Sermon for Lent 1 – Year C – Sunday February 17th 2013

Sermon for Lent 1 – 2013 – Year C
Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

‘that we may receive mercy and find grace in time of need . . .’

Just this week I heard the story of a man who was in some dire circumstances in his life and went in search of help to a monastery. As is the custom, he was given a director for his time of retreat and he poured out all his problems to the monk, but the monk didn’t respond to them, instead he told him to spend the day meditating on a portion of scripture. Well the man went to his room and for the whole day meditated on the scripture – but nothing came, nothing happened.
The next morning her returned to the monk and told him and started to tell him all his problems again, after all THAT was what he wanted sorting out, but again the monk didn’t respond to anything the man had sent, and gave him a passage from scripture to meditate on – the same one. So again, the man went away and spent another day with this passage – and it was like a brick wall to him – it wasn’t giving him answers – it wasn’t solving his problem. Well the third morning he goes back to the director and the same thing happens, he tries to pour it all out to this monk who doesn’t seem to be interested in him and his problems and again the monk gives him the same passage of scripture, and about half way through the day, God broke through.

What this story illustrates is how distracted we are, how consumed with ourselves -the man was so tied up listening to his story and rehearsing it over and over again, it took God two and a half days to get through to him. And in many ways, distraction is the root of our problems. This past week I have been on retreat. Seven days ‘Away from it all!!’ Sounds wonderful doesn’t it. Seven days when you can leave everything behind and just concentrate on God . . . Well you only need to go away from everything else – all those things that you think are getting in the way of your relationship with God, to understand that they follow you – you carry them around with you. That the problem you have Isn’t with all those people and situations – it is the problem of your heart, that wants to pay attention to anything, rather than to God.

Put yourself in the situation of that man at the monastery – I wonder – could we meditate on a short passage of scripture for an hour, even . . . he has to sit with it for two and a half days, so distracted is he. The problem isn’t that the scriptures are unclear, it is that we are deaf ad blind and we need healing, we need the distractions stripped away. We don’t know how distracted we are from God, until God is all we have

Way back, in the Garden, the snake employs just this technique. The MAn and the Woman had their attention on God, and like a conjourer, the snake distracts them, and all of a sudden God has disappeared – Here ‘look at this tree, look how good the fruit is to eat, don’t pay attention to God . . . and they look at the tree’. And distracted, they forget whose children they are, they forget what the source of their life is . . . And here is the tragedy – we forget who we are – this is why we sin. We forget whose children we are.

And so we come to the season of Lent – it is a time when we follow Jesus into the wilderness – it is a time of preparing ourselves for Easter, and there is only one way we can do that, by dying to our selves – by refusing to make ourselves and our endless stories about our lives the centre of everything. And Lent to be properly observed needs to have Wilderness space in it – Empty space – Space where you are just left with yourself, without distractions – place where we discover that in general we have ordered the universe around ourselves not God

Jesus full of the Spirit, returned from the Jordan, returned from his baptism where God had declared him to be his Son and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil for forty days. Tempted, tested – had that word from heaven, had that sense of who he was, had it sunk into the very fibre of his being? – or was it just another thought – ready to be blown away. Everyone of the temptations a distraction from the Life of God his Father.  – Everyone of the temptations to deny God – to deny who he was, cleverly dressed up as an opportunity to prove who he was, to make himself the centre of the story.

he was famished, and the devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God . . . an invitation not to faith but to doubt . . . command this stone to become a loaf of bread’ As Alexander Schmemann notes – the temptation involves food, just like the apple in the garden of Eden – food is a great distraction. We even eat to avoid things. Unlike Adam and Eve of course, Jesus is famished – they are so much more like us – they have Everything they could possibly need. Jesus is alone, with no food, and here he reveals how it is God, not the food that is the true source of his life. God my Father is the provider . . . I rest in his provision.

I am reminded here of the challenging words of Jesus in John’s gospel, my food is to do the will of the one who sent me – my life is found in humble obedience to my father, he will provide all I need. I wonder if we know what it is to feed on doing the will of God?

