Sunday, 29 November 2009

Be prepared

Preacher: Veronica
Readings: Jeremiah 33.14-16, Luke 21.25-36, 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13

Today as you have heard is the first Sunday of Advent, and this is the first of a series of sermons following the common lectionary readings for the day. This means that all over the world, Christian churches are hearing and pondering the same Bible passages at some time today. Which is kind of exciting.

The three readings we have heard today are about someone special coming. Jeremiah calls him the Branch of David. Luke calls him the Son of Man. Paul, writing to the Thessalonians, knows his name, and gives him a title: our Lord Jesus, who has come to us already, and yet is still to come.

What do you do when someone special is coming to visit? In the mid-sixties, my parents were due to receive a visit from the novelist E M Forster. They were friends with a Coventry couple whom he used to come and stay with for a while every year, and they asked this couple to bring him to our house. My mother always made a lot of effort when she was expecting visitors, but this time she excelled herself, making what she regarded as a ‘real English tea: white bread, cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, as well as lots of other delicacies. She didn’t think he’d like her normal continental fare which was more likely to be rye bread with salami.

As it happened, he never got inside our house; our friends brought him to the door but he was well into his nineties by then and wasn’t feeling well enough to visit. So he shook all our hands through the car window, signed a couple of books and was driven away again. Still, I like to think a bit of literary greatness might have rubbed off on me.

Advent is all about being prepared. But for most of us, it’s preparing for Christmas, with all the food, the parties and the presents, that takes priority. Ironically , at this feast of Jesus’ coming to us, we might end up thinking less about what it means to welcome Jesus than we do in the rest of the year. We even think Christmas is really for children, and to get too excited about it is not a very grown up thing to do.

But traditionally, Advent was a season of fasting, like Lent: it was meant to prepare us spiritually for celebrating God breaking into our lives in Jesus. It was definitely a season for adults: people who soberly weigh up their own fitness to meet the King of creation. Yes, Christmas is an occasion of joy, just as having E M Forster visit was going to be an occasion of joy for my family; but getting ready to celebrate the Incarnation was and is a serious business.

So what do our readings tell us about being prepared? Let’s begin with the Gospel reading from Luke. This is one of a number of so-called apocalyptic passages in Jesus’ teaching, which appear in different forms in all the Gospels. ‘Apocalypse’ simply means ‘unveiling’ or ‘revealing’, and in these passages Jesus is revealing to his closest disciples what he can about the destiny of the world and the part he plays in it.

Now apocalypse teaching is very popular among some Christians today, especially in the United States. There are those, as there always have been, who make it their business to work out an exact timetable of what will happen in the end times when Jesus returns. They write endless sermons and even novels about the Tribulation and the Rapture, a doctrine which is based on a single verse of Scripture and which didn’t even feature in Christian theology till the 19th century. You can at times detect a note of glee or Schadenfreude in contemplating the awful sufferings the rest of the world will go through while we Christians are supposedly snatched away into heaven. Some even seem to know when all this will happen - which even Jesus said he didn’t know.

Jesus’ teaching about ‘the Day of the Lord’, which we also call the Day of Judgment, certainly contains predictions of frightening, world shattering events: floods and earthquakes, even disturbances in the sun, moon and stars which we regard as constants in our lives. In this he is speaking in the tradition of the earlier prophets who warned that the Day of the Lord would not be solely a day of blessing, but also a day of judgement and destruction of evil.

How can we be prepared for such a day? Maybe by stockpiling tinned food and guns in mountain hideaways, as some have done? I don’t think this is quite what Jesus means by ‘Be on your guard’. Our enemies, as Paul says elsewhere, are not flesh and blood, but spiritual powers of wickedness. Jesus tells us that to stand firm in the time of trial, we need to be travelling light. We need to make sure that the focus of our life is not on our anxieties, our responsibilities, but also not on making things as comfortable as possible for ourselves and having fun. The focus of our life should be on following him, and because it’s a challenging journey, we need to minimise the baggage we are carrying. We need to be alert, watching out for signs of God’s kingdom in the world and lending our support to them. The late Jim Punton once described this as what Jesus did: he had his antennae out, looking for what God was doing in the world and joining in.

