Sermon for Lent 1 – Year A. 2014. Following Jesus into the Desert

Sermon for Lent 1
Matthew 4:1-11

‘Unless one is tempted, he cannot know himself’ Augustine

Many years ago, I went to a church conference in North Wales. There a speaker, a man named John Smith – one doesn’t have to have a memorable name to be remembered 🙂 – said something which I think was utterly profound and when we hear it sets us better free to follow Christ in the world. He said ‘Becoming disillusioned is a good thing. For you can only be disillusioned if formerly you were suffering from an illusion!’ As many of the spiritual greats have noted, one cannot begin to make progress in the church unless one becomes thoroughly disillusioned with it, laying aside your fantasies of how it should be. Of course some in pride go off to find a better church, one more suited to them, but to be more truthful about this, they go seek one more suited to their own self delusions. Charles Spurgeon was once accosted by a member of his congregation saying ‘Mr Spurgeon I am leaving your church to find a perfect one. Madam, he replied there is no such thing. However, should you happen upon it, do not join it for you would only spoil it. Oh how I love straight talking 🙂 Others who have chosen the path of humility, who recognise that the church is not perfect because they are not perfect, stick with it and work with the reality they have been shown, rather than the dream they have woken up from.

I don’t know how many here would be familiar with The Matrix trilogy of films. The story briefly is of a dystopic future in which machines have taken over. Human beings are being used a batteries to power their world, and vast fields of these ‘humans’ are connected to The Matrix. They live a life of illusion, fed by computers directly into their nervous system – a largely comfortable world, not disimilar to the world which we know. The hero figure, Neo, is rescued from the Matrix by a small group of freedom fighters, but his life out of the Matrix is far from pleasant – the only food they have is a chemical protein soup – their lives are lived in semi darkness, all the time on the run from the machines. But at least it is Real. Of course not everyone of the rebels is ‘happy’ with this existence, however Real it is and one decides he wants to return to the Matrix, for which he will need to betray his friends to the machines. He is seen in a restaurant – eating the juiciest steak, and drinking the finest wine with one of the machines agents. He says,’I know that this steak is not real, I know that the incredible flavour and texture are merely bits of data being fed into my mind by a computer, but you know what? I don’t care anymore’

Our churches and indeed ourselves are suffering from many illusions – Lent if we observe it well helps us to strip these away, but of course that is far from comfortable. It may be a good thing to be disillusioned, but thank you we’d rather not be. I don’t really care for Reality, it’s far too uncomfortable, it asks too many questions of Me, and I’d rather ask questions of Reality.

Lent takes us to that place, if we will allow, where we are faced with our own tendency to prefer the comforts of life over the Reality of Life in Christ – of Life with God. And so it is hardly surprising that in a world of ever increasing comfort that Lent is not exactly the most fashionable of seasons in the church’s year. Jesus can go out into the desert for fasting and prayer, we’ll make do with some pleasant non too challenging devotional reading.

For Lent is about our becoming disillusioned – and we can only begin to understand this if we have like Jesus taken considerable time for fasting, or given many hours to prayer. Both of these practices create that Wilderness where we confront Reality, where our illusory comforts are stripped away, where we face that we are with the traitor, saying, ‘I know that none of this is real . . . but really I don’t care’

And I’d like to think particularly about Fasting for a few moments. Fasting of all the disciplines is about stripping away the illusions. At least in prayer you can sit in a warm room, you can light a candle, you can put on pleasant music – few practise prayer which is a conscious stripping of comfort, that goes on hour after hour. But fasting deliberately takes comfort away – the comfort of food.

My family know this all too well. My wife’s maternal Grandfather was notoriously grumpy if dinner was more than a few minutes late. Not that he was one of those meticulous types who wanted a regimental life – far from it. But something happened to him physiologically that meant his mood altered and dramatically. His name was Fred Jee and so in the family it is called Jee Syndrome. My brother in law also has it, as does one of my children 🙂 Well that is what fasting does. it reveals who we are when our comofrts are taken away. As one of my mentors pithily puts it ‘you might think you are on the whole a good person, but if they cut off the water supply you’d be killing your neighbour within three days.’ The lack of food and other comforts affects all aspects of our being. It strips away our illusions about what lovely people we are, and most importantly of all, it strips away our sense of God. It takes us to a place where we realise that our perception of God is far more to do with how we are feeling, than God’s reality. That is not to say that God is not there, God is always present, but we see that our perception of God is more often than not a function of our own psychology and physiology, which when fasting kicks in, don’t function. The comfort blanket is ripped away. We are awakened to Reality