Again Satan comes to him – Shows him . . . how easily we are distracted by what we see . . . shows him all the kingdoms of the world . . .  ‘Just worship me and you can do whatever you want!’ ‘If I ruled the world, every day would be the first day of spring . . . If I was the king of the Jungle, I tell you we’d have this place sorted out in no time . . . how easily we think to ourselves that God doesn’t know what he is doing – how readily we seek to assume command . . . all this will be yours – turn your attention from God at the centre and then you will be able to put everything right – the Central delusion of modern life in a secular age – we can fix it

all you have to do . . . note how each of the temptations is carefully crafted – just turn the stones into bread, just worship me, just throw yourself down – the consequences hidden – just eat the fruit of the tree – you have everything to gain – the losses carefully hidden. The gain seems so great, the disobedience so small – after all you are Very hungry, after all surely to rule all things is what its about, after all it would be worth it, just to check that God’s word was sure, no? Just a little test??

This is the very nature of sin, small subtle distractions from God – generally none of us face temptations to commit adultery or murder or steal of go to court and lie about our neighbours – rather we’re just distracted – and gradually we are led deeper and deeper into the woods and then wonder – where is God. We’re distracted by what’s going on around us – all those people who are making our lives difficult, we’re distracted by things – and carefully we listen to those little rationalisations – after all, surely it can’t do any harm. NOt realising that we’re profoundly lost, we try and follow the most convenient track – This must be the way . . .

Of course we could then go out paranoid into the world, trying desperately to avoid all these tiny sins – another distraction – distraction from God.

Lent is a time not to try desperately live good lives, looking at the myriad possibilities to sin and fighting to avoid them – but rather a time to clear away distractions – to turn to God in faith. Faith at its simplest is this – to attend to God, to live in attentiveness to God. Jesus is tested, but his attention is on God. This is why prayer is the essence of faith – to pray continually as St Paul says, is to live in faith, with our eyes upon God in Christ. And down thorugh the years the church has called us to three disciplines of attentiveness in Lent. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving
Prayer first – the essential discipline. Just try sit in the silence in the presence of God, try to attend to God for an hour, and all of a sudden you will understand why you need to pray. Oh it sounds like heaven! But within a minute, this distraction or that comes flooding in and you relaise ten minutes later that you’ve been thinking about the shopping, or those people who are giving you a hard time, you haven’t been paying any attention to God. So for Forty days we are called to a special discipline of prayer – in large part that we might realise how much we need to pray. That we are actually permanently mentally distracted

Then Fasting. Here we learn what really drives us – Food is the most basic of our physical needs. And if we do fast, then we rapidly become aware of how controlled we are by it – and we realise that its not just our minds – our bodies are screaming for attention to and we realise how often we live unthinkingly in response to our physical needs – that our lives really aren’t as controlled by the love of God as we had fondly imagined

Then Almsgiving – always a thorny one. John Wesley’s dictum . . . if you want to be free of the power of money, give it away! It is often said the last part of a man to be converted is his wallet – I have to say I don’t know if it also applies to a woman 🙂 I know few if any people who believe they are no controlled by their financial security – few who belive the words of Jesus, that it is a straight choice – we don’t control money, it controls us. The voice of the snake . . . doesn’t scripture say that you should provide for the needs of your family, you will need a pension and all those sort of things – you can’t really expect God to provide for your needs . . . or more subtly, well of course God has given you all this money precisely as a sign of his care for you . . . Seriously if truly it IS God who has given you your wealth and it wasn’t your anxious hoarding that has accumulated it – your anxiety laden attempt to secure yourself against the future – if God really has given you it – then  it is for one purpose – that you might be a blessing to others

Well that is a fairly negative look at the three disciplines – the painful angle if you like – but as the verse at the outset reminded us – we find mercy and grace in our time of need from Christ. Mercy, severe mercy at times in his exposing what is really controlling us – but also Grace. If we follow in his path – in prayer we grow into a deeper and deeper apprehension that we are his children – the more we want to attend to Him, to listen for His voice. Fasting teaches us dependence on God – note how that sounds negative!! All he has is dependence on God – but THIS is to be fully ALIVE!!!! And when we learn that God our father really DOES provide, then we are set free in generous love – we attend to God in prayer – through fasting we learn the Joy of dependence upon him ad so enter deeper into his life of GEnerosity – more and more we remember who we are, that we are his children and that attention to him and dependence upon him and imitation of him is the most natural thing.