Most of all, we need to be praying for Jesus to come into our world, which is actually his Father’s world, and to set its many wrong things right. And that means not only praying for ourselves to follow Jesus more closely, but praying for others to recognise him and follow him. Paul sets an example in this to the Thessalonians, praying for them that God will ‘strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of the Lord Jesus with all his saints’,

But there’s the rub. I find this a distinctly frightening prayer. I can’t even manage to prepare the perfect Christmas, so how am I supposed to prepare myself for Jesus’ coming and be blameless as I stand before him? Well I can’t. And that’s where the reading from Jeremiah comes in.

Jeremiah prophesies that a descendant of David will ‘execute justice and righteousness in the land’ -’the land’ meaning the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah, even though at this point the northern kingdom of Israel barely existed any more. We know from other prophecies that in the Jewish religion this promise of a righteous kingdom is not meant to apply just to the historic land we now call Israel/Palestine, but to the whole world. But note one thing: creating this peacable kingdom is not our work, though we are invited to join with God in the work of creating it. It is the coming king, not the people of God, who is to bring about a world free of oppression. In fact Jeremiah goes further, saying ‘The Lord is our righteousness’.

There is no way that we can present ourselves blameless at the coming of Christ. It’s God’s job to transform us into kingdom people, and God has sent Jesus to lead the way and by his Spirit to strengthen and equip us for kingdom life. How we are changed into people who can receive our special guest, is through the mystery of the cross. Paul puts it this way to the Corinthians in his second letter to them: ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’. I don’t pretend to understand fully how this divine exchange works, but I once wrote a poem which stated it in terms of God exchanging clothes with us, so God wears our tatty, stained, worn out rags, and we get to wear Jesus’ beautiful robe. Maybe that image will work for some of you.

So, to change the metaphor, we are not to worry about how we get the house of our spirit ready for the visit of God. God sends us a housekeeper - the spirit of Christ - to clear out all the rubbish and lay out a fabulous feast.

Just one more thing I want to say: we are talking in terms of Jesus being in some sense our guest in the world. But actually it’s in some sense the other way round: the guest turns out to be the host. I recently expressed this on my Facebook status like this: ‘I have never invited Jesus into my life. He invited me into his.’ Not for a moment should we think how good we are for graciously inviting Jesus to be in our life. It’s really the opposite: Jesus invites us to take part in his new, overflowing life. So let’s pray during Advent that we may be able to follow his call into a new world. That’s worth waiting for.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

The kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever

Preacher: Sue
Readings: Luke 1.39-55, Matt 4:1-11, Phil 2:5-11

So here we are at the last in our sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer. Our phrase for today is “The kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever” which actually doesn’t come from the gospel texts themselves. It’s a doxology, which means a prayer that acknowledges the glory (or doxa) of God. Jews were used to using a doxology at various points in their liturgies. In fact this phrase “the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever” is very reminiscent both of parts of the Jewish Kaddish and of David’s words in 1 Chron 29:10-11: “Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our ancestor Israel, forever and ever. Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all.”

An early Christian document, the Didache, includes this phrase in its version of the Lord’s Prayer, probably because the early Christians would naturally expect to end a prayer with a doxology and were probably doing so spontaneously before this document captured it in writing and shaped the practice of many denominations since then.

Now at first sight I think this phrase looks like a very Anabaptist kind of prayer. To say that the kingdom, the power and the glory are God’s is a big claim, and it’s a claim with political force. It may look to us as though power is in the hands of the G20 or the companies which span every continent. (According to a recent book on Latin American economies, Wal-Mart is bigger than the GDP of Argentina and Nestles sales are bigger than the GDP of Peru) . But to pray “the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever” is to assert, against appearances to the contrary, that the ultimate power is God’s.

That’s why Mary in the Magnificat can anticipate a reversal of fortunes in which the poor are lifted up and the rich and powerful catapulted to obscurity and emptiness. She knows that in the end God will make things right. So this last line of the Lord’s prayer is an expression of hope and confidence in the ultimate triumph of God’s justice.

But, when I think about this line some more, I find it puzzling as well, on two counts. Firstly that our world doesn’t look as though God is in power right now and secondly that in some ways “power” doesn’t necessarily sound very Christ-like.

Let’s start with the first of my puzzles, that the world doesn’t always look as though God has the power. I guess this is another way of stating the problem of evil and suffering which warrants a complete sermon in its own right (and indeed I preached one around 18 months ago and Lesley preached wisely and movingly on Job in May this year). In previous sermons in our current series I have already touched on one aspect of this. We live, in a way, between times. God has already brought in the kingdom and delivered us from evil - but the kingdom is not yet fully come and we do not yet experience always being rescued from evil.

