One of Father Thomas Hopko’s maxims for Life in Christ, is ‘Do nothing for someone else that they could or should do for themselves’. In our world of individualism this sounds like a recipe for ignoring other people, but it is not. It is rather a check on our own ‘self importance’ – which is such that we all too readily fill any vacant space, fill any silence, obliterate any sense that We are not the centre of the universe. This ‘itching’ to live other people’s lives for them, this inability to stay within our own space is a sign of the deep seated anxiety which besets our age.
The Modern world is one which we have created for ourselves and thus if we do not keep ‘hard at it’, ‘beavering away’ (although that is to be unfair to beavers which only make one lodge for themselves), Working to ‘keep things going’, then everything would fall apart.
Having eradicated God from our consciousness we believe utterly in our own self importance, for that is all that is left, and so the stronger amongst us fill the space and take over the lives of the weaker (As Nietzsche amongst others predicted of a world stripped bare of the Worship of the living God).
We see this in the famous 80:20 rule. 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people. We (the 20 percent) mutter about those who ‘do not pull their weight’ but we are ‘whining compulsive ‘Marthas’’ overspilling our bounds. Less than gentle we take from others the small tasks given for them and them alone to do, and then complain that they should come and help us!
Our lives are actually quite small. Not many of us are more than 2m tall, or weigh more than 90 kilos . . . or so. This is the space that is given to us – but we have lost sense of the givenness of our boundedness – and thus many are deprived of life – either around us for we have spilled into their space or in the wider world, for in our anxiety driven consumption we have stolen their space from them.
It is hard to look out at the world and believe that really ‘we all need to work harder, to do more’, as the ‘natural world’ falls apart around us under the stress of our unboundedness.
Jesus is ‘gentle and humble in heart’. Put another way, he is very small. [We have a tendency to dwell on God’s Greatness, but He is at the same time humble beyond our imagining – the mightiest mountain has the very deepest roots]
Gentleness and humility do not fill other peoples’ space. So we could follow his example and learn to be small, learn to be our selves. Perhaps meditate upon the nature of Love as expressed in 1 Corinthians 13 – do you See how self-effacing Love is . . . ?
Yet in another way we ARE vast beyond imagination. As St Paul reminds us ‘your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit’. Lenten disciplines call us to small acts – to live with an open hand to all who ask for alms; restrain our bodily appetites – Come to our own space; and therein to pray. A world filled with compulsive work is prayerless. We are too busy to pray, to tired with ‘keeping it all going’. Of course we have little need of prayer for we are all ‘doing it for our selves’ keeping the world we have made in our own image going . . .
Yet we have all the space we need in which to pray, for if the Holy Spirit still dwells within us, if we have not driven the humble one from our lives with our own self importance, then the space for prayer within us, these Temples of our bodies, is infinitely large.
When we begin to see the illusory nature of what we call the Modern world and Behold the world as it truly is, as God’s, we realise that we do not need to overspill our lives, indeed that that is a grasping blasphemy, for in Truth All is Gift.
We can come back to our senses. We can leave others to the small work that is theirs as we do the small work which is ours. We need only be still, and Christ in us will do the rest . . . which of course brings us back to where we began . . .
‘Going without . . .’ is a phrase understood in our culture as a sign of ‘deprivation’, which, it is hard to deny, goes against the spirit of our age. Many years ago I remember passing one of those wayside pulpits – a notice board with a ‘thought for the week’ plastered upon it. It said ‘Wants are many. Real needs are few’ Its truth struck me even as a young boy and has remained with me, yet looking back over forty years, comparing my life now, even with life in the early 1970s – one cannot help but reflect that ‘Wants’ have vastly multiplied, and many have become ‘needs’.
This Lent I am unhooking from at least one of those ‘Wants’ become ‘needs’, that is my connection to the internet, a daily check of email and this occasional blog apart, and all forms of technology which have accrued over the intervening years. So for example, books will be for me made out of paper, and sermons hand written. The season of Lent is a time of preparation – a time of discernment. “How are things with my soul?”, is a question which Lent invites us to ponder . . . but to do that requires deprivation. The sated soul cannot know its own condition, buried under the excess we have come to call ‘enough’.
