Listen to Jesus (a sermon on Mark 9:2-9)

I want to begin my sermon today by asking you this question: who do you listen to? Why do you listen to them? And what might cause you to stop listening to them?

Currently, a lot of people are listening to Donald J. Trump. I checked on Twitter and it says he has 47.5 million people following him. Of course, not all of them are actually listening to him, in the sense of seeing him as a reliable guide; in fact, I’d guess that a good number of those people are doing quite the opposite; they’re following his every tweet so they can catch him out when he says ridiculous things. But nevertheless, 47.5 million is a lot of people. It’s a lot more than the people Trump himself is listening to. Do you know how many people he follows on Twitter? Forty-five!

Sometimes we listen to people we’d be well-advised not to take too seriously, and sometimes we listen to people for the wrong reasons. But most of us have also made some very good choices about who we listen to. We’ve got friends we respect and trust, and we know they’ll give us good and thoughtful advice. We’d got spiritual leaders and mentors, maybe some favourite writers who have guided us well in the past. When we’re asking big questions about the direction we’re taking in our lives, it’s natural that we should consult them. Two of the authors I really look up to and respect are C.S. Lewis and Eugene Peterson; I don’t agree with them on absolutely everything, but I see them as wise and reliable spiritual guides and I take their advice very, very seriously.

In the time of Jesus, it would have been natural for Peter and James and John to look on Moses and Elijah in this way. Moses was the great founding leader of the nation of Israel. Moses was the one who had led Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through their forty-year desert pilgrimage to the edge of their promised land. God had spoken to the Israelites through him, and through him had come the Torah, the Law, which later grew into what are now sometimes called the Five Books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – which are pretty much the constitution of the people of Israel. It would be very hard for the first disciples of Jesus to imagine that anyone could be greater than Moses.

Elijah came hundreds of years later; he was the first great prophet of the kingdom of Israel. He was the one who stood up against the wicked Queen Jezebel and her husband Ahab and all the prophets of the false god Baal. Many prophets had since followed in Elijah’s footsteps but he was widely regarded in the time of Jesus as the greatest of the prophets, and people said that before the Day of the Lord came God would send Elijah back to them again. So yes: he was right up there with Moses. It would be natural for people to ‘listen to him’.

That’s part of the background to our gospel reading today. But we also need to read it in context of the passage that comes immediately before it. In the first sentence of today’s gospel Mark directs us back to what came before; he says, ‘Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves’ (Mark 9:2). Mark very rarely gives us time references in his gospel, and so when he does, we can be sure they’re significant. So the first question we should ask ourselves is ‘six days after what?’ The obvious answer is, six days after the events of the previous passage.

In Mark 8:27 – 9:1, we have a body of teaching that Jesus gives his disciples near the town of Caesarea Philippi. It begins with him asking the question, “Who do people say that I am?” They reply, “John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the other prophets”. “What about you?” he asks them; “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replies, “You’re the Messiah” – in other words, “You’re the King God has sent to set us free, the one like David, the one who will make our nation great again”.

In the tradition of the day, the coming Messiah was seen as a glorious figure, a conquering hero like David. But what Jesus says next completely rewrites that script. He says that the Son of Man – another title for the Messiah – must suffer and be rejected by the religious establishment, and be killed, and then after three days rise again. Peter, the very one who has just had a moment of revelation that Jesus is the Messiah, takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. But Jesus in his turn rebukes Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!” he says, “for your mind is on human things, not the things of God”. He then calls the crowd and his disciples together and says, “If any want to be my followers, they need to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. If anyone tries to hang onto their life, they’ll lose it, but if they give it up for me and the gospel, they’ll save it”.

This is a hard word, and obviously causes Peter to rethink whether or not he wants to ‘listen to Jesus’. I think today we often misunderstand this passage. We think that ‘taking up the cross’ refers to going through suffering in general, so whatever my suffering might be, that’s my cross: it could be my difficult friend, my incurable illness, or even my domineering mother-in-law!

But that’s not what it meant in the time of Jesus. A person carrying a cross was a person who was going out to be crucified, and crucifixion was a punishment that the Romans used for rebels against the empire. Jesus was saying to his disciples, “I know you think I’m going to conquer the Romans, but I’m not. Quite the opposite, in fact; the Romans are going to conquer me! And if you want to follow me, you’ve got to be prepared be seen as a dangerous rebel, and to carry the cross as I’m going to carry it, and let the Romans conquer you as well!” In other words, instead of killing his enemies, Jesus was going to love his enemies to the point of death, and he was calling his disciples to walk the same road with him.

So this is the background to today’s passage. Can you imagine the confusion in the minds of the disciples? They’ve gradually come to understand that Jesus is more than just a wise human teacher or a prophet; he’s the Messiah, the Son of the living God. But now he seems to them to be taking a disastrous course. How could he be the Messiah if he was planning to be killed by his enemies? It couldn’t possibly be true. But if he was the Messiah, could he be wrong about this? Well, maybe he wasn’t the Messiah after all? Should they be listening to a man who might be a false Messiah? What should they do?

So now Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. When they reached the top, Jesus’ appearance was transformed, or transfigured, before them: his clothes, like Moses’ face, became dazzling bright – Mark adds the little detail that it was ‘brighter than any laundry you can imagine could ever bleach them!’ And suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared there, talking with Jesus.

