‘What’s In It For Me?’ (a sermon for Sept. 1st on Luke 14.1, 7-14)

The Serendipity Study Bible is an old edition of the New International Version, designed to be used in small groups. For every passage of the Bible, it has a set of discussion questions in the margins. We often use those questions in our Wednesday afternoon study group, and when I’m doing my sermon preparation I often start by working through those questions for the passage I plan to reach on.

When I looked at the Serendipity Study Bible questions for Luke 14.1-14, this was the first question: ‘If you could have the best seats in the house, which house would you choose?’ I wonder how you would answer that question? For me, what I’d like is to go to a small concert hall where a guitarist I admire is playing, and be able to sit right in front of the stage so I can see what he’s doing with his fingers. With some guitar players, I don’t think I could do what they’re doing, but I understand how they’re doing it. But there are others for whom I have absolutely no idea how they’re doing what they’re doing! So I like to get really close, so I can see exactly what they’re doing with their hands. I still might not be able to play it, but at least I can try!

That’s pretty harmless, of course, but in some situations this desire for the front seat might be more insidious. In today’s Gospel, Jesus has a lot to say to people who always want the front seats—people who want the best deal for themselves and don’t care who they displace in order to get it. Whether they’re going to a dinner party put on by others, or throwing a party themselves, they aren’t actually thinking about the other people at all. Their first question is always “What’s in it for me?”

Let’s refresh our memory of the story. Jesus goes to dinner at the house of a prominent Pharisee. There are two things you need to know about these dinner parties. First, these were not private occasions. The doors of the house were left open all the time, and it was common for the curious to wander in and out while the meal was going on—especially if well-known people were there and it was likely there would be interesting discussion and debate. And this leads to the second thing: in the Gospels, these dinner parties are often occasions for teaching and discussion.

In today’s gospel Jesus tells the dinner guests two parables; the first is about not taking the highest place, and the second is about who you ought to invite when you give a dinner party. In each parable, self-interest is Jesus’ target. In the first parable, he warns against using the banquet as an opportunity for others to see how important you are. In the second parable, he warns against issuing invitations to your party out of self-interest: “If I invite Lord Caiaphas, then I’ll get an invitation to his party in return, and everyone will be able to see that I move in the best social circles in the city.” In both cases, gatherings that ought to be occasions for human companionship and fellowship are being spoiled by people’s self-interest.

So let’s think about what Jesus has to say about lining up for the last place.There’s a story told about St. Francis of Assisi, of a time when he was invited to a meal with the Pope and many other important church dignitaries. In those days before photo technology, people were a lot less familiar with the faces of celebrities, and when Francis turned up at the door of the Vatican in his ragged brown robe, the doorkeepers thought he was a beggar. So they sent him round to the kitchen to take his place with the other beggars. Francis didn’t complain; he went joyfully as usual, and was soon having a good time with the folks in the kitchen.

Meantime there was consternation at the high table; where was the guest of honour? Eventually it was discovered that Francis was in the kitchen with the beggars, and a message was sent that he should come to the banqueting hall. He did as he was told, sat down with the guests at the high table, and immediately began to share with them the scraps he had gathered on his beggar’s plate!

Obviously Francis was a person who had no problem taking the last place in the pecking order – in contrast to the people Jesus is aiming at when he warns us in his parable: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour” (v.8a). Nowadays we don’t often see this happening in a literal way. I’ve attended lots of wedding receptions and I’ve never seen someone marching boldly up to sit at the head table, only to be told a few minutes later “Madam, I’m afraid this seat is reserved for the wedding party!” But the attitude Jesus is talking about is still common. Let me point out two common examples of it.

The first is the inability to sit back and be part of the crowd. You know what I mean: there are some folks who have a deep-seated need to be up front all the time. They can’t just be ordinary members of the group; they have to be visible, they have to be leaders, so that people can look up to them and they can feel important. Don’t misunderstand me: real leadership, offered genuinely, is a real gift to a group. But the hunger for leadership, so that we can be recognized and looked up to, is poisonous and dangerous for the group and also for the person who wants to be a leader.