Last year during Lent, I restricted my eating. Not I hasten to add, to the point where I found myself tired or even remotely suffered, but through various practices, ate simply enough and no more. The Fourth Sunday of Lent is a day of easement of Lenten practise, and as it is in England, Mothering Sunday, we feasted. I ate and drank no more than was usual prior to the Fast – a ‘decent’ sized roast dinner, some apple pie for desert, and shared a bottle of wine with my wife. I paid for this excess over the next 36 hours, and it taught me a severe lesson. That to which I had become accustomed was, under circumstances of ‘enoughness’ more than that with which my body could cope. Buried under food, I had lost sensitivity to my condition, to the point that what I had thought a ‘reasonable meal’ made me quite ill.
As ‘going without’ is a state to be pitied in this day and age, so too ‘enough’ is a concept we struggle with, insensitive as we have become to our condition. ‘Deprivation’ in Lent usually goes no further than cutting back on those things which we once saw as luxuries and very occasional treats which have become part and parcel of our everyday consumption. ‘Chocolate anyone?’ It might seem a rather bleak prospect having ‘just’ enough.
How we are shaped in living whilst naively imagine we are choosing how to live our lives . . .
In Lent we remember Jesus driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, away even from his own culture’s ‘enough’, to a place of what appears as utter deprivation, yet it is not. All he has is sold to buy the field.
Buried under what we call ‘life’, and perhaps more deeply buried than ever before in our age, is Life. As St Luke records, ‘Jesus returned [from the wilderness] in the power of the Spirit . . .’
‘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
Many of us make it a discipline to take an annual retreat of a few days. If we do, we will no doubt be greeted by folks on our return with the words ‘It must have been nice to get away from it all’, or sentiments in a similar vein.
But a retreat, properly understood has nothing to do with getting away from it all – rather if we do not engage in such practices, in truth we spend our lives running away from ‘it all’. In our busy lives we may think we are in the thick of it but, to use a sailing metaphor, in truth we are running before the wind. To go on a retreat is as it were to turn into the wind of reality, to drop anchor and experience that which we have been running before.
Our model for retreat, as in all things is Christ, and supremely his time in the wilderness, where he is sent by the Spirit to be tested. We may well think that our lives are test enough thank you, but for the Christian there is little if anything that befalls us in our lives that is not the common lot of all. Painful relationships, difficult financial circumstances, overwhelming work ‘obligations’, ill health – these are just part of the human condition and sweep us along. No, there is a far more profound testing which is called for, a testing which will, if we allow it be our healing – the testing of fire which is time in the wilderness.
In the wilderness we discover who we really are, and to our alarm discover that our greatest enemies do not lie outside us, ‘the trials of life’, but within. The deceit of our hearts, our desire to run from God (often disguised as ‘a healthy spiritual life’) The disciplines of solitude and fasting soon tear the veneer of ‘spiritual comfort’ from our lives. We readily see that for all the pain of relationships etc. we have mistaken the comforts of our physical life – other relationships, food and drink, warm houses, the endless distractions of the technological world in which we live – for the presence of the living God. When all these things are taken away, we face the testing of the devil, the challenge of Job’s wife ‘to curse God and die’.
When we ‘retreat’ from the ‘day to day reality’ of our lives, the Reality of our lives is exposed. We realise that we have confused the gods of this age, for the God of all consolation. And there in the wilderness with nothing but God, we are confronted by our own spiritual poverty, by a ‘spiritual life’ which is an illusion. We realise that the God who is a consuming Fire is to us a stranger, that we are ‘kindlers of fire’, constructing a comfortable god in our own image – a pale imitation of ourselves.
Lent offers us the gracious opportunity of a 40 day retreat. Through disciplines of fasting, prayer and almsgiving – disciplines of letting go of our illusions – a door is held open. A doorway which leads us from Illusion to Reality, from Death to Life, from a life we have made for ourselves to Life in all its fullness.
May God in his infinite love and mercy give us Grace to drop anchor and face into the wind . . .
Sermon for Lent 2
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
‘If any would be my follower, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me’
When folk ask me how I’m settling in here in New Zealand, I have to say, pretty well. ‘So far so good!’ as the man said passing the 23rd floor of the skyscraper out of which he has just fallen’ 🙂 But there is one aspect of life here that it has taken some considerable time to adjust, and that is to do with Direction. I noticed this especially sharply when out in 2010 to come on interview, that is my sense of direction – which way is North, and which South. It wasn’t until I came out here that I realised how sharp my sense of direction was and how it was determined by the position of the sun in the sky. So when I came over I was constantly getting my North and South muddled up. You don’t realise you have a sense of direction, until you lose it. But this even extended to being inside, or more correctly being in a church building.
