‘Of Trees and snakes, of Life and Death’ Lent 4 Year B 2018


Sermon for 4th Sunday in Lent Year B 2018

Numbers 21:4-9

Eph 2:1-10

John 3:14-21

Directing the gaze of our heart

(‘Of trees and snakes, of Life and Death’)

Years ago I remember listening to a haunting recording of Chopin’s ‘Raindrop’ prelude – it was played on a reel to reel tape recorder, and a small spool of tape. This was the Christmas letter from a school friend of my father – named John Bennifield. It was haunting because John had recorded his Christmas letter because he was going blind, and could no longer see to write. Thinking back, he can only have been in his mid-forties as my Father was at that time.

John came to mind this week as I pondered our readings, not least our readings from the book of Numbers, because of his occupation. John lived in what was then Rhodesia, and he was in charge of the Snake education Programme – something certain to draw the interest of a young teenage boy – but indeed anyone. I remember him talking about Black Mambas and how they would hang around in trees and drop on you!

Snakes are universally feared – it is wired deep into us . . . and the association between Snakes and Trees – say the Serpent in the Garden and the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, or, the Tree of Life is obvious if you look carefully at a tree . . .

Tree roots are deeply suggestive in this respect and if like us all you are as it were wired to be on the look out for snakes, then the association with trees is clear! And here is a picture form an ancient Scandinavian tradition making it explicit – those of a nervous disposition may wish to look away now.




Trees in all imaginations Present Life to us – so the Snakes which are associated with Death are at the roots working away at the source of Life. (For more on this and the Fatherhood of God, come to tonight’s talk on The Lord’s Prayer )

So to our reading from the book of Numbers and we find the Israelites doing what they like to do. Having been rescued from Egypt, brought from the place of death to the place of Life, they are complaining about their rations. (At one point in the narrative they dream of Egypt as a place of cucumbers and melons – forgetting that it was a place of Slavery and death. Perhaps in our 40 days of Lent, we too are a little weary of our rations?)

But this is a complaint against God, against Life itself and so their soul being weary of the bread, weary of Life, they encounter death in the form of the Snakes.

And God saves them through the agency of the Bronze snake. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. [Picture]

What is going on here? First we are reminded that Sin leads to death. When we live in contradiction to the deep Goodness of things, perhaps with grumbling rather than gratitude as in the case of the Israelites, things go bad. The 10 Commandments as we heard last week are given ‘that we might Live before God’ As I said then, it’s not arbitrary, its written into the fabric of Creation – murder, commit adultery, dishonour your parents, fail too rest, worship the work of your hands – aim at anything apart from the highest Good, that is the Life of God, and things will not turn out well for you.

As St Paul puts it – the wages of Sin is Death . . . and God is constantly perturbed by Israel – the prophet Ezekiel declares the words of God -‘Oh Why will you die, O house of Israel?’ Sin is perverse, it makes no sense . . . Death itself epitomises this meaninglessness. So come the snakes, death reigns.

But what is it with the bronze snake? Well the snake is dead! Death is revealed for what it is – meaning less and empty! Death itself is symbolised as Dead – and so you live. This is the meaning of the Bronze snake, the destruction of death. And so they live.

Which brings us of course to our Gospel reading – ‘just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up‘, The one without sin submits himself to the consequences of Sin – Not Punishment – Consequences which we who were sold in slavery to Sin could not bear


. . . that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live. to believe is to identify ourselves with Jesus – to be baptised into that death which he suffers . . .
For what do we see here, but The one who cannot die submits himself to death, so that we who are In Him who otherwise can and will die – Might Live! The only one who cannot die submits himself to death – so we join ourselves to him to make a journey we could not make

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’

God in himself – in his fruit – in His Son – in Love opened the door to Life from Death – all that look upon him . . .