The second example of this attitude is less obvious; it’s when we’re always wondering what others are thinking about us. Many people are constantly worrying about whether others will like or approve of them. It’s as if they’re constantly checking a mental mirror, to see how they look in the eyes of others. The root cause of this is usually insecurity and a low sense of self-worth. We have an empty, aching space inside; we’re not sure if we’re loved, if we’re valued, if our life has any significance. We need others to reassure us of these things. But the trouble is, we can’t rely on them to do it, so we have to engineer situations that prompt them to do it for us.

What I want to say to you this morning is this: the Gospel of Jesus Christ comes down like rain on the dry field of our insecurity. The vital word in the vocabulary of this Gospel is the word ‘Grace’. Grace is God’s free and unconditional love for you and for everyone else he has made. You don’t have to earn it, you don’t have to deserve it; it comes as a free gift, and nothing can change that. As Philip Yancey says, grace means that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more, and nothing you can do to make God love you less; God already loves you infinitely, and nothing can ever change that. As another friend of mine likes to say, “God loves you, and there’s not a thing you can do about it!”

Jesus is inviting us to trust in God’s love for us, and relax in it. You don’t have to rush to get first place. And of course, you don’t have to rush to get last place either, if your motive is to get someone to invite you up to first place in the end! No—the Gospel way is not to think about precedence at all. Rather, you can relax, enjoy the feast, and share God’s love freely with the people who happen to be around you, in the secure knowledge that you are loved by God and nothing can ever change that.

Let’s now go on to think about Jesus’ second parable, in which he discusses invitation as a form of grace.

In June 1990 the Boston Globe told the story of an unusual wedding reception. A woman and her fiancée had arranged to have their wedding reception at the Hyatt Hotel in Boston, and as they had expensive tastes the final bill on the contract came to over $13,000, which was a huge amount of money twenty-nine years ago!

But then something unexpected happened. On the day the invitations were to go out, the groom got cold feet and asked for more time to think about things. When his angry fiancée went to the Hyatt to cancel the reception, she found she could not, unless she was willing to forfeit most of the money she had paid.

How here’s where it gets interesting. It turned out that ten years before, this same bride had been living in a homeless shelter. She had been fortunate enough to get a good job and get back on her feet, but now she had the idea of using her savings to treat the down and outs of Boston to a night on the town. So in June of 1990 the Hyatt Hotel hosted a party such as it had never seen before. The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken—“in honour of the groom”, she said—and sent invitations to shelters and rescue missions throughout the city. That summer night, people who were used to eating out of garbage cans dined on chicken cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d’ouevres to elderly vagrants propped up by crutches and walkers. Bag ladies and drug addicts took a night off from the hard life on the sidewalks outside and sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake, and danced to big band melodies late into the night.[1]

For this jilted bride to be, this unusual dinner party was an angry response to the collapse of her wedding plans. For us, however, Jesus is inviting us to embrace it as a way of life. Look again at verses 12-14:

“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous”.

This parable cuts me to the heart, because I have to admit that most of my social interaction is chosen on the basis of my own enjoyment. “I’ll go and visit so and so—that’s always enjoyable for me.” But Jesus is inviting me to make those decisions on the basis of unconditional love. I don’t think Jesus is literally condemning every family party or quiet dinner between friends. I think he’s challenging us to look for creative ways of reaching out to those who have no friends and no status in society at all. I find it interesting that the literal meaning of the word ‘hospitality’ is ‘love for the stranger’.

Many years ago when Marci and I were living in Aklavik in the western Arctic, we happened to read this gospel passage, and we were especially gripped by verses 12-14. I knew there were many parts of the teaching of Jesus I’d done a poor job of putting into practice, but I had to admit this was one passage I’d never even tried to put into practice! So Marci and I talked about it, and then we invited a particular family from the community to come and join us for dinner. The husband had been in and out of jail—in fact, we strongly suspected he committed a crime every Fall so as not to have to spend the winter in Aklavik. Both husband and wife were from families with a very high incidence of alcoholism and criminal activity of one kind or another. But they came, with their kids, and we had a meal together.

I have absolutely no memory of how the evening went, but it sticks out in my mind because it’s the only time I’ve tried to literally practice what Jesus says in this gospel reading. I don’t know if any of you have tried it; I’d be interested to hear if you have!