The disciples, of course, were terrified, as you would be if you saw a friend of yours suddenly transformed into a figure of dazzling light and talking with two people you knew to be dead! Peter blurted out the first thing that came into his mind: “Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here; let’s make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!” Mark comments that ‘he didn’t know what he was saying’.

And then comes another Old Testament resonance. In the story of Moses going up the mountain to meet God, God himself came down on the mountain in a cloud; later, when God led his people through the desert to the promised land, we read that he travelled with them as ‘a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night’. Now the cloud comes down over the three figures, including the one that looks like a pillar of fire, and they hear a voice from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And then the cloud fades away, and the disciples see that Moses and Elijah are gone, and only Jesus is there with them.

So what did these three disciples get out of this amazing experience? And what is Mark trying to tell his readers?

Many scholars believe that Mark wrote his gospel in Rome, in the mid-sixties of the first century A.D. During that time Nero was the Roman emperor, and he was the one who launched the first great persecution of Christians. It happened after the great fire of Rome; the rumour went around that Nero had started the fire for his own amusement, and he needed a convenient scapegoat, so he blamed the Christians. “You know those Christians”, he said; “They’re always telling us that the world is going to end in fire! They’re the ones who did it!” And so began a terrible time for the church in Rome. Christians were hung on poles, covered in pitch and set on fire as torches to light Nero’s processions. They were crucified, as Jesus had been crucified. They were thrown into the arena to be torn apart by lions. It seems likely that Peter and Paul both died in this persecution.

Mark wrote his gospel in the context of this time of great suffering. Part of his job in writing the story of Jesus must have been to make sense of what the Christians were going through. We can be sure that many of them were tempted to lose their faith. Why was God letting the Romans do this to them? Was Jesus really Lord, or was he powerless to help them? And shouldn’t they take up the sword and defend themselves?

You can be sure that when Mark reminded his first readers of the words of Jesus about denying yourself, taking up your cross and following Jesus, he had their suffering in mind. He knew that many of them were in danger of losing their lives for the sake of Jesus and the gospel. He was reminding them that Jesus walked the way of the Cross, the way of loving your enemies, and he had called his followers to do the same thing, because we believe in a God who loves his enemies and causes the sun and rain to fall on the good and bad alike.

So what is this story teaching us about who Jesus is, and what he is asking of us who follow him?

Here we have Moses and Elijah, these two revered figures from Israel’s past, standing on the mountain with Jesus. These disciples loved their Master, but I’m pretty sure that until now it had never entered their mind that he could possibly be greater than Moses and Elijah. To put it another way, they would not have expected the voice from heaven to say, ‘This is my Beloved Son; listen to him’, but rather, ‘Here are the Law and the Prophets; listen to them!’

Nonetheless, the voice from heaven points not to Moses and Elijah, but to Jesus. Mark wants us to understand that he is the one the Law and the Prophets have been pointing to. In his life and teaching he fulfils the Law, and the Prophets foretold his coming. The Old Testament scriptures told the story of God’s people, and he is the climax the story has been leading to. So honour Moses and Elijah, yes, and the scriptures they represent, but ‘listen to him’ – listen to Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.

We Christians believe that Jesus is not just one great religious leader among many. We believe that he is the incarnate Son of God – that in him God has come among us in a unique way. We don’t believe that every other religious figure in the world is wrong about everything – in fact, we believe that God has spoken in many and various ways to people down through the ages. But we do believe that because Jesus is the unique Son of God, he is God’s highest and most accurate Word to us. Above all other, we should ‘Listen to him’.

We believe this in theory, but here’s the million-dollar question: Do we in fact ‘listen to him’?

For us today, we don’t very often hear the voice of Jesus speaking to us in an audible way. A few individuals do have this experience, and I’m sure it’s a very wonderful thing, but most of us don’t. Some people find that a problem. I had a woman ask me once, “So now I’ve given my life to Jesus, I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do next!”

Fortunately for us, ninety percent of the will of God for us is the same for everyone. Jesus has come among us and spoken his word. He’s explained the Old Testament scriptures to us and applied them to our lives. He’s given us a clear picture of what God is like, and he’s also given us a clear picture of God’s will for us as human beings.

You don’t need me to tell you what that’s all about; you hear the gospels read every week, and I hope you read them for yourselves too. Jesus told us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. He told us to love our neighbours as ourselves, to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us, to forgive those who sin against us, even as much as seventy times seven. He told us not to accumulate possessions but to live simply and give to the poor. He told us that when we have something against a brother or sister we’re not to gossip about them but to go straight to them and talk it over. He told us that when we give a dinner party we shouldn’t only invite our friends and rich neighbours, but the poor and needy as well.

And it’s not just Jesus’ words; it’s his actions as well. The Book of Common Prayer tells us to bring the ‘teaching and example of Christ into our everyday life’. I think about the way he treated women and children as his equals. I think about the way he ignored barriers telling him who he should spend time with and who he shouldn’t. I think about the way he made prayer the centre of his life, sometimes even taking whole nights in prayer with his heavenly Father, and being willing to go on long fasts as he as seeking God’s guidance.

My friends, I don’t need a special, private word from Jesus telling me what to do. I could spend the rest of my life working on the things he’s already told us, and never get to the end of it!

I must admit – because I’m a sinner like anyone else – that there are times when I’m tempted to stop listening to Jesus. If you have two coats, give one of them away to someone who doesn’t have one. Does that apply to my two cars? My two very nice guitars? And how do I sell my possessions and give to the poor in a freezing cold province like Alberta? So it’s not always easy to know how to apply Jesus’ teaching, and this is where we really do need to pray and listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit – which will often come as we talk these things out together.

