‘The Secret Place’ – Sermon for Ash Wednesday – Year B 2018

Sermon for Ash Wednesday
Year B 2018

Matthew 6:1-21

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.

Sermon for Sunday 23rd June – St John the Evangelist (transferred)

Sermon for Patronal Festival
St John the Evangelist, Roslyn

Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 117
1 John 1
John 21:20-25

The glorious gospel of Jesus Christ

Years ago, whilst training for ordained ministry, I was struck by the opening of one of the books I read. Indeed I wasn’t so much struck by it as haunted by it – as it’s memory has stuck with me down through the years, and it seems that today as we celebrate our Patronal Festival (almost exactly 6months late 🙂 ) it is a good place to start our consideration of the scriptures.

The book, ‘Telling the Story’, by Andrew Walker, professor of theology and education at King’s College, London opens with these words

‘In 1983, Lesslie Newbigin’s first draft of his book, The Other side of 1984, was being discussed in the British Council of Churches by a distinguished group of churchmen and women, including bishops and leading theologians. The question arose: ‘Well, what is the gospel anyway?’ Only two of the people present were prepared to hazard a guess’

Walker continues ‘This is shocking, but it is not so surprising’.

One can readily imagining a church meeting – or indeed a sermon where the question is put – ‘What is the gospel, anyway?’ And we would all break into little groups and discuss it and possibly there would be scribes who would write down our answers. The conversation would I guess go something like this ‘Well, for me, the gospel is . . .’, and ‘For me, the gospel is . . .’ You may like to think about that question briefly? And I wonder how many of our definitions when carefully questioned would be devoid of any mention of Jesus Christ . . . but I pray that they would not, here of all places

On this our Patronal festival, it is first of all worthwhile remembering the full ascription of our church. To all and sundry we are known as St John’s, Roslyn. But our full ascription is ‘St John the Evangelist, Roslyn’ St John the Evangelist. St John the one who declares the Evangel, the Good News, the Gospel. We above all should know what the Gospel is

St John, the one commonly thought to be he who lay at the breast of Jesus at the last supper – close to the heart of Jesus – declares to us the very heart of the Gospel – and John’s message is simple. The Gospel John proclaims is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ Is the good news. He comes not to declare some message from God, he does not come to suggest to us the right way to live. Jesus does not come to announce the Gospel – He Is the gospel. It is His Life which is offered both to God and to the world.

What is it that John says in the opening to the first epistle, to which we have just listened?
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us.

What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands – this Life.

Herein is one of the greatest challenges for us as the people of God in this age. In an age which is increasingly solipsistic, that is that lives in its heads, that thinks truth is a set of propositions about which we may agree or disagree over a dinner table yet still live together as we have always lived, and moreover which thus perhaps more than ever before, spiritualises the gospel that we may escape its concrete demands on our life, our challenge is this – that John, the one who is accused, and indeed in some of the early church writings lauded for writing a spiritual gospel – identifies the gospel with ‘Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth’. The Light of the World, The Bread of heaven, The Good shepherd of the sheep, The Way, The Truth, The Life. All these Wonderful ascriptions are no mere Ideas, they are not timeless truths, They are to be seen, heard and touched in Jesus. The Living Word of God is made Flesh.
John proclaims no vague ‘spiritual gospel’ No ‘message’ or ‘timeless spiritual truth’ His gospel is the flesh and blood and bone and breath material reality that is Jesus Christ

And that the Life is declared – the gospel is announced – so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is declared as the Life that comes from God, that we might share in the life Of God. ‘Now this is eternal life – that they might Know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’

We must wonder at those churchmen and theologians who could not put the gospel into words – who did not know What it was. We must wonder, ‘Did they not know Jesus Christ?’
For He is our Life – the entirety of it – as Jesus says to us ‘Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.’ Might we suggest that the church is in the unhealthy state it is, because increasingly it has less and less to do with Jesus, her risen Lord and the entire content of her being? As St Paul says ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Christ Is our Life. Apart from Him we have no good thing

Do we know this? That Jesus Christ is our Life? As John puts it in Chapter 3vs16-17  ‘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.Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, 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.’ That there is Life only in the name of Jesus.

Just a week or so ago, many church folk were astir at the ‘once in a lifetime’ visit of the Dalai Lama to Dunedin. Understandably so in some respects. A man of international standing and widely admired . . . but, brothers and sisters, not once in a lifetime – but Every week we gather here to meet with Jesus Christ, the Lord of history, the one through whom ‘All things [have come] into being,’ The one without [whom] not one thing came into being.’ He comes to us – His is the life we share – It is His word we hear proclaimed – it is His body and blood upon which we feed. We sometimes speak about ‘Going to church’ as if it were somehow just another even in the week. Sometimes we enjoy it, sometimes we don’t, sometimes the choice of hymns suits our tastes, sometimes they don’t, sometimes the sermon is to long for us, sometimes we wished it were longer 🙂 But ALWAYS Jesus Christ is present amongst us – ALWAYS we receive forgiveness of our sins through his blood – ALWAYS The Lord is HERE!!! Think folk about that just for a moment. I was left wondering why there was so much excitement about the visit of the Dalai Lama, and seemingly so little Joy amongst the people of God Sunday by Sunday – when we meet with Jesus Christ our Life. We may want to ponder that for just a moment. Do we, the flock of Christ here in this place Know him?

John shows us unambiguously that we cannot flee to the vacuous subjectivity of ‘the spiritual’ – handily divorcing faith from the concrete commands of Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth Is the gospel – and this is not just John – Jesus the Good News of God is the subject of all of scripture – that Gospel is proclaimed throughout all the pages of Scripture. Moses, it seems to me sees Christ far more clearly than we who bear his name often do.

As God in his mercy reveals a little of himself to Moses – Moses realises that the people cannot live apart from the presence of the Living One as he intercedes with God ‘Consider too that this nation is your people.’ The LORD said, ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’ Come to me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I shall give you rest . . . And [Moses] said to [the LORD], ‘If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favour in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? The disciples have to be told by Jesus that apart from Him they can do nothing, apart from Him they Are nothing, but Moses pleads in effect – Do not leave us In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.’ In this way, we shall be distinct . . . from every people on the face of the Earth.

The reduction of the Gospel to a spiritual message – carefully crafted to offend none – stripped of its true content, Jesus Christ – leaves Christians utterly indistinct from every people on the face of the earth. ‘Oh you are spiritual? So are we – how lovely!’ But how can we know what Spiritual means??? Apart from Jesus Christ – the Word made flesh. Apart from that core understanding that apart from the Life of the Living One in our midst we have nothing, we are nothing, we gain nothing. Yet knowing Him, we have Everything.
The words Follow Me – are addressed through Peter to the whole church – to live our live in and through and with Jesus Christ

Next year – 2014 – we celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the first preaching of Christ upon these shores. As a diocese we will together be called to a corporate act of identification with Jesus Christ. Across the Diocese there will be a renewal of our baptismal vows – a reminder to us all that we have seen the Glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, and we have died in baptism with him, and that our life is hid with Christ in God. Following that, the bishop will embark on a Diocesan wide Hikoi – proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ across the Otago and Southland.

When as it is to be hoped such proclamation of Jesus Christ stirs up our neighbours to ask of us ‘What is the gospel anyway?’ May we not be ashamed to bear the name of Jesus. May we not shy from naming him as our Life – May we not be left as those churchmen and theologians were embarrassedly struggling for words – especially here in the Church that bears the name of the one that has written these things that we might believe, and believing might have Life in and through Jesus 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.