Sunday, 27 March 2011

Lent 3 – Trust God and tell the truth

Preacher: Sue

Readings: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; John 4:5-42

You can’t imagine how thirsty I was that evening – how thirsty we all were.

We’d been walking all day in the sun and the wind with hardly a pause. We were all parched and the children were crying.

Not for the first time, I couldn’t help wondering whether Moses really knew what he was doing.

OK, so life hadn’t been that great in Egypt but at least you always knew where your next meal was coming from. The work was hard, that’s true, but it got a whole load worse when Moses came on the scene – antagonised the Egyptians so they took it out on us. We cried out to God for help, for an easier life.

And then Moses has this great idea of leaving. And once it looked like enough of us were going to go, well we couldn’t very well stay could we? Didn’t feel like it would be very safe, just a few of us Hebrews left in amongst all those Egyptians. And what if they’d still expected us to fulfil the brick quotas with most of the workforce gone? So we had to go along with Moses.

But it was just one disaster after another, Moses clearly making it up as he went along. First of all the Nile. Well of COURSE there was a river in our way. What had he been thinking? Oh, and there was an army chasing us, so we got to choose between drowning or being massacred.

Well, at the last minute Moses got away with that – turned out there was a kind of marshy drier bit we could get across, being on foot, and the Egyptian army missed the way or were too heavy with all their horses or something and they drowned. Something like that anyway, I couldn’t really see what was happening. Anyway, we escaped by the skin of our teeth.

But then there we were in the wilderness. No water of course. Or at least there was but it was undrinkable – it was like Moses wanted us all dead. In the end he found some kind of wood that you can throw in and it makes the water drinkable after all. Desertcraft some people said – but his fancy desertcraft didn’t stop us getting hungry. But it was like Moses didn’t even notice – we always had to tell him what was wrong, tell him we were hungry, force him into doing something about it. In fact that time he didn’t lift a finger – we were just lucky to find some flaky stuff all over the ground the next day which it turned out we could eat – not exactly a varied diet but it kept the wolf from the door.

So there we were again on that evening, without water. It was just typical that Moses told us to camp where there wasn’t a spring for miles around. Moses is always going on about God leading us, God providing for us – but in that case how come we were in the middle of the wilderness AGAIN with not a drop to drink? I don’t think God’s with us at all. Don’t think God cares.

Although I must admit I did wonder whether God was with us, just for a while that evening. Against all the odds Moses was wandering around, so furious he was just kicking things and hitting rocks with his stick (well, that’s what I’ve heard, I wasn’t actually there) and as if by magic one of the rocks kind of split open a bit and water came gushing out, clear and cool and delicious and - well, we were all there like a shot as you can imagine and so Moses got away with it for another day.

Well, I hope you both recognised and didn’t recognise this story. Of course it culminates in the passage from Exodus 17 we’ve just had read, but it also presents a rather different version of the earlier chapters of Exodus. This is the Exodus story retold from the perspective of someone who longs for a comfortable life, who isn’t really up for radical change, who rewrites the past to justify their bad behaviour or at least to suit their current perspective – and who doesn’t like being hungry or thirsty, especially at the end of a long tiring day.

Which is probably why I found it so easy to get into character. This is me all over.

Or maybe there was something about the Israelites’ predicament that drew me in. They are on the move, travelling away from the settled and familiar (if, in their case, also nightmarish) but they are far from arriving, indeed they don’t really know where they are heading or how long it will take them to get there. Perhaps that sounds familiar… And in this kind of inbetween maybe it is easier to behave badly, to allow each fresh setback to pitch us into despair, to blame others and fail to notice what we have contributed to a problem or could contribute to resolving it.

In one way, or course, the Israelites’ concern is perfectly reasonable. Water is a basic human need.

But look at the way they react. They are straight into scapegoating-the-leader mode, refusing to share responsibility for taking sensible action as well as rewriting the story of their journey so far. "Give us water to drink," they say to Moses “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?"

One of the things I really appreciate about sharing in leadership in this church is that, whatever may flit through people’s minds from time to time in private, I don’t think I have ever been given the message that I – or I and my fellow elders – carry sole responsibility for resolving difficult situations or sole blame for things that go wrong. I think we can hope that if a few WGMC-ers had been around, they might have been saying to Moses, “we’re all very thirsty, what shall we do about it?” rather than demanding that Moses sort it out.