This Lent we’re going to try very hard to listen to Jesus as a parish. I’ve sent out a list of Bible readings, five days a week, that will take us through the Gospel of Mark in the season of Lent and the first part of Easter. Along with the list of readings, I’ve given some suggestions as to how we might spend a daily time of Bible reading in such a way that we don’t just skim through the text, but really take time to listen to what God might be saying to us in it. I hope that, if you don’t already have a daily discipline of Bible reading, you might join us in this journey through Mark. If your email address is on our parish list you would have received the list of readings a few days ago, and there are some paper copies on the table in the foyer.

‘Listen to him’. But sometimes, sadly, it’s true that (in the words of Paul Simon) ‘A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest’. I confess to you, my brothers and sisters, that there are times when I’ve treated the words of Jesus in that way: I’ve heard what I wanted to hear and disregarded the rest.

So this Lent, I’m going to try to remind myself who Jesus is: ‘the word became flesh and lived among us’ (John 1:14). I’m going to ask him to help me really listen to him, with my whole heart, and to put into practice the things that I hear. I hope you’ll do the same.


Who is my neighbour?

When I was young I understood the word ‘neighbour’ to have a very specific meaning: the person who lives next door.

Occasionally it would be extended a bit. In a small village of a few hundred people, many of them related to each other, the term ‘neighbour’ might reasonably be applied to everyone in the community. Or in the inner-city (like Woodland Road in Leicester, where I spent the first few years of my life), it might mean other people who lived on the same street. 

But ‘neighbour’ always implied proximity. And usually (although this was rarely spelled out) it also involved similarity: neighbours are people like us.

Jesus, however, had a different definition. Let me quote it to you in full:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10:25-37, NRSV)

Let me point out two things about this passage.

First, Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’. That’s because it’s the wrong question. The lawyer thinks the commandments are an entrance exam he has to pass in order to receive eternal life. He wants to know what the pass mark is: what’s the least he can get away with? That being the case, if there are fifty people in his village and only twenty of them qualify as his ‘neighbours’, why would he waste time loving the other thirty? There’s nothing in it for him!

Jesus, however, sees things differently. To him, the commandments are not an entrance exam, they are a description of what eternal life looks like. Growing in joyful obedience to those commandments is what our life is going to be about, now and forever, until we are reshaped into people who obey them not out of obligation, but out of delight. They aren’t an exam that we will complete: they are our new way of life.

So Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question because he doesn’t accept the premise it’s based on. And this leads to the second thing: Jesus’ redefinition of the word  ‘neighbour’. ‘Neighbour’ isn’t a description of a person who lives near us and who looks like us; it’s a description of the relationship between a person in need and the person who stops to help them. A person in need, whether I know them or not, is my neighbour. When I stop to help them, I am behaving like a true neighbour to them.

And it’s not an accident that Jesus chooses to make this an inter-racial story. The Samaritans were mixed-bloods, with centuries of animosity between them and the ‘pure’ Jews of Judea. But a Samaritan was the one who stopped to help this (presumably Jewish) victim of a mugging, while the priest and the Levite (also Jewish) refused to do so. They refused to be neighbours to the man in need; the Samaritan chose to be a neighbour.

In recent weeks we have seen shocking racial hatred, especially today in Charlottesville, Virginia. This hatred is antithetical to the message of Jesus Christ. Jesus recognizes no boundaries; he crosses borders, reaches out to all people, treats Samaritans and Roman soldiers (and women, children, tax collectors and prostitutes) with respect, and tells us that we are even required to love our enemies. There is no escape from the command to love, because it is the nature of the God we believe in, a God who loves his enemies.

I want to say as clearly as I can that any kind of racism – against aboriginal people, against black folks, against Asians, against Jewish people or Muslims (although ‘Muslim’ is a religion, not a race) or anyone else – is totally antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The God Jesus taught us about is the God who created everyone and loves everyone. The Church must stand clearly for the message, and live it out in its daily life. 

I would be the first to admit that we in the Church have often fallen short of this. We have allowed our governments to tells us it’s okay to hate and kill people it calls our enemies. We have colluded with the state in the sinfully misguided and wicked institution of the Residential Schools. And we continue to drag our feet on recognizing the rights of the original inhabitants of this country. So yes, we have a lot to repent of.

But let’s not fail to name the goal we’re aiming for. Let’s be clear: Jesus calls us to be neighbours to one another, to love one another, to help those in need whether they are ‘like us’ or not. One of his early followers, Saul of Tarsus, taught that in Christ ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). 

All one. The Church is called to demonstrate before the watching world what a reconciled humanity looks like. The Church is called to live this love, and then to share it with others and invite them into it. And we cannot do that if we allow ourselves to be divided along lines of race. To allow that would be a complete betrayal of our message.

We are one family. So let us do our best to live as one family, and refuse to let the power of evil divide us.

Low-Key Religious Experience

1Religious experience doesn’t have to be dramatic to change your life. I know that, because my life was changed by a low-key religious experience.

I gave my life to Jesus when I was thirteen. This was part of a series of events that had been going on for some time.

