When I was in high school in England we played soccer all winter long, outside, in the wind and the rain. I had two games periods a week, and unless the rain was torrential it was an absolute certainty that one of them would be a soccer game. We’d go out to the sports field, the teacher would pick two captains, and the captains would then pick their teams. That was a guaranteed humiliation for me, because I wasn’t a sporty kind of guy, and no one wanted me on their team. I was always one of the last ones to be picked. I could probably start a lawsuit now and make a lot of money off of all those years of mental anguish!
I suspect a lot of people feel that way when it comes to Christianity. We’ve been taught about the ten commandments and the teaching of Jesus, and it sounds pretty good, but deep down inside we know we just can’t measure up to it. We read in the gospels where Jesus says ‘Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’, and we forget that at the beginning of that chapter he says ‘blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.’ Perfection is the goal of the curriculum, not the entrance exam! But so often we’ve been given the impression that it’s the entrance exam, and the little child down inside us thinks “I’m never going to be good enough. Christianity’s not for people like me.”
One of our most common Christmas carols is ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’. The first two lines go,
O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem.
I love that carol, but I have my doubts about those lines. My problem is with the kind of people who are being invited to come and see the baby in the manger: ‘O come, all ye faithful’. Think about it for a minute. When you think about the Christmas story, who is it that actually receives specific invitations from God to come to the party? Not just the faithful, that’s for sure! We could also add, ‘O come, all ye faithless’, ‘O come, all ye fearful’, and even perhaps ‘O come, all ye fretful’!
Let’s start with the shepherds. They were the great unwashed, the agricultural labourers who did the hard manual work of looking after the sheep day in and day out, without taking a break for Sabbaths and religious holidays. Shepherds were looked down on by religious Jews in the time of Jesus. It was pretty nearly impossible for them to observe all the rules and traditions about ritual washing, and there was no way they could do their job without breaking the Sabbath. Sheep don’t tend to look at each other and say, “Oh, it’s the Sabbath—we’d better not get lost today!” Free range livestock have to be protected and fed and cared for, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and that’s what the shepherds were doing when the angels visited them.
And what about the Magi? They were astrologers from the east, definitely not Jewish. They were outside the covenant people of God. What did they think they were doing, gatecrashing the birth of the Jewish Messiah? How come they got an invitation, but King Herod and the temple priests from Jerusalem didn’t?
In the eyes of the religious folk in Bethlehem, the shepherds and the Magi would have been the faithless, not the faithful. The inside of the synagogue wouldn’t have been very familiar to them; they probably would have felt awkward and out of place there. And yet, God went out of his way to invite them to the birth of his Son. The angel choir wasn’t sent to the rabbis of Judea and Jerusalem, and the star didn’t guide them either. It was the outsiders, the shepherds of Bethlehem and the Magi from Iraq who were summoned to come and adore him, Christ the Lord.
This is true to the later story of Jesus, too. When he was grown up and travelling around Palestine preaching and healing, he was always being criticized by the religious for hanging out with the wrong people—tax collectors who worked for the Romans, Roman soldiers themselves, prostitutes. Jesus justified it by saying, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come not to call the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17). He was always crossing barriers, talking to people he wasn’t supposed to talk to, reaching out to the excluded and the outsiders.
That might be a word that speaks especially to some of us tonight. Maybe we’re lifelong churchgoers, or maybe we’re here tonight for the very first time. Maybe we’re satisfied with the way we’re living our lives, or maybe we’re very aware of our failings and shortcomings. Maybe we think God would be glad to see us, or maybe we’re not so sure of his welcome. Whoever we are, faithful or faithless, we’re invited: ‘O come let us adore him’. You’re included, I’m included. God wants all of us to come to the celebration.
So yes, ‘O come, all ye faithful’, but also, ‘O come, all ye faithless’! And we might also add, ‘O come, all ye fretful’. I would imagine that there was a lot of ‘fretting’ going on that night in Bethlehem.
We don’t really know anything about the story of the census Luke tells us about in his gospel, but if it was even remotely similar to what he describes, it would have been a massive undertaking. The idea that everyone had to return to the town their family originally came from to be registered—can you imagine how many people would have been on the road, how many businesses would have been disrupted, how many guest rooms would have been occupied?
Most modern Bible translators think the verse traditionally translated as ‘there was no room for them in the inn’ should actually be ‘there was no guest roomavailable for them’. The guest rooms would probably have been in the homes of some of Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem; we can imagine how full their houses would have been, with distant cousins coming from the farthest reaches of Palestine. By the time Mary and Joseph got there, the only place left was the little room downstairs where the animals were brought in at night. “Sorry, cousin Joseph—it’s all we’ve got left”. “Don’t worry, cousin Ishmael—it looks cozy enough, and it’s better than the town square!” I imagine Joseph and Mary had been very ‘fretful’ as they had gotten closer to Bethlehem. They were probably very relieved to find that even such a rustic space was available for them.
Christmas is a busy, fretful time of year, and the world of retail has made it even more busy and fretful. There’s all the shopping to do, getting just the right gifts for the people who really don’t need anything and probably don’t even have room in their cupboards for anything else. There’s the family get-togethers to plan for, sometimes involving travel at the busiest time of year. And some of the family members haven’t actually spoken to each other for a while, and the meeting is going to be a little awkward, to say the least. And what about cousin Eddie? He really wants to see all the family, but he’s a little scared of the wine that will be served at the meal. He’s been sober for six months, you see, but sometimes he still finds it hard.
We all carry burdens and worries, and often no one else knows about them. Most of us in this busy world feel rushed and harassed, and the fact that we’ve made it here to church tonight speaks volumes about how important we think this Christmas service actually is, in the midst of our busy schedule. But maybe we’re feeling so rushed, so overwhelmed by details, that we’re wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to stay home?