However, it’s not just scapegoating the leader and shirking responsibility that are the issue here. It’s also the way the Israelites rewrite the story of the Exodus in two ways. Firstly it’s not God’s gracious rescue of them from slavery, forced labour and persecution, in response to their cries of despair and distress, but Moses’ pet project. And secondly although they were happy enough to ask God to intervene back when they were in slavery, now they have escaped they question God’s faithfulness: "Is the Lord among us or not?"

And rewriting the story and forgetting God’s faithfulness are a temptation for all of us – or perhaps I just think they are because they are a temptation for me.

So, finally to arrive at some T words (following Chris’s challenge to give this sermon a title beginning with T to match Veronica’s sermon on temptation and Chris’s on transfiguration and transformation), I think this passage brings us some reminders about trusting God and telling the truth.

Since leaving Egypt, the Israelites had already three times experienced God’s intervention at a time of crisis: as they needed to cross the Nile to escape the Egyptian army, when there was no drinking water and when there was no food. Yet they couldn’t trust God in this new crisis… To pick up an idea from Chris’s sermon last week, it seems they’d experienced the potentially transfiguring moment without being transformed by it.

Last Sunday Jane encouraged us to remember times of transition and uncertainty and look there for signs of God’s presence and provision. I suspect that this is a good habit to cultivate – remembering God’s promises and provision not only in the bible but also in our own lives and drawing encouragement to trust God in new uncertainty.

And I think we should ask God – and perhaps, more scarily, each other – to keep us accountable for trying to be honest in how we tell our stories and the story of the church. There’s a temptation to tell the story in a way that makes us look reasonably good or at least justifies our weaknesses and failures.

Lesley touched on this in her sermon 18 months ago on the phrase from the Lord’s prayer, “forgive us our sins”. She talked about the way we all construct an internal narrative about ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with that; as Lesley says, it’s essential to our sense of identity, but here’s the risk: “we want to be the hero of the tale, so we explain things to ourselves in a way that shows ourselves in the best light. We do not believe we are sinful. We make excuses and justifications for our actions.” Lesley pointed out that for a murderer at a Parole Board one of the criteria for early release is “whether the person admits the crime, is remorseful and empathises with the victims”.

That made me wonder, if I was facing a Parole Board, would I pass the test of truly taking responsibility for what I’ve done over the years, the mistakes and cruelties, the cowardices and the lazinesses? Or would I tell it in a neat little self-justifying narrative?

And as we think about the future of the church and the choices that have brought us to this point, can we tell the story honestly? Can we recognise our shortcomings, personal or corporate, and acknowledge where others including God may have been right or wise or gracious while we were wrong or foolish or ungracious?

So if Exodus 17 reminds us to trust God and tell the truth, what about Psalm 95, presumably chosen by lectionary compilers for its apparent reference to the Exodus passage. Indeed it appears to retell that story. It rejoices at God’s care for his people as a shepherd dependable as a rock. But then it pulls itself up short – “O that today you would listen to his voice! Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness”. Well, that is clearly good advice which the narrator of my first few minutes would have done well to heed and which the writer of Hebrews underlines: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”

But listen to the next bit. “Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. For forty years I loathed that generation and said, "They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they do not regard my ways." Therefore in my anger I swore, "They shall not enter my rest."

In our Exodus passage God doesn’t complain about the people’s lack of trust but just instructs Moses on find water from a rock. The people complain, Moses turns to God in frustration and God responds graciously and generously to human need.

The psalmist though knows how this pattern was repeated again and again in the Israelites wilderness wanderings and how, in two incidents in the book of Numbers (14 & 20) God does lose patience and warns that, as punishment first for the people and then for Moses and Aaron too, only two trusting and hopeful spies will still be alive by the time the Israelites make it into the promised land.

But it’s interesting that in retelling the story the psalmist is rather harder on the Israelites than God was at the time and shows God running out of patience much earlier than we see in Exodus and Numbers.

And there, I think, is another risk for us as we construct our narratives – sometimes we are much less gracious than God is. I think there’s a challenge here for us as we continue in uncertainty and enter a period of thinking about the church’s calling which will surely in part at least grow out of its story: while seeking to tell the story honestly, let’s also try to learn God’s graciousness with our personal and corporate failings. Let’s not be harder on ourselves, on others or on the church than God is.

