deep in my heart I have to say that some bits of the Bible leave me cold whilst others really do float my boat.
For instance, I have been known to eat shellfish, I have been known to eat a cheeseburger and I am probably wearing mixed fibres as I speak (all of which are prohibited in the Levitical laws) but Isaiah shines like a beacon amongst all the other books around it. I love its poetry, I love its message, it points more directly to the coming of Christ and is staggering in its range and scope. It was written at a time when the nation of Israel was in exile, dragged from their homeland by the Babylonians. The nation of Israel was looking for deliverance, for some sort of divine intervention to rescue them from their captivity. What I find staggering is that although the Israelites were suffering the book is not merely blind fist shaking in blind fury, blaming everyone else for the mess that they are in.
It is instead full of contrition, readily accepting that much of their misfortune they have brought upon themselves. They fully understand that they messed up, have strayed and they are looking for solutions, to resolutions to their predicament and how they can reset their relationship with God. It is miles away from the book of Genesis, when God asked Adam, “Who told you to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge?” and Adam, like any toddler does, points straight at Eve and says, “It was her, she told me to do it!” And so it continues with this passage, it is asking God, how do I get this right? What can I do to get back on good terms with you? And we have the answer to hand.
On Thursday I joined some school children to a visit to Keach’s meeting house in Winslow. It is the oldest Baptist chapel in the area. If you haven’t been I really do recommend it. It is a small building, tucked away, hidden. Inside it is stripped bare, no stained-glass windows, no altar, aside from the pulpit the only other hint to its use is a very simple candle holder suspended from the ceiling which holds 3 candles. Those candles, as well as being the only source of light in the building, are there to represent the Holy Trinity, Father Son and Holy Spirit, the 3 parts of God that are in constantly changing, dynamic relation with each other. The way that they interact with each other is sometimes portrayed as an equilateral triangle. And it is that where the importance lies. Our faith is all about relationships.
Every time that we look up to heaven, we are also invited to look out to others. We instinctively, just as the Israelites did, want to look vertically up to God and God, in his turn tells us to look horizontally, towards others. The simple fact is that everyone wants to be blessed, but not everyone wants to be a blessing.
God tells us in this passage and in this whole book, “When you reach out to others, I’ll reach out to you”. We believe not just in a God who loves but in a God who IS love, and by loving each other we bring ourselves into his presence.
If we are ever in any doubt the answer is simple. We need to ask ourselves are we the conduit to the blessing that we are asking for, does it reside in us and the relationships we have with our neighbours throughout the world and the entirety of God’s creation?
Do God’s blessings flow through us or do we expect them to just flow to us? It is a big difference and that difference could mean the world.
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