Sermon for Ash Wednesday
Year B 2018
Treasures in the hidden place
So today Lent begins. I wonder what we are giving up for Lent? Let me ask a different question, ‘What are you giving up for Lent?’ Rule Number 1 – Never tell anyone what you are giving up for Lent! I will come back to ‘Why?’ in a moment.
I wonder what We are giving up for Lent? Let us give up telling people what we are giving up for Lent . . . either face to face, or if we are too frightened to look at real people, on Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever shouts at the world ‘Look at me!’
Of course if we belonged to one of the older traditions of the church, say we were Catholic or Orthodox, I wouldn’t have any temptation to tell anyone what I was giving up. After all, we’d all be giving up the same thing, and if you [s.] think you [s.] are giving up a lot, then I suggest you go and check out ‘Orthodox fasting Lent’ on Google after this service. If anything else it will stop you virtue signalling your sacrifice of chocolate, or it would if we understood the way of humility.
So, then should we abandon the whole ‘giving something up for Lent idea’? After all, what’s the point if I can’t tell someone I’m doing it?? ( and if you think that that isn’t your [s.] problem, then why are you telling Everyone on FB??)
Lent is a season of self denial. It is a season in which we go with Jesus into the wilderness. This is what it is to be a disciple of Jesus. As he says to his disciples, ‘where I am going you cannot now come, but you will follow afterwards’ So as Jesus went into the wilderness to be tested, we newborn in the Spirit go out into the wilderness to be tested.
And as we heard on Sunday, He went there to learn to say no, no to anything, or anybody who would keep Him from the Father’s will, no to anything or anybody which would quench the work of the Holy Spirit in which he had been baptised, that Spirit which brings light and life and healing and goodness, even life from the dead, ‘for as the scriptures say ‘out of the heart of everyone that believes shall flow rivers of living water’’.
So we go there too, to learn to say no. For if we can’t even say ‘no’ to a bag of chips or a piece of chocolate, how on earth [lit.] can you say anything of value? How can you say Yes to Life? How can Life flow from us?
As we considered Jesus is being tested all the time, not only in the wilderness, but all the time. Give us a sign! Show us you are the Messiah! If you are the Son of God . . . until finally he faces the greatest Temptation of all. He was in the Desert forty days and literally starving, ‘If you are the Son of God, turn the stones into bread’. ‘No! – Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that flows form the mouth of God’ . . . But that is as nothing – it is preparation for The Great Trial.
Finally in the excruciating agony of Good Friday – this is of course what Lent is about, preparing us to face Jesus, the one we follow, on the Cross – every sinew in agonising pain, gasping for breath, his body wracked, wrecked, comes the Final Test – ‘If you are the Son of God, Come down from the Cross . . .’ and of course it is a Terrible temptation, because he could, he could stop the pain, pain beyond our comprehension, Everything within him cries out to stop the pain – he could say Yes to the Tempter. Worship Him and it would all be his, except it wouldn’t. He could Prove it . . .
and everything would be lost’ You can have everything . . . on the Devil’s Terms. Public terms – and everyone will see you get what you want – But Jesus says No to the Temptation to go public, and The Salvation of the World is hidden from our eyes
And he commands the same of us – we are following him. We are his disciples. In this testing, in the disciplines of Lent – we are commanded to hide it, to keep it secret.
Our gospel reading embraces the three basic disciplines of the Christian life – Almsgiving, giving to the poor – Prayer – and Fasting. These three are the foundational disciplines of the Christian life – they are how we bring the testing and learning of the desert, of Lent into our daily lives beyond Lent – and the instructions of Jesus, our teacher, are the same for all three. Do it in secret.
When you give alms – ‘do not [even] let your left hand know what your right is doing’ – do not do it publicly and if a all possible . . . hide it from yourself
When you pray – go into your room, and when you have shut the door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place . . .
When you fast – do not put on a show – keep it secret – ‘do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place’
Jesus shows us the importance of saying no. Only a True No can give rise to a Life giving Yes. As we consider the poverty of the Church in the Western World, is it rooted in our lack of self denial? our inability to say no to anything? And so to say a life-giving ‘Yes’? Healing no one, not even ourselves?