For now I will add only two points. The first looks back to our reading of last week - Romans 8:18-39 - which told us that, whatever happens God has the power to ensure that nothing can separate us from the love of God. God will always be with us in love even when it feels as though everything is out of God’s control. And the second is that I think God often exercises power differently from how we expect. God’s initiative to deal with the mess and pain of humanity and indeed all of creation was to come into the world as Jesus, to get in harm’s way (to quote the motto of Christian Peacemaker Teams - So God’s solution to the suffering of the world was God’s own risk and suffering not a “shock and awe” display of might.

And in saying that I’ve kind of answered my second puzzle. It’s easy for me, when I use the word power, to think of economic or political or military power, or just the power that comes from being in the majority or part of an “in crowd”. And that doesn’t look very like Jesus. But one of the lessons we can learn from Jesus is that power doesn’t have to be that way. Our reading from Philippians reminds us that Jesus, despite being God, was willing to come humbly not insisting on a red carpet and a bodyguard (or even on stopping the traffic, for those of you who have been following the election of the EU president) but, rather, being willing to suffer and die.

In our reading from Matthew we were reminded of the ways Jesus was tempted - at the very beginning of his ministry - to misuse power in order to gain control of many kingdoms. And if Jesus had gone ahead with commanding the stones to become bread, that too could have been a route to easy political power. But Jesus pursues his mission in very different ways, ultimately through a willingness to suffer and die at the hands of the establishment powers. So actually Jesus has a lot to teach us about power and about what we mean when we pray “the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever”. As Anabaptists we read the bible through the lens of Jesus. So too I think we need to pray this prayer through the lens of Jesus.

Hauerwas and Willimon suggest that these words challenge us to let God have the power and the glory in our own lives. Christian martyrs, they say, trust to God for the significance of their lives. As I reflect on this, I think I can see what they are saying. Some martyrs die young, before they have “achieved” very much and in consenting to die for their faith they give up the chance of future landmarks and publicly recognised significance. So they agree to let the power and the glory be God’s and not to worry about their own power and glory and their own significance.

Now I have to admit, rather sheepishly, that I like lots of affirmation even for something as trivial as folding the laundry, I hate the feeling of failure and find it hard to look back contentedly on a day if I don’t feel I’ve “achieved” something. So the idea of just trying to do what is right and leaving everything else in God’s hands and not seeking some sense of whether I’ve “done well” comes hard to me. And yet I think it would bring real freedom if I could do that.

My first paid job was secure and well paid and for a while I felt it would be too risky to leave, so that I might be trapped there forever even once it ceased to feel meaningful or fun. To use a phrase that Peter coined when we were talking about this, I was trapped by my own security. I remember a real feeling of freedom when I finally did leave (and for a one-year contract on less pay at that). And in a radio programme I heard last week about the former Yugoslavia under communism, the journalist talked about the drabness and oppressiveness of that time and commented that the only people who seemed to be having any fun were those who had already “come out” as dissidents and were no longer looking over their shoulders all the time. By deciding to relinquish control of their own security, to embrace risk and truth as they tried to unmask and resist the lies of the state, they had gained an unexpected freedom.

And that’s how I think it is supposed to be for us too, that we can learn to relinquish control and a need for acknowledgment and achievement and success and to trust instead to God. That’s a very tough one for me. I’m sure my inability to do that makes me excessively cautious, as well as devastated out of all proportion each time I make a mistake. But I think it would be healing for me to learn to really pray this prayer. Because I think that praying “the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever” is supposed to be the gateway to a joyful freedom of trust in God, of leaving things to God, of Gelassenheit indeed.

That thought forms a link for me with many of the other phrases of the Lord’s prayer and our sermons in this series. As we’ve seen before, praying this prayer helps us to know what to ask God for, but it’s not just about asking God for things, whether those be exalted things like the hallowing of God’s name and the coming of the kingdom or down to earth stuff like daily bread. It is also, if we pray it earnestly, about being changed by its words.