And to think of a less dramatic example, I wonder who you know who could benefit from a social invitation—perhaps for a cup of coffee, or an invite to dinner? It might not be someone you would naturally think of inviting, or someone who could pay you back. What might be the best way for you to reach out to that person?

Fund raisers discovered a long time ago that it’s easier to raise money if people can get their name on something – a brass plaque on a pew, or a list in a book. In this passage Jesus is offering us a vision of a different way—a way of freedom from slavery to self-interest. If we learn to live by his vision, we can interact with the people around us without quietly asking ourselves “I wonder how I can get them to admire me”. Instead we can concentrate on listening to them and loving them. We can initiate relationships with others, not for what we can get out of them, but for what we can give to them.

For some of us it might seem an impossible dream to think we could ever be that free. I put myself in that category. I’m well aware that my fundamental sin is self-centredness, which is why these parables hit me so hard. But on the other hand, I’ve met people who live the way Jesus is inviting us to here, and their lives challenge and inspire me.

We don’t always have to be silently asking the question “What’s in this situation, this relationship, for me?” Rather, because God loves each one of us out of pure grace, we can learn to live our lives in the same spirit, and discover in it the way of freedom, joy, and love.

[1]I first read this story in Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing About Grace?

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Clean

‘And then (Jesus) added, “It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you.”’ (Mark 7.20-23 New Living Translation)

The verses immediately before this passage are a discussion about eating ritually clean and unclean foods. That doesn’t tend to be a big issue in Christianity today, but many of us still seem to believe that ritual acts can purify us.

Jesus takes a different view. What goes into the body doesn’t makes you dirty; it’s what comes out of your heart that does that. He lists all the ‘vile things’ that spew out from us into the world on a regular basis. Want to be clean? Work on changing that list!

But how do we do that? Well, we’re told in several places in the New Testament that love is the fulfilling of the law. Love is also the first fruit of the Holy Spirit and the theme of Jesus’ great commandments. As we gradually learn to centre our lives on loving God, our neighbour, and ourselves, we will find these ‘vile things’ getting weaker, and eventually shrivelling away to nothing.

So let’s work on practising love for God, our neighbour and ourselves, and let’s pray that as we do so, the Holy Spirit will cleanse the poisoned well within and transform us on the inside into people formed and shaped by love.

‘The Image of God’ (a sermon on Colossians 1.15)

Today is a joyful celebration of new life in Christ. Today, in a few minutes, Holly is going to commit herself to Christ in faith and baptism, and then she and Craig are going to offer their son Henry to receive baptism as well. I think the last time we celebrated the baptism of a mother and her child at the same service at St. Margaret’s was nineteen years ago, so it’s not something we see very often! But it’s a beautiful witness to the decision of a family to put God at the centre of their lives and follow the way of Jesus together, and so we rejoice with them here today.

Baptism in the New Testament is like a beautiful diamond with many facets. We turn it around and examine it closely, and the light falls on a different facet each time. Sometimes baptism is about being born again into the family of God. Sometimes it’s about dying with Christ on his cross and being raised with him in his resurrection—that symbolism was very powerful when adults were baptized by total immersion, going down into the water and coming up again. Sometimes it’s about God making a covenant with the person being baptized, and baptism being the sign and seal of that covenant. Sometimes it’s about repentance and forgiveness of sins.

Most of the language used about baptism in the New Testament works better when it’s an adult being baptized, as Holly will be baptized today. That shouldn’t surprise us; after all, most of the New Testament books were written by the first generation of Christians. They remembered what it was like to be without Christ in their lives. They remembered how they came to believe in Christ, and how they were baptized into his family. So they loved using the language of dying and rising again, or being washed from your sins. That language really resonated with their experience. They looked back on their conversion to Christ using the sort of imagery Paul uses in the two verses immediately before our reading from Colossians today, where he says,

‘For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins.’ (Colossians 1.13-14 NLT)

But what does baptism mean for a person who experiences it the way Henry is going to experience it today, right at the beginning of his life? I think the New Testament text that best fits Henry’s experience is the one from the end of the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus sends out his disciples to preach the gospel to all nations. Let me remind you of what he says:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20a NRSV).