Believing in Jesus is to have the eyes of our heart, to direct the gaze of our heart and allow it to rest upon him – as St Paul said in our epistle last week ‘we proclaim Christ and him crucified’ – as he says elsewhere in the same letter ‘ I determined to know nothing amongst you except Christ and him crucified – the Wisdom of God – and the power of God‘. that we who were dead in Sin, might be raised to newness of Life in him

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world,– NOT to punish the world in Jesus for its sinfulness – but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned;

but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. . . . and still we see the perversity – that we may still choose to direct the gaze of our hearts elsewhere. Yet –  before there was no choice where we looked – now, Light floods in and we may Live in the Light of his Saving Love. Still God calls people to Repentance – to turn from wickedness and Live . . .

Lent is our time for such repentance – preparing our hearts for the Joy of Easter

As we prepare our hearts for Easter – let us gaze unflinchingly upon Christ Crucified – Mystery of mysteries, Joy of Joys, Wonder of Wonders – The one without sin submits himself to the consequences of Sin – The one who cannot die submits himself to death

And so may we be ready to sing the Easter Hymn with Joy –
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life!

Lent 3 – Year B 2018 ‘The Great Overturning’

Sermon for Lent 3 – 2018 YrB
Sunday 4th March

Exodus 20:1-17
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

“The Great Overturning”

“The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His Temple”

When I was a teenager, I sang in the village church choir, twice every Sunday – and I remember in particular one sermon where the Vicar told us that whilst they’d been at Vicar School they’d made a habit of criticising the Scriptures and crossing bits out with which they didn’t agree. This was a popular pastime amongst clergy trained in the late 50s and early 60s. He said that there wasn’t much left when they’d finished.
Well my mind went back to that this week when – I must confess – I crossed three words out of our Gospel book! Not however because I disagreed with them, but because they are not in the original text in any version. Stay awake for a few moments longer and I’ll tell you what you missed, and why . . .

Jesus comes to the Temple in Jerusalem and if we know our Scriptures we know that John moves this account of the Jesus cleansing the Temple to the beginning of Jesus’ public ‘ministry’ – Some ministry! This extraordinary – even Violent act, John sees fit to put at the beginning of his gospel, and we must always remember that John and all the other gospel writers are very very careful with their words – far more careful than we are as a culture. If John does this, it is for a Very Good Reason. Simply put, John puts this at the beginning as the Herald of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, His Work which he sees the Father doing – cleansing and purifying. Why?

Well you cleanse and purify something that has gone to the bad. ‘Tidy your room!’ we know the story from of old, I trust, unless we now run round after our youngsters tidying up after them . . . more of that anon also. Things need putting right, and that is what Jesus has come to do, and it isn’t necessarily going to be pretty – and the significance of the Temple cannot be underestimated. The Temple is the very centre of the Life, the Existence of the people of God. The imagery constantly used of it from Genesis to Revelation is of the Source of streams of living water. It is The Place. The Beating Life giving heart of all Culture and Life amongst God’s people – it is the Source of the Goodness of God – or it should be . . . but it has gone to the Bad and so was a source of darkness, of evil.

Human life is utterly religious – even the atheists one way or another replay ancient religious ways of being in the World – it is Fundamental, Foundational, and so if it goes Bad, then Everyone needs to watch out – for the flood is coming.

The thing was that no-one seemed to see it, although the prophets had certainly pointed it out – the last prophetic word of the Old Testament was that the Lord would come to his temple to purify the sons of Levi -that is what Israel waited for, but for almost everyone, nothing would have seemed untoward on the day Jesus turns up. There are the animals available of purchase for the sacrifices (note by the way that Mary and Joseph bROught, not bought two turtle doves of the sacrifice . . .) And there are the money changers seated . . . Not as it is in almost every modern translation ‘seated at their tables’, but ‘seated’ Period. I crossed out the words ‘at their tables, because that is not what John wrote, and the Evangelists are Very careful with their words, for their words are light and Life. The money changers are seated . . . “so?” you may ask? “does it matter??”. Why does John say they are seated?