Let’s turn finally to John chapter 4 with its rich resonance with the other two passages so resonantly through the theme of water and longed for refreshment.

In John 2, Jesus has been at the wedding of Cana where noone really gets his miracle with water and wine, much though the guests appreciate the fine wine, and then at the temple where noone really gets what his Father’s house is for, and then he’s had the night time conversation with Nicodemus who doesn’t really get what Jesus means by being born again.

And then in John 4 he finally meets someone who does get it. Admittedly it takes a while, but the Samaritan woman gets there. Maybe it’s the surprise of Jesus talking to someone who by being both female and Samaritan is doubly out of bounds for a Jewish man to talk to or maybe it’s the inspired twists and turns of conversation –but something brings the woman to a strong suspicion that she has just met the Messiah.

And just look at the change in her. We’re often told that the reason the woman has come to the well in the hot middle of the day and apparently alone, rather than in the cool of the morning or evening with the other women, is that she is a social outcast, probably connected in some way with the number of husbands she’s had. Maybe her husbands have divorced her because she’s been unfaithful (or just a bad cook?!) and the other women despise her for this – or maybe they’ve divorced her because she hasn’t been able to produce a child for any of them and her infertility hangs about her like bad luck or her grief makes her uncomfortable company.

Anyway, whatever the reason, she arrives outcast and alone and yet – and here’s a bit I’d never noticed or questioned before - somehow finds herself able – and indeed eager – to rush back to the village and talk to everyone, to tell everyone all about Jesus. And not only that, they listen, and rush out to meet Jesus for themselves. So the outcast apparently becomes reintegrated into society, accepted and even respected.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Lent 2 - Transfiguration

Preacher: Chris

Readings: Gen 12:1-4a; Ps 121; Rom 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17 or Matt 17:1-9

I have titled the theme of my sermon today ‘Transfiguration’ following in line with last week’s sermon on the ‘Temptation’ of Jesus in the desert, since alliterative titles are clearly a vital and necessary sign of a holy and well-conceived sermon series. I leave it to next week’s preacher—Sue, I believe—to fall in line, making whatever wranglings of text or theology are necessary in order to come up with an appropriate T-starting sermon theme title.

So, as the title suggests, I am going to spend the sermon-minutes today reflecting and ruminating on the event of Jesus’ transfiguration. I would like to bring into the reflection the passages we have heard previously, detailing the Abrahamic story of God’s promise, the sacrifice of Isaac, and then Paul’s commentary in Romans on Abraham’s justification. I would also like to weave in elements of my own background and personal journey.

I am strongly drawn to images and stories of transformation. I am attracted by this idea that an object, a person, a life can, in a moment, become radically altered. The Bible is full of such moments, and we can read Jesus’ transfiguration in connection with them. Take Saul on the road to Damascus, when Jesus stopped him and said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’. Saul was blinded by the vision of Jesus before him, the light of the world piercing his eyes, and for three days, Saul’s sight slept, as in a tomb, until one of God’s messengers touched him, and scales, like grave clothes, fell from his eyes, and he became Paul. I wonder what metamorphosis overtook him in that darkness, when the scales fell from his eyes—was it like coming out of the womb into the light of day for a second time? These moments of radical transformation are enticing in part because they involve a direct and seemingly sudden interaction between the human and the divine. Saul is at one moment Saul, an event occurs (really only covered in a few short verses), and Saul is now Paul. The whiplash must have been extreme.

And to continue the examples, prior to his own transfiguration, Jesus was already speaking about this Divine movement, a Divine change in being. The alternative Gospel reading for today was from John 3. To be honest, I dismissed it right out of hand, opting for the passage from Matthew, because John 3 more than any other passage of scripture recalls to my mind a childhood of Bible study, scripture memorization, conservative church culture, prayer meetings, accountability groups, mission trips, and Sunday morning services. Not that any of these things is in and of themselves bad—but they have collectively formed a system which I have found painful. So, John 3:16: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son...’ etc etc is the sign and hallmark of my previous relationship to God. In John 3, Jesus also speaks about being ‘born again’. Thus:

3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.[a]” 4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit[b] gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You[c] must be born again.’