A disciple is a learner—we might even say, an apprentice—someone who is intent on putting the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in their daily life. Adults can decide to do this, of course, but parents can also decide to make this the centre of their lives with their children. We love Jesus and we want to learn to follow him, and as we’re learning day by day, we’re also passing on what we learn to our children and grandchildren, by our words and by our example. So a family that brings a child for baptism is a family that has decided to follow Jesus together.

But why would we want to do that? Why would we specifically want to follow Jesus? After all, there are many different religions out there in the world today. We have many different options to choose from. What makes Jesus so special? Is it just because we live in Canada, and historically Canada has had a Christian tradition? Or is it something more than that?

I want to focus with you on one verse from our reading from Colossians this morning: the first verse of the passage, Colossians 1.15. Here it is:

‘He (that is, Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation’.

That’s how the New Revised Standard Version translates it, rather literally, from the original Greek. The Common English Bible gives what I think is a good paraphrase of it:

‘The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation.’

This is amazing language for our author to use! We’re not exactly sure when the letter to the Colossians was written. Many scholars think it was written by Paul the apostle, as it claims, which means it would have had to be written before the mid-sixties A.D., since Paul was probably executed by the Roman Emperor Nero about that time. But other scholars think it was written at a later date, by a disciple of Paul, perhaps a decade or so after Paul died. Even so, we’re talking about no more than forty-five years after the death of Jesus—and likely quite a bit earlier than that—and someone is already using astonishing language to describe the carpenter from Nazareth who’d been executed as a rebel against Rome by Pontius Pilate.

Let me try to illustrate what I mean. C.S. Lewis died on November 22nd1963, so that will be fifty-six years ago this coming November. Lewis continues to be a very popular Christian writer. His Narnia stories have been made into movies several times over the years. His books still sell in the millions. Many people have been inspired by him and some have become Christians because of his writings. There have been dozens of biographies and studies about his life, to the point that you’d think there would be nothing left to say, but no, people are still writing them! So it’s safe to say that Lewis was an impressive man and a great religious leader and teacher.

But no one has ever said of C.S. Lewis the sort of thing that we read in Colossians:

‘C.S. Lewis is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation, because all things were created by him: both in the heavens and on the earth, the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.Whether they are thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities, all things were created through him and for him.’

It would be unthinkable that anyone would talk about Lewis like that. After all there are still people alive who knew him! His character flaws are well documented, and if anyone tried to teach that Lewis’ life was some sort of special revelation of God, Lewis and his friends would have been the first ones to protest. “I’m just a man,” he would have said, “and a sinner too. Please pray for me!”

When these verses from Colossians were written there were certainly people still alive who had known Jesus well. Many of them were Jewish people, and Jewish people were very strict about not worshipping anyone but the one God, the Creator of heaven and earth. They were also very strict about not making images or idols. How could you possibly make an image that would sum up everything that God is? The whole universe can’t contain the likeness of God, so what hope does an image have of doing it? And so Jewish people were told quite clearly in the Ten Commandments not to make any sort of image to bow down and worship.

But now here is Paul, using that image language about Jesus, calling him the Son of God, and going on to say, ‘The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation.’ And none of Jesus’ early followers protested that, despite the fact that it cut right across their Jewish sensitivities. Why is that? Surely it’s because, the more they thought about their experience of Jesus, the more they realized that this was the only sort of language that was adequate for him.

The Anglican bishop of Toronto is called Andrew Asbil. Andrew’s father Walter was also an Anglican bishop in the Diocese of Niagara in Ontario. About twenty years ago, long before Andrew became a bishop, I was at a national church meeting in Toronto where he was one of the speakers. The person introducing him said, “I want to introduce Andrew Asbil to you today. Some of you know his father Walter, and you’ll agree with me that you now know exactly what Jesus meant when he said, ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’!” And it’s true! If you put photographs of Andrew and Walter beside each other, the likeness is uncanny!

But of course most children bear the likeness of their parents to some degree. And children also inherit some of their characteristics from their parents. The older I get, the more I realize that some of my deepest convictions about what it means to be a Christian priest come from my dad, who was a priest before me. And I chuckle sometimes when I hear some of the things my daughter says to her children, and I realize that she heard the very same words coming out of my mouth when she was growing up!