Stanley Hauerwas talks about this in an essay called “The Politics of the Church: How We Lay Bricks and Make Disciples” where he says that learning to be a disciple is a bit like being apprenticed in a craft. You are initiated into a practice by a master craftsman. You learn the practices of the community of that craft - the community of bricklayers in Hauerwas’ analogy - and it’s not till you yourself are a master that you have freedom to go beyond the tradition and start being creative and spontaneous. (As an aside, I wonder whether that helps explain Jesus’ relationship with the Jewish law and prophets. As a master craftsman he had the understanding and the authority to rework them creatively while still remaining so firmly in the tradition that he could say he had come not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them.)

Hauerwas goes on to say that the way we learn about God, the way we learn to be people who can pray is by praying. He defines Christians as those who “have been taught to pray, 'Our father, who art in heaven…’"

A good place to begin to understand what Christians are about, he says, is to join in that prayer.

For to learn to pray is no easy matter but requires much training, not unlike learning to lay brick. It does no one any good to believe in God, at least the God we find in Jesus of Nazareth, if they have not learned to pray. To learn to pray means we must acquire humility not as something we try to do, but as commensurate with the practice of prayer. In short, we do not believe in God, become humble and then learn to pray, but in learning to pray we humbly discover we cannot do other than believe in God.

For me this sermon series has helped me think more about what we mean when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. I have come to think of praying the Lord’s Prayer as an important Christian discipline, which I think can increase our sensitivity to God and to others, challenge us to follow Jesus more closely and train us in good habits of thought.

As Arthur Paul Boers puts it, “[p]raying the Lord’s prayer is to spirituality what playing the scales is to music”.

So I hope the sermon series has inspired you and me to keep praying that prayer attentively, not mechanically, so that we can learn and be changed by it as we pray it together.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Deliver us from evil

Preacher: Sue
Readings: Romans 8:18-39, Matthew 6:5-17

This is the second last in our sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer but for various reasons it will be just a five minute mini-sermon.

Our phrase for today is “deliver us from evil” which we find in Matthew and in a few manuscripts of Luke’s gospel. Apparently the Greek is such that we can’t tell whether Matthew means “deliver us from evil” or “deliver us from the evil one”. Both senses seem to occur elsewhere in the bible. The German theologian Lochman suggests that our reading of this may be shaped by our theological beliefs. The Eastern church with its emphasis on Jesus’ death and resurrection as a victory which rescues us from the devil’s clutches is more inclined to hear “deliver us from the evil one”. The Western church - Catholic and Protestant - with its focus on how Jesus redeems us from our own sin is more likely to hear “deliver us from evil”.

Perhaps we can be ready to hear both and let the two readings come alive to us at different times in our lives.

Either way, the prayer cries out to God for rescue. Either way, the prayer trusts that ultimately, however much evil may sometimes appear to have the upper hand, it will in the end be overthrown. Not that we will always experience this immediately or at an individual level. We live in the “already and not yet” and we pray for an “us” which includes those who are distant in time or space. So we trust that God has already overcome evil for us all. But evil has not yet been expelled entirely and forever and at times we will each experience that “not yet” very close to home.

But we need this prayer even when we are not besieged by evil. One writer points out that Jesus’ encounter with the tempter should make us very cautious - the devil’s arguments are based on scripture and sound plausible and indeed full of concern for Jesus’ wellbeing. So this prayer can be preventative maintenance, asking God to deliver us from slipping gradually away from God and the values of the kingdom of God in ways that are superficially reasonable and easy to justify.

And another reason to pray this prayer even in times of quiet is in solidarity with those for whom life is full of threat. Just as we ask for our daily bread in solidarity with those who hunger, so too we ask for rescue from evil in the name of all who suffer. Perhaps we should say in the name of all that suffers, with the reminder from Romans 8 that not only do we suffer till God brings the ultimate rescue from evil but so too does all creation, which of course links to our other theme for today, of care for creation and combating climate change.

So the Lord’s prayer started with a focus on heaven and moved through the coming of the kingdom of heaven on earth to prayer for ourselves and the world including all of creation. We started by reverently contemplating God and over the course of the prayer we came down to earth and back to the memory of evil and pain and injustice. But praying “deliver us from evil” reminds us that God is with us at this end of the prayer too. So although the Lord’s prayer encourages us to pray (and work) for God’s kingdom to come, it also invites us to patience and trust as we look to God for rescue. So though we may feel overwhelmed by the scale of evil and the enormity of the task of bringing in God’s kingdom, we can also trust, wait and hope for the dawn, the deliverance from evil, that will surely come.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Save Us From the Time of Trial

Preacher: Lesley

This is another in our series of sermons on the Lord's Prayer: Save us from the time of trial.

