Through the Bible in a Year – June 20

The scheme for May – June can be found here

1 Ki 2; Mat 4; Psalm 67

In the temptations in the wilderness, Jesus is revealed in his full humanity to us. Tempted as we are in every way. What holds him through all that he endures is his understanding of who he is. Whilst we rightly make much of how Jesus responds to the Satan with words of Scripture – we perhaps miss the significance of his baptism – that his identity is secure in God his Father and he is enlivened by the Holy Spirit.

Each of the temptations is in essence to deny who he is, and each challenges us about our apprehension of our identity in Christ as sons and daughters of God.

First he is tempted to provide for himself. Of course much of bourgeois Christianity does exactly this. ‘God helps those who help themselves’ we are told and a thousand and other little lies. We are taught to take our lives into our own hands. In many ways it is the greatest failing of the western church, that throughout 1700 years of Christendom, we have become entwined in the world’s way of thinking about material things. How are our lives any different from those around us in regard to the physical provision of God. Do we know His provision of the stuff of life?

Next Jesus is called upon to deny his Father in terms of trusting him to work his good purposes out. Again the temptation is ‘to take his life into his own hands’, ironically in a way by risking his life. In an age where more than ever before we vaunt the spectacular, the large scale [think how much effort we put into ‘good communication’ re ‘EVENTS’ coming up in our churches] – in our own way we throw ourselves down from the temple many many times . . . to no effect. God reveals his Glory in His way. Ultimately, the ‘spectacle’ of God’s glory is revealed not in pyrotechinics but in the dead body of Jesus on the cross. That is His way of manifesting himself. We need to allow That to influence our efforts at what is effectively ‘self’ promotion.

Finally it all comes to a head – ‘Bow down and worship me and you will have everything you desire’. It is perhaps barely necessary that we have perhaps unwittingly, but certainly in culpable ignorance sold out to Satan in our worship of Mammon in the contemporary church.

Again, I say we see Jesus here in his humanity. In his overcoming temptation he sets a path for us to follow. Being His entails learning from Him (being his disciple). It is not primarily learning the Scriptures, although they have their not insignificant place. Primarily it is coming to our senses as Children of the most high God, realising that these temptations assail our very being, and learning like Jesus to refute them – secure in our identity as those he is not ashamed to call brothers and sisters – following Him.

Through the Bible in a year – January 7

The Scheme for January and February can be found here

Genesis 15-17; John 6:41-71; Psalm 10

“Does this offend you?”

In the story of Abram, there is much to offend our modern sensibilities – just as the words of Jesus offended those of his own time. Abram hears the promise of God but does not receive the gift of the promise. The promise is too far fetched he thinks for this strange God who has called him to put into effect. Sarai casts around for a way in which her lord might be spared the ignominy of Faith, of which the Psalmist often reminds us. Her eye lands on her Egyptian slave-girl Hagar and no good comes of it – yet once more, as in the story of Cain, God intervenes in the messy and ambiguous outcome, not staying removed.

The dark scene of the sacrifice feels prehistoric to us – yet it speaks of something profound of which we have lost sight. The Power of Word – or Promise – or Oath – that we are taken with immense seriousness. If the Word of God endures forever, does not that of the human made in his image? The divided animals were potent reminders of the significance of the human word – that it was a Bond. ‘Thus be it to me as it is to these animals if I do not keep my word’ [Thus do not swear . . . let your yes be yes, your no, no] Words are the creative power of life, and the destructive power of death. As Noah creates division enmity in blessing and cursing, so oaths have deep power. Yet here one party is taken out of the picture. Abram falls into a deep sleep – who walks between the pieces, with whom does the LORD make this covenant, but with himself. Abram as we see cannot be trusted [‘he knew what was in a man’] – Abram will try to do it for himself – he will not be a covenant partner. God swears by himself  – and when man fails – God pays the price

Anyone who does not see that the entire world is built for better or worse upon human sacrifice is blind to Reality. The offensiveness of the words of Christ are two fold – we think we have moved on from these deep primitive archetypes and metaphors – we think his words are nonsense, for we do not treat words with seriousness, And we like Abram and Sarai still believe that we can have life that is not Promised. The Gift that comes in the Creative Word – made flesh and blood – that is offered to us as real food and real drink – that we might have life within us.

Sermon for Sunday 14th October – The man who had many possessions – Questions of Identity

Mark 10:17-31
Psalm 22:1-15
Job 23:1-9,16-17

For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Over the last few months as we have made our way through the pretty stark territory of Mark’s gospel, Jo has twice helpfully pointed out how Mark tends to put two incidents side by side, that they might illuminate one another. Unfortunately, last weeks gospel reading had two pericopes which did not, I think belong together. If we remember last week’s gospel, we probably remember it for Jesus teaching on the nature of marriage and thus divorce. We may well have forgotten that the second part was the familiar incident of the disciples trying to keep the children from Jesus. This small incident forms a mutually contrasting pair with the story of the young man in our reading today. Jesus’ words ‘whoever does not receive the Kingdom as a little child . . .’ contrasting with the anguished words of the young man ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ and Jesus’ declaration ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And, to the the disciples’ perplexity,  “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!”