So Jesus, as he goes out into the desert does not go out to have an lovely extended quiet time with God – quite the opposite – ‘he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil’. Now there are two knotty problems for us here – firstly what is the Spirit doing leading Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil? Put briefly it is this, that Jesus is fully human – that temptation is part of his lot. If he suffers not temptation, then how can he help us who are daily tempted?? [There is also a striking parallel with the story of Job]
Secondly there is the source of this temptation – ‘to be tempted by the devil’. Part of the illusion that has been cast over our minds has been the continuing attempts to deny the existence of the devil, to such a point that the Church of England is now wondering whether to remove him from their baptism liturgy – oh, and by the way, before we recoil in horror, do not forget that we in the Anglican Church in NZ did this years ago . . . It seems to me that the two chief temptations the devil tries are Firstly, to tempt us to deny his existence – that works easily for most. But where it doesn’t, we are tempted to inflate his significance far above that which it is. All he is is a fallen angel of God who in some mysterious sense still has a part to play in God’s ordering of the world – no more, no less. Of course those who fall prey to the second temptation and are always going on about the devil, do the devils work in that they help him persuade the majority group how wise they are in Not believing in his existence.

And Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights, after which he was ‘an hungered’ as the King James BIble has it. Tired, Weak, emotionally and physically utterly drained. Unable to summon up of himself any ‘sense of God’, like Job utterly afflicted . . . the tempter comes. And the three temptations teach us much if we have ears to hear.

Firstly The 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.’” We were created to find our satisfaction in God alone. Our lives provide us with multiple alternatives, but they are never enough. As I said a few weeks back for me it has long been books, ‘just one more book . . .’, as if I might find what I am looking for there, for others any number of things. Some live for controversy in the church, some feed on conflict, others on the endless deluge of media we live in – indeed we have become an age unlike any other in our capacity for creating distractions, vacations, consumer products, and of course endless variations on the oldest of them all, Food! For most people in history food was ‘what you could get’, no it is ‘whatever you want!’, all presented to us in endless cookery books and programmes. Gluttony as properly understood is not over eating, it is making food your life. The most sparing of consumers who satisfies themselves and their waistlines with the tiniest nibbles of ‘only the very best food’, is as much a glutton as the person who feasts alone on a family size tub from KFC.

But Jesus reply is startling. There he is – at the end of all his resources, but Satan’s testing only reveals one thing – underneath everything else, the human is created to be hungry for God. The lack of fasting in our culture only reveals how easily we are bought off . . . there is no hunger for God himself. The things of God, yes, God’s provision, rain in due season and the rest – for of course all good things come from him, but not for God himself. If we do not occasionally fast, if we do not lay aside these ‘God appetite’ suppressants, we do not even recognise who is tempting us. There are many things to be consumed by

Secondly Then 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.’” Of Course the one who hungers truly for God himself, so Loves God that he does not require God to prove himself. he knows and is content to know that God does not exist for his sake – quite the opposite – Jesus knows and understands that He Lives for God. Again so much in our contemporary world and indeed our contemporary church screams the opposite. We call out to God, why aren’t you doing things for us? We doubt God because he doesn’t serve us and our endless appetites for comfort. Again we under our illusions do not begin to comprehend what is going on.

Again Jesus does not name Satan – it is almost as if at this point he does not recognise who is behind all of this. He is purely the righteous man of God. And neither do we, but by and large we fall so readily for the first two temptations that we never get anywhere near the third . . . Jesus forces Satan to show his hand. Here is someone who is devoted to God, who hungers for God above and beyond everything, who Live to serve God ‘though he slay me’ (to use the words of Job). Satan is forced to do that which he hates. Jesus forces him into revealing himself as ‘the ruler of the world’ Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Live my way, and you can have that which you really desire. We are slaves to our desires – and so is Jesus, except his desire is for God and he now sees and names his adversary – and in so doing reveals his authority over him Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

The constant refrain of Satan is ‘If you are the Son of God . . .’ – Is Jesus’ sense of Who he is, his identity just an illusion? . . . This perhaps is why we do not take Lent all that seriously – if at root it calls into question our sense of who we are . . . ‘Children of God’ what we call ourselves. Why would we want to call that into question?? Better surely to get on with our lives and hope it is true?? After all, my life is quite good, I’d rather not rock the boat . . .