“Like father, like son.” “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” Many of you have heard me tell the joke about the little girl in Sunday School who was trying to draw a picture of God. Her teacher was surprised. “But no one knows what God looks like!” he said. She replied, “They will when I’m done!” And when Jesus was done living his life of love for God and others—even going so far as to love his enemies and pray for those who hated him—when he was done living a simple life with few possessions, focussing only on God and the people God loves—when he was done crossing boundaries and loving people no one else had any time for—when he was done healing the sick and raising the dead and welcoming sinners and teaching us what God had in mind for us when he created us in the first place—well, when Jesus was done all that, now we know what God is like. God is like Jesus.

Let’s be clear what we mean here. We’re not saying that God hasn’t revealed any truth about himself to anyone in any other religion on the planet. That would be absurd. God hasn’t left himself without a witness anywhere. There are good and wise things taught about God in many different religious traditions. But at one point in the history of the planet, as St. John says in his Gospel, ‘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 NRSV) God has come among us in Jesus, to live and die as one of us. That’s why we follow him.

But there’s one more thing we need to remember about this verse in Colossians. Jesus doesn’t only show us what God is like; he also shows us what humans are meant to be like. ‘He is the image of the invisible God,’ says Paul. But you remember in the Book of Genesis, when God creates human beings, he says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” (Genesis 1.26 NRSV) and the writer goes on to say,

‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.’ (Genesis 1.27 NRSV)

Scholars have speculated for years about what it means to say that we humans are made in the image of God, but the simple answer was staring us in the face all the time. Five chapters later in Genesis the same language is used when Adam has a son. ‘He became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth’. (Genesis 5.3). Parents have children in their image. God created humans in his image. We were meant to grow up to be like God, just as children grow up to be like their parents.

But so often we choose to disobey God, and the rest of the Bible is a sad record of that. We break our relationship with God, we’re alienated from others, we hurt the people we love, and we bring devastation to the natural world God created. This is still going on today. Yes, we’re still made in God’s image, but we struggle with evil and wickedness as well. We human beings are a mixed bag, capable of incredible love but also incredible cruelty. Our whole lives long, we struggle with this.

But Jesus shows us the way. Yes, he is God come to live among us, but he’s also a real human being. He shares our struggles. He knows what it’s like to be a refugee and have to flee from death squads with your family. He knows what it’s like to have to earn a living by the work of your hands. He knows what it’s like to have to share a small house with siblings, and later on, to be misunderstood by them, and called ‘out of his mind.’ He knows what it’s like to be hungry and thirsty, to love people and be rejected by them, to be gossiped about and slandered, and ultimately to die a painful death for a crime he didn’t commit.

Jesus wasn’t removed from our life; he lived it to the full. But somehow, when we read his story, we find ourselves drawn by him. Through all the difficulties, he seems to know God is with him all the time. He doesn’t get sidetracked from doing God’s will. He reaches out to the poor and the sick and the marginalized. He treats women and children, and lepers and Roman soldiers, and tax collectors and sinners, as if they matter to God. He inspires us, and we find ourselves wanting to be like him. That’s what being a disciple is all about: learning from Jesus what it means to be truly human, made in God’s image.

Let’s go around this one last time.

Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Jesus shows us what God is like. So if someone tries to tell us that God is pleased by people who plant bombs, and force children to become soldiers, and fly airplanes into buildings to kill thousands of people, we know that’s wrong. Jesus has shown us what God is like. “God is love.” “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” If you want to know God, come to Jesus.

But Jesus is also the image of what it means to be human. He teaches us that loving God and loving your neighbour is the secret of life, and as we watch him, we realize he’s right. Jesus is truly alive, in a way we rarely see in others. He can teach us how to be truly alive.

Today, Holly and Henry are setting out on this path. As they get closer to Jesus, Jesus will teach them to know the God who loves them. And Jesus will also show them what it means to be a real live human being, the way God had in mind when he first created human beings.

But this reminder is for all of us, not just Holly and Henry. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. He’s the best picture we have of what God is like. He’s also the best picture we have of what humans are meant to be like. So let’s follow him, so that we also can be transformed into his likeness.