No, God doesn’t feel that way; he’s glad we’re here. When the baby Jesus grew up and became a man, he said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Jesus has a soft spot in his heart for the fretful. He doesn’t want to add to our burdens; he wants to lift them from our shoulders. So the fretful, too, are invited: ‘O come, let us adore him’. Come into his presence, and find there the peace that you’ve been looking for.
‘O come, all ye faithful’. ‘O come, all ye faithless’. ‘O come, all ye fretful’. And there’s also ‘O come, all ye fearful’. For some of us, the idea of God is a fearful idea.
Have you ever noticed that every time an angel appears in the Bible, the first words out of his mouth are usually “Don’t be afraid”? Does that give you a clue as to what they look like? They probably aren’t the cute little baby cherubs created by the Renaissance artists, or the beautiful female angels with long blonde hair so beloved of people who post pictures on Facebook. No—biblical angels are scary. When people see them, they fall down on their faces, trembling with fear.
Many people feel that way about God, too, and it’s not hard to understand why. Imagine the power that can create something as vast and complex as the universe? The distances involved are unimaginable to us, but the astronomers tell us they’re true. And the detail—the intricacies of the human eye, the miracle of DNA and the human genome. I can’t begin to imagine the greatness of a God who could think of all that, and design it, and call it into being by his word of power. How can I possibly stand before the face of such a God?
In ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’, Charles Wesley wrote:
Veiled in flesh, the godhead see—
Hail, the incarnate Deity.
‘Veiled’. Hidden. If God appeared to us as he reallyis, in all his glory and majesty and splendour and holiness, we would be totally overwhelmed. The circuits of our brains would fry up. Some of the Old Testament writers believed that no one could see God and live to tell the tale: not because God’s angry at us, but just because God’s so very, very far outside our experience and our imagination.
And so, in God’s mercy, he veils himself in flesh. He makes himself very small—just a zygote, and then a fetus, in the womb of a young Galilean peasant girl. He’s born in humility, grows up in obscurity, and then steps out onto the stage of history and proclaims that God’s kingdom is at hand. And many people look at him and dismiss him: ‘He’s just a man’. ‘He’s from Nazareth; can anything good come from there?’ And we think, ‘God, couldn’t you have made yourself a little more obvious?’
But the answer is, no, he couldn’t have. Any more obvious, and we would have been terrified out of our wits. So in mercy he veiled himself and came among us to live our life, die our death, and be raised again victorious over the forces of evil and hate. And now his invitation goes out to all people, “Come”.
Why would he do such a thing? Surely the only possible answer is, because he loves us so much. Nothing else could motivate God the Son to lay aside his glory and majesty and enter our human experience. In one of his letters in the New Testament St. Paul describes it like this:
‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death –
even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:5-8).
That’s how God has come near to us in Jesus. There’s no need to be afraid.
O come all ye faithful – all ye faithless – all ye fretful – all ye fearful. O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem. Come to welcome the coming of God as a human being. Come to welcome him into our world, into our lives, and into our hearts. Come to receive the great gift of his steadfast, unconditional love. Come to take part in the transformation of the world by that love. Don’t be afraid. Don’t hang back. The welcome mat is out at God’s front door for all of us. No one is left out. Everyone who truly wants to can come in.
Ever since someone noticed that this year Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day, people on Twitter and Facebook have been having a field day. Most people seem to see it as something incongruous: Valentine’s Day is about romance and chocolate and pleasure and more than a hint of sex; Ash Wednesday is about self-denial and taking up your cross and going into the desert with Jesus and getting closer to God. What can the two possibly have to do with each other?
Personally, I’m much more interested in the connections than the contradictions. Valentine’s Day, we’re told, is all about love. And what’s Christian growth about, if it’s not about growing in love? How do we grow as Christians? You don’t need me to answer that one for you: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…You shall love our neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31).
Christianity is relational: it’s about growing in our loving relationship with God and our neighbour. And wise people know that life is relational too. It’s often been observed that no one on their death bed says to themselves “Gee, I wish I’d spent more time at the office!” We all know instinctively that when we’re facing the ultimate test, that stuff’s not going to count for very much. What will count will the quality of our relationships – the quality of the love we’ve offered.
So I want to spend a few minutes with you tonight, as we begin our Lenten journey, unpacking this theme of love. How might we make this Lent all about love? I’m actually going to offer you three ‘L’ words tonight to hang our thoughts on: Love, Listening, and Labour, and all connected with Lent (I know, that’s four ‘L’ words…!).
So – love. “Love is all you need”, sang the Beatles, and then they broke up and proceeded to sue each other for millions of pounds. Obviously, love wasn’t all they needed – or at least, the sort of love they aspired to wasn’t adequate to guide them through the challenges of long-term relationships.
So let’s start by reminding ourselves that when the writers of the New Testament used the word ‘love’, they probably had something different in mind. “Getting the Love you Want” was the title of a well-known book of the 1980s, but nothing could be further from the Christian conception of love. We’re not about getting the love you want; we’re about giving the love God wants you to give. And when the New Testament describes this love, it always describes actions.
What does Jesus do to illustrate to his disciples what it means to “love one another as I have loved you”? He gets down from the supper table, removes his outer garment, wraps a towel around his waist, and washes their feet. In their culture this was the servant’s job, but for some reason that night no servant had been there to do it. And of course, a few hours later he ‘loved them to the end’ (John 13:1) by laying down his life on the cross for the salvation of the whole world.
This is the most important thing for us as Christians. God is love, and we are made in the image of God, so growing in love is growing in God’s image. And that love is offered in two directions: to God and to our neighbour.
We love God because God first loved us. We don’t love God as a way of earning God’s love; God’s love for us is unconditional and indestructible, and Jesus tells us that he pours it out on the righteous and the unrighteous. We know ourselves to be loved by God, and in response, we offer our own – much smaller – love to God.
And then we love our neighbour. ‘Neighbour’ doesn’t just mean those in close proximity to us – family, friends, the people on our street. Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan? ‘Neighbour’ means people in need who we are in a position to help, both near and far away.
