Sermon for Lent 2
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
‘If any would be my follower, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me’
When folk ask me how I’m settling in here in New Zealand, I have to say, pretty well. ‘So far so good!’ as the man said passing the 23rd floor of the skyscraper out of which he has just fallen’ 🙂 But there is one aspect of life here that it has taken some considerable time to adjust, and that is to do with Direction. I noticed this especially sharply when out in 2010 to come on interview, that is my sense of direction – which way is North, and which South. It wasn’t until I came out here that I realised how sharp my sense of direction was and how it was determined by the position of the sun in the sky. So when I came over I was constantly getting my North and South muddled up. You don’t realise you have a sense of direction, until you lose it. But this even extended to being inside, or more correctly being in a church building.
You may have noticed last week, how for a moment I struggled to tell you which side of the church you were all sitting on – because back in England a church was like a compass – it pointed East. So the altar was beneath the East window, and as I looked back down the church, North was to my Right and South to my Left. Indeed you didn’t have to be in a church to be so directed, for in the Church yard, all headstones also faced East – all towards Jerusalem – that at the second coming of Christ – all the dead would be raised facing the right way, and the Saints at worship would also be properly directed – Oriented towards Jerusalem, where tradition holds the Lord will appear.
But now I come into church – and my compass doesn’t work! So our ‘East Window’ is actually the South Window – I am disoriented – actually very literally, for the verb ‘to orient’ – which we take to mean to properly direct, comes from that English practise of lining churches up facing East, or towards the Orient – you Oriented the church – set it in the right direction.
Well, that is why metaphorically at least I should be grateful for Lent – for it is a time for Re-orientation – of retaking our bearings – of realigning our lives, not geographically, but personally – towards Christ. Christ who himself is Oriented – ‘towards his departure which he is about to accomplish at Jerusalem’. As I said at our Wednesday Eucharist – we face up to Reality. We clear away the overgrowth and the undergrowth – by taking ash on our foreheads we confront the deep truths of our lives – Dust you are and to dust you shall return – we are going to die – Repent and turn from your sins – we are sinners called to turn around – Re Orient our lives – face Christ – Believe the good News.
And we engage in this act of Repentance, this reorientation by denying ourselves – we don’t treat our lives as the supremely important thing. We fast – ‘my physical needs are not primary’ – we pray – more correctly we pray more, we make more time for prayer – ‘my schedule, my busy life is Not the main thing’ – and we give alms – ‘the real meaning of my life is not my security. If I am fortunate to have money beyond my most basic needs, then it isn’t for me – it is for others’. It is a Reality check on our lives, it is an opportunity given to us by the church in her wisdom to Orient our Lives once more upon Christ. To take our bearings from him – that with St Paul we might know which Direction it is that we must follow to ‘press on towards the goal’ – the heavenly call.
Now of course we may well hear those words of Paul, about the heavenly call, and then in the context of the gospel reading this morning, assume that this orientation involves us in some ethereal contemplation of Jesus upon the mount of Transfiguration – we might with Peter say ‘this is wonderful! – This is what it is all about! Lets stay here. Notice that he makes this request, Moses and Elijah are just leaving Jesus – once more Peter opens his mouth without knowing what he is saying. Just as he says to Jesus, This must never happen to you – so also he gets in the way. They are all going – Jesus is on his way – Peter wants to stop. Jesus tells Peter what is to happen, and Peter gets in his way – ‘Get thee behind me Satan, for you do not have the things of God in mind but the things of man’, Get out of my way!! you are facing the wrong way – So also the Cloud and the voice are given to Redirect – to Re Orient Peter. While [Peter] was saying this . . .’ a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.
As you know, I am just recently back from retreat – a whole week alone in the presence of God. Over and over folk say – I hope it was a lovely time, I hope it was a refreshing time, oh you are so fortunate – this sounds like bliss . . . judgement begins with the people of God – it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Whilst I do look forward to retreat, I know that in the end I am walking in with my own sentimentalised understanding of what a week in the presence of God is like. My own domesticated version of God, an idol, and not at all like Jesus.
They were terrified as they entered the cloud, and a voice came from the cloud, that said “This is my Son, my Chosen; Listen to him” Orienting our lives on Jesus, requires listening to him. We go into whatever our desert place is – that extra hour in the day we have carved out to prayer, to Listen to him. Our chief problem in the church always has been and always will be our deafness to what Jesus says. And so at every Eucharist we are exhorted “Hear the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .” and we respond “Praise and glory to God” and having heard “this is the gospel of Christ” “Praise to Christ the Word!”