Looking Beyond Ourselves

‘We should, I believe, distrust states of mind which turn our attention upon ourselves. Even at our sins we should look no longer than is necessary to know and to repent them; and our virtues or progress (if any) are certainly a dangerous object of contemplation. When the sun is vertically above a man he casts no shadow; similarly, when we have come to the Divine meridian our spiritual shadow (that is, our consciousness of self) will vanish. One will thus in a sense be almost nothing: a room to be filled by God and our blessed fellow creatures, who in their turn are rooms we hep to fill.’

C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3 (30 November 1954)

Edmund: He died that We Might Live (‘Following Jesus through Narnia #6)

All through this Lent we’ve been focusing on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories—not just The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but the other six books as well. We’ve been thinking each week about some of the characters and what they can teach us about following Jesus. This week, on Palm Sunday, we come to the heart of the matter. This week we remember that before we can think about following Jesus, first of all there’s something Jesus has to do for us. Or rather, there’s something Jesus has done for us that we need to acknowledge. There’s a gift he’s given that we need to receive.

So let’s think today about Edmund Pevensie. Let remind you briefly of the story. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are four children evacuated from London during the blitz. They find themselves at the house of an elderly professor out in the country, and it’s Lucy, the youngest, who first finds her way into the magical country of Narnia through an old wardrobe in a spare room. There she meets a faun, Tumnus, who tells her about the tragedy of life in Narnia: it’s ruled by the evil and tyrannical White Witch, and she’s put an enchantment on the country, making it always winter but never Christmas. Of course, when Lucy gets back into our world no one believes her tale of this magical country.

However, eventually her brother Edmund finds his way into Narnia too. There he happens to meet the White Witch. She is well aware of an old prophecy that says that when two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve sit on the four thrones of the castle of Cair Paravel, her reign will be over. So when she hears Edmund is one of four she immediately sets out to seduce him to her side. She does this by appealing to his self-indulgence and pride. She invites him to sit with her and gives him Turkish Delight to eat. Lewis tells us this was ‘enchanted Turkish Delight and anyone who tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.’ The Witch then goes on to appeal to his pride. She wants a nice boy, she says, who can be a prince and can be king after she is gone. But the prince will need servants, so he should bring his brother and sisters back to Narnia and bring them to her house. There he will rule over them, and they will have to obey him.

Edmund gives in to her temptations. He’s decided where his loyalty lies: with her. He goes back to our world and doesn’t tell anyone what’s happened to him. Even when Lucy warns him about the White Witch and her evil ways he chooses not to believe her, because of the wonderful memory of the Turkish Delight and the Witch’s promise that he will be a prince.

Eventually all four children find their way into Narnia. The time comes, in the house of the beavers, when for the first time they hear about Aslan, the great Lion, the Son of the Emperor over Sea—the true ruler of Narnia. For Peter, Susan, and Lucy, the name brings them excitement and joy. But Edmund feels ‘a sensation of mysterious horror’. He’s chosen to side with evil by giving his allegiance to the Witch, so true goodness has begun to scare and repel him. Even though he’s never met Aslan, in fact he’s already rejected him.And this decision affects his relationships with his siblings. Lewis says: ‘He kept on thinking that the others were taking no notice of him and trying to give him the cold shoulder. They weren’t, but he imagined it’.

But the time comes when even Edmund comes to see the truth. He goes to the White Witch’s castle and tells her he’s brought his three siblings very close, to the beavers’ house. We read that ‘Edmund…expected that the witch would start being nice to him… But she said nothing at all. And when at last Edmund plucked up his courage to say, “Please, your Majesty, could I have some Turkish Delight? You—you—said”, she answered, “Silence, fool!”’ Edmund finally wakes up to the truth: the Witch isn’t kind at all. She’s evil, and all her promises to him are lies.

This story of the temptation and fall of Edmund is an illustration of our human condition. The four Pevensie children are destined to be kings and queens, caring for Narnia in the name of Aslan. In the same way, the Bible tells us we’ve been created by God in his image to be stewards of his creation. But the forces of evil are well aware of the potential for good if human beings accept this role, so throughout our history we’ve been seduced by the power of evil.