You may have noticed last week, how for a moment I struggled to tell you which side of the church you were all sitting on – because back in England a church was like a compass – it pointed East. So the altar was beneath the East window, and as I looked back down the church, North was to my Right and South to my Left. Indeed you didn’t have to be in a church to be so directed, for in the Church yard, all headstones also faced East – all towards Jerusalem – that at the second coming of Christ – all the dead would be raised facing the right way, and the Saints at worship would also be properly directed – Oriented towards Jerusalem, where tradition holds the Lord will appear.
But now I come into church – and my compass doesn’t work! So our ‘East Window’ is actually the South Window – I am disoriented – actually very literally, for the verb ‘to orient’ – which we take to mean to properly direct, comes from that English practise of lining churches up facing East, or towards the Orient – you Oriented the church – set it in the right direction.
Well, that is why metaphorically at least I should be grateful for Lent – for it is a time for Re-orientation – of retaking our bearings – of realigning our lives, not geographically, but personally – towards Christ. Christ who himself is Oriented – ‘towards his departure which he is about to accomplish at Jerusalem’. As I said at our Wednesday Eucharist – we face up to Reality. We clear away the overgrowth and the undergrowth – by taking ash on our foreheads we confront the deep truths of our lives – Dust you are and to dust you shall return – we are going to die – Repent and turn from your sins – we are sinners called to turn around – Re Orient our lives – face Christ – Believe the good News.
And we engage in this act of Repentance, this reorientation by denying ourselves – we don’t treat our lives as the supremely important thing. We fast – ‘my physical needs are not primary’ – we pray – more correctly we pray more, we make more time for prayer – ‘my schedule, my busy life is Not the main thing’ – and we give alms – ‘the real meaning of my life is not my security. If I am fortunate to have money beyond my most basic needs, then it isn’t for me – it is for others’. It is a Reality check on our lives, it is an opportunity given to us by the church in her wisdom to Orient our Lives once more upon Christ. To take our bearings from him – that with St Paul we might know which Direction it is that we must follow to ‘press on towards the goal’ – the heavenly call.
Now of course we may well hear those words of Paul, about the heavenly call, and then in the context of the gospel reading this morning, assume that this orientation involves us in some ethereal contemplation of Jesus upon the mount of Transfiguration – we might with Peter say ‘this is wonderful! – This is what it is all about! Lets stay here. Notice that he makes this request, Moses and Elijah are just leaving Jesus – once more Peter opens his mouth without knowing what he is saying. Just as he says to Jesus, This must never happen to you – so also he gets in the way. They are all going – Jesus is on his way – Peter wants to stop. Jesus tells Peter what is to happen, and Peter gets in his way – ‘Get thee behind me Satan, for you do not have the things of God in mind but the things of man’, Get out of my way!! you are facing the wrong way – So also the Cloud and the voice are given to Redirect – to Re Orient Peter. While [Peter] was saying this . . .’ a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.
As you know, I am just recently back from retreat – a whole week alone in the presence of God. Over and over folk say – I hope it was a lovely time, I hope it was a refreshing time, oh you are so fortunate – this sounds like bliss . . . judgement begins with the people of God – it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Whilst I do look forward to retreat, I know that in the end I am walking in with my own sentimentalised understanding of what a week in the presence of God is like. My own domesticated version of God, an idol, and not at all like Jesus.
They were terrified as they entered the cloud, and a voice came from the cloud, that said “This is my Son, my Chosen; Listen to him” Orienting our lives on Jesus, requires listening to him. We go into whatever our desert place is – that extra hour in the day we have carved out to prayer, to Listen to him. Our chief problem in the church always has been and always will be our deafness to what Jesus says. And so at every Eucharist we are exhorted “Hear the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .” and we respond “Praise and glory to God” and having heard “this is the gospel of Christ” “Praise to Christ the Word!”