Of course many of us grew up saying 'and lead us not into temptation'. So are we talking about temptation or trial? The Latin version of the Bible – the Vulgate translated it as temptation, so that's what was put in the King James version, and therefore that was the version in the Book of Common Prayer, which has influenced English-speaking Protestants ever since.

I find it difficult to understand why 'Lead us not into temptation' became the standard translation because the passage from James which we just had read, that says God doesn't tempt anyone. So, modern translations of the Lord's Prayer talk about the time of trial.

Is it temptation or trial? Well, the answer is both, or either. The same Greek word is translated trial or temptation or test. In the passage from James that we heard, it's the same word for trials when it says 'Consider it joy when you face trials of any kind' and for temptation in verse 12, where it is translated, 'Blessed is anyone who endures temptation.' And it's the same word when the Gospels talk about the Pharisees testing Jesus. In Matthew or Luke, the Lord's prayer has the same phrase which we have translated as 'Save us from the time of trial'.

What is the time of trial? The New Testament does talk about a time of trial for the whole world. Revelation 3 says: Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. In Matthew 24 Jesus talks about a coming time of suffering: “And if those days had not been cut short no-one would be saved, but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.” However, there is no reason to think that in the Lord's prayer Jesus was talking about this apocalyptic event, especially when the other possible translations are about trials and temptations that happen to us a s individuals. The theologian Tom Wright simply puts it: 'Don't put us to the test'.

Having got that out of the way, it's worth looking at why the New Testament used the same word for temptation, test and trial. It's because in the thought of early Christians, these were all pretty much the same thing. It was all about how people cope with the circumstances of life. Do we do the right thing or fall into sin? Do we take a course of action that is helpful or gives ourselves and others problems and cuts us of from God? What we might call temptation – that is the longing for things or actions that we know to be wrong - is just one aspect of the trials that we might face in the Christian life. The common factor is that in dealing with the things that life throws at us, or our own longings or distortions of personality, there are opportunities to move towards the light or away from it, to grow in knowledge of ourselves and God or to pursue a path which is about stagnation and decay.

This is summed up in the idea, running all the way through the Bible, that human beings are subject to tests and trials that may be sent or allowed by God. Is God, then like some cruel sergeant-major who puts us through drills and disciplines to make us strong and fit for duty?

As I was writing this I was listening to the tennis star, Serena Williams. on the radio, talking about her autobiography. The interviewer asked why in her early years her father moved his family from Saginaw, Michigan to Compton, Los Angeles, a much tougher area, which he described as a ghetto. It is said that Richard, a former sharecropper from Louisiana, planned his daughters' careers before they were born. He has said that he chose to bring up the family in Compton so they could "see first hand how their lives might turn out if they did not work hard and get an education". Serena said that he wanted to toughen them up as he encouraged them to practice their tennis from the age of 3 on public courts that might be littered with broken glass or hypodermic needles.

How different this is from what so many parents do – struggling to move to more up-market areas where their children will get into schools that have better results and where they may be less likely to get into trouble as they're growing up. And what a gamble – Serena and her sister Venus have turned into tennis champions but their older sister Tunde, who stayed in Compton was shot dead, as A victim of gang violence aimed at her boyfriend.

Is that what God does with the people who seek to follow the Christian way? In some ways the answer is Yes. God doesn't take us out of the world and we suffer all the things that will impact on everyone else. In 1 Cor 10, Paul writes 'No testing has overtaken you that is common to everyone'. For some of us that will be worse than others, depending on the circumstances of our birth, the accidents of life and what we do with it. However, in a society in which most people are not seeking to follow Jesus, we may have more troubles than the majority of people in similar circumstances, because we may have a set of ethics which may not allow us to choose an easy life. But Paul goes on to say 'God is faithful and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out, so that you may be able to endure it'.

I must say that when I've been really up against it in the past, I've remembered that promise and I've thought 'oh Yeah' Where is my way of escape? I think about those who have been described as having lost their faith because of the circumstances they have faced. I'm talking about the kind of situation which we feel to be intolerable, often emotionally intolerable, in which the only way out seems to be to do something that we know to be wrong.