I had been confirmed a year or so beforehand. Some of the confirmation candidates had stayed together as a youth group, and one of the people in that group was an older girl whose faith impressed me. Also, my dad had been lending me Christian books, and I’d read Dennis Bennett’s Nine O’Clock in the Morning, describing his early experiences in what we now call the ‘charismatic renewal’. Healings, speaking in tongues, works of knowledge and wisdom, baptism in the Holy Spirit – it was all very dramatic. And I found it very attractive (and a lot more exciting than the staid Anglican worship I was experiencing at the time).

But my night of commitment to Christ was the opposite of dramatic. At a youth group meeting, my dad (the vicar) said to me, “You’ve never given your life to Jesus, have you?” After the meeting, I went to my room, sat down on my bed and prayed a simple prayer giving my life to Jesus. That was it.

I realized as I was thinking about it this morning that I actually have no memory of that event. I think I do, because I’ve told the outline of the story so many times. But I don’t remember why I did it. I don’t remember what the thought processes were that led me from Dad’s study to sitting on my bed praying the prayer. And I don’t remember how I felt, before, during, or after.

I must have been at least considering the possibility of something dramatic happening. Think of what I had been reading at the time – the spiritual experiences of charismatic Anglican (Dennis Bennett) and Pentecostal (David Wilkerson) Christians (yes, I’d read The Cross and the Switchblade too). Those folks didn’t exactly major in low-key religious experiences! But I have no memory of anything dramatic – no powerful sense of God’s presence, no speaking in tongues, visions, or voices from heaven. No memory at all. Whatever happened, I’ve forgotten it.

However, something happened, because that day set the course of the rest of my life. Very quickly, Christ and following Christ moved into the centre of my life and became my number one priority. I was an enthusiastic Jesus-freak almost from day one! Dad taught me to pray and read the Bible and I made it a habit, a habit I’ve maintained to this day. I plunged into Christian fellowship, small group worship and study times, and I read voraciously. And four years later I enrolled in a two-year training course to become an evangelist. Later on, I was ordained a deacon and a priest.

But all this began with something so low-key that I can barely remember it!

So don’t feel second-class if your religious experience is low key. God is still at work, at a far deeper level than your emotions. As my friend Harold Percy says, God doesn’t write boring stories; all God’s stories are interesting stories. Including yours and mine.

Everyone’s story is unique. There is no template. There are no standardized conversions. Every conversion described in the Book of Acts is different, except for this one thing: they all describe a process by which person’s life is reorientated toward the God who Jesus revealed to us.

And that’s the most important issue. Not ‘Did I feel Jesus enter my heart?’ or ‘Did I see a vision of God?’ or ‘Did I pray the right prayer?’ The important issue is ‘Today, as I go into my day, is my face toward the God who Jesus revealed to us?’

Everything else is optional.


Temptation and Joy (a sermon for the first Sunday of Lent)

Our theme for today, the first Sunday of Lent, is ‘Temptation’. And we have to face up to the fact, right from the start, that this is not the sexiest theme on the planet!

Well, maybe for some people it actually is the sexiest theme on the planet. Because to some people, that’s what the word ‘temptation’ is all about – seductive music, low-cut silk dresses, that air of danger, that fiction of attempting to resist, while all the time you know you’re not going to resist for long. ‘Temptation’ and ‘sex’ are two words that go together in a lot of people’s minds.

And the other word that often goes with ‘temptation’, of course, is ‘chocolate’! It’s dark, it’s mysterious, it’s sweet, it can be bad for us in excess, but it tastes so good! Who can resist it? Not many of us – at least, not for long!

So we have a communication issue here. Something which the biblical writers – and our Christian ancestors – considered to be a very serious, and very dangerous, part of our spiritual experience, has become something funny, or even something enjoyable – a ‘sinful pleasure’, we might say. How are we going to rehabilitate this word, to the point that we take it seriously?

I think we have to start with another word that’s lost its power to communicate: the word ‘sin’. Once again, it’s not a word that’s used very often these days. It tends to be associated with moralistic preachers going on about hellfire and brimstone and trying to control people and taking all the pleasure out of their lives. Or, alternatively, it has that same comic feel to it as the word ‘temptation’. When people of our day talk about something being ‘a sinful pleasure’, they don’t usually mean that it’s a bad thing, do they? They might even use the term ‘sinfully delicious’ – not just delicious, but delicious with that extra ‘zing’ of indulging yourself in something that someone else thinks you should stay away from – which just adds to the overall deliciousness, doesn’t it? ‘Take that, you killjoys!’

It’s this total loss of horror over the evil of sin – the evil of our own sin – that makes some preachers and Christian writers avoid the word altogether. But others have taken a different approach. I mentioned a few weeks ago Francis Spufford’s brilliant little book Unapologetic, which is subtitled Why, Despite Everything, Christianity can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. As I said last time, Spufford uses a snappy little phrase as an alternative to the word ‘sin’. His phrase uses a rather offensive swear word that I’m not going to repeat in this pulpit, but when I tell you that my slightly edited version of his phrase is ‘Our human propensity to mess things up’, I’m sure you can guess the word he used instead of ‘mess’!

But this is brilliant, isn’t it? Here’s part of what Spufford has to say about it:

‘What we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch’.

I think we all recognize this in ourselves, or at least, I hope we do. But we tend to be brought face to face with it in those horrible moments when we become aware of failure: a marriage ends, or a job disappears, or a relationship with an adult child becomes more and more distant until we wake up one day and realize we hardly ever see them again, or they never call. Or perhaps we realize that the extra glass of wine after supper has become two, or three, or four, and has started to have an impact on the rest of our life – a negative impact. Or the doctor tells us it’s time to start taking blood pressure pills or cholesterol medication, and we say, “I’m too young for that, aren’t I?” and she replies, “Well, some of your lifestyle choices might not have been very wise”.