And he ties this saying no, discovered where but in secret in the Desert, to being in secret – not to ‘going public’, not ‘letting it all hang out there’. As we cannot say no even to ourselves, we live in an age where everything is screaming at us ‘Show us! Prove it! Tell us all what you are giving up’ ‘Tell the world what you are going through’ Everything is laid bare, quite literally – there is nothing that you cannot see – there is nothing hidden . . . perhaps it is the final judgement when all the sins of the world are laid out for everyone to see . . . Having the form of religion, but denying its power – like a car tyre – we just opened the valve and let it all out, and we wonder why the Church is so weak?
But . . . in the grace and mercy of God, perhaps not yet. Not while a few persevere, and in obedience which comes from even a mustard seed of self control, say no to ‘going public’ and yes to the hidden way . . . for the power of God is revealed in apparent weakness. His ultimate Power over death itself revealed in the shattered body of Jesus, who would not come down from the Cross, but instead entered the most holy place, once and for all . . .
The Holy place, the secret place – the place hidden from our eyes.
‘Do not store up for yourself treasure upon the earth, where moth and rust corrupt and where thieves break through and steal – don’t advertise to everyone what you are doing for Lent, for then you will have received your reward – whatever you get out of ‘putting it out there’ that will be your lot. Rather store up for yourself treasure in heaven, where moth and rust do not corrupt, where thieves do not break through and steal . . . treasures in heaven – in the secret place
In the Temple in Jerusalem, much went on hidden form the eyes of many – but at the centre was The Most Holy Place – the Holy of Holies, and only one person ever went there. Each year the high Priest would go in to offer the Sacrifice of atonement. For what was the Holy of Holies? It was the very centre of the Temple – it was the place where resided the Ark of the Covenant, and over the Ark was the place where God dwelt between the cherubim – it was, for want of a better phrase, heaven on Earth. The secret and hidden place . . .
And so Jesus before the gaze of the public – says no – and rather goes into the hidden place, the secret place, to offer the one perfect sacrifice for the sin of the whole world
So Jesus goes and we follow him. This is what it is to be a disciple.
So let us own our sin in the ash upon our forehead, repent and believe the Good News, the Strange News of Yes through No. Of Truth through secrecy. Of Life from Death – Let us believe on Jesus.
Sunday next before Lent – Year B 2018
2 Kings 5:1-14
1 Cor 9:24-27
‘The Hidden Kingdom – True Authority’
‘I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air’
The story of the healing of Naaman the Syrian – out OT reading today – is one full of wonderful and revelatory detail. Every time I read or better hear it, I notice something new. But for a very long time I have associate this story with one of my university lecturers from many years ago now.
In the Biophysics department, Dr Parker was a bit of a legend, but in a mysterious way. He lectured through a beard, seldom looked at anyone, and was at times incomprehensible, and wasn’t one for being seen in and around the department. Yet, he was revered. The story was that if you were looking for an idea for a PhD, you should try and find Dr Parker. If you could find him he would usually be tucked away in a lab somewhere doing something odd, if not incomprehensible, like trying to open a centrifuge whilst it was working, to see what would happen. The rumour was that if you managed to, the centrifuge itself would arise from its vacuum sealed casing rise into the air rather like a flying saucer and bury its way through the concrete slabbed walls of which the whole department was built. Of course it was likely that only Dr Parker knew the truth of this . . . There you would ask him your question and without looking at you he would mutter something through his dense beard, and if you understood him aright you would undoubtedly go off, make your fortune and win the nobel prize for Biology, whilst he continued to do incomprehensible things. And I always think of Dr Parker when I think of Elisha the prophet and especially with regard to the story of Naaman.