Jesus of course was not the only one to go out into the desert, years later others followed, realising that the city had become a place of illusion. Seeking after God and thus rejecting all the comforts which they knew would distract them from Him. Abandoning distractions they saw deep into the reality of things. They were much sought out by those who wanted to live more truly as Children of God – ‘A disciple came to Abba Poemen and asked, ‘When Jesus said ‘he who is angry with his brother without a cause is in danger of judgement’ – what did he mean by “without a cause”’ The Father replied to him ‘If your brother angers you by his arrogance, and you are angry with him, you are angry without a cause, and if he gouges your eye out and cuts off your right hand, and you are angry with him, you are angry without a cause. but if he cuts you off from God, you have every right to be angry with him”

Those who are revealed through testing to be children of God are those who pray ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do. Who see not the assault on themselves , but pray for mercy for the one who wounds them’

Such a saying destroys all our comfortable illusions about ourselves, our church and our Christian Life. It leaves us disillusioned, and that is the best way to start Lent. For only if we are so disillusioned might we set out together as a church determined to seek out the Life Of God. May God plant in us such holy disillusionment this Lent. May we have the courage to follow Jesus, to discover who we really are, and by God’s grace grow up into the fullness of him who fills everything in every way


Sermon for Ordinary 7 – (Epiphany 7) – Sunday February 23rd.

Sermon for Sunday 23rd February, 2014
Second before Lent, Year A (Ordinary Time 7)

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Psalm 119:33-40
1 Corinthians 3:10-23
Matthew 5:38-48

‘Do you not know who you are?’

Many of us, I am sure spend little or no time reading the book of Leviticus. Being in the Old Testament some of us have been led to believe that it is somewhat primitive, a heresy the church has had to combat ever since its earliest days. But listen again to these words we have just heard. As you listen hold in mind also the words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which we have also heard announced to us.

You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ – Jesus introduces no new teaching when he declares this – He is reminding his own people of their roots, of their identity. We cannot understand who we are as Christians without a profound understanding of where we have come from – our Roots,  of Who we are. It is not possible to live as Children of God in the World without great confidence about that identity.

And knowing deeply who we are helps us better to grasp what seems to be the impossible teaching of Jesus. We listen to the words of the Gospel – ‘Do not resist an evil doer’ – ‘turn the other cheek’ – ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ – and almost always, almost without fail we qualify them. We hear the words of Jesus and either, as so many do, we dismiss them as a hopelessly unrealistic counsel of perfection, that doesn’t address our lives. Or hang grimly onto them in a horribly legalistic sense, but to fully comprehend, to grasp in the deepest sense the meaning of Jesus teaching, we need to know who we are.

And when I say ‘Who We are?’ I want again to emphasise that First We are the Body of Christ, and Only Secondly, individually members of it. That our Primary identity is as the people of God – again, if we do not understand this, then these texts become oppressive to us and they are not meant to be, indeed they are words of Liberation of an unimaginable order. For this is Always the truth of the words of Jesus.

But first I’d like to turn to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where he is profoundly concerned with this question of identity, realizing that in truth everything springs from this. When he says ‘Do you not know . . .’ he is asking ‘Do you not know who you are?’ And Paul’s concern is for the Church, and how the church is built up as a body. This of course is a concern for us – building on the foundation which has been laid, how do we in our generation continue to build the church.

Paul has laid the foundation – he has made known the person of Jesus Christ, who is the Gospel. This is a matter of literally fundamental importance. The foundation is Jesus Christ. There are churches which say ‘we stand on the Bible’; or ‘we are a church of social action’; or ‘we are a spirit led church’. All of these good things, but secondary – they are not the foundation – the only foundation for a church can be Jesus Christ, crucified and Risen. We must even be careful when we say, we are a church founded ‘on the gospel’, for even in Paul’s time, there were many ‘gospels’ doing the rounds – not particularly written ones, but messages. Even the Roman Emperor proclaimed the Gospel of his reign. So saying ‘we are a Gospel church, a Good News Church’ is problematic as it then requires someone to ask ‘what is your Gospel?’ For The Foundation is no mere message, it IS Jesus Christ, Crucified, Risen and Ascended, who sits at the right hand of God and in whom all things hold together. He is the foundation of our Life – HE is the Vine – we are the branches. Apart from Him, apart from this foundation we are not a church. And in large part that is why we come together each Sunday – to hear His words, to share with him in the Feast of the Kingdom – his very life in bread and wine.