Or maybe it’s none of that. Maybe we just catch ourselves one night in a reflective mood, thinking about what our life has become, and we suddenly remember all the bright dreams we had when we were in high school, and we think “What happened to all that?” and we’re consumed with regret, because none of the choices we made seemed that bad in themselves, but as we look back we can see how they’ve led inexorably to the person we’ve become.

Okay, so this is what we mean by ‘sin’. We have a life, one precious life, entrusted to us by a God who loves us and wants nothing but good for us. But he’s given us free will, which means that we can make real choices that have real consequences. And all of us, without exception, have this mysterious propensity to make bad choices. When we’re faced with that bright shiny thing that looks so good, or that choice between short term pleasure and long term good, over and over again we make the wrong choice. I do it. You do it. Everybody does it. And because we all live in a network of relationships, it doesn’t just effect us. The person I’m becoming effects the people I love, and the people I work with, and the barista I snap at when I buy my morning coffee, and so on, and so on, reaching out to the people in South Sudan who are currently heading inexorably toward a deadly famine caused entirely, so the experts say, by civil war. We are communal beings, and we sin as communal beings.

What do we have to say about this as Christians?

First, we’re in this together. None of us has the right to look down on someone else and judge them, because we’ve all been infected with the same disease. In A.A. everyone says “Hi, I’m Jack, and I’m an alcoholic”. Well, I’m Tim, and I’m a sinner. I mess things up. I break things and people that are precious to me. I have a lot of regrets. Every sane person does. We’re all in this together.

That’s why our Old Testament reading from Genesis is so important. It’s not about something that happened a long long time ago in a mythical time when snakes could talk. It’s about a fundamental characteristic of human beings, something that was as obvious to the original authors as it is to us today.

God creates us out of love and puts us in a beautiful garden where we have everything we could possibly want and more besides. We know God instinctively, as many children do even today, and we walk consciously with God. And we’re glad to follow God’s wise guidance, because we know from experience that things do tend to work out better for us when we do.

But then something catches our attention, something so beautiful that it takes our breath away. Immediately everything else fades from view and we find ourselves consumed with longing for this thing, this forbidden fruit. We know it’s forbidden, but we find ourselves doubting the wisdom of that command. ‘What would be wrong with it?’ we ask ourselves.

And then we hear the voice. “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’” (Genesis 3:1). Of course not, but the voice is a cunning one; it wants us to think that God’s out to spoil our fun. It wants us to resent God. And so it makes out God’s commands to be a lot more burdensome than they actually are. “You could have so much fun; there are so many wonderful things you could enjoy if it wasn’t for these silly, puritanical commandments. Why do you put up with them? You’re not really going to enjoy life to the full unless you ignore God on this point, and do what your instincts tell you to do”.

And so we give in, and we know right away that things have gone dreadfully wrong. The thought of God isn’t a delight any more; in fact, we’re scared of him, and we hide from him. We try to avoid thinking about him, because the thought of him and the thought of what we’ve done just can’t fit together in our minds.

But when he breaks through all that fog – when the stab of conscience succeeds in hitting us – we look around for someone to blame. “The woman – whom you gave to be with me – she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate”. It’s her fault – I wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t provoked me – and where did she come from, anyway? Wasn’t she your idea in the first place?” Or, “the serpent tricked me, and I ate” (in other words, “the devil made me do it!”).

We hide from God, and we blame others instead of accepting our own responsibility. And the result is that paradise is lost to us – we have to leave our beautiful home. We feel ashamed of ourselves, so we make clothes – in other words, we hide from each other, we wear masks with each other, because we’re afraid that if other people knew us as we really are, as we really know ourselves to be, they wouldn’t love us, or even like us. So we perform for each other, playing a role instead of being ourselves, out of fear of rejection. And the sad story goes on. In the next chapter of the book of Genesis, brother murders brother and then tries to hide the deed.

This is us; this is what we do. And we have to take it seriously. Christianity is against that facile view of human nature that says we’re all basically good people. That doesn’t make sense of all the despicable things we do to each other. Yes, we’re made as good people by a good God, but we’ve somehow gotten infected with this disease of selfishness and self-centredness – this human propensity to mess things up. And when we admit that, we can be patient with one another, because we know that we’re in the same struggle together.

And there is forgiveness. That’s the next thing Christianity has to say. Our fear of God turns out to be not the whole story. Yes, he’s angry, because he loves us and hates to see us putting ourselves through so much pain. But he’s not our enemy. And so in our psalm today we come across this incredible surprise; we can almost hear the astonishment in the author’s voice:

‘Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin’ (Psalm 32:5).

‘You forgave the guilt of my sin’. What an amazing thing! We sin against love, we turn away from the love that made us, and when he comes among us and tries to win us back, we nail him to a cross and string him up to die. And what does he do? He says, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”. We may be his enemies, but he appears to be in the habit of loving his enemies! And so we’re encouraged to come clean, not to ‘hide our iniquity’, but to turn to God and confess it. He knows about it anyway, so why should we pretend? “This is me, God; this is what I’ve done. No denials, no excuses. Will you forgive me, please?” And the reply? “My son, my daughter, your sins are forgiven. And by the way, I’m so glad you’re back, so we’re going to kill the fatted calf and have a feast!”