So let us first think about the little child and the little child’s perception of the world – and to do that I want to go back to our Psalm and the reading from Job. It might sound an odd place to go, these expressions of desolation and suffering when we are thinking of the perspective of a child, but they are words from the heart of the one who is like a little child. The Psalmist utters the words which will find their True expression on the lips of Jesus as he dies upon the Cross, ‘My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me’. As several commentators have noted, upon the lips of Jesus, the emphasis is upon the YOU – why have YOU forsaken me. Jesus in his life knows the rejection of all, even finally his disciples, but as he hangs upon the cross he knows something which is at once terrible to comprehend, and yet which is also disturbingly familiar. ‘Where have you gone?’

A little child in its early years finds its life centring around its parents and their presence. If for a moment we can begin to imagine, or indeed perhaps remember, there is little as terrifying for a child (and indeed a parent) to discover you are lost. Where have you Gone??? My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?

From everything we know of Jesus, we can not imagine this anguished prayer from the cross as some philosophical musing at the hour of his death. Jesus in all things only did what he saw the father doing – I an the Father are one – he tells his disciples. How much like the life of a small child, their sense of Identity is wound up with that of one or both of their parents. The Father gives his identity to the Son, and now as Jesus’ life ebbs away, the Father is not to be found. ‘O my God, I cry day by day, but you do not answer, and by night but find no rest’

So also Job who in his suffering complains ‘“If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; 9on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.’” Where have you gone, God? But there is no sense of ‘there is no God’ For Job, for the Psalmist, for Jesus upon the Cross, God IS!  The very centre of the Universe – the unshakable reality, whose absence is not the cause of some existential angst, but more like a living Death. For Job, for the Psalmist, for Jesus – Their Identity, Who they are is Known to be in God the Father.

So whoever does not receive the Kingdom as a child shall never enter it. To receive the Kingdom as a child is to accept God as the very epicentre – the heart and soul of one’s life – not in some vague philosophical way, not as a tenet of faith, but as such a concrete reality that the most terrifying prospect is that we might find ourselves somehow estranged from Him. To Know Him as Father in the depths of our being. ‘How much more will he clothe you?When Jesus cries out from the cross, this is no collapse of a belief system, it is the realisation that the utterly unbearably thinkable has occurred, His father appears to have forsaken him and he is Utterly alone. Jesus the Son receives the Kingdom like a child, and thus knows the Hell of separation from God. ‘Where have you gone??’!!!

Jesus, the Psalmist and Job all reveal to us what it looks like when someone obeys the first and great commandment, to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength – that is to hang our entire existence upon Him, to see the world and our existence in his light and that his absence is like the most terrifying thing that could happen to us – for He is our Father and we are his children. Knowing oneself to be the child of God gives us an utter security which nothing can shake . . .

How unlike the young man, who rushes up to Jesus with what can only be described as an anxiety laden request, What must I do to inherit eternal life?’. The man Runs up –  he is in earnest. He flatters Jesus ‘Good teacher!’ There is hardly any mention in the Rabbinic literature of ‘Good teacher’ , it is phrase that is not used because it should not be, and Jesus Rebukes him ‘Why do you call Me good? Only God is good!’ He then tells him it straight – man to man. [Notice that Jesus responds to the little children as children ‘He took them up in his arms and blessed them’ – a sign of receiving the Kingdom, being received by He who embodies the Kingdom – but the man, he treats as a man] You know the commandments – no murder, no adultery, no theft, no lying, honour your parents’ “Teacher this is what I’ve been doing since my youth . . . ever since I left childhood, I have kept all these. I know that as a man I am responsible for my life, I have to do it, I have done it!! ‘All these I have kept from my youth. And here comes the punchline . . .

Why does the man come to Jesus? Except he does not Know he has eternal life. He is uncertain. Yes he has kept the law . . . or at least most of it . . . but he is insecure. Everything Externally seems fine. In his own terms has made a success of life, he has met the goals he set for himself ‘All these I have kept from my youth’ . . . but Deep down inside he is troubled . . . and Jesus looks at him and loves him and tells him the truth. He Loves him, He Sees him as he really is – he speaks Truth to him –  ‘You lack one thing’ The man’s heart Leaps!! Yes, I knew it – deep down I knew there was something missing!! What is the One thing??? ‘Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.”
And his heart goes to his boots – the man who lacks one thing is called, as we all are to let go of everything else to lay hold on that one thing – He was shocked and went away grieving . . . for he had many possessions. Contrast the Man with the child, whose Identity is tied up in the Father – the man’s identity is tied up in his Respectable life and his possessions.