I do believe that God makes ways of escape that we refuse to see or imagine, sometimes because they all outside our pre-conceived ideas and habits of thought and practice. So there are some things we just do not do – such as my mother never leaving the house without doing the washing up, even if she was going to be late. I'm proud to say that is a rule that I have managed to un-learn – and I'm still always late! But you get the idea – there are things to which we would say 'I can't do that' when what we really mean is that 'I won't do that'. And often we won't do it because it violates our sense of who we are. It is frequently a matter of pride: I'm not the sort of person who goes out leaving the washing up; I'm not the sort of person who feeds convenience food to my children; I'm not the sort of person who goes bankrupt; I'm not the sort of person who does that kind of job or lives in an area like that etc, etc. So part of the test may be to address our preconceptions about who we are – that somehow we are different or better than other people. Some of these things are to do with our gender identity – what our society says we should be or do as men or women and i think because, social roles tend to be more flexible for women these days, this can be more difficult for men. Sometimes we confuse these rules that we have for ourselves, and which often we learnt from our parents' values, with God's values and God's rules. It is not a sin to go out without combing your hair, even though your Mum would have told you off about it. It's not a sin to do something stupid or embarrassing, even if you feel awful about it!

And related to this kind of refusal to take the way out that God offers, may be anger against God – a fury that we should find ourselves in these circumstances and that God could leave us in the situation or only offer solutions which are not acceptable to us. We are then in danger of adding deliberate rejection of God to taking the sinful way out.

Then there's the question of what being tested 'beyond our strength' means. What does the Bible says ‘that we would be able to endure’? It seems to me that God's idea of what we can bear may be different from ours. It's like the child who says 'I can't go to school in that old pair of trainers any more.' We know that what they are really saying is not that the shoes are letting in water but that the young person is unwilling to put up with the real or imagined contempt of fellow-students for the unfashionable footwear. Of course, our dilemmas are more serious than this aren't they?

To resist temptation we need to be aware of what we are saying to ourselves. One of the most damaging things we can do to ourselves is to keep saying 'I can't bear it.' because probably then we won't. It's almost as bad as saying to ourselves, or others, 'I don't see why I should' because that is to reject the love of God who has given us a reason in the saving life of Christ for following in his footprints.

It may be that for some people, taking the right decision will involve grief or serious depression, pain or even death. These are the routes which we say we cannot endure. And what we are told is not that we will escape these but that with God even these can be borne, despite what we may feel now. I must say that Veronica springs to mind here. She has been more or less depressed for many years, as most of us know. Being subject to depression myself, I'm sure that she has been tempted to drastically change her life in desperate ways which might have offered a hope of escaping the misery. She may often have thought she would be unable to bear the depression, because the nature of it is that when someone is really down there is the light at the end of the tunnel is too dim to see. I have seen Veronica faithfully bearing the depression year on year, even when God feels too distant to care. She may not see it that way and will be aware of her various lapses day to day, but the quality of her Christian journey is one of patient endurance, and I believe that this is possible only because God is there for her, partly through others round about her. I know that will embarrass her, but I want to continue by saying that her husband, Ed, has equal if not more patient endurance.

Sometimes the only way out in keeping with our ethics lies through pain and death, though few of us will be offered this choice. It may be more common in war. We have recalled that today is Remembrance Day. I was moved recently by a radio archive programme in which the former bishop of Edinburgh explored what happens to people's faith under the extreme situations that so many encounter as participants or victims of warfare. For some their faith was strengthened; for others it was destroyed. I suspect that there are many who refuse to engage with the spiritual aspects of what they endure. We can in no way condone or welcome or justify war but it is true that the challenge of war can bring out the extremes of heroism and selflessness or degradation and self-seeking that lurk within the human character. Some people have discovered themselves in the experience; others can only try to forget what they found out about their own depravity. The programme certainly made me think – what would I do in such a situation? I don't know and most of us don't know how we would stand up if our life were in the balance. Maybe, we can enjoy the benefits of peace because God is answering our prayer - “Save us from the time of trial.”

What we do know is that Jesus faced this trial – to choose to go to Jerusalem and to face suffering and death or to betray his mission and escape the torture. We know that he set his face like a flint and faced his destiny, that he wept tears like blood as he struggled with what was required of him. He passed the test. He was tortured to death rather than give in to the temptation to run away. And we see the result. In his death and resurrection we find a promise of eternal life. So some of us, who may be called by God to risk death rather than doing wrong, can know that for us, death itself can be a way out.