That’s the wonder of the Gospel. Do you believe it? If you do, you’ll go out of this church today with a new light in your eyes and a new joy in your heart. You looked into the face of your judge, and to your amazement you discovered a Saviour. And now you just can’t get over it!

But there’s more. We’re not condemned to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Yes, we won’t get entirely free of the infection, not while we live in this frail mortal flesh. Sin still weaves a tangled web, and even the holiest and most mature Christian gets caught in it sometimes. But salvation is possible. Progress in holiness is possible. And someone has walked that path before us.

That’s why the story of Jesus’ temptations is our gospel reading for today. This was not just play acting. Some people say, “Ah, but he was God, so he was never really going to fall to temptation, was he?” But that’s not taking the Incarnation seriously. “He was God” is not a completely exhaustive statement about Jesus. He was also a human being, subject to the same fears and doubts and tests and desires as us. Specifically, the desire to avoid the Cross. That’s what the devil was tempting him to do, wasn’t it? ‘You don’t have to walk this path of the cross. You can give them all free bread, or you can do some amazing miracle that makes it plain to them who you really are – that’ll impress them, won’t it? Or you can worship me, and then I’ll give them all to you as a gift’. No need for the nails, the spear, the crown of thorns. You can have it all for free.

Why did Jesus say ‘no’? This is really important; we need to know this. My own experience is that fighting against temptation is never a very effective way of fighting against temptation! Do you know what I mean? I’m tempted to buy something I don’t really need and I know I can’t really afford, but the temptation won’t go away, so each time it comes around I struggle against it. But when I’m struggling against it I’m still thinking about it, aren’t I? So this deliciously sinful thing gets bigger and bigger in my mind even as I’m fighting against it, and eventually, inevitably, I give in.

There’s a very significant verse in the letter to the Hebrews that offers us a different strategy. Let me read it to you:

‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God’ (Hebrews 12:1-2).

‘The joy that was set before him’. That’s what Jesus was focussing on when he was tempted. He wasn’t focussing on avoiding the sin. He was focussing on gaining the joy. He refused to let the temptation grow in his mind, so he turned his attention away from it, to something completely different.

We can do that too. What is ‘the joy that is set before us’? It’s the joy of knowing God better and better every day. Isn’t that an amazing thought – that we can know the creator of the universe, because he wants to know us? It’s the joy of having a clear conscience, or waking up in the morning without that heavy weight of guilt pressing on our hearts. It’s the joy of knowing that God has a dream for us and we’re making steady progress toward it. It’s the joy of working toward reconciliation and building better, more lasting relationships: good marriages, strong families, positive friendships, and even, as much as it lies within us, being at peace with those who don’t especially like us. It’s the joy of living in harmony with the person God created us to be.

That’s what we need to focus on this Lent: the joy that is set before us.

So yes – we have this human tendency to mess things up. We’re all infected by it, and it can lead us to do some awful, despicable things – things that hurt us, and that hurt the people around us. We all struggle with this, so none of us can sit in judgement on each other. We’re in this together.

And God’s in it together with us. He’s not itching to damn us to hell for it. He wants to forgive us, because that’s his nature: he’s a God of grace, a God who loves his enemies and blesses those who hate him.

He’s in it so much, in fact, that he came among us and walked the earth as one of us, to show us what he’s like, and to show us the way. And now he comes and lives among us again, living in us, in fact, by his Holy Spirit. We’ve all been infected by sin, but he’s spreading a good infection – the love of God. As we walk with him each day, that good infection grows stronger, helping us to defeat our human propensity to mess things up.

And we do this by focussing on the joy set before us. To know God is to know joy. That joy is the whole purpose of Lent. So don’t just focus on giving stuff up. Focus on knowing God and walking with God. In the end, that’s what Lent is all about.


Into the Desert with God (a sermon for Ash Wednesday on Matthew 6:1-21)

A couple of weeks ago I read these words in a book called Making New Disciples, by Mark Ireland and Mike Booker; I’m not sure whether the ‘I’ in this story is Mark or Mike, but this is what he says:

A few years ago I spent a week trekking and camping in the Sinai Desert. Reading the Bible in that austere landscape I realized afresh that, as David Runcorn says, “the Scriptures teach us that there is no path to God that does not pass through the wilderness. The God of the Bible is the God of the desert”. I was leading daily Bible studies on the life of Moses, but I could have chosen any one of the many figures whose faith was shaped in the desert – Abraham, Jacob, Elijah, John the Baptist, St. Paul, and, of course, Jesus. The time of greatest spiritual growth is not when all is going well and flourishing, but when everything is stripped away and we are left with God alone. There is something about the unforgiving landscape of the desert, where danger is never far away, that forces us to do serious business with God. In Scripture and in life, the school for discipleship is the desert rather than the oasis.

I was really struck by that phrase, ‘The time of greatest spiritual growth is not when all is going well and flourishing, but when everything is stripped away and we are left with God alone’. That’s what Lent is all about! At the end of the day, giving stuff up isn’t an end in itself. What we’re beginning tonight is a journey into the desert where all our distractions are stripped away, so that we’ve got nothing to rely on but God. We strip our life down to the bare minimum, to the essentials, to the things that are really important, and then we use a few, basic spiritual disciplines to draw us closer to God in love, and closer to our fellow human beings in love as well. That’s the point of Lent.