How do we love these people? I want to make a suggestion to you this Lent: let’s start by listening to them.
Most of us are much quicker to speak than to listen. This applies both in our relationship with God and our relationships with other people. When we take time to pray, most of us take time to talk to God. We’ve got our concerns, things we want or need for ourselves, loved ones we’re anxious about and so on. And so we sit down to pray, and we start talking right away. “God please do this. God, please bless that person. God, if you want to know how to bless them, I’ve got some ideas I could give you”.
The same with other people. It’s scary to think how much of our conversation consists in showing off to other people. I’ve got such a good joke to tell you! You’re going to love this story! I’m going to share my political views on this subject and you’re going to see immediately that I’m right and you’re wrong!
And even when we do listen, how carefully do we listen? For instance, when I sit down to read the Bible – to listen for the Holy Spirit’s voice – am I open to the possibility that there might be something new for me today in the passage? Or do I just think “Good Samaritan, yeah, yeah, I know that story, I know what it means”? Do I just read it quickly, and then pass on to sharing my shopping list with God?
Or when someone’s talking to us, how long are we prepared to listen before we interrupt? Ten seconds? Twenty if they’re lucky? Do we assume that after twenty seconds we know enough to respond helpfully to them? I’m sure we’ve all had that experience: we start sharing our struggles with someone, and they don’t really let us get finished before they’re launching into giving us their helpful advice, which is actually not that helpful, because they haven’t given us time to really go deep yet.
So how about this Lent we all resolve to do our best to become better listeners – to God, and to other people?
Some of us in our parish have decided to read the Gospel of Mark this Lent. Let’s not assume each day that we already know what God’s going to say to us in the daily passage. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to speak to us, and then let’s read it through, slowly and meditatively, two or three times. Which words or phrases particularly strike us, and why? What’s the passage saying to us about God? About ourselves? About life? About what’s important and what’s not important? What’s the passage calling me to put into practice? What difference would it make today if I tried to practice it?
We can also listen to God in silent prayer. Most people who do that don’t actually hear God speak in an audible voice, although some people do report that they feel they’re received some guidance and direction from God. But it’s mostly about quietening down and becoming more aware of the presence and peace and joy that God gives. Again, it’s not something that can be rushed. A lot of people find that about ten or twelve minutes in, they start to notice things they hadn’t noticed before. Are you willing to wait that long?
And let’s listen to others, and pay attention to what they say. A friend of mine used to do a little exercise: he’d get people together in pairs, and then one person had to listen carefully while the other took five minutes to describe something that had happened to them recently. When they were done the listener had to take three minutes to recount in as much detail as possible what they had heard. The first time I was the listener, I was amazed at how hard that was! We’re just not that practiced in listening!
And yet people long to be listened to! When we really listen to someone, we’re communicating to them that we value them, that we love them. I’m ashamed to admit how frequently I really don’t listen to Marci; she’s talking to me, but I’m doing something else or thinking about something else, and I only listen with one ear and a quarter of a brain.
This may be the most loving thing we can do this Lent: to resolve to become better listeners – to God, and to other people.
Finally comes labour. In 1 Thessalonians Paul writes, ‘…remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Thessalonians 1:3).
Labour of love – that’s a striking phrase! But it reminds us that biblical love is not primarily about feelings; it’s all about actions. Listening is one such action, but there are many others. Jesus says “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). What’s the point of saying we love Jesus if, as soon as he tells us to do something we don’t want to do, we refuse to do it? That love isn’t worth very much, is it? It needs to have a little labour added to it, to make it real!
What does it mean to love our enemies? In Romans chapter 12 Paul quotes the Old Testament: ‘No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink’ (Romans 12:20). And in the parable of the sheep and the goats Jesus spells out for us what Christian love looks like: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35-36).
What labour of love might God be calling you to this Lent? You don’t necessarily have to undertake some new relationship (although, I have to say, every prison chaplain I know is looking for more volunteers to go in and spend time with the inmates). But when we think of the people who are already in our lives, and we think of their needs, is there anything else we can do to love them in action? Or do we perhaps need to go first and listen carefully to them, so that we don’t assume we already know what their needs are? You see how these three ‘L’s tie together!
So – this could be our Lent. Let’s make these six and a half weeks until Easter a season of love. Let’s work on our relationships with God and our neighbours. Let’s make it our first priority to learn to become better listeners – to God, and also to people. And then let’s find new ways of putting our love into action – our labour of love – so that we can truly be a blessing to others as God has blessed us.
I once heard a story about a city in South America with a fourteen-lane highway running through the middle of it. Scary as it may seem, at the time this story was told there were no traffic lights to regulate this highway. Instead, at various points along the road there were police towers. Policemen would stand in these towers to regulate traffic, and whenever they raised a hand, the traffic would screech to a halt. One day a small boy happened to get up into one of those towers when there was no policeman in it. He raised his hand as he’d seen the policemen do, and sure enough, the traffic screeched to a halt. The drivers were so used to obeying the occupants of those towers that they didn’t stop to check if the boy was legitimate or not!
Imagine the thrill in that small boy’s heart. “All I have to do is raise my hand just so, and look – fourteen lanes of traffic come to a standstill!” We laugh, because it’s funny, but there’s a dark side to this funny story, too. What that small boy was probably feeling was his first taste of an emotion that has caused trouble throughout human history: the love of power.
‘All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’, and we’ve certainly seen plenty of that in the recent past! Some people enter political office already corrupted. Others start out with the best of motives – the desire to do some good, and to serve their fellow human beings. Sooner or later, however, the seduction of power begins to work its evil spell, and it’s a rare person who can resist it. It’s not that politicians are any worse than the rest of us. It’s just that the lure of power is so attractive that we poor sinners find it desperately hard to stand up to it.