We are back to that question of Authority again, ‘who has the authority?’ and the answer is The One who is seated. We have a Cathedral – after Cathedra – Chair – whose Chair? The Bishop’s. The Cathedral is the Place of Authority of the Bishop – this is why the health of the Cathedral is of Fundamental Importance . . . I’m told that if you ever get pulled over by the police, the Best way to handle it is to get out of your car and get to the police car so that the officer is sat down – in their place of Authority. Having worked behind a desk as a teacher you become very aware of the power dynamic of the one who is seated – and Finally, What does Isaiah Behold in the Temple? I Beheld the LORD seated on a throne, high and lifted up, and the hem of his robe filled the Temple.

And Jesus comes to the Temple and sees who ‘seated’? The money changers . . . And we may remember how The Temple is a microcosm of The Creation, and ask who has the authority in the World in which we live?? Who is seated? To what do we pay true allegiance on our church? What is seated in our own hearts? When Mammon, the abomination of desolation, is enthroned . . . when Religious Life is corrupted by Money – watch out! The flood is coming.
And Jesus actions are that ‘Wake Up!’ ‘Pay Attention! call as we shall see in a few moments

The other text which may have caught our attention today is another familiar text, the Ten Commandments, or better ‘Ten Words’ – For the Words of God are Light and Life. As Jesus says to the Lawyer who gives the standard summary of the Law – ‘Do these things and you shall live!’
Jesus’s coming to the Temple is undoubtedly dramatic – and so are these Words of Life. unfortunately we have taken them out of context – for we are told that after the last Word is given . . .

‘When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’ Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.’’

Why? Because this stuff leads to Life – ignoring it leads to Death, and like the Universal Religious Instinct – these are not arbitrary rules given by a ‘god’ who just pops into existence -these are Universal Truths. Fundamental – Life and Death. Do these things and you shall live

‘I brought you out of the Land of Egypt’ I have brought you to Life from Death – I am the Source of Life and your existence – do not lose Sight of me. No other Gods – NO IDOLS – Don’t let yourself get distracted by ‘gods’ who cannot save. Do not Make things and then treat them as if They give you life, as if they are your life. Carved images – cell phones – take your pick . . . Do not take my Name in Vain – God is The Ultimate Significance – do NOT trash my name by attaching it to your petty feeble schemes – can You give Life?? Only with Fear and Trembling declare – ‘Thus saith the LORD!’ ‘or worse – God is with us . . . as was written on the helmets of German troops in WWI, God is on MY side . . . REST . . . we must ask if we have completely lost sight of this in our 24/7 society. On those nights when sleep flees, I am all too aware of cars going and going and trucks at Yvette Williams through the night and the endless hum of the Air Con form next door, and we live in a quiet part of town. Only the demons have no rest – what can we say of a ‘city that does not sleep’?

Honour your father and mother that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you – This is the First commandment with a promise . . . and yet I spend far far too much time with people who are abandoned by their children . . . something a couple of generations ago we would have thought reprehensible is now normalised. Why this command? Because your parents are through God the source of your very existence, not the toys they gave you or the experiences or whatever – their Very Life was poured into you – into each one of us. None of us is an Island, and who we are is utterly inseparable from our parents, and to deny that is to deny our very existence – it is an act of collective Suicide – no culture will persist long in the land where parents are not honoured, where the elderly are seen as bing ‘past it’.