What are those basic spiritual disciplines? Jesus names them in our gospel reading for tonight. There are three of them, and they’re very familiar to all of us: generosity, prayer, and fasting. Everyone understood in the time of Jesus that if you wanted to live a godly life, these three disciplines were essential; no one would even think about trying to live in God’s way without including them. So as we begin Lent, it’s a good idea for us to revisit these disciplines.

So let’s start with generosity, or ‘almsgiving’, to use the older word that the NRSV uses. In verse 2 Jesus introduces the subject: “So whenever you give alms…”. Growing as a disciple of Jesus includes growing from a selfish, self-centred person into a loving and caring person. Generosity – especially generosity to the poor – is a vital part of this. The Gospels are full of examples of Jesus encouraging us to do this; in one place he even says that when we care for the needy it is really him that we’re caring for.

In Isaiah chapter 58 the prophet warns the people of his time that God isn’t impressed with fasting and liturgical worship if it doesn’t lead to a change in the way we treat the poor. He encourages the people to loose the bonds of injustice, to share their bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into their homes, and to stop pointing fingers and speaking evil of other people.

Now of course there are obvious ways in which we obey this commandment, and I don’t need to give people in this congregation any lessons in it.  But let me just take this a little further and remind you that one of the purposes of giving is to knock selfishness on the head. We don’t just give for the sake of the people to whom we give; we give for our own sake, too. Paul tells us in his first letter to Timothy that godliness with contentment brings great gain. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a very content sort of person. I live in a culture where I’m constantly bombarded with ads for all sorts of gadgets I don’t really need. Giving, in this context, is a counter-cultural act; it helps me to focus not on my own imagined needs, but the needs of others. As I grow in holiness, the idea is that I will grow not just in generosity, but in my enjoyment of generosity. And that’s a real work of God!

If we ask, “How much should I give?” I always remember C.S. Lewis’ rule: if my giving isn’t making a difference to my standard of living, I’m probably not giving enough. There should be things I’d like to do that I can’t do because of my commitment to Christian generosity.

And of course, generosity isn’t just a matter of money. It’s also about my time and talents. How do I love my family, my friends and neighbours, and the people I don’t even like? This is all included as we think about our relationships with our neighbours.

The next thing Jesus deals with in this gospel is prayer. Prayer is one of the ways we love God with all our heart. If we love someone, we want to spend time with them; after all, the greatest compliment you can ever pay a person is to spend time with them! When you do that, you’ve given them a priceless gift; you’re never going to get that time back. That’s why we call it ‘spending’ time.

When it comes to prayer, Jesus gives us some very simple guidelines in this passage. He assumes that his followers will pray regularly. Everyone has to find the best way of doing that – that is to say, the time of day and the place of prayer that works best for you. Some are night people and find that praying last thing at night is good for them. Others like to get up early. Some pray at work, and some pray at home. Some pray out of doors, and some indoors. Some pray mainly by themselves, and some pray mainly with their spouse or their family. It doesn’t really matter; what matters is that we pray regularly.

Jesus also tells us to pray sincerely. In the bit we didn’t read, he talks about how some people like to ‘heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words’ (6:7). It isn’t especially important what words we use, or even how long we pray; the important thing is that we mean what we say!

In Philip Yancey’s book ‘Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference?’ he tells a story about a man who worked in a downtown rescue mission. At the mission they had prayer meetings, and some of the street people prayed rather direct prayers. One day one old guy prayed, “Thank you, God, for Metamucil”, and someone else chimed in, “That’s a 10/4, God!” Perhaps we could learn something from the simple directness of this man of the street, who prayed out of the honesty of his heart.

A third thing I learn from the Lord’s Prayer is to pray simply. This is not an elaborate prayer; it approaches God simply as Father, and prays first of all about his concerns – his name, his kingdom, his will being done – and then about the necessities of life – forgiveness, daily food, deliverance from evil. And it’s short, too – there’s nothing particularly virtuous about long prayers.

These are some of the guidelines Jesus gives us about prayer – pray regularly, sincerely, and simply. And in all our praying let’s remember the fundamental goal – to grow in our relationship with God.

The third discipline Jesus mentions is fasting. What’s fasting all about? Well, as I said at the beginning, we need to have our distractions stripped away, so we can focus on God and growing closer to God. Fasting is the discipline of turning away from things that distract us so that we can give our best attention to God and God’s call on our lives. It might be a fast from TV or the internet. It might be a fast from buying books. I know of one person who fasted from electronic screens one Lent; that would be a very difficult fast for many of us, but she claimed it was a huge benefit to her life.

The classic fast, of course, is a fast from food. This is something we aren’t very good at in our culture, and I must confess that I really only do it during Lent. Last year I made it a habit of doing a twenty-three hour fast once a week. In other words, I missed two meals, breakfast and lunch, so I didn’t eat from after supper Tuesday night until just before supper Wednesday night. I spent those mealtimes in extra prayer and spiritual reading, and when I felt hungry during the day, I tried to remind myself of my hunger for God, and turned to God in my heart in prayer, wherever I happened to be at the time. I have to say, I found it a very beneficial discipline. Not everyone can fast in this way – some have health issues that preclude it – but I suspect that there are many of us who could benefit from it.

So we have these three basic disciplines of godly living, disciplines that Jesus assumed his disciples would take on: prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor. Let’s finish by reminding ourselves that Jesus is very concerned about the spirit in which we practice these disciplines.