But none of this comes from us – it is only possible because there is one who Lives – one who has conquered death and sin, one whose life means that actually we don’t have to be distracted. Jesus goes into the desert to be tested – has his identity as the Son of his heavenly father taken root in his heart, and he emerges triumphant for he lives out of complete dependence upon God. God will provide, I will worship God, I have no need to test him – who could doubt the father’s love?

And so he is obedient even to death on a cross – for he entrusts himself to the one who even raises the dead – and so becomes the source of life and light to all who trust in him – who turn from their distractions, who repent – who attend to him and walk in faith. MAy God grant to us all a Holy Lent, and may we all grow in grace in the footsteps of Christ.

Through the Bible in a Year – February 16

Exodus 12; Acts 22; Psalm 60-61

Reading the Exodus narrative – one is struck by the sheer force of what is happening – that this Exodus is only brought about through immense cost, a cost that must perpetually be remembered in the redeeming of the first born.

Through the history of Israel, this night is to be remembered, for it is the night on which God said to them conclusively, ‘You are mine’, with everything that that means. As the prophets will remind the people many many years later, it is not through any goodness of their own tat God has done this, it is not a matter for pride. They do not choose Yahweh for their God. He chooses them, as at first he had called Abraham.

Over and over again in our faith, we make far far to much of our response to God’s call. Here in this Exodus passage it is laid bare – frail Moses, and doubting people are rescued. God creates a people for himself – as many many years later he will do conclusively in Christ.

As Israel was commanded to retell the story, so also Paul we note tells over and over again the story of his ‘conversion’. It is something which he had nothing to do with. It is the profound archetype of ‘becoming Christian’ – it has nothing to do with us – it has everything to do with God, and what is more it lays upon us now a duty, to live as dearly loved children.

Becoming Christian is not our choice – perversely we try to make it thus, but it is not – the only choice we have is whether or not we will live into the fullness of that calling

Through the Bible in a Year – February 15

The Scheme for January and February can be found here

Exodus 10-11; Acts 21; Psalm 58-59

So much of the apparent ambiguity of the life of faith is explained in God’s strange choice to work in and through his creatures. So often we may well ask, ‘Why does God not do something?’ . . . and upon observation we might discover that he has done something, but that something has been through the agency of frail human flesh.

And again we might say, ‘why did God do THAT??’, and once more the answer is to be found in God’s chosen instruments.

It is Moses, hot with anger who declares to Pharaoh the death of all the firstborn, and Paul who in stubbornness does not listen to those who speak guided by the Spirit not to go to Jerusalem. Paul seems in a sense to have some ‘heroic’ vision of his mission – ‘I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.’

And the scriptures do not hide this from us. The ‘Greats’ of faith are revealed to be all too frail – but more wondrous, God is revealed to accommodate himself to us – to work within the parameters of our frailties – to effect something beyond our ken.

Moses is still the same – he was fearful of Pharaoh, he is still ungrown and angry, an anger that years later will prove his undoing. Paul is almost seeking to die as a great hero – there are clear echoes here of Peter – but the Scriptures are silent as to their eventual death. The words of the risen Christ to Peter ‘But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go’ – ring true also for Paul.

In the end, this is not about us – it is about God – and for that we should be unutterably grateful.

Through the Bible in a Year – February 14

The Scheme for January and February can be found here

Exodus 8-9; Acts 20; Psalm 56-57

Two hearts are revealed in our readings today.

There is the heart of Pharaoh – which we are told continually is hardened towards God’s people, and thus of course to God, himself. Pharaoh is outwardly utterly secure – all the wealth of Egypt belongs to him, and even his magicians seem to be able to control the natural world, to manipulate it, if rather perversely, towards the judgement of God. Externally strong, internally hard.

Then there is the heart of the Psalmist – exposed to the destroying storms, trampled on by his foes, lying down amongst lions that greedily devour human prey. Externally weak,  and yet whose heart is steadfast, turned continually to God that in the midst of adversities, he sings and makes melody – he so rejoices as to awake the dawn.