So then – knowing that foundation we go a LONG way to knowing who we are. As we build, our reference is always to our foundations – is our work True to the Crucified and Risen Lord of Creation? Like a master builder we build in such a way as Always in reference to our foundations. If we do not, well the building will eventually collapse. Imagine if you will the leaning tower of Pisa – the building is not out of line from its foundation – it cannot stand except it is externally propped up – and indeed it may well be the case that through Christendom the church has survived in large part because it was propped up. But Society has no interest in the church now, and here and there churches fall as societies ‘support’ withers. As we look together at our common life through Lent, continually we will be asking about our foundations in Christ, and this I pray will be the focus of our ongoing work and life together.

Well of course Paul knows that not all builders are careful – some understanding the nature of the work they are involved in build with gold and silver and precious stones. They spend themselves in building in such a way that the testing of Fire will reveal its true worth – but others take little care – they cast around for whatever comes to hand – wood, straw, hay – ‘Aw, she’ll be right!’ they say . . . ‘The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”’

Why this care? Why? Paul answers this saying ‘Do you not know who you are?’ We build carelessly when we lose sight of who we are – we might say the more we lose sight of our foundations, the more the building is likely to be out of line. Paul reminds the Corinthians of something which he is concerned they may have forgotten. Do not forget, Paul is addressing folk he has spent time sharing the Good News of Jesus with, he has taught them. What he says is meant as a reminder of his teaching. ‘Do you not know that you are God’s Temple . . . and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s Temple is Holy and you are that temple.’ Even a few minutes quiet meditation upon this teaches us that carelessness in building the church is a truly terrible thing.

At the opening of the Great Thanksgiving we declare, The Lord is here, GOd’s Spirit is with us’. I recently saw someone suggest that this was terribly presumptuous – that it was safer to say ‘The Lord be with you, The Lord bless you’ But that is only ‘safe’ in the manner of the man who hid his talent out of fear of his master!! In the end it is utterly unsafe – we Must stand in the confidence of what God has done and is doing amongst us and at once in boldness and Holy Fear, declare ‘The Lord Is Here, His Spirit is with us’

Well there are of course those who dismiss all this – those who think themselves wise in this age – in Paul’s day as well as ours, but this is not the time to concern ourselves with them, indeed too often in the church we expend ourselves on such tilting at windmills.

To conclude, let us return to the words of Jesus – who is our foundation. More specifically, how do the words of Paul, reminding the Corinthian church of who they are, help US to inhabit the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, neither dismissing them as hopelessly out of touch with the realities of our lives, nor allowing them to become heavy burdens, which at first sight Jesus’ words ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ Is not this after all the Ultimate counsel of perfection???

First those verses about turning the other cheek, about not resisting an evildoer, about giving more than just your coat, about walking the second mile. Our response to this usually falls into one of three categories. Firstly we speak in the abstract ‘Well, if I gave to everyone who asked me I’d have nothing!!’ To which the only answer is – ‘I suspect you have never tried to follow this counsel . . .’ Seriously, just for a moment consider, are you constantly harangued by the needy? Are they bashing your doors down? We respond in the abstract, and indeed reveal our own lack of generosity – Oh yes, we say, We are generous, on our own terms. And for some of us this is how we see God – a reflection of our own paltry generosity, who grudgingly gives himself to us, who demands lots of things in return, who will only give you presents if you are good . . . The second response would be . . . but people are rogues and can’t be trusted . . . and of course We can??? Sometimes to hear folk talk I think we would rather let 9 genuinely hungry starve so to avoid the mistake of feeding that one who can feed himself . . . How Unlike Jesus who cleanses ten lepers even though only one shows gratitude, who feeds thousands without running a check over their deservingness, How unlike God who would have spared Sodom and Gomorrah if only there were ten, or rather One righteous family within its walls. For the sake of such a few Good he would show mercy to thousands . . . and Jesus forces the point home, ‘do not resist an evildoer!!’ Even if you know them to be of bad character, see to their needs, Love them, pray for them, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous . . .

‘Ah!’ we say, trying to play a trump card over Jesus’ words ‘but this can become an abusers charter’ . . . and of course there are many who live in such abusive relationships . . . but I want to suggest that to participate in the Life of Christ, to live fully into who we are requires a daring act of renewed imagination, for in regards to abuse, and the effects of living in obedience to the words of Jesus we only ever think of these things as they relate to us as individuals. We need to change our very way of thinking about ourselves, we need a fuller and richer understanding of who we are.