When you give, he says, don’t insist on having your name on the plaque on the wall. Don’t even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Keep it secret, so only God will know, and God will reward you. Don’t do it to impress others; do it because you love God.

And when you pray, don’t do it ostentatiously. Find a secret place where no one will catch you doing it. Jesus isn’t telling us we should never pray with others (he prayed in public himself several times). He’s getting at our motivation: don’t pray to impress others, pray because you love God.

And when you fast, don’t make a big noise about it. Don’t fast to impress other people; fast out of love for God.

What Jesus is talking about here is the question of who we’re living our life for. We’ve all got an audience, if we want it: family, friends, co-workers, fellow church members. But we’re not to live our lives to impress this audience. Rather, we’re to live our lives for an audience of one – God – and ‘Your Father who sees in secret will reward you’. What will the reward be? A deeper sense of closeness to God, a greater joy in loving others, and in turning away from the things that distract us so that we can give our best attention to the God who loves us. That’s what Lent is all about, so let’s pray that God will help all of us to embrace the call to a holy Lent. Amen.


What Does Discipleship Look Like?

follow%20jesus2‘Follow me’, says Jesus. In the ancient world, that didn’t just mean ‘walk after me down the road’. It meant ‘Become my disciple’. To Jesus, a disciple was an apprentice in the art of living in right relationship with God and others. It was not just about having a good time going to church, singing songs and saying prayers. It was about changing your way of life, turning away from evil and learning to do good.

What does this look like in practice? I keep asking myself that question, thinking of some of the specific things Jesus taught. Here are a few that come to mind.

Disciples have been captivated by the vision of the Kingdom of God. They believe that God is at work putting the world to rights, and that there’s a place in that plan for them. They believe that the loving rule of God is the highest possible good for the world, and so they seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness as their greatest treasure.

Disciples are the glad recipients of grace – God’s unconditional love. They know they have been forgiven and accepted by God, not because they are lovable but because God is love. They are secure in that.

Disciples are people of prayer. They have apprenticed themselves to Jesus and they say, “Lord, teach us to pray”. They have read about how their Master made prayer a daily habit; they long to go deeper in prayer and draw closer to God in this way.

Disciples are being formed by the story of God. They are growing in familiarity with the big sweep of the Bible story – creation, rebellion, Israel, Jesus and his Church, and the future fulfilment of the promise of shalom. As they read the Bible each day they are learning to see themselves as part of this story.

Disciples are people of love. Their Master teaches them that the two greatest commandments are to love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbour as you love yourself. They are well aware of how far they fall short in this, but each day they are trying to grow in this life of love. And this love is unconditional, reaching out even to enemies and those who hate us.

Disciples are people of simplicity and generosity. They have been taught by their Master not to store up for themselves treasures on earth, and so they are content with few possessions and are learning to find joy in giving to others, especially those who are in the direst need.

Disciples are people of their word. It is unnecessary to ask them to take an oath to tell the truth, because everyone knows that they always tell the truth. And this includes being honest about themselves. They don’t try to pretend they are better or more impressive than they actually are; they are content to be known as ordinary sinners saved by grace.

Disciples are people of faithfulness. They are doing their best each day to be faithful to the promises they have made: baptismal and confirmation promises, marriage vows, promises to care for their children and elders, and in some cases ordination vows. They are members of a local congregation which is their primary spiritual home and they are faithful to that congregation.

Disciples are people who bear witness to Jesus and his love. They have been taught by their Master that it is part of their responsibility to share with others what they have learned of the Gospel of God. So they look for opportunities to share their story, and the story of Jesus, with integrity and respect.

Disciples are people who seek to bless the world around them. They live each day with the resolve to add to the sum total of love and goodness in the world, rather than adding to the sum total of hatred, greed, anger and selfishness.

Disciples are people of hope. Because they believe in a God who never gives up on the world and the people in it, they also can never give up. They believe the promise of the Gospel that one day the Kingdom will be revealed in all its fulness, and so they continue to work toward that day. They are, in fact, quite stubborn about faith, hope, and love.

Disciples are people of joy. They are growing closer to God each day, and are finding in God a joy that nothing else can touch. This doesn’t mean that they don’t ‘weep with those who weep’; neither does it mean they never weep about the struggles and failures of their own lives too. But underneath the sadness, there is still the joy of knowing God and being loved by God.

These are the initial thoughts that come to me. What do you think?



Random Discipleship Thought for October 15th 2016

The context for discipleship is Jesus’ announcement that the Kingdom of God is at hand. The Kingdom of God isn’t about dying and going to heaven. Jesus taught us to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. So God’s kingdom is about God’s will being done on earth. It is about God healing the world from evil and sin and transforming it into a place of compassion, justice, and peace.

How does this happen? In Jesus’ teaching it is not by political or military means. Coercion (legal or military) will not change the hearts and minds of ordinary people. Jesus’ strategy is to call disciples, teach them the way of life of the Kingdom, and then send them out to share his message with others. All who believe and are baptized are called to be his followers, his disciples, and their daily agenda is to learn to put his teaching and example into practice in their lives. In this way the disciple community becomes a signpost for the world of what the Kingdom of God is all about.

Fellow-disciples of Jesus, we’ve got a high calling! Heavenly Father, help us today to follow the way of Jesus and, by doing so, to further the work of God’s Kingdom in the world.