Christian churches aren’t immune to this. A clergy friend of mine once said, “There’s a game people play called ‘Church’; it consumes enormous amounts of money and energy, it’s all about power and control, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the Christian Gospel!” I’ve watched people play this game; I’ve even played it myself at times. I too have been corrupted by the love of power, which just goes to show that my heart isn’t yet fully converted to the Way of Jesus.
The Palm Sunday story, which we read today in Matthew 21:1-11, is all about the tension between the way of power and the way of love. Let’s think about this for a few minutes.
Jerusalem in the time of Jesus was ripe for a Messiah to come and set it free. The city was under the thumb of the Roman occupation armies. Powerful people in high places had made their peace with the Roman regime and were now doing quite well by going along with its cruelty and corruption. And all the time, ordinary people – the majority, that is – were living in poverty and oppression. What the city needed was a strong king to raise an army in the name of God, kick out the Romans and the corrupt Jewish leaders, and clean things up by force. This was a role many people wanted Jesus to fulfil.
In the time of Jesus many Jewish people were waiting for their Messiah. They believed he would be a descendant of their greatest King, David, and like David he would be a man after God’s own heart. He would come in the name of God, drive out oppression and corruption, and establish the kingdom of God on earth. And so would come about the perfect society, with peace, prosperity and equality for all.
Jesus lived out his life and ministry against the backdrop of this expectation, and some would say he would have done better to go along with it. If we look closely at the Gospel stories we can see that this idea was already taking root in the minds of some of the people on Jesus’ team. In the chapter before today’s reading the mother of James and John comes to Jesus to ask a favour: “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matthew 20:21). She believes Jesus is on his way up to Jerusalem to become king by force, and she wants to make sure James and John will be his chief ministers and get the most glorious positions in that kingdom. Like all moms, she wants the best for her children – including getting more recognition than the children of other moms. See how seductive power can be, even in people who are committed to Jesus’ mission.
Jesus chose not to take the route of power; he chose the way of love instead. He was a king, but he chose to be a different kind of king – a servant king. He turned away from the temptation to follow the way of power, and chose instead to follow the way of love.
Matthew structures this Palm Sunday story around an Old Testament prophecy from Zechariah. He quotes from it in verses 4 and 5: ‘This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey”’. In its context in the book of Zechariah, this is a Messianic prophecy with a difference, because the king isn’t coming to lead armies and wipe out the enemies of Israel. Rather, he’s coming to bring peace and justice to all nations on earth.
Kings in the time of Zechariah did in fact ride donkeys at times, and when they did so, it had a specific meaning. A king who rode a war-horse was coming in battle or in victory. But a king who came riding a donkey was coming in peace. Matthew is emphasizing this meaning. The word in the original language that our NRSV Bibles translate as ‘humble’ is the same as ‘blessed are the meek’ in the Beatitudes; my Greek lexicon says it also carries the meaning of ‘gentle’ – the very opposite of a soldier going to war.
So Zechariah foretold the Messianic king coming to Jerusalem to claim his kingdom. In our reading, Jesus seems to be intentionally acting out this prophecy. This is actually the only occasion in his life on which Jesus is recorded as riding a donkey or a horse. Normally he walked everywhere, but now he borrows a donkey and rides into the city. His disciples walk with him, and acclaim him as ‘the Son of David’ – a title for the Messiah. Jesus enters Jerusalem, heads straight to the Temple and drives out the moneychangers and animal sellers. He and his followers then take possession of the Temple courts. His disciples must have thought, “This is it! He’s finally going to do it!” They must have been able to practically smell their places at the new royal court!
But then comes the anticlimax. Jesus doesn’t seize power and begin the violent revolution. Instead, he comes to the Temple each day to teach the people, heal the sick and hold debates with the religious establishment. Then at the end of the week he practically hands himself over to be unjustly tried, flogged and crucified, and he forbids his disciples to resist in the strongest possible terms.
Why did Jesus choose this route? Because he knew that driving out the Romans and the corrupt Jewish leaders wouldn’t solve the real problem. They weren’t the real enemy. The real enemy is our human propensity for messing things up, for breaking things, for breaking people and relationships – in other words, the evil and sin that infects us. This is the enemy that spoils our relationship with God and with other human beings. This is the enemy that must be defeated before injustice and oppression can be broken forever.
The way that Jesus chose to defeat this enemy was the strange way of giving himself to death on the Cross. The Scriptures strain human language to try to describe how the Cross accomplished this. It’s as if Jesus offered himself as a willing sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Or, it’s as if Jesus took our place, the innocent dying instead of the guilty, so that we could go free. Or again, it’s as if we were slaves to sin and evil, and Jesus’ death was a ransom price paid to set us free. Or again, just as sometimes the sacrifice of some soldiers in battle brings a tremendous victory over the enemy, so Jesus’ death was the decisive victory over the forces of evil.
The reality of what the Cross means is far beyond our human understanding – that’s why the writers of the New Testament struggle so hard to describe it to us. What is certain is that the power of the Cross of Jesus to bring healing and change to our world is cosmic. But note what kind of power it is – the power of love. Rather than using his power to take revenge on those who murdered him, Jesus chose to accept the suffering and death they inflicted on him, and to pray for their forgiveness. And because he did that, we know that we too can be forgiven, and reconciled to God.
When the great victory had been won on the Cross, King Jesus did indeed send his armies out into all the world. But he sent them out with no weapons but the message of the Good News, and the command to love others as they had been loved by him. This was the only force that spread the Christian message, and yet in the book of Acts we read that those Christian missionaries turned the world upside down.
What would it mean for us to truly follow the example Jesus gives? It would mean that we’d start out as God does – by respecting the free will of every human being and refusing to coerce others to do what we want. In the Christian community, it would mean that instead of trying to force our agenda on the church, we would join with our fellow Christians in listening together for God’s will. It would mean that we would always be more willing to accept suffering from others than to inflict it on others. It would mean that we would be continually reaching out to those who have rejected us with the healing love of God in Christ. It would mean that we would take the hard road of sacrificial love instead of the easy road of playing power games.