Two of the most common temptations are self-indulgence and pride. For us it probably won’t be Turkish Delight. But it might be the desire for more and more luxuries. You know how it works: you see something advertised on TV or online, and you think, “That’s it! If I had that, I’d be really happy!” So you buy it, and you are really happy—for half an hour. But then a vague sense of unease begins to set in. It’s actually just a thing, and it hasn’t given you the deep inner satisfaction you’re looking for. It’s like enchanted Turkish Delight—no matter how much of it you eat, you want more and more, even if it kills you.

It might be the desire for possessions; it might be the desire for excitement and thrills or illicit sexual pleasure. Whatever form it takes, self-indulgence is a powerful temptation to seduce us from the side of the one true King.

The other temptation is pride. Edmund wasn’t content to be just one of the four Pevensie children. He wanted to be noticed above all the others, to be recognized, to be the prince over his brother and sisters. In Robert Bolt’s play ‘A Man for All Seasons’, young Richard Rich asks Sir Thomas More to find him a place at the court of King Henry VIII. More refuses and advises him to be a teacher: ‘You would make a good teacher’, he says. Rich replies, ‘And if I did, who would know?’ That’s the allure of pride: I want everyone to know what an amazing individual I am!

But the promises of evil are false. Trying to find ultimate satisfaction by following the lies of the devil is like trying to quench your thirst by drinking salt water: the more you drink, the thirstier you get. The White Witch doesn’t deliver on her promises. She doesn’t intend to make Edmund a prince at all. She intends to use him to trap his three siblings and then kill them all.

But her plan doesn’t work out. Some of Aslan’s soldiers rescue Edmund, and he’s restored to his brothers and sisters. There’s great rejoicing in Aslan’s camp, and the four children think Edmund’s problems have all been solved. However, this is not the case. The Witch has an ace up her sleeve.

The Witch asks for a meeting with Aslan, at which she reminds him of a law put into Narnia at the very beginning by the Emperor: the law that says every traitor belongs to her. For every act of treachery, she has a right to a kill. This is called the ‘Deep Magic’. Susan says, ‘“Oh Aslan… can’t we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn’t there something you can work against it?’ ‘Work against the Emperor’s Magic?’ said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again’.

It becomes clear that there’s a law of right and wrong in Narnia, and Aslan has no intention of challenging it. Treachery is evil, and evil can’t be indulged. So Aslan sends the others away and talks privately with the Witch. Eventually he announces to everyone that he has settled the matter, and the Witch has renounced her claim on Edmund’s blood. Of course, there’s great rejoicing all round.

But Aslan isn’t rejoicing. Susan and Lucy notice that he seems sad and distracted. His army moves camp, and later on that night he sneaks away by himself. Susan and Lucy see him, and they follow him. He allows them to walk with him, even asking them to touch him and put their hands in his mane so that he can feel the comfort of their presence. Eventually he tells them to hide themselves, and he goes on alone to a place where there is a great stone table—obviously a sacrificial altar. There we see the Witch and all her evil followers waiting for him. Aslan allows himself to be tied up, and the Witch’s servants shave off his magnificent mane and drag him up onto the Stone Table. There the Witch taunts him: Aslan may die in the place of Edmund as they agreed, she says, but once he is out of the way, what’s to stop her from killing Edmund and the others anyway? Then all of Narnia will be hers forever. ‘In that knowledge’, she says to him, ‘despair and die’, and she kills him with a terrible stone knife.

But that’s not the end of Aslan. The Witch’s knowledge reaches only to the dawn of time. She wasn’t there before the dawn of time, and so she didn’t know about the Deeper Magic. This magic goes further than justice; it allows for forgiveness and redemption as well. Aslan explains it later to the two girls: apparently it says that, ‘When a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards’. So it’s not the end of Aslan.

But for today, let’s stay with the idea of Aslan’s death. Very obviously, Lewis is giving us a picture of the death of Jesus and what it means for us. He’s trying to do a very daring thing. Christian theologians have tried for two thousand years to explain exactly how the Cross saves us from our sins. Every one of their explanations works well as an illustration, but when we start trying to apply all the details, we run into trouble.