Again, as I said last Wednesday, when we again heard the story of Jesus in the Wilderness being Tempted by the Devil, it’s worth asking ourselves “What was the Good News we heard in THAT!!!??” Put another way, are we hearing the Good News, Are we hearing Christ, do we begin to understand what it is he is saying? Peter what he must think of as “Oh the most wonderful of experiences” But he hasn’t heard . . . What has Jesus been talking about? Well he’s been talking with Moses and Elijah – ‘speaking [with them] of his departure which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem’
Luke seems to suggest that the disciples are not privy to Jesus conversation with Moses and Elijah – it was not for their ears. We might perhaps think this strange? Jesus is talking to Moses and Elijah and the disciples are half asleep. Listen to him?? Yes Listen to him – for Jesus had already spoken of these things with his disciples . . . our gospel begins with the words – about eight days after saying these things . . . what things? Jesus has just confirmed Peter’s suspisicion that he is the Messiah – Wonderful!! Good News!! and then he says “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” 23Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.
As Jesus later spoke with Moses and Elijah about his departure . . . so he has already spoken to the disciples . . . in terms that they have not heard, they have not Listened – this is my Son, the Chosen, Listen to Him – why should the voice say this except that they have not listened. There they are up the mountain – the dream like has become their reality – half asleep – AH! THis is it! But no – this is the dream – the reality was those words thay had not listened to “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Jesus has spoken of his departure – literally his Exodus – ‘Which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem . . .’ which He was about to accomplish. Which HE was about to accomplish . . . the hard word of the gospel is this – it is not about You – it is not about me – do you want ot save your life? you will lose it. But if you lose your life – then you will save it. The gospel is not about the fulfilment of our lives – it is about the end of them – so that His life might become everything. this Christian Life is All about Christ – it is not our life, it is His Life.
When God enters the covenant with Abraham this is made so very clear – I don’t know when you last made and agreement with someone who was asleep – but God puts Abraham out of the picture. A deep sleep fell over Abraham and God’s agreement is made with himself – it is between God – between the Father and the Son. He will accomplish it – All the glory will be His – my glory I share with no other. He does not entrust himself to a man, for he knew what was in a man . . . Peter has not listened – he has not got it. and as soon as they come down from the mountain, all hell breaks loose. Before the transfiguration, Jesus tells the disciples what the score is, but they do not listen – they think it is all about them. When Jesus comes down from the mountain, what does he find but whilst he has been away the other disciples have been trying to take things into their own hands. A boy is demon possessed, his father is at his wits end – the disciples have seen Jesus in action, and taken matters into their own hands – to absolutely no avail . . . its not about them, or what they do – they didn’t hear the words about having to lose their life – we can do this – and all hell has broken loose – the boy is dashed to the ground in convulsions – the fatherof the boy is at his wits end “I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not” and Jesus responds “you faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you”. Like the children of Israel long ago when Moses went up the mountain they cannot wait for God – their eyes cast around for ways in which They can take things into their own hands and Aaron casts them a golden calf – something to entice the eye, something to make them feel important, at the centre of things, with a respectable God like all the other nations – one that doesn’t speak.
So the disciples take matters into their own hands – they think it is all about them. Their lives need reorienting – redirecting, to Christ – to look to him – to listen to him, like him to live only in response to the word of the father. But this is such a hard hard lesson – it seems we are hard wired to make ourselves the centre of the story.
Yes – there is a time when we are called to act in the name of Jesus. But it comes hedged around with a terrible warning – a little later on Jesus sends out 70 disciples, and he tells them what to do – and so they go – and we know the story – they come back rejoicing – full of themselves’Lord in your name, even the demons submit to us” and Jesus calls them round and says, look, let me tell you something, Long time past I watched Satan fall like lightening from heaven’ His Sin – why did he fall? He wanted to be the centre of things – do Not rejoice in what you have done in my name “I am an unworthy servant – I have only done that which was asked of me” No Rejoice that your names are written in heaven. This is not about what you do, it is about what I have done
We NEED the disciplines of lent – we need to be radically decentered, dethroned – this Good News, this Gospel is NOT about us. Thank God!!
Sermon for Lent 1 – 2013 – Year C
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
‘that we may receive mercy and find grace in time of need . . .’
Just this week I heard the story of a man who was in some dire circumstances in his life and went in search of help to a monastery. As is the custom, he was given a director for his time of retreat and he poured out all his problems to the monk, but the monk didn’t respond to them, instead he told him to spend the day meditating on a portion of scripture. Well the man went to his room and for the whole day meditated on the scripture – but nothing came, nothing happened.