“That’s a tall order!” Yes, of course it is! Jesus never said that Christianity would be easy. He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). The way of the cross is always hard – but it’s the only way to spread the Kingdom of God. So let us resolve today that we will follow the example of Jesus. Let’s speak the truth in love as he did, and let’s be willing to walk the hard road of the cross in love for others. As we Christians learn to do that – to walk the way of love, not the way of coercion – I believe we’ll see the power of God’s love unleashed in a new way to transform the world. That can begin today, in the places where we live, as the Holy Spirit works through you and me.
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.
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.
No storyteller ever tells their story from a position of complete neutrality. We all have our point of view, and we can’t help letting it influence the way we tell our stories. The things we include, the things we leave out, the way we describe the people in the story – none of those decisions are made in a vacuum. That’s why we’re wary about convicting someone of a crime on the basis of only one witness. We know that each witness stands in a particular place in relation to the incident they’re reporting; there will always be important parts of the action that they didn’t see. So we prefer a balanced testimony, combining the reports of three or four different witnesses.
Early on in the history of the Church there was a movement to do away with the four gospel witnesses we have in the New Testament. Some Christians felt it was confusing to have these different accounts, and it would be better to work on producing a harmonized version of the story of Jesus. But the Church as a whole decided this was a bad idea; our picture of Jesus is enriched, not diminished, by the different viewpoints of the four gospel writers. And so we have four gospels, not one. Sometimes this leaves us in a situation of tension, as it’s not always easy to reconcile their stories. But the Church as a whole decided that it was worth it; better to have a fuller picture of Jesus, with some apparent inconsistencies, than to leave out the individual emphases of the four gospel writers.
We can see this in the stories of the birth of Jesus. Three of the gospels – Luke, Matthew, and John – include what we might call a ‘nativity story’, although John’s is very different from the other two. Each of these three writers has a particular angle on the story of Jesus – an aspect of his character and ministry that they’re trying to underline – and we can see it in the way they tell the story of his birth.
Luke is always on the side of the underdog. He loves marginalized people – tax collectors, prostitutes, gentiles, women and children. And he loves the fact that Jesus was born into an ordinary family in first century Galilee, even though his adopted father Joseph was a descendant of the royal house of David.
So in Luke’s story of Jesus, when Mary receives the angel’s message that she’s going to be the mother of the Messiah, she sees this as evidence of God’s bias toward the poor and needy. She says, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant…He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’ (Luke 1:46-48a, 51-53).
Later on in Luke’s nativity story he underlines that this was not a family in circumstances of wealth and power; they were pawns in the hands of the Roman Empire, forced to leave home at a very bad time, when Mary was about to give birth to her firstborn child. When they finally reached Joseph’s ancestral family home – Bethlehem – the rooms were all full, and they had to bunk with the animals. The new baby didn’t even have a proper crib; his mom had to lay him in a feeding trough. And his first visitors were rough shepherds from the hills around Bethlehem; it was those shepherds – not the people in power and authority – that God had chosen to receive the first royal birth announcement.
Don’t misunderstand me: Luke knew as well as we do that God loves everyone on earth – high and low, rich and poor, holy and unholy – and treats each person with care and respect. But he especially wanted the poor and the underdogs to know that even if no one else was rooting for them, God was rooting for them. And this may be a help to us today. Maybe some of us here today feel that we’re just pawns in the hands of politicians or multinational corporations. Maybe we’ve experienced economic hardships because of decisions made in boardrooms or luxurious palaces a long way away from us. Maybe we’ve been told, explicitly or implicitly, that God couldn’t possibly have time for anyone like us.
If that’s our situation, Luke wants us to know that the angels’ message is ‘good news of great joy for all the people’ (Luke 2:10). No one is left out. The baby in the manger will grow up to be the good shepherd who is willing to leave the ninety-nine sheep in the fold and go searching for the one lost sheep. Jesus is the Saviour of all.
That’s how Luke tells the story.
Matthew has a different interest. Matthew wants everyone to know that Jesus is the true Messiah, the king God promised to set his people free. So in his story of the birth of Jesus he tells how the angel came to Joseph – the descendant of King David – to tell him that the baby in Mary’s womb would be the royal child promised in the book of Isaiah: “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us’” (Matthew 1:23).
When we get to chapter two of Matthew’s story, almost the whole chapter is set up as a conflict between the evil king of Judea, Herod the Great, and the baby Jesus, God’s true Messiah. Wise men come from the east looking for ‘the child who has been born king of the Jews’ (2:2). Naturally they assume he will have been born in the royal palace, so they go to Jerusalem and ask for him there. Herod is alarmed, and he tries to trick the wise men into leading him to the baby. But God protects Jesus, and after the wise men visit him, they go home by another route, without telling Herod how to find him. Herod then flies into a rage and orders the execution of every male child under the age of two in Bethlehem, just to make sure he’s wiped out this young Messiah. But by the time Herod’s soldiers get to Bethlehem, Jesus has already left; his family escape as refugees to Egypt for a few years until after Herod’s death.
The good news Matthew wants to proclaim to us is clear: It might seem as if all power and authority on earth has been given to kings and tyrants and magnates and tycoons, but that is not the case. In reality, God has already anointed Jesus as his Messiah, his chosen King. At the moment not everyone acknowledges his authority, and this may lead to some horrific situations, like the murder of innocent children in Bethlehem – or Aleppo. But in reality, as Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew 28, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (28:18). The day will come when he will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. Everyone will have to give account to him.
But Matthew doesn’t want us to wait for that day. He wants us to commit ourselves now to following Jesus as our King. He wants his followers to go out to all people and invite them to become disciples of the true Messiah. So his picture of Jesus helps to fill out the picture Luke gives us. The baby in the manger is not only the Saviour of the world; he’s also the world’s true King.