In the eyes of the world, Pharaoh symbolises life, but his heart is dead. In the eyes of the world the Psalmist symbolises death, but his heart is Alive!

We see this summed up in Paul, in the difficulties he faces, and yet living as though he sees him who is invisible. And from this heart of Life, Life comes forth. Constantly breaking bread with the disciples, the bread of life sustains him and is a fountain of life even to those who have died. What is more his heart for his young churches leads him into the sacrificial life, pouring out his life for them, preaching through the night, never ‘shrinking from doing anything helpful, proclaiming the message to you and teaching publicly from house to house’ – ‘for tree years, night and day, I did not cease to warn you.’

His heart is open to the one who Is Life – he follows him in obedience towards Jerusalem – the story of his Lord cannot have been far from his mind at anytime. His heart is open, Alive – Captive to the Spirit. May it be also for us who hear these words.

Through the Bible in a Year – February 13

The Scheme for January and February can be found here

Exodus 6-7; Acts 19; Psalm 55

Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech;
for I see violence and strife in the city.
Day and night they go around it
on its walls,
and iniquity and trouble are within it;
ruin is in its midst;
oppression and fraud
do not depart from its market-place.

Moses and Aaron go therefore in fear and trembling before Pharaoh, he who to the eyes of the world wields absolute power, whose word is reality, whose story appears to be the only one in town.

In a powerful sense this is precisely the world we live in. When we think of what our lives might consist of, the stories we we tell a) do not account for the ‘I AM’, and b) have a strange familiarity about them. ‘Life’ so called consists of childhood, education, more education that we are fit for work, marriage (perhaps), children (perhaps), a home, retirement . . . this story, so common, has an even greater commonality, its destination. Christian faith is in our day  used to suggest another ending . . . not another story.

We read two days ago in Acts of how Jason and other believers are accused of turning the world upside down, by those in the market place . . . They suggest there is another King – they suggest that there is another story. The powers are exposed in Ephesus – behind the false god Artemis lies human desire for wealth and the power it brings – and so Paul and Silas find themselves similarly hauled up to answer for this strange teaching – another life, another story

But the story we inhabit is ‘safe’ – we know its parameters, we figure out that we know how its supposed to work and those of us with advantages of birth, often are highly skilled at playing out that story that the world suggests to us, the death narrative. We may even, skilled as we are, shape our understanding of the gospel and life, so that it fits the death narrative – our perversity knows no limits.

In the face of Life we see three responses in our reading from Exodus. There is the response of the powers that be – Everything they stand for is threatened – the cost is too high – ‘how hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of heaven’ Pharaoh has Everything – he must die to live and he refuses the trade.

Then there are the Israelites – but they could not believe in this other narrative, this other story – ‘because of their broken spirit and cruel slavery’ – indeed the story of Israel to the time of Christ can be interpreted as a refusal at the end to believe the other story, for once they are freed, they continue in the same story as before, but now playing Pharaoh.

It is given to those called to enact the other story – and how hard that is. As the disciples follow Jesus, they struggle to believe – as too do Moses and Aaron. They are as yet not attuned to that voice that calls us forth from the tomb, that bids us live, that declares that there IS another story, that calls us to the adventure of faith rather than the anxiety of navigating the Death Narrative ‘successfully’ to its end  . . .

Through the Bible in a Year – February 12

The Scheme for January and February can be found here

Exodus 4-5; Acts 18; Psalm 53-54

We thought yesterday about how we are still dominated by the Narrative of Death – and Moses too is fearful. This Strange God, the ‘I AM’, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who IS Life challenges Moses to his core. HE is exposed before him – his weakness, his fallibility, his stumbling speech. As he is afraid of Life, so he knows that the Israelites are not ready for this Life.

God in his infinite mercy, meets him where he is. As before he had bargained with Abraham over Sodom and Gomorrah, so too he gives him something ‘magical’, which Moses is still at a level that he will entrust himself to it [Pharaoh’s magicians do the same – Ex 7:8-13], he gives him Aaron – but all the same God’s anger is kindled in the face of such unbelief and it is only through blood that Moses is protected.