Here comes the commander of the Assyrian Army no doubt with a retinue – It’s world war 2 and FM Rommel turns up at your door, probably accompanied by a small panzer division – and Naaman asks for help – the FM asks you for a cup of tea 🙂 ) And Elisha doesn’t even come to the door – he seems to be otherwise occupied, hidden away inside his house and sends his servant with the necessary and to Naaman incomprehensible instructions. ‘Wash in the Jordan, that muddy stream? Aren’t our Syrian rivers far superior?’ But just like the advice from Dr Parker, Elisha’s advice has powerful effect.
Neither Dr Parker, nor more importantly for our purposes this morning, Elisha, were just available whenever you wanted them. But remarkable things flowed from them. Surely we might think, Elisha one might think could set up a website, or the equivalent, a road side stall and advertise ‘Healings here! Come and get your healings! Leprosy, paralysis, raising the dead!’ But he didn’t, and neither did Jesus . . .
These past few weeks we’ve started to hear Mark’s account of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and amongst many things two things often stand out. Firstly there is the note of Authority. When Jesus leaves the wilderness he calls the disciples. They just leave their nets and go. He teaches in the synagogue at Capernaum, and ‘they were astonished at his teaching, for He taught them as one having authority’ He heals a man with an unclean spirit, commanding the spirit to ‘Be quiet, and come out of him’ (we will return to this shortly). Again those who look on are amazed at His authority over ‘even the unclean spirits’. Elisha gives an abrupt instruction, and Naaman in obeying it is healed. Elisha has authority, and over and again we hear of The Authority of Jesus . . .
AND that he is often unavailable – he goes apart to pray – and when Peter tells him “Everyone is looking for you!” but he says ‘Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come forth’
Most significantly for us as we prepare for Lent, we remember how he spends 40 days alone ‘tempted by Satan’. Brett will be preaching on this next week, and Mark is very sparing – two verses. Yet Matthew and Luke give us the details of what is happening in the desert, and as we prepare for this season of our self-denial we might understand why we do what we do, after all, Lent will have begun by this time next week. It is surely better to know why you are doing what you are doing before you start!
And whatever else the temptations are about, they are about Jesus learning to say one word, learning to say No!
As I said a couple of weeks ago, testing times are given to us that we might Grow to maturity. I was with someone not so long ago who was going through a trial, a time of testing, and they said something quite remarkable nowadays, ‘I must take the trouble to seek to learn what God is teaching me in this time’. Testing and trials are about learning, and Jesus’s trials are of a dimension that we can scarce imagine.
Forty days hungry – and ‘turn the stones into bread’ – You Know what you want! ‘just worship me and it can all be yours’. The trial of the Obedience that comes through faith (Romans 1:7). Learning to say No . . . So perhaps Jesus’ hiddenness, his refusal to be wherever and whenever the crowds want him, is the secret to His Authority, humanly speaking. After all Jesus is Every Bit Human, Fully human. He can only learn as we can . . . and perhaps True Authority is rooted first in the ability to say No. Being hidden away, facing the demons . . . funny how we only have dreams of grandiosity on our own, funny how our darkest thoughts only reveal themselves to us when we are alone . . . As the desert fathers would say, ‘stay in your cell, it will teach you everything’, not least to say no to the myriad temptations and delusions we might suffer . . .
Three times Jesus faces the trial of Satan – Three times against the most appalling temptation imaginable he says No and emerges as one who has Authority . . . and so the leper comes to Jesus, and recognising his Authority says to Him, “If you are willing, you can make me clean” “If you are willing” The leper recognises that True Authority cannot be manipulated to our own ends.”If you are willing . . .” and Jesus, ‘moved with compassion, stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him “I am willing; be cleansed.” At the moment he spoke, the leprosy left [the man]’ (my tr.)
From this Authority flows Healing, Great Healing. An authority learned in the hidden place, rooted in the capacity to say ‘No’.
Well at this point it would be easy to go home and if asked say ‘Eric told us we need to say no, or at least more often’, but that is still missing the point which is twofold. What is this capacity to say ‘no’ rooted in? It is after all often easy to say ‘No’ to others but to little effect. No, True Authority is rooted in learning to say no to oneself.