When we turn to the Gospel of John we get a completely different sort of nativity story. And in fact, most people probably don’t think of it as a nativity story. John doesn’t actually tell the story of the birth of Jesus in narrative fashion, but that shouldn’t surprise us; there are some other pretty important narratives he doesn’t include either, like the story of the institution of Holy Communion during the Last Supper. John chooses his stories carefully, and gives us long extended meditations on them. He’s not trying to supplant the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; in fact, I would argue that he assumes we’ve already read them. But he’s trying to help us explore the deeper meanings of the story of Jesus, and to him, the deepest and most important meaning of all is this: in Jesus, God has visited the world he loves. The Jesus who John portrays for us is not just an outstanding human being or a great rabbi or even an anointed Messiah. No; in John’s Gospel, Jesus says “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30) and “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
So in our gospel reading for this morning, John 1:1-18, John starts off by describing this mysterious character he calls ‘the Word’. Actually the word John uses in Greek is ‘the Logos’, which in Greek philosophy was the rational, logical governing principle behind all of creation. But John’s ‘Logos’ is not just an abstract philosophical idea; the Logos is a person, a person in relation to God and also somehow sharing the nature of God. Don’t worry if you can’t grasp this; this is God we’re talking about, so it’s not surprising that there are some things about God we can’t understand!
So John starts by telling us ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). He tells us that all things came into being through the Word – and if we know our Old Testament we’re immediately reminded of Genesis chapter one, where we’re told over and over again that God spoke a word of command and a new part of creation came into being. The Word was the light of the world, John says; ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1:5).
But then, a bit further on in the passage, comes what John sees as the real miracle of Christmas. ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). We use the Latin word ‘incarnation’ to describe this great miracle: the Christian teaching that in Jesus of Nazareth God came among us to live as one of us. He made himself small and vulnerable, shared the ups and downs of human life, and dedicated himself to doing the will of his Father in heaven.
And what’s the purpose of this incarnation? John tells us in the last verse of today’s gospel reading: ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (John 1:18).
Human beings who believe in God have always wondered what God is like. Maybe we look around at the vastness of the universe and are intimidated by the power and majesty of a being who could do all this! Maybe we notice that God has given us a conscience that has high standards for us and for others, and we fear a God who we think must look on our failures with anger and judgement. Or maybe we have struggled in vain for so long to make contact with God, and we’ve come to the conclusion that God really doesn’t have time for people like us.
But John tells us that Jesus has made God known; we often refer to the Bible as ‘the Word of God’, but it’s actually Jesus who is ‘the Word of God’ par excellence. Our epistle for today agrees:
‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word’ (Hebrews 1:1-3a).
I think this is one of the main things John is trying to communicate by the language of ‘light’ that he so often uses. We sometimes use this as a figure of speech, don’t we? ‘Can you shed any light on that subject?’ we ask. One of our most famous Christmas readings begins with the words ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’ (Isaiah 9:2), but Jesus’ reply to this is to say, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Jesus gives us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God; as we follow him, we walk in that light, knowing God for who he is, knowing God’s will for us as it is revealed to us in Jesus. Without him we would truly be ‘in the dark’ about our Creator, but because of him, we can have confidence in the God of grace and love that Jesus revealed to us.
So this is what we celebrate this Christmas:
With Luke, we celebrate a God who reaches out to the poor, the underdog, the marginalized. God isn’t dazzled by human power and majesty; he’s not impressed by wealth and prestige. Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said, “God must like ordinary people; he made so many of them!” Luke’s vision of Christmas is truly ‘good news for all people’. Jesus is the Saviour of the whole world; no one is left out.
With Matthew, we celebrate the news that Jesus is the true Messiah, the one who God has appointed as Lord of all. The last word won’t go to the Herods and Neros and Pontius Pilates of history; they may seem to have all the power right now, but the day will come when they also will have to bow before the one ‘born king of the Jews’, as the wise men put it – and not of the Jews only, but of all people, because all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus. And we the people of Jesus respond to this by joyfully giving him our allegiance. He is truly a King we can believe in!
And with John, we celebrate the amazing truth that in Jesus, God has become one of us. This is not a God-forsaken world; it is a God-visited world! And if God cared enough about this tiny little planet – one of millions he has created – to make himself small and vulnerable and walk around on its surface, then his love for us must truly be incredible. He is not far away from us; the story of Jesus shows that he is ‘Emmanuel’: God is with us.
A couple of days before Christmas a friend of mine posted on Facebook that there are two kinds of people at Christmas time: those who think of what they are going to receive, and those who think about what they are going to give. I suggested to him that there might be a third kind: those who think about what they have been given, and are thankful for it. That’s us, brothers and sisters! In 2 Corinthians 8:9 Paul says ‘For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’.
That’s the good news of Christmas. Tomorrow we can think of what that good news is calling us to do – how it might be calling us to change our lives – but not today. Today is a day to stay in this place of deep gratitude for the amazing gift that God has given us – truly the greatest gift that we could ever imagine. And it is truly a gift: not something we have to earn or deserve, but something that comes to us free of charge, not because we are lovable but because it is the deepest nature of God to love. All we are asked to do today is to receive that love, and to say “Thank you”.
(Reblogged, slightly adapted, from 2013.)
No – not what you’re thinking. Not Christmas: Advent. It starts today, November 27th (the fourth Sunday before Christmas), and lasts until Christmas Eve.
Ever since my children were little I’ve loved the season of Advent with a passion. Advent tells us that there’s a better future ahead; it reminds us of the Old Testament promises of the coming of the Messiah, and the New Testament hope that he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom of justice and peace will never end. The Advent hymns and scriptures (mainly from the Old Testament prophets) reinforce these themes for us.
The oldest ‘layer’ of Advent, in my experience, is the traditional hymns. I was brought up in a churchgoing family and sang as a chorister when I was a boy, so these hymns are indelibly fixed in my memory. ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’, ‘Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus’, ‘On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry’, ‘Hark the Glad Sound – the Saviour Comes’ – these are just some of the best known examples of hymns that celebrate the Advent message. I love the music of Christmas, too, but I really don’t like it when stores start playing it right after Remembrance Day (all in an effort to enhance Christmas sales, of course). I don’t want to get to Christmas too soon; I want to wait, and savour the sense of anticipation that Advent gives. Singing the Advent hymns helps me to do that.