Trials and tests can come from many sources. It may be that the behaviour of others is what we find really trying. We have to cope both with what they do and our own reactions to it. The answer is not to become a permanent hermit. Although from the 3rd century or so this became a lifestyle which was honoured as being a highly spiritual way of devoting the self to communing with God, in some ways it is a cop-out. Yes the desert fathers had to endure loneliness and privation, but they didn't have to cope with screaming kids, a demanding boss, a dissatisfied wife, a baby that woke them at 4 in the morning, a church that was in conflict or friends who rang at inconvenient hours to talk about their boyfriends. Jesus showed us that there was value in being alone with God and that it could be a time of real spiritual growth, but even he only stayed in the wilderness for 40 days. Community, family, society are key elements in shaping us into the sort of people who God wants us to be.

One of the ways in which God makes us fit for the Kingdom of God is to be part of the people of God. In other words believers are supposed to be in churches, which may well be something of a trial to us. There are people who say that they believe in God but they can’t stand the church. Yet that is part of God’s refinement of us. How are we going to stand these people in heaven if we can’t stand them on earth?

Circumstances can be another great source of trial to us – illness, poverty, bereavement, disaster and loss can all test our faith. The question is how we respond to these. Do we blame God, wonder what we've done to deserve it?

Our reading points out that one of the chief sources of pain, grief and trial is ourselves. In fact, in every trial, it is ourselves that is the problem – and our responses to the things that happen to us. How much easier to talk about being tempted by the Devil – to put it outside ourselves and blame someone else. So right at the beginning of the Bible, Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent. But Satan wasn’t always the evil one. He started as the simple literary device we find in the book of Job of explaining circumstances as being brought about by the adversary, who is a servant of God who is like the Council for the prosecution in court to test people and to enable humans to become what they ought to be. As things progressed in the story of God’s people it wasn’t far from there to Satan developing into an evil one and then the quintessence of evil who is engaged in tempting people on his own account and for the defeat of God. So sin becomes more the Devil’s fault for tempting us, than our own – just as Adam said that Eve tempted him and Eve blamed the serpent.

There is another source of trial which is recognised by many who have tried to come near to God. That is the perception of the absence of God. It is the feeling that our prayers just bounce off the ceiling and God does not care. This dark night of the soul has been the experience of great mystics and ordinary believers. It’s worth mentioning that it is only a trial to those who love God and seek to walk in God's way and hope to enjoy the loving divine presence. Anyone else would not care and those who persevere through this painful time will find that their devotion is rewarded.

Like sin, the word 'temptation' has gone out of fashion and so has 'sanctification' but that is what we are talking about here. Yoder insists that there are not 2 things in Christian salvation – first of all being saved by Jesus death and then being made holy. Unlike evangelicals and Catholics, Mennonites have never made any great distinction between these two but see it all part of the believer's closer and closer walk with God. And I think that for many of us, that corresponds with our experience. Yet it is still worth thinking about the process by which we become fit for eternal life. We may be forgiven, but how do we stand up in the presence of God with our selfishness and greed? Sanctification is the process of making us more like Jesus, more a member of the household of God and less at home in this world. It is not an easy process, yet it is essential or else a loving God would not allow us to go through it. John Donne remarked that no-one has enough affliction who is not changed and refined by it.

That’s a miserable way to finish this sermon and so I want to read you a bit from the writing of E Stanley Jones. He was a missionary to India in the 30s and originated the phrase ‘the Nazareth Manifesto’ to describe Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth in Luke 4. Some of his books are in the Mennonite Centre library. One of these is ‘Victorious Living’. He wrote:

“Victorious living does not mean freedom from temptation. Nor does it mean freedom from mistakes. We are personalities in the making, limited and grappling with things too high for us. Obviously we, at our very best, will make many mistakes. But these mistakes need not be sins. Our actions are the results of our intentions and our intelligence. Our intention may be very good but because our intelligence is limited the action may turn out to be a mistake – a mistake, but not necessarily a sin. For sin comes out of a wrong intention. Therefore the action carries a sense of incompleteness and of frustration , but not of guilt…

Nor does it mean that we may not occasionally lapse into a wrong act, which may be called a sin. At that point we may have lost a skirmish, but it doesn’t mean we may not still win the battle. We may even lose a battle and still win the war. One of the differences between a sheep and a swine is that when a sheep falls into a mudhole it bleats to get out, while the swine loves it and wallows in it.”

So though we may be subject to trial and temptation we can choose to be swine or to be sheep. It all depends on what our attitude is and which direction we are going.