As Moses and Aaron draw near to Pharaoh, as Life is revealed in the servants of the LORD, immediately the Death Narrative struggles to re-assert itself. Knowing that its time is limited, it seeks to take to itself all that it can. In the midst of this conflict, Moses pleads with the LORD for a quiet life. But this Life is not quiet. Moses has little comprehension of what he is caught up in – no sense of Awe, that God’s purposes are infinitely greater than simply changing the mind of Pharaoh – rather that in the Exodus which he will effect for his people, his Glory may be revealed.

This is the Gift that is given to the Church – to reveal his Glory in the resurrection of Christ – present amongst us – Manifested in lives of worship and holy obedience.

Through the Bible in a Year – February 11

The Scheme for January and February can be found here

Exodus 1-3; Acts 17; Psalm 52

As our narrative resumes in Egypt we find an echo of the deeper story of the Creation, of the vocation of the children of God. The Israelites have been ‘fruitful’ and ‘multiplied’, ‘so that the land was filled with them’. The Narrative of Life that was in the beginning [Genesis 1:28] – but they have left The Garden, they have not come to the Land of Promise – and another Narrative is at work, a Narrative of harsh labour and of pain through childbirth. Yet those in the midst who fear God, still live out of the Primal story and Life continues to spring forth.

For Pharaoh and all those who know not the first story, this ‘New Thing’ is a terrible force of which they have no comprehension – indeed it is related to him in miraculous terms ‘the Hebrew women are vigourous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’ – and Pharaoh tries to stamp it out, as much later they would try to stamp out the Life of the Church as we have been reading in Acts. This message of Life is ‘turning the world upside down!’ – the people of the city are disturbed – but Life continues to spring forth – ‘Many of them therefore believed’

The Gospel is The Narrative of Life – wherever it is revealed in God’s people, it reveals the Narrative of Death, it exposes it. It reveals ‘ordinary life’ for what it is, no life at all. The carefully planned world in which we would all feel secure is shown to be a terrible hoax.

Wherever there is Life this is so. It is the churches in those places where the Death narrative is obvious which flourish. Those such as ours in the ‘West’ shrivel – we have confused the two Narratives, and have put our lives in the hands of Pharaoh and called it Good. We would not dream of acting in a way that turns the world upside down, it suits us too well.

Perhaps this is most evident in our loss of the sense of ‘The Holy’ – ‘The Fear of Israel’. We no longer approach our God with our feet bared. We have little sense ourselves of ‘the Power that is at work amongst us, like the working of His great power when he raised Jesus Christ from the dead’, that in Christ, Death is no more. There is no fear of God before our eyes, merely the fear of our own demise – we believe the Narrative of Death.


When I were a wee lad. . .

I went to hospital for a ‘minor op’

It took two weeks

A week leading up the surgery

And a week’s convalescence

We have forgotten much – nowadays, UK at least I’d be in and out inside two or three days


Productive once more

Able to ‘function’ and take my allotted place in ‘the bigger scheme of things’

Back then life was undeniably harder in some regards

It was also gentler


The modern world is a hard task master and some of us are more than hard enough on ourselves

We need to convalesce

To get to that point where we are Utterly Frustrated with being kept in bed, by those who are Wiser than we. To be Well

It is like the walk of faith
We think we’ve ‘got it!’, but we’re not yet well

We need to convalesce

After all, God is at work

We’re not really all that necessary . . .

We ‘need to concentrate on getting well’

And That is a parable of sorts

You have to laugh . . .

As some of you may be aware, I am on retreat at present and largely withdrawn from the ‘interweb’ until Easter, but I couldn’t resist sharing the following

Sat in the sun with a light Sunday lunch, I was once more falling prey to ceaseless internal dialogue – when as occasionally happens, I came to my senses and realised what I was doing.

Choosing to spend the time rather being consciously in God’s presence, I unthinkingly put down my beer . . .

Funny how we are unconsciously conditioned about what is right and proper when we are in God’s presence – I laughed long and hard and raised my glass in the presence of the one who not only loves me but likes me and wasn’t in the slightest bit bothered that I was enjoying a beer with him.

Radio Free Babylon have a regular feature, ‘Coffee with Jesus’ – well, I’ve just had a beer with Him – and it was OK

[Actually the beer was pretty rubbish, but I couldn’t fault the Company 🙂 ]