The first Five Words are all Do This! Do This! and you will Live. The next five are the Do Not’s – one word in the Hebrew to sharpen it up. Yet they are the outflow of the first five – Keep the first five and you will keep the rest. Whoever fails in one part of the Law breaks the whole – it is all woven together. If you know where Your Life comes from – from God, through your parents – you will know what life really is, you will not murder. If you know the utter faithfulness of God in this Flow of Life you will not live faithlessly, breaking faith, Committing Adultery – which usually leads to the Death of a relationship. You will not steal for you know the Life that is coming to you from God who provides Life and all good things freely, you will not speak anything but the absolute truth about others for they are beneficiaries of that same life and you will not covet, for when you See God, you Know you have all you need. ‘Seek is Kingdom and his righteousness – Look Always to Him – and all these things will be added to you’

But . . . the wrong authority has ben installed in the Temple . . . Covet?? Get a credit Card (malignly named – for in Truth it is a Debt Card) – and you can have it all – – – Satan’s last temptation is the one he holds before us in this Age – you can have it all . . . (only Worship me . . .) It is I think nothing short of Demonic our current Economic system . . . you can have it all – and if we don’t get it then like Cain we get resentful and the next moment we are talking about ‘those people’ who are in our way with words of hate and bitterness . . . Guard you heart says the Teacher! Is there bitterness within you?? Get rid of it, for it is a root which bears terrible fruit. If you take your Life at all seriously – Root out bitterness and Resentment – for they come from the pit of Hell . . . and then we take what is not by right ours – sometimes in the name of God – and well . . . in a world turned upside down
And the problem finally is rooted in the human heart. The Temple as the Heart of a Culture, The Temple as Creation, The Temple as the Human heart . . . made for the Throne of God, of Goodness, Peace and beauty – The Human Heart if we know ours at all is a battlefield . . .

The Russian Writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn had seen first hand how grand human schemes to ‘put the world right’ by fixing other people only led to Hell. He had ended up in a Soviet Gulag. But he used his time well . . . rather than falling into bitterness and anger at those around him, he undertook a fearless inventory of his heart and indeed it requires great courage. He went forensically over his life and saw how the evil in his own heart had been part of the reason for the evil of the Revolution, how he had contributed to it – He saw how his life was woven into the lives of all those around him. He finally saw that the only hope for the Salvation of the World was not in ideologies of equity and liberty – but in the transformation of the Human heart, for in truth the line between Good and Evil which we see ‘out there’ in truth runs through the heart of every person
As I come to a close I recount some words I saw just yesterday in Father Stephen Freeman’s blog – “The contemplative need go no further than his own heart to find the source of all violence in the world.” – we need to know the truth of this, hard though it is – he goes on “When the battlefield within the heart is ignored and projected outwards, the result is a world of black and white, good and bad, friend and enemy. But both friend and enemy have hearts that are themselves a mass of contradictions, a battleground of good and evil.” and then quoting Solzhenitsyn
“ If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

The Ten Words bespeak the Fundamental reality of our existence – when the reality of our Heart – the ground of that existence is not carefully watched over and ignored, when instead it is projected onto the World \out there’ things fall apart, starting with our lives and then the lives of all those around us, for you cannot disconnect them – when Religion goes bad – culture fall apart, and there is only every one end to it

And so to the Cleansing . . .

From the earliest human stories we have known this. The labours of Hercules – he is told to clean the stables of King Augeas in a single day – and King Augeas had thousands and thousands of cattle and sheep and goats and every night they were put back in the stable . . . and what did Hercules do? How did he do it? He diverted rivers so they flowed through the stables . . . When God saw that every inclination of man’s heart was evil – he found one whose heart was good, Noah – Commanded his to be prepared for what was coming, to build and ark, and the LORD sent a flood . . . So Jesus comes to cleanse the Temple – he drives out the animals – he overturns all the money and the money changers – he Overturns their tables . . . later in secret he comes again to the Temple courts and stands up in the midst and declares ‘If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.’

Jesus comes to perform the deepest cleansing – Saving the World through the Transformation of the human heart. Cleansing The Temple which is Created to be the dwelling place of God in the World. We come to him, to allow our hearts to be changed, transformed illuminated – that they are no longer the dwelling place, the haunts of demons, of bitterness and resentment and all the rest which comes from Hell, but become full of Light and Life.

Our Work in Lent is to open ourselves to His Searing illumination – allowing His Light to Flood our Hearts that our Lives may be overturned and that through renewed Lives the World might be saved.