And therein lies the phrase that dominates evangelical Christian culture—to be ‘born again’. A re-birth; a literal renaissance. Change, transformation, transfiguration are bound up in notions of the kingdom of God; they are, as Jesus says, the entry points of the kingdom. So in the story of the transfiguration, Jesus’ final line is: ‘ 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”’ A momentous change has taken place, and Jesus points his disciples to a time in the near future that signals the start of a new order: when ‘the Son of Man has been raised from the dead’.—when a second, perhaps more mighty transfiguration has taken place (that of the revitalization of the dead body)—ushering in the Kingdom of God.


If you will indulge me for a moment, I would like to pull the schoolboy essay trick of quoting from the dictionary for some easy content. I, however, feel wholly justified in doing so since I spend several hours a day pleading with the Oxford English Dictionary to tell me the definitions of words that went out of fashion four centuries ago. Anyway, back to the topic at hand: definitions. I have been using a general vocabulary of change so far in this sermon—transformation, transfiguration, change, metamorphosis, but in the passage about Jesus, the Bible translation chooses to use the word ‘transfiguration’ (and, indeed, the word ‘transfiguration’ is so connected to this particular passage of Scripture, that one of its definitions is ‘the change in appearance of Jesus Christ on the mountaintop’. But its primary definition is: ‘transfiguration n. the action of transfiguring or state of being transfigured; metamorphosis.’ The noun form of the word is related to its verb ‘to transfigure’ which comes with its own definition: ‘to alter the figure or appearance of; to change in outward appearance; to transform’. I find the slight differences in definition to be quite interesting, as the two definitions appear to be in tension with one another. The verb ‘transfigure’ refers to outside shape—‘to change in outward appearance’. The noun—‘transfiguration’—however is glossed as a ‘metamorphosis’ which can involve more than a change in outward appearance, but is rather conceptualized as a ‘complete change’. In the span of time between verse one and verse eight, Jesus undergoes a radical experience. He is—the verb—transfigured. But perhaps the transfiguration—the noun— is about more than a change in outward appearance, and is in fact more representative of a culmination of all that’s gone on before rather than a sudden and momentary experience. The transfiguration then took place not instantaneously on a mountaintop but slowly, starting even at his birth, and continuing through his time of temptation in the desert, through his ministry, and here—on this high mountain—the change, which has been sub-ficial, sub-dermal, manifests itself in an awe-filled and luminescent moment.

I have, to this point, been spouting some rather disorganized thoughts about transformation and transfiguration—though the sermon may pass the T-in-the-title test, it likely fails the ‘three points and a conclusion’ test. But then, I am not sure that there are always clear points to be drawn from instances of change. We may be able to examine the causes leading up to it, or the effects proceeding from it, but the moment itself is often hard to pin down. I would now like to shift to a question: what about after the transfiguring event? Here I would now like us to recall the passages that were heard relating to Abraham.

The first Genesis passages concern God’s promise to Abraham—to make him a great nation, to bless him and through him, to bless all people. During the second passage we see God’s test of Abraham and the sacrifice—or attempted sacrifice—of Isaac. And finally in the Romans passage we hear Paul’s commentary on Abraham as a man justified by faith.

Kierkegaard in his short but powerful work ‘Fear and Trembling’ ruminates on the Abrahamic story and the Abrahamic journey of faith. It has been a few years since I have read the book, but one of the more striking ideas I remember from it is Kierkegaard’s assertion that the real test of faith for Abraham comes not from the ‘will he or willn’t he’ of the sacrificing Isaac bit, but rather the return to society—the coming down from the mountain, and the re-accepting of his son ‘with joy’ as Kierkegaard describes it. Or, the reintegration into life as it was before. While you may have been distracted by all that business going on in verses 1-18 of the Genesis passage, verse 19 is in fact a key phrase ‘Then Abraham returned to his servants’. Because that’s just it—no life can go on ‘just as before’ after such an experience. Something has fundamentally altered—something life altering has happened, has been done to Abraham. The angel stayed his hand, but what must Abraham think of a relationship with a god who would put him into such a situation in the first place? Yes, he has demonstrated a resignation of his will to the Almighty by going up the mountain, even by placing his son on the altar, but he demonstrates faith in the going down the mountain, in continuing onward. This is Kierkegaard’s admiration for Abraham: that Abraham could resign himself to God’s command and then receive Isaac back with joy. The mountain for Abraham is his own transfigurative experience.