What might it mean for us, understanding that we are the holy Temple of God, the we are the very dwelling place of God’s Spirit, that we are children of the one who loves and indeeds dies for his enemies, indeed who has loved and died for us whilst we ourselves were yet his enemies . . . what might it mean for us together to share with one another in living out these commands of Jesus? What might it mean for us together to understand that ‘all things are ours, either the world or life or death or the present or the future – everything belongs to us, that we belong to Christ, that Christ belongs to God and nothing can pluck us from the hand of our Father in heaven.
What might it mean for us as a people to be literally captivated by this understanding of ourselves, set free from our fear of others – set free to love as God in Christ loves us – set free to be his children in truth and Light.

As together over the coming months we explore our shared life, may God in his infinite Goodness and mercy draw us ever more deeply into the apprehension of who we are in Christ – The Home of God, and the Children of God.


Through the Bible in a Year – May 27th

The scheme for May – June can be found here

1 Sa 24-25; 1 Pet 4-5; Psalm 36

The two themes in Peter to which I have alluded come together in Chapter 4 – that now as God’s children we live for the rest of our earthly life no longer by human desires, but by the will of God. What use is it to pray ‘Your Kingdom Come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’ if we do not enact the will of God and live in sole obedience to him? ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ says Jesus.

As one of the Saints of the church puts it, ‘only the one who believes, obeys. And only the one who obeys, believes’. Faith and Obedience to God’s will are inextricably linked. Only the one who Hears, obeys. Faith comes through hearing and is evidenced in obedience. It is the child of God who delights to obey.

But this is a hard and narrow path – so Peter reminds us, as he must, that we are to walk together. We are known as Christians by our love for one another. There is no mark apart from that that we are given. ‘Maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins’. This Love which comes from above is full of mercy, for we know how much mercy we have been shown and out of Love for God and one another, forgive as he has forgiven us.

‘Greet one another with a kiss of love. Peace to all of you who are in Christ’

Through the Bible in a Year – May 25th

The scheme for May – June can be found here

1 Sa 19-20; 1 Pet 1; Psalm 34

One of the most misused biblical phrases is ‘Child of God’. For those of us who wish to think that all of humanity is a ‘child of God’, certainly we do not find much evidence of this in the pages of Scripture. Famously, the prologue to St John’s gospel faces us with the assertion that it is all who believe in the name of the incarnate Logos of God, Jesus Christ, who ‘have the right to become children of God’. That in order to be a child of God, one must be born from above, by the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus himself in his humanity is only declared Son of God in his Baptism by the Spirit.

That he is The Child of God is evidenced in his Resurrection. Jesus ‘who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead’ Romans 1:4 – thus became the first fruits of God’s new Creation. So Peter points us to the Resurrection of Jesus, as the entry to our new birth – a theme which is picked up on again and again in Chapter one of the first Epistle. The verses 13-21 are worthy of much meditation and contemplation.

Throughout the Scriptures, being ‘a child of’ is a metaphor for likeness, especially in how we live. So Jesus rebukes the Jews who claim to be descendents of Abraham. Their actions reveal them rather as children of the Devil.

Are we children of God? God the Father says, ‘Be Holy, for I am Holy’. This holiness can only be known in and through God’s only Son, Jesus Christ, who is our light, our hope, our Life.

As I have said in the notes accompanying this series of readings, we need to allow the Word to stop us, to halt us. The goal in the end is Not reading through the Bible in a Year, or at least that must not be our primary goal. Rather we come to the Word to receive Light and life, through the good news that is announced to us.

So may we set ALL our hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring . . . when he is revealed.

Through the Bible in a Year – April 17

The Scheme for March – April can be found here

Deut 32; 1 Tim 1-2; Psalm 123-125

The reading from Deuteronomy is a song of Moses – its basic theme is that we have forgotten whose children we are.

God is ‘without deceit’ – ‘yet his degenerate children have dealt falsely with him’

In other words, we do not reflect the image of the one who created us.

But . . . that said, God in Christ has renewed that image in humankind. Thus in Him we once more reflect the Image of God. This is the meaning of St John’s words ‘to all who believe in his name he gave the right to become children born of God.

All too often we hear of the work of the cross in terms of a mechanism for dealing with sin – which at a very basic level it is. But the reason for the Cross is not primarly sin, but the renewal of the divine image. That is the goal of the cross and that is why John in his gospel will speak of the cross in terms of Glory – a term associated with the Life of God, a Life which is restored in those who abide in Christ, those in whom Christ abides.