We might ask this week, what is the outflow of our hearts? What are our thoughts? Are they light or dark? Pay attention to your heart. Is there Hate lurking there for ‘those people’ – we live now in an Age where people are increasingly and dangerously polarised, and hate is rampant. The internet gives us ‘safe places’ where we only meet those who are like us and do not challenge us, we are easily blinded to our hearts, thinking The Problem is Out There. This way is Death.

But there is another way – a way that looks to the unseeing gaze as death – Christ and him Crucified, Foolishness to the Wisdom of the World, and Offence to those who think they can put themselves right before God – Follow me, says Jesus, in the Way of dying to yourself, of crucifying those parts of your heart from which darkness and hate flow out into the world – Come to me that you may drink from Streams of LIVING water. Life not Death – and you will now Life From Death

The cleansing of the Temple is the cleansing of our heart – Life not Death – Do thes things and you will live – do this and you will know Life From Death – Blessed Lent. Blessed Easter


Lent and [un]comfortable Christianity

On Ash Wednesday we were delighted to welcome about ten university students from the TSCF new community flats. They had come as a shared discipline to worship together as Lent started. For several, Lent was not something they had encountered before, except as a season to give up chocolate! What is more the practise of Ashing, of remembering their mortality and thus in the seriousness of Life to repent of their sins and believe the Gospel of Christ was also new.

But they were further disoriented (and to be reoriented we often have to become disoriented) for we used the old service from the 1662 prayer book with its strange language. And from time to time I offered an explanation of the text, including the word ‘Comfortable’ (as in ‘Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that turn to him’). Words change their meanings and often if we are not careful we end up saying something opposite to what we thought we were saying.

Above you can see a part of the famous Bayeux tapestry, depicting the victory of William the Conqueror (a Viking!) over King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, 1066 and all that . . . In the scene you can see a solider wielding a large club – He is Bishop Odo, a cousin of William, and the wider inscription reads ‘Bishop Odo Comforts the troops’. “With a Club?” I hear you ask.

The word Comfort comes from the Latin Confortis – literally ‘with strength’, or strengthen, or we might say Encourage – (from the French en courage – ‘with heart’). The soldiers are being ‘con-forted’ – that is strengthened for the affray. The Bishop is not back in the field hospital ‘comforting the wounded’, he’s in the thick of it putting some steel (metaphorically) into his troops, with his club. Encouraging them, driving them forward.

This Strengthening, through struggle and testing is at the heart of Lent, for it is at the very heart of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness.

We read in Mark’s Gospel ‘In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

        And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.’

The dove mentioned is not the prettified white dove of our imaginations, but a wild rock pigeon – who comes tearing through the heavens and immediately drives ‘him [Jesus] out into the wilderness’ to be tested by the Satan.

‘Well’, we might say, ‘Jesus did that so we don’t have to!’ (This escape clause is what above all turned the German Philosopher Friederich Nietzsche against Christianity – for it reduced to nothing the demands laid on us by our faith, or to put it more completely, the challenge that Existence itself, GOD places before us). But in this respect, Nietzsche was correct; ‘Comfortable’ (in the modern sense), bourgeois Christianity was and is a fake, and he saw through it.

Lent offers us the opportunity to grow up in our faith, be strengthened for all that Life throws at us, so that at the last we are not lost. For the words of Jesus are plain and True. ‘Where I am going, you cannot now come, but you will come after’ We too must all face what Jesus faced. When we become his disciples this becomes conscious – we become aware of the seriousness of our existence and the urgent call of Jesus.

The Church in her Comforting mercy drives us into Lent as the Spirit drove Jesus into the Wilderness. It is a time for strengthening, for testing to see if we are really ready for what confronts us – then we follow Jesus through Holy Week to the Cross. Only those who have taken this journey will know Easter Joy.

Be Con-forted!
Strengthen that which remains – it is WORTH IT as we follow the one
‘who for the joy set before him endured the Cross’