I think the idea of transformation, even in a seeming instant, resonates with me because of my own experience of transformation. Indeed, I would imagine that all of us have experienced these moments which, like Jesus’ sudden change on the mountaintop, seem to clarify all that has gone before and significantly alter all that will come after. Personally, my own coming to terms with my sexual identity was just such a defining moment—in one moment a blithe asexual and in another moment a deeply frightened homosexual. The mental transfiguration that occurred felt like a mountaintop experience—not in the glorious sense as Jesus’ experience on his mountaintop but rather in a harrowing test sense as Abraham’s experience on his mountaintop. As I look back on that period of change in my life, I identify with Abraham’s transformative experience but also with Kierkegaard’s skeptical admiration. How can we understand change that is both monumental and painful, and can we continue to relate to God in the same way after the moment of transfiguration? In response to the second question, I think ‘no, change in ourselves alters our relationship to God’—but I do not think it must necessarily change our relationship with God. I am not ‘Christian’ in the same sense or even same terminology as I was two years ago—I do not seek to convert the masses, and, as mentioned, I have problems relating to standard tenants (and even verses) of evangelical Christianity. But at the same time, transformation has placed me in a new position to consider and relate with God.

One more thought before I conclude: I have been listening to many podcasts over the last three months since one of my jobs involves some fairly mindless work. Recently I’ve been listening to the speeches and sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. through the Black Media Archive. I was listening to his speech to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1961, and he begins talking about an old order, represented by prejudice, racism, and injustice giving way to a new order, a time in which justice and civil rights will extend to the African-American community and the wider global community. But he says something very perceptive about the transition-ry period: he says that we must not walk with bitterness into the new age. That the pain caused by the old and reflected in the time of transition itself must be let go of if we are to walk unencumbered into the new. The change Jesus undergoes on the mountaintop is both figuratively and literally a ‘mountaintop experience’—a highlight, but prefiguring the dark road that lies ahead to the Cross, a time at which he chooses to release bitterness by saying ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ He is free to enter into death—but he is also free to enter into a resurrected life.


To conclude: transformation is both individual and social—Jesus, in a single verse, is transfigured. But he is also transfigured ‘before them’, that is, before the disciples. The change takes place or manifests itself in Jesus because the disciples are also experiencers and participants in it. And not just the disciples, but Elijah and Moses, as well. And the force and nature of the change is strong and overwhelming for the witnesses. Peter, no doubt shocked and confused, says the first thing he can think of: ‘I will build three shelters for you’. Not only is the statement just a bit, well, off—but it also misses the point. Jesus is transfigured, he becomes ‘white as the light’—the change is a visible one, one to be witnessed, not sheltered. The moment of change is, itself, a glorious moment, but it cannot be sheltered in the sense of hidden, nor can it be sheltered in the sense of contained, or maintained and perpetuated. A shrine to change somewhat misses the point.

So as we consider moments of change in our own lives, and as we experience this time of transition in the life of our church—notably in how and where we worship and in how congregational life will appear in the passing of the LMC and the arrival of a new centre, let us recognize that these moments are inspired and touched by the Divine. And that our responsibility is to enter into it with hands that are not clenched but rather open-facedly welcoming the new.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Lent 1 - Temptation

Preacher: Veronica

Readings: see below

I hope you’ll forgive me for starting this sermon with ‘one of me pomes’ - a rare one that’s in rhyme and metre.


In Eden's sun the woman basks,
she works, plays, loves as each day asks
and knows not she is God's mirror and sign;
till, curving elegant his tail,
the serpent (who is surely male)
insinuates a lack of the divine.

'To be like God' - a worthy goal
for any self-improving soul,
an offer she, or man, can scarce disdain.
Poor Eve! Why won't she realise right now
she's able, strong and wise
with nothing but the choice of good to gain?

Yet still the priests perpetuate the lie
that led to Eden's gate
and raised the fiery sword our bliss to bar:
still women make the same mistake
and bow to some religious snake
who tells us we are not the gods we are.

This poem explores a favourite idea of mine about the story of the Fall. This is that the serpent is actually offering the woman something she already has. He holds out to her the chance to become ‘like God’ by eating the forbidden fruit; but in fact we have already heard in the first creation story in Gen 1, that she and the man are in the image of God. So the serpent’s trick - and we are told that he is tricky - is to make her think she is less than this, and has something to gain.