The temptations of Jesus, cut right into the very heart, down into the very marrow of his desires, his deepest desires. He knows that there is only one way, and that that is his Father’s way – ‘Worship God! Him only shall you serve!’ ‘I only do what I see the Father doing’ He submits himself to the Will of His Father – the ends do not justify the means, for the wrong means subvert the ends. Only the Way His Father reveals to Him will bring Life, will bring healing to lepers and those in bondage. So it is not first about learning to say no to others, it is about learning to say no to yourself . . .
But there is even there an all too simple deception. ‘We say no to ourselves by saying yes to others, so always saying yes to others is saying no to ourself,’ – but no. Jesus certainly does not reveal this in his life. For simply always saying yes to others is surrendering your responsibility for your own life. Saying ‘yes’ to every whim within, is no different to saying ‘yes’ to every demand from without, and we have long long known this. Jesus says ‘Those who seek to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake and the Gospel will save it’ but you have to have a life to lose in order to save it!! Simply always saying yes to everyone and everything is not self denial, it is pure victimhood and often leads to deep bitterness and resentment, clinging onto a life that is no life at all. Only the one who Knows their Life can lay it down. And humans have long known this – yet our age is a forgetful age
Socrates, whom the oracle of Delphi (female – the Source of Wisdom), declared to be the wisest amongst men once said that he heard a voice within him. He had learned to unquestioningly obey that voice. It was that subtle quiet voice that would from time to time say ‘no’. He attributed good in his life to never going against that voice.
True self denial is learning to hear the gentle and quiet voice saying ‘no’. Whatever manner of self-denial we choose this Lent, and it is most sad that we have to choose for we will do it alone and may be little help to one another – but whatever self-denial we practise these coming forty days, we do so to learn to hear that small voice, the Holy Spirit’s Strengthening.
For surely, if you can’t say no even to a bag of chips [NZ for crisps in the UK] , then your ability to say yes to others in a meaningful sense is perhaps an illusion. If you have no authority over yourself – why might you think you can in any sense command others or be capable of good towards others? We are then just mere chaos. And it is the chaos without that constantly threatens Jesus.
‘And Jesus strictly warned the man [who had been healed] and immediately sent him away saying ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing those things which Moses commanded, as a testimony to them’ However, the man went out and began to proclaim it feely, and to spread the matter, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter the city, but was outside in deserted places; and they came to him from every direction’
Jesus heals the man of his outer affliction, but he is not healed inwardly. He does not Hear the Voice which says ‘No’ The Voice which directs him to hidden obedience before the priests, to the obedience of faith, the hidden way of Jesus – we will explore this more on Ash Wednesday. Rather he disobeys, spilling it all out – and the result is that Jesus is driven away as again and again the Crowds threaten to overwhelm Him. The testing of Jesus does not finish in the desert, that is their beginning. Leaving the desert the crowds press in on every side – hiding The Tempter – always testing Him, always calling on him to throw himself down from the Temple – never satisfied, insatiable – Never able to say, ‘No! Never able to say Enough! Give us a sign, Jesus – and another and another and another!! Insatiable, the mark of demonic possession.
Lent is our preparation for Pascha – for Holy Week, for Maundy Thursday, for the trial of the Garden, and for Good Friday, the Final Trial, the Trial of the Cross . . . Everything, the desert, the chaos of the crowd, everything has been teaching Jesus the perfect way of obedience to the Father, for this moment.
And there once more in the final showdown is the chaotic Crowd – the Last Temptation. The Greatest Temptation. In the agony of Crucifixion he hangs there as the crowd, possessed by Satan himself call out the words of the Tempter ‘if you are the Son of God, come down from the Cross’ . . . Jesus final Trial . . . and his Final ‘No’
As we prepare ourselves for Lent, as we receive Him in bread and Wine – may we reflect upon our human condition, that in order to say the Great Yes to us of Easter Day, the word of Jesus from the cross is ‘No’.
His True and Hidden Authority. Bringing Yes from No. Life from Death