The next morning her returned to the monk and told him and started to tell him all his problems again, after all THAT was what he wanted sorting out, but again the monk didn’t respond to anything the man had sent, and gave him a passage from scripture to meditate on – the same one. So again, the man went away and spent another day with this passage – and it was like a brick wall to him – it wasn’t giving him answers – it wasn’t solving his problem. Well the third morning he goes back to the director and the same thing happens, he tries to pour it all out to this monk who doesn’t seem to be interested in him and his problems and again the monk gives him the same passage of scripture, and about half way through the day, God broke through.
What this story illustrates is how distracted we are, how consumed with ourselves -the man was so tied up listening to his story and rehearsing it over and over again, it took God two and a half days to get through to him. And in many ways, distraction is the root of our problems. This past week I have been on retreat. Seven days ‘Away from it all!!’ Sounds wonderful doesn’t it. Seven days when you can leave everything behind and just concentrate on God . . . Well you only need to go away from everything else – all those things that you think are getting in the way of your relationship with God, to understand that they follow you – you carry them around with you. That the problem you have Isn’t with all those people and situations – it is the problem of your heart, that wants to pay attention to anything, rather than to God.
Put yourself in the situation of that man at the monastery – I wonder – could we meditate on a short passage of scripture for an hour, even . . . he has to sit with it for two and a half days, so distracted is he. The problem isn’t that the scriptures are unclear, it is that we are deaf ad blind and we need healing, we need the distractions stripped away. We don’t know how distracted we are from God, until God is all we have
Way back, in the Garden, the snake employs just this technique. The MAn and the Woman had their attention on God, and like a conjourer, the snake distracts them, and all of a sudden God has disappeared – Here ‘look at this tree, look how good the fruit is to eat, don’t pay attention to God . . . and they look at the tree’. And distracted, they forget whose children they are, they forget what the source of their life is . . . And here is the tragedy – we forget who we are – this is why we sin. We forget whose children we are.
And so we come to the season of Lent – it is a time when we follow Jesus into the wilderness – it is a time of preparing ourselves for Easter, and there is only one way we can do that, by dying to our selves – by refusing to make ourselves and our endless stories about our lives the centre of everything. And Lent to be properly observed needs to have Wilderness space in it – Empty space – Space where you are just left with yourself, without distractions – place where we discover that in general we have ordered the universe around ourselves not God
Jesus full of the Spirit, returned from the Jordan, returned from his baptism where God had declared him to be his Son and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil for forty days. Tempted, tested – had that word from heaven, had that sense of who he was, had it sunk into the very fibre of his being? – or was it just another thought – ready to be blown away. Everyone of the temptations a distraction from the Life of God his Father. – Everyone of the temptations to deny God – to deny who he was, cleverly dressed up as an opportunity to prove who he was, to make himself the centre of the story.
he was famished, and the devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God . . . an invitation not to faith but to doubt . . . command this stone to become a loaf of bread’ As Alexander Schmemann notes – the temptation involves food, just like the apple in the garden of Eden – food is a great distraction. We even eat to avoid things. Unlike Adam and Eve of course, Jesus is famished – they are so much more like us – they have Everything they could possibly need. Jesus is alone, with no food, and here he reveals how it is God, not the food that is the true source of his life. God my Father is the provider . . . I rest in his provision.
I am reminded here of the challenging words of Jesus in John’s gospel, my food is to do the will of the one who sent me – my life is found in humble obedience to my father, he will provide all I need. I wonder if we know what it is to feed on doing the will of God?
Again Satan comes to him – Shows him . . . how easily we are distracted by what we see . . . shows him all the kingdoms of the world . . . ‘Just worship me and you can do whatever you want!’ ‘If I ruled the world, every day would be the first day of spring . . . If I was the king of the Jungle, I tell you we’d have this place sorted out in no time . . . how easily we think to ourselves that God doesn’t know what he is doing – how readily we seek to assume command . . . all this will be yours – turn your attention from God at the centre and then you will be able to put everything right – the Central delusion of modern life in a secular age – we can fix it
all you have to do . . . note how each of the temptations is carefully crafted – just turn the stones into bread, just worship me, just throw yourself down – the consequences hidden – just eat the fruit of the tree – you have everything to gain – the losses carefully hidden. The gain seems so great, the disobedience so small – after all you are Very hungry, after all surely to rule all things is what its about, after all it would be worth it, just to check that God’s word was sure, no? Just a little test??