What Lewis is giving us in this story is sometimes called the ‘substitution’ idea of the Cross of Jesus. The idea is that we human beings are the guilty ones, but God in his great love for us comes among us in Jesus and takes our place, the innocent in the place of the guilty, so that we can be freed and forgiven. The idea has strong biblical roots, perhaps most strongly in the book of Isaiah, chapter 53 – a passage that we read every year on Good Friday:

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)

Edmund’s act of treachery has been laid on Aslan. Edmund was the guilty one; Aslan had done no wrong. But out of love for Edmund and respect for the principles of justice on which Narnia was founded, Aslan took Edmund’s place and died for him, so that he could go free. The story is teaching us that this is the incredible gift that God has given us in Jesus.

We shouldn’t take it any further than that. I know some people have taken it further, and they’ve been bothered by it. “If Aslan is Jesus and the White Witch is the devil”, they ask, “does that mean that God and the devil have an agreement, and every time someone sins, the devil acts as God’s executioner?” That’s the problem with an illustration. Most good illustrations work well as long as you stick to the main point, but start to unravel when you try to make every little detail fit. Of course there was no bargain or agreement between God and the devil. The forces of evil are usurpers with no place in God’s ultimate plan. The Cross was the great victory over evil, not some sort of accommodation with it.

Still, it’s a powerful story. I’m Edmund, and so are you. We’ve given into temptation, believed the lies of evil, and found in it not the good life it promised, but a sentence of death. But God in his great love for us has come among us in Jesus and taken that sentence of death on himself. He died that we might live.

On Thursday night we’re going to hear again the story of how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. When he came to Peter, Peter protested: “You shall never wash my feet.” Peter understood that Jesus was his master. It wasn’t the master’s place to wash the servants’ feet.

But Peter didn’t understand that before he could do anything for Jesus, Jesus had to do something for him. And the same is true for us. Long before we did anything for Jesus, Jesus did something incredible for us. The Christian life starts when we acknowledge what he has done, thank him for it, and accept the gift he’s given to us through his death on the Cross. The rather quaint words of an old chorus express it well:

There’s a way back to God from the dark paths of sin;
There’s a door that is open that you may go in.
At Calvary’s cross is where you begin,
When you come as a sinner to Jesus.

Wandering in the dark and walking in the light

‘Once again Jesus addressed the people: “I am the light of the world. No follower of mine shall wander in the dark; he shall have the light of life.’” (John 8.12 New English Bible).

The REB revisers changed this NEB translation to the more common ‘no follower of mine shall walk in darkness’, but I’m struck by the vividness of the NEB rendering: ‘wander in the dark’. I’ve done a lot of that wandering in the dark, trying to find the right way forward. It might be a relational issue with a friend or loved one, or a problem in my parish that I need to find a solution for, or a time when my relationship with God seems to have gone dry and barren, or my struggles with my own sins and weaknesses. I seem to spend a lot of time wandering in the dark.

Today’s psalm includes the familiar verse ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet, a light on my path’ (Psalm 119.105 REB). What the psalmist says about the Torah, or Law of God, John’s gospel applies to Jesus: he is the Word of God, so he is the light of the world. His light shines in the dark places and shows us how to live, how to love, how to serve God, how to be a blessing. The opposite of ‘wandering in the dark’ is following Jesus. Lord Jesus, help us today to intentionally shape our lives after your teaching and example. You have shown us the way, so now help us to follow it—to follow you—so that we may have the light of life. Amen.

Wisdom

‘The child (Jesus) grew big and strong and full of wisdom; and God’s favour was upon him.’ (Luke 2.36 REB)

‘As Jesus grew he advanced in wisdom and in favour with God and men.’ (Luke 2.52 REB)

As I get older, I find that wisdom is a gift I prize more and more highly. Wisdom means knowing how to live and what to do in all the situations life throws at us. Heavenly wisdom is informed and shaped by faith in God and God’s will for us. Several Old Testament texts tell us that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (fear, not in the sense of terror, but in the sense of a proper awe and reverence for God as our Creator).

Lord Jesus, as you were guided by your Father, so guide us today in the way of wisdom. Amen.