I also have another favourite theory - that the reason the serpent tries out the woman first rather than the man, is not just because she has only heard the command second hand, but because her instinct on acquiring this new knowledge is to share the fruit. If the man had taken it first, he might have decided to keep his new knowledge to himself, to get one over on his partner. It’s only a theory, and this is an ancient, mysterious story that has a number of profound things to say about human nature. But one thing it could be saying, based on my theory, is that when we are tempted or tested, it is often our best human qualities that are used against us. In fact in the story of Genesis 3, the goodness of humanity is the only weapon the serpent has, because at the point of temptation, humankind has not discovered its divided self, constantly torn between good and evil. All that humanity knows, before eating the fruit, is goodness.

Another profound thing the story says to me is that God gives humans radical freedom. God’s first words to the couple are words of permission to eat from every tree in the garden - except one. But God does not make it impossible for them to eat from the forbidden tree - all God does is to warn them that this would have consequences. Melvyn Bragg’s ‘In our time’ programme recently, was all about free will and whether it exists. I didn’t have time to listen to it all, as I had this sermon to write, but I heard enough to hear something about scientific determinism, and about Calvinism. Well, I don’t know much about determinism or Calvinism, but I fail to see how anyone could read the story of Eden and not think that human beings are made to have free will. There is a genuine choice before this primal human couple: they can trust God and do what God says, or they can try to get hold of something God has not, as yet, given them.

You could of course argue that ever since humankind first sinned, we no longer have free will but our actions are determined by our sinfulness. This seems to be what Paul is arguing in Romans 7:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate... Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

Our will is compromised and we do not have the capacity to do everything the way we might like to do it. We can make a good choice over a particular action, but we clearly don’t have the choice to do everything right all the time - that is beyond human ability.

This might sound like determinism, but Paul makes it quite clear in this passage and elsewhere that in Christ we have freedom to make right choices. Also he suggests in Romans 2 that those who do not know God can still do good by the light of nature:

When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts (Romans 2:14-15).

So actually, Paul is quite clearly teaching freedom of moral choice even for those who do not consciously follow Jesus.
What does all this musing about determinism and free will have to say to our Gospel passage for the beginning of Lent - a passage so well known that at first I despaired of having anything new to say about it?

Let’s go back to that theory about the serpent using the woman’s good qualities against here. Satan (which simply means ‘the accuser’, or we might say ‘the counsel for the prosecution’), uses Jesus’ own divine status as God’s son, to try to distort the shape Jesus’ mission will take. The phrases usually translated ‘If you are the Son of God’, can also be accurately translated ‘Since you are the Son of God’. It’s as if Satan knows that since Jesus’ baptism, Jesus will have no real doubt about whether he is specially called by God. So rather than sowing doubt, what Satan is doing here is to take the benefits of being God’s son, and use them against him. The facts that God will feed Jesus, protect him and give him power, are not in themselves bad things. What is happening is that Jesus is invited to use them in ways that will completely skew the nature of his ministry, right at the start.

First Jesus is invited by Satan to use miracles as spectacular demonstrations of power, rather than what he in fact goes on to do, which is to perform miracles in response to human need. Likewise in the second temptation, he is invited to expect a life free of difficulties, where God will miraculously airlift him out of all dangerous situations; but in fact his mission will lead to torture and death, and he never loses sight of this. Thirdly, he is encouraged to use the methods of the world to rule the world, rather than using the methods of the upside-down kingdom, where the Son of God must endure death to win victory over the powers of death.

What is striking is that when Jesus has resisted these offers from Satan, all the gifts he has refused from Satan actually get given to him by God. The angels that Satan promised would catch him falling from the Temple, do indeed come along to comfort him and feed him, not in response to a reckless act, but in response to his human need. There’s an echo of the story of Elijah, Israel’s favourite prophet, being fed in the wilderness by ravens. Actually the word translated ‘ravens’ could in fact be translated as ‘foreigners’, which puts a whole new complexion on Elijah’s experience. And like Elijah’s crisis point, which comes after his triumph on Mount Carmel, Jesus’ crisis also comes after the high of his baptism. It’s been my experience that trials often come to us in the same way. When I was in my first term at university, I had a dramatic spiritual experience which some would call ‘baptism in the Spirit’. But very soon afterwards I had a big low, partly provoked by falling in unrequited love with a Jewish fellow student, who by the way is now a Buddhist lama. It sometimes seems that every new step we take in faith, has then to be followed by a situation where that faith is tested out - a bit like breaking in your new walking boots.