Speaking of waiting, when my kids were very little (back in our Arborfield days), Marci and I found a book about family Advent customs called ‘Celebrate While We Wait’, by the Schroeder family. It was this book that first introduced us to the Advent wreath; the wreath had never been a part of my childhood Advent experience, and until I read about it in the Schroeders’ book, I had never heard of it either. But we quickly made it a part of our family Advent practice.
I made our first wreath from a piece of circular styrofoam, but later I made a more permanent base from the top of an old wooden stool into which I drilled five holes for the candles. The candles are traditionally purple (some people now use blue, but I myself prefer the traditional colours), perhaps with one pink one, and a white one in the centre for Christmas. Marci and I still light our wreath at suppertime every evening, and after supper we use a book of Advent devotions to help us meditate on the themes of the season and to lead us into prayer together. There is a wealth of resources available for this; simply googling ‘Advent devotions’ brings up 304,000 hits in a quarter of a second, and searching for ‘Advent devotional’ on amazon.ca produced 570 results! We sometimes add our own prayers, and conclude with the Lord’s Prayer together.
Advent, of course, is about God’s kingdom of justice and peace breaking in to transform the world, and so Advent is a good time to think about what we’re doing to forward the work of God’s kingdom. What am I doing at this (often rather selfish) time of year to care for the poor and needy and to transform the structures of our society so that our world becomes a more just and peaceful place? A few weeks ago, in our church (St. Margaret’s, Edmonton), we were visited by representatives of a couple of Edmonton outreach agencies. Listening to them speak about the work their organisations do reminded me again that there are things that each of us can do to help translate the Advent hope into reality in the world for which Jesus gave his life. What might God be calling me to do this Advent, in a practical way, to live out the message of his Kingdom? (Here’s a good perspective on this.)
Christmas celebrates the central mystery of the Christian faith – God coming to live among us as one of us in the person of Jesus. Advent helps me enter more meaningfully into that celebration. It reminds me that as the light of the candles shines in the darkness, so the words of the prophets shine in the darkness of despair and hopelessness and point us to a time when we will study war no more, when the lion will lie down with the lamb, and when the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.
Let me close with my favourite Advent prayer, composed by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer for the original 1549 Book of Common Prayer and used in Anglican churches worldwide, with little variations, down to the present day:
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ
came to us in great humility,
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge both the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Today is the day of Pentecost, sometimes called the birthday of the Christian Church – the day we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first followers of Jesus in Jerusalem in fulfilment of Jesus’ promise that his disciples would be baptized in the Holy Spirit and would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. We’ve heard the story in our first reading for today: the believers were all together in one place when they heard the sound of a mighty wind that filled the room, and they saw little tongues of flame that rested on each one of them. Then they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them that ability.
But I’m not going to preach on this passage this morning. Instead, I want to take you to a rather obscure verse in the Old Testament, because I think it sheds a lot of light on what we’re celebrating today. In the 2nd Book of Kings, we read this request from the prophet Elisha to his old mentor, Elijah, who is about to be taken up into heaven by the Lord: “Please, let me inherit a double share of your spirit” (2 Kings 2:9b).
Old Elijah was the first great prophet of the people of Israel, and he lived about 850 years before Christ. He appeared without warning in 1 Kings chapter 17, during the reign of King Ahab, one of the most wicked kings ever to rule the northern kingdom of Israel. Ahab was married to Jezebel, a Sidonian princess who worked hard to introduce the worship of the Sidonian god Baal in her new country. Ahab went along with her, and together they won over much of the population of Israel to the extraordinary idea that there could be more than one god worshipped by the people of Yahweh, the God of Israel.
So Elijah appeared in 1 Kings 17 and announced to King Ahab, “As Yahweh the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word”. Then Elijah disappeared into the wilderness, and for the next three years there was no rain in Israel.
Eventually after three years Elijah appeared again (I’m summarizing here!), and he challenged the prophets of Baal to a public contest on Mount Carmel. “Let’s each build an altar and lay out a sacrifice”, he said; “and we’ll each pray to our god. Whichever god answers with fire to burn up the sacrifice, we’ll know he’s the true god”. The prophets of Baal agreed (there were 450 of them, by the way), and Elijah invited them to go first. So while all the people were watching, they built an altar, laid out their sacrifice, and began to pray. They prayed and danced and worked themselves up into a frenzy all day long, but no fire came.
Then it was Elijah’s turn to build his altar and lay out his sacrifice. We’re told that he even went so far as to pour buckets of water over it, to make it even more difficult for Yahweh! Then in a very simple prayer he asked God to vindicate his name and show everyone that he was the only true god. Immediately fire from heaven fell and consumed the sacrifice and the stone altar. The people were suitably impressed and all fell down and worshipped Yahweh, the God of Israel. As for the prophets of Baal, they quickly came to a sticky end.
One person who was not impressed was Queen Jezebel, and she sent word to Elijah that she’d make sure he died just like her prophets had died. So Elijah, the great man of faith, ran away. He went to the desert, to Mount Sinai where Moses had received the law of God. There he prayed to Yahweh and complained that there were so few followers of Yahweh left, and that Jezebel was trying to kill him. But God met him in a quiet place on the mountain and told him to go back; “There are more of my followers out there than you think”, he said. He told him to anoint new kings in waiting for Israel and Judah, and he specifically commanded him to take on an apprentice, Elisha son of Shaphat, to learn the prophet-business from him and to take his place when he was gone.
So Elijah did as he was told; he went and found Elisha and, in a symbolic action, “threw his mantle over him” (1 Kings 19:19c). Obviously the mantle symbolized Elijah’s prophetic office, and Elisha understood immediately what was going on; he went home, told his parents he was leaving, and then ‘set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant’ (19:21c).