This is the very nature of sin, small subtle distractions from God – generally none of us face temptations to commit adultery or murder or steal of go to court and lie about our neighbours – rather we’re just distracted – and gradually we are led deeper and deeper into the woods and then wonder – where is God. We’re distracted by what’s going on around us – all those people who are making our lives difficult, we’re distracted by things – and carefully we listen to those little rationalisations – after all, surely it can’t do any harm. NOt realising that we’re profoundly lost, we try and follow the most convenient track – This must be the way . . .
Of course we could then go out paranoid into the world, trying desperately to avoid all these tiny sins – another distraction – distraction from God.
Lent is a time not to try desperately live good lives, looking at the myriad possibilities to sin and fighting to avoid them – but rather a time to clear away distractions – to turn to God in faith. Faith at its simplest is this – to attend to God, to live in attentiveness to God. Jesus is tested, but his attention is on God. This is why prayer is the essence of faith – to pray continually as St Paul says, is to live in faith, with our eyes upon God in Christ. And down thorugh the years the church has called us to three disciplines of attentiveness in Lent. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving
Prayer first – the essential discipline. Just try sit in the silence in the presence of God, try to attend to God for an hour, and all of a sudden you will understand why you need to pray. Oh it sounds like heaven! But within a minute, this distraction or that comes flooding in and you relaise ten minutes later that you’ve been thinking about the shopping, or those people who are giving you a hard time, you haven’t been paying any attention to God. So for Forty days we are called to a special discipline of prayer – in large part that we might realise how much we need to pray. That we are actually permanently mentally distracted
Then Fasting. Here we learn what really drives us – Food is the most basic of our physical needs. And if we do fast, then we rapidly become aware of how controlled we are by it – and we realise that its not just our minds – our bodies are screaming for attention to and we realise how often we live unthinkingly in response to our physical needs – that our lives really aren’t as controlled by the love of God as we had fondly imagined
Then Almsgiving – always a thorny one. John Wesley’s dictum . . . if you want to be free of the power of money, give it away! It is often said the last part of a man to be converted is his wallet – I have to say I don’t know if it also applies to a woman 🙂 I know few if any people who believe they are no controlled by their financial security – few who belive the words of Jesus, that it is a straight choice – we don’t control money, it controls us. The voice of the snake . . . doesn’t scripture say that you should provide for the needs of your family, you will need a pension and all those sort of things – you can’t really expect God to provide for your needs . . . or more subtly, well of course God has given you all this money precisely as a sign of his care for you . . . Seriously if truly it IS God who has given you your wealth and it wasn’t your anxious hoarding that has accumulated it – your anxiety laden attempt to secure yourself against the future – if God really has given you it – then it is for one purpose – that you might be a blessing to others
Well that is a fairly negative look at the three disciplines – the painful angle if you like – but as the verse at the outset reminded us – we find mercy and grace in our time of need from Christ. Mercy, severe mercy at times in his exposing what is really controlling us – but also Grace. If we follow in his path – in prayer we grow into a deeper and deeper apprehension that we are his children – the more we want to attend to Him, to listen for His voice. Fasting teaches us dependence on God – note how that sounds negative!! All he has is dependence on God – but THIS is to be fully ALIVE!!!! And when we learn that God our father really DOES provide, then we are set free in generous love – we attend to God in prayer – through fasting we learn the Joy of dependence upon him ad so enter deeper into his life of GEnerosity – more and more we remember who we are, that we are his children and that attention to him and dependence upon him and imitation of him is the most natural thing.
But none of this comes from us – it is only possible because there is one who Lives – one who has conquered death and sin, one whose life means that actually we don’t have to be distracted. Jesus goes into the desert to be tested – has his identity as the Son of his heavenly father taken root in his heart, and he emerges triumphant for he lives out of complete dependence upon God. God will provide, I will worship God, I have no need to test him – who could doubt the father’s love?
And so he is obedient even to death on a cross – for he entrusts himself to the one who even raises the dead – and so becomes the source of life and light to all who trust in him – who turn from their distractions, who repent – who attend to him and walk in faith. MAy God grant to us all a Holy Lent, and may we all grow in grace in the footsteps of Christ.
‘Let us stress once more that the purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal obligations, but to “soften” our heart so that it may open itself to the realities of the spirit, to experience the hidden “hunger and thirst” for communion with God’
Alexander Schmemann : Great Lent – Journey to Pascha