Jesus does resist all the temptations, even when Satan uses his own weapon of Scripture against him. And that’s another argument for free will: if he was predetermined to resist, it would hardly have been worth bothering to tempt him, and his apparent commitment to God’s way would not really be commitment at all. Jesus freely accepted the upside down way of the kingdom, where suffering is redemptive and apparent defeat is victory. And because he chose this way, as Paul says in the passage we heard from Romans 5, he was able to fulfil the call that other human beings, represented by Adam and Eve, could not. So he became ‘the second Adam’, the representative of humankind, who both shows the best that humanity can be, and suffers the worst that humanity can dish out.

So what about us? Are Jesus’ temptations peculiar to his role as Son of God? You might think the particular nature they take could only apply to Jesus as he starts his ministry. But I think they are ours too, as we are called to replicate the life of Jesus in our own lives. As we seek to follow him in living Christlike, cross-shaped lives, we will encounter similar challenges and questions. We don’t expect to turn stones into bread, but we may expect God to perform miracles for our own benefit, or to make people come to our church. Wouldn’t it be great if God performed some spectacular miracle of healing in our church and people heard about it and started flocking to our door? But they would be ‘rice Christians’, as the missionaries used to call them - they would have come to Jesus for what they could get, and not for love of God.

Similarly we don’t expect to be able to leap from the top of a building and have angels catch us. But we may expect comfortable lives in which God gives us everything we want at all times - witness the popularity of the ‘Footprints’ poem. It’s a clever poem, but the reality is that even if God is really ‘carrying us’ when times are hard, we will probably not know this and only have a sense of God’s absence. And perhaps there are times when God wants us to walk in the dark, having no light to guide us except our trust in God and our past experiences of rescue.

We don’t think God will let us rule the world, but some of us come perilously close to wanting to. One of the main things that first attracted me to Anabaptism was that Anabaptists did not believe we could change the world just by having more Christians in political power, or by organizing marches for Jesus and singing ‘Into our hands he will give the ground we claim’. We have had a succession of professing Christians in the most powerful job in the world, President of the USA - but did the world get transformed as a result? Did it ‘eck as like. Even now that we have a Christian president whose politics we might be more sympathetic to, his hands seem to be tied by other professing Christians who think he is the devil incarnate. It certainly doesn’t look as though Christians having political power is the route to the Kingdom of God.

So what can we do to avoid falling into these kinds of temptations? My poem suggests that if Eve had seen herself clearly as a person in God’s image, a daughter of God in fact, she might not have been so easily deceived. Likewise, Jesus’ answers to Satan is in effect: ‘I know I am the Son of God, I don’t need to prove it to you or the world, or even to myself. And I will fulfil my role as the Son of God in God’s way, not in the way of the world’.

For us this might mean realizing we are already walking miracles, through our creation and redemption in Jesus. We don’t need either to believe six impossible things before breakfast or to demonstrate six impossible things before lunch, in order to be signs of God’s kingdom to others. Nor do we need to have a successful, ‘victorious’ life in order to attract others to the Jesus we follow. Our victories may be small, hidden and unspectacular - indeed we may be called to witness to God through our brokenness rather than our prosperity. And if we are involved in the corridors of power in however small a way (and just about everyone has some power in their lives), we can choose to exercise that power sacrificially rather than use the conventional tools of powermongering.

Our power to withstand temptation may be limited - as Oscar Wilde said, ‘I can resist everything except temptation’. But the Spirit of Jesus lives in us, and is slowly transforming us into people who instinctively do good. In the meantime, both the story of the Fall and Psalm 32 which we read together, remind us that there is always forgiveness when we are ready to ask for it. In the Fall story, God does not in fact kill the first humans and thus wipe out the human race at its start. God forgives them and takes measures which will limit the amount of damage their sin does in the world, and enable them to live in a new, less than perfect situation. And as we know, God’s eventual solution is to identify fully with our sin and to break the power of violence by Jesus’ non-violent life, death and resurrection. Whatever we take up or give up in Lent, it is not to gain spiritual brownie points, but to make us more able to live our lives in the light of Jesus - to live a resurrection life.