There are a few more chapters of stories about Elijah in 1 Kings; always he is speaking the word of the Lord in judgement against the idolatry and injustice perpetrated by Ahab and Jezebel. But eventually, in the last chapter of 1 Kings, God’s judgement comes upon Ahab. He goes into battle against the Arameans at a place called Ramoth-Gilead, and even though he has disguised himself so it won’t be obvious who he is, he is struck by a chance arrow, and in the evening he dies. His death is the last major scene in the first book of Kings.
And so we come to 2 Kings chapter 2. Elisha has been following Elijah around as his servant for some years now, and we can assume that he’s been suitably impressed with the old man’s faith and courage. I think we can also safely assume that he’s terrified by the idea that one day the old man will be gone, and he will have to take his place. After all, that’s how we would feel, isn’t it? Imagine yourself in Elisha’s place; you’ve been watching all this time as Elijah boldly prays to God for miracles, fully expecting that God will answer – and God does! Elijah is constantly speaking the word of God to kings without fear – or so it seems to Elisha – and his words always seem to come true! Talk about a big pair of shoes to fill!
So 2 Kings chapter 2 tells us that the time has come when the Lord is going to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind: the old prophet is so great that he won’t even die a normal death! So Elijah and Elisha walk together to the place where this will happen. They come to the Jordan River, and Elijah takes his mantle – the very same mantle that he threw over Elisha’s shoulders when he took him on as an apprentice – and strikes the river with it. The water is parted before him, and the two men walk together on dry ground.
Now at last Elijah speaks to Elisha. He says, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you”. Elisha replies, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit”. Elijah says,
“You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not”. As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.
When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, “The Spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha”. (2 Kings 2:10-15)
And indeed, as the 2nd Book of Kings continues, Elisha does the same sort of things as Elijah, only more so. He speaks the word of God without fear to kings – not only Israelite kings, but foreigners as well. He performs extraordinary miracles, and God protects him in spectacular ways. I haven’t counted myself, but I’ve been told that Elisha is recorded as performing exactly twice as many miracles as Elijah – obviously the writer wants to make the point that God answered the prayer for ‘a double portion of Elijah’s spirit’ in a literal way!
Now, what connects the old story of Elijah and Elisha with the story of Jesus, the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, and us today?
The first thing is the miracles. A lot of people have the impression that the Bible is full of miracle stories from start to finish. Actually, it isn’t. The miracles tend to cluster around specific periods in biblical history. The time of Moses and Joshua is one of those periods; the time of Elijah and Elisha is another. The third period is the time of Jesus and the early apostles. It’s not that miracles are absent at other times; it’s just that they’re rather rare.
Elisha prayed that he would receive a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, and his prayer was answered: God worked mighty miracles through him, even more so than through his mentor Elijah. Interestingly, Jesus promises his early followers the same sort of thing. In John 14:12-14 he says,
“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it”.
Greater things than Jesus? How can that be possible? It’s possible because he is ‘going to the Father’, and he is going to send the promised Holy Spirit on his followers.
Now, the truth is that we do not see the early Christians performing twice as many miracles as Jesus did. Yes, there were many spectacular healings, but there were also times when they experienced unanswered prayer, just as we do today. But where their works did exceed those of their Master was that the early Christians preached the gospel to far more people than Jesus did. Jesus restricted himself mainly to the people of Israel, but the early Christians obeyed his command and went not only to Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, but also to the ends of the earth, and many thousands became believers through their witness.
I’m sure that they found it hard to believe that they would do ‘greater things’ than their master, just as Elisha would have found it hard to believe that he would actually receive a double portion of Elijah’s spirit and do greater things than his beloved mentor. And I’m also sure that the early Christians would have had a hard time believing another thing Jesus said to them in John 16:7:
“Nevertheless, I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you”.
‘The Advocate’, of course, is the Holy Spirit. Now if you’re like me, you might have found yourself thinking from time to time that we modern believers are at a disadvantage. We’ve never seen Jesus in the flesh. We’ve never heard his voice with our physical ears. We’ve never seen any of the miracles he did in the gospels. So aren’t we somehow ‘second class Christians’? Isn’t it actually to our disadvantage that Jesus ‘went away’?
Not at all. After all, if something is being taken away from you, your reaction will depend on what’s being given to take its place. And in our case, the gift of the Holy Spirit is not an inferior gift at all! In fact, in several places in the Book of Acts the Holy Spirit is referred to as ‘the Spirit of Jesus’ – just as Elisha talked about receiving a double portion of the spirit of Elijah. When Jesus walked the earth as a human being, he could only be in one place at a time, so if he was with a group of his followers in Jerusalem, he couldn’t be in Galilee at the same time. But now that the Spirit of Jesus is available to every believer we can all experience the help and support we need from him as we try to do the work he has called us to do.
So today, my sisters and brothers, you and I are probably in the same sort of place Elisha was as he contemplated his beloved mentor being taken from him. How could he possibly carry on Elijah’s work? The old man had such a powerful faith, while Elisha, in contrast, probably felt his own faith was weak. Elijah seemed fearless, while Elisha probably was desperately aware of his own fears. And when we think of carrying on the work Jesus began, we probably have similar feelings.
But remember last week’s gospel reading, and Jesus’ command to his followers: “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). As Jesus spoke these words, was he perhaps thinking about the story of Elijah’s mantle falling from heaven to clothe his successor, Elisha? ‘The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha’, and just as surely the Spirit of Jesus rests on you and me today. So let’s turn from our fears and pray that the Spirit will fill us and give us the gifts we need – and the courage we need – to do the work that Jesus has asked us to do. And then let us go in the power of the Holy Spirit and do even greater things than Jesus did, just as he promised, taking the message of his power and love to people who have not yet come to know him, so that his kingdom will come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.