Again, as I said last Wednesday, when we again heard the story of Jesus in the Wilderness being Tempted by the Devil, it’s worth asking ourselves “What was the Good News we heard in THAT!!!??” Put another way, are we hearing the Good News, Are we hearing Christ, do we begin to understand what it is he is saying? Peter what he must think of as “Oh the most wonderful of experiences” But he hasn’t heard . . . What has Jesus been talking about? Well he’s been talking with Moses and Elijah – ‘speaking [with them] of his departure which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem’
Luke seems to suggest that the disciples are not privy to Jesus conversation with Moses and Elijah – it was not for their ears. We might perhaps think this strange? Jesus is talking to Moses and Elijah and the disciples are half asleep. Listen to him?? Yes Listen to him – for Jesus had already spoken of these things with his disciples . . . our gospel begins with the words – about eight days after saying these things . . . what things? Jesus has just confirmed Peter’s suspisicion that he is the Messiah – Wonderful!! Good News!! and then he says “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” 23Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.
As Jesus later spoke with Moses and Elijah about his departure . . . so he has already spoken to the disciples . . . in terms that they have not heard, they have not Listened – this is my Son, the Chosen, Listen to Him – why should the voice say this except that they have not listened. There they are up the mountain – the dream like has become their reality – half asleep – AH! THis is it! But no – this is the dream – the reality was those words thay had not listened to “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Jesus has spoken of his departure – literally his Exodus – ‘Which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem . . .’ which He was about to accomplish. Which HE was about to accomplish . . . the hard word of the gospel is this – it is not about You – it is not about me – do you want ot save your life? you will lose it. But if you lose your life – then you will save it. The gospel is not about the fulfilment of our lives – it is about the end of them – so that His life might become everything. this Christian Life is All about Christ – it is not our life, it is His Life.
When God enters the covenant with Abraham this is made so very clear – I don’t know when you last made and agreement with someone who was asleep – but God puts Abraham out of the picture. A deep sleep fell over Abraham and God’s agreement is made with himself – it is between God – between the Father and the Son. He will accomplish it – All the glory will be His – my glory I share with no other. He does not entrust himself to a man, for he knew what was in a man . . . Peter has not listened – he has not got it. and as soon as they come down from the mountain, all hell breaks loose. Before the transfiguration, Jesus tells the disciples what the score is, but they do not listen – they think it is all about them. When Jesus comes down from the mountain, what does he find but whilst he has been away the other disciples have been trying to take things into their own hands. A boy is demon possessed, his father is at his wits end – the disciples have seen Jesus in action, and taken matters into their own hands – to absolutely no avail . . . its not about them, or what they do – they didn’t hear the words about having to lose their life – we can do this – and all hell has broken loose – the boy is dashed to the ground in convulsions – the fatherof the boy is at his wits end “I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not” and Jesus responds “you faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you”. Like the children of Israel long ago when Moses went up the mountain they cannot wait for God – their eyes cast around for ways in which They can take things into their own hands and Aaron casts them a golden calf – something to entice the eye, something to make them feel important, at the centre of things, with a respectable God like all the other nations – one that doesn’t speak.
So the disciples take matters into their own hands – they think it is all about them. Their lives need reorienting – redirecting, to Christ – to look to him – to listen to him, like him to live only in response to the word of the father. But this is such a hard hard lesson – it seems we are hard wired to make ourselves the centre of the story.
Yes – there is a time when we are called to act in the name of Jesus. But it comes hedged around with a terrible warning – a little later on Jesus sends out 70 disciples, and he tells them what to do – and so they go – and we know the story – they come back rejoicing – full of themselves’Lord in your name, even the demons submit to us” and Jesus calls them round and says, look, let me tell you something, Long time past I watched Satan fall like lightening from heaven’ His Sin – why did he fall? He wanted to be the centre of things – do Not rejoice in what you have done in my name “I am an unworthy servant – I have only done that which was asked of me” No Rejoice that your names are written in heaven. This is not about what you do, it is about what I have done
We NEED the disciplines of lent – we need to be radically decentered, dethroned – this Good News, this Gospel is NOT about us. Thank God!!