Genesis 2:15-27 and 3:1-7

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”...
...Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” 4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Psalm 32

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.
You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.
I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.
Many are the torments of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

Romans 5:12-19

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.
15But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
18Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle
of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Lent homily

Preacher: Peter

Jeremiah 6:10-15
Matthew 13:31-32
James 1:19-25

Well, we have come to the end of a fascinating and challenging journey – our sermon series on environmental issues. There have been many highlights, but perhaps my favourite moment was discovering during Jane’s sermon the other week that speaking about animals in church is “an abomination”. Anyway, if you want to review the excellent material that was presented to us, you can find most of it on our sermon blog.

So, I have somehow landed the awkward job of challenging us to actually do something about all this. As James said in our 3rd reading, hearing the message is all well and good, but it is critically important (unless we want to fall into self-deception) to act on what we have heard.

It seems to be human nature to ignore our prophets. As in Jeremiah’s day, we prefer to listen to the people who say “Peace, peace” even when there is no peace. In a recent interview James Lovelock, father of modern climate science, foretold the coming climate catastrophe in the starkest terms. Much of Europe Saharan by 2040. Britain a lifeboat for refugees from Europe. 80% of the world’s population dead of starvation by 2100.

The scale and seriousness of the current environmental crisis is enormous. It would be easy to despair - in fact James Lovelock does seem to have despaired. According to him climate change is now irreversible, and the best we can do is enjoy life while we still can. But we are Christians, and we believe in the God of hope. And the power of small beginnings. Jesus’s parable of the mustard seed encourages us not to despair, but to trust that God can use even seemingly insignificant acts of faith and discipleship to transform the world. In his book Planetwise, Dave Bookless quotes Nick Spence and Robert White: “Climate change is not one big, intractable problem but billions of tiny tractable ones.”

So my challenge, to myself as well as to you, is to do something small and mustard-seedy this Lent, a little gesture of love and care towards creation. Often our Lent disciplines are turned inwards towards self-improvement or a slimmer waistline. But this year maybe our Lent can look outwards, inspired by our sermon series to take on a discipline which, if only for a few weeks, will mean that we are living more lightly in God’s world.

There are plenty of places to go for ideas. Tear Fund are suggesting a Climate Fast for Lent this year, with all sorts of ideas. For example:
• Turn your heating down to 17ÂșC and wear more clothes.

• Cook simply with local and seasonal food.

• Save time and emissions by not ironing unless absolutely essential. (I’ve been doing this for years but perhaps for the wrong reasons!)

• Meatless Monday. If everyone in the UK gave up meat once a week, the emissions savings would equal taking 5 million cars off the road.

• Power down. Have a technology-free day. It cuts carbon and gives you space.

• Buy only products with little or no packaging.

• Pray every time you throw something in the bin.

• Give up baths for Lent (I know some of you probably do this already!) Take a quick shower instead.

• Learn how to sew, knit or darn, so you can make and mend rather than buy new.

• Start growing vegetables, herbs and fruit in your garden. If you don’t have one, use pots on a windowsill or in a sunny spot indoors.

Here’s something from the A Rocha website:

• Plant a tree. As well as sequestering some carbon you’ll be providing a little bit of habitat for birds and insects. If you have no garden or no space in your garden there are plenty of ways to fund or help with tree-planting further afield.

And a couple of suggestions inspired by Dave Bookless in Planetwise:

• Put the car away for Lent and walk cycle or bus instead. Or maybe if that’s too difficult enjoy a careless carless day just once a week.

• An Easter electric fast! Bookless describes how one year he and his family did without electricity and gas from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. This involved, among other things, going to bed when it gets dark or sitting chatting by candlelight, and going out into the garden to build a fire to heat the water for a morning cup of tea.

So you’re probably all hating me by now. No-one likes receiving smug suggestions for more righteous living. I suppose I guessed this might happen when I accepted this assignment.

No-one is saying you should do all these things – and some of them may well be part of your lifestyle already. But please think about using this Lent as an opportunity to respond creatively to all the thinking, preaching and studying we have done together over the last few months about our place in the community of God’s creation.