There used to be a TV programme called ‘Thru the keyhole’ – in it a camera went into a famous persons house and a panel were asked to guess whose home it was, in the light of their possessions. Thus a Deep truth was revealed, that our possessions are a mark of our sense of self – our Identity. This Man had built up a Huge picture of who he was, he had Many possessions. And Jesus says to him, if you want to discover who you really are, you need to let go of all that stuff, stuff doesn’t tell you who you are, God your Father does. Your Identity is as his child.

Today so many many people are on a journey ‘to discover themselves’, or like the young man ‘to buy an identity they feel comfortable with’ clothes, a home, possessions that express who you are. Advertising plays remorselessly on this unease with ourselves – saying in effect, you haven’t really found yourself until you have these things. As Jesus puts it, whoever wants to save his life will lose it, whoever loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will find it. The one who is prepared to let go of the false picture he has built up for himself and instead receives as a free gift that which was always their own, their identity as a child of God, will not be disappointed. Let go of the life you have made for yourself, sell your stuff, give to the poor, then come, follow me

To all external indicators Religious and material the man is secure, yet inwardly he is insecure – he is now called to reverse that, to be outwardly insecure in things, in order that he might know the security of the child. To let go of his adult security, to be born again, to start over, looking to God for all he needs, for daily bread. It is The Crisis encounter with Jesus. Jesus looked at him and loved him. Jesus could not have cared more for this man than to tell him the truth – you want eternal life? One thing you lack

And so the Risen Christ speaks to us today through this word. As we are sat here today, I wonder – to whom do we relate here? The child who has nothing yet Knows the unspeakable Joy of security in God their father – or the man, who has everything and yet Knows deep down that something is awry.

The child finds their identity in their relationship with their parent. The childlike find their identity in the love of God. We may well know in our head that God loves us, but do we know the Love of God in our heart, that we are his children, the unshakeable security we can only know as we find ourselves in the Life of the only begotten son? Are we secure in it? It strikes me that the future of the church lies in the hands of those who know that security.
For the future of the church to external senses is most uncertain. The external indicators – those things that give false security, large congregations, money, religious respectablility, charismatic leaders even – – – if we are like the man in the story, putting our faith in these things, then we will go away grieving. As I said a couple of weeks ago and in the parish magazine, I find it troubling that we are not calling out, My God, My God why have you forsaken us – or O God make speed to save us. ‘Where is God in all this?’ is Not some metaphysical conundrum, it should be an anguished cry, Where IS God in all of this?? It seems we are still putting our faith in ourselves, like the man.

But as always following Jesus is the only way – the man turns away. He has so learnt to trust what he has and what he does, that he is frightened to take the risk of faith. But what Jesus then goes on to show is that Yes – he is calling him to radically renounce his security in himself – BUT that something wondrous happens when you do. Peter says ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ And Jesus replies, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions To know HGod as our Father is also to know His provision which is ALWAYS more than we can make for ourselves – the Life he offers makes the life we make for ourselves look infinitely impoverished by comparison, To follow Jesus, is to discover ourselves as part of the community of those who follow Jesus. As we seek to discover what it means to be the people of God here in this place, we will have to let go of a lot of stuff, BUT to do so joyfully to follow Christ, is the door to True community. Whilst we cling onto the old things that always gave us hope, we shall not know the amazing depths of community in Christ. Those who leave behind . . . shall in this age receive an hundredfold. It is as we commit ourselves to Christ wholeheartedly and thus his people, we discover Life, Now.

The man faced a Crisis – eternal life was being offered him – it was a gift, he only had to let go of the life he had built for himself to receive the life Jesus offered him. I wonder if anyone knows that call here and now? I wonder if we hear it as the church here, Jesus speaking to St John’s Roslyn. Some I know do find their true family here, they have discovered the truth of Jesus words, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions’ My prayer is that we all will

I was reminded earlier this week of the words of Tim Smit – Tim is the founder of The Eden Project – a quite stunning Ecological attraction constructed in disused Clay pits in Cornwall, in the South West of England. He recalls his grandmother saying to him – ‘when you die, be sure you can say ‘I am glad I did’, rather than ‘I wish I had’”  And I couldn’t help but think of the young man in our gospel reading, the young man who is offered the Kingdom, for it is always a free gift, but who is unable to accept it, for he had many possessions. There are not just individuals who have many possessions, there are churches too. HOw does this word speak to us as individuals? HOw might it speak to us as a church?

What holds us back? Would we too rather not say “I am glad I did’, than with the man in our gospel say ‘I wish I had’

Let us once more hear in our own hearts those